Analysis of Herodotus: Book Nine

Herodotus’ concluding book ties all loose ends and draws the main part of the conflict between the Persians and the Greeks to a close. The reader not only learns of the widening differences between the Spartans and Athenians but also how Herodotus’ own views have shaped the text.

Mardonius

The Book begins with Mardonius, Xerxes’ second in command, desperately picking up the pieces of Xerxes’ failed invasion. This should not invoke sympathy, after all, he was responsible for urging Xerxes into fighting the war in the first place and he provided little tactical or strategic advice of any worth. We are reminded of his difficult position from the last book: he needs to please his King yet he is desperate not to be overthrown or defeated. Once again, Herodotus shows that the follies of man are often of their own causing; this is an interesting view from a man who accounts for the intervention of the Gods.

Mardonius is shown to make his next move on the Greeks by invading Attica for the second time and capturing Athens. However, like much of the Persian campaign, this is a superficial move this Athens has been evacuated and much of the sacred buildings previously burned and destroyed. Herodotus does not slander Mardonius or completely criticize his every move. He does attribute the delayed destruction of the Attic area due to Mardonius’ wish to be reasonable and reach a truce with the Athenians.

What makes him a truly failed leader is his inability to exploit the Greek weakness at this point: the division between Athenians and Spartans. These two factions have always had their divisions but with the wall across the Isthmus nearly built, the Spartans would have good reason to withdraw their troops and the Athenians would have to abandon any alliance. Instead, he marched his troops into Boeotia and attempts to build a wooden fortress. In some ways he improves upon his Persian predecessors. He has local support since many Boeotians have allied themselves to his cause. However, his action of rooting himself down in enemy territory appears to be reminiscent of Darius in Book Four in Scythia and symbolic of Mardonius’ lack of confidence in his military expedition.

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Athens today

Battle of Plataea

The actual Battle of Plataea, which takes place after Mardonius leaves his wooden fortress, is not given pages upon pages of description. The lead up to the Battle is and many significant details can be gleaned in these observations. Both sides are shown to be superstitious and religious with both using diviners and the contents of intestines to determine when the battle should be fought. In the case of Mardonius this is revealed to be strategic since he uses it as a way of not engaging with the Spartans. However, in the case of the Spartans this is significant, partly  because they make greater use of diviners throughout Thucydides’ history as well. This also allows the Athenians and Spartans to be distinguished at this point since the Athenians do not make as much use of the diviners as the Spartans.

In the course of the preparation, the Athenians win over the right to lead the right flank from the Arcadians. I report this since it is significant as it shows the growing and developing relations between the Greek nations; a theme that becomes more important in the Peloponnesian Wars. In addition, it allows the Spartans and the Athenians to work in sync and use strategy to throw Mardonius’ army as they switch flanks before battle is met. Again, the Greeks win the battle due to their superior tactics. They use similar tactics and strategies to Thermopylae by leading the Persians away from the battle and then turning on them when they least expect it.

Much of what happened before at Plataea is repeated again through Mardonius this time. He argues with his Greek slave, much like Xerxes and Demaratus, about the tactics and warfare of the Greeks. Once again, it is the failure to understand the opponent which leads to their demise and Mardonius is slain. In reinforcing what I think is Herodotus’ view about history, Mardonius previously promised the Spartans their desert for Thermopylae; the Spartans ultimately get this. Therefore, it is personal failings and arrogance which cause defeat and loss. Herodotus seems to reinforce this by arguing that the war was ultimately going to be decided by the Persians. Here we see his judgement that history is decided upon the natural forces of men, their reason and ability to understand and not the Gods. Though he qualifies this by saying that Demeter’s shrine was not encroached upon because of her intervention in the battle preventing Persians from nearing it, this suggests his view of the Gods is that they interfere only in their matters. The majority of mankind’s history, it would seem Herodotus thinks, is decided by man.

The Spartan leader Pausanias is shown to have benefited from his victory at Plataea. He is described as being enriched by his victory. It is interesting that Herodotus does not mention later allegations of treachery that Pausanias will face and he is shown with a halo above his head when Herodotus describes how he refused to mutilate Mardonius’ corpse in revenge for Leonidas. I mention this because Thucydides does relate this in Book One of his work and thus it could show a differing opinion of the Spartans. More interesting is the meal Pausanias orders the Persian cook to prepare. In comparing the Persian’s lavish food to that of the dour Spartan food he mocks the Persians for wanting to invade Sparta. The tale’s importance really goes to relate back to Cyrus’s feast he held for the Persians before they fought the Medes. The original tale is Cyrus’s way of persuading the Persians to fight back so as to gain a lavish, material wealth. However, this shows how it has been perverted by Xerxes since they are now risking their Empire on an invasion in which they would gain very little. In many ways this shows how the Persians forgot reason in the pursuit of power and status.

