I believe that imagining the other is a powerful antidote to fanaticism and hatred.
Amos Oz, from his Goethe Prize speech of 28 August 2005
Contemporary Iran is associated with two of the issues that most powerfully concern and alarm the world on a truly global basis: uranium conversion with a potential for the fashioning of nuclear weapons of mass destruction; and, second, international terrorism motivated by a revolutionary, religiously inspired ideology. We have come a very long way indeed from 1971, when the then Shah-an-Shah (‘King of Kings’), Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, celebrated with near-obscene grandiloquence the supposed 2,500th anniversary of Cyrus the Great’s death (‘supposed’ because he died in 529 BCE, so the anniversary in fact fell in 1972). How were the not so mighty to be fallen. Just eight years later, in 1979, the Peacock Throne was no more, and a very specifically post-ancient, Islamic regime was in place. That was not, however, the end of the reach of ancient Persia, not by any manner of means. At least, not in terms of the ongoing tradition of literary imagination and fictional construction in the West.
First, in 1996 a new Xerxes was born, a minor character admittedly, in Rohinton Mistry’s marvellous novel set in the mid-1970s ‘emergency’ regime of Indira Gandhi, A Fine Balance. More precisely, this Xerxes is born into a Parsi family, the nephew of one of the novel’s four protagonists, in what is clearly meant to be Bombay (now Mumbai). Mistry is himself a Parsi, and originally from Bombay/Mumbai, but had relocated to Canada before writing the novel – which process clearly demanded just such a physical as well as temporal distancing for the author to achieve his remarkably powerful effects of reconstruction and retrospective analysis. Xerxes’s father still practises, as his sister does not, the Parsi religion to the full, with above all its distinctive approach to burial – or rather non-burial – in ‘towers of silence’. At a stroke we are taken back some three thousand years, to the world of Zoroaster and the Magi, the original practitioners of a Zoroastrianism of which present-day Parsis – whose very name betrays their Persian origin though they live scattered to the four winds – are the living legatees and perpetuators.
Then, in 2004, a new Leonidas was born, not in Greece, but in modern-day Fethiye in Turkey, anciently Greek Telmissos (the home, for example, of Alexander the Great’s pet diviner and guru, Aristander). This new Leonidas was Daskalos Leonidas, ‘Master’ (Teacher) Leonidas, or alternatively Leonidas Effendi, who – whether or not his creator, Louis de Bernières, was quite aware of it – bore more than a passing resemblance to the ancient namesake of his who was one of Alexander the Great’s two principal tutors in his boyhood, Leonidas of Epirus, a kinsman of Alexander’s formidable mother Olympias. De Bernières’s Birds without Wings is a splendid novel of another huge politico-ethnic upheaval, the Greek–Turkish stand-off of the early 1920s with its attendant massacres and consequent population exchanges and uprootings. Leonidas is seen, unsympathetically, through the eyes of two Turkish inhabitants of Fethiye (meaning ‘Conquest’), Iskander (Turkish for Alexander) the Potter and Karatavuk the Letter-Writer, the latter a pupil of Mehmetçik who in turn has been taught his – Greek – letters by Master Leonidas. For Leonidas is what the ancient Greeks would have called a grammatistes, a grammar teacher with a primary responsibility for teaching writing, using the immensely brilliant, originally ancient Greek invention of a simple alphabetic script of a mere twenty-five letters or so, as modified from a Phoenician (north-west Semitic) base model in the eighth century BCE. This Leonidas – and here he bears a more than passing resemblance not just to Epirote Leonidas but to the standard-issue central-casting Spartan teacher of our period – favours what we might delicately call the direct method of instruction, sometimes not quite falling short of a resort to outright physical violence in order to inculcate his pedagogy.
Mistry the Canada-based, Bombay-originating Parsi. De Bernières the Englishman of Huguenot descent with a fascination for exotic and powerfully political scenarios (apart from his signature Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, he is the author of a series of quasi-magic-realism novels set in unnamed Latin American countries languishing under severe right-wing dictatorships). A third, major fiction-writer of our times has recently added his quotient to our story of active Greek and Persian heritage: the Brazilian Paulo Coelho, best known probably for The Alchemist. In his author’s note toThe Devil and Miss Prym (2000, English translation, 2001), a morality fable set somewhere in remote and mountainous contemporary Spain, Coelho begins by remarking: ‘The first story about division comes from ancient Persia.’ He is referring to the division – in both senses, of partition and of antagonism – between Ormuzd, the symbol of Light and Truth, and Ahriman, the symbol of Darkness and Evil. De Bernières, too, focused his novel on a bipolar division, between Christian Greek and Muslim Turk. Mistry’s polarity was, rather, the balance – a ‘fine’ one indeed – between hope and despair. Division and balance were also at the heart of Herodotus’s project, but his master-trope or metaphor, if we may call it that, was limit.
