Herodotus, Book I

This is not a “review” of the classic ancient history of Herodotus, but conveys some of my strong early impressions. [See my April 25 notes on my decision to order this translation].

Beyond what I read in the New Yorker review I had no particular expectations. I suppose I expected some kind of Arcadian prehistory punctuated by brief periods of intertribal skirmish on the part of the war-glorifying Hellenes. The very notion of an Arcadia stems from the westernized 19th century romanticism of a simple, rustic, idealized early agrarian community.

In fact, Arcadia lies within the central part of the Peloponnesian peninsula, which was divided in those days into the regions of Achaea, Arcadia and Laconia. The city-state of Argos [“Jason and the Argonauts”] might have been part of Arcadia; it grew to prominence by trade with the Phoenicians, and suffered in competition and battle with bellicose neighboring Sparta.

While Argos was “persona non grata” among other city states, because of its policy of remaining neutral in the wars between Sparta and Athens, there was nothing “Arcadian” about this early region of western civilization.

In fact, there was never a time in our history when there were not wars. “Massively overwhelming” military might and “shock and awe” have different terms and technology today, but the concepts are twenty-five hundred years old. Most of all, Herodotus guides us through the shifting sands of military warfare, victory, and defeat; the invincible tyranny of the superpower that rules today is tomorrow always guaranteed wholesale slaughter and slavery.

It is not so much that those early city-states fought wars of desperation, due to drought or famine, such as the butchery and lawlessness we are currently witnessing on the parched continent of Africa. The early warriors fought them out of a desire for the spoils of war, the accumulation of land, and raw power.

When the Persians started their mighty war engines against the rising Greek city-states, two things come to mind. First, the city-states were too busy sacking each others’ cities to come to the aid of their immediately beleaguered neighbors. Second, drawing heavily on the American assumption that size and might are the best defense against foreign incursion, we wonder why these city-states did not form permanent regional alliances, when, in view of the success of Persian kings Cyrus and Darius, it would be to their clear advantage to do so.

As we look at the forms of government of the time, there were many great tyrants, but the concepts of democracy and freedom were far from fully formed, and Herodotus so far [Book I] has not dwelt on any kind of relationship between concepts of government and the well-being of its peoples. These early city-states had their open markets, or agora, but no idea of what today we would call “participatory democracy” as far as we can tell in Herodotus. It would appear that each city-state held so many grudges against each other, for offenses both of pride and serious injury, and saw each other so heavily as threatening rivals, that we should not be surprised that this state of affairs had not improved by the time the next great war engine was mounted against ancient Greece. This would be imperial Rome, in a time long after Herodotus.

The narrative history of Herodotus [edited by Strassler] flows smoothly and is pleasurable to read. Usually, the wheels of this history revolve around the great heroes of the time, names that are still with us today. There is no attempt to demonize the other side, but to simply tell the stories from the point of view of the players. King Cyrus [of Persia] is revealed to be every bit as feeling and human as his Greek counterpart, such as the Ionian King Croesus.

Wealthy Croesus – a descendent of Midas, it is said – very early conquered almost all of the Mediterranean and Aegean regions before being captured by the great Persian king and General Cyrus. He was held in bondage not only as a captive, but esteemed military and civil advisor (!).

All these leaders made their decisions primarily by consulting the gods, namely the Pythia or Oracle of Delphi, and lesser oracles at other locations.

And these prophecies, handed out by the sacrifice-enriched Oracles, were ambiguous and cryptic. Croesus, for example, was told that if he attacked Cyrus, he would destroy a mighty empire. He was not told it would be his own. Modern-day oracles have spy satellites and fiber optic communications taps at their disposal, but we would not have to look too far for suitable contemporary Oracles.

It is impressive how thoroughly the prattle of the sooth-sayers was taken with the same literal seriousness that we today take the objective scientific reports of the mass spectrometers, x-ray telescopes and weather satellites. From our point of view, the ancient Greeks had no conceptual tools for distinguishing between the validity of the battlefield scouts and the supernatural Oracles – just so, as people of our Middle Ages “knew” the earth was flat, stationary, and the center of the universe.

Dreams were another source of mystical insight; one sage was quoted as saying dreams largely reflect what we happened to be thinking about during the day, but most people continued to believe dreams were divinely inspired.

To illustrate how closely dreams and reality were linked in the world in which Herodotus writes, I would like to retell the following story. I view it as mostly fable or myth, but Herodotus wisely sticks to reporting the story as it, no doubt, was told to him:

Croesus had a dream that his son and presumed heir Arys would be killed by the iron point of a spear. His son already being a wildly popular and successful general, Croesus decided to marry his son off and withdraw the youth from the battlefield, which he did, and the son’s attentions were devoted to building a life with his new bride.

It was not too long before this when Croesus had taken under his protection Adrastos, a fine young man and refugee from a neighboring noble household, who was sought after for murder by his own people, for inadvertently killing his brother in a horrible accident.

In most ways Croesus was successful as a tyrant because of his benevolence to the people he subjugated, and so they came to him one day to complain of an unusually large wild boar that was terrifying the villages.

Croesus said he would mount a force to take care of the wild boar once and for all, and he appointed the young man Adrastos, who was under his household protection, to lead the force. When Arys got wind of this, he complained bitterly to his father.

“You have pulled me from the battlefield, father”, he said, “because in your dream I would be killed by a spear in battle. But, this is not a battle.” And he went on to convince the old man that if he did not lead this force, he would lose popularity with the people, who were already wondering why he never showed his face around military ventures those days. After all, this was not a battle, but a boar hunt.

And so this is what happened. Under the command of Arys, the force quickly located and surrounded the wild boar. In the melee, as it happened, the young man Adrastos was closest, and he hurled his spear, which was tipped with a point of iron, at the boar. And he missed the boar, killing Croesus’s son Arys.

Ending this sad little Greek tragedy, Croesus is grief-stricken but forgives Adrastos, whose intention was certainly not to kill his friend the son of his protector. However, when Arys is laid to rest in a fine marble tomb, Adrastos slays himself over that tomb, and we are not to hear any more about either boy again.

Such were the times of which Herodotus wrote: the dreams, the prophecies, the heroic actions, and the occasional shameful acts of cowardice on the part of those timorous souls who just wanted to live, all seamlessly spiced together indistinguishably into a great epic tale. It is from these tales of the Homeric era that we get the idea of Greek Tragedy, a literary tradition that is still with us today.

No doubt these tales inspired glory-eyed warriors of all the intervening centuries to try to emulate the grand deeds of their ancestors, who brought brief interludes of peace and relative prosperity to a region decimated by warfare solely for the purpose of a change of regime. Throughout it all, the people endured, just as they do today.

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