Analysis of Herodotus: Book Six

Many of the trends Herodotus established in Book Five are continued in Book Six: the pace quickens and history becomes increasingly concerned with events in Athens and Sparta.

Ionia in rebellion

The account begins with the defeat of the Milesians and the other Ionians standing against Darius’ forces. Interestingly they are becoming more organised under the Phocians even practicing their naval manoeuvores. However, this ultimately fails to deter or prevent the Persians from encroaching and beating them.

When the Milesians were defeated and exiled from their city this is recorded as having an impact on the popular opinion in Athens. Herodotus shows his versatility as a historian in recording the influence that the play, The Fall of Miletus, had on the attitude of the Athenians. I mention this because it provides an insight into the culture of the Athenians and Herodotus’ use of sources.

Despite the devastating effect the play had on the emotions of the people, the Athenians were for the mean time, distant from the Revolt.


Sparta and Athens

Herodotus further illuminates on the relationship between Sparta and Athens. He does this by showing how the Spartans co-operated with the Athenians in their conflict with the Aeginetans. This is all based on the actions of one of their kings, Cleomenes and the claim that the Aeginetans had sided with Persia. Ultimately, this only leads to further divisions between the Spartan kings, however, there is a more interesting history being told at this point. This is in the fact that after the Aeginetans were beaten, the Spartans gave the Athenians the prisoners which they then refused to hand back to the Spartans. I mention this because the Spartans cite the example of Glaucus in their diplomacy with the Athenians, a man who did not give up his deposit and was subsequently punished by having his family and name expunged from the Spartan records. This is particularly revealing as it shows early examples of the reasoned, logical diplomacy that is evidenced in Thucydides’ work.


Herodotus then shows the reader the nature of the Spartan rule. Because of a myth, which is dubious in accuracy, the Spartans had two kings ruling at the same time. This of course was prone to causing conflicts and personal disputes amongst these kings. One of these disputes is relayed to the reader concerning Demaratus and Cleomenes. Cleomenes essentially conspired with Leotychidas to accuse Demaratus of not being the true king. This is supported by the lengthy anecdote of Ariston, Demaratus’ father, who was unable to conceive with any of his wives. This also reveal to the reader that the Spartan system, whilst being a monarchy, with the kings having the powers to go to war, was not a tyranny. This is because of the simple fact that the people could challenge their rulers and bring a court case against them.

Continuing the history of mad rulers, Cleomenes’ descent into madness is portrayed. This is first in that he slaughtered a number of innocent Argives and also this is shown by his failure to conquer all of Argos. This was leveled at him in a court case brought by the Spartan people against him, which although his justification that the gods didn’t want him to take Argos was accepted, is evidence of his erratic behavior. Herodotus reveals much about his own views when he describes this descent. He offers two reasons as to why Cleomenes descended into such madness. Firstly, he says the Spartans believed he had become made from drinking the stronger wines of the Scythians. Allegedly, a Scythian embassy had tried to persuade the Spartans to invade Persia and in their time in Sparta, drank frequently with him. However, Herodotus briefly says that the real reason that Cleomenes went mad was because of what he had done to his brother. Whilst this could be interpreted as being guilt, it seems likely that he meant this was some kind of punishment from the gods or karmic retribution. This affirms that Herodotus was moralistic and put much by the punishment brought about by hubris, suggesting that he constructed his history in a way that was deliberate.

Demaratus, the exiled King of Sparta


Mardonius’ punishment of the Ionians got gradually closer toward Athens. The Eritreans were the next group to suffer: their punishment of slavery for the women and castration for the youngest boys was truly barbaric and Darius’ defeat at Marathon was only fitting punishment for his own cruelty. After the defeat of the Eritreans the Athenians tried to gain the assistance of the Spartans, who cordially declined because of their participation in a religious ceremony. This seems to not have hindered the final result and contributed to the battle’s shaping of the Athenian people. This is a fact confirmed by the Spartans arrival at the battlefield to remark and appreciate the power of the Athenians.

