Analysis of Herodotus: Book Seven

Herodotus’ seventh book brings together many of the strands developed in previous books of hubris, Greek development and the clash of civilizations. This rests on an interpretation of Herodotus which states he was a purposeful, subtle historian, one which I agree with.

Darius’ last days

Herodotus opens with the failure of Darius to comprehend his armies’ defeat at Marathon and his decision to invade Greece. This is all indicative of the arrogance of Persian kings from Cyrus through to Xerxes since it is Athens’s size which should act evidence for the Persians that size and established power is not all that is required for effective rule and military success. This message is seemingly reinforced by the news that Darius received after that Egypt had revolted, showing his control over the Empire waned and was problematic. Like Cyrus and Cambyses he ended his reign with failure which was the reflection of arrogant leadership and shortsightedness.


Unfortunately, the education history provides all with was lost on the rising prince in Persia. Xerxes is told by Herodotus to have not been Darius’ eldest son but instead the first born son of the daughter of Cyrus. Whilst this gives some legitimacy to his claim to being ruler, when compared to the madness of Cambyses, an actual son of Cyrus, this claim immediately appears weak to the reader. Interestingly, he becomes king through the machinations of the former King of Sparta, Demaratus. Demaratus will go on to be a wise adviser to Xerxes, unfortunately, his advice is not heeded to at times of import.

In presenting the debates around the invasion of Greece, a task Xerxes is showed to be incapable of doing, Herodotus shows his key character failing. Xerxes is despotic and tyrannical, but he is also weak and indecisive. At an important time in the existence of the Empire, facing a rebellious group of nations, he is swayed by Mardonius’ arguments to launch into a rash attack against the Ionians. Whilst Mardonius puts forward a convincing argument, that invasion will punish the Greeks and give greater way to expanding the Empire, Herodotus clearly shows that this is rooted in his own self interest. The fact Herodotus gives little attention to his sources in this part would suggest that this may have been his hypothesis, further strengthening the argument that Herodotus was shaping this Book to make a point about the nature of rule and despotism.

Xerxes’ failings continue since not only is he easily swayed but he is shown to be ignorant and dismissive of his uncle, Artabanes’. This is of course problematic since his uncle points out that Mardonius has selfish intentions in persuading the King to go to war, though this is conveniently ignored by Xerxes. Fundamentally he is fundamentally despotic since even after it is  pointed out that Xerxes will be defeated as his father was in Scythia (they will rout them and then deconstruct Hellespont bridge) he refuses to acknowledge this evidence. Furthermore, he is shown to be weak and unsure of his own command. For example, he asks that Artabanes go to his bed as he would so as to invoke a dream giving prophesies. His issue is thus that he acts despotically but ineffectively since he is unsure of his own decisions.


The crossing and invasion of Greece

Xerxes personal failings are symbolized in his actual invasion of Greece. He decides he will enter Greece by constructing canals and the bridge at the Hellespont but with such drama and stagecraft so as to prove his might. Herodotus devotes pages to carefully listing the armies, their equipment, their country of origin and their military statuses who come with Xerxes to Greece. One cannot help but feel that this is Herodotus showing the complete ridiculousness of Xerxes’ nature. His observation of the failure at Marathon is the numbers, whilst numbers of course did not cause the Athenian victory. His misdiagnosis and flaunting of his military strength becomes evidence of his failings as a leader and signposts to the reader that the expedition itself would fail. Later, when he crosses the Hellespont and offers the sword, cup and bowl to the Gods, he shows himself to be a dramatist and peacock. Ironically, this magnificent display sets him up for failure.

