Herodotus and Religion in the Persian Wars [NOOK Book]


The two great Persian invasions of Greece, in 490 and 480-79 B.C., both repulsed by the Greeks, provide our best opportunity for understanding the interplay of religion and history in ancient Greece. Using the Histories of Herodotus as well as other historical and archaeological sources, Jon Mikalson shows how the Greeks practiced their religion at this pivotal moment in their history.

In the period of the invasions and the years immediately ...
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Herodotus and Religion in the Persian Wars

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The two great Persian invasions of Greece, in 490 and 480-79 B.C., both repulsed by the Greeks, provide our best opportunity for understanding the interplay of religion and history in ancient Greece. Using the Histories of Herodotus as well as other historical and archaeological sources, Jon Mikalson shows how the Greeks practiced their religion at this pivotal moment in their history.

In the period of the invasions and the years immediately after, the Greeks--internationally, state by state, and sometimes individually--turned to their deities, using religious practices to influence, understand, and commemorate events that were threatening their very existence. Greeks prayed and sacrificed; made and fulfilled vows to the gods; consulted oracles; interpreted omens and dreams; created cults, sanctuaries, and festivals; and offered dozens of dedications to their gods and heroes--all in relation to known historical events.

By portraying the human situations and historical circumstances in which Greeks practiced their religion, Mikalson advances our knowledge of the role of religion in fifth-century Greece and reveals a religious dimension of the Persian Wars that has been previously overlooked.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The complexity of the subject matter . . . result[s] in more than a case-in-point study of Greek Religion as practiced in context. . . . Written in Mikalson's usually lucid, lively, and unassuming style. . . . The implications of the author's approach are significant and are not confined to the study of Herodotus."
International Journal of Classical Tradition

"Will surely prove an invaluable resource for any student working in the area of Herodotus, Greek religion, or the Persian War period."
— Robert Garland, Colgate University

"Jon Mikalson's book will surely prove an invaluable resource for any student working in the area of Herodotus, Greek religion, or the Persian War period. Rigorous in the standards it applies to the study of this complex subject, it makes a fine addition to the oeuvre of a leading exponent of Greek religion."
— Robert Garland, Colgate University

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807862018
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
  • Publication date: 9/15/2003
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 288
  • Lexile: 1450L (what's this?)
  • File size: 17 MB
  • Note: This product may take a few minutes to download.

Meet the Author

Jon D. Mikalson is William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Classics at the University of Virginia. His books include Athenian Popular Religion, Honor Thy Gods: Popular Religion in Greek Tragedy, and Religion in Hellenistic Athens.
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Read an Excerpt

Herodotus and Religion in the Persian Wars

By Jon D. Mikalson

The University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2003 The University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8078-2798-3

Chapter One

A Religious Account of the Persian Invasions

The Prelude

In 510, just twenty years before the Persians landed at the Bay of Marathon, the Athenians ousted Hippias who had succeeded his father Pisistratus as the tyrant over Athens. The elimination of a tyrannical dynasty that had ruled continuously for thirty-six years, off and on over a longer period, and the implementation, within a few years, of the democratic reforms of Cleisthenes changed fundamentally the nature of the Athenians and of their state. According to Herodotus, "When the Athenians were governed by tyrants, they were better than none of their neighbors in military affairs; but when they escaped the tyrants, they became the best by far. This shows that when they were held down, they played the cowards, as if they were working for a master (´µÃÀ¿Ä·), but when they became free, each one was eager to work for himself" (5.78). These recently energized Athenians, again in Herodotus' judgment, were to play the key role in the ultimate defeat of the Persians (7.139). After liberation from the tyrants, there followed for the Athenians a quick succession of major battles and conflicts with neighbors, and behind these and the expulsion of the Pisistratid tyranny lies a host of religious causes and concerns, which, together, offer a glimpse into the religious environment on the eve of the Persian invasions.

In the night before the celebration of the Panathenaea in Athens, in 514, Hipparchus, Pisistratus' son and Hippias' younger brother, as reported by Herodotus, received a dream:

A tall and handsome man seemed to stand over Hipparchus and speak in a riddling way these lines:

"Endure, O lion, you who have already suffered unendurable things with an enduring spirit. No human being who commits injustice will not pay the punishment."

