Herodotus: The Great Invasion and the Historian's Task
As was to become customary, at the beginning of his work Herodotus tells us why he wrote it. It was, he says, "so that human achievements may not become forgotten in time, and great and marvellous deeds--some displayed by Greeks, some by barbarians--may not be without their glory; and especially to show why the two peoples fought with each other." In other words his history was a monument, a marker set down against the oblivion with which time threatens all human deeds. He was successful beyond all reasonable expectation. We are still reading his account of his great theme, the invasion of Greece two and a half thousand years ago, and a mere half century before he wrote it, by the Persian Great King and the immense polyglot army drawn from all parts of his empire. Herodotus also promises a little later (Histories
, I.95) to tell us how the Persians under their ruler Cyrus (the Great) won their predominant position in Asia, and this promise too he fulfils before going on to his account of the invasion of Greece.
One point in his initial statement which is worth pausing on is the reference to recording the great deeds of barbarians (i.e. non-Greeks) as well as Greeks. We should look in vain in the Egyptian and Babylonian records for such even-handedness. What we are reminded of is Homer, who, as Herodotus soon reminds us, had written of an earlier conflict between Greeks and an Asiatic people. Homer allows his readers/hearers to sympathize with Trojans as well as Greeks, and as much or more with Priam and Hector as with Achilles and Agamemnon. Herodotus does not comment on this feature in Homer, but seems to take it for granted. He accepts, of course, the historicity of the Trojan War, though he thinks that Homer, as a poet, shaped his narrative to his epic purpose, and he is willing to correct him from his own inquiries among the Persians and Egyptians and by his own common sense: Helen could not have been in Troy during the siege, because the Trojans would have handed her back if they could (II.120). Herodotus has a pretty good idea when Homer lived, placing it some four hundred years before his own time, which is the mid fifth century bc.
But far more important than Herodotus' acceptance of the basic historicity of the Homeric poems is their existence, for all Greeks, as a narrative model. When Herodotus in his preamble speaks of writing to preserve great and marvellous deeds from oblivion and giving them their deserved glory, he can hardly be unaware of stretching out a hand to the Homeric epic, which purports to do precisely that. Herodotus' narrative of the great conflict sometimes carries Homeric echoes which we shall have to consider, but more generally the pacing of the narrative, the immediacy of its re-enactments of events and presentation of character, its humanity and its inclusion of the earthy and mundane--more than in Thucydides and historiography subsequent to him--all invite the adjective "Homeric." It is, however, Homeric on a vast scale, and therefore looser and deliberately digressive, as well as based on painstaking inquiries, sometimes requiring suspension of judgement, all of which is alien to the epic tradition. Herodotus is a garrulous, highly personal and conversational writer, with no aversion to the first person; one meets him face to face, as it were, so that it is not difficult to imagine the readings he gave in Athens by which his work was apparently first made public. We know his opinions, and hear of his travels, the wonders he has seen, the stories told to him, and his not infrequent scepticism about them. We can even reconstruct a good deal of his religious views, though here he is sometimes reticent. He is almost as personal a writer as Montaigne.
He was born, apparently around the mid-480s bc, in the Greek colony of Halicarnassus on the eastern side of the Aegean, so he belonged to that part of the Greek world transplanted to Asia. As the disputed borderland of Greece and the Persian empire, this area was to play a significant part in his history. Since the territory had recently been incorporated in the Persian empire, Herodotus was born technically a subject of the Great King. Though there is ultimately no doubt where his sympathies lie, and it seems he could speak only Greek, he never speaks of the Persians with contempt and has no difficulty in making his narrative identify with them as required. Though he travelled extensively--the extent has been questioned by some--and later apparently migrated to Athens, where he is said to have been a friend of the tragic dramatist Sophocles, it is surely appropriate that a man of such cosmopolitanism should have been born not only in an area which had seen Greek intellectual life hitherto most vigorously flourishing but at the interface of two great cultures, and pretty much at the centre of the known world. The date of his death is not certain, but it is clear that he lived into the period of the Peloponnesian War, i.e. at least beyond 430 bc. He is therefore, according to the best estimates, a generation earlier than Thucydides, though a contemporary, measured by the dates of their respective births and deaths.