He had concluded his preface with the sobering observation that entropy (to use a modern scientific metaphor) was endemic to the life-cycles of states: small cities of men in his day had, most of them, once been great; and, vice versa, cities or states that in his day were great would, for sure, in the fullness of time become small. For, as he puts it sententiously, ‘human prosperity never [note: not just ‘rarely’] abides long in the same place’. Which sentiment – using the technique of ring-composition – anticipates and looks forward to his very-long-postponed conclusion, at the end of what we think of as Book 9.* There we find Cyrus – Cyrus II the Great of Persia, the original founder of the Persian Empire and so the First Mover of the whole mechanism of give and take, loss and gain, injury and requital that Herodotus had chronicled so marvellously – giving his people some advice. Advice that Herodotus clearly regarded as sage and which boiled down, essentially, to this, thoroughly Greek, lesson: know your proper limits, and stick to them. In the case of Cyrus’s Persians, this meant deciding to remain living in a rugged land, the mother of fine soldiers who would come to rule many other people and peoples rather than be slaves to others.
Or so they rightly should have done, but in fact, and with evil consequences, did not – from as early as the reign of the founder Cyrus himself. Cyrus died, not in his bed in Pasargadae, his original capital, but far away in central Asia, fighting the Massagetae tribesmen of the Caspian. Cambyses his son won Egypt for the Empire, but in effect went mad in the process and as a result was either murdered or committed suicide. Even Darius, the cautious and canny ‘local retail tradesman’ who rebuilt the Empire on remarkably durable foundations, failed militarily first in Scythia, and then in Greece, where his forces lost the Battle of Marathon; and he died before achieving the vengeance he was – allegedly – reminded every day to seek. As for his son and successor Xerxes, he came to a very bad end, the victim of an in-house, harem-based assassination in 465. Herodotus will have known this, but did not choose to include it among the mere score of post-Graeco-Persian Wars events that he did record. It was enough for him to have detailed the total failure of Xerxes’s manifestly overambitious, overweening, and – fatally – sacrilegious attempt to add mainland Greece to his empire’s possessions. The ultimate paradox, though, was that the Greece Xerxes sought to conquer was not a rich, soft land of luxuries. It was a land where poverty was naturalized, a land best suited to the austerity of the Persians’ ultimate anti-type and nemesis, the Spartans, the true heroes of our tale – though not entirely, it has to be admitted, of Herodotus’s.
So we too return, in a kuklos (circle) of our own making, to our starting point, the historiography of Thermopylae, and above all the historiography of Herodotus. Earlier I have been concerned chiefly with technical questions to do with Herodotus’s reliability and credibility. Here I shall attempt something broader, and perhaps rasher, an assessment of his relevance as a guide to living in the early twenty-first century. The responsibility of trying to do anything like proper justice to a thinker and writer who was one of the great innovating geniuses of the fifth century BCE is a heavy one. But the responsibility is heavier even than that. For Herodotus was also the founder of an entire intellectual discipline and practice, or craft, the one that I am honoured to try my hand at myself, namely the eponymous historia.
So I begin with a paradox – a suitably Herodotean one. On the one hand, Herodotus was himself conventionally pious in the normal and normative ancient Greek terms of his time. He was a believer, as we have seen, in the existence of the gods (or what he sometimes called ‘the divine’, to theion) and in their ability to act powerfully and decisively in the world of men as and when they saw fit. Above all, he seems to have believed implicitly in the power and truth of divinely inspired and authenticated prophecy. Today, this sort of religious out-look might well be considered utterly consistent and compatible with what is normally referred to as religious fundamentalism – except that, unlike pious Jews, Muslims and Christians today, pious ancient Greeks did not have authoritative sacred texts to appeal to, let alone one over-arching sacred text (a Bible, a Qur’an) to guide them. And of course, they believed not in just One All-Mighty God but in a plethora of divinities – because in their view, as the world’s first intellectual, Thales of Miletus (c. 600 BCE), is said to have said, ‘the world is full of gods’.
