Ancient Greece’s Legacy for Liberty: Herodotus and the Way of Otanes
Herodotus’ writings on the Greco‐Persian wars contain insights into Greek political thought.
Herodotus (c. 484–425 BCE) is often called the “Father of History.” He was not the first person to write a lengthy narrative of past events, but his predecessors – so far as we can ascertain – were primarily annalists, contenting themselves with chronicling a sequence of incidents.1 To this tradition Herodotus adds, first, an interest in explaining what happened rather than simply reporting it; second, an interest in placing the events described in a broader cultural, political, and historical context; and third, a critical attitude (albeit inadequately so by modern standards) toward his sources.
Born in Halicarnassus (modern Bodrum), a Greek colony in Asia Minor, Herodotus lived all over the Greek world, from Samos in the east to Thurii in the west to Athens in Greece proper, as well as visiting Babylon and Egypt. His Histories (the word originally meant “inquiries,” “investigations,” or “researches,” and acquired its modern meaning specifically through Herodotus) is mainly an account of the Greco‐Persian wars (499–449 BCE), but ranges farther afield to trace the histories and cultures of the various societies involved in those wars. Hence we learn, for example, about the origins of Athenian democracy, the rise of the Persian empire, and the customs and geography of Egypt.
While Herodotus clearly prefers the relatively egalitarian political structures of Greek cities to the authoritarian hierarchy of Persia, he is no mere chauvinist for the Greeks. While some Persians, particularly Xerxes, are presented as cruel and tyrannical, many others are depicted favorably, and not all Greeks come off looking well. Moreover, Herodotus plainly admires some Persian institutions, such as their postal courier system.2 At the same time, he makes fun of the Persians’ finely‐tuned sensitivity to differences of rank, requiring different greetings depending on the degree of difference in status, where finally “if one is of much less noble rank than the other, he falls down before him and does worship to him”3 – a practice that was anathema to the Greeks.
Herodotus’s relative even‐handedness may owe something to Homer’s portrayal of sympathetic characters on both sides of the Trojan war; but it also reflects Herodotus’s open‐minded attitude toward non‐Greek customs and traditions. We’ve previously seen Herodotus’s fascination with cultural differences, and in particular his comparison of Greek with Callatian funeral customs,4 from which he drew the conclusion that “custom [nomos] is king.”5
While Herodotus sees a city’s military prowess as an expression of proper domestic policy,6 he is yet another exception to the stereotype that the Greeks placed a high value on war. By contrast, he puts in the mouth of Crœsus, an ambitious ruler chastened by the consequences of his own overreaching, and evidently a spokesman (post‐chastening) for Herodotus, the line: “no one is so senseless as to choose of his own will war rather than peace, since in peace the sons bury their fathers, but in war the fathers bury their sons.”7
One of the best‐known political passages in the Histories occurs when a group of seven Persian nobles, having just pulled off a coup d’état against the previous ruler, begin to deliberate on what kind of political system they should now establish. At this point there occurs a debate, with speeches that, Herodotus tells us, “some of the Hellenes do not believe were really uttered,” but “spoken they were nevertheless.”8 The skepticism of Herodotus’s interlocutors is understandable, since the debate seems more at home in the context of 5th-century Greece than in that of 6th-century Persia. As with the various speeches in Herodotus’s successor Thucydides,9 it is difficult to tell where reporting stops and invention begins.
In any case, as Herodotus tells the story, one noble, Otanes, speaks on behalf of democracy, on the grounds that under a democratic system “offices of state are exercised by lot,” and “magistrates are compelled to render account of their action.” (Otanes, implausibly, seems to have detailed knowledge of Greek democracy here.) By contrast, an autocrat is not accountable for his exercises of power, and this fact creates a strong incentive for him to abuse that power:
[H]ow should the rule of one alone be a well‐ordered thing, seeing that the monarch may do what he desires without rendering any account of his acts? Even the best of all men, if he were placed in this position, would be caused by it to change from his wonted disposition.
