Yielding to Flattery, Fear, and Logic: Persuasion and Advice in Herodotus’ Account of the Persian Wars
Simran Sawyers, 2018
Abstract: Herodotus’ The Histories is more than a summary of straightforward facts. Filled with strange anecdotes and scenes with lengthy dialogue, The Histories is closer to what we would now consider historical fiction than standard history. As a result of his epic-influenced writing style, Herodotus attributes certain characteristics to the influential leaders of the Persian Wars. The Persians, namely Xerxes and Mardonios, are characterized by their fear, insatiable pride, and distaste for logic and strategy. They hardly accept counsel that advises against such tendencies and often devise poor military strategies as a result. The Hellenes, however, although also guilty of acting on these vices, are occasionally able to be persuaded otherwise, much to the benefit of Hellas. In this way, Herodotus implies that the Hellenes won the war because they deserved to, a verdict that not only pleases his readers but also encourages similar behavior in the future.
In Herodotus’ The Histories, Herodotus uses the giving and accepting of advice to highlight the Persians’ foolishness in gambling against the gods and to depict the Hellenes as shrewd strategists. The Persian leaders, especially Xerxes, are susceptible to flattery and threats and they ignore statistics and probability, whereas the Hellenes’ strict codes of honor and attention to strategy keep them level-headed throughout the Persian War, even while stricken with pride and fear. This method of depicting persuasion and advice links the outcome of the war with the moral characters of the decision makers, and it suggests that the Hellenes deserved to win the Persian War because of their levelheadedness and adherence to Hellenic values.
Herodotus depicts the Persian leader Xerxes as a glutton for praise, and this attribute often leads Xerxes to accept bad advice. His invasion of Hellas is spurred by Mardonios convincing him to conquer the Hellenes by means of flattery, saying, “My lord, you are the best of all Persians, not only of those who came before you, but even of those yet to be born” (Hdt. 7.9.1). Similarly, after the Persian defeat at Salamis, Mardonios presents Xerxes with two options, to stay and fight or to return, leaving Mardonios in command of the war. Mardonios, seeking to gain control of the campaign and having prior knowledge of Xerxes’ intentions to flee, manipulates Xerxes by foretelling, “So whichever of these courses you follow will turn out for the best” (Hdt. 8.100.3). Even though this is clearly an illogical statement, Xerxes “felt as much joy and pleasure in hearing this as he could” (Hdt. 8.101.1) and willingly returns to Persia without a second thought (Hdt. 8.103.1), allowing himself to be cajoled once more.
On the other hand, not all of Xerxes’ advisors resort to blindly praising him, and this lack of flattery results in Xerxes refusing wise counsel. Before the sea battle at Salamis, Artemisia warns Xerxes not to fight, informing him, should he hurry into battle, “I fear that your fleet will be badly mauled, which would cause the ruin of your land army as well” (Hdt. 8.68.γ.1). Although Xerxes does not punish Artemisia for advising him against his will, he does not follow her counsel (Hdt. 8.68-8.69), perhaps because she did not stroke his ego to his satisfaction. Because the scenario that Artemisia predicts indeed does come to fruition, Xerxes is implicated as responsible for the Persian defeat at Salamis and, consequentially, the war, since he was failed to heed Artemisia’s advice. Furthermore, in response to Mardonios’ flattery during the initial debate to invade Hellas, Artabanos rebukes Xerxes for his hubris in believing Mardonios’ besmirching of the Hellenes (Hdt. 7.10.ε-η). Artabanos threatens, “Further, you see how the god strikes with his thunderbolt those creatures that tower above the rest” (Hdt. 7.10. ε.1), a sentiment which is indicative of Herodotus’ implication, that Xerxes deserved to lose the war because of his pride.