As soon as day came, Hipparchus told his dream to dream interpreters, but he rejected the dream and escorted the procession of the festival. There he died, assassinated by Harmodius and Aristogiton (5.55-56).

The words of the dream were for Herodotus "riddling" to the extent that, contrary to his usual practice, he neither has another interpret them nor attempts to do so himself. The riddle remains unsolved for us. Was Hipparchus the doer or the receiver of "injustice"? The first line, "Endure, O lion ...," would suggest the latter, but the second line, "No human being ...,"-given the glory that his assassins received for their deed-points to the former. This prophetic dream, the first of many, that we shall encounter, is uncharacteristically enigmatic. Most Herodotean dreams are quite explicit, and all prove true. Hipparchus' rejection of the dream was not a religious crime, but was a mistake, the type of mistake often made by those who were, for other reasons, guilty of impious behavior.

At this very time the Alcmaeonidae, a prominent and rich Athenian family, were enduring the exile imposed upon them by the Pisistratidae. They and their supporters held the fort Leipsydrion in the mountains of northern Attica. They used their considerable influence and wealth to secure from the Amphictyons of Delphi the contract to rebuild, at Delphi, the temple of Apollo that had recently, in 548, burned to the ground. The Alcmaeonidae in their generosity went beyond their contractual obligations, most notably by building the East facade of the temple from marble, not from porous limestone. "And then," according to Herodotus, "as the Athenians claim, when the Alcmaeonidae were in Delphi they bribed the Pythia to tell the Spartans, whenever they came on a public or private oracular mission, to 'free' Athens" (5.62-64). This the Pythia did. The oracles were "deceitful" (º¹²´·"¿¹Ã¹ 1/4±1/2Ä·¹+¹Ã¹, 5.91.2), but the Spartans, despite their ties of a "guest-host" relationship (xenia) with the Pisistratidae, were eventually persuaded and, after an initial failed invasion, in 510 sent their king Cleomenes with a Spartan force to "free" Athens. To win the favor of Delphi with dedications or, as here, a generous gift was quite proper, but to "bribe" (±1/2µÀµ¹¸¿1/2 ÇÁ*1/4±Ã¹) the Pythia was quite a different matter. The same Cleomenes later corrupted Delphic officials to throw into question by oracular responses the legitimacy of the birth of his fellow king Demaratus, and, according to Herodotus, "most Greeks" gave this as the cause of Cleomenes' later madness and grisly suicide (6.66-67.1, 75.3). By contrast Herodotus offers no condemnation or punishment of the Alcmaeonidae's behavior. This is our first instance in which Herodotus downplays an impiety committed by a group he admired against a tyrant or despotic power. For Herodotus, in some cases at least, political objectives apparently override religious scruples.

After the Spartan expulsion of the Pisistratidae there emerged at Athens as leaders, and opponents, the Alcmaeonid Cleisthenes (perhaps the very Alcmaeonid who had bribed the Pythia [Hdt. 5.66.1]) and Isagoras. After various disputes, Isagoras, distrusting Cleisthenes' popularity and democratic reforms, called in his xenos Cleomenes for a second time. As his reason for intervening again Cleomenes, prompted by Isagoras, charged that Cleisthenes was, as an Alcmaeonid, "polluted." Over a century earlier a certain Cylon, an Olympic victor, had attempted to establish a tyranny in Athens. He had failed and found himself with his supporters besieged on the Acropolis. He took refuge as a suppliant at the statue of Athena Polias in the temple of Athena. Cylon and his supporters were eventually removed, with the promise that they would not suffer death, but the charge was that the Alcmaeonidae and their partisans had then killed them. The murder of suppliants was clear impiety, and for it the Alcmaeonidae would be "polluted." Herodotus questions the charge: "Neither Cleisthenes himself nor his friends and relatives (¿¹ ƹ"¿¹) shared in the murder. These things had occurred before the time of Pisistratus" (5.70-71). Herodotus seems here, again in deference to the Alcmaeonidae, not to accept the common notion that pollution for such impiety could be passed from generation to generation. But, whatever the justice of the charge, Cleisthenes fled Athens.