In addition to worries about incentives, Otanes also seems to find democracy inherently more equitable: “the rule of many has first a name attaching to it which is the fairest of all names, that is to say ‘Equality.’” (Herodotus elsewhere10 speaks favorably of equality in propria voce.)
Another noble, Megabyzos, agrees with Otanes about the dangers of monarchy, but does not share his enthusiasm for democracy; instead, Megabyzos defends oligarchy, arguing that “nothing is more senseless or insolent than a worthless crowd.” His concern is that ordinary people, being inadequately educated, lack the wisdom to exercise political power; for “how can that know which has neither been taught anything noble by others nor perceived anything of itself …?”
Finally, a third noble, Dareios, while agreeing with Megabyzos about the failings of democracy, champions monarchy as preferable to oligarchy on the grounds that a single decision‐maker is better at resolving conflicts:
In an oligarchy however it happens often that many, while practising virtue with regard to the commonwealth, have strong private enmities arising among themselves; for as each man desires to be himself the leader and to prevail in counsels, they come to great enmities with one another, whence arise factions among them, and out of the factions comes murder .…
In the event, the majority of the nobles are persuaded by Dareios, who is ultimately chosen11 to rule as Shah of Persia.
When this passage is excerpted in discussions of ancient political thought, often the story ends with the final speech. But for a libertarian, the most interesting thing is what happens next:
So when Otanes, who was desirous to give equality to the Persians, found his opinion defeated, he spoke to those assembled thus: “Partisans, it is clear that some one of us must become king .… I therefore shall not be a competitor with you, for I do not desire either to rule or to be ruled; and on this condition I withdraw from my claim to rule, namely that I shall not be ruled by any of you, either I myself or my descendants in future time.” When he had said this, the six made agreement with him on those terms, and he was no longer a competitor with them, but withdrew from the assembly; and at the present time this house remains free alone of all the Persian houses, and submits to rule only so far as it wills to do so itself, not transgressing the laws of the Persians.
(The last bit presumably means that Otanes and his descendants receive exemption only from the personal authority of the Shah, and not from the customary Persian laws.) In short, Otanes, not wishing “either to rule or to be ruled,” is allowed to opt out of a political system he does not like – a possibility that anticipates, as we’ve seen,12 the modern idea of panarchy. Although the system he seeks to opt out of is monarchy, it’s only a short step to the like idea of opting out of Otanes’ favored system, democracy, as well. (Whether the historical house of Otanes actually enjoyed some sort of legal exemption, and if so of what kind, to what degree, and from what cause, is difficult to know.)
Herodotus’s sympathies seem to be with Otanes in the debate; he celebrates the Athenian system,13 and Otanes’ worries about unaccountable rulers are confirmed by Herodotus’s many accounts of the excesses wrought by vainglorious rulers whose ambitions go too long unchecked. The chief example is Dareios’s successor Xerxes, whom Herodotus portrays as a man pathologically unwilling to accept any limitation or opposition: at one point Xerxes orders the waters of the Hellespont to be whipped because they impede his progress;14 at another, he promises to grant one of his petitioners a favor, but when the favor turns out to be releasing the petitioner’s favorite son from military service, Xerxes angrily has the son torn in half and marches his army between the two halves.15
Xerxes is also depicted as flying into a rage whenever his plans are questioned or criticized16 (a fairly typical trait of real‐life dictators), so that before offering advice his counselors are forced to ask: “O king, shall I utter the truth in speaking to thee, or that which will give pleasure?”17 Against Xerxes, Herodotus puts into the mouth of his advisor Artabanos a defense of the distinctively Athenian ideal of freedom of speech:
O king, if opinions opposed to one another be not spoken, it is not possible to select the better in making the choice, but one must accept that which has been spoken; if however opposite opinions be uttered, this is possible; just as we do not distinguish the gold which is free from alloy when it is alone by itself, but when we rub it on the touchstone in comparison with other gold, then we distinguish that which is the better.18
Here we have an early statement of the epistemological case for free speech, most often associated nowadays with J. S. Mill’s On Liberty.19
