Analysis of Herodotus: Book Eight

The war between the Persians and Greeks only intensifies in the second last Book of Herodotus’ history: this is the Book in which the prevailing forces of the Persians are finally reversed with their navy left defeated and their king in fear of the consequences. In addition, this Book highlights further the differences between Athens and Sparta as it establishes the conservative mindset of the Spartan people.

Artemisium and Salamis

As the Persians moved their forces to fight the Greeks at Artemisium it was the strategy of the Greeks which ensured their victory. This was especially vital since the Greeks were hopelessly outnumbered. Though Herodotus does give some figures pertaining to the number of Persian ships and sailors, these do seem far fetched. Once again it was Themistocles who provided much of the cunning strategy. According to Herodotus he left a message to the Ionians serving with Xerxes, which included some Carians, with the purpose of trying to separate them from the bulk of the Persian force. Herodotus notes the effectiveness of the strategy since it is clear that even if they had not switched sides, Xerxes would fear such actions and thus would prevent them from serving in the battles.

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Themistocles

 

Once again it is the supposed strengths of the Persians which turn out to be their ruin. In conventional warfare, it may seem wise to utilize the largest number of ships in a battle, especially when these far outnumber your opponent. However, this backfired on Xerxes since the smaller force of the Greeks could easily outmaneuver their ships and this caused crashes and rendered their navy useless. Furthermore, Xerxes’ arrogance and incompetency is proved beyond doubt by the poor quality of his force. Herodotus reveals that many of the marines and sailors were in fact unable to swim properly. This was of course a disastrous oversight of Xerxes and therefore reinforces my analysis of Book Seven since he failed to properly think about the invasion. The juxtaposition between leader and military in Book Seven seems all the more clear and it seems as though Herodotus is noting that magnitude and power of a civilization is no testimony to their intelligence or worth. One could take this further. Xerxes is mockingly described as Zeus by one of the Greeks at the Hellespont in Book Seven. Xerxes’ earthly power is obviously perceived by himself to be indicative of the power of the Gods. Herodotus is showing that the link between earthly power and the religious is non-existent and a false construction. This relates back to my analysis of Book Four as the Scythians answer only to Zeus and Hera and appear more skeptical of the power of man.

Xerxes continues this trend of unholiness and reacts in his way by having Athens burned with its temples destroyed. This is a disproportionate action in response to his own defeat, and thus insinuating of his dictatorial character.More importantly in this passage, is what we learn of the Athenians. They, the Athenians, abandon their city and are willing to give up their homes. This seems to suggest that their view of the polis is centered on the survival of their nation as a people and that they are a pragmatic people who are willing to make short term sacrifices in order to gain in the long term. This is not that unsurprising since Herodotus points out in Book One that many of the Ionians abandoned their homes such as the Carians and the Xanthians. Though it is odd given that the Athenians’ unique claim is that they are supposedly the only Greeks who have lived on their land for an eternity and thus have a unique connection.

All of this contrasts with the reaction of the Spartans. Though their land has not yet been ravaged by the Persians they worry far more about their state of affairs. For example they begin to build a wall to defend the Isthmus against the threat of the Persians. Further to, they also suggest that they will return to Sparta to defend, giving the Athenians a headache over getting them to defend Salamis and engage in a final naval battle. In defense of the Spartans, Herodotus does mention repeatedly the sacrifice they made in Book Seven in fighting at Thermopylae and thus they do deserve some credit and a diluted criticism. Though this does present a divide between the Spartans and the Athenians: the Spartans are so deeply connected to their way of life and land that they will not make a basic sacrifice for the greater survival of the Hellenic peoples, whilst the Athenians have given up their ancient city. However, once again this must be tempered; after all, the Athenians had colonies in Italy which they could have moved to and thus were just as willing to surrender the cause of the Hellenes.

