The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories
Edited by Robert B. Strassler
New York: Pantheon, 2007
Independent scholar Robert Strassler has produced far and away the best English edition aimed at the general reader of the work which remains the fountainhead of the Western historical tradition. Let us hope there is still a fit audience out there for it—men, that is, capable of learning what Herodotus has to teach. Generations of schoolboys at British public schools, German Gymnasia, and American rural academies once read his Histories to learn who they were—in other words, what it meant to be men of the West.
On a first approach, Herodotus’s great work appears a confusing welter of names, colorful stories, digressions, and miscellaneous ethnographic information. I have taught the work to undergraduates and remember students valiantly struggling to discuss “that one King of Wherever, who was fighting that tribe, whatever they were called . . .” In reality, the narrative is carefully—indeed intricately—structured, but in a manner that only becomes clear after repeated readings. What Strassler has done is provide a wealth of maps, indices, cross references, notes, illustrations, and appendices which reduce the preliminary mental effort required merely to grasp this overall structure. The reader can thus proceed more quickly to genuine historical understanding.
It is remarkable that no one in the small, overspecialized world of academic classical studies has ever bothered to attempt such a project. Strassler himself fetchingly admits: “I am not a scholar of ancient Greek and indeed can barely parse a simple sentence in that language” (xlvi). He commissioned a new translation for this edition by Andrea Purvis of Duke University. It is not “dazzling,” as the publisher’s blurb claims, but perhaps something better: unpretentiously accurate, and less mannered than its nearest competitor, David Grene’s 1987 version.
Herodotus grew up in Halicarnassus, an important trading center on the edge of the Greek world, where Greek and Barbarian came into frequent contact. He traveled widely, visiting Egypt as well as many Greek cities; he interviewed public figures and veterans of the events he recounts and gave public readings of his work, which he called the “Inquiries” (histori? in Greek). His great theme is the contrast between Greek and Barbarian, and more particularly the struggle of Greek freedom with Asiatic despotism. The narrative is designed from the beginning to culminate in a description of the successful Greek struggle to repel the Persian invasions of 490 and 480 BC.
Herodotus, like most ancient writers, was concerned with freedom primarily in a political sense. He says nothing about freedom of commerce or religion or conscience or of individual action. All of these may be fine things, but they are ideals which belong to a later age.
During the Cold War, many were inclined to cite the greater efficiency of the market economy as the fundamental distinguishing trait of the West, proudly pointing to our groaning supermarket shelves and favorably contrasting them with Soviet bread lines. Persons used to this way of viewing matters will be especially liable to a feeling of cognitive dissonance when reading Herodotus, who constantly stresses the wealth of oriental despotisms; whereas “in Hellas,” according to one Greek quoted in the Histories, “poverty is always and forever a native resident” (Book 7: chapter 102).
An especially famous and illustrative story, not less significant for being probably unhistorical, concerns Solon the Athenian lawgiver and Croesus of Lydia (immortalized in the expression “rich as Croesus”). After proudly displaying his wealth to his Athenian visitor, Croesus hopefully asks whether Solon in all his travels has “yet seen anyone who surpasses all others in happiness and prosperity?” Solon disappoints him by naming a number of Greeks who lived in relatively moderate circumstances. Croesus indignantly asks “are you disparaging my happiness as though it were nothing? Do you think me worth less than even a common man?” Solon explains that no judgment can be made while Croesus is still alive, for reversals of fortune are too common. (1:30-32) Croesus eventually attempts to conquer the Persians, but is defeated by them and deprived of his kingdom.
The Asiatics as portrayed by Herodotus might be described, for lack of a better word, as accumulators. This applies no less to political power than to wealth. “We have conquered and made slaves of the Sacae, Indians, Ethiopians, Assyrians, and many other great nations” says one Persian grandee matter of factly, “not because they had committed injustices against Persia, but only to increase our own power through them” (7:8). In other words, they are believers in what a contemporary neoconservative journalist might call “national greatness.” They build larger monuments than the Greeks and undertake vast projects such as diverting rivers. It never seems to occur to them that anything might become too big or too organized. When they attempt the conquest of Greece, Herodotus shows them becoming encumbered by their vast baggage trains, unable to moor their multitude of ships properly in tiny Greek coves—generally crushed beneath their own weight like a beached whale as much as they are defeated by the Hellenic armies.
