“To Dwell in a Poor Land, Rather Than to Be Slaves:” Persian Culture in Herodotus’ Historiai
Gray Wood, 2018
Abstract: At the very end of his Historiai, Herodotus returns a hundred years before the events of the Persian War to a story about Cyrus, one of the great Persian kings. In this tale, Cyrus admonishes his courtiers that, should they leave the hardy Persian homeland for greener lands, they will lose that same rugged excellence which enabled them to build their Asian empire. Herodotus likely included this story to suggest that that Persians, whose failed invasions of Greece are the focus of the Historiai, have since deteriorated from their greatness. Why did such a mighty empire, with infinite resources and manpower, fail to conquer the comparatively puny Hellenic poleis? The answer lies in the explicit criticisms Herodotus has for many aspects of the Persian culture. While the Greeks utilize councils to put forth wise war plans, the Persians must all subject themselves to the typically foolish whims of their leaders; while the Greeks fight with valor in any circumstance, the Persians only fight because they are afraid of their leaders. And although there are many virtuous Persians who recognize the iniquity of their culture, their culture ultimately represses them and leaves no recourse but to fall upon Greek spear. By highlighting an oppressive culture as the main cause of Persian defeat, Herodotus frames the Persian Wars not only as a clash of arms, but also as a clash of culture.
Herodotus’s account of the 5th century BC Persian Wars, the Historiai, ends with an interesting look into the past. After detailing the gruesome torture and execution of Artayktes, a greedy Persian official, during the Athenian liberation of Ionia, the historian leaves the reader with a side-story about the official’s ancestor, who served in the court of Cyrus, the 6th-century ruler of the Persian Empire. When Artayktes’ ancestor proposes to the court that the Persians take advantage of their hegemony over Asia and move to a land less harsh than their home, Cyrus does not block this proposal, but reminds them that “soft places produce soft men,” and that “they should prepare to be rulers no longer, but rather to become subjects under the rule of others” (9.122). This incident frames one of the larger themes of the Historiai: that despite their immeasurable resources and the disunity of the Greek poleis, the Persians were doomed to lose the Second Persian Invasion. By placing this story directly after dishonorable Artayktes’ execution, Herodotus seems to be suggesting that Persians have indeed forgotten the wisdom of Cyrus and have since degenerated in virtue.
But how do we reconcile this notion with the many virtuous Persians we encounter in the Historiai? Herodotus certainly does not omit good deeds done by the barbarians, nor does he even write them off; he makes this clear in his very reason for writing the Historiai: “may the great and wonderful deeds—some brought forth by the Hellenes, others by the barbarians—not go unsung” (1.Proem). However, by examining his account of the Second Persian Invasion (Books Seven, Eight, and Nine), we find Herodotus’ explanation for how the Persians could be virtuous and iniquitous at the same time: the Persian culture, though it values skill, honor, and intelligence like the Greeks’, do not do so for the sake of excellence, but rather for fear. The key dynamic of Xerxes’ empire is that everyone, whether they be the king’s own brother or a lowly shepherd, must obey his will not because he is the best of the Persians, but because he has power over their lives. This slave-master relationship has a deleterious effect on all Persians, regardless of rank: it encourages hubris and excess in their leaders, and fear and sycophancy in their followers. Herodotus makes this apparent at almost every twist and turn in the Second Persian Invasion; in war-planning, virtuous Persians’ better judgment is either withheld or ignored by their arrogant leaders, while in battle, Persian soldiers acquit themselves bravely only as long as the fear of the whip is present. By showing how the Persians’ slave-master dynamic directly harms their war effort, Herodotus contextualizes the Second Persian Invasion not only as a clash of arms, but also of culture, ultimately proving the free Greeks’ cultural superiority.
Like the Greeks, the Persians often hold council to determine their next course of action, but these meetings are dominated by fear and flattery, which ultimately places the Persians in precarious situations. In Greek society, councils are seen as an opportunity for wise men to voice their strategies and come to the overall best conclusion, whether it be in war or peace. For example, the Athenians in this time have the Areopagite Council, the Boule, and the ten Strategoi, to name a few. Each of these institutions, though biased towards aristocrats, are fundamentally collaborative. They provide an opportunity for a man to achieve time, or honor, by showing off his wisdom and prudence; to try to convince others, even when the whole council was against one’s idea, displayed virtue.