Herodotus lists some early instances of friction between Europe and Asia--mythic or legendary--including the voyage of Jason and his Argonauts to Colchis, on the Black Sea, and the theft of the Golden Fleece. Then he rapidly advances to historical times, with the Persian conquest of the Hellenized kingdom of Lydia, in what is now western Turkey, under its king Croesus. Croesus, who plays a large part in Book I (the division into nine books is not original), is the first historical character to appear. Overthrown as a ruler, so that his career vindicates the wise saying of the Athenian Solon that no man can be called happy till he is dead, Croesus, made wise by his reversal of fortune, becomes the counsellor of his conqueror, the Persian king Cyrus. We are also told of the legendary youth of Cyrus, who was saved by a shepherd from exposure as a baby (I.108-17), and of the supplanting of the ruling Medes by the Persians under him. Cyrus then goes on to overthrow Babylon (539 bc), of whose customs Herodotus provides a description (I.192-200), after giving the reader a kind of conducted tour of the city.
The great wall I have described is the chief armour of the city; but there is a second one within it, hardly less strong though narrower. There is a fortress in the middle of each half of the city [i.e. as divided by the river]: in one the royal palace surrounded by a wall of great strength, in the other the temple of Bel, the Babylonian Zeus. The temple is a square building, two furlongs each way, with bronze gates, and was still in existence in my time; it has a solid central tower, one furlong square, with a second erected on top of it and then a third, and so on up to eight. All eight towers can be climbed by a spiral way running round the outside, and about half-way up there are seats and a shelter for those who make the ascent to rest on. On the summit of the topmost tower stands a great temple with a fine large couch in it, richly covered, and a golden table beside it. The shrine contains no image and no one spends the night there except, as the Chaldaeans who are the priests of Bel say, one Assyrian woman, all alone, whoever it may be that the god has chosen. The Chaldaeans also say--though I do not believe them--that the god enters the temple in person and takes his rest upon the bed. There is a similar story told by the Egyptians at Thebes . . . (I.178-86)
When Herodotus visited Babylon it was approximately a century since the city had fallen to Cyrus.
Herodotus' next three books deal with the further expansion of the Persian empire into Asia under Cyrus' son Cambyses and his successor Darius. It is Darius who makes the first incursion into Europe, his army being turned back by the Athenian victory at Marathon (490 bc) (VI.110-17). But overall the advance of the Persian empire seems unstoppable as, after swallowing the Greek colonies and the Hellenized kingdoms of western Asia, it advances to the limits of the known world. It comes to include not only the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia but the barely explored territories of Libya and Ethiopia and the nomads of the Arabian desert and the northern steppes. The effect is similar to that achieved by Edward Gibbon more than two thousand years later in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
, as he successively introduces the peoples who will overwhelm the Roman world.
Herodotus, in Books II to IV, follows the tide of Persian conquest by giving geographical and ethnographic surveys of the conquered lands and peoples. These surveys make up a substantial part of his work, and we shall need to return to them later. As a preamble to the great invasion of Greece under the Persian king Xerxes, the Persian world domination, as it seems, is made visible in the great muster of the composite army that Xerxes assembles, which Herodotus describes in detail, identifying each people in the review, with its distinctive appearance, clothing and weapons, beginning with the Persians themselves. The descriptions, and that of the accompanying fleet (VII.61-100), are too long for anything but a representative excerpt:
The Assyrians were equipped with bronze helmets made in a complicated barbarian way which is hard to describe, shields, spears, daggers (like the Egyptian ones), wooden clubs studded with iron, and linen corslets . . . The Indians were dressed in cotton; they carried cane bows and cane arrows tipped with iron, and marched under the command of Pharnazathres, the son of Artabates . . . Then there were the Caspians and the Sarangians, the former commanded by Ariomardus, the brother of Artyphius, dressed in leather jackets and armed with the acinaces
[Persian short sword] and the cane bow of their country . . .
