Herodotus: Book V

In  Book V the conflict between Greeks and Persians begins, and we shall be able to look at the narrative both for the history it tells but also for this contrast of national characters.  While Persians are happy to slaughter brave people in order to enslave them, the Greeks are willing to die defending their liberty and independence.  To the extent we belong to the West, we are still Greek—and Roman in our willingness to fight and die for our wives and children, the bones of our ancestors and the shrines of our gods.

Herodotus  begins to weave together the main strands of his narrative:  the expansion of the Persian Empire, the curious ways of barbarian peoples, and the petty and feuding Greek states that will, mirabile dictu, defeat the greatest empire the world had known.

Before getting down to business—the story of the Ionian Revolt—Herodotus adds a few notes on the barbarian Thracians, an Indo-European people living to the NE of Greece.  He tells a peculiar story of the Paeonians, probably a mixed Thracian-Illyrian people.  Two brothers, eager to become chiefs of their people, make a show of their sister’s great diligence.  The Persian king Darius (pronounced DarEYEus) is so impressed that he decides to move the Paeonians to his own dominions.  Some were conquered but the lake-dwellers held out.   Now, the origin of the tale—the hardworking sister—may well be pure fancy, and Herodotus does not moralize.  But the wholesale transfer of populations was a technique used by ancient empires to separate people from their roots and divide them, planting troublesome Jews, for example, in Babylon.  Cyrus the Great had reversed this policy and sent the subject Jews and other peoples back home, but here we see Darius acting like the typical imperial tyrant.  Note that Aristotle lists the transfer of peoples—such as Stalin would later compel—as one of the characteristics of tyranny.  Athens, as soon as she got an empire, would do the same thing, and the US has done more than its share.  The Cherokee are a familiar case, but the ethnic cleansing the US has performed in Krajina and Kosovo is something that would have pleased Nebuchadnezzar.

Herodotus sharpens his point when he comes to the Macedonians.  The ethnicity of the  Macedonians is subject to dispute.  Some of my Greek friends become quite agitated over this question.  They were certainly Indo-European and in dialect and customs closer to the Greeks than to any other people.  Their ruling class claimed descent from Herakles, which gained Alexander (not the Great) admission to the Olympic Games.  They were, at least at this point in their history, hardly any more civilized than the Thracians.  But if they are barbarian in some respects, they are also Greek.  Herodotus, it is claimed by some historians, has distorted  the evidence in suggesting that Alexander who always anti-Persian, but I am not so sure.  He did medize, but his lands lay  athwart the Persian march and he was in no position to resist Darius or Xerxes.

Herodotus treats us to the charming tale of the banquet at which the Persians asked for the Macedonian ladies to sit down at dinner and began paying rather too much attention—one tried to steal a kiss.  King Amyntas was annoyed but did not want an incident.  Nonetheless, he went to bed and his son Alexander dressed himself and his companions up as women, with daggers concealed under their dresses.  When the Persians got fresh, the Macedonians stabbed them to death.

Once again, this episode is written to illustrate the Easterners’ lack of respect for respectable women, and the Greek sense of honor.  Read the whole story, though, if only in one of the online translations because it is both charming and illustrative.

Herodotus is our primary source for the revolt of the Ionian (and Aeolian) Greek cities that had been subjugated by the Persian Empire.  Rather than go chapter by chapter, I intend to summarize the history and make a few comments on what seem to be Herodotus’ views.

The Greeks believed that the Ionians, who had inhabited Messenia (including Pylos and presumably the islands of the Ionian Sea), had taken refuge in Attica, where the Athenians welcomed their cousins, and from Athens they staged their successful recolonization of Asia Minor and the Islands.  Aeolian Greeks also fled the same region.

The peninsula of Euboea opposite Attica was also Ionian, and its two major cities, Chalcis and Eretria became wealthy and powerful.  They established a trading post in Syria and were active in colonization. Chalcis controlled many Cycladic islands like Andros and planted colonies in Sicily and the Chalcidice peninsula.  Euboea might have emerged as a great power, had Chalcis and Eretria not wasted their resources in fighting each other.  The first great war among the Greeks we hear of was their war over control of the Lelantine plain which went on for years—perhaps in the early seventh century–and is said to have involved many states in the Greek world.  In the end, both cities were weakened, and Athens began her rise to become mistress of the Aegean.