Xerxes is also portrayed as underestimating the military effectiveness of non‐autocratic societies (specifically, the Greek ones he is attempting to conquer):
[H]ow could a thousand or ten thousand or even fifty thousand, at least if they were all equally free and were not ruled by one man, stand against so great an army? .… If indeed they were ruled by one man after our fashion, they might perhaps from fear of him become braver than it was their nature to be, or they might go compelled by the lash to fight with greater numbers, being themselves fewer in number; but if left at liberty, they would do neither of these things: and I for my part suppose that, even if equally matched in numbers, the Hellenes would hardly dare to fight with the Persians .…20
Herodotus, by contrast, clearly credits the eventual military victory of the Greeks over the Persians in large part to the former’s flatter, more egalitarian social structures. He draws an implicit contrast, however, between the ways in which this works out in Sparta and Athens respectively. Herodotus has Xerxes’ Greek advisor Demaratos tell him the following about Sparta:
[T]he Lacedemonians [= Spartans] are not inferior to any men when fighting one by one, and they are the best of all men when fighting in a body: for though free, yet they are not free in all things, for over them is set Law as a master, whom they fear much more even than thy people fear thee. It is certain at least that they do whatsoever that master commands; and he commands ever the same thing, that is to say, he bids them not flee out of battle from any multitude of men, but stay in their post and win the victory or lose.21
Herodotus’s account of Athenian military prowess, in his own voice, is somewhat different:
The Athenians accordingly increased in power; and it is evident, not by one instance only but in every way, that Equality is an excellent thing, since the Athenians while they were ruled by despots were not better in war than any of those who dwelt about them, whereas after they had got rid of despots they became far the first. This proves that when they were kept down they were wilfully slack, because they were working for a master, whereas when they had been set free each one was eager to achieve something for himself.22
In short, where Spartans are driven to acts of courage by fear of social sanctions, Athenians instead are driven to the same acts by personal ambition unleashed by individual freedom. Indeed, Herodotus’s contrast here prefigures what Thucydides will have Pericles say about the difference between Athenian and Spartan courage: while the Spartans “from their very cradles by a painful discipline seek after manliness,” in Athens “we live exactly as we please,” trusting “less in system and policy than to the native spirit of our citizens,” and so are “just as ready to encounter every legitimate danger” as the Spartans are, but “with habits not of labour but of ease, and courage not of art but of nature.”23 While Herodotus finds both the Athenian and the Spartan versions of equality preferable to Persian autocracy, in the end he seems, like Pericles, to prefer the Athenian version, with its role for self‐interest, to the Spartan version, based on socially inculcated fear.
All the same, Herodotus also worries about the corrupting effects of luxury; it is in large part Crœsus’s wealth and greed, for example, that are portrayed as leading to his downfall. Throughout the Histories Herodotus continually contrasts the wealth of the Persians with the poverty of the (eventually victorious) Greeks, and winds up the work with the observation that “from lands which are not rugged men who are not rugged are apt to come forth,” so that societies may be faced with the choice “to dwell on poor land and be rulers,” or instead “to sow crops in a level plain and be slaves to others.”24 But if the self‐interest unleashed by a regime of comparative liberty makes a society initially better able to defend itself, does it also lead to the kind of material wealth that ends up undermining defensive capability in the long run?
The writings of Herodotus’s Greek predecessors are mostly lost; judging from surviving reports, at least one of them, Hecatæus of Miletus, may have been more than a mere annalist. By comparison, earlier works from the Chinese tradition survive, but do seem to be largely annalistic until the appearance of Sima Qian (Ssu‐ma Chien), China’s first systematic historian, well after Herodotus’s time.
The unofficial motto of the U. S. Postal Service – “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds” – is drawn from Herodotus’s description of the Persian system in Histories VIII.98 .
Herodotus, Histories I.134 ; George C. Macaulay, trans., The History of Herodotus (London: Macmillan, 1890).