When Herodotus describes the Persian councils, we find the exact opposite situation. After addressing his commanders about his intent to make war upon the Hellenes, Xerxes opens the floor for discussion, saying, “so that I should not seem the kind of man who makes plans all by himself, I…bid any of you who wishes to do so to reveal his own opinion” (7.8.Delta). We immediately find this to be an empty sentiment: after Mardonios, Xerxes’ cousin, offers a wheedling agreement, there is a period of silence from the Persian nobles, who “did not dare to express an opinion in opposition to the one that had been offered” (7.10). We soon find out why. The only one who offer a dissenting opinion is Artabanos, “confident because he was the uncle of Xerxes” (7.10). His speech is a most impressive one, displaying piety, experience, and devotion to the state; his example shows that good sense is not inherently a Greek trait, and that Persians can surpass them in the matter. Instead of listening to and considering his wise elder’s counsel, Xerxes erupts in a fit of anger: “You are the brother of my father, and that will protect you from paying the penalty your foolish words deserve, though for your cowardice and lack of nerve I shall impose upon you the disgrace of [not going to war]…” (7.11.1). That Xerxes prefers Mardonios’ flattery to Artabanos’ informed dissent stems from his position in Persian culture: he is a divine king, and will not tolerate anything from his slaves but praise—and, as Artabanos almost found out, on the pain of death. This cultural facet makes Persian leaders hubristic and their subordinates reckless, a situation we see with Mardonios in Book Nine.
After the disastrous naval defeat at Salamis, Xerxes flees Hellas, leaving Mardonios with a great number of the Persian army, which he deemed sufficient for destroying the Greeks. Here, the ingrained hubris in Persian leaders once again leads to disaster, with Mardonios ignoring obvious omens about his approaching defeat (9.37) and dismissing the counsel of both the Thebans (9.2) and Artabazos, a general with “more foresight than the Persian commander” (9.41.3). Mardonios is encouraged towards such impious and imprudent decisions because, as a slave to Xerxes, he wishes to please his master rather than act in a way befitting a leader: “he fancied the idea of notifying the King in Sardis [about his victory] by means of signal beacons…” (9.3.1). In response to Mardonios’ unchecked arrogance, Herodotus records a unique instance where a Persian laments to Thersandros, a Greek ally, the repressive nature of his culture: “No one believes what even trustworthy people say. And though many Persians know that this is true, we are bound by necessity to follow our orders. The most painful anguish that mortals suffer is to understand a great deal, but to have no power at all” (9.16.5). The Greek system of collaborative council clearly promotes virtues such as wisdom and prudence more than the Persians’ culture, which, by demanding total obedience to foolish leaders, leaves virtuous Persians no recourse but to fall upon Greek spears.
