Anachronistic Morality and the Persian Wars
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Categories: Ancient

Anachronistic Morality and the Persian Wars

a photo of a farm with concrete and chain link fence in a European city centre
rus in urbe, Pradl, Innsbruck, photograph by Sean Manning June 2020

A lot of people are interested in the