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Saturday, January 12, 2013

HERODOTUS: The Persian Wars (Book Eight)

After the Persian Wars both sides were pretty banged up.  It’s amusing when Herodotus says that the Persians were too badly scared to risk sailing west of Samos and the Greeks did not dare to sail east of Delos.  In other words, the Persians didn’t want to get too close to the Greeks again and the Greeks didn’t want to get too close to the Persians either.  They both kept their distance.  So what did all this fighting and killing accomplish?  If nothing else, we have a theory of history developed by Herodotus.  Reading the Persian Wars is different from reading, say, Exodus.  In Exodus we learn a great deal about Moses and the Hebrews but very little about Pharaoh and the Egyptians.  The whole purpose of Exodus is to explain God’s plan in delivering the Hebrews from bondage, not to give a balanced historical account of events from both perspectives.  But in the Persian Wars Herodotus explores the motives and strategies of both sides.  And he does so in an even-handed way.  There are no good guys and bad guys in this story.  Unlike Pharaoh in Exodus, the main characters in the Persian Wars talk and act like real people.  One of the most fascinating characters is Themistocles.  Herodotus claims Themistocles had the highest reputation of the Greek commanders…  And the Greeks may very well have lost the war without him.  But the way he went about it won’t endear him to many readers.  Early in the war the Persians had a huge fleet off the coast of Euboea.  Greeks lived on that island and the only thing standing between them and the Persians was a loosely-knit Greek navy composed of ships from several neighboring city-states.  Euribyiades was one of the naval commanders and prepared to leave the Euobeans on their own.  So the Euboeans begged Eurybiades to stay at any rate long enough to allow them to move their children and servants to a safe place.  Eurybiades refused.  So the Euboeans went to Themistocles, the Athenian commander, and by a bribe of thirty talents persuaded him to make arrangements that the Greeks would stay and fight on the coast of Euboea…  Bribes apparently weren’t unusual in those days but this was still a lot of money.  The Euboeans paid Themistocles about $750,000 to protect them.  So what does Themistocles do with the money?  He bribed two of the naval commanders into staying: Adeimantus (3 talents) and Eurybiades (5 talents) yielded to bribery and the Euboeans got their wish.  What happened to the rest?  Themistocles kept the rest of the money himself.   War may be hell but it was very good for Themistocles.  He made over half million dollars on this little deal and he made more later on.  Herodotus doesn’t tell a moral story about an unselfish Greek hero delivering his people from the threat of Persian bondage.  Quite the opposite; Themistocles more or less robs his fellow Greeks: Themistocles, always greedy for money, sent demands to the other (Greek) islands… and he extorted money from the islanders.  The other commanders knew nothing of these proceedings.  Is this what they called leadership in those days?  But again, to give him his due, the Greeks would probably not have beaten back the Persians without Themistocles.   A far more likeable character is a Persian advisor named Artemisia.  She gave the best advice in the whole book when she told Xerxes: what pressing need have you to risk further actions at sea?  Have you not taken Athens, the main objective of the war? …If you rush into a naval action my fear is that the defeat of your fleet may involve the army too.  And she was right.  Xerxes should have just said “mission accomplished” and headed back home.  The naval battle was a disaster for the Persians, just as Artemisia had warned.  Without Herodotus we never would have heard of her.  Or any of the other fascinating characters we run across in the Persian Wars.  Herodotus long ago set high standards for historians because he was a good writer and a great storyteller.  History has never been the same.


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