11 months ago

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


59 willing to manipulate nature even within their own empire, if it affords more power to the king through money, and in this case, forced supplication. This behavior contradicts the Persian nomos that “rivers are objects of particular reverence for them [the Persians], they do not urinate or spit into them, nor do they wash their hands there or allow anyone else to either” (1.38). The unnamed king, a representation of the archetypal Persian ruler, takes ownership of a force that is not rightfully his. Whatever the average Persian might do, their masters did not think of themselves as subject to the traditions of ordinary folk, especially given the apparent existence of a law deeming that “the ruler of the Persians could do whatever he wanted” (3.31). We may contrast the narrative of the Persian king with the chronicle of Min’s achievements in Egypt, the chief among them being his diversion of the Nile through the mountains, protecting the area of what would be Memphis from flooding (2.99). As the founder of Egyptian civilization, Min ranks high in importance, and so does his act, which allows for the creation of their capital. Later, Sesostris too is credited with the construction of canals that bring water to those farther from the Nile (2.108). Their willingness to reshape nature for the public good contrasts highly with the nameless Persian king who extorts money from his subjects. On the path to imperial conquest, rivers are an enemy that one cannot kill. However, it is not for a lack of trying on the part of the Persians. Their constant expansion often puts them before treacherous streams, made more difficult by the great masses of men at their command. The Persians put their sophiê to use building immense bridges and feats of engineering in order to conquer their foes. Of all similar Persian engagements with rivers, Xerxes' confrontation with the Hellespont illustrates this theme most vividly. As he sets out with a great army to do what his father Darius failed to, that is to conquer Greece, he finds his efforts to cross the Bosphorus quashed by storms that destroy the bridge he attempts to build. Before executing his engineers,

60 he orders that the strait be given three hundred lashes and addresses a vengeful speech to the sea, “Bitter water, this is your punishment for wronging your master…King Xerxes will cross you, with or without your consent” (7.35). He then constructs a massive bridge formed by warships tied together by cables, and advances into Europe. Although it is tempting to attribute Xerxes’ irrational rage to his capricious character, we are reminded that Xerxes is behaving as his grandfather did, albeit in a more hubristic manner. The wise Cyrus has performed the same sort of act. Approaching Babylon, the Gyndes River gives Cyrus grief when it drowns one of his prized sacred horses, and so he orders his men to divide the river into 360 channels, allowing his army to cross (1.189). Whereas Cyrus and his army, however, marched on to victory, Xerxes’ campaign ends disastrously. King Xerxes’ downfall might seem to any reader of Greek tragedy to be the result of his forceful domination over nature, accomplished with hubristic self-confidence. It is certainly made out to be so in literature of the time, as in Aeschylus’ Persians, in which the ghost of Darius bemoans his son’s offense against the gods: My son did this unthinkingly, with a young man’s brashness, He who thought he could restrain the holy Hellespont with shackles Like a slave, and Bosporus the stream of god. He reshaped the straits, throwing hammer-forged bonds around it, Making a great path for his great army. Though a mortal, he thought he could master the gods - foully planned!- And master Poseidon. (Persians 744-50, qtd. in Cambridge Guide 187) Yet, Herodotus does not seem to exhibit any disapproval towards Xerxes’ “shackling” of the Hellespont. In fact, he stops to describe in detail the marvel that Xerxes has created, expounding on the details of the cables used to tie the ships, and the fence built “to stop the yoke-animals and