The Persian Wars are the subject of two literary masterpieces: Herodotus’ Histories and Aeschylus’ Persians. Since the Persian Wars—like the Punic Wars, the Crusades, and the West’s ongoing struggle with Islam—serve to define who we are, perhaps it would be useful to take a brief look at a few of the books of Herodotus that are directly relevant to the cultural struggle between the West and its enemies. We’ll start with Book I.
Herodotus was a Greek, born in the late 480’s in Halicarnassus, a city in Asia Minor. The city had been founded, according to tradition, by Dorian Greeks who were eventually booted out of the Dorian confederation of Asiatic colonies. By Herodotus’ time, the city was in culture and dialect Ionian, that is, related to the brilliant Greek colonies on Asia Minor and in the Cycladic Islands that had revived Greek civilization after the collapse of Mycenaean Greece. Nonetheless, Greeks shared the city with barbarian Carians, albeit Hellenized Carians for the most part, and it was absorbed into the Carian kingdom, whose ruler, Queen Artemisia, plays so prominent a part in his narrative of the Persian invasion of 480.
Herodotus went into exile about 454 after the tyrant Lygdamis, a grandson of Queen Artemisia, killed a close relative, the epic poet Panyassis. Although he had good reason to hate her family, Herodotus is very partial to Artemisia, whom he portrays as a wise advisor to Xerxes on his expedition. He spent time in Athens and became friendly with the Alcmeonid family, before going off to join the Athenian colony at Thurii (founded 444/3). He was a great traveler, as you have seen, and visited the Middle East, Egypt, and Italy, as well as many Greek cities on the mainland in the Aegean. He was a relentless seeker after information, as the word History (investigation, fact-finding) implies.
Although Herodotus appreciated the Persians for their genuinely good qualities, he saw the struggle between Greeks and Persians as of monumental, even metaphysical significance. Modern historians of the Persian Empire describe it as a frontier problem. The fact that these historians have to read Herodotus and Aeschylus, because the Persians did not produce history or tragedy, should be a clue as to where they have gone wrong. Herodotus portrays the wars as a conflict in which the Greeks expressed their common identity, but it is also true to say that even up to the present, his book has served to recreate and recreate that identity.
His theme is the conflict between East and West, but there are deeper themes that might have been the subject of tragedy: man’s limitation, the envy of the gods, and the danger of presumption. The world is the way it is, and when man thinks he can change it by playing god, he will come to a bad end. The Persians, in invading Europe, bridging the Hellespont, are not merely out to enslave a free people: they are violating the laws of nature and of nature’s gods. They will pay and pay terribly.
Superficially, the Histories seems like a patchwork of tales and legends; in fact it is a brilliantly crafted literary construction, making use of a technique found in Homer—so-called Ring-composition. The entire work constitutes a logos, a narrative, within which there are hypo-logoi, such as the accounts of the Persian Empire, and hypo-hypo-logoi, such as the account of the invasions of Scythia or Egypt, within which we learn about the strange customs of these peoples, with which we are treated to stories within stories within stories.
He writes in the Ionic dialect, which is closely related to the latest form in which epic poetry was written. It was also the dialect of the early elegiac and iambic poets as well as of the earliest philosophers. Attic, which is a branch of Ionic, is more clipped, and Attic prose writers developed a paratactic style, that is, one that relies heavily on a formal construction of subordinate clauses. Herodotus, by contrast, tends to construct sentences that are strung out a bit like beads on a string. He is nothing, if not graceful, and his narrative abilities—and strung-on style—make him a fit subject for comparison with the epic poets.