Bravery is in the eye of the beholder: Courage and Cowardice in Herodotus’ Histories (Richard Tucker, 2019)

Abstract: What does it mean to be brave? In Herodotus’ The Histories, the answer is shaped by his Greek bias and a dislike for Xerxes, the Persian king. Herodotus views individual and group bravery as distinct. The Spartans and Athenians exhibit bravery as a group, due to their willingness to fight Xerxes and the Persians, even when they are overmatched. The Spartans in particular will accept certain defeat and die for the polis. Yet, when a Persian soldier faces the same situation, Herodotus does not consider it bravery, rather a fear of Xerxes and his absolute power. Loyalty is very important in battle, but only if the individual is free from a tyrannical power forcing him to fight. While Herodotus dislikes the Persians, he implies that the Thebans are even less brave. All Greeks poleis had a choice: fight with the Greeks, or medize and join Xerxes. Thebes chose the latter and thus their reputation is tarnished. Herodotus is also biased in his conception of individual bravery.  Individuals are viewed as brave when they fear death, yet are successful in battle or escaping the enemy regardless. Using cunning to defeat an enemy, typified by Themistocles tricking the Persians to fight at Salamis, is also highly respected by Herodotus. His respect for the Spartans as a group extends to individuals, as he defends a Spartan named Aristodemos who fled at Thermopylae. Unsurprisingly, Xerxes expresses his desire to die and is also a poor military commander. Rather than abiding to a consistent standard for bravery, Herodotus accentuates the valiant acts of the loyal Greeks while providing a negative interpretation of the Persians and the motivations for their behavior.


In Herodotus’ The Histories, Herodotus provides his account of the Persian wars. In his narrative, he finds the actions of some to be brave, while others are cowardly. His conception of bravery is inseparably linked with the qualities of loyalty and obedience. It is also linked with cunning and a willingness to battle despite long odds. There is also a noticeable difference between individual and group bravery. Some groups, such as the Athenians and the Spartans, are portrayed as the bravest, while the Thebans are more cowardly. Individuals who did not want to die, yet performed acts of valor regardless of their fear, were seen as the bravest.

Herodotus views people as brave when they sacrifice themselves in combat, even though they do not fear the retribution of a ruler. The Hellenes are generally regarded as braver than the Persians, who fight out of fear of retribution from Xerxes. To be brave is to transcend the fear of death and fight for freedom from tyranny.  Before the Second Persian War, Xerxes underestimates the bravery of the Spartans and their dedication to their constitution. When Xerxes hears from Demaratos about the Spartans willingness to fight even if they are outnumbered, he refuses to believe it. He argues that the rule of one man, like the Persians have, is necessary for that sort of courage (Herodotus 7.103.4-5). He is later proven wrong by the willingness of the Spartan hoplites to fight given certain defeat. While the Persians also go into combat knowing they will lose, it is not considered bravery. This inconsistency is due to Herodotus’ bias against tyranny. The Spartans are worthy of praise for abiding by a prevail or perish culture, as is exemplified in the Battle of Thermopylae. Leonidas, leader of the 300 Spartans who died in the battle, is described as the most valiant of the Hellenes or barbarians (Hdt. 7.224.1). Dienekes, another Spartan, is similarly described as brave. Upon hearing that the sun is blocked out when the barbarians shoot their arrows, he replies that he would rather fight in the shade (Hdt. 7226.1-2). Whenever the Spartans face certain defeat, their laws and custom stop them from running and they fight to the death. Another instance of another Hellene willing to fight to the death is Pythaes from Aegina. Even after his ship is captured by the Persians and he is butchered, he continues to fight (Hdt. 7.181.2). Even after he cannot fight anymore, he remains alive and is treated with respect by his captors, unlike the rest of the men on his ship (Hdt. 7.181.3). Because of his willingness to die for his freedom, the Persians, perhaps ironically, do not kill him and treat him much better than the rest of the captured men.

Herodotus explains that the Persians also found themselves in a similar predicament, with regard to the entire expedition. When the Hellenes are faced with long odds and yet continue to fight, Herodotus portrays them as brave and honorable. Yet when a Persian soldier realizes that he and his fellow soldiers will likely not survive, Herodotus depicts them much differently (Hdt. 9.16.2).  Thersandros of Orchomenus spoke to a Persian, who knew that he and his fellow soldiers would probably perish. This Persian is said to have been weeping while telling this story, indicating his lack of courage (Hdt. 9.16.3). He continues, calling it a “painful anguish” to be certain of defeat yet forced to fight (Hdt. 9.16.5). Xerxes, a ruler with absolute power, strikes terror into his soldiers so that they are coerced to fight. They fear retribution from their king, and thus they fight against their own will. The Spartans are similarly coerced into fighting to the death, but it is by their laws and custom. The difference exposes Herodotus’ dislike of tyranny, which the rest of the Greeks share. Though not as brave as the Spartans, Herodotus views the Athenians as having fought courageously (Hdt. 9.71.1). They are not bound to their laws in the same way that the Spartans are, but the Athenians are still committed to maintaining the freedom of the Hellenes (Hdt. 8.143). Their loyalty to the common Greek identity keeps them from making an agreement with Xerxes.

While the Spartans and Athenians are superior to the Persians in terms of bravery, not every polis is described as such. The Thebans, most notorious of the medized Greeks, are usually depicted as less brave than the Persians. In the Battle of Plataea, the Thebans lead the way for the Persians, until the fighting occurs, when the Persians take over and perform brave and valorous acts (Hdt. 9.40.1). The Thebans willingly gave away their freedom away to fight with the enemy, leading Herodotus to conclude that they were not brave in battle. At Thermopylae, the Thebans are even more cowardly. In this battle, they are forced to fight alongside the other Greeks. When they saw that the Persians were beginning to prevail in the battle, the Thebans gave themselves up to the Persians (Hdt. 7.233.1). Unlike the Spartans or Athenians, the Thebans are willing to surrender as soon as the odds are against them.  They were not loyal to the other Greeks and gave up their freedom to be ruled by a foreign oppressor. The single time the Thebans are depicted as brave is the battle of Plataea, where they were the only medized Greeks who fought valiantly (Hdt. 9.67.1). They proved themselves to be brave, because many of them fought to the death in spite of their slim chances to win.

