Herodotus (4)

Herodotus of Halicarnassus (c.480-c.429 BCE): Greek researcher, often called the world's first historian. In The Histories, he describes the expansion of the Achaemenid Empire under its kings Cyrus the Great, Cambyses, and Darius I the Great, culminating in Xerxes' expedition to Greece (480 BCE), which met with disaster in the naval engagement at Salamis and the battles at Plataea and Mycale. Herodotus' book also contains ethnographic descriptions of the peoples that the Persians have conquered, fairy tales, gossip, and legends.

Herodotus on Causality


Herodotus is interested in the causes of the war he reports about, an interest he shares -to a certain extent- with Homer. The legendary bard, it will be remembered, started the Iliad with a request:

Sing, goddess, the wrath of ... Achilles ... Many brave men did it send down to the Underworld ... In this way, the counsels of Zeus were fulfilled, from the day on which Agamemnon ...and great Achilles first fell out with one another. And which of the gods was it that set them on to quarrel?

Homer discerned an immediate cause ('which of the gods was it that set them on to quarrel?') and a deeper cause ('the counsels of Zeus were fulfilled'). As we will see, Herodotus makes a similar distinction between immediate and deeper, divine causes. But he uses these concepts to explain a war, not a quarrel between heroes. Homer was not interested in war as such; to him, the Trojan War had been nothing but a stage for the real drama, the wrath of Achilles. That wrath had caused much grief, because Zeus had wanted it so, but the causes of the war itself were unimportant. Homer did not really want to know how and why the Greeks and Trojans had come to blows.

Herodotus, however, has a lot to say about the causes of war. It has his special interest, which comes as no surprise when we remember that he was writing The Histories during the outbreak of the Archidamian War (431-421 BCE). He mentions his interest in the prologue:

Herodotus of Halicarnassus hereby publishes the results of his inquiries, hoping to do two things: to preserve the memory of the past . . . . and to show how the two races came into conflict.

After these words, Herodotus tells some legendary tales that could have been told by any poet of his age: he presents us with a Greek saga about the causes of the wars between East and West, and adds Persian and Phoenician accounts - stories that he may have heard in the docklands of Halicarnassus or any town along the Mediterranean shores. Perhaps there is a homeric echo, because Herodotus' stories all have something to do with captive women; a quarrel about captive women can also be found in the first book of the Iliad. But in section five of Book One, Herodotus abruptly changes the subject.

So much for what the Persians and Phoenicians say; and I have no intention of passing judgment on its truth or falsity. I prefer to rely on my own knowledge, and to point out who it was in actual fact that first injured the Greeks.

This man was the Lydian king Croesus, who conquered the Greek towns in Asia, and thereby put into motion a violent system of attack and counter-attack. According to Herodotus, Croesus became overconfident after his successes against the Greeks, and recklessly attacked the Persians, who retaliated and conquered Lydia and its Greek subjects (maybe in 547 BCE). After a generation or two, the Greeks rose in rebellion, being helped by Athens. The Persians suppressed the rebellion, and -thirsty for revenge- attacked the Athenians, who defeated the invaders at Marathon. The Persians swore to avenge themselves, but Xerxes' expedition in 480 was a disaster; now it was the Greek turn to attack.

For the modern reader, this seems too simple: it is unlikely that all human affairs are determined by this pattern of  action - reaction. But Herodotus offers a more sophisticated interpretation of the events, for which there are no homeric parallels: no doubt, the Persian Wars were caused by the imperialist habit of the Persians. This is clearly indicated by the compository principle of The Histories: the Persians successively subject the Lydians, the Babylonians, the Indians, the Egyptians, the Scythians (although not all of them), the Libyans, the Thracians... Sooner or later, the Greek were to fight the ever-expanding Persian Empire.

'Imperialism' is therefore the real cause: not only was Herodotus the first one who asked why people fought a war, but he was also the first one who gave an abstract answer.

These two levels of causality are human. There is, however, a third, deepest, religious layer in Herodotus' thought, which he shared with bards like Homer. More than once, Herodotus states that the gods are envious of human happiness: the powerful will once be tempted to act beyond their means and be destroyed. Time and again, the gods tempt mortals to transgress the limits that are set to human greatness (Greek: hybris), so that even the greatest kings lose everything they have (example).

An illustration is the story of the Persian king Cambyses' behavior in Egypt. After he has conquered Egypt, he becomes reckless and attacks the holy Apis bull (the story is untrue, but that is not what interests us now), orders his brother Smerdis to be executed, begins an incestuous relation with two of his sisters, kills the son of his vizier, has twelve noblemen buried alive, and finally desecrates the Egyptian tombs and mummies. It is obvious to Herodotus, that Cambyses has transgressed certain limits. When he tells the story of Cambyses' death, he makes it clear that it was a divine punishment. Upon hearing about the rebellion of the Persian magoi, Cambyses

leapt upon his horse, meaning to march at speed to his capital and attack the disloyal magos. But as he was springing into the saddle, the cap fell off the sheath of his sword, exposing the blade, which pierced his thigh - just in the spot where he had previously struck Apis the sacred Egyptian bull.note

Herodotus was not the only one who thought about causality in theological terms. That hybris invoked retribution, was a pious and traditional explanation for the downfall of kings and the ensuing disasters for kingdoms.

Even the gods are - according to Herodotus - subject to this law, and human piety towards the gods cannot prevent mortal beings from misery. When Croesus, the devout king of Lydia who has sent unmatched presents to the god Apollo and his oracle in Delphi, is defeated by the Persians, he asks the god if it is the habit of Greek gods to be so unappreciative. The god of Delphi replies that not even he can escape destiny; even though he had been eager that the downfall of the Lydian monarchy occurred in the time of Croesus' sons rather than in his own, he had been unable to divert the course of Fate.