Book: Herodotus, Histories

I’m a pretty crap Classics student. Almost 4 years after graduating with a Classics BA I still hadn’t read Herodotus until now. Nothing to do about it. Anyway, I probably couldn’t have appreciated it in college. That’s true of a lot of things I read. I’m definitely more sensitive now.

Anyway I suppose the main theme that struck me about Herodotus–and it strikes you pretty early on–is how person history is for him. For Herodotus, history happens because of the talents, faults, successes, and mistakes of human beings. A really good example is when Darius accedes to the Persian throne. The former king Cambyses dies, and the throne passes to his brother Smerdis, whom most people don’t realize is dead (Cambyses has had him killed). A magus, a sort of priest, called coincidentally Smerdis, usurps the throne until a group of 7 conspirators kills him 7 months later. Darius is among these conspirators.

The people of Susa massacre the Magi in the city for several days, and then the conspirators meet to discuss creating a government. One conspirator advocates democracy, the next advocates oligarchy, and Darius advocates monarchy. The remaining 4 vote for monarchy, and Darius is chosen by contest.

The contest involves horses. The six conspirators (one sits out) who compete to win the throne all meet on the outskirts of the city, and whoever’s horse neighs first wins. Darius groom brings Darius’ horse out to the spot the night before and mates it with a particular mare. The next morning, the horse associates the spot with the mare and neighs.a confirming sign from heaven, and Darius gets the crown.

I’m not interested in whether the discussion or the contest really happened. There is a footnote in my translation that describes the speeches as “obviously fantastic.” I didn’t read Herodotus for historicity. What is much more interesting is that, as presented, the Persian monarchy is the result of a decision taken by individuals in response to a situation. Second, Darius’ monarchy is the result of a trick. It’s a trick acceptable to the gods, but it’s a trick either way.

In a lot of the historiography we’re used to, we ascribe historical change to “forces.” For example, “North American slavery developed as a part of the larger Atlantic triangle trade,” or, “the rise of the Nazi party was the result of the economic devastation caused by the Treaty of Versailles.” These are statements of historical causality in a sort of sense divorced from individual decision: European adventurers and traders, seeking profitable ventures overseas, began trading Atlantic goods in a “triangle”: from Europe they brought guns and manufactured goods to Africa, where they sold them and bought slaves; they brought these slaves the Caribbean and North America, where they sold them and bought agricultural and other raw materials, and brought these back to Europe to repeat the process. That is, a large group of people responded to a “force,” in this case an economic incentive. This response drove the historical change.

Whether or not this is an adequate description of the creation of the Atlantic triangle trade is beside the point. What is interesting is that Herodotus would probably find it strange. He would discuss individuals–he would focus on the decision of Colón to eradicate the Caribbean islanders, which made African slaves necessary for agricultural development there. (Even if they undoubtedly would have been necessary anyway, the personal decision is what Herodotus would likely emphasize.) We often say that European traders sought Atlantic expansion as a way around the Ottoman Empire–Herodotus would more likely see that as a personal rivalry between Isabella of Spain and Sultan Bayezid II.

That is exactly how he conceives of the Persian War. Darius and Xerxes don’t invade Greece because there is a geopolitical or economic or other gain from doing so. In fact, the opposite is true. After the battle of Plataea, which ends the Persian invasion, Spartan king Pausanias orders captured Persian cooks to make a dinner as if for a Persian king:

“The order was obeyed; and when Pausanias saw gold and silver couches all beautifully draped, and gold and silver tables, and everything prepared for the feast with great magnificence, he could hardly believe his eyes for the good things set before him, and, just for a joke, ordered his own servants to get ready an ordinary Spartan dinner. The difference between the two meals was indeed remarkable, and, when both were ready, Pausanias laughed and sent for the Greek commanding officers. When they arrived, he invited them to take a look at the two tables, saying, ‘Gentlemen, I asked you here in order to show you the folly of the Persians, who, living in this style, came to Greece to rob us of our poverty.'”

For Herodotus, the Persian Wars arise because Darius and Xerxes want them to. There is a huge amount of lead-up to explain this want, but the climactic event is the result of a long series of individual human choice and not of some force–or at least not of some societal force.

There is unquestionably the force of the gods. The grand, overarching theme of the Histories is the divine punishment of excess. The book’s real first character is Croesus, who suffers for overestimating himself. Herodotus is explicit about the gods and includes multiple stories involving explicit divine intervention–as Apollo’s defense of Delphi during Xerxes’ invasion.

This inevitably comes around to free will. It wasn’t paradoxical to the Greeks that an event could be divinely foreordained and at the same time brought about by human free will. This is a common difficulty with Oedipus. If Oedipus is destined for the murder and the incest, how is it his fault?

Perhaps ironically, people who struggle with the paradox of free will vs. divine decree often don’t struggle with a similar paradox: free will vs. historical forces. I once read an Economist article in which oil executives were defended as something like, “simply responding to an economic incentive.” Putting aside the fact that oil executives also bribe such incentives into existence, and putting aside the fact that slave owners also responded similarly, the writer clearly assumes that groups respond to incentives in predictable and inevitable ways. Therefore oil companies are inevitable as long as the incentive for them exists. This does not negate individual free will. An individual can still choose to reject a profitable arrangement on any grounds. You don’t have to work for the oil company yourself. But it does negate the power of individual free will on the course of events. Even if you choose not to work for an oil company, someone else will. According to this view, we are all free to choose our own destinies, but the entire overarching context of those choices is determined by grand forces outside of our individual control.

The difference can be summarized like this: in the divine force model of history, as for example in Oedipus, individual choice is perhaps more restrained but has more effect on the flow of events. In the social force model, the individual may be free but has no power to alter the flow of events. History will progress according to its mindless laws, whatever the individual chooses.

Herodotus seems to me to find a comfortable middle ground. In Herodotus, the oracles tend to give some room for wiggle. The most famous oracle in the Histories is entirely free: if Croesus attacks Persia, he will destroy a great empire. In the first place, it is Croesus’ fault that he doesn’t ask which empire. Much more importantly, the oracle only says if he attacks. He could let it go.

I actually really like Herodotus’ perspective. Societal forces obviously exist. A war that causes a mass exodus of refugees is rightly considered a societal force, but the war only occurred because human beings brought it about, and the refugees only left because they, as individual human beings, each made a decision to leave. You can lose sight of that talking too much about structures and superstructures or zeitgeists.

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