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Herodotus' twenty-fifth logos: winter

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The Aegean region in the fifth century BCE. Design Jona Lendering.

Winter (8.97-144)

The day after the naval battle off Salamis, the Persian king Xerxes orders the construction of a mole between the mainland and Salamis; most people think he wants to continue the struggle, but Herodotus knows that it was just a cover-up for the preparations of his flight.

The Persian general Mardonius convinces the great king that it is better to keep an army of moderate dimensions in Thessaly and Macedonia; a smaller army will succeed where Xerxes' oversized army had failed. The king agrees and appoints Mardonius as commander in chief of his European army. The Persian navy is ordered to protect the bridges across the Hellespont. Herodotus describes the army's retreat to Asia as a disaster of apocalyptic dimensions. Because supplies are running out, the soldiers are forced to eat grass.

When the Athenian admiral Themistocles learns of the Persian retreat, he proposes a raid on the bridges, which will make it impossible for Xerxes and his army to return. His superior, the Spartan admiral Eurybiades, overrules him, arguing that it is better to allow the enemy to flee. The Athenian admiral accepts this decision and sends a messenger to the great king that he has persuaded the Greeks not to attack the bridge. Xerxes believes this, and Herodotus adds that this message saved Themistocles' life when he fell in disfavor in Athens: several years after the war, the man who had saved Greece was welcomed at the Persian court.

After describing Greek celebrations and sacrifices, Herodotus tells how the Greek towns in the Chalkidike (Olynthus and Potidaea) revolt against the Persians during the winter. When the spring comes, a small Greek navy gathers at Aegina and crosses to the holy island Delos. The Spartan king Leotychides, who commands this navy, refuses to go any further.

Meanwhile, Mardonius launches a diplomatic offensive. He consults the Greek oracles and sends the Macedonian king Alexander to Athens. (Herodotus digresses on the Greek origin of the Macedonian royal house.) Alexander offers the Athenians favorable terms: if they surrender and join the Persians, their city will not be destroyed again, Xerxes will pay for the rebuilding of the Parthenon, and they may add extra territories to their realm. When the Spartans hear from this diplomatic move, they are seriously alarmed and send envoys to Athens. The ambassadors learn that the Athenians will never surrender, but insist on a Spartan mobilization.
 

Herodotus
Mardonius





































 

Bust of Themistocles. Museo Ostiense, Ostia antica (Italy). Photo Jona Lendering.
Bust of Themistocles
(Museo Ostiense, Ostia; **)

Comment

This logos lacks the unity of the preceding logoi, which were dedicated to one theme. Instead, we learn about several army and navy movements and diplomatic exchanges. Except for the excursus on the ancestors of Alexander of Macedonia (text; this Alexander is of course not to be confused with Alexander the Great), we meet another Herodotus - an almost scientific historian, comparable to his younger contemporary Thucydides.

Herodotus presents Xerxes' retreat as a humiliating flight. In fact, it was a calm retreat at a leisurely pace: Xerxes traveled in forty-five days from Thessaly to the bridge between Sestos and Abydus, some fifteen kilometers a day.

Our historian also tells a story about two messengers arriving in the Persian capital, the first causing great joy with his news about the capture of Athens, the second causing great mourning with his report of the defeat at Salamis, murning that lasts until Xerxes' return. The story about the messengers may be true, but strongly resembles Aeschylus' tragedy The Persians. This may be the source of Herodotus' story.

As we have already seen above, it is unlikely that the Persians felt they had been defeated. Of course, the Greek navy had prevented the invasion of the Peloponnese, but Mardonius would be able to mop up the last resistance.

It should be stressed that the Athenian refusal to surrender was a decisive moment in the war. Mardonius' proposal was excellent, and their behavior was almost stupid. It was the stubborn Athenian refusal, which meant that the city would be plundered again, that decided the war in favor of the Greeks.
 



Literature

  • J.P. Barron, 'The liberation of Greece', in: the Cambridge ancient history, 2nd ed, vol.4, pages 592-622
  • Andrew R. Burn, Persia and the Greeks. The Defence of the West, c.546-478 B.C. (1962 London) pages 489-507
  • C. Hignett, Xerxes' invasion of Greece (1963, Oxford), pages 264-288

 
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