Histories | Study Guide

Herodotus

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Histories | Main Ideas

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Arrogance Is Punished

A major theme in Histories is that those who show excessive pride or arrogance inevitably suffer negative consequences. Herodotus borrows this concept from Greek tragedy. In tragedy, excessive arrogance, or hubris, is punished by a downfall, nemesis. Although Herodotus tried to write about factual matters, he did so in a way that conformed to the narrative expectations of his day. Throughout Histories, the arrogant are punished for their folly. Croesus (d. 546 BCE), the prosperous king of Lydia, destroys his kingdom by attacking Cyrus the Great (c. 590–29 BCE), king of the Persians. Cyrus himself loses his life when attempting to attack and subdue the Massagetae. The Persian king Darius I (550–486 BCE) suffers major reversals when attacking the Greeks, and his son Xerxes I's (519–465 BCE) plans of domination are ruined when he makes the fateful decision to attack the Greeks at Salamis. The link between these people is that they all believed conquest and domination was their right. This arrogance, more often than not, only led to their destruction and defeat.

Herodotus seems to believe that the mechanism by which arrogance is punished is a mix of human nature and supernatural intervention. On numerous occasions he mentions that the gods, or fate, delight in ruining the schemes of men. At the same time, Herodotus's narrative makes it clear that excessive pride is a human flaw, one that can be checked or confronted by human efforts, not just by supernatural intervention. Moreover, a major difference between Herodotus and earlier dramatists or epic poets is that, while nemesis may ultimately proceed from the gods, it is humans who execute it. Punishment arrives not in the form of a divine plague, as in the Iliad, but in the form of clever Greeks who build a mighty fleet and inflict a shocking defeat.

Another aspect of human arrogance is explored in these stories through the figure of the wise advisor who urges caution and moderation but is ignored. Xerxes's trusted advisor, Artabanus, urged him not to invade Greece. Queen Artemisia of Halicarnassus tried to prevent the attack on the Greek fleet at Salamis. In one of the earliest episodes in Histories, Solon (630–560 BCE), the Athenian statesman, tried to caution Croesus against further expansion. As with the concepts of hubris and nemesis, these instances of ignored advice also conform to an understanding of events and human nature derived from drama. These stories act as cautionary tales, and they share the same moral lesson Herodotus wishes to impart to his readers. The building of an empire is a foolish pursuit; the ruler's arrogance will inevitably be punished, and the empire will not last.

Fate Is Unpredictable

Fate, or the will of the gods, is a major force in the world of Histories. Fate appears in the form of nemesis, but also in the form of prophetic dreams, and especially in the words of prophetic oracles, like the oracle at Delphi that is consulted by many throughout Histories. It is clear that fate, or chance, is a powerful element in the world. The central problem with fate is that it is unpredictable. The oracle at Delphi, whom Herodotus tends to quote in full, always tells the truth about the future. But the oracle's words are often deliberately vague or ambiguous. Misunderstanding the oracles invites calamity. The most obvious example is that of Croesus. Croesus asks the oracle what will happen if he attacks Cyrus. He is told he will destroy a great empire, but it is his empire the oracle is referring to. Accordingly, Croesus loses his own empire to Cyrus. The element of fate is distinct from human actions. It comes from a place humans find hard to grasp. As such, only the cleverest or wisest humans are able to correctly interpret the oracle.

It is clear in the text that fate must be respected. Respecting it comes from acknowledging that fate is not always clear, and that it is difficult for humans to fully comprehend, let alone predict. Moreover, it is not clear in Herodotus's text whether fate can truly be challenged. At times it seems like things are inevitable. Herodotus lived in a world where elements like fate, and the intervention of gods, were understood to be real. One could no more ignore fate than ignore the wind. For Herodotus, a moral lesson seems to lie in treating fate with caution and respect. As with arrogance, proceeding without due caution or respect to fate is a sure way to suffer defeat.

Liberty Is Superior to Tyranny

The central conflict between the Greeks and Persians is not that it is a clash between two peoples but, more accurately, is a contest between rival governmental systems. Liberty in Herodotus is not necessarily the democratic liberty modern readers recognize. Nor was it uniformly accepted by all Greeks. Only the city-state of Athens adopted a democratic system of government where all male citizens could vote on their leadership. Sparta, on the other hand, maintained a monarchical system, while other tyrants appear in Greek states like Corinth. Liberty is most powerfully associated with independence, specifically with the right of a people to rule themselves. Tyranny, on the other hand, is associated with the ambitions of a sole ruler to dominate other peoples. The most obvious tyrants in the narrative are the Persian rulers Cyrus, Darius, and Xerxes. All power rests with them. Ultimately, the fate of an empire rests in the tyrant's ability to make good decisions. The contrast, and contest, between liberty and tyranny is not only confined to the conflict between Greeks and Persians. Before Darius becomes king, the Persian leaders debate which system of government to adopt. Advisors argue for either democracy (placing power in the hands of the people) or oligarchy (placing power in the hands of a select few). Darius decides on tyranny.

How are these governmental systems contrasted? Tyrannical rulers like the Persian kings have a great deal of power. They construct great buildings and command mighty armies. At their height, they conquer many lands and build great empires. But because all power rests in one man, the calamities suffered are very great when they inevitably occur. The failed invasions of Greece by Darius and Xerxes cost thousands their lives. The Persians expected the Greeks to be weak and divided because they did not have a strong ruler. Herodotus argues that this was completely wrong. The Greek love of liberty is what allowed them to successfully resist the Persians. This takes several forms. The Spartans are said to be more afraid of their laws than the Persian soldiers are of their tyrants. They would rather die free than submit, and this lends them strength in battle. The Athenians are motivated to build a coalition among the Greeks. Their own love of principled liberty leads to the sacrifice of their own city to preserve the Athenian people and their ideals. Free people ultimately triumph. It is Athens that emerges as the greatest power by the end of Herodotus's narrative.

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