Herodotus, Book I

At the beginning of his work, Herodotus treats us to an absurdly fanciful account of girl-snatchings, which supposedly led to the East/West conflict.  How seriously is this intended?  I don’t know.  Most obviously, it links his theme with the great tradition of Greek epic poetry and mythology:  Europa, Io, and Medea echo the story of Helen, whose abduction of seduction by Paris brought on the Trojan War.  Since, elsewhere, he shows himself a fairly shrewd judge of human motivations, this introduction may be in part a jeux d’esprit.

At any rate, he would tell us that we don’t know any more about the story than he or the epic poets did, and we should be content with a good story.  What is important to note in this first bit of history is his willingness to give different accounts and explanations and to allow readers to make up their own minds.  It is not that he does not have opinions that he freely expresses, and he certainly, by an artful narrative style, leads us in one direction or another, but the final judgment is left up to the reader.  Would we had such a writer to day.  Immediately one can perceive that two of Herodotus’ strongest points are his narrative skill and his willingness to tell any traditional story, including stories that conflict, whether he believes them or not.

Superficially, the Histories seems like a patchwork of tales and legends; in fact it is a brilliantly crafted literary construction, making use of a technique found in Homer—so-called Ring-composition.  The entire work constitutes a logos,  that is to say a coherent narrative, within which there are hypo-logoi, such as the accounts of the Persian Empire and the rise of Greece,  and hypo-hypo-logoi, such as the account of the invasions of Scythia or Egypt, within which we learn about the strange customs of these peoples, with which we are treated to stories within stories within stories.  In order words, the structure is something of a Chinese boxes within wheels within wheels.

Because the first verifiable conflict between Greeks and barbarians was the result of the Lydian kingdom’s attempt to dominate the Greeks of Asia Minor and the Eastern Aegean, he begins with the Lydians.  Before embarking on his narrative course, however, he reminds us not to judge by present appearances: Formerly great cities have become small and vice-versa.  Human happiness/good fortune, he reminds for the first but by no means the last time, is highly unstable [I.5]  This is a lesson that Americans refuse to learn, believing ourselves exempt from the historical process that created the Egyptian, Hittite, Assyrian, Greek, and Roman empires only to destroy them.

Within the Lydian logos, Herodotus  interweaves many charming Greek stories, but the key passage is probably the chronologically impossible meeting between Solon and Croesus.  The Lydians were generally important to the Greeks of Asia Minor, who traded with them and influenced their culture, but the Lydians were also influential and they are, by tradition and probably in reality, the first to coin money.

What is money?  That's an easy one.  Money is historically a precious metal of intrinsic value, standardized in weight, with the picture or emblem of the ruler or country that coined it and guarantees its purity and value, which is a bit less than the actual weight of the coin.  Why does it have to be less?  Think of the difference as a small tax paid by the users for the convenience of having a standardized currency.  If anyone tells you money is something that a ruling class invents, tell him to soak his head--or rather, that he doesn't have to because he is all wet.  Naturally, I am speaking here of genuine communities and genuine money, not fictional states defined by maps and abstract symbols and fiat money.

Croesus, the Lydian king, is a sympathetic tragic hero, but a barbarian.  He puts his confidence in his power and wealth and is not a little nettled, when Solon answers his question about “Who is the happiest man,” with the obscure Tellus of Athens and the legendary figures of Cleobis and Biton.  Solon’s warning to count no man happy until you know the manner of his death is often cited, but commentators neglect the context.  Tellus and the Argive brothers are not happy as individuals but as family men and members of a community in which they have respect and honor.  Croesus’ downfall involves not only the loss of wealth and power but the premature death of his unimpaired son.

If any passage in Greek literature can warn us against the foolish mistake of regarding the Greeks as modern individualists, it is this.  Aristotle, a more through-going and systematic thinker, raised a similar question, asking whether a man who died successful with a flourishing family and community could be regarded as happy--meaning objectively happy.  His cautious answer was, probably, but something in us--that is, in a Greek--is uncomfortable with the thought.

