Crime and Punishment in Herodotus’ Histories (Jonathan Joyner)

Imagine a world filled with death, disaster, and drama. In our modern day, this is an appalling thought, but at one point in history, it was commonplace. It is impossible to deny that it did not happen, yet mankind tries to forget it as a barbaric remnant of the past. Every generation encounters this when they read about times of war. Because of our modern conveniences though, people try to remove themselves from the horror and tragedy of these times by labelling them as primitive. All it takes is one look at the celebrated series Game of Thrones and it is clear to see that human beings have the same obsessions with sex, violence, and conflict as they did thousands of years ago. In fact, the ancient world is filled with accounts of extreme violence and retribution, but in many cases it is seen as mindless and irrational. The danger in this account of ancient humans is our inability to see ourselves in them. These people may have lived differently than most today, but they were driven by the same emotions that fuel our interest in Game of Thrones. This can be no better illustrated than in the ancient writer Herodotus. One of the seminal historians of the ancient world, Herodotus describes countless incidents of punishment and revenge in his Histories. These incidents always draw attention for their harsh execution and violence, but are often seen as distinct situations from a completely different world. Upon closer review however, one can see a pattern in Herodotus’ accounts of punishment and revenge that extends through to the modern day. All of them are motivated by loyalty towards three major concepts: leaders, gods, or homelands.

This innate, human loyalty drives conflict in ancient times and today because it forms the basis for relationships and identity. While conflicts of allegiance and trust can range from a personal dispute to a war, in Herodotus’ Histories, there are examples of both and everything in between. Many of these arise in books seven, eight, and nine, detailing the events of Persian king Xerxes’ invasion of modern day Greece. Throughout this chronicle, Herodotus specifically paints the picture of loyalty as different between Persia and the Hellenic states. In almost all incidents of Persian punishment and revenge, loyalty and allegiance lies with leaders like Xerxes or his primary general Mardonias. On the other hand, most Greek accounts of punishment or revenge lie in loyalty to their defense of the Hellenic or Ionian city states (Greek regions). This becomes an important determinant to why Xerxes failed in his invasion.

Xerxes placed importance on loyalty to himself as a leader. He often let the poor judgment of those only giving admiration and praise distract him while ignoring constructive criticism. This blind and egotistical regard for utmost loyalty is demonstrated in his inconsistent response to his followers. In preparing for his invasion, he ignored the wise discretion of his advisor Artabanos (7.10-7.11) who reminded him of humility to the gods and strategic issues he would confront with his invasion. Next, he ignored the advice given by his ally, Spartan king Demaratos, who warned him of Sparta’s legendary warriors and trashed Demaratos’ plan to stage his army in Cythera for an attack on mainland Greece. (7.3, 7.234-7.237) Finally, he sought a reason to abandon his expedition, by taking the advice of his general Artemisia who told him to flee (8.102). This constant favor for praise over prudence led Xerxes to failure, but not before he punished others along the way.

Xerxes also had a hobby of harming those who did not fully support him. While assembling an army for his campaign, a wealthy Lydian man named Pythios contributed money to Xerxes’ campaign. Xerxes was pleased and made it known that Pythios was an honored friend (7.27-7.29). Later on, however, Pythios asked for Xerxes to spare his eldest son from the invasion and in response Xerxes cut the son in half, dividing him for his army to walk through (7.38-7.39). Another incident can be found as Xerxes retreated. Herodotus claimed that during a strong storm in a heavy laden ship, Xerxes convinced numerous Persians to jump overboard to their death in an effort to save their king (8.118). These extreme examples highlight the importance of loyalty to a leader.

While the Persians placed emphasis on loyalty to their king, Hellenic people placed their loyalty and trust in their homeland. The term nation is inappropriate to use in ancient Greece, but it is well known that the people of the Greek archipelago, mainland, and those living in Ionia all felt a common lineage and bond in comparison to their invaders from Persia. This pressure backed the Greeks into a corner and forced them to unite around their collective identity in order to repel the Persians. Still, some Greeks broke their loyalty to this cause and were punished. Herodotus makes sure to include this throughout his description of the Persian invasion.

