Historical Equilibrium: Herodotus’ Just Order of Events
In The Histories, Herodotus offers an account of the events leading to the Greco-Persian Wars between the Achaemenid Empire and Greek city-states of 5th century BC and attempts to determine “the reason why they fought one another” (1.1). In recounting the events that preceded the Greco-Persian War, the historian Herodotus places historically significant political and social events, which likely hold complex causes and effects, in linear order, primarily tied together through the motif of retribution for mutual acts of wrongdoing. Causality in The Histories is the result of what Herodotus sees as history’s inherent ability to maintain balance; a certain harmony is found in the oscillating power of individuals and groups through their recurring cycles of prosperity and destruction. In addition, Herodotus attests to an even more consequential equilibrium: that which is found between human motivation and the natural laws of fate.
The Histories’ proem begins by recounting the abduction of the king of Argos’ daughter, Io, at the hands of Phoenician sailors, which supposedly ignited the conflict between Greeks and Persians. “After that, say the Persians, certain Greeks, whose name they cannot declare, put into Tyre in Phoenician country and carried off the king’s daughter, Europa… So far, say the Persians, it was tit for tat… (1.2). At this antecedent point in Herodotus’ chronicles, equilibrium is in place; both the Greeks and the Persians (Phoenicians) had wronged each other only once and, therefore, one complete cycle of vengeance had occurred. In starting a reverse cycle of vengeance, the Greeks kidnapped the king of Colchis’ daughter, Medea, to which the Persians responded one generation later through Alexander’s robbery of Helen from King Menelaus of Sparta (second complete cycle). “Up to this point it was only rape on both sides, one from the other; but from here on, say the Persians, the Greeks were greatly to blame. For the Greeks, say they, invaded Asia before ever the Persians invaded Europe” (1.4). In concluding his proem, Herodotus leaves this Greek-initiated third cycle of vengeance unfinished; the Persian response to complete this third cycle, and the events preceding it, are detailed in the remaining content of The Histories. Post-proem, Herodotus relies more heavily on the personal considerations of the characters involved in order to offer explanation as to why events occurred as they did. Frequently, Herodotus also depends on the belief in fate, presumably controlled by the gods, in order to draw clear lines of causality. Thus, another delicate historical balance is struck post-proem, this time between human free will and the will of the gods (fate), demonstrated by Croesus’ blunder against King Cyrus of the Achaemenid Empire.
In one of the most fascinatingly ironic tales of The Histories, Croesus’ Lydian messengers received word from the Oracle of Delphi that “…if he made war on the Persians he would destroy a mighty empire” (1.53), which Croesus did not realize was pointed at his own Lydian Empire. “Croesus missed the meaning of the oracle and so made the campaign into Cappadocia, being convinced that he would destroy Cyrus and the power of the Persians” (1.71). The reliance on the oracles, where a priest or priestess serves as a medium between mortals and the wisdom of the gods, introduces the notion of divine control over Croesus’ fate. The intentional ambiguity of the statement, which misleads Croesus into initiating the invasion, leads readers to wonder whether the gods wished for the invasion to occur. Croesus was certainly responsible for making the final decision to invade and it was due, at least partially, to his own naiveté that he led his forces to meet the Achaemenids at the Halys River, but due to Herodotus’ inclusion of the oracle and the latent role of fate by which an oracle is accompanied, there is an implicit understanding of a lack of human control. “So Croesus advanced into Cappadocia, for these reasons: because he longed for additional territory to that which was his portion but, mostly, because he trusted in the oracle and because he wanted to take vengeance on Cyrus, son of Cambyses, on behalf of Astyages, son of Cyaxares, who was his, Croesus’, brother-in-law and king of Media and had been subjugated by Cyrus” (1.73). The dominance of human free will over that of fate in Croesus’ interpretation of the oracle is not clear, suggesting that the relationship is one of harmonious balance, not preeminence of one over another.
Still, Herodotus again elects to employ the motif of vengeance in order to clarify the causal chain and maintain a sense of equity, or balance, for the wrongdoing committed against Croesus’ brother-in-law, Astyages, years prior. Following Cyrus’ victory over Croesus at Sardis and the rise to power of Cyrus’ son, Cambyses, the setting shifts to Egypt, where Cambyses had expanded the borders of the Achaemenid Empire. In an Egyptian religious festival for the animal god Apis, Cambyses believed that he was being disrespected and “…was nearly lunatic. He drew his dagger and made to stab Apis in the belly but struck the calf in the thigh” (3.29). Later, Cambyses received an omen through a vision that Smerdis, which was the name held by his brother, “…sat on the royal throne and reached for heaven with his head” (3.64). Cambyses ordered Prexaspes, his closest ally, to murder his brother in hopes that he would maintain his position as king. As Herodotus implicitly argues, this was a foolish decision. When Cambyses learns that he was mislead by the omen, and that there was a Magian man named Smerdis who had usurped him while he was away in Egypt on campaign, becomes furious. In mounting his horse to return to Susa for the reclaiming of his throne, “…the cap fell off the scabbard of his sword, and the naked blade pierced his thigh. He was wounded at just that point of his body at which he had struck the Egyptian god Apis” (3.64). Similar to the story of Croesus’ omen, Cambyses was misdirected and, in a sense, fell victim to fate. What is particularly compelling about Cambyses’ story is the unidentified vengeance enacted on Cambyses, supposedly by an outside force (fate) for his stabbing of the mule god Apis, illuminated by the location of his self-inflicted mortal wound. This union of the motifs of fate and vengeance are only complicated by the presence of Cambyses’ free will in the ability to interpret the dream omen as he pleased.
Herodotus may be suggesting that while humans had free will and were the source of incidental causes for events, fate plays an equally significant role and serves to enforce the necessity of vengeance for misdeeds in history because regardless of human effort, “…it is surely not in the nature of man to be able to turn aside that which is fated to be” (3.65). Over the course of Herodotus’ The Histories, the Persians enact their revenge for the Greek invasion of Asia, first through Croesus’ subjugation of the Greek regions of Asia Minor (1.6), which completes the unfinished cycle of vengeance introduced in the proem. The Athenians begin yet another cycle through their role in the Ionian Revolution against the Persian Empire (7.8), to which the Persians responded through the first Persian invasion of Greece under King Xerxes in 492 BC (7.20). The Histories ends with a Greek-Persian vengeance-balanced reality, which was driven forward by both the incidental human causes, often economic, political, or personal, and also the natural laws of fate which, in symmetry with human motivations, maintain perfect harmony throughout history. Herodotus’ etiology seems to support a “just order of events,” as if history uniformly corrects itself to preserve parity between empires, right injustices committed, and bring to fruition that which is fated by forces outside of the human realm.
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