As for their skill and courage in combat, Herodotus does not imply that the Persian culture makes them inferior to the Hellenes; far from it. In fact, at the Battle of Marathon during the First Persian Invasion, Herodotus records that the Athenians “were the first of all the Hellenes….to endure the sight of the Medes’ clothing and the men wearing it…even to hear the name “Medes” spoken would strike terror into the Hellenes” (6.112.3). The historian in no way treats Greeks as superior to other races, nor does he disparage the martial skill of those whom he dislikes. Even Mardonios, though he may be a reckless fool, certainly does not lack valor: in the post-battle records, Herodotus claims that “Mardonios is said to have been the best and bravest of individual men” on the Persian side at Plataea (9.71.1).The Persians displayed valor just as often as the Hellenes, but over the course of the invasion, we see a recurring theme: because Persian culture places so much emphasis on obedience to the leader’s supreme authority, the Persians usually break ranks after their leaders have fled or are slain. Whereas each individual Greek fights for their freedom regardless of who commands them, the Persians only fight the Greeks because they fear the Persian leading them. We see this phenomenon at the Battle of Salamis. Having “strongly suspected that off Euboea [his fleet] had behaved like cowards because he was not present,” Xerxes dismisses the advice of Artemisia, the clever Queen of Halicarnassus who advised letting the Greek fleet disintegrate on its own, and decides to attack (8.69). And, in fact, this is what happens: “The men in Xerxes’ fleet did…prove themselves better men by far on this day….since each man fought eagerly and in fear of Хerxes, thinking that the King was watching him” (8.86). But of course, this fear only encourages them to fight harder, not smarter, and the reckless actions in pursuit of their king’s favor end up causing their total defeat: “Most of their fleet was destroyed…because those deployed behind them were trying to sail past so as to perform some spectacular feat before the King, and they collided with the leading ships…who were in flight” (8.89). And so, while a leader’s presence keeps the Persians in line through fear of the lash, we find that the absence of such causes the Persian army to break apart. Immediately once Mardonios falls at Plataea, the rank and file “turned to flee and gave way to the Lacedaemonians” (9.63), while Artabazos, the wise general who tried to dissuade Mardonios, marched all the way to the Hellespont (9.66). Compare this example to the Spartans at Thermopylae, who, when Leonidas is slain by the Persians, are only inspired to greater heights of valor (7.225). This is confusing behavior to the Persians, as far before the battle, Demaratos, the exiled Spartan king in Xerxes’ retinue, was dismissed when he explained this facet of Lacedaemonian culture: “They are actually ruled by a lord and master: law is their master…it forbids them to flee from battle, and no matter how many men they are fighting, it orders them to remain in their rank and either prevail or perish” (7.104). The reason why the Greeks always perform better in combat than the Persians, even in defeat, is cultural. The virtuous Persians even recognize this fact: when news reaches the Persian nobles that the Greeks compete for only an olive wreath in their athletic competitions, one of them “expressed a most noble insight…’Good grief, Mardonios, what kind of men did you lead us here to fight, who compete not for money but for excellence alone?’” (8.26). Greeks do not prostrate themselves before a man, because even the divine king Xerxes must die and leave nothing behind; Greek cultural concepts, like eunomia (good laws) and the desire to be kalos kai agathos (the best and the beautiful), are far worthier, for they are eternal and stand strong even in the face of evil leaders, whose rule is only temporary. Accordingly, the Greeks will display their virtue in combat no matter the circumstance, while the Persians will only do so the in fear of another Persian.
What we ultimately derive from Herodotus’ account of the Second Persian Invasion is that the Persians suffered their defeat not because of weapons or tactics, but because Greek culture far surpassed theirs. Cyrus’ prognostication to the Persians turns out true, but not in the way that they expected: they became slaves to their own rulers. Although the Persian culture does cultivate prudence, piety, and valor, as we have seen with the virtuous Persians who lament their situations, the other aspects of their culture force them to submit to the will of iniquitous leaders, who ultimately redirect these virtues towards evil deeds. Greek culture, on the other hand, produces men who are always prudent in planning through council and always courageous in war by striving for virtue for its own sake. According to Herodotus, their immeasurable resources could never account for the cultural disadvantage. Yet there is one more lesson concerning Greek culture from the final tale of Cyrus that was no doubt pertinent to Herodotus’ contemporaries. If the historian is using it to condemn a great empire, he was definitely aware of another empire in his own time: Athens. By the date Herodotus was writing (450-20’s BC, Intro pg. x), Athenian hegemony over the Aegean through the Delian League resulted in what modern historians call the “Athenian Empire,” which exerted excessive—and often violent—control over its non-Athenian constituents. The context of Artayktes’ execution and the story about Cyrus occurs at the nascence of this empire: the Battle of Mycale and Athenian liberation of the Ionia, which occupies the end of Book Nine after Xerxes is no longer a threat to Hellas itself. That the behavior of this greedy and impious Persian satrap warranted a cruel torture in the eyes of the Athenians seems ironic, considering that later Athenian behavior against their subject poleis was not dissimilar. Like the Persians, they would gradually lose that same rugged excellence which won them their empire; Herodotus most certainly included the story as a cautionary example to remind Athenians that “land cannot yield both wonderful crops and men who are noble and courageous in war” (9.122).