Archaic Greece and introduction to Herodotus

circa 700-500BCE
(these notes are in part cribbed from Romm's introduction to Herodotus: explicit mention is not made each time)


Greece appears to have been governed mostly by "kings" at the start of the Archaic period. These were tribal rulers whose kingdoms were relatively small (there were exceptions: Athens' unification into one city-state reaches far back). By the end of the period, however, the Greek "polis," or independent city-state, was ruled by a wide variety of systems. In general the rulers were aristocrats: landed nobility. We should call these Aristocracies. The masses had an assembly, but little power (cf. the Iliad). Among the most famous Greek Poleis (city-states) were: Athens, Sparta, Corinth, Megara, Thebes, Miletus, Delphi, Olympia. Citizenship was restricted to a small group generally, and citizenship was acquired by descent.

A great wave of colonization occurrs in Archaic times: Massilia (Marseilles), Cyrene (N. Africa), Neapolis (Naples), Byzantium, Syracuse, Sybaris (S. Italy) are some names of these colonies, which stretched all around the Mediterranean basin and the Black sea basin.

In many city-states, tyrants arose. The word "tyrant" comes from Greek tyrannos, and should not be confused with the modern negative term (although the Greeks came to have a largely negative association with "tyrant"). Generally, a tyrant was a man who secured the aid of non-nobles to overthrow the aristocratic government of his polis and set himself up as sole ruler. Many "tyrants" furthered reforms that gave more people more power (hence "demagogues") and many "tyrants" favored the arts and literature. Among famous names are Peisistratus of Athens, Periander of Corinth, Cleisthenes of Sicyon, Polycrates of Samos.

Many tyrants in turn were overthrown by aristocrats who had combined forces with the rich (not necessarily aristocrats): let's call these "oligarchies." By about 500, most of the tyrannies were gone from mainland Greece. In at least one case, Athens, democracy occurred (where the citizens as a body ruled).

In spite of the many cultural links between this group of city-states spanning the space between Asia Minor and Sicily and southern Italy, Herodotus is the first author to call the whole Hellas "Greece" or to speak of the gods, language, and customs they shared as Hellenikos "Hellenic." That is probably because the city-states were strongly independent and somewhat isolated from each other. They rarely banded together for concerted action.

But the Greeks had a way of fighting that made them superior in field of battle to their contemporaries in the Mediterranean, called a Hoplite Phalanx. A Hoplite was one armed and metal-clad soldier. The hoplites stood side by side in rows, called a phalanx. One man's shield covered the next man's body, and so they were interlocked and could advance against the foe in formation. Ultimately, hoplites enabled Alexander the Great to conquer even more than Cyrus did. But the organization of the Greek military was not yet advanced beyond amateur armies of self-equipped hoplites in the 6th and 7th centuries (with the exception of Sparta).

Sparta and Athens

Sparta was a city-state located in the middle of the Peloponnese. The Spartans, Dorians by descent, by 500BCE were the leaders of the "Peloponnesian League," which was a loosely bound confederacy of most of the city-states on the Peloponnese.

The Spartan governmental system had 2 kings (see Herodotus' account of how that came to be), which made it the only major Greek city-state that had a monarchy at the time of Herodotus' history. There was also a council and an assembly, but a body of 5 annually elected officials called Ephors held much of the power. Spartan society was military. The Spartans had state education, common meals, and lived in barracks. Spartan women were educated and physically trained. The Spartans ruled over the Helots, who were a sub-class of citizens. The Spartans owned all the land. The Helots did all the agriculture and were like serfs to the Spartans. There were also Perioikoi, who were a sort of middle class of merchants and tradespeople.

In her relations with other city-states, Sparta supported conservative oligarchies and actively tried to depose tyrants at times.

Athens was an Ionian city-state which comprised the entirety of the Attic peninsula since 700BC. At Athens, the Areopagus, an aristocratic council, held the power in the 7th century. There were also 9 elected officials called Archons (who became members of the Areopagus after being archon).

By the time of Solon, whom we have read about and was archon in 594 BCE, Athenian society had become torn by debt-slavery and was rife with social and political problems. Solon abolished the debt-slavery and extended voting in the assembly to the lowest citizen classes. Solon is the first known figure to move Athens towards democracy.

