The Emphasis on Storytelling in the battles of Herodotus’ Histories Books 7-9 (William Johnson, 2017)

Abstract: The purpose of this paper is to use the last three books of Herodotus’ Histories to examine the work as a whole from the perspective of Herodotus as a story-teller whose chief aim was to provide his audience with a thrilling narrative of Greek victory against overwhelming odds. It looks at how he frames many of the battles, such as Thermopylae, as battles between a smaller, and sometimes deeply divided, Greek force against a larger, unified, and very confident Persian Empire. He then uses each battle to show the superiority of Greek courage and strategy against the Persians. The paper also argues that Plataea, as the last major land battle on Greek soil, serves as a climax for Herodotus’ narrative. 


The Emphasis on Storytelling in the battles of Herodotus’ Histories Books 7-9

by William K. Johnson

The problem with reading about the battles described by Herodotus in his Histories is that he gives the reader “a frustratingly incomplete picture of Greek warfare”. Whether on land or on sea he withholds a great deal of information. In his discussion of Herodotus’ descriptions of hoplite warfare, John W.I. Lee writes that the Greek historian “was concerned more with the moral than the technical… illustrious or cowardly deeds of individuals than with the overall course of an engagement”. This is because unlike Thucydides, an admiral and military man who at the beginning of his book announced his decision to tell a very practical account of the causes, fighting, and end of an ultimately tragic war in which he himself fought, Herodotus was first and foremost a storyteller who wanted to fill the Greeks with pride over a war they won. This paper shows how Herodotus presents this as a narrative; how he tries to tell a thrilling story about the Greeks defeated the Persians in a war they should not have won.

One should examine how the lead-ups to the battles usually involve setting up the Greeks as clear underdogs. One way Herodotus does this is by describing the numbers of troops, leaving aside questions raised about the accuracy of his numbers. Often the Persians and their allies outnumber, sometimes vastly, the Greeks, such as at Thermopylae where 5 million Persians (Herodotus, 7.186.2) were going up against the 5,200 (Herodotus, 7.202-7.203) or the slightly more even forces at Plataea where Greeks, numbering 110,000 (Herodotus, 9.30), faced only a 3-to-1 ratio against the 350,000 Persians (Herodotus, 9.32.2). Two, along with these numerical disparities Herodotus often brings up the factions forming up among the Greeks from divisions and threats to leave the fleet by various Greeks prior to Salamis (Herodotus, 8.56).  And furthermore, Herodotus sometimes provides stories of the Persians expressing astonishment that the Greeks are willing to fight against such odds, such as Xerxes’ discussions with Demaratos before and during Thermopylae (Herodotus 7.209), or simply thinking that they can win, as Mardonios at Plataea thought, because “his army was much stronger than that of the Hellenes” (Herodotus, 9.41.2).

With the clear military advantage of the Persians established, Herodotus then proceeds to tell the reader how the Greeks in some way proved themselves superior to the Persian numbers. The way he does this is seen clearly in two battles, Salamis and Thermopylae, each one emphasizing some aspect of the Greeks that proves equal or superior to the Persian numbers, as will be explained below. Then the third battle, at Plataea, provides the climax of the story and then the battle of Mycale which is almost treated as an afterthought in comparison to the battle of Plataea. 

In the lead up to the Battle of Thermopylae, incredible emphasis is put on just how much the Persians outnumber the Greeks and on Spartan military prowess. The former is illustrated by his above mentioned listing of the sheer size of the Persian Army at 5 million (Herodotus, 7.186.2) against the Greek 5,200 (Herodotus, 7.202-7.203). Then we have the Spartans, who are described by Demaratos as “the most noble kingdom of all the Hellenes and the best of men” (Herodotus, 7.209.4). Much of the rest of the battle is a draw, with the Persians failing to roll over the Spartans despite their numbers. On the second day of the battle the the Persians are surprised at the resistance they meet because they believed “that such a small number of Hellenes would be covered with wounds and unable to lift a hand against them” (Herodotus, 7.212.1) after the heavy fighting of the first day. And so it goes, until the betrayal of Ephialtes shows Xerxes a way around the Spartans, thus allowing the Persians to win the battle without fighting the Spartans head-on (Herodotus, 7.214). Thus the Hellenes, and especially the Spartans, prove themselves to be militarily superior to Persians, who, according to Herodotus’ account, could only win by avoiding a head-on hoplite battle. Indeed, the very next paragraph after Demaratos refers to the Spartans as “the most noble kingdom of all the Hellenes and the best of men” (Herodotus, 7.209.4), Herodotus tells us that “the Hellenes made it clear to everyone, and especially to the King himself, that although there were many in his army, there were few real men” (Herodotus, 7.210.2), but plenty, it may be assumed, among the Hellenes.

Whereas the lead-up to Thermopylae was focused on Spartan determination in the face of over whelming odds, the lead-up to Salamis is focused more on the disunity of the Hellenic fleet and the mental prowess employed by Themistocles in saving Athens and uniting the Hellenic fleet. He saves Athens by properly interpreting the Oracle’s statement about the “wall made of wood” (Herodotus 7.141.3) which convinces many of the Athenians to flee the city and fight the Persians on the sea (Herodotus, 7.143). He must then keep the Hellenic fleet, composed of ships from various city-states, from fracturing, which he eventually deals with by telling the Persians of the infighting and disunity among the Hellenes, thus convincing the Persians to sail to Salamis (Herodotus, 8.75-76) and forcing the Hellenes to gather up for the battle at Salamis (Herodotus, 8.79.3).

