Herodotus The Persian Wars (431 BC)

(see notes from John Porter, U. of Sakatchewan)

Questions to consider:

  • Herodotus wrote The Persian Wars in 431 BC, nearly sixty years after the events had taken place; Athens and Sparta were no longer allies. They were fighting an interminable war that had gone on for nine years and would go on for another twenty years. What did he hope to accomplish? How?
  • Before Herodotus the events of the Persian War would have been recounted in an epic poem like The Iliad. Why did he choose to write a prose narrative? (see physis v. nomos)
  • How did Homer's narrative influence the way that Herodotus chose to tell this story?
  • How must we revise the definition of history to take into account the writer's purpose and perspective?


The Persian Wars tells the story of the Greek victory over Persia, the superpower of the Mediterranean world in the 6th century BC. The war took place in two phases: the first invasion of Greece by King Darius of Persia was turned back at the battle of Marathon in 490 BC. Legend has it that news of the victory was carried to Athens by a runner Phidippides, who ran the one hundred miles in less than two days.


Despite elation at this victory, the Athenian leaders recognized that the struggle against the Persians had only just begun. The barboroi would be back, and next time they would come in even greater numbers. Themistocles, the elected leader of the Athenians, recognized that any attempt to slug it out with the Persians would lead to disaster. To achieve victory, the Athenians would need to rely on deception, cunning and surprise. 


Themistocles sent a messenger to the oracle of Apollo at Delphi seeking advice from the god about how the Athenians should proceed, and the Delphic oracle prophesized, "The wooden wall shall never be taken." To the Athenian citizens, the course, then, seemed obvious. Only by re-fortifying the walls of the city could Athens be saved. Themistocles, however, disagreed. He interpreted the oracle's message differently. The impregnable wooden wall should not be constructed on the ramparts of the city but, instead, at sea in the form of a fleet of ships.


Themistocles convinced the Athenians to invest heavily in the construction of a new type of navy. Each Athenian nobleman had the responsibility of constructing and outfitting a vessel. Themistocles recommended that the city fathers build a new type of warship: the trireme, a fast, maneuverable, and lethal battering ram manned by one hundred oarsmen. Themistocles also convinced the citizens of Athens that when the Persians arrived, the population would have to abandon the city itself, leaving even the Acropolis itself to be sacked and burned.


Note the spectacular leap of faith required to go along with Themistocles' seemingly wild plan. Save our city by abandoning it? Invest all our resources in an un-tested weapon? Despite their incredulity, the Athenian citizens finally went along. Themistocles' plan finally just made sense. There was no other viable option. Even so, it took great courage for them to trust to reason and behave so contrary to their instincts.


Ten years later, in 480 B.C., the Persians indeed did return; this time led by Darius' son, the emperor Xerxes. He had amassed a huge army of three million men led by his own crack troops: the fearsome Medes and supplemented by countless soldiers from conquered lands. Xerxes was intent upon wiping out the upstart Greeks who had humiliated his father. To cross from Asia into Europe, Xerxes built a bridge across the Hellespont and watched the horde pass in splendor into Greece.


The Persians were first met at a narrow mountain pass a few hundred miles northeast of Athens named Thermopylae. There the Greeks had sent a small contingent of four thousand fighters to hold off the Persians for as long as possible. The Greeks were led by the Spartan king Leonidas and three hundred of his men. Each of the Spartan warriors had vowed to fight to the death. The Greek stand at Thermopylae lasted for a week. The Spartans inflicted heavy casualties on the Persian armies and prevented them from advancing, giving the Athenians precious time to complete their defenses. 


Herodotus says,


It is said that the man who was bravest was the Spartan Dienekes. They say that this man told a story that before they engaged themselves with the Persians he had heard from one of the [enemy] Trachinians that such was the number of barbarians, that when they shot forth their arrows “the sun would be darkened by their multitude.” Dieneces, not at all frightened at these words, but making light of the Median numbers, answered, “Our Trachinian friend brings us excellent tidings. If the Medes darken the sun, we shall have our fight in the shade.” [7.226]


When the Persian juggernaut finally moved south, they arrived in an empty city: Athens had been deserted. The barboroi sacked and burned the city, desecrating the temple to Athena on the Acropolis. In the meantime, though, the Greek Navy lured the Persian fleet into a trap. But to complete his plan, Themistocles had to resort to extraordinary measures.


