Eternal Themes of Power, Greed & Fate

Many stories in the Histories are case studies in the nature of power. The reasons are always similar: power leads to excess. Blindness to the limitations of human action incurs the downfall of mighty kings like Croesus, Cambyses and Xerxes. The condition they suffer from – the Greek word is hubris – is depressingly modern and familiar.

In the world of Herodotus, any excess is ultimately corrected: what goes up must come down. This applies to individuals, to empires and to peoples.

The traditional gods of the ancient Greek pantheon are still very much alive in the Histories. Yet in contrast to Homeric poetry, they no longer intervene directly in the world. They have receded to a transcendental distance from which they oversee and steer the workings of the world.

The Persian Wars nearly ended the Greek experiment. Divided among themselves, not really prepared for a large war, and with many Greeks siding with the enemy, the eventual defeat of the Persian invaders by a handful of scrappy city states was one of the great victories in military history. It would define how the Greeks, particularly Athens and Sparta, saw each other and the outside world. The “histories”of Herodotus give a good sense of how they saw both the Persians and war itself.

The Persians saw tyranny as the natural state of things and underestimated the cohesion that could come from democracy. 

Xerxes dithers on responding to the humiliating defeat. Herodotus, characteristically, attributes his decision to attack the Greeks to goading by lousy subalterns and a series of prophetic dreams, misinterpreted. It is interesting that one of his best warriors and smartest advisors is a woman, and Herodotus lacks the misogyny or patronizing attitude we might expect.

 

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