A related Asiatic trait is a failure to acknowledge human limitations. When Xerxes’ invasion is delayed by stormy weather at the Hellespont, he orders the beachhead scourged and branded. His slaves are instructed to say: “Bitter water, your Master is imposing this penalty upon you for wronging him. King Xerxes will cross you whether you like it or not” (7:35). Similarly, there is no real place in the Asiatic’s thought for death, because it is the ultimate limitation on human planning and power. Xerxes weeps while reviewing his army as it occurs to him that all his men will be dead in a hundred years, but decides he must simply put the matter out of his mind.
The Solonian view of happiness as a life well lived from beginning to end, by contrast, begins with the fundamental fact of human finitude. It is this characteristically Greek view which Aristotle eventually formalized and extended in his discussion of happiness (eudaimonia) in the Nicomachian Ethics, and which has continued to influence the best minds of Christendom to this day. The modern “consumerist” mentality, by contrast, might be understood as a relapse into Asiatic barbarism.
The Persians make efforts to buy off Greek leaders. Herodotus describes the wealth of a Persian Satrap named Hydarnes, and then recounts his advice to some Spartan envoys passing through his province on the way to the Persian capitol:
“Lacedaemonians, why are you trying to avoid becoming the King’s friends? You can see that the King knows how to honor good men when you look at me and the state of my affairs. This could be the same for you if only you would surrender yourselves to the King, since he would surely think you to be good men and allow each of you Greek territory to rule over.” To this they replied, “Hydarnes, you offer us this advice only because you do not have a fair and proper perspective. For you counsel us based on your experience of only one way of life, but you have had no experience of the other: you know well how to be a slave but have not yet experienced freedom, nor have you felt whether it is sweet or not. But if you could try freedom, you would advise us to fight for it, and not only with spears, but with axes!” (7:135)
When the envoys arrive in Susa,
At first the King’s bodyguards ordered them and actually tried to force them to prostrate themselves before the King; but they refused to do so, saying that they would never do that, even if the bodyguards should try to push them down to the ground headfirst, since it was not their custom [nomos] to prostrate themselves before any human being. (7:136)
King Xerxes, by contrast, is a great believer in “leadership:” if he were alive today, one might picture him topping the bestseller lists with books on his “Seven Principles of Effective Leadership.” Before invading Greece, he asks:
How could 1,000 or even 10,000 or 50,000 men, all of them alike being free and lacking one man to rule over them, stand up to an army as great as mine? Now if they were under the rule of one man, as is our way, they would fear that man and be better able, in spite of their natural inclinations, to go out and confront larger forces, despite their being outnumbered, because they would then be compelled by the lash. But they would never dare to do such a thing if they were allowed their freedom! (7:103)
At the Battle of Salamis, he has a throne erected for himself on a prominent hill, convinced that his men will fight best knowing they are under his watchful eye.
Herodotus leaves us in no doubt where he stands on this issue; he relates in his own voice that
the Athenians increased in strength, which demonstrates that an equal voice in government has beneficial impact not merely in one way, but in every way: the Athenians, while ruled by tyrants, were no better in war than any of the peoples living around them, but once they were rid of tyrants, they became by far the best of all. Thus it is clear that they were deliberately slack while repressed, since they were working for a master, but that after they were freed, they became ardently devoted to working hard so as to win achievements for themselves as individuals. (5:78)
This comparative lack of emphasis on leadership does not mean the ancients were egalitarian levelers. All successful enterprises must be organized hierarchically, because this is what allows men to coordinate their efforts. The Greeks, in fact, made a proverb of a line from Homer’s Iliad: “Lordship for many is no good thing; let there be one ruler.” Moreover, they greatly honored men who performed leadership functions successfully.