Herodotus devoted much of the first book to the Meds and Persians, their conquest of Lydia, and their subjugation of the Greek cities on the coast of Asia Minor and the offshore islands. He will use the invasions of Egypt and Scythia as pretexts for telling us about the geography and customs of these exotic places.

He will spend a great deal of time (end of Book V, beginning of VI)  on the Ionian Revolt, provoked by Persian expansion, because it is both the predecessor and a major cause of the first Persian War with the mainland Greek cities. 

In the East, the Ionian and Aeolian Greeks predominated, and, threatened by Persian attacks, they decided to appeal to the most powerful of the mainland cities—Dorian Lacedaemon or Sparta.  The Spartans refused the request for assistance, but in their arrogance sent a deputation to the Persians in Sardis, warning them not to molest any city in Greece [I.152-153].  When Cyrus the Great heard of the threat, he inquired of some Greeks who these people were.  Upon being informed, he replied: “I have never yet been afraid of any men who have a set place in the middle of their city, where they come together to cheat each other and foreswear themselves.”

On the one hand, the noble Persian was justified in suspecting the courage and integrity of mercantile peoples.  Unfortunately, he misjudged the temper not only of the uncommercial Spartans but of most of the Greeks.  Even the Phocaeans, who had taken part in the delegation that went to Sparta, although they were technically Ionian and therefore sophisticated, were among the toughest men of the Mediterranean world.  There may have been something  bit un-Ionian about the Phocaeans.  One ancient source says the city was founded (or resettled) by Greeks from Phocis under Athenian leadership.  The Athenian bit I suspect is propaganda.  

If we wanted to engage in wild speculation, we would note that Phocis is located roughly between Boeotia and Thessaly, two regions that were more or less Aeolian in the Bronze Age.  Like its neighboring regions, it was invaded by Northwest Greeks akin to the Dorians who took over the Peloponnese.  The Phocian dialect is classed as Western Greek, and whether it preserved any Aeolic forms or influence, I have not discovered, but in Phocaea, which was located in territory said to have been granted by Aeolian Kyme (in Asia Minor), some Aeolian influence has been detected in the pottery.  

When Harpagus, the Persian commander, laid siege to Phocaea, he offered them very generous terms.  He said he would be content if they would tear down one fortified tower and dedicate one house to the Great King.  The Phocaeans would have nothing to do with even token submission, which they regarded as slavery, and asked one day for deliberation.  In that time they packed up everything they could and sailed away [I. 163 ff.] They asked Chios permission to settle some of their islands, but since the Phocaeans were proverbial for piracy, they were told to keep moving.  They went to Alalia on Corsica, where they had planted a settlement.  Before setting out, they made a lightning raid on Phocaea and killed the Persian garrison; however, half the citizens chose to stay.  

The others, after dropping a lump of iron into sea and pledging not to return until the iron rose, went to Corsica, where they raided the shipping of barbarian Carthaginians and Etruscans, who joined forces and attacked the Phocaean fleet.  The Phocaeans won the battle but at great cost.  After deciding to leave, some went to the great colony they had established at Massillia (modern Marseilles); others went to Southern Italy and founded city of Elea.  Both Massallia and Elea prospered, and the latter town became home to one of the greatest philosophers of all time: Parmenides.  I have said in lectures that I find it peculiarly fitting that the boldest philosopher of all time--the man who told us to ignore our senses and agree with him that reality was unchanging and unmoving and undifferentiated--came from a race of sturdy buccaneers.  Later we shall hear of the Phocaean patriot turned pirate, Dionysius.

The men of Teos took a similar resolution to abandon their city rather than submit to the Persians, but the rest, including the very wealthy Miletus, made the best terms they could, but if the Persians thought they had permanently suppressed the Greek determination to be free—that is, to live in their own cities according to their own customs—they were mistaken.

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

1 Response

  1. Avatar Jacob Johnson says:

    A brisk start to this one. The the immediacy and lopsidedness of the account of woman snatching did seems a little bit curious at first but the subsequent caveats are reassuring. I eagerly await the the next sit-down.