The leaders of the immigrants claimed descent from the royal family of Pylos, the family of Nestor, son of Neleus.  Some of these Neleids, like the legendary Codrus became kings of Athens itself, though Codrus’ son, another Neleus led the Ionian migration from Attica to the coast of Asia Minor and the island of Chios.  This Ionian migration was not a single invading force, but a series of waves of immigrants who made their way east in the tenth and ninth centuries.  Ionia would have been stabilized then, well before 800, at about the time we can imagine the Homeric poems to have begun taking shape and the Greeks were learning to write.

Although in later centuries, Ionia was proverbial for its wealth and sophistication, these earlier colonists lived lives much like Homeric heroes.  They were occupied in wars against Carians as well as against other Greeks, and they engaged in piracy and  trading expeditions. Ionians were organized (whether originally or later)  into four tribes, which were divided into phratries, that is clans descended from a common ancestor.  When they merged with other peoples, as they often did, new tribes might be assigned to the aliens, though in time there came to be no distinction, much less discrimination against the newly invented tribes.

The Ionian cities were all independent and tended to compete rather than cooperate. By about 600, however, the growing Lydian threat led them to form the Panionium, a consortium of 12 Ionian cities.  They met annually to discuss matters of general interest and to plan the common defense.  It was an early and interesting attempt at federalism, but each Ionian city was more interested in its own welfare, and, even when the Persians posed a greater threat than the Lydians ever had, the cities– Miletus–especially were inclined to cheat on the alliance.

Even earlier, however, Ionians had found a sense of religious unity on the sacred island of Delos, where Leto had given birth to Apollo and Artemis.  The festival of Apollo on Delos was an annual meeting place.  Beginning in 750, the Messenians (in the Peloponnese) began sending choruses.  It is no accident that these Ionians, with their memories stretching back to Nestor, took the final step of shaping the poems and legends of Troy into the Iliad.

There were 12 great Ionian cities.  Among the most famous were Miletus, Ephesus, Clazomenae, Colophon and Phocaea on the mainland, and the islands of Naxos, Samos, Paros, Chios and Andros.  They all retained some residual attachment to Athens but never the formal ties that later existed between mother cities and colonies.  Despite the mixing of races and tribes–Mycenaean, Minoan, Aeolian Greeks, Ionian refugees from Pylos, non-Greek Carian–these Ionians fused into a people who acknowledged Athens as motherland and celebrated (as did Athens) the festival of phratries known as the Apaturia.

Ionian cities took an early lead in colonizing the Black Sea region and Magna Graecia (southern Italy).  By the time they came into conflict with Lydia and then Persia they were by far the richest and most sophisticated Greeks.  Their poetry included the Homeric epics, great lyric and satiric poets, as well as the first philosophers.  While Ionians were later regarded as decadent, the peoples of Smyrna, Colophon, Samos, Naxos, Paros, and Phocaea were tough fighters against each other and against non-Greeks.

The Ionians of Asia Minor came under pressure from the expanding Lydian kingdom in the seventh and sixth centuries.  The Near East was  disturbed at this time by the raids of a nomadic people known as the Cimmerians, who had dwelt, according to Herodotus, north of the Black Sea until they were expelled by the Scythians.  The Cimmerians were a great obstacle to Lydian expansion, but in the early sixth century the Lydian king Alyattes drove out the Cimmerian invaders and conquered the Ionian city of Smyrna, though he failed in his attacks on Miletus and Clazomenae.  His successor Croesus, the last Lydian king, before he was conquered by Cyrus the Persian, completed the subjugation of the free Ionian cities, which were left to manage their own internal affairs but were forced to pay tribute to Lydia.

Cyrus the Persian had requested Ionian help against the Croesus, but the Ionians refused, and after the Persian conquest of Lydia, the Ionian cities asked Cyrus for the same deal they had enjoyed under Croesus.  His answer was succinct: You had your chance.  Miletus was allowed to make a deal, the others were one by one conquered.  Miletus’ arrangement was to maintain a virtual autonomy and pay taxes to Persia; at home her affairs were administered by rulers approved of by the Persian King.

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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. Jacob Johnson says:

    These are helpful details as I am weak on the finer points of Mediterranean geography. Following the narrative of the Ionian revolt in this book and looking up the locations was constructive, many beautiful pictures to look through. A name is just a name unless one can attach a meaning or significance to it as Herodotus does. The Macedonians surprising and slaughtering the amorous Persians and the message sent on the tattooed head are the stories I’ve heard retold from this book in various anecdotes. It all becomes more intriguing by the page and seems as though the story is prepared to become quite eventful.