HERODOTUS: The History [Book VIII-IX]

The History by Herodotus

BOOK VIII: URANIA

  • The eighth book is named after Urania, the muse of astronomy. She is the eldest muse.
  • The following is a concise summary of Book VIII provided by Wikipedia. I have added additional information where I thought it necessary.
  • Greek fleet is led by Eurybiades, a Spartan
  • The destruction by storm of two hundred ships sent to block the Greeks from escaping
  • The retreat of the Greek fleet after word of a defeat at Thermopylae
  • The supernatural rescue of Delphi from a Persian attack
  • The evacuation of Athens assisted by the fleet
  • The reinforcement of the Greek fleet at Salamis Island, bringing the total ships to 378
  • The destruction of Athens by the Persian land force after difficulties with those who remained
  • The Battle of Salamis, the Greeks have the advantage due to better organization, and less loss due to ability to swim
  • The description of the Angarum, the Persian riding post
  • The rise in favor of Artemisia, the Persian woman commander, and her council to Xerxes in favor returning to Persia
  • The vengeance of Hermotimus, Xerxes’ chief eunuch, against Panionius. Panionius was an immoral man who made money by turning young boys into eunuchs and selling them as slaves. Hermotimus was one of these boys. After many years as Xerxes eunuch, Hermotimus rose to chief eunuch, and with this newfound authority, was able to avenge himself on Panionius. He inveigled Panionius to bring his family to one location, where he forced Panionius to make eunuchs of his sons, and compelled his sons to make a eunuch of Panionius.
  • The attack on Andros by Themistocles, the Athenian fleet commander and most valiant Greek at Salamis
  • The escape of Xerxes and leaving behind of 300,000 picked troops under Mardonius in Thessaly
  • The ancestry of Alexander I of Macedon, including Perdiccas
  • The refusal of an attempt by Alexander to seek a Persian alliance with Athens

 

“O thou, who of all men that ever lived up to this time didst gain thy substance by the most impious deeds, what evil did either I myself or any of my forefathers do either to thee or to any of thine, that thou didst make me to be that which is nought instead of a man? Didst thou suppose that thou wouldest escape the notice of the gods for such things as then thou didst devise? They however following the rule of justice delivered 71 thee into my hands, since thou hadst done impious deeds; so that thou shalt not have reason to find fault with the penalty which shall be inflicted upon thee by me.”

 

After reading about the Greek defeat at the land battle of Thermopylae in book 7, we read of Greek success at the sea battles of Artemisium and Salamis in book 8. The Greeks defeat the Persian navy at Salamis, which compels Xerxes to retreat to Asia with the majority of his army. The navy can no longer provide support to the vast land army in way of food and supplies.

 

Herodotus portrays the Athenian hero Themistocles as a brilliant and courageous general, but also a manipulative and selfish politician. Although Themistocles persuaded the other Greek admirals to fight at Artemisium and Salamis, he did so by bribing them at Artemisium, and threatening to abandon the defense of Greece and travel to Italy before the battle of Salamis. Furthermore, after the success at Salamis, Themistocles began to extort money from the neighboring Greek islands, and he sent a messenger to Xerxes, informing the king that he had persuaded the Greeks to refrain from destroying the bridge across the Hellespont, hoping to gain favor with Xerxes by allowing him to return to Asia. Themistocles is a true Machiavellian Prince in the sense that, for him, the ends justify the means.

 

There is a prevailing theme in the last three books that I have read on this reading list – i.e. resistance against tyranny, and the unsurpassable value of freedom. First, in Mill’s On Liberty, he argues that all exercise of power is illegitimate unless it is to prevent harm. He values individualism or conformism above all else, and because tyranny desires conformity to one specific set of standards and modes of behavior, Mill rejects this form of government. Then, in Prometheus Bound, Aeschylus presents the story of Prometheus who rebels against the tyranny of Zeus. He obstinately refuses to submit to the will of Zeus, and chooses rather to suffer centuries of torment than relinquish his freedom, which is a freedom of thought and opinion. In this book, Herodotus displays the zeal of the Greeks to protect their freedom against the impending tyranny of the Persians at all costs. The Spartans fight to the very last man at Thermopylae, and the Athenians, at the end of book 8, decline a peace offering from Xerxes, stating that even if there was only one Athenian left, he would fight for the freedom which he possessed.