After Cleisthenes' flight, King Cleomenes came to Athens with a small force of Lacedaemonians to assist Isagoras. He soon found himself surrounded by hostile Athenians and looked to the Acropolis for safety. Herodotus describes the scene:

When Cleomenes went up to the Acropolis, intending to take possession of it, he was entering the adyton of the goddess to speak directly to her. Her priestess stood up from her throne before he passed through the gate, and said, "Lacedaemonian stranger, go back and do not enter the sanctuary, for it is not permitted for Dorians to enter here." Cleomenes replied, "Woman, I am an Achaean, not a Dorian." (5.72.3)

Cleomenes, however, failed to heed what Herodotus considered to be a literally ominous statement (º"¿·´¿1/2¹) by the priestess, "go back." Like other impious individuals in Herodotus' Histories, perhaps like Hipparchus, he missed or ignored a clear divine sign. Soon the priestess's word was accomplished: Cleomenes and his Lacedaemonians were thrown out of Athens again and "went back" to Sparta (5.72). The Athenians then recalled Cleisthenes and the 700 households who had been, like Cleisthenes, banished by Isagoras and Cleomenes.

In their successive, post-Pisistratid victories over the Boeotians and Chalcidians in 506 the Athenians took many prisoners, including 700 Boeotians. They eventually ransomed the prisoners of both peoples and dedicated the prisoners' chains on the Acropolis, mounting them on the fortification wall opposite the temple of Athena. The chains were still there in Herodotus' time, with the wall now scorched by fire from the Persian burning of the Acropolis. Herodotus (5.77) describes the dedication the Athenians made from a tithe of the ransoms for the Boeotian and Chalcidian prisoners. It was a bronze four-horse chariot which stood to the left as one entered the Propylaea, and it bore this inscription:

In deeds of war the children of the Athenians defeated

the peoples of the Boeotians and Chalcidians.

They quenched their hybris with painful, iron chains,

and they dedicated, as a tithe, these mares to Pallas Athena.

Throughout the Persian Wars the Greeks made dedications after victories in battle that were consistent in content, intent, and financing with these Athenian dedications of 506. The chains were actual, physical, and prominently displayed remnants and memorials of the victory, as would be the captured weapons and ships the Greeks would on later occasions dedicate in their sanctuaries. For the chariot statue the Athenians used a tithe of the cash they received in ransoms, not simply donating money to Athena but in a characteristically Greek way using it to create an object of beauty that would adorn her sanctuary and the city. The tithe, one-tenth of the war booty, was the common form of offering, the "firstfruits" (±À±ÁDZ¹, ±ºÁ¿¸¹1/2¹±) of the spoils of the "victory," and one that the Greeks used regularly for dedications throughout the Persian Wars.

The text of the inscription itself reveals much about the purpose and feeling behind this and later dedications. The first three lines commemorate the accomplishments of the Athenians themselves. The dedication to Pallas Athena in the last line presumes gratitude to her, although that gratitude is not explicitly expressed. Most notably, there is no mention of the specific aid the goddess offered. The overall effect of the inscription is a commemoration of Athenian, human achievement. The dedication to Athena was made from one-tenth of the spoils of victory, and correspondingly nine-tenths of the dedicatory text are devoted to human efforts. This combination of tithing, of rendering cash into objects of beauty, of commemorating human achievement, and of making a dedication to a deity without explicit mention of gratitude and without description of the nature of the divine aid is characteristic of all the postvictory dedications made by the Greeks throughout the Persian Wars.

Critically important to the Greek effort against the Persians would be the solidarity of the major Greek powers, among them Athens, Aegina, Thebes, and Sparta. Herodotus sees in the following religious events factors that directly threatened the necessary cooperation among these states in the years just prior to the Persian invasions.