Kagan has said that Hippias’ advice to the Persians is a lesson in not listening to exiles. When he landed in Greece he had the vision of copulating with his mother, and in another Freudian moment for an Athenian he believed that this was evidence of his impending victory. Almost poetically, his realization that the dream meant that only his tooth would be reclaimed by Attica coincides nicely with the Persians’ stunning defeat.

I will not bore any reader of this blog with the exact details of how the battle was won since Herodotus does a far better job and this is not the purpose of this analysis. Much more interesting is Miltiades’ use of reason and logic to persuade the War Archon to stay and fight the Persians. Interesting it is because of the arguments that he puts forward. He argues primarily that it has split the generals of Athens in two and therefore could only lead to civil war if they made no attack on the Persians. However, his appeal to the glory and material gain that could be won if the Persians were defeated is what wins over the Archon. This is significant since it shows a long history in Athens of the primacy of imperial expansion that they always sought after.

A map showing Marathon’s location


Continuing his analysis of the Athenians, Herodotus examines the Alcmeonidae more closely. I can only conclude that Herodotus examines Athenian expansion (as is discussed above) and the Alcmeonidae because these two were connected through Pericles in the Peloponnesian War (the time in which Herodotus wrote in). What is interesting is that he recounts how they were unfairly treated by the other Athenians, accused by some of trying to warn the Persians of the attack at Marathon. Herodotus provides an analysis of why this would be a ludicrous claim since the Alcmeonidae had been the ones who had ultimately expelled the Pisistratidae. He claims that they deserve more honor than the two lovers who tried to kill Hippias since Cleisthenes was actually successful. This analysis sheds light on the difficulties Pericles experienced with the Spartans invoking the Alcmeonidae curse and the people removing him from office. It reveals further that the Athenians had a great capacity for dishonorable behavior as the result of jealousy.

Herodotus clearly admired the entire ancestry since he carefully relates their history. Firstly, how Alcmeon became rich through pure luck and reward by Croesus but also how Megacles successfully married the daughter of Cleisthenes. Their shrewd capacity as political leaders definitely foreshadows the success that Pericles would later have. The maneuvering of Cleisthenes was present in a leader who could banish the son of one of Athens’s most distinguished military commanders.

Athenian expansion

The initial expansion of Athens began in Book Five with the continuous war between the Aegenitans and the Boeotians . It increases with the pledge of allegiance from the Plateans, who were clearly afraid of their Theban neighbors (a fear that would be justified in the Peloponnesian War). Athens’s power was now beginning to become an asset since smaller countries appealed to them for protection. This also moves them closer to being a match for the Spartans since they had a similar system.

However, it seems as though it was charismatic leadership which would cause the Athenian expansion. This would first be through Miltiades who appears immediately to be a rogue like figure because of his earlier betrayal of the Persians in Book Four and his constant evasions of assassination attempts. Under his leadership the Athenians give the thirty ships required to attempt to conquer Paria, Pelasgus and Lemnus. Though two one of these actually succeed, the seeds were sown for the expansion of the Athenian people. Herodotus describes no opposition from the Athenian people in giving the resources to undergo ill thought out expeditions. They do punish Miltiades for his failure, the bill being picked up by his son Cimon. This only reveals the other side to Athenian culture: the obstinate denial and failure to accept that expansion can fail. Their consistent reaction in punishing the individual leader is only evidence of their denial of the problems of a system which directly votes people into power who will carry out military expeditions.



Herodotus reveals much about his own method in this Book and the successes and failures of the people involved. The Book shows the cruelty of warfare as well as the advancing nature of diplomacy.In addition, the fractious nature of the Greeks with their inability to unite even at a time of existential threat. Furthermore, the identity of the Athenians and Spartans are developed and so the observational reader can see the origins of the crowds who believed Alcibiades’ invasion of Sicily was a sensible, realistic and pragmatic solution to a war.







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