But from 560-510, Athens was under the Peisistratid Tyranny, first Peisistratus, then his sons Hippias and Hipparchus, under whose rule culture flourished at Athens. Hippias was a repressive tyrant and was overthrown after his brother was murdered.

In 508 BC, Cleisthenes introduced anti-aristocratic reforms that led to the first democratic government that I know of. It was democratic in that all citizens were politically equal members of the Popular Assembly, which was the supreme legislative body. Voting was by where one lived, not by wealth or tribal organization. The archons and the board of 10 generals were elected by all the citizens. Herodotus calls this form of government isonomia "equality under the laws" or isegoria "equal rights to speak in assembly."

Literature in the Archaic Age

Several new genres:


Predecessors: Before Herodotus, Hecataeus of Miletus and Pherecydes (500-540BCE) had written what might be called "proto-history." Only fragments survive, but Hecataeus wrote a work in prose that appears to have been a catalogue of the peoples and lands of the world as he knew it. Herodotus also had contemporaries, such as Hellanicus of Lesbos (he was probably from Mytilene), who wrote mythography, Ethnography, and Universal Chronology, as well as Atthidography.

Herodotus the person: Herodotus of Halicarnassus: Halicarnassus was a city of mixed Greek and Carian stock on the coast Asia Minor. His family tree has both Greeks and Carians in it. Halicarnassus fought on the side of the Persians (Xerxes) under command of Artemisia, their queen.His birth date is uncertain but 485 is a best guess. That means that he pretty much learned what he recorded in his work from others. At some point, he clashed with Lygdamis, a leader in Halicarnassus, and went into exile to Samos. He is also said to have lived in Thurii, a colony sent to Italy about 443. He may have died about 425, but that is conjectural.

He claims to have traveled extensively in the Mediterranean: probably including Babylon, Susa, Egypt, Cyrene, Colchis (on the Black sea), Asia Minor, Scythia, Greece, Southern Italy, and Sicily (there is debate about his travels: he could be "plagiarizing" hearsay). If he did travel so widely, he ranks with other great travelers such as Marco Polo and Ibn Batuta. He lived in Halicarnassus, Samos, and Thurii (Italy).

Herodotus' Work: Although the work is titled by us "The Persian War," Herodotus had no title for it. It is Universal History-the whole world as Herodotus knew it, spanning the time-frame from the foundation of the Persian empire by Cyrus the Great (550BC) until 478BCE. His avowed purpose is to preserve a record of the past.

Herodotus has four types of sources: 1) eye-witness (not for events, but for places, customs, etc.), 2) hearsay, 3) archaeology (a special case of eye-witness), and 4) written sources: poems, official documents, earlier prose writers.

There is an overarching structure to the work, but it is constantly interrupted by digressions on geography, ethnography, geology, anthropology, stories, and marvels. Because we are reading an excerpted version, however, it is easier for us to see that Herodotus' main narrrative theme is the story of Persian expansion from about 650-480, starting under Cyrus the Great, then Cambyses, then Darius, and our next assignment will move on to Xerxes. Although he seems to have strong sympathy with the Greeks, he is largely impartial, and the whole of his work reads like one large tragedy with hubristic Persia as its main character.

Herodotus would not pass muster as a modern historian: his chronology is not always accurate, he may not grasp military strategy and politics well, he gives too much emphasis to personalities, he is gullible, he has no focus, he makes up speeches, and he has a religious philosophy behind his history. That philosophy emphasizes that humans are subject to chance, gods are jealous of success (Nemesis), gods intervene personally, and omens, dreams, and oracles.

The emphasis on chance and Nemesis in particular, is it a flaw? If we ignore the "divine" part of it, what Herodotus is concerned about is change, especially reversal of fortune (see the anecdotes about Croesus and Solon, and the famous tag line from 1.5: "I shall proceed with my history, which will be no less concerned with unimportant cities than with the great. For those that were formerly great are now diminished, while those which are now great were once small"). And is it born of religious feeling? It is hard to say: Herodotus records that the Delphic oracle can be bribed or manipulated, and how it can even change its pronouncement under pressure. Thus he is at the very least a realist about the religious institutions of his time.

As to his speech-writing, consider Robert Alter's words about the biblical books of Samuel:

Alter's words apply, mutatis mutandis to Herodotus well.