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Plataea today

Mycale 

Whilst the Plataean battle commences the Greeks sailed to Mycale to defeat the Persians. Herodotus does give more evidence of his beliefs on the divine here, stating that it must have been divine intervention which allowed the Greeks to fight in the same place at the same time. However, I think this comment is largely trivial: two events coinciding of such great importance will always attract attention and depending on how superstitious or religious one is, it will either be counted as religious or just coincidence. In the battle it self, Leotychidas, in order to secure the battle, uses Themistocles’ tactic of trying to persuade the Ionians on the shore to switch sides. It has a similar impact as it did at Artemisium. However, it is the Greek determination that wins the battle as the soldiers are described as ravaging the armies on the shore and burning the hall that others reside in to the ground.

After this event, one of the most important parts of Greek history happens: the formation of the Delian League. This happens when the Athenians, refusing to depopulate Ionia and seize colonies from Boeotian traitors, decide to ally themselves with other Ionians. This essentially ends the dominance of the Spartans over defining Ionia since the Athenians decide they are willing to be independent even if it means having to defend themselves against the Spartans. What is also puzzling is why Herodotus did not give more attention over to this event? It does seem strange as it will go on to dominate political and military events in the history to come (and in Herodotus’ own time). One could argue that he did not have the sources to comment on the events that occurred or perhaps he did not see them as relevant to the conflict between Persia and Greece. Perhaps equally as telling is how the Spartans do not decide to end the conflict with Persia by sailing to the Hellespont. Strategic explanations have been offered by Kagan, who hypothesized that this was because they had to return to Sparta to prevent either a helot or Argive attack. However, symbolically it shows the conservative retreat the Spartans would make and the Athenian’s forward approach to affairs.

Before Herodotus ends his History he recounts how Xerxes had lusted after different people’s wives and how he had tried to secure their love. This anecdote confirms certain elements of Xerxes’ character already previously known, such as indecisiveness. However, I think it serves another purpose and that it must since it is placed, rather peculiarly, after Xerxes has exited the History. His infidelity and lust after women does bear some similarity to Candaules’ behavior in Book One such as trying to arrange manipulations of women. Many times in the history, women are recounted to be the cause of issues for leaders and this now seems to show that being sexually immoral is indicative of a greater character flaw. This seems true in the present times with politicians who are caught adulterating often being fraudulent and corrupt in other ways.

Returning to the final pages of the History, Herodotus recounts how the Athenians under Xanthippus crucified Arctyates and stoned his son to death in front of him. The Athenians, we are told, then dismantled the bridge and offered the materials to their gods in temples. The ending here of the Athenian’s history is unbelievably bloody and barbaric. This goes to challenge any reader who believes Herodotus was a pusher of the ‘clash of civilizations’ esque argument. His final remarks concern Cyrus. This is the conclusive proof that his History was written with specific purposes and hypotheses in mind. Cyrus’s words seem to indicate that the Persians should be weary of expansion and invading other lands because of the nature of the people’s on them, he ultimately encourages them to remain masters of what they own. I believe Herodotus’ message extends beyond this. His history stands testament to what can be known about the history of other peoples. I think this inclusion thus is a mockery of the Persians as it offers a misunderstood reason for they could lose and be conquered as slaves.

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Xanthippus

Conclusion

Herodotus sets out in Book One to investigate the causes of why things happen and why things are the way they are. He calls his work an investigation and something to be prized throughout the ages. In Book One this may seem like pompous talk, but by Book Nine his purpose has been fully realized: the investigation is a prize in of itself as it not only presents findings but the method and reason for making those findings in the first place. Above all Herodotus documents the failure of humans to reason and to think. Too often people of all races and nations resort to base emotions of anger, jealousy and fear. Herodotus’ history shows the value that a scientific study of the world can have and that all details are relevant. For those who think Herodotus is the ‘Father of lies’ or unscientific, they are mistaken: Herodotus defines the study of history.

T.P.

 

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