Herodotus, Explorer of the Past: Three Essays

Herodotus, Explorer of the Past: Three Essays

by James Allan Stewart Evans, Herodotus

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Why does a power expand and become an empire? Writing in the early years of the Peloponnesian War, Herodotus gave Athens full credit for saving Greece from Persia, but also identified the city's expansion as a new manifestation of imperialist aggression. In this skillful analysis of Herodotus' intellectual world, J.A.S. Evans combines historical, anthropological, and…  See more details below


Why does a power expand and become an empire? Writing in the early years of the Peloponnesian War, Herodotus gave Athens full credit for saving Greece from Persia, but also identified the city's expansion as a new manifestation of imperialist aggression. In this skillful analysis of Herodotus' intellectual world, J.A.S. Evans combines historical, anthropological, and literary techniques to show how the war affected not only the great thinker's view of Persian aggression and of the people involved in it but also the shape of the Histories themselves. The first essay discusses Herodotus' investigation of imperialism, and the second finds the beginnings of biography in his descriptions of individuals, particularly in his well-crafted portrait of Cyrus. The third essay describes the "Father of History" as a collector and evaluator of local oral stories, sources for the written work that was destined by its scope and unifying plan to introduce a new genre. Evans draws analogies between Herodotus' methods and those of oral historians in other cultures, particularly in precolonial Africa. He also explores comparisons between Herodotus in Egypt and sixteenth- and seventeenth-century European ethnologists in the Americas.

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Herodotus, Explorer of the Past

Three Essays

By J.A.S. Evans


Copyright © 1991 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06871-8



Nine years after their defeat at Marathon, the Persians were ready once again to invade Greece. The Greeks owed a debt of gratitude to Egypt for the delay. For three years after the defeat, Darius had prepared a new assault to wipe out the disgrace, but then Egypt had risen in revolt, and in 486 B.C., Darius died; Xerxes succeeded him and the rebellion was not crushed until 484. Then Xerxes called a synod of the Persian magnates. It was a congress that Herodotus recreated with imaginative skill, but there may be a solid morsel of tradition behind it: in the romance of Esther, King Ahasuerus (Xerxes) summoned his nobles to a great festival in the third year of his reign, but in the Hebrew tradition these festivities were merely a backdrop for the fall of Vashti and the elevation of the Jewish heroine Esther in her place. For Herodotus, the feasting and the pageantry that must have accompanied a congress of this sort were of no importance: the synod is treated merely as a bit of theater for a remarkable exposition of the motive force behind Persian imperialism. Herodotus has undertaken to explain the reasons why Xerxes chose to invade Greece.

Persian despots were not given to parliamentary procedures. Herodotus reported in another context that the Persians debated questions drunk, and reconsidered them sober, or vice versa, as the case may be, but he portrayed no councils of the sort for his readers. He made short shrift of the debate that took place before Darius' Scythian expedition. "While Darius was making ready his invasion of Scythia and dispatching messengers round about with orders to some to raise troops, to others to supply ships and still others to build a bridge over the Thracian Bosporus, Artabanus, son of Hysptaspes, Darius' brother, urged him strongly not to make the expedition against the Scyths, on the ground that Scythia was a difficult objective. But good as his advice was, he failed to convince and he ceased." So much for the counsel that Darius was willing to accept before he set out against the Scyths. Cyrus did better before he advanced across the river Araxes against the Massagetae: he called a council of his "first men," and all but one advised him to allow the queen of the Massagetae to move into Persian territory and fight a decisive battle there. The exception was Croesus, who had lost the throne of Lydia and taken over the persona of a wise adviser instead. He argued that to advance was both safer and more appropriate for a Persian king: therefore Cyrus should move forward into the queen's territory and use trickery to defeat the Massagetae on their soil. The result of this strategy was, first, the capture and suicide of the queen's son, and then the death of Cyrus himself in battle. There is nothing approaching the cut-and-thrust of a full-scale debate here, but only a topos that provided an opening for a wise adviser to make a point, and for the hero of the tale, Cyrus, to make an existential choice.