In all, he lacks the "empiricism" of the modern historian, and so he blurs the line between fact and fiction, memory and invention (or perhaps he invents the line?).

He may have exhibited those flaws identified above, but he has attractive features aplenty: he greedily seeks out knowledge, he is conscientious, he tries to be critical, he is largely impartial, he has a wide-ranging view ("the discoverer of the historical time scale"), he is interdisciplinary (well, there were no disciplines), he is clearly human, and he is a good storyteller.

His curiosity is nowhere so evident as in his soaring speculation about geological time periods when he tries to figure out how long it took to make the land of the Nile delta where the Egyptians live.

An example of his critical spirit is that he records the "mythological" tales about Helen, Heracles, Jason, etc., but he clearly feels a divide between those sorts of "history" and his own. Another example is that he often records varying versions and is not above refusing to decide which is true or abdicating any responsibility for the truth of what he reports. He starts his history with Croesus of Lydia, who came to power about 560. Thus he fetches back about 100 years before his own time, about as far as direct chains of recollections by living people reach (in my limited experience). Beyond that, he makes it clear at 1.5 that he himself cannot vouch for what he presents.

Interestingly, he is not so curious about the Greeks themselves: they seem to be the "norm" against which he compares other cultures to decide what is worth recording.

The Persians were a group of people under control of the Medes before Cyrus the Great. The Medes were a group of people about whom the first thing we know is that they were tribute-payers to the Assyrians whose capital was at Ninevah.The Medes attacked the Assyrians from 650 until 612, when they destroyed Ninevah. The Babylonians were another people who took part in the destruction of Ninevah: these are the Babylonians of "the Babylonian captivity" in the Bible. Nebuchadnezzar was their king from 605-562. We hear about the Babylonians in Herodotus when Cyrus takes Babylon in 539. The Persian Cyrus took over the Medes at some point after the fall of Ninevah. His rise to power marks the start of the Achaemenid empire, the Persian empire whose rise Herodotus chronicles.

Cyrus the Great expanded the Persian empire significantly. He overcame Lydia (Croesus' kingdom), Chaldaea (the Babylonians), Egypt, and the Greek cities of Asia Minor. His empire was divided into Satrapies, who paid tribute to the great king. His capitals were at Susa, Persepolis, and Pasargadae. In other words, the Greeks were a little gnat on his behind as far as he was concerned. Cyrus did not interfere with the religions of his subjects, and many of his subjects did not chafe under his rule. They were glad to be rid of their former rulers. The Greeks, however, were not used to being ruled, and felt threatened by the Persians. The Greeks fought with Croesus against Cyrus. Cyrus in turn did not understand or care to understand the Greeks (cf. Hdt. 1.153, where the Spartan envoy who told Cyrus not to mess with the Greeks of Asia Minor was insulted: Cyrus said he was not afraid of a people who set up a place to cheat and lie in the middle of their city). The Ionian Greeks seem to have been comfortable with paying tribute to Croesus, who was at least partially Hellenized (he used the Delphic oracle). But the emperor far away that Cyrus was was not as much to the Greeks' liking. Furthermore, the supremity of the Great King was off-putting: one had to prostrate oneself before him! He was thought of by his subjects as semi-divine (the Greeks did not like mortals who thought they were gods, unless they were long-dead heroes of the Greeks!).

Herodotus' audience: Herodotus probably "published" his work in the 420's. At that time, Athens was in its prime: it was the head of a marine empire, and was fighting a 27-year war with Sparta. Athenian power had arisen as follows: in 479, a coalition of Greeks banded together to fight the Persians. Athens gradually turned that coalition into a tribute-paying empire: what had been voluntary membership became mandatory, what had been contributions of ships became contributions of money (i.e. Athens got control of the navy). By 454, Athens' treated the coalition's treasury as her own. Sparta resolved to check Athens' power.

Herodotus rarely refers to events after the Persian wars. But the events he records, the speeches his characters make, have strong resonations with the events of the Peloponnesian war, as the war between Sparta and Athens is known.

Also during Herodotus' life, Greece was a place of incredible intellectual ferment. Socrates, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Protagoras (a publicly proclaimed agnostic!), and many others.