His tyrannical, dictator like cruelty is on full display in the journey into Greece. This is made apparent in the murder of a patron’s eldest son who he wanted to stay behind to look after him. The patron’s crime was to think that he was above the status of a slave, which is everyone in Xerxes’ eyes excluding his own person. This behavior is the kind of Saddam Hussein and Joseph Stalin and thus Herodotus’ characterization is worth its study since it provides some psychological insight into the mind of dictators. He does display some compassion: on looking out on his vast army, he notes how it is sad that all men will cease to be. Artabanes counters saying  the sadness comes from the fact that the Gods make life sweet enough to be missed. This conversation also has hints of Solon’s discussion in Book One. There is thus the suggestion that failure to understand happiness is coming back to haunt leadership. This raises the question of whether Herodotus is making a judgement about humanities’ inability to understand happiness throughout the History.

Herodotus also shows through the eyes of Demaratus that Xerxes is destined to fail. The reader is presented with two contrasting images of Xerxes’ expedition: that of the physical armies and the inner workings of Xerxes’ strategy, one is magnificent, the other weak. Demaratus points out that the Greeks will not so easily be pushed over and will fight for their freedom. He argues that the Greek’s strength comes from an obedience to the law which Xerxes is obliged to dismiss. The irony is that misunderstanding of other cultures and peoples has led to the defeat of the Persians time and time again. Darius fundamentally failed to conquer Scythia because he failed to see how their way of living would make a traditional invasion useless. Xerxes here is ignoring a vital source of information about the Greeks: their former king. As a general comment on Herodotus’ writing, these passages could be Herodotus is writing himself into the narrative. He is saying that the studies of culture, heritage and history are essential because these are organs of society which are connected to geopolitics.

The Hellespont with modern settlements

Athens joins

Herodotus’ complexity as a historian is only further developed in this passage since he makes use of the modern idea of the counter-factual. Whilst he used it earlier in the history his use is most obvious here. He argues that Athens was essential to the liberation of Greece because without it the Spartans would have been cut off and would eventually have been defeated. This use of the counter-factual could point to Herodotus’ favored side in the war. Whilst he does, in Book Eight, provide further evidence of his support for the Athenians this is by no means conclusively true. The need for the Spartan troops and aid at Thermopylae show how much of the Athenian strategy rested on Spartan co-operation.

An interesting passage is that of the Athenians debating with the message of the Oracle of Delphi over whether they should fight in the oncoming war. Thucydides rarely shows the Athenians consulting any form of religious authority, with the Dorians being more preoccupied with religious matters. However, this is evidence that consultation with the Oracle was not uncommon. The eventual decision to side with Themistocles regardless and dismiss the Oracles’ message is also revealing of the Athenians. Ultimately, they are shown to favor the opinion of man over the divine and practical, reason over hypothetical superstition. This all seems to be true since much of Pericles’ later leadership in Athens promotes the limitless expansion of the Athenians and joins the achievements of the ancestors, the dead and current Athenians with the man made creation of the city-state. A Straussian reading would definitely agree that the Athenians had a godless streak within them (further supported by Cleisthenes’ deceitful use of the Oracle to persuade the Spartans to aid them).

The peak of Athenian pragmatism and reason is shown in these passages. Firstly, the leadership of Themistocles is fixed upon the development of a navy, utilizing the recently developed silver mines to fund this. This shows the elevation of the community and development of the Athenians, a departure from some of the later hyper-realist acts of Themistocles. Secondly, the Athenians do attempt to build alliances. Their efforts with Sparta manage to overcome their ‘Athenian Exceptionalism’ (i.e. claiming rights to leadership because of their ancient Ionian status) and they put aside their feuds with the Aeginetans in order to gain an alliance. Even their attempts to recruit the Syracusans, which are marked with bitterness, show their willingness to compromise. They ultimately cannot recruit the Syracusans, not because of their arrogance or obstinacy, but because of their agreement with the Spartans. As a side note, the Syracusans attack the Athenians for wanting everything but not being willing to concede anything. Interestingly, this does not describe the Athenians now, but it is an accurate description of their interests in the late 5th century when they are not willing to compromise Alcibiades’ imperialism with Nicias’ realism and invade Sicily. My own constant comparison between these passages of Herodotus and Thucydides are deliberate: this is because there is a development of portrayal of sophisticated diplomacy many critics associate only with Thucydides.