There was, in these times, a long-standing feud between the Athenians and Aeginetans. The cause, though complex, is instructive. The Epidaurians once in the past, perhaps circa 625, were suffering a famine and sent to Delphi for help. Herodotus tells the story:

The Pythia bid them to erect statues of Damia and Auxesia and said, if they did so, things would be better for them. The Epidaurians then asked whether they should make the statues of bronze or stone. The Pythia allowed neither of these, but said the statues were to be of olive wood. The Epidaurians then asked the Athenians to allow them to cut olive wood because they thought Athenian olive trees were the most sacred.... The Athenians said they would, on the condition that the Epidaurians each year send sacrificial victims for Athena Polias and Erechtheus. The Epidaurians accepted the terms, got what they were wanting, and made statues from these olive trees and erected them. Their land then bore fruit for them and they regularly paid to the Athenians what they had agreed upon. (5.82)

A time later friction broke out between Epidaurus and her nearby colony Aegina, and, in a raid on Epidaurus, the Aeginetans carried off the statues of Damia and Auxesia. They set them up in their own land, at a place called Oia. After this, naturally, the Epidaurians stopped delivering the promised annual victims to Athenian Athena. The Athenians protested, but the Epidaurians told the Athenians to deal with the Aeginetans. The Athenians eventually demanded that the Aeginetans give the statues to Athens, but the Aeginetans refused. The Athenians, in their version of the story, then went with a shipload of citizen sailors to Aegina to reclaim forcibly the statues. "They cast ropes around the statues and were trying to pull them from their bases when, suddenly, lightning and an earthquake occurred. The sailors doing the pulling lost their wits because of this and started killing one another as if they were enemy soldiers. Only one survived and escaped back to Phaleron" (5.85.2). In the Athenian view "the divine" (Ä¿¦±¹1/4¿1/2¹¿1/2) destroyed all their other men. When the survivor returned to Athens, the wives of the lost sailors, angered at his survival, stabbed him to death with their brooches, and this was to determine fashion for both Athenian and Aeginetan women. To punish these women the Athenians made all their women change from Doric to Ionic (really Carian) dress-that is, from the peplos to the chiton-so they would not be wearing brooches. But the Aeginetan women, to celebrate the event, began wearing brooches one and one-half times the normal size and dedicating these large brooches at their sanctuary of Damia and Auxesia. But no Attic products, not even the omnipresent Athenian pottery, could be brought into this sanctuary (5.82-88).

Herodotus' account, anchored in the realities of the cults of major deities in each of the three cities and even in their dress fashions, offers a religious cause, and only a religious cause, for Athenian-Aeginetan hostility. Thebes, then, was to play on this hostility for its own advantage. More than a century after the Damia-Auxesia affair, the Thebans wanted to avenge their defeat at the hands of the Athenians in 506, the very defeat the Athenians commemorated on the Acropolis, and they consulted the Delphic oracle about how to do it. The Pythia, according to Herodotus, said "revenge would not happen for them from themselves, but was bidding them to discuss the matter publicly among themselves and ask 'those nearest to them' to help." After public discussion and debate the Thebans decided that not real neighbors but Aeginetans were meant, because Thebe and Aegina were both daughters of their river Asopus and hence Thebans and Aeginetans were closely related. The Thebans then asked the Aeginetans to send two of their heroes worshiped in cult, the Aeacidae Peleus and Telamon, to help them, like mercenaries, in battle against the Athenians. The Aeginetans did this, but the Thebans, even with the Aeacidae, were again defeated. The Thebans then sent the Aeacidae back home and told the Aeginetans they preferred to have men instead. The Aeginetans responded by starting an undeclared war on Athens and by attacking the coasts of Attica when the Athenians were off fighting the Thebans (Hdt. 5.79-81).


Excerpted from Herodotus and Religion in the Persian Wars by Jon D. Mikalson Copyright © 2003 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 5
1 A Religious Account of the Persian Invasions 15
2 Greek Gods, Heroes, and the Divine in the Persian Invasions 111
3 Some Religious Beliefs and Attitudes of Herodotus 136
App Herodotus on the Origins of Greek Religion 167
Notes 197
Bibliography 239
Index of Passages Cited 249
General Index 260
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