Classic Works

Herodotus, The Histories (5th Century BCE)

The Landmark Edition, Robert B. Strassler, editor, Andrea L. Purvis, translator, with an introduction by Rosalind Thomas, Anchor Books, 2009.

“This is the publication of the inquiry of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, which he presents in hope that the achievements of men should not be obliterated by time, nor that the great and wonderful deeds of both Greeks and barbarians should be without their due fame, and also for what reason they ought each other.” Thus begins Herodotus’ Histories (inquiries) of the great conflict between the Persian (Achaemenid) Empire and an alliance of Greek city-states during the 5th century BC. Herodotus’ outlook on human affairs falls between that of Homer’s divine and heroic poetry and Thucydides’ cool rationalism. He traces the Greek-barbarian hostility back into mythical times, and “digresses” in detail about the geography and peoples of the lands of the known world, many (not all) of which he investigated personally. Modern investigative science and anthropology have refuted his “tall tales” but much of our insight about the ancient world comes from his research.

Battle of MarathonThe Persian Wars were a series of clashes between the two sides, and typically delineated by two unsuccessful Persian invasions of the Greek mainland in 490 BC and 480-479 BC. The first invasion, a punitive campaign led by Darius I in retaliation for Athens’ support of a revolt of Greek cities against Persian rule in Ionia, was repulsed at Marathon. In the second campaign, King Xerxes’ massive force overcame Greek defenses at Thermopylae, including the famous Spartan contingent of 300 under the command of King Leonidas. The citizens of Athens fled their Attic homeland and, after much debate, were persuaded by Themistocles to join with other Greeks to fight the Persian fleet in a last-ditch effort to prevent conquest by Xerxes. The overwhelming Greek naval victory at Salamis demoralized the Persians. Xerxes fled back to Asia and his army was subsequently routed and driven out of Hellas at the battles of Plataea and Mycale. The war elevated Athens to the first rank of Greek city-states, led to the creation of the Athenian Empire, and laid the foundations for the subsequent rivalry with Sparta.

Herodotus, who wrote a generation after the Persian Wars, puts these battles in the context of a great clash of civilizations, between Greek freedom and Asian despotism. He seeks to explain why and how a relatively poor, small, and divided collection of Greek-speakers were able to defeat a much larger, wealthier, and centralized empire. On the battlefield itself, on land and at sea, the Greeks were better disciplined and employed superior close-order tactics, such as staying in ranks rather than attempting to kill the greatest number of enemy soldiers in open combat. But Herodotus’ generic answer reflected the views of his contemporaries and greatly influenced the West’s understanding of itself: “As long as the Athenians were ruled by a despotic government, they had no better success in war than any of their neighbors. Once the yoke was flung off, they proved the finest fighters in the world.” In the past, “they battled less than their best because they were working for a master; but as free men each individual wanted to achieve something for himself.” This was true generally of the citizens of all Greek city-states, from Athens’ relatively new democracy to the more variegated Spartan regime: the belief that freedom (eleutheria), the equality of citizens, and the rule of law represented a superior way of life, and war, to that of the non-free peoples of the East.

Herodotus’ conclusion of the qualitative distinction between West and East has been challenged, of course, by postmodern, deconstructionist views. But it should be noted that his is hardly a deterministic, triumphalist narrative of inevitable Greek success. Salamis, for instance, was a damn near run thing and was very nearly not fought at all; Themistocles’ opponents made a strong case for fighting on land, for living to fight another day, or for withdrawing entirely from Hellas. Themistocles himself (according to Herodotus), like many other Greek leaders, played both sides of the street. The majority of Greek cities on the mainland on the line of the Persians’ march did not resist Xerxes or were quickly cowed. Herodotus believes in accounting for the power of custom, not just Greek custom, when considering relations between peoples and the limits of imperial rule. Chance, personality, and leadership matter. But the stakes unquestionably were enormous; and the narrative of the historic West runs through Herodotus.