On the other hand, although Herodotus was conventionally pious in these ancient Greek terms – indeed, I am tempted to say precisely because he was pious in this way – he was both intellectually able and morally prepared to see that Others (non-Greeks) did otherwise in the sphere of religion: they believed and they practised no less fervently very different, indeed incompatibly and incommensurably different, religious things. Nor did he apply this perception only to religious beliefs and practice. He saw – both literally and metaphorically – that Others were no less committed to the unimpeachable truth and worth of their customs (nomoi) in general, not only religious customs, than the Greeks were. In other words, Herodotus was not only the first historian in the West. He was also the first comparative cultural anthropologist. It is this Herodotus – Herodotus the relativist in method and pluralist in ethical stance – that I should like to end by presenting. As an antidote, I hope, to what I see as the poison of most contemporary forms of religious fundamentalism, the dominant feature of which appears to be a radical intolerance.
Let me first put my own cards on the table. I am not opposed to all religious belief and practice as such, though I do not happen to have any or do any myself. What matters to me, as an intellectual, is the place of any and all such religious activity and belief within a philosophical worldview. To declare my hand: I am firmly with the fifth-century BCE Greek pluralist intellectual Protagoras (from Abdera in northern Greece), who is credited with having written that the subject of the gods was obscure, and that human life is too short fully to come to terms with understanding it; and equally firmly I am with Socrates (on this point anyhow …), according to whom, as reported by his most brilliant disciple Plato, ‘the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being’. Intellectual examination or enquiry, whether of a Socratic or of a Protagorean sort, is in my view incompatible with any brand of religious fundamentalism – indeed, if the pun may be pardoned, fundamentally so.
With the intellectual ground cleared, so to speak, let’s explore in some detail just four passages of Herodotus’s Histories.
The first (8.3.1) reads as follows: ‘Violent discord within people of the same ethnicity [just two words in Greek, stasis (literally ‘standing apart’) emphulos] is as much worse than war [polemos] fought with unanimity [against a foreign enemy] as war is worse than peace.’ Herodotus, I think, though I cannot prove it, was essentially a man of peace. He at any rate almost certainly never exercised a military or naval command. This does not mean that he did not fight when he felt he had to – and it is significant that he is recorded as having taken part precisely in a violent kind of stasiswithin his own home city of Halicarnassus. What I mean is that he was not one who took delight in war for war’s sake. As he put it very vividly elsewhere, in peace sons bury their fathers, but in war fathers bury their sons – a reversal of the natural order of things. This attitude might possibly have made him an untypical Greek. Surely untypical, too, was his belief – as expressed so starkly in this passage – that it was wrong for Greeks to fight other Greeks. That, at any rate, is what I think he meant by stasis emphulos: not – or not only – the kind of stasis that occurred within individual cities, civil war as we call it. For that, just stasis would have been enough. This hostile attitude of his towards inter- or intra-Greek warfare was reinforced by his unusually broad and vehement version of panhellenism.
For most Greeks, their patris was their polis. So patriotism in ancient Greece was typically local patriotism or civic patriotism, not ‘national’ patriotism, as it were. In fact, as we have seen, the ancient Greeks actually did not have, or did not form, a ‘nation’ in any strong sense. This was an absence, indeed a failing, that Herodotus, I would argue, bitterly regretted. The evidence is in my second passage of choice, also from Book 8 (144.2).
We are in winter 480/479. The few and not very firmly united Greeks who are resisting the massive Persian invasion led in person by Great King Xerxes have been defeated at Thermopylae but have won a great naval victory at Salamis. This victory was not, however, decisive. Xerxes, it is true, has returned to Persia, his tail between his legs, but he has left behind in Greece Mardonius, son of his father Darius’s bosom pal Gobryas, with a huge army and a still useful navy to finish off the job of conquest that he had begun. Mardonius – unlike his master perhaps – is a man of some guile, a bit of an Odysseus. In order to make his task of final victory in a decisive land battle that much easier, he attempts to bribe the Athenians to desert the loyalist Greek coalition. (It is interesting that he apparently did not consider bribing the Spartans, who – at any rate later – acquired the reputation of being easily bribable …) As his intermediary with the Athenians, Mardonius uses the Macedonian King Alexander I, a vassal king of Persia. When the Spartans get to hear of Mardonius’s underhand initiative, they – also apparently suspecting that the Athenians were indeed bribable … – immediately send a delegation to Athens to persuade the Athenians to stay loyal to the ‘Greek’ cause.