A run-through of Herodotus' work as excerpted by Shirley and Romm

Herodotus starts with Croesus, king of Lydia (from 561-546BCE) who had subjected the Ionian Greeks of Asia Minor, except Miletus, and had made a treaty with Sparta. He starts there because Croesus was "first to harm the Greeks" (1.5). But Herodotus cannot help giving a bit of previous history: he goes back several generations to Candaules, who lost his reign to Gyges (whose hold on the throne was confirmed by the Delphic oracle!). Next he relates how Alyattes, Croesus' father, tried to subdue Miletus, which was ruled by Thrasybulus at the time. Interestingly, Periander of Corinth, a "close friend" of Thrasybulus, sent Thrasybulus word of the Delphic oracle's response to Alyattes, and so Thrasybulus was able to trick Alyattes into a peaceful alliance. Then Herodotus seems unable to help himself from telling the story of Arion, a superstar singer. And another story, this time about Solon's visit. Chance and self-sufficiency: two resounding themes in Greek ethics of later times. Next, back to Croesus, Herodotus relates the death of Atys, son of Croesus, at the hands of Adrastus, a suppliant to Croesus.

At 1.46f., Croesus thinks of attacking the Persians, and the Delphic Oracle seems to encourage him ("When a mule rules the Medes..." and "a great empire will fall"). The reason is that his brother in-law, Astyages, formerly ruler of the Medes, was Cyrus' prisoner. He had the Egyptian Amasis as an ally. At 1.74-75, we hear of Thales of Miletus, the first nature-philosopher. Croesus was besieged at Sardis. Herodotus relates that Croesus' allies, the Spartans, did not send help because they were too busy fighting the Argives. Croesus was captured alive, but not before being almost burned alive.

The Lyric poet Bakchylides wrote part of an Olympic victory ode about Croesus that is quite different from Herodotus' version:

But Herodotus is concerned to say that by conquering Croesus, Cyrus was the agent of punishment for the usurpation of the throne by Gyges.

Chapter III of our book recounts the rise of Cyrus. First, Herodotus starts with Deioces, who became ruler of the Medes by awe, secrecy, and repression (and good judgements). Deioces' son Phraortes subdued the Persians and attacked the Assyrians at Ninevah. Cyaxares succeeded him, and tried to continue the attack on Assyria, but was interrupted for 28 years by marauding Scythians. Then he conquered Ninevah in 612. Astyages, his son, inherited the throne (Astyages was Croesus' brother-in-law). Mandane, Astyages' daughter (whom he dreamed would give birth to a child who would displace him), was given to Cambyses, a Persian. The child, Cyrus, was supposed to be killed, but was given to a herdsman instead by Harpagus, Astyages' trusted official. When Cyrus grew up, his identity was revealed. To punish Harpagus, Astyages fed Harpagus' son to him at a meal. Cyrus was sent to Persia, where he eventually led an uprising, helped by Harpagus. Cyrus then conquered Lydia. There was an uprising in Lydia. Cyrus insulted the Greeks and sent Harpagus to subdue them. Cyrus now turned against Babylon, which he captured in 539. After Babylon, he tried to conquer the Massagetae, but he died on campaign there agains their queen Tomyris.

Cambyses succeeded Cyrus and set about conquering Egypt. Herodotus spends a whole book describing Egypt. In the excerpt we read, we hear about an experiment with two babies to see which language was oldest, Egyptian or Phrygian. We also hear about the party-king Amasis, a commoner who came to rule Egypt, as well as Herodotus' geological speculations about the land of Egypt and the Nile river. Cambyses was in general a cruel, insane, alcoholic, according to Herodotus.

Herodotus stops to tell of the fate of Polycrates of Samos, the man with too-good luck.

Smerdis the impostor and his story is related.

With Cambyses dead from a self-inflicted (accidentally) leg wound, the Persian magi had to decide who would rule, and so they held a constitutional debate (surely this is pure fiction, influenced greatly by Greek sophistic debates currrent at the time).

Polycrates of Samos is tricked by Oroetes and is killed. The Greek doctor Democedes went with Polycrates and so fell into Persian hands.

I have not completed this run-through of Herodotus, but thought I would leave what I had done up on the Web in case it is helpful. Please consult the next set of notes for a timeline of the rest of the events recounted in Herodotus.