 

On this year’s reading list, I see Milton’s Paradise Lost, yet another story of rebellion against tyranny. This type of resistance and will to fight for the idea of freedom is a powerful sentiment displayed throughout most Western nations. There are many instances of revolutions in Western history whose sole goal is to attain, or attain more, freedom – American Revolution, French Revolution, Greco-Persian wars, etc. Is this a uniquely Western sentiment? I took an international business course in college. In this class, we discussed some of the different values that cultures throughout the world hold through the lens of Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions. I remember that many of the far eastern countries – such as China and Japan – were collectivist cultures while Western nations – such as the United States and Great Britain – scored high on the individualism scale. In collectivist cultures, people considered the interests of the nation before their own, while the opposite holds true for those who dwell in individualist nations. This type of classification does not cast value judgments upon these modes of behavior – i.e. which one is ‘better’ – but rather provides an understanding of the different attitudes and opinions of people of differing nations. One can find meaning in their life by defending one’s freedom, but one can also find meaning by identifying one’s self with the welfare and prosperity of one’s nation. The Greeks, and most of Western society find meaning in self-realization, while the Persians, and most of Eastern society find meaning in sacrifice to the greater good of the state. These are clearly generalizations, and there are many exceptions to this statement, but I think that it is helpful in understanding why there is this prevailing theme of ‘give me liberty or give me death’ in this reading list.

BOOK IX: CALLIOPE

  • Book IX is named after Calliope, the muse of epic poetry.
  • The following is a concise summary of book IX provided by Wikipedia. I have expanded upon the summary where I found it necessary.
  • The second taking of an evacuated Athens
  • The evacuation to Thebes by Mardonius after the sending of Lacedaemonian troops
  • The slaying of Masistius, leader of the Persian cavalry, by the Athenians
  • The warning from Alexander to the Greeks of an impending attack
  • The death of Mardonius by Aeimnestus
  • The Persian retreat to Thebes where they are afterwards slaughtered (Battle of Plataea)
  • The description and dividing of the spoils
  • The speedy escape of Artabazus into Asia.
  • The Persian defeat in Ionia by the Greek fleet (Battle of Mycale), and the Ionian revolt
  • The mutilation of the wife of Masistes ordered by Amestris, wife of Xerxes
  • The death of Masistes after his intent to rebel
  • The Athenian blockade of Sestos and the capture of Artayctes

 

“The most hateful grief of all human griefs is to have knowledge of the truth but no power over the event.”

 

“They chose rather to dwell on poor land and be rulers, than to sow crops in a level plain and be slaves to others.”

 

This book is primarily dedicated to the exposition of the battles of Plataea and Mycale. However, I think that the most important insight that can be found in this book is in the very last paragraph. Herodotus closes this book with a discussion of the ancient Persian king Cyrus. After defeating Astyages, one of Cyrus’ counselors advises him to lay claim to more fertile lands than he currently possesses in Asia now that his sole rival has been eliminated. Cyrus rejects this advice, reasoning that the easy life of luxury to be found in less rugged terrain and more hospitable climates would enervate his soldiers. Cyrus considers a life of luxury to be dangerous, and prohibits his people from succumbing to its temptations. Unfortunately for the Persians, Cyrus’ posterity do succumb to the luxuries of life. Herodotus identifies this vice as the cause of the Persian loss. For example, after the battle of Plataea, the Spartan general Pausanias requests the defeated Persian general Mardonius’ chefs to prepare a meal as Mardonius habitually ate. The vast quantities of Persian delicacies are contrasted with the spare Spartan diet. Furthermore, a description of the gold, silver, and other treasures that the Persians carried with them on their expedition, and that the Greeks claimed as spoils of war, emphasizes the burden of luxury.

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