Was Alexander a Greek? Well, yes, technically. But only technically. He did not always behave like one, or like a good one, anyhow, in Herodotus’s eyes. In sharp contrast, that is, to the behaviour of the Spartans and – especially – the Athenians in 481–479. I put it this way because Herodotus uses this episode to bring out what he considers to be its most important aspect of all, its widest possible significance – namely, what it was to be Greek. Hence Herodotus’s putting into the mouths of ‘the Athenians’ a famous declaration of what has been called ‘Hellenicity’, or Greekness. Here in full is the relevant quotation from the speech delivered by ‘the Athenians’ to the Spartans, as recorded – or rather invented – by Herodotus:
Many and great are the reasons preventing us from doing this [taking the Persians’ money and ‘enslaving Hellas by taking the side of the Medes’]: first, and greatest, the statues and shrines of the gods set on fire or reduced to ruin [by the Medes] – these we must of necessity avenge to the very utmost rather than make an agreement with those who did those deeds; second, to Hellênikon, the fact of our Greekness – being of the same blood and same speech, having in common sanctuaries of the gods and animal blood-sacrifices, and manners of life that are the same for all. If we were to betray all these, it would not be well.
We notice once again the key importance he attributes to religion – another reason, one might well have thought, why the conventionally pious Herodotus was likely to have been hostile to and intolerant of the religious practices and beliefs of non-Greek, ‘barbarian’ peoples. Yet, actually, he was neither. In two different, but complementary and mutually reinforcing, ways he acknowledged that the Greeks had no unique or exclusive claim to religious virtue or wisdom. On the one hand, he was the first to acknowledge, in fact to proclaim, that, despite all sorts of other things that they did either differently or precisely oppositely, the barbarians – and especially the Egyptians – had invented and given to the Greeks some key aspects of Greek religion. On the other hand, even where the barbarian religious customs in question were as far removed from, as alien to, indeed as opposite to Greek ones as it was possible to imagine, even – or especially – then Herodotus was prepared to perform an immense act of interpretative charity, almost one of empathetic understanding.
This brings me to my third selected passage (3.38). There can presumably be no more revealing feature of human societies’ customary religious outlooks and practices than their attitudes to death and burial. This is at the same time an intimately revealing marker and constituent of both personal and group identity. Tell me how you die – that is to say, how you treat the process of death and burial – and I’ll tell you who you are. Hence the magnum force of Herodotus’s prime illustrative anecdote, or parable. Here we notice at once a feature of his manner of exposition that is going to recur in my fourth passage, and indeed elsewhere at key moments in his work (most relevantly, in the so-called Persian Debate on the theory of political constitutions, also in Book 3). Namely, his choice of a non-Greek, more specifically a Persian, setting in order to provide the focus for a moral or ethical discussion that is really about – and intended solely for – his Greek audience.
This is the parable. At some unspecified date Great King Darius I, father of Xerxes, summoned to his presence at Susa, one of the major administrative capitals of his empire, representatives of two non-Persian ethnic groups – just two out of the many such groups who we know were employed as a vast multinational army by this greatest of Persian builders. The first to be summoned were Greeks, the second Indians called Callatians. To the former he put the following question: how much would he have to bribe them to persuade them to go against their customary funeral practice and eat – as opposed to cremate – their kindred dead? The Greeks replied that they would never do so, at any price. Darius then asked the Callatian Indians how much he would have to bribe them to persuade them to go against their customary funeral practice and cremate – as opposed to eat – their kindred dead. They were reportedly even more outraged at the very suggestion than the Greeks – and asked Darius not so much as to breathe it aloud. Whereupon Herodotus comments that he agrees with Pindar that ‘custom [nomos] is king [basileus] of all’.
This anecdote, in other words, had been retold by Herodotus precisely in order to exemplify and to bring home to his audience a general rule of all human social groups: that every people believes its own customs to be the best absolutely – the best against all competition. This in itself is a pretty sobering thought to reflect on: you may fondly think that your customs are absolutely the best but, let me tell you, actually that is only your opinion, and other people do things very differently from you, and they too think exactly the same about their way of doing things as you do about yours … This is Herodotus the relativist speaking. But it is also Herodotus the pluralist, as – unlike a true ethical relativist – he does not in fact judge all people’s customs to be equal. For example, eating people – that is, people they have deliberately killed in order to eat – as is customarily done by the androphagoi (‘man-eating’) Scythians (from the area to north and east of the Black Sea), is for Herodotus absolutely wrong. So it is quite remarkable that, in introducing and commenting on the anecdote, he does not pass negative moral judgement on the cannibalistic funerary practice of the Indians. That, surely, is to display an extreme tolerance – and also to point the way towards a proper respect for the sincere beliefs and practices of Others, no matter how ‘other’ those beliefs and practices may seem (to Us) to be.