The pragmatic leadership of Themistocles, according to Herodotus, is the cause of a second union between the two nations and the defeat of the Persians again. According to Herodotus, the Athenian used a messenger to alert Xerxes to their position and encourage a naval battle by admitting that the forces are divided. Ironically, Xerxes acting on this advice brings greater unity to the Greek forces and thus the defeat of Xerxes. This reinforces the reader’s image of Xerxes: he acts on advice from a Greek without questioning the ulterior motive of the Greeks. This is of course an obvious action in the course of war. Furthermore, he ignores Artemisia’s advice  with regards to the defeat of the Greeks. She correctly points out the need to destroy the Spartans and the method of creating fractious alliances: by invading Sparta. This, the reader knows from the debates, would lead to the Spartans abandoning the Athenians cause and sailing back. As an evaluative point, I would like to reinforce Herodotus’ characterization of Themistocles. By recounting the events Thucydides presents in his first Book, when Themistocles betrays the Spartans over the building of the Athenian walls, he shows that Themistocles was a pragmatic, if at times, cynical and expedient leader.

As one would expect, the Persians are defeated at Salamis as well. They had not learned from their previous encounters with the Greeks and Xerxes’ poor leadership has not helped. This is perhaps best signified when he mistakenly thinks that Artemisia’s ramming of a Persian ship was an act of valor. This reveals Xerxes has no understanding of the inner workings of those around him. This has been established previously; his uncle fails to convey to him the extent of Mardonius’ ambitions and his adviser, Demaratus, had warned the Spartans of the invasion. The political figure of Xerxes can now be called into question as well. It appears that like all the previous Persian kings, they are politically shrewd when obtaining power and useless at managing power when they have it. It is thus no surprise when Xerxes heeds the advice of Artemisia and flees to the Hellespont.

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Battle of Salamis by Wilhelm von Kaulbach

Another rift occurs between the Athenians and Spartans over the conclusion of the battle since the Athenians wanted to pursue Xerxes. This is tactically used by Themistocles who tries to convince Xerxes that he was the one who let him go. Unlike few of the people Herodotus discusses he thinks about possibility that the Athenians will turn on him and exile him. Importantly he understands how treacherous the Greeks can be and the selfishness of human nature. However, one who has read Thucydides may question whether Themistocles has read the nature of the Athenians, or whether his eventual ostracism will be the result of a culture of pragmatism and selfishness that he has encouraged.

The final debate

The final part of Book Eight relates how Alexander of Macedon is used by the Persians to deliver a message offering a truce between the Persians and the Athenians. The political structure of Cyrus and Darius is showed to have been continued with the use of stooges and despots in the countries dominated by the Persians. Once again the Persians are shown to have little understanding of their enemy since they underestimate how much freedom is worth to the Athenians. The Athenians value their freedom above all else. Regardless, this is a fact that could be ascertained by simple logic. The Athenians chose to rebel and aid their fellow Ionians, they chose not to give Earth and Water to Darius and they chose to fight at Marathon regardless of their numbers and resources.

Interestingly, the Spartans take a realist approach and regardless of the feud before Salamis offer, and their hesitation in providing an army for a campaign in Boeotia, they step in to provide aid and assistance. The Athenians thank Spartans but reassert their love of freedom and refuse their aid. This does seem to be a point at which the Athenians are willing to distinguish themselves and gain their independence as quickly as possible. This is supported by the fact that Book Five dealt with their rebellion and it is made clear that the Spartans were a threat to the Athenians. In addition, they also chastise Spartans for retreating and not offering troops for Boeotia campaign

Conclusion

Book Eight consolidates much of what was established in Book Seven with regards to the failings of Xerxes. Again, it reinforces the need for the study of history in understanding one’s enemy. One could question my thesis here: a reader may ask, where was the Spartan understanding of the Persians? Where was the Athenian understanding? Whilst there is no open acknowledgement of their enemy, there are two pieces of rebuttal to this point. Firstly, the Athenians were on the back-foot and defending their own land, thus they have the knowledge to utilize as they choose Artemisium and Salamis as their positions to fight at. Secondly, their awareness of the size of the Persian fleet and their use of this against them at Artemisium is evidence of their use of knowledge. Importantly, they think rationally and do not rely purely on material strength. As previously stated, the Book establishes the differences between the two main nations of Sparta and Athens. Many points in their unity thus also serve as points of clash in the decades to come.

T.P.

 

 

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