In fact, if we except the famous debate of the Persian grandees on the question of the proper constitution for Persia, which is more influenced by the sophists (particularly Protagoras) than anything in the Persian tradition, there is only one other assembly in the Histories which is comparable. That is the council at Phaleron before the battle of Salamis. There the king took his seat; then the various princelings and squadron commanders took theirs in order of rank: the king of Sidon first, next the king of Tyre, and so on in order. Mardonius went around to each to put the question whether or not to fight. All voted for battle, except the irrepressible Artemisia, the only commander in the Persian force with an intelligence comparable to Themistocles', who delivered a brief address to Mardonius, and he in turn reported it to Xerxes. Dissent was handled with courtesy and decorum, and then dismissed: a stark contrast with the councils of the Greek admirals before Salamis. Xerxes accepted a majority verdict which, not surprisingly, agreed with his own inclination, and chose the wrong course of action, whereas the Greeks did otherwise.

This Persian council was the inverse counterpart of the conclaves of the Greek admirals, and it was hardly more than a little showcase that Herodotus used to parade the might-have-beens of history before his readers' eyes. He chose as his mouthpiece Artemisia, a woman, and therefore an outsider in this masculine assembly. But the speeches of Xerxes, Mardonius, and Artabanus before the Persian magnates at the king's levee are intended to reveal something of the substance of Persian imperialism as Herodotus understood it.

The king at first had not possessed any great wish to invade Greece. He did not initially feel the weight of Persia's imperial tradition, or the obligation to expand the frontiers of the empire. The chief instigator of the war was Mardonius, son of Gobryas, who had taken command of Persia's Aegean front in 494 B.C.; Herodotus implied that he owed his elevation then, at a young age, to his "recent" marriage to Artazostra, Darius' daughter. He had advanced into Europe as far as Mt. Athos, where he had lost three hundred ships and twenty thousand men in a tempest, and was wounded himself in a night attack on his camp by a local tribe, the Brygoi. Not a glorious achievement overall.

But Mardonius had not returned home before conquering the Brygoi, his wound notwithstanding, and his influence with the new king was paramount. Convinced of Persian superiority, and quite without any comprehension of the Greeks, he was to be the spokesman for aggressive imperialism, who still believed that no Greek would dare "look without flinching at Persian dress and the men who wore it," to take a phrase from Herodotus, who wrote that, before the battle of Marathon, a Greek would not have summoned the courage to do any such thing. "Indeed my lord, who will oppose you and offer war, when you bring with you the host of Asia and all your ships?" he asked.

Events are to change his mind not one iota. In his last speech before his death, he was to gloat that the retreat of the Spartans on the battlefield of Plataea demonstrated their inferiority. He pressed his advice upon the new king. Athens, he argued, had committed great crimes, and had to be punished. She had helped the king's Ionian subjects to rebel, and then at Marathon, she had humiliated Datis and Artaphrenes. Vengeance was necessary for the sake of security: Athens had to be punished so that no one in the future would dare invade the Great King's dominions.

But that was not all. Europe was beautiful: a fertile land with trees of every kind. Mardonius stood the truth as the Greeks perceived it on its head, for the contrast between Persian wealth and Greek poverty was commonplace in classical Greece. Pausanias, son of Cleombrotus, staged a tableau to illustrate this after the victory at Plataea, and at the end of the century, Xenophon was to tell his ten thousand mercenaries that they must get back to Greece to tell their friends and relatives that they were poor by their own choice, for if they migrated to Persia, they could live in luxury. Mardonius reversed the polarity that the Greeks accepted as conventional wisdom. But Mardonius also harbored an ulterior motive: he wanted to be governor of Greece himself.

He had assistance in this endeavor. The pro-Persian Aleuad family, dynasts of Larissa in Thessaly, seconded his efforts; in 479 B.C., after the defeat at Salamis, they were still to urge the Persians on to their ultimate defeat at Plataea. The deposed Pisistratid tyrant Hippias had guided the Persians to Marathon in 490 B.C., and died soon thereafter; who the new pretenders were, we do not know, but Herodotus considered the Pisistratid lobby still effective at the Persian court, and it included a kresmologos, Onomakritos, a collector and editor of oracles who provided a selection of prophecies predicting Persian success. Xerxes let himself be persuaded by a team made up of an ambitious courtier, self-interested Thessalian aristocrats, and the lobby for a discredited dynastic family driven from Athens three decades before.