And so it goes on, with the Arabians, the Ethiopians ("in their leopard skins and lion skins"), the Libyans, the Phrygians, the Thracians in fox-skin headdresses--the list is apparently endless. It seems as though the whole known world is gathering, hundreds of thousands strong (the numbers have predictably been much debated), to crush the small city states of Greece--from the Nile and the Libyan desert, from the rivers of what was later to be European Russia, and from Thrace west of the Black Sea to India and beyond, as well as from Persia itself. A local man, seeing the Persian host, cries out in his anguish that Zeus has changed his name to Xerxes (VII.56).
Herodotus is in no doubt that Athens was the core of Greek resistance and suffered most, being directly in the path of the invaders. The most crucial policy decision on the Greek side was that of the Athenians not to defend the city but to retreat across the isthmus to the Peloponnese and rely on their fleet to defeat the Persians. The determining factor, in Herodotus' account, was Themistocles' interpretation of the Delphic oracle, whose prophetess had declared, enigmatically as usual, that "the wooden wall only shall not fall." Some thought this referred to a thorn hedge which surrounded the Acropolis, but Themistocles spoke out for those who interpreted the wooden wall as a reference to the Athenian ships, and was believed. Athens took the lead in the great sea battle of Salamis (480 bc), in which the Persians lost their fleet and which was a severe check for them (VIII.78-96).
But the most memorable episode of the invasion, given full treatment by Herodotus, was a defeat for Greece: the sacrificial battle fought earlier the same year by the three hundred Spartans under their king Leonidas at the pass of Thermopylae, in which most were killed (VII.210-28). Spartans were forbidden by law to retreat. The column subsequently erected to their memory bore what is, in its terse simplicity, still probably, even in translation, the most moving of all military memorial inscriptions:
GO TELL THE SPARTANS, STRANGER,
THAT HERE OBEDIENT TO THEIR LAWS WE LIE.
Herodotus says that he has taken the trouble to learn the names of all three hundred "who deserve to be remembered." It is characteristic that he mentions some of the Persian dead by name, and their ancestry. It is from Herodotus too, though it may not originate with him, that we have, put into the mouth of Croesus, one of the most famous epigrams on war: that in peace sons bury their fathers, but in war fathers bury their sons.
Herodotus' portrait of Xerxes, who deals atrociously with Leonidas' corpse, contains odd contradictions, perhaps reflecting different traditions. In some moods Xerxes shows good sense and magnanimity, in others a wilful savagery. He commits a sin of hubris, Herodotus strongly implies, when he causes the Hellespont to be whipped as the punishment for destroying, in a storm, the bridges he had had built:
Xerxes was very angry when he heard of the disaster, and gave orders that the Hellespont should receive three hundred lashes and have a pair of fetters thrown into it. I have heard before now that he also sent people to brand it with hot irons. He certainly instructed the men with the whips to utter, as they wielded them, the barbarous and presumptuous words: "You salt and bitter stream, your master lays this punishment upon you for injuring him, who never injured you. But Xerxes the King will cross you, with or without your permission . . ." In addition to punishing the Hellespont Xerxes gave orders that the men responsible for building the bridges should have their heads cut off. (VII.35)
Herodotus then goes on to give a technical description of how the bridges were rebuilt.
Xerxes' most atrocious act occurs when a servant to whom he owed much pleaded that the eldest of his five sons should be left at home: Xerxes has the son cut in half for the army to march between the two halves on its route. Yet immediately afterwards we have the episode in which he appears most sympathetic and human, when sitting on a throne of white marble he is able to view his whole army and fleet and suddenly, at the moment of his highest glory, he weeps. "And when he saw the whole Hellespont hidden by ships, and all the beaches and plains of Abydos filled with men, he called himself happy--and the moment after burst into tears." Asked why, he replies that he was thinking of the shortness of human life, and that "of all these thousands of men not one will be alive in a hundred years' time" (VII.45-6).From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from A History of Histories by John Burrow. Copyright © 2008 by John Burrow. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.