Sparta encounters similar issues that the Athenians had. They try to attempt compromise with the Argives, their long standing enemy, but to little success. Herodotus does show some pan-Hellenic unity with the Athenians and Spartans working together by positioning land forces first in Thessaly, then at Thermopylae and moving fleet to Artemisium. The Athenian’s dominance of naval matters and Sparta’s primacy in hoplite military strategy shows that the two are natural allies and not enemies. This accounts for much of the awkward ‘intercourse’ of the early stages of the Peloponnesian War in which the Spartans ravage Attica by foot whilst the Athenians target Spartan allied islands and carry out naval raids.

Herodotus once again draws the reader’s attention back to Solon’s words in Book One. According to Herodotus, the Spartans claim that they should not fear Xerxes since the greater the man, the greater his fall will be when his luck runs out. Once again the words of Solon about chance, success and leadership come back to haunt Xerxes. Herodotus ultimately knows this will happen since he lives in the post-invasion Greece and thus he could be applying his interpretation to history which is empirically true. Modern historians do similar things, whether intentional or not; Prof. Simms in his work Three Victories and a Defeat works from the premise that British policy was successful when working with Europe and he then analyses history from this viewpoint.

The actions of the Spartans in the battle show that Herodotus is true in this respect. Though vastly outnumbered (the three hundred Spartans is true, albeit they have support from helots and other Greeks). They lead Xerxes’ army into the pass only to turn on the army and annihilate them one by one. This of course plays on the arrogance of the Persians, who through Xerxes, already revealed that they believed Greeks would always flee at the sight of them. Demaratus clearly understood the Spartan tactic and thus berated Xerxes for not listening. Once again Xerxes’s arrogance was his downfall.

Thermopylae by Jacques Louis David, 1814

Though the Spartans were eventually defeated, this was not through the military expertise or strategic thinking of the Persians. Ultimately, they are aided by the actions of Ephialtes who reveals the hidden path through the pass which allows the ambush and final defeat of the Spartans. Xerxes does have the fortune of good luck in this instance, but as Solon said it would, this will quickly evaporate.

Herodotus also uses the battle to fulfill the typical duties of his role as a historian. He notes the Greeks of honor and especially the achievements of Leonidas. Importantly, many of those who were successful in the Battle were members of different parts of society, they were not all members of an aristocratic elite- this further reinforces Herodotus’ interest in society as a whole and with presenting a history for the Greek peoples.

Whilst Xerxes mutilates Leonidas’ body – an act that Herodotus denigrates as a truly despicable act- Demaratus advises attacking Sparta from an island. This seems to be a good piece of advice since the Spartans cannot abide the attack on their land. This raises the questions of Demaratus’ loyalty and where his heart truly resides. His character is resolved since Herodotus reveals that Demaratus helped the Spartans by sending the wax tablet with message carved into wood. This makes us, the readers, think Demaratus is wise after Xerxes’ adviser just chastised him and thus restores the reader’s faith. Importantly, though he helps the Persians, wisdom is shown to be present in all armies and civilizations. Herodotus thus shows it is the civilization that decides to utilize reason and experience which will be effective.

Memorial at Thermopylae


Herodotus’ depiction of the events not only shows his complexity and intrigue as a historian but shows the Spartans and Athenians in a new light. Athens is shown as pragmatic and reasoned, willing to make compromises with previous enemies and not quite destined for a path of hubris and eventual destruction. The Spartans make a Thermopylae the ultimate sacrifice and thus are made heroes in this tale; something which their words of wisdom before the battle shows is fitting of them. However, Herodotus also uses this history to show the need for the study of history itself by showing the failings of man when it places power with those who have no care for the study itself. Herodotus writes his own case into the failing of Xerxes.





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