Analysis of Herodotus: Book Five

The narrative of Herodotus’ history begins to pick up substantially in Book Five; much of the ethnographic and geographic descriptions are sidelined. Herodotus’ descriptions of the Ionian Revolt, its implications of Athens and Sparta, give the reader a greater insight into his own political views and how this influenced his history.

The conquering of Ionia

It is interesting that at the beginning of Book Five Darius makes use of Histiaeus and other tyrants along with Megabyzus to conquer parts of Greece. It was not considered a particularly wealthy area, and as is revealed in Book One and Five, the Persians had very little knowledge of the most famous Greek states: Athens and Sparta. His motive can be speculated at, with the most logical conclusion (based on his expansionism in Book Three and Book Four) to have been the acquisition of power and status over other countries.

Several interesting anecdotes are relayed to the reader about the conquest of these areas, the most interesting being that of the attempted conquest of Macedonia. The use of deceit by Alexander of Macedon to lure the Persians to their deaths is entertaining. Furthermore, the reader learns that Darius was reliant on a series of military leaders to carry out the ground operations necessary to the Empire’s existence. The bribery of one of these leaders by the Macedonians shows the precarious structure of the Empire, an observation which will become more relevant later.

Alexander I.jpg
The coin of Alexander I of Macedon


It appears as though Darius’ undoing is the system he has put in place to rule conquered lands. This is most apparent in the case of Histiaeus of Miletus since his removal of him to another land causes resentment and fear for the tyrant. Despite the alleged close friendship between the two, Histiaeus soon tries to revolt so as to create a reason to return to Miletus (by having his second in command, Aristagoras, rebel in the Persian-Greco conquest of Naxos).

The tension between the tyrant and Darius is ultimately the cause of failure. Whilst Herodotus offers a noble motive to Histiaeus, I don’t think it is too far to suggest that he had greater ambitions of power in his own land; if he did not, why not simply make greater use of his friendship to acquire favors from Darius? As shown in the execution of Orestes in Book Three, ambition and rebellion from Darius’ satraps was not uncommon and therefore this is a justified speculation.

Regardless of this, Aristagoras’ own ambition took to new heights. He certainly was an interesting figure since he went to such great lengths to ensure that the rebellion was not a mere minor distraction, but the beginning of a greater conflict between two peoples. His pleading to Cleomones of Sparta is especially revealing for two reasons. Firstly, he appeals to the Spartans on purely materialist persuasions- he tries to convince them it is in their best interest, thus revealing the revolt was not romantic, but pragmatic. Secondly, it reveals the staunchly conservative nature of the Spartans: even after hearing of all the brilliant and fantastic resources to be gained in a three month journey, they decide it is too far from the sea to pursue. This reaffirms what the historian Donald Kagan has said about the Spartans: they were always eager to stay put out of fear of the Argives and helot revolts.


Athenian rebellion, democracy and Spartan reaction

The revolution at Athens plays a central role in the Book, not just in narrative but in Herodotus’ intentions as well. Despite a failed assassination by two young men of Hippias (which is further detailed in Thucydides’ work since he deems the previous histories about the topic to be weak and shallow) it is not till the Alcmeonidae step in and put their efforts to overthrowing the tyranny that it happens. They are an interesting family since their role extends into later Athenian history through Pericles and his democratic reforms but also because they toppled the tyranny externally. We know from Thucydides and Book One of Herodotus that they were an aristocratic family and not involved initially with the people that Cleisthenes and Pericles would supposedly champion. In a dramatic twist, the tyrants are overthrown by the Spartan forces sent by Cleomenes and not by the Alcmeonidae directly. Instead their influence is more canny: they bribed the Oracles to mislead the Spartan forces. I say this is dramatic because Athens will become the greatest rival to Sparta, a fact soon acknowledged by the Spartans.

The plot thickens with the introduction of the factions of Isogaras and Cleisthenes. Herodotus gives little sense to demographic, social and economic make up of their followings beyond a vague description of the ‘people’ supporting Cleisthenes, and Spartans supporting Isogaras. One could speculate, since Cleisthenes brought in democratic reform and his descendants continued this, that he represented the hoplites and the merchant classes, as oppose to the conservative aristocrats. Ultimately, it is through cunning that Cleisthenes secures his power since he increased the number of tribes from four to ten and introduced the deme as a greater unit of dividing Attic territory up. Ultimately, it is rational reform in this instance which seizes the day for the Athenians under Cleisthenes.

