Greek Bravery and Cleverness in Herodotus’ The Histories (Jack Forbes, 2019)

Abstract: In The Histories Herodotus thoroughly develops his Greek centric idea of bravery. To Herodotus bravery is the courage to stand one’s ground in the face of overwhelming odds to protect Greece at any cost. This trait is outlined numerous times throughout his account of the Persian Wars, in which the united Greek forces were consistently outnumbered by the vast Persian army. During every major engagement The Greek forces stand their ground and battle the Persians despite facing nearly certain death. Herodotus’ concept of bravery is also directly related to intelligence. This intelligence is shown through the successes of Themistocles who utilizes his cleverness to manipulate battles in favor of the outnumbered Greek forces, as well as being solely responsible for the Athenian fleet that was integral in breaking the Persian invasion at Salamis. Themistocles’ clever command strategy resulted in being universally recognized by all other Greek commanders after the war and even receiving special honors from Sparta. Herodotus attributes these characteristics to the Greek’s superior value system of a strict adherence to their law and principles. The Greeks are even willing to die for these principles if necessary, and would rather do so than dishonor themselves before other Greeks. However, Herodotus does express admiration for select Persians. At the battle of Salamis he discusses the Persian commander Artemisia’s brilliance in battle. Here he reveals the Persian Empire is capable of producing intelligence on par with the Greeks. Also discussed is Herodotus’ admiration for the Persian messenger’s drive to complete their delivery, a nod to the Persian’s adherence to their own principles. Herodotus makes it clear that the Greeks embody his vision of bravery, but does show a few Persian’s ability to possess this trait as well.


Herodotus’ concept of bravery is emphatically Greek centric. Bravery according to Herodotus is related directly to one’s courage in battle. In the context of the Persian Wars this courage is primarily expressed through the ability to keep one’s resolve in the face of an overwhelming foe. The Persian Empire’s power frequently manifested itself through their superior numbers in every land and sea engagement, valiantly opposed by the Greeks at nearly every turn. This bravery is typically associated with other traits, primarily intellect, that the Greeks place on display in and out of battle. Herodotus associates this bravery with the Greek’s superior value system, though he does identify admirable traits within certain Persians.

Within The Histories Herodotus identifies bravery in the Greek ranks before nearly every battle as they confront superior numbers. Xerxes’ first exposure to this principle is through the advice of Demaratos, the exiled Spartan King. When asked by Xerxes whether he believed the Greeks would be willing to battle the Persians once they invaded Demaratos says, “. . . in Hellas, poverty is always and forever a native resident, while excellence is something acquired through intelligence and the force of strict law. It is through the exercise of this excellence that Hellas wards off both poverty and despotism.” He then explains the Spartans’ willingness to challenge Xerxes in battle and defend their freedom no matter how few men they can field against the Persian army (Hdt. 7.102.1-3). Later once the Persian army had reached Thermopylae and Xerxes saw how small the Greek force was opposing his army of 2,641,610 fighting men (Hdt. 7.185.3) he questioned Demaratos again. Once again Demaratos tells him that the Spartans do plan to fight the Persians no matter the size of their army and that the Persians must prepare for a battle against, “. . . the most noble kingdom of all the Hellenes, and the best of men.” (Hdt. 7.209.2-4). Following this warning the Persian army attacks but is consistently defeated by the Greeks until a Greek named Ephialtes betrays a secret path to outflank those defending Thermopylae (Hdt. 7.210-7.213.1). After this betrayal Leonidas sends the united Greeks away, except for the Thespians and Thebans, who stayed willingly and unwillingly, respectively (Hdt. 7.220-222). This is likely the greatest example of the Greeks’ bravery in battle. The Spartan sacrifice was integral in the Greek war effort, despite being a victory for the Persians. Leonidas, the 300 Spartans, and the Thespian’s willingness to lay down their lives to delay the Persian incursion into Attica exemplifies Herodotus’ concept of bravery.