Contrarily, Herodotus portrays the Hellenes as impervious to flattery when their Hellenic values are at stake, suggesting that the Hellenes are of stronger character than the Persians. After the Battle of Plataea, an Aeginetan named Lampon comes to Pausanias to suggest that, in order to gain a greater reputation for himself, he cut the head from Mardonios’ corpse and mount the head on a stake, just as was done to Leonidas (Hdt. 9.78.1-3). Even though Lampon appeals to Pausanias’ pride, pronouncing, “God granted that you should be the one to protect Hellas and gain the greatest glory of all Hellenes known to us” (Hdt. 9.78.2), Pausanias replies, “After you have raised me up on high, together with exalting my homeland and my achievement, you cast me down to nothing by encouraging me to abuse a corpse” (Hdt. 9.79.1), acknowledging Lampon’s flattery yet denying him all the same. Pausanias adds, “But this is a deed more appropriate to barbarians than to Hellenes” (Hdt. 9.79.1), further distinguishing himself from the Persians. Pausanias will not disgrace himself by violating Hellenic values, even to gain a better reputation for himself.
Additionally, Persian Xerxes and Artabanos are persuaded into taking action by fear. Because Xerxes eventually reasoned that to invade Hellas would be foolish (Hdt. 7.12.1), a vision comes to him in his sleep, threatening, “as high and mighty as you have become in a short time, so low will you fall again and just as quickly” (Hdt. 7.14.1), if Xerxes does not invade. Moreover, the same phenomenon appears to Artabanos, and he “saw the figure about to burn out his eyes with hot irons” (Hdt. 7.18.1). It is because of this terrifying vision that Artabanos advises Xerxes to invade Hellas (Hdt. 7.18.3), and thus Herodotus paints the entire invasion as tainted by fear and done in opposition to good reason.
On the contrary, the Hellenes are spurred into action despite being afraid. When the Athenians receive a hopeless prediction from the oracle at Delphi regarding the fate of Attica and consequently give “themselves up for lost over the evils predicted by the oracle” (Hdt. 7.140-141.1), Timon, son of Androboulos, urges the Athenians to try the oracle again (Hdt. 7.141). This second oracle gives the Athenians hope in “a wall made of wood” (Hdt. 7.141.3) and causes the Athenians to prepare for a sea battle at Salamis (Hdt. 7.143), which proved to be the turning point in the war, further demonstrating that those who act regardless of fear are rewarded. Furthermore, after hearing about the sacking of the Acropolis, the Hellenes were ready to sail back to the isthmus in panic, which would allow Megara, Aegina, and Salamis to fall to the Persians. In his arguing, Themistokles does not even address the men’s fear, because it “would not be at all appropriate for him to make such accusations in the presence of the allies” (Hdt. 8.60.1), demonstrating that the Hellenes believed fear to be a shameful motivator. Even when they are guilty of being persuaded by fear, it is tactful to not bring it up later (Hdt. 8.60.1). Although Themistokles’ initial persuasions failed, he manipulates the Hellenes into staying and fighting (Hdt. 8.75). Before the battle, Themistokles “communicated a contrast between the better and the worse in human nature and circumstances, and he encouraged [the Hellenes] to choose the better of these for themselves” (Hdt. 8.83.1-2). Herodotus refers to Themistokles’ orders as “most effective” (Hdt. 8.83.1), indicating that the Hellenes acted valiantly upon hearing them. In the eyes of Herodotus, the fact that the Hellenes are able to be reasoned with and persuaded to act in spite of their fear makes them worthier of victory than the Persians.