Public offices were, however, always distinguished from the particular men holding them. They did not regard their magistrates as sacred, and none ever claimed to be descended from Zeus. Aristotle defined political freedom as “ruling and being ruled in turn.” In battle, Greek captains fought in a corner of the phalanx beside their men; they could be difficult for an enemy to distinguish.
What allowed Greeks to combine effective organization with political freedom? Herodotus suggests it was a kind of “rule of law.” As a Greek advisor explains to Xerxes:
Though they are free, they are not free in all respects, for they are actually ruled by a lord and master: law [nomos] is their master, and it is the law that they inwardly fear—much more so than your men fear you. They do whatever it commands, which is always the same: it forbids them to flee from battle, and no matter how many men they are fighting, it orders them to remain in their rank and either prevail or perish. (7:104)
In order to appreciate what is being said here, it is important to understand what is meant by law, or nomos. If it were possible to make intelligible to Herodotus such modern legal phenomena as executive orders, Supreme Court decrees, or annually updated administrative regulations, it is more than doubtful whether he would have considered them examples of nomos. These are simply instruments of power, not much different from what existed in the Persian Empire or any despotism. A “rule of law” in this sense makes no particular contribution to freedom. In fact, much of the West’s current predicament results from our traditional respect for law being converted into a weapon against us, rendering us subject to a regime of arbitrary commands disguised as “law” and concocted by an irresponsible power elite hostile to our interests.
It is essential to nomos that it be superpersonal. Often the word can be translated “custom,” which helps one understand that it cannot be decreed by any man, whether King or Hellenic magistrate. Freedom under nomos is not lack of a master, as Herodotus makes clear, but the capacity for self-mastery. In battle, it extends even to the point of demanding total self-sacrifice.
This helps to explain why wealth is dangerous to freedom; the man who becomes used to gratifying his desires comes to be ruled by desire and loses his capacity for self-mastery and sacrifice. When an earlier King of Persia is threatened by rebellion, Herodotus shows him being advised as follows:
Prohibit them from possessing weapons of war, order them to wear tunics under their cloaks and soft boots, instruct them to play the lyre and the harp, and tell them to educate their sons to be shopkeepers. If you do this, sire, you will soon see that they will become women instead of men and thus will pose no danger or threat to you of any future rebellion. (1:155)
The limitations of the Asiatic leadership principle become evident when an Asiatic army loses its leader. It is liable to cease being an army—to become a rabble, a mob of individuals incapable of organization or initiative. A famous episode from later Greek history makes clear how the Greek way was different: In 401 BC, about a generation after Herodotus’ death, an army of ten thousand Greek mercenaries marched into the heart of the Persian Empire in support of a rival candidate for the Imperial title. Their leader was killed in battle and they were stranded hundreds of miles deep in hostile territory. A Persian representative came to accept their surrender and collect their weapons, and was flummoxed to learn the Greeks had no intention of handing any weapons over. Instead, they simply met in assembly and elected a new leader for themselves—exactly as they were accustomed to do in the political assembles of their home cities. They proceeded to fight their way back to Greece with most of them surviving, and the entire might of the Persian Empire was insufficient to stop them. It is safe to say that no Persian army could have equaled the feat.
This spirit of independence and self-reliance did not last forever. The Greek cities wore out their strength through decades of fighting with one another. In 338, they finally fell to Philip, King of Macedon. By 291, Athenians were celebrating the triumphal return of a Macedonian general to their city in hymns describing him as a “living god.” He used the Parthenon to house his harem. Economic historians tell us that the overall Greek standard of living was higher in this later age, however.
Today we see a traitorous leadership consciously abandons our heritage of freedom to a barbarism worse than Persian, buying us off with the bread and circuses of television, shopping malls, and tax subsidies for collaborators, punishing the few who offer even verbal resistance. The reader who still has a mind to do something about this situation might find some lessons in the pages of Herodotus. He would be well advised to take a little time from our current plight to reacquaint himself with what Western man has been.
TOQ Online, April 19, 2009