Like most parties, the end of the evening has drawn us below decks (they always have more fun). Herodotus spends a large portion of Book Six explaining interesting idioms of the time like this one- After vying for more than a year to marry the tyrant of Sicyon, Kleisthenes’ daughter, Hippokleides gets a little too funky on the dance floor and “[dances] away [his] marriage!” His reply to his almost father-in-law, “For Hippokleidas, no problem!” (6.129) becomes a saying used for all time (or until people forget, whichever comes first) to mean “Who cares?” – probably dancing with a table on his head was just a bit too much…but, I’m with Hippo – sometimes ya gotta dance!
I appreciated the clever poignancy of this one the most- when, in passage 6.37 Croseus threatens the Lampsacenes to release Miltiades or he will “wipe them out like a pine tree.”
The Lampsacenes who tried to interpret this message were at first bewildered[…], but then, after much hard thinking one of the elders came to the realization of its true significance: the pine tree alone of all trees does not produce and new shoot once it has been chopped down, but is utterly destroyed and gone forever.
– The Landmark Herodotus (6.37)
Needless to say, they do his bidding. The use of poetic imagery in warfare is as disturbing as it is effective apparently.
Book Seven went on to a comprehensive examination of Persia’s forays into Greece and ultimate ambitions for all of Europe. When Xerxes takes over he declares that he has no intention of a program change:
“Persians, I am not about to introduce a new custom to you: instead I shall follow the tradition handed down to me.” (7.8)
And what is this fine tradition? Imperialistic war, naturally. There is no end to it it would seem. And although I love the famously clever bridge he built to quickly get into Greece (he basically connected hundreds of boats side to side, with a makeshift road constructed on top to make a pontoon), I can’t see why the endless litany of who fought whom when is of any abiding interest, because in truth we know who fought whom: Who has fought with all. Whether it be with the gods blessing, at their bidding- or not, because clever as we are, if we don’t like the message another one can always be found:
“Lord, deliver us a better oracle…” (7.141)
And He does. Xerxes is a capricious, terrifying tyrant, but he has his moments of humanity; when he suddenly takes to weeping he is asked why and answers:
“That is because I was suddenly overcome by pity as I considered the brevity of human life, since not one of these people here will be alive in one hundred years from now.”
Most of them won’t be alive in five minutes thanks to him but I guess the fact that he has been the cause of so much of the brevity perhaps escaped his notice. He goes all-in with superior forces on land and sea, only to eventually retreat back to Persia in the end. Nice work fellas.
Hubris has a strange effect on everyone, both sides, both sexes- according to Herodutus, whenever there was “trouble” in the air the current priestess of Athena would grow a long beard. But I am not shocked, it was felt that everybody should act like men in battle. Case in point, when Artemisia sinks a friendly ship to avoid being attacked (in an act of callous deceit, she tricks the enemy into thinking she must be one of their fleet by attacking her own side, which few, including Xerxes ever figure out, but for Hippokleidas, no problem! It looked good!), never mind that everyone on board the friendly ship dies, she is lauded for the clever warrior she is, Xerxes is reported to have said, “My men have become women, and my women men!” (8.88).
I am starting to look at my watch, But Herodutus assures me there is only one final Book. I am starting to feel like Philippedes (running to get help…Marathon -not really, but for Hippokleidas, no problem!…you know the story [6.105]). But, as the books are short, the stories mostly familiar, and we are good friends now, so I humor him.
“But above all, let them know that they [the Persians] are mere barbarians who have contrived to murder Hellenes who are men.” (9.17)
Do men never tire of declaring their manhood? I sweetly inquire of Herodotus, but he is deep in description of the war at Stenykleros- Wait. I think I’ve seen this movie…300 Spartans, fighting to the death…yes, oh, do continue, My Dear, where were we, fleeing Persians, arguments between Athens and the Lacedaemonians- geesh, I thought my children argued incessantly! Sorry. I promise I won’t interrupt again. Please, do continue.
More horrors ensue and very little changes. History is an awfully repetitive thing. Now that I have (incredibly) gotten through The Landmark Herodotus, I wonder if it will be necessary for me every to read another history again? In nine books the same basic disputes of wounded prides and avarice were repeated ten thousand times. But, I have come to love the voice of Herodotus, he is at once infectiously curious, relatively open-minded, and not without humor. The father of history has given his all. The fault does not lie with him that we never learn. The ship sails on.
*The Landmark Herodotus The Histories, Edited by Robert B. Strassler translated by Andrea L. Purvis