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The Old and the Restless - The Egyptians and the Scythians in Herodotus' Histories by Robert J. Hagan

57 Despite his

57 Despite his sensitivity, Xerxes does not retain his father Darius’ careful use of tolerance as a political tool. Having occupied Athens and killed the last defenders of the city on the acropolis, the Persians plunder and burn the entire precinct. The psychological effect is such that upon hearing the news, some Athenian commanders on Salamis are eager to return to Athens to defend the city (8.53-56). If the Persians had a chance at forcing the Athenians to treat with them, it was destroyed in the fires on the acropolis. In the vein of his predecessors Cambyses and Darius, Xerxes seems not to value the truth as useful. Although he accepts advice from his advisors when he is indecisive, as when Artabanus initially convinces him not to invade Greece, it is apparent that, once he makes his mind up about something, he will not be swayed by honest words. In Book Seven, as Xerxes reviews his troops and ships, he approaches Demaratus, the former co-king of Sparta and asks in a seeming moment of doubt if the Greeks will resist his grand army. Demaratus responds, “Would you like a truthful answer, my lord, or a comforting one?” and Xerxes accedes to the former. His answer indeed offers no comfort; Demaratus tells him “the kind of truth that you will not be able to prove false at a later date” that “If there are in fact only a thousand men to march out against you…then a thousand men will fight you.” Although he should have been gulping, Xerxes laughs this off and tells him that the Greeks’ freedom inhibits them from fighting well, whereas the Persian whip would drive them to excel. Xerxes dismisses the former king: “But you’re just talking rubbish from a position of ignorance” (7.102-104). Cambyses’ contempt for the Persian nomos of truth-telling results in the crazed murder of his wine-server (3.34); Darius has his co-conspirator and his family executed after he protests the king’s secrecy and sets a definitive precedent for royal prerogative over Persian traditions. However, in keeping with the finality that Xerxes’ reign represents in the Histories, Xerxes’

58 dishonor of the truth is easily the most consequential, as his discounting of Greek military power and refusal to listen to his most trusted Greek advisors, Demaratus and Artemisia, results in the destruction of the lives of thousands of his men. The Conquest of Nature? Xerxes’ four years of preparation and single-minded direction of all the empire’s resources (as Herodotus’ long catalog of arms attests 7.61-99) took a significant amount of determination, with the end goal being of course the submission of Greece. The military imperialism characteristic of the Persians takes various forms, one of the most climactic and awe-inspiring being the episode of Xerxes at the Hellespont, in which technê meets phusis. However, the notion of Persian military imperialism is an ongoing motif throughout the Histories that reaches its apogee in Xerxes’ technical achievement of bridging the Bosporus strait. The Persian approach at the Hellespont demonstrates again the use of sophiê, craftiness, towards their adversaries. The Persians use such craft to aggrandize the image and power of the crown even within their own lands and among their own people. Herodotus describes a plateau in Asia surrounded by a river that once split into five tributaries that supported local tribes. Once the Persians took over the land, an unnamed Persian king blocked up the gorges through which the sub-rivers passed, stopping the flow of the sub-rivers to their former destinations and depriving the tribes of water. The only way the people could receive relief was to plead loudly with the king, who would unblock a gorge and let some water flow until their land was saturated. Then he would close it back up and open the sluice-gates to the next loudest speaker, in exchange for money in addition to their regular tribute (3.117). Herodotus depicts the Persians as