Thermopylae is not the only example of the Greeks facing down a superior foe and standing their ground. At the battles of Artemision, Salamis, and Plataea the Greeks confront much larger Persian forces and join in battle. Both Artemision and Salamis were naval battles that the Greeks did not feel they could win. However, The Athenian Themistocles successfully manipulates the Greeks and Persians into these battles which he believes can be successful for the Greeks (Hdt. 8.5 & 8.75). The impetus for these battles are evidence of a related quality of the Greeks, cleverness, personified by Themistocles. For courage in battle with no reliance on other qualities there is the decisive land battle at Plataea. Here the united Greek army faces a Persian force that outnumbered them 3 to 1 (Hdt. 9.30-9.32). Not only did the Greek forces engage in this battle and win, they successfully defeated the Persians and ended their land assault into mainland Greece and Europe (Hdt. 9.63.2). Throughout the Persian Wars the Greeks battle superior foes with tremendous courage that transcends individual excellence. The Greek forces desperately fight to defend their homeland and freedom against the tyranny of an almost indomitable foe and their bravery sees them through to success in this pivotal contest.

This Greek concept of bravery does not exist within a vacuum, however, and does relate to other qualities that Herodotus sees as good or valuable. The principle among these is intelligence, as mentioned previously, exemplified in Themistocles. Themistocles’ cleverness is shown principally in three instances: the initial construction of the Athenian fleet, the bribe of the Spartan and Corinthian commanders at Artemision, and the trick played on the Persians at Salamis. First was when Themistocles convinced the Athenians to use excess funds from the silver mines at Laureion to build 200 ships for the war against Aegina rather than proportioning the money into ten drachmas for every citizen (Hdt. 7.144.1). This seems to be simply clever military strategy regarding the conflict that was facing the Athenians at that particular time, but there is an opinion that it was more. Some believe, myself included, that Themistocles was looking ahead to the possible second invasion of the Persian Empire, which of course did come in 480 BCE. Regarding the Athenian fleet’s importance in the Persian Wars Herodotus says, “If the Athenians had evacuated their land in terror of the danger approaching them, or if they had not left their land but remained and surrendered themselves to Xerxes, no one at all would have tried to oppose the King at sea. And if no one had then opposed Xerxes at sea, this is what would have happened on land.” He then goes on to summarize the Peloponnesians inability to defend their cities from the Persian army and navy (Hdt. 7.139.2-4). Herodotus makes it clear that he believes the Athenian fleet is the principal reason the Greeks were able to defeat the Persians and dispel their invasion force. Second was his tactic to keep the Greek commanders present at Artemision. Upon receiving thirty talents from Euboea to delay the Greek assault Themistocles pays five talents to the Spartan and Corinthian commanders to convince them to remain, who then persuade the fleet to remain and fight. He also convinces everyone he has paid the talents from Athens’ funds, making a profit of twenty talents himself while preserving the Greek fleet at Artemision (Hdt. 8.4.2-5.3). While this tactic is clearly immoral and a selfish use of the money supplied by Euboea and certainly would not have been approved of by the other Greeks, it was undoubtedly clever. Despite the indecisive battle at Artemision this underhanded tactic was ingenious and allowed the Greek navy to challenge the Persians before the decisive Greek victory at Salamis. At Salamis a debate arises between the Greek commanders over whether to stay and battle at Salamis or retreat to the isthmus and defend Greece there. When it becomes clear Themistocles is losing the debate to stay at Salamis he sends a messenger to the Persians to say, “‘I have been sent here by the commander of the Athenians without the knowledge of the other Hellenes . . . I have come to tell you that the Hellenes are utterly terrified and are planning to flee, and that you now have the opportunity to perform the most glorious of all feats if you do not stand by and watch them escape. . .” (Hdt. 8.75.2). This is an especially clever trick of his. Themistocles’ ploy tricks the Persians into a battle in a narrow strait that favors the Greek triremes. In doing so he assures a naval battle that he knows the Greeks can win. This victory subsequently breaks the Persian navy and forces Xerxes to retreat through Europe and back into Asia with the bulk of his land forces (Hdt. 8.97.1). These extraordinary examples that each serve to aid Greece in their defeat of Persia highlight the prized attribute of intelligence in Greek society. Themistocles is elevated to the height of prominence in Greece due to his successes in battle (Hdt. 8.123-124), which are due to his intelligence and cunning. The Greeks place great value on this cunning in battle and the glory available to those who possess it is on full display in Herodotus’ recounting of the Persian Wars.