These incidents range in severity, but always end poorly for the individual who fails in loyalty to the defense of their homeland. One of the most traitorous acts of the war involved Ephialtes of Malis, a Hellene who helped Xerxes’ forces outflank and destroy Spartan king Leonidas and his forces at the battle of Thermopylae. Ephialtes revealed a secret path over the mountains that were protecting Greek forces, effectively dooming his own countrymen. Herodotus writes that Ephialtes fled to Thessaly out of fear, but was eventually captured and killed by Athenades for his actions (7.213). At the battle of Thermopylae, two Spartans named Eurytos and Aristodemos who had become blind through ophthalmia split in a decision on whether to fight or not. Eurytos remained to do his part and fight while Aristodemos chose to go back to Sparta (7.229). Eurytos died in the fight, but Aristodemos was publically shamed for his cowardice and disloyalty to his home. These selfish actions put the individual’s benefit over the collective good bringing shame and punishment upon those who failed to support their cause.

The Greeks took political alliance and loyalty very seriously as well, having harsh responses to those who had empowered Xerxes’ invasion. Following the conclusion of the war, a Thracian king had all six of his sons blinded for allying with Xerxes (8.116). In Athens, a man named Lykdias entertained the thought of surrender in parliament and was promptly stoned to death along with his wife and family (9.5). The Spartan leader Pausanias had all of Thebes’ leaders put to death after the invasion for aiding Xerxes (9.88). These accounts go on and on detailing how the Hellenes felt towards those who bowed to the Persian invaders and imply that pride and sacrifice were paramount to maintain the the defense of Greece and one’s honor.

While the Persian and Hellenic forces have a clear goal in maintaining control of the land they desire, the gods they worship serve as third party observers to the conflict and only occasionally intervene. Still, despite their fickle nature, the gods of ancient Greece demand one thing more than anything else: respect, observance, and loyalty. Herodotus describes multiple accounts where this is neglected and as a result, people are punished. Much of these are foreshadowed by portents (supernatural anomalies or omens) and brought about because of Persian forces neglecting tribute or desecrating holy sites. When Xerxes first begins his march, two portents of abnormal animal birth are described and meant to symbolize his impending crisis (7.57). While Xerxes generally offers tribute to the Gods in various forms, he and his army’s actions are what end up hurting his favor. At first he observes the Hellenic sites with respect and honors the gods with libations (7.54), but he soon tarnishes his intent with human sacrifices (7.114). Most of his offerings are purely out of self preservation or suspicion, such as his order to circumvent the temple grove of Laphystian Zeus because of its associated ancient curse (7.197). Others are only given when he desires victory. The lack of respect is clear to the Greeks and it begins to cause problems for Xerxes.

Things begin to go wrong for Xerxes when his army attacks the temple at Abai, sacking a temple of Apollo and raping many of the Phocian women in the surrounding villages (8.33). By the time the Persians reach Delphi and attempt to raid the sanctuary there, the Gods intervene. A portent of sacred, untouchable armor appears outside the temple. Upon its sighting, lighting strikes the nearby mountain causing a rock slide to kill many invaders (8.37). Only worsening his favor, Xerxes’ army defaces a statue of Poseidon and drowns trying to cross a shallow ocean (8.129). Xerxes’ viceroy Artayktes also harms his relationship with the gods by stealing from the temple of Protesilaos. The Athenians finally get their revenge when they execute him after stoning his son in front of him (9.120).

Herodotus clearly illustrates that the Persians are ignoring important signs and recklessly destroying monuments, but the Hellenes also have their disputes with the divine. Herodotus describes a number of these cases including the ignorance of the Oracle of Bakis by the Euboeans. This failure in judgment lead to the destruction of their crops and livestock by Themistokles’ forces (8.20). Herodotus also claims that the gods retribution’ came down on Boulis and Sperthias of Sparta when their sons were killed following a meeting with Xerxes. Because the Spartans had previously murdered Xerxes’ diplomats, their deaths spelled justice in Herodotus’ eyes (7.137). Still, the actions of the Persians clearly have a more disrespectful tone to them and bolster the narrative of them as invading barbarians with little respect for the divine.

This distinction runs throughout Herodotus’ account of Xerxes’ campaign. Still, while the Persian and Hellenic forces are portrayed as distinct in their cultures and values, their vengeance upon one another stems almost entirely from the same basic principle. This commonality is loyalty to their leaders, their gods, and their cultural homeland. It is the impetus for the violence and revenge wrought in Herodotus’ Histories. Forming the basis for their identity and the reason, this bond both unifies and divides the Persians and Hellenes. Most importantly, it is the same factor that creates conflict to this day, the same loyalty that defines people and drives them to violent ends with one another. It is not limited to revenge and punishment in Game of Thrones, but rather it shows us the extent to which we can treat each other.