I will draw back to my analysis of Book Three now. In Book Three the choice between democracy is made clear to the Persian conspirators led by Otanes and it is passed down in favor of the traditional system the Persians used. This is the condoning of poor leadership and the lack of challenge to such leadership which, especially under Xerxes, will prove to be disastrous. Here, we see the Athenians making the latter choice and the growth and success of their nation. There is no coincidence that this is discussed in detail in Book Five. For example, the Corinthians chastise the Spartans for giving asylum to Hippias and attempting to reinstall him as the tyrant of Athens. The Corinthians draw upon their own suffering under tyrants, particularly Periander who is accused of necrophilia and shaming women by burning their clothes in a deranged, paganistic ritual to make amends to his wife. Interestingly, the notion of poor leadership, tyranny and cruelty in monarchs is very similar to that stated by one of the conspirators in Book Three. I think Herodotus is drawing our attention to the very different path that the Hellenic world is undertaking, since whilst they don’t all embrace democracy, they begin to challenge authority and tradition. I think this passage should be examined regardless since the dynamics between the Corinthians and the Spartans is one of the Corinthians being able to challenge Spartan authority: a theme that appears in Thucydides.

Herodotus makes two claims about democracy, one which is explicit and commonly referred, and the other which is not. The first is that the Athenians were made better citizens and soldiers by their new rule since there was freedom for the individual and therefore self interest in achieving and being successful. Though the Spartans describe this as making Athenians arrogant, it seems to be a true claim. Firstly, this is because it tests well logically and also because in history it seems to be true compared to other civilizations. Countries which gradually gave freedom and liberty to their citizens rapidly developed and improved. In addition, the Athenians fight both the Boeotians, the Chalecidians and the Aeginetans in Book Five with success. All one needs to think of is the USA and Great Britain. In addition, Victor Davis Hanson’s research on the hoplite also reinforces this. This is because he argues that Greek society was distinguished from others because of the hoplites working the fields and fighting. He argues that most Greek society stayed the same because hoplites gained a level of political freedom and participation and this would only change if the hoplite changed. By incorporating equality before the law one could argue that this would change the hoplite mentality.

The second thing Herodotus says is that when Aristagoras went before the Athenian assembly they were much more easily persuaded than one man. This is not something often picked up on but it can suggest two things about Herodotus’ own views. On the one hand it could suggest that Herodotus was aware of the criticisms of democracy. This is supported by the context of his own lifetime (The Peloponnesian War) and also in the hubris that comes with the lack of checks and balances in power. Analysis of Pericles’ speeches reveals a standard set of limitless expansion and imperialism and therefore causing a perpetual war with other states. However, one could see his claim here as merely descriptive and his history as being objective. Either way, it reveal Herodotus as a purposeful historian and not a fabricator of lies.


Rebellion put down

The sense that Herodotus was making a point about democracy and Athens is ascertained from the fact that it takes a large amount of Book Five despite being relatively unimportant in the grand scheme of the Ionian Revolt. The Athenians join in the sack of Sardis and a second battle with the Persians but soon retreat after defeat.

Herodotus’ history does improve in the final part of Book Five. The descriptions of battles between the Ionians and the Persians are riveting and convey a certain sense of heroism. Whilst these battles were not in living memory, they serve as a testimony to Herodotus as the historian since he draws upon the magnitude and heroism of battles fought for the freedom of people close to his time. His descriptions of the Carians and their eventual destruction, despite Milesian reinforcement, are moving.

The Revolt ends with the death of Aristagoras, its ambitious founder. He died on the retreat when he accidentally encounters troops loyal to the Persians. What is so interesting is that it is clear that he has pragmatic and selfish motives at heart in causing unrest, Herodotus makes this clear, but what comes about is the genuine tale of liberation for a people.

Ruins at Sardis


Book Five is the culmination of Herodotus’ writing so far. This is the Book in which the reader sees the recognition he deserves for his history. Not only does he provide the next step in Greek heroism from Homer, but also the complex political and social changes that were going on. In a sense, this is Herodotus providing the first true Greek history, particularly for the Athenians, their individuality was written into these events.  From here the reader learns about the divides between Sparta and Athens and the dangers both states face.



Additional Notes

  • The use of the ‘Alcmeonidae curse’ by Isagoras and the Spartans is evidence of what Kagan calls ‘psychological warfare’. Megacles also had this happen to him in Book One and it confirms that this was an effective tactic when used in Book One of Thucydides
  • The Athenians immediately fought with the Boeotian and the Chalcidians after they gained their independence. The Aeginetans joined in with what Herodotus describes as ‘pleasure’ due to an older feud between the two states.

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