I end with another deservedly famous passage of our author (1.207). Like a couple of the examples already cited, it is set in a Persian context – though not in Susa, this time, but far away to the north and east, in the territory of the barbarous Massagetae of central Asia, to east of what is left today of the Aral Sea. In 529 Great King Cyrus II is conducting yet another punitive expedition of conquest, against a people who are ruled by a ferocious queen. He calls a conclave (if I may borrow that term from the Roman Catholic Church) of his leading Persians and also some non-Persian special advisers, including a certain Croesus. This is once vastly rich, ex-King Croesus of Lydia, who had allegedly been spared by Cyrus despite his classic act of hubris (insolent breaching of established boundaries) in fatally misreading an ambiguous Delphic oracle in about 545. Encouraged by the Delphic prophecy that if he crossed the Halys River he would destroy a great empire, he crossed in the firm expectation of destroying Cyrus’s empire – only to end up by destroying his own.
Herodotus too is happy to keep Croesus alive, but for a different reason: so that Croesus can serve in his narrative as a wise adviser, or warner figure, to the Great King of Persia, his conqueror and magnanimous sparer; as he does in the scene from Book 1 in which I am especially interested now. Croesus begins his homily to Cyrus, piously, by saying that it was Zeus who had surrendered him and his life to Cyrus. (How Cyrus – as opposed to Herodotus himself or his audience – would have read such a claim is of course another matter.) Croesus then proceeds to mention his own great and bitter sufferings – not simply to lament them, but in order to make a wider point. He insists that he personally has learned a powerful lesson from them, but also that the same lesson can be learned by Cyrus too – provided only that he does not make the mistake of equating himself with the immortal gods. Cyrus, that is, must remember that he is mortal – as Simonides was to remind Regent Pausanias of Sparta in a later generation and context. The lesson Croesus has learned is this: that the affairs of humans are configured like the motion of a revolving wheel, a kuklos(whence our ‘cycle’). By this Croesus means that the same persons are not allowed always to continue in a state of good fortune.
We can ignore the rest of Croesus’s speech; he goes on to give spectacularly bad advice to Cyrus, who then gets himself killed precisely in this rash campaign against the Massagetae. What interests me, rather, is the notion of the circle itself. For this is a metaphor that catches very well one major difference between ancient Greek patterns of thinking and our own. The ancient Greeks were by no means unfamiliar with a notion of Progress – technological, cultural, even sometimes moral progress. But it was hardly a dominant idea, let alone the driving force, of their culture. For them, the blessed Golden Age was typically thought of as in the past, as having happened once upon a time long ago. So this blissfully desirable state was seen as an ideal to be at best retrieved and possibly emulated, but not necessarily surpassed. One version of this essentially static worldview took the form of eternal recurrence, precisely Croesus’s kuklos: the wheel of fortune which deposited people back where they started, or brought them low after they had been riding high.
This too is how Herodotus chooses to end his Histories, with a hint that excess always presages a disastrous fall for a people, and that moderation in relative poverty is the preferable state to be in. If we too are to be properly mindful of the need for Herodotean balance and objectivity, the last, sobering word should probably go to the great modern poet, Constantine Cavafy (in the translation of Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard):
Honor to those who in the life they lead
define and guard a Thermopylae …
And even more honor is due to them
when they foresee (as many do foresee)
that in the end Ephialtis will make his appearance,
that the Medes will break through after all.
The victory in the Persian Wars was indeed won by Greeks, or even by ‘the Greeks’ – those of them, that is, who at the critical moment united under Sparta to resist the Persian invader. But Cavafy’s traitorous Ephialtis was also a Greek and human, all too human. By suffering one learns. This is the lesson that Greek tragic drama also enduringly teaches, outside the theatre as well as inside, off as well as on the literal, formal stage.
Pericles, Thucydides’s Pericles, in the last speech put into his mouth by the historian opines sententiously that all good things must come to an end, all greatness must decline. This is not the only Herodotean touch to be found in his successor’s work, and it is one instance among many of the sureness of Pericles’s pronoia, or foresight. For an observer of Spartan history with a long-sighted eye would know that not much more than a century after Thermopylae the inexorable kuklos of human fortune had brought the Spartans low, very low indeed. They would rise again, somewhat, but never again to scale the heights of greatness in their golden century from about 550 to 450. The memory of them, however, would continue, as we have seen in the Epilogue, down from antiquity right through the medieval and early modern worlds to our own contemporary era. And perhaps we may be permitted, at the finish, to overlook the darker patches, some very dark indeed, and look, rather, on the bright side – to hold in our admiring gaze the heroic Spartans, both men and women, of 480, the year of Thermopylae.