These proud traits found in the Greeks that Herodotus does not outline in most Persians are due to the values instilled in the Greeks through their culture. The Greeks act through the desire to follow the law and their principle above all else. In the beginning of the invasion Demaratos explains to Xerxes that the Spartans will fight no matter how outnumbered they are. Xerxes does not believe this because he cannot fathom free men choosing to fight such a battle, not without the motivation of the lash and a single ruler. Demaratos then replies that the law is the Spartan’s master and they fear it more than any Persian fears Xerxes (Hdt. 7.102-104). When Xerxes’ army first marched into Greece through Thrace their king refused to medize but his sons did not, and when the sons returned from the Persian campaign unharmed he had their eyes gouged out for betraying Greece (Hdt. 8.116). Even as far north as Thrace the love of Greece transcends a royal lineage. Another penalty for medizers is seen after the conclusion of the war in Thebes. Immediately following victory at Plataea the Greeks march to Thebes and, after a nineteen day siege, extract the leaders who medized and execute all but one, who escaped (Hdt. 9.86-88). Before the battle at Plataea Mardonios has the Persian cavalry surround the Phocian forces and appear to attack them. When this pseudo attack begins the Phocian general says, “For it is better to end your lives honorably, fighting to defend yourselves, than to yield and thus perish in the most disgraceful way of all. But above all, let them learn that they are mere barbarians who have contrived to murder Hellenes who are men.” (Hdt. 9.17.3-4). Even the Greeks who had medized held strong ideals of honor and bravery, especially in the face of certain demise. Another prominent example of this comes from the Spartans at Thermopylae, where Leonidas felt he and the 300 Spartans with him should stay and not abandon their posts, even though they would die (Hdt. 7.220.1). Here the Spartans obey the mandate given to them by the united Greek forces to stay and guard the pass at Thermopylae despite an impending death at Persian hands. Consistently through The Histories Herodotus describes the Greek’s innate desire to preserve Greece, their honor, and their bravery at all costs.

Despite this inherent superiority in the Greek’s values, Herodotus does identify some Persians with admirable traits. Central among these is Artemisia at the battle of Salamis. During the battle she is being chased by a trireme which she cannot escape so she decides to ram a Persian ship, tricking the trireme into believing hers is a Greek ship and subsequently give up the chase. This trick greatly impressed Xerxes, as he believed she had rammed a Greek ship, increasing his admiration for her (Hdt. 8.87.2-88.2). Her ploy is creative and greatly admired by Herodotus. Her intelligence is on display again when she advises Xerxes to leave Mardonios behind in Greece with a contingent of his choice while Xerxes flees back to Asia (Hdt. 8.102). In this instance Artemisia successfully advises Xerxes to do exactly what he wished to do already, which curries even greater favor with the King. An instance of Herodotus praising the Persians, though not specifically one individual, is his regard for the Persian messaging system. Of them he says, “There is nothing that travels faster, and yet is mortal, than these couriers. . .” Herodotus writes a full paragraph describing the workings of this angareion and how admirable their dedication to the speedy delivery of messages is (Hdt. 8.98). It is possible for the Persian Empire to produce commendable people, though among the Persians, as Xerxes puts it, “. . . the kind of courage you described is rare rather than common. . .” (Hdt. 7.103.5).

The Persian Wars are defined by the Persian army vastly outnumbering the united Greek forces. Despite this disadvantage, which continues through to the conclusion of the war at Plataea (Hdt. 9.30-32) and Mycale (Hdt. 9.96.2), the Greeks face down their foe even in the face of certain death in some situations. This bravery in battle is integral to Greek culture and their value system. Tied to this battle courage is intelligence that greatly assists in Greek victory. While these traits are not uniquely Greek in Herodotus’ The Histories they are found to be common among the Greeks while rare in the civilizations that make up the Persian Empire. Herodotus’ concept of bravery clearly relates to the Greek’s ability to stand firm in their principles and faith in their constitution even in the face of such an overwhelming foe.