Thus far, the new king of Persia had appeared in the Histories as a shallow prince, the victim of his own naivety, but no great imperialist. He was, in fact, in his mid-thirties when he came to the throne, and he had already shown himself to be more ruthless and bigoted than his father, but his portrayal by Herodotus is otherwise. Yet his speech to the Persian magnates presents a new dimension, for he proceeded to enunciate the principles of imperialism that actuated the empire which he had inherited.

First, expansionism was a Persian nomos, and not a new one. "I learn from our elders that we have never remained inactive since we took over this sovereign power from the Medes, when Cyrus deposed Astyages." It was a nomos sanctioned by Heaven, and it brought Persia greatness and prosperity. Second, there was the example of Xerxes' predecessors who had followed this nomos. Cyrus, Cambyses, and Darius had added to the empire, and so must Xerxes too. Greece still remained outside it, and, echoing Mardonius' misrepresentation of the truth, Xerxes pronounced Greece as large and as rich as Persia itself: the intended victim of Persian aggression was Persia's equal. Last, there was the motive of revenge. Athens should be punished for the wrongs she had inflicted on Persia. Yet vengeance seems a secondary cause, for Xerxes' ambitions went far beyond Athens. If Europe and Asia were yoked, Xerxes could make them one country. The world would have one monarch. There would be no limits to the realm of the Great King, and hence, we may note, no boundaries left to transgress. Thus, said Xerxes, downgrading the guilt of Athens as a motive, those who were aitioi and those who were not would both be enslaved. With that, Xerxes invited debate.

The dialectic that follows is uneven. Mardonius was outclassed by the king's uncle, Artabanus, whose role as a wise adviser urging caution has already been foreshadowed: he had tried similarly to dissuade Darius from his Scythian expedition. Mardonius has less to say; his points are comments on the king's speech, and his purpose was to soften its rough edges. The Ionians living in Europe could not be allowed to make fools of the Persians: the outrages committed at Sardis and Marathon had to be avenged. Yet, Mardonius pointed out that vengeance had played no role in Persia's expansion thus far. Persia's previous victims had done her no wrong. But that made the argument for invading Greece all the stronger, for now that Persia did have a just cause for war, it would be extraordinary if she failed to exploit it. In any case, the Greeks were poor fighters and their knowledge of military tactics puerile. They would not resist, but if they did, they would discover that the Persians were the best soldiers in the world. With that, Mardonius concluded with a wry note of irony: he gave Xerxes the conventional warning against overconfidence.

One of these arguments we have met before. Aristagoras of Miletus, who was also a fomenter of war, had tried the inverse of it on the Spartans: the Persians, he said, were not valiant men, and their weapons and armor were inadequate. It was a war hawk's standard argument. Herodotus himself, on the first point, granted the Persians valor equal to the Greeks, but on the second point, he agreed with Aristagoras.

Yet a new overtone has emerged. Herodotus' judgment on the Ionians was unflattering, though we should not overemphasize, for he makes exceptions. Yet his general assessment is explicit. Of all the Hellenes, the Ionians were the weakest. Their only city of importance was Athens, and she did not like to be called "Ionian." Cleisthenes, whose reforms had started the growth of Athens to power, had established new tribes that had no counterpart among the Ionians out of contempt for them. The reason for Herodotus' assessment is another story; here we should note merely that the Persian miscalculation of the Greek will to resist was founded on their familiarity with those Greeks under Persian dominion. This included not merely the Ionians but the Dorians and Aeolians as well, though to the Persians they were all Yauna, nor did Herodotus himself think it always necessary to differentiate. They were a quarrelsome lot: those benefitting from Persian rule had been forced after the Ionian Revolt to settle their differences by arbitration rather than war, but the free Greeks settled theirs by choosing a level parcel of ground and fighting it out. In any event, Xerxes had no fears that the Ionians would be anything but obedient subjects until his defeat at Salamis, after which it occurred to him that they might instigate the Greek fleet to sail to the Hellespont and destroy the bridges there. The stature of the Ionians led the Persians to underestimate all the Greeks. In any assessment of the causes of Xerxes' invasion, the poor reputation of the Ionians had something to answer for.