As the Persian fleet moved into position in support of its vast army, the various Greek commanders disagreed about where to finally fight. Some thought it best to defend their own coastlines. To keep the alliance together, Themistocles even consorted with the enemy. He sent a messenger to the Persians who described how the terrorized Greek alliance was falling apart. The Persians gleefully advanced their land forces forward enclosing the land support of the Greek navies. Now for the Greeks there could be no retreat or desertion. Finally, they all agreed to follow Themistocles' lead.


In the Battle of Salamis, the Greek fleet drew the Persians into a small bay northwest of Athens. There, the fast moving, maneuverable triremes surprised, trapped and destroyed a much larger Persian force. Cut off from their supply lines, the Persian army was weakened and decisively defeated at the battle of Platea


This miraculous campaign established Athens as the dominant power in the Aegean and set the stage for the seventy year period of economic growth and cultural achievement that we call the Greek Golden Age.


The First Work Of History (see notes from John Porter, U. of Sakatchewan)


The Persian Wars is regarded as the first work of "history" in the modern sense of the term — i.e. an objective, analytic account of the past that examines an earlier era or series of events by evaluating a wide range of sources and considering such things as socio-economic and political factors.


Herodotus wrote The Persian Wars more than sixty years after the events he describes. As a matter of fact, he was composing his story of the victorious alliance of Athens and Sparta against the Persians while these two city states were locked in a long, grueling struggle with each other, The Peloponnesian Wars. While Herodotus does glorify Athens in his treatment of Marathon and in his portrayal of Salamis as the crucial battle in the war, he is quite free with his praise of the Spartans as well, as in his description of Thermopylae and Plataea.


As always historians have a purpose in their retelling of the events of the past: what do you think was Herodotus' purpose?



The Evolution of History:


1. logographers ("recorders of stories/legends") Logographers recorded the local history of various city-states in mythological terms (ie. genealogical).


2. Hecataeus of Miletus (fl. late 6th century) responded to the increasing interest in foreign trade and travel by writing what could best be called travel guides. Known as a periplous (lit. "a sailing around"), this type of work originally was intended as a practical guide for mariners, who traditionally avoided the dangers of the open sea by hugging the coast in their journeys.


3. Rational Re-appraisal of Divine Law: Encounters with different cultures encouraged systematic reflection on the nature of human society and suggested that matters which the Greeks had always taken to be founded in immutable divine law, sanctioned by the Olympian gods, were in fact merely human inventions which other societies either ignored or directly contravened.


4. Physis vs. Nomos: Recognition of the diverse ways of different cultures led to a new and sharp distinction between things that existed according to physis ("nature”) and those that existed merely according to nomos ("custom”). 


Physis- the human animal needs food, water, air, warmth, and shelter or it will perish. The sex-drive also exists by physis, something that ensures the continuation of the race and is innate.

Nomos- Concern for the gods, however, or for fairness in one's dealings with others; taboos against murder or incest; religious practices of various sorts; fashions in clothing or in diet.

The physis-nomos distinction suggested a different view of nomos, as something arbitrary. Nomos came to be considered mere human convention, as the studies of the ethnographers indicated and not essential to our physis (self-interest, defined in the narrowest of terms). In fact, these conventions could be viewed as chains upon physis, arbitrarily limiting the individual's scope of action.


5. Herodotus' use of the term historia ("inquiry" or "research") in the opening sentence of his work marks him as a product of an age that was beginning to question the older mytho-poetic tradition. History for Herodotus is not merely a series of random events or a matter of socio-economic forces, but rather history provides an insight into the working of divine justice. For Herodotus, the justice of the gods is difficult to divine in advance but operates according to the set principles of: 1) miasma (inherited guilt) 2) dikę (justice) and 3) hubris (pride).