The bravery of an individual is often determined not only by their actions, but also whether or not they wanted to die before they acted. Herodotus views wanting to die as cowardly, and those who avoid it using cunning are perceived as brave. Xerxes is again the antithesis of bravery. This is likely due to the Greek bias against a ruler like Xerxes, which Herodotus shares. Before the expedition, Xerxes expresses his frustrations with life. He explains that most people will wish to be dead because of the tragic experiences everyone faces, and that when death does come it is a welcome escape (Hdt. 7.46.3-4). Throughout the rest of the expedition, Herodotus gives examples of those who do everything within their power to remain alive, and sets these people up as brave. Perhaps Herodotus views Xerxes as pampered, and thus far removed from a warrior mentality. As with his underestimation of the Spartans and their reverence for their laws, Xerxes is set up by Herodotus as the opposite of the ideal brave person.

Cunning or ability to creatively defeat an enemy is also highly regarded by Herodotus. One such example of this individual bravery comes against the Spartans. Hegesistratos of Elis, the seer for Mardonios, was captured and confined to wooden stocks. Facing certain death at the hands of the Spartans, he cut off part of his foot to escape (Hdt. 9.37.1-2). Although he was later captured, Herodotus describes this act as the “bravest of all deeds we know” (Hdt. 9.37.2). Hegesistratos, although not a warrior, was determined not to die. He acted with extreme courage, accepting tremendous pain in order to escape captivity. He combined his will to live with cunning, and found a way out. Herodotus notes that Sophanes proves himself to be the bravest Athenian by way of his innovative tactics in battle (Hdt. 9.74-1). In one story, he uses an anchor to break the enemy out of position, then proceeded to pick up the anchor and chase his enemies with it. (Hdt. 9.74.1). These two men, while largely inconsequential in the grand scheme of the war, highlight two main characteristics necessary to be considered brave by Herodotus.

Themistocles, the Athenian general, is portrayed as brave and wise in combat. He utilizes unconventional tactics to get what he wants done, often to great success. These tactics are sometimes seen as immoral, though this does not reduce his valor. One such example is his decision to force a battle in Salamis. Finding himself on the losing end of the dispute, Themistocles decides to send a man by boat in order to convince the Persians to attack at Salamis (Hdt. 8.75.1). It ends up being the right decision, as the battle results in disaster for Xerxes and the Persians (Htd. 8.97.1) Once the Persians are defeated, Themistocles suddenly urges the Athenians to let the Persians go home free (Htd. 8.109.5). The third questionable act made by Themistocles was to force a large payment from the Karystians and the Parians (Htd. 8.112.1-2). Once he had the power and respect to get what he wanted, he did not let any sense of morality stop him. While moves like this make him open to suspicion, he was still respected as a general because of his brilliant strategic mind. He is voted by his fellow commanders as the most valorous of the Hellenes in 480 BC (Hdt. 8.123.2).  This proves that Herodotus does not consider bravery and morality to be intertwined in any way. The cases of Hegesistratos, Sophanes, and Themistocles exemplify Herodotus’ labelling of those who use their wits to achieve success as brave.

Herodotus usually adheres to these standards when determining if an individual is brave, although there is one instance where he does not. Aristodemos, one of the few Spartan survivors at Thermopylae, was seen as cowardly by his peers because of his actions (Hdt. 7.231.1). He and another Spartan named Eurytos had both fallen ill with an eye disease, and Leonidas gave them both the option to return home (Hdt. 7.229.1). When Eurytos learned of the Persian advance, he charged into the fighting blind and died (Hdt. 7.229.1). Aristodemos was too weak, and thus was forced to return to Sparta, where he was given the name “Aristodemos the Trembler” (Hdt. 7.231.1). Given the standard for individual bravery he applies to Xerxes, Hegesistratos, and Sophanes, one would assume that Herodotus would assume that Aristodemos would be labeled as not brave. But the opposite is true. He proclaims that Aristodemes, despite the fact that he was dishonored at Thermopylae by his Spartan peers, is the best and bravest of the Hellenes (Hdt. 9.71.2). He notes that three other Spartans, named Poseidonios, Philokyon, and Amompharetos were the next best (Hdt. 9.71.2). His opinion differs from that of the surviving Spartans, who note that Aristodemos performed great feats in a rage. The Spartans argued that Poseidonios did not want to die and was just as courageous (Hdt. 9.71.3). This is a surprising point for Herodotus to disagree with the Spartans, given his prior respect for those who did not want to die, yet performed acts of valor regardless. Both Xerxes and Aristodemos express the urge to die, yet Herodotus expresses two different opinions of their bravery. Thus, Herodotus’ standard for bravery cannot be viewed as consistent.

Herodotus’ conception of bravery is based on a willingness to fight for freedom. The Spartans and Athenians face long odds against a supposedly superior foe, yet are willing to die to avoid slavery. The Persians are not as brave, because they fight out of fear of Xerxes instead of respect for the laws. Yet the worst are the Thebans, who gave up the opportunity to fight for their freedom to join the foreign invader. Individuals who are cunning and crafty in battle are respected by Herodotus. He usually singles out those who are valiant, yet still fear death as the bravest. The inconsistencies in Herodotus arise as a result of his bias against the tyranny of Xerxes.