Only one Persian dared to present the opposing view: the king's uncle, Artabanus. He is a dramatic figure whose ultimate archetype is Cassandra. More than a wise adviser, he is almost a seer whose accurate vision of the future introduced a note of dramatic irony. The Greeks were valorous, he said, shifting the gaze of the magnates from the subject Ionians to Athens: at Marathon, the Athenians alone had vanquished the great army of Datis and Artaphrenes. Suppose the Greeks defeated the Persians on sea and then destroyed the bridge over the Hellespont? He cited Darius' Scythian expedition as a parallel: when Darius was forced to retreat, all that stood between him and disaster was the resolve of one Greek, Histiaeus of Miletus: for a few hours, the future of Persia had rested upon the shoulders of this one man. Therefore Xerxes should not act rashly; he should reflect at leisure, and Artabanus seemed confident that reflection would result in inaction.

He went on, developing an argument that Solon had put to Croesus at the height of his power. "My lord Croesus," Solon had said, "I know that all Heaven is jealous, and loves to create mischief and you ask me about the fortunes of men!" Heaven loved to smite the great, warned Artabanus, unconsciously drawing the parallel with the Lydian king, and God endured presumption in no one but Himself. He concluded with nothing less than a confident wager on a Persian defeat: let him and Mardonius both stake their children's lives on the outcome of the expedition! If it was a success, Artabanus' line would be wiped out.

The king replied wrathfully, full of dynastic pride. The war was a necessity; vengeance had to be exacted from the Athenians. "I know well that if we remain at peace, they will not; they are sure to invade our country!" The expedition had become a preemptive strike: Persia must attack or herself be attacked. There was still, of course, the example of the past, though Xerxes dredged Greek mythology for a specious parallel: if Pelops the Phrygian could conquer Greece, could not the Great King too, who counted the Phrygians among his slaves?

The story is quickly concluded. At night, Xerxes did rethink, and decided that Artabanus was right. His anger, as he was to explain to the Persian council the next day, was the hot temper of youth. Then Xerxes was visited twice in dreams by a phantom: a tall, handsome man, who also visited Artabanus. The message was always the same: Xerxes would countermand the expedition at his peril. The penalty for remaining at peace would be the loss of his royal status. "Be, then, very sure of this," said the phantom, on its second visit, "if you do not launch your war at once, this shall be the outcome: just as a brief span of time raised you to be great and mighty, so shall you speedily become humble again." The reader may note that the apparition failed to promise victory, though even Artabanus imagined that a successful outcome was implied. But the message was unavoidable: Xerxes had to invade Greece or face an unpleasant alternative.

Years ago, Macan remarked that the analogy between Xerxes' dream and the deceitful dream sent to Agamemnon in the Iliad has "often been pointed out." But though Herodotus has borrowed the literary device, he has shifted the emphasis. The dream in the Iliad is a simple case of a mischievous god playing with the overconfident Agamemnon, exploiting a weak point in his character by promising him victory without Achilles' help. The dream of Xerxes was not explicitly deceitful, for it did not presage a Greek defeat, though it left that impression. Instead it emphasized the danger of trying to reverse what was destined to be. It was Xerxes' position as king of Persia, the descendant of a line of Achaememid imperialists who had increased the size of the empire during their several reigns, that circumscribed his freedom of action. All the reasons Mardonius had given for invading Greece and Artabanus' rebuttals did not matter. Xerxes seems to be caught, all unknowing, in a dilemma of fate and free will, quite as much as the protagonist of Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus. Xerxes was intended to invade Greece, and the dream intervened when he seemed on the point of falling short of what Bernard Knox, in his study of Oedipus, calls "the divine intention." But it is fair to ask why there should be any such "divine intention" at all. What forces were there at work that forestalled Xerxes' impulse to draw back from disaster?


Excerpted from Herodotus, Explorer of the Past by J.A.S. Evans. Copyright © 1991 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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