His description of the battle itself, however, focuses far less on the Athenians than his description of Thermopylae did on the Spartans. What happens at Salamis is a scatter-shot description of various stories, such as Artemisia sinking a fellow Persian ship (Herodotus, 8.87-88), Xerxes’ executing the Phoenicians (Herodotus, 8.90), and the exchange between Polykritos and Themistocles (Herodotus, 8.92), interspersed among various descriptions of the battle as a whole.  Nor are the Athenians built up as this incredible force like the Spartans were in the exchanges with Demaratos (Herodotus, 7.209). This seems odd, as earlier he credits the Athenians with saving Greece with their evacuation and decision to fight a sea battle, writing that without the evacuation there would have been no battle at sea and “if no one had then opposed Xerxes at sea” (Herodotus, 7.139.2-4) then Xerxes would likely have won as the Peloponnesians, “abandoned by their allies” would have soon surrendered (Herodotus, 7.139.3). Even the over all theme that he had been building up, of Themistocles’ craftiness seems to disappear, with him only receiving a mention near the end when Polykritos mocks him (Herodotus, 8.92).

But that does not mean an emphasis on Greek superiority to the Persians disappears as well. Herodotus tells us that the Greeks “fought in disciplined order” whereas “the barbarians failed to hold their positions and made no moves that might have followed a sensible plan (Herodotus, 8.86), which may be Herodotus’ way of saying that the Greeks retain their hoplite virtues on sea as well as land. He also tells us that more Persians died in the sea than Greeks because the Greeks could swim and the Persians could not (Herodotus 8.89.1-2).

But perhaps this is not as big of an issue as it seems. As a result of Themistocles’ cunning, the Greeks do prove themselves to be the Persians’ better on sea as well as land and, in so doing, they have also turned the tide of the war after the disastrous defeat at Thermopylae as Xerxes soon decides to leave for Persia (Herodotus, 8.103) with Mardonios in command of the remainder of the Persian army (Herodotus, 8.107). But it is interesting that when the battle arrives he is reluctant to give much credit to the Athenians.

Plataea could be described as the climax of the Histories. It is, after all, the large battle taking up much of the ninth and final book. If you look at his description of the battle in his story of the war (and make no mistake, every narrative delivered in voice or writing is a story) then these decisions by Herodotus begin to make sense. It was the last major battle on Greek soil with, according to Herodotus at least, 350,000 Persian allied forces fighting 110,000 Greeks (Herodotus, 9.30-32). Mycale, which was fought in Asia Minor (Herodotus, 9.100-104) after the Greeks had wiped out the remaining Persian forces in Greece (Herodotus, 9.70), seems in comparison almost an after-thought and he treats it as such. He begins the account of the day of battle at Plataea at chapter 50 with the Persians attacking the Greek water source, and ends it with the Greek attack on the Persian camp in Chapter 70 (Herodotus, 9.50-70), and this is not counting his discussions on certain individuals afterwards (Herodotus, 9.71-76). Mycale, in comparison, lasts from chapter 102 to 104, two chapters (Heodotus, 9.102-104). To make this point further, Salamis lasts 8 chapters, from chapter 84 to around chapter 92 (Herodotus 8.84-92), and Thermopylae is a bit closer, lasting 14 chapters from 211 to 225 (Herodotus, 9.211-225). Clearly Herodotus puts a lot of effort into detailing the battle from beginning to end. And this 20 chapter count does not take into account the pre-battle skirmishes skirmishes in Boetia (Herodotus, 9.17-18) and Persian calvary raids on the Greeks when they finally arrive at Plataea (Herodotus, 9.39). He also lists bad omens for both the Persians and the Greeks (Herodotus, 9.37-39). He describes the pre-battle debates on the Persian side between Mardonios and several Persians (Herodotus, 9.41-42) and the movements of the Persians in response to the Greek army’s movements before the battle (Herodotus, 9.47). This gives the battle of Plataea a greater emphasis and therefore a greater feeling of climax than the other battles.  This also might explain why his discussion of Salamis was shorter, as having three wall-to-wall battles would have cluttered his narrative.

It was pointed out in the beginning that one of the problems with reading Herodotus was that he does not seem interesting in telling the reader about the strategies and tactics of the Ancient Greeks, providing a “a frustratingly incomplete picture of Greek warfare”. But that is a problem only if we see him as an historian purely and not as a story-teller first and foremost, which he was. It was not just that he was too busy writing about “illustrious or cowardly deeds of individuals,” but that he was trying to tell an entertaining story.

Works Cited

Dewald, Carolyn, “Appendix S: Trireme Warfare in Herodotus”, Landmark Herodotus, ed. Strassler, Robert B. (New York: Anchor Books, 2007) p. 824-834

Lee, John, W. I., “Appendix N: Hoplite Warfare in Herodotus” Landmark Herodotus, ed. Strassler, Robert B. (New York: Anchor Books, 2007) p. 798-804

Thucydides, Landmark Thucydides. Trans. Crawley, Richard. Ed. Strassler, Robert B, (New York: Simon & Schuster: 1996)

Hanson, Victor Davis.,“Introduction”, Landmark Thucydides. Ed. Strassler, Richard. (New York: Simon & Schuster: 1996), pp. ix-xxiii

Burstein, Stanley M.; Donlan, Walter; Pomeroy, Sarah B.; Roberts, Jennifer Tolbert; Tandy, David W., Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History, Third Edition. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012)