Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Saturday, July 29, 2017

HERODOTUS: History (Book 6)

In some ways reading Herodotus doesn’t feel like ancient history; it reads more like one of today’s national newspapers.  One common thread stays constant from ancient times down to our own; the fact that politicians always want more power.  It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about an ancient Greek tyrant, a Persian king, or a modern American politician.  They’re all after the same thing.  Change the names and places but the political motive always stays the same.  We can trace this in a story Herodotus tells about Histiaeus.  Histiaeus was a “tyrant of Miletus, who had been allowed by Darius to leave Susa, and come down to Sardis.”  Histiaeus had been driven out of Miletus by his fellow Greeks and sought refuge from the Persian king.  Darius accommodated his request and settled him comfortably in the Persian capital at Susa.  While Histiaeus was in Susa the Persians had to put down a Greek rebellion in Sardis and this is what brought him back there.  “On his arrival, being asked by Artaphernes, the Sardian satrap, what he thought was the reason that the Ionians had rebelled, Histiaeus made answer that he could not conceive, and it had astonished him greatly, pretending to be quite unconscious of the whole business.”  Artaphernes had been ruling as the Persian governor of Sardis and wanted to know why the Greeks had rebelled in the first place.  Histiaeus shrugged and said he didn’t have a clue.   “Artaphernes, however, who perceived that he was dealing dishonestly, and who had in fact full knowledge of the whole history of the outbreak, said to him, ‘I will tell thee how the case stands, Histiaeus: this shoe is of thy stitching; Aristagoras has but put it on.’"  Artaphernes was no fool.  On the surface the rebellion had been instigated by Aristagoras but the hand behind it all had been the hand of Histiaeus.  Histiaeus had planned the whole thing; Aristagoras had just put the plan into action.  Three men are involved in this story.  Darius is the generous and kind-hearted king who shelters Histiaeus.  Histiaeus is the double-dealing tyrant trying to get back into power through the kindness of Darius.  Artaphernes is loyal to his king and wants to protect Darius’s real interests.  He can see what’s going on.  But what can he do about it?

To find an answer we should look back to our reading of 2 Samuel.  There we find a parallel story.  David is like Darius, the generous and kind-hearted king.  Absalom is like Histiaeus and takes advantage of the king’s generosity.  Joab is commander and advisor to King David, just like Artaphernes is to Darius.  When Absalom leads a rebellion against David, David can’t bear to think of Absalom (his own son) being killed in battle.  So he commands the soldiers to spare Absalom if they can safely do so during the heat of battle.  Joab can see what’s going on and ends up killing Absalom himself.  Because Joab knows that if Absalom’s life is spared then David will pardon him and the danger to David’s political power (and even his life) will remain.  This is similar to what happened when Histiaeus “fell into the hands of the Persians…”  The Persians could have taken Histiaeus alive back to King Darius; just as Joab’s soldiers could have taken Absalom alive back to King David.  But Herodotus thinks “Now, had he been taken straightway before King Darius, I verily believe that he would have received no hurt, but the king would have freely forgiven him.”  This is what Joab thinks would have happened if Absalom had been taken alive back to King David.  The Persians could have taken Histiaeus back alive.  Herodotus goes on to say “Artaphernes, however, satrap of Sardis, and his captor Harpagus, on this very account (because they were afraid that, if Histiaeus escaped, he would be again received into high favour by the king) put him to death as soon as he arrived at Sardis.”  Darius probably would have granted clemency to Histiaeus, if he had the chance.  He didn’t get that chance.  Artaphernes, just like Joab in the story of Absalom, made sure of that.


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