Professional historians spend years studying at university, developing a particular set of skills. These abilities emphasize the critical evaluation of evidence and how to engage in academic discourse. “Doing history” (or archaeology or classics or any other discipline) requires more than simply reading a book about a subject and distilling its information.
In this article, I’ll take a critical look at a particular story from the Historiai (“Inquiries”) written by Herodotus (ca. 485 to ca. 425 BC), a Greek writer from Halicarnassus who wrote his work in Athens, and whose treatment of the Greco-Persian Wars is often taken at face value, especially by well-meaning amateurs.
But before we delve into Herodotus, let’s first very briefly look at some of the key problems associated with understanding ancient sources, with a particular emphasis on ancient written texts.
A look at ancient sources
One of the things that gets hammered into you during your studies is that you should never approach the sources uncritically. What does this mean? It means that you should always question the intent of the author (why did they write this?), the purpose of the text that you’re reading (who did they write this for?), and whether or not you can verify what the author says about a particular topic (is what they write accurate?).
The latter is perhaps, at first blush, the simplest thing to look out for: are there any other texts or other sources that you can use to verify or discredit what this author is saying? I’ll ignore at present the added wrinkle that authors in ancient times freely copied each other, often without attribution, so that you’ll usually have to question, too, whether you’re dealing with a first or second-hand account, and what sources the original author may have had at his – or, more rarely, her – disposal.
When it comes to the ancient Persians’ interactions with the Greeks, there’s a relative paucity of evidence: most of the relevant texts we have about e.g. the Greco-Persian Wars of the early fifth century BC or the conquest of the Persian Empire by Alexander the Great in the later fourth century BC, are written by Greeks. It stands to reason that they’re biased, but it’s often difficult to determine exactly which bits are accurate and which are not, spurring the kind of debates that can keep academics going for decades.
With Herodotus, for instance, in many cases, he’s the only source we have for what he writes about. This means that we can’t ignore them, but likewise it’s often difficult to determine whether or not he’s actually telling the truth. From the Romans, we have the saying testis unus testis nullus, i.e. “one witness is no witness”. But when studying the ancient world, you’re often happy to have just one source, even if that means you cannot blithely accept whatever you read.
Doubters have dubbed Herodotus the “Father of Lies”, but later discoveries, such as archaeological investigations of Thracian tombs, have shown that his ethnographic descriptions were based on things he’d probably seen with his own eyes or which were told to him by eye witnesses. That doesn’t mean, of course, that he’s always right: his account of Babylon, for example, for which we have other sources, including archaeological evidence, appears to be mostly fiction.
Artemisia of Halicarnassus
With all of that out of the way, let’s have a look at an important part of Herodotus’ story of the Greco-Persian War: some passages from Herodotus’ eighth book that focuses on Artemisia, daughter of Lygdamus and queen of Halicarnassus (then, a part of the Persian Empire).
The context of the story is Xerxes’ invasion of Greece (480 BC). The Persian naval forces have gathered at Athens and Xerxes asks for advice. Nearly everyone urges the king to engage in a sea battle with the Greeks. Only Artemisia disagrees, impressing upon the general Mardonius to dissuade Xerxes from engaging in a naval battle, saying (Hdt. 8.68; Landmark edition):
Here is what I think you should do: spare your fleet; do not wage a battle at sea. For their men surpass yours in strength at sea to the same degree that men surpass women. And why is it necessary for you to risk another sea battle? Do you not already hold Athens, the very reason for which you set out on this campaign? And do you not have the rest of Hellas, too? No one is standing in your way; those who have stood against you have ended up as they deserved.
Instead, she advises the King to simply wait, or advance to the Peloponnese: the Greeks would give up eventually and disperse, “and each one will flee to his own city.” When her words were reported back to Xerxes, he was pleased, holding her “in even higher regard” than before (8.69). But he dismissed her council: the majority of his advisers had said he should attack and since he could now personally lead the assault, he was convinced he’d win.
Xerxes’ decision to not follow Artemisia’s advice led to the naval engagement at Salamis, which ended disastrously for the Persians. Artemisia managed to flee from the battle, ramming and sinking a Persian ship on the way out, leading the Greeks to think that her vessel was friendly or a defector, and allowed her to escape (Hdt. 8.87).
The Persians, meanwhile, believed that Artemisia had attacked and sunk a Greek ship, leading Xerxes to praise her, exclaiming: “My men have become women, and my women, men!” (Hdt. 8.89).
Xerxes next asks for advice on whether he should stay or return home. Artemisia advises him to leave the war to Mardonius and return home, so that if things don’t go well the Great King can simply lay the blame at someone else’s feet. Xerxes, who has clearly learned his lesson, now decides to follow Artemisia’s advice and returns to Ephesus (Hdt. 8.101-103).
There’s a lot going on here. The subtext for the story is the decidedly Greek notion that the Persians are effeminate: Xerxes doesn’t pay heed to the advice of a woman, only later to be proven wrong. From a Greek perspective, this isn’t because Artemisia is particularly clever (though it’s probably not a coincidence that she’s the ruler of Herodotus’ home town of Halicarnassus!), but rather that Xerxes is foolish.
The idea that Xerxes is a bit of a dope is reinforced by Herodotus having the Great King believe wrongly that Artemisia rammed an enemy vessel (instead of a Persian one), praising her for her bravery, and then proclaiming that his men are women and his women are men. For Herodotus’ undoubtedly mostly (exclusively?) male Greek (Athenian) audience, the latter isn’t meant as a remarkably modern/enlightened compliment to women, so much as a derogatory slur against Persian men.
There’s really no reason to believe much of what Herodotus has written here. While the general outline is probably accurate (i.e. the Persians were defeated in the naval battle at Salamis), there’s no way that Herodotus was actually privy to what the Persians discussed, or how Xerxes came to arrive at his decisions. Whatever he puts into the mouths of Xerxes, Artemisia, or Mardonius is almost certainly a fabrication.
Artemisia made an impression on the Greeks because she was a woman. No doubt Herodotus, a native of Halicarnassus, a Greek man living in male-dominated Athens, had strong feelings about his home city being governed by a Persian-sanctioned member of the opposite sex.
Furthermore, the Persian King or his representative(s) dismissing the (sound) advice of his (non-Persian) adviser is a recurring motif (or topos) in ancient Greek sources: I’ll discuss another example this Friday. Motifs or topoi abound in the ancient sources and should always be treated with a healthy dose of skepticism. Another example would be the “third time lucky” topos used by Herodotus when he describes how the Athenian Pisistratus failed to establish a tyranny twice before finally succeeding.
In short, the details of the story therefore shouldn’t be accepted at face value, but, alas we have little material to offer a different account of events. What we do have, however, is the ability to train ourselves to be critical of what we read and hear, and nothing prepares you for studying the ancient world like pursuing the subject in higher education.