Moreover, the Persians often scorn arguments contrived from logic, preferring to act according to their whims, however fanciful they may be. Close to the end of the war, after Xerxes had left the command to Mardonios, the Thebans adamantly advised Mardonios to divide the leaders of Hellas with bribes, rather than attempting to conquer them united (Hdt. 9.2). However, Herodotus reports that, instead of following this sound advice, Mardonios was “pervaded by a fierce desire to capture Athens again, both out of foolish pride and because he fancied the idea of notifying the King in Sardis…that he had Athens in his grasp” (Hdt. 9.3.1). Similarly, Demaratos, the exiled king of Sparta, wisely advises Xerxes to set up camp on the island of Cythera, which is near Laconia, in order to preoccupy the Lacedaemonians at home and prevent them from fighting in the rest of the war (Hdt. 7.235.1-3). However, Achaimenes, Xerxes’ brother, urges him against Demaratos’ plan, advising, “So decide on a course that well serves your own interests instead of concerning yourself with your enemies: where they will take a stand to fight you, or what they will do, or how many of them there are” (Hdt. 7.236.2-3). Of course, Xerxes follows Achaimenes’ advice, displaying extreme hubris by deciding strategy a foolish endeavor in war. The fact that Mardonios and Xerxes had access to plan better than theirs yet still acted according to their own whims, implicates them as responsible for the subsequent defeat.
Xerxes’ responsibility for the Persian defeat is further illustrated when, on the way to Hellas, Artabanos warns Xerxes that his plan for invading is flawed. Artabanos points out that, because there are few harbors, “fortune will now rule over the affairs of men instead of men ruling over their own fortunes” (Hdt. 7.49.3). To which Xerxes replies, “It is better to confidently confront all eventualities and suffer half of what we dread than to fear every single event before it happens and never suffer at all” (Hdt. 7.50.1), further demonstrating his unwillingness to thoroughly strategize. Additionally, Artabanos advises Xerxes not to force the Ionians to fight against the other Hellenes because they will eventually revolt, and Xerxes, of course, refuses on the grounds that “they could not possibly defy [Persian] authority” (Hdt. 7.51-52.2), although an Ionian revolt does indeed come to pass, proving detrimental to the Persians when they are fleeing Mycale (Hdt. 9.103-104). Because the Persians will not accept any advice which places probability on their side, they leave themselves open to chance and the Hellenes’ opposing strategy.
On the other hand, the Hellenes are open to logically sound persuasion, and they are willing to put their initial plans aside. When Themistokles first persuades the Hellenes to stay and fight at Salamis, he not only overcomes their fear, but he does so with reason. He explains that, by deserting Salamis for the isthmus, Megara, Aegina, and Salamis will be lost to the Persians and the Persians will be allowed closer access to the Peloponnese. Additionally, the Hellenes are better suited to fight a sea battle in a narrow straight such as Salamis, whereas the Persians are better suited to open sea battles. (Hdt. 8.60.β). Themistokles concludes by telling them, “When men plan according to what is probable, events usually turn out according to their wishes; but when their plans are improbable, not even god is willing to support their intentions” (Hdt. 8.60.γ.1), emphasizing that because the Hellenes act with logic, the gods, and therefore destiny, are on their side. Although the Hellenes waivered in their decision to fight at Salamis, Themistokles’ utilization of logic is validated by the Hellenic victory.
Ultimately, Herodotus asserts that the Persians deserved to lose the war as much as the Hellenes deserved to win it, not because of their initial responses to problems, but because of their willingness to listen to opinions better than their own. Although both the Persians and Hellenes are guilty of being afraid, the Persians are persuaded by this fear, while the Hellenes allow themselves to be persuaded despite their fear. While both sides are ruled by their pride and reputations, the Persians are consistently partial to advisors who feed their pride, whereas the Hellenes are occasionally willing to place their values above their acquisition of timē. The Persians refuse to accept advice founded in logic and statistics and would rather muscle their way through Hellas, conquering by brute force. However, the Hellenes, although severely outnumbered, act under the persuading of Themistokles, who promulgates shrewd reason, placing the Hellenes at an advantage over the Persians. The Hellenes won the Persian War as a result of their commitment to Hellenic culture and strategy over pride, fear, and fanciful whims, as demonstrated in their acceptance and refusal of counsel.
Herodotus. The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories. Edited by Robert B. Strassler, Anchor Books, 2009.