"These are the researches of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, which he publishes, in the hope of thereby preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done, and of preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and Barbarians from losing their due meed of glory."
The Histories of Herodotus (c. 484 – 425 BC), the first properly so-called, are divided into two parts. The first is a “grand tour” of the ancient world as it seemed to a cosmopolitan Greek in the age of Pericles, Socrates, Euripides, and in short the “Golden Age” (Hesiod again) of Greek culture. This cannot detain us - suffice it to say he heard many fantastic stories, which he greeted with varying degrees of credulity. “I am under obligation to tell what is reported,” he said, “but I am not obliged to believe it.” (A maxim that holds for our series as well.)
The second part is the tale of tiny Greece and it’s heroic resistance to mighty Persia – a war, in his telling, of freedom against despotism, modesty against pride, and the West against the East, which was crucial to Greece’s (and our own) identity. Herodotus tells how, long before the war, the Athenians overthrew their kings, repulsed would-be tyrants, and established a democracy under the rule of elected Archons. The story of the Persians, however, is the military campaigns of Cyrus the Great and his son Cambyses, who conquered everything from the Indus to the Nile and the Aegean. It was the largest empire the world had yet seen, and the King of Kings was very pleased with it. The Greeks, by contrast, lived in fiercely-independent, quarrelsome cities, many of them democracies, and were beholden to no one. What pleased them was not the extent of their power, but their freedom from foreign rule. The contrast between the two sides is, in other words, implicit from the beginning – where the Greeks fight for freedom, the Persians fight for power.
The occasion for the war was the revolt of the Ionian Greek cities on the coast of Asia Minor, which Darius the Great defeated. During the revolt, the Athenians and Spartans sent aid to their countrymen. Darius noticed, and determined to teach them a lesson. Accordingly after he had subdued the Ionians he sent emissaries to all the Greek cities of the mainland to demand earth and water as tokens of submission. Some of the most important – Argos, Thebes, Aegina – were terrified into submission, and to their shame played no part in the conflict. The Spartans, however, threw his ambassadors down a well, telling him “there was plenty of earth and water down there.” The Athenians were no kinder to theirs. Darius crossed the Bosporus shortly there-after, but the Athenians and Spartans met his army at Marathon (490), and defeated it. Darius swore to return, and commanded a slave to repeat to him three times before every meal, “sire, remember the Athenians.” He was absorbed in other campaigns for the rest of his life, however, and never returned.
His heir, Xerxes, resolved to finish his father’s work, for he was determined to add to the size and power of his Empire just as his illustrious ancestors had done before him, and it offended him that the Greeks had defied the Persians and lived to tell the tale. Accordingly, he massed the largest army the world had yet seen – according to Herodotus an incredible five million men, transported by over a thousand ships, drawn from every corner of his vast empire. Again most of the Greek cities submitted, and even the priestess of Apollo at Delphi prophesied certain defeat. However, Athens and Sparta, along with a few other allies, once again stood fast.
When Xerxes made landfall, the Greek armies were still scattered. Knowing that they needed more time, the Spartan King Leonidas led an elite formation called The Three Hundred to the narrow pass at Thermopylae, through which Xerxes’ army had to pass. “Tonight we dine in hell,” he is supposed to have said on the morning of the battle, while one of his men, told that the Persian arrows would block out the sun, remarked “how pleasant, then, to fight in the shade!” After three days of heroic resistance, a Greek traitor showed the Persians another route through the mountains – they then attacked the Three Hundred from behind and wiped them out to the last man. However, those three days were precious, for they allowed the Greek armies to assemble, and they shortly afterwards defeated the much larger Persian force at Plataea (479.) The Greek navy also triumphed at Salamis, and the Persian invasion ended in total failure.
When Xerxes realized all was lost he cursed his pride, and blamed the gods for driving him to madness. “No one who is in their right mind will trade peace for war,” he said, “for in peace sons bury their fathers, but in war fathers bury their sons.” Not once, but twice, tiny Greece had resisted mighty Persia, had humbled the proud, and had proven how much better freedom was to slavery. It was their finest hour.
Herodotus’ work continues to shape the Western identity to this day, for it is in him that we first hear the oft-repeated and still widely-believed story of how the tough, virtuous, freedom-loving West lives in perpetual enmity to the effeminate, decadent, despotic East. Perhaps his notion of individuality has also shaped our identity, for unlike Homer’s heroes or Hesiod’s humble folk, who are ruled by fate, Herodotus’ heroes and villains make their own destiny. The gods battle down the proud, to be sure, but no one forces Xerxes to provoke them by building up his empire beyond the limits of reason, or the Greeks to resist him when he does.
Herodotus is also justly called “the father of history,” for his work is the first we know of that attempts an explanation of the present in terms of continuity and change over time, and looks for patterns in both. The Greeks once lived under kings, but now they are free. Similarly, the Persians were once horse nomads from the Asian steppes, but now they rule over a vast empire. In both cases, it is the individual choices of rulers – in the former case the Athenians as a group, and in the latter the campaigns of a series of warrior-kings – that makes all the difference.
Much of the change we see between Homer and Hesiod on the one hand, and Herodotus on the other, is explicable in terms of the changed audience for which they wrote. Where Homer’s aristocrats tended to travel for little besides plunder or war, and Hesiod’s farmers tended to live and die in the same town they grew up in, in Herodotus’ time the Greeks were a commercial people, and had travelled everywhere from the north coast of the Black Sea to the “Pillars of Heracles” at the far side of the Mediterranean. Many had visited Egypt, Lydia, and Phoenicia, and had heard of the strange customs of distant peoples, such as the Scythians, the Gauls, and the Persians. Unlike in Homer and Hesiod, foreigners are not the same as Greeks – they have their own sense of identity, just as the Greeks have, and their own rituals and customs, which are all very different. Perhaps he spent so much time explaining these differences because he knew these would both fascinate and repel his audience. “Everyone without exception,” he chided them, “believes his own native customs, and the religion he was brought up in, to be the best” – so early do we find that relativism bred of commerce and foreign travel. Perhaps for a similar reason, he was the first to express that characteristic anxiety of historians – to get their sources right –, for he wrote for worldly people who liked to think they knew nonsense when they heard it.
Herodotus message, to them and to us, is the characteristic moral of the Greek literary tradition. “You know, my lord,” Xerxes advisor warns him before he crosses into Greece, “that amongst living creatures it is the great ones that God smites with his thunder, out of envy for their pride. The little ones do not vex him.” But Xerxes does not want to accept that he is a mortal man, or that the gods have set limits to his power. The lust for glory and power beyond reason is what brings him low, just as bravery and love of freedom is what exalts the Greeks. It was a lesson, as we will see in Thucydides, the Athenians did not learn.
(Part of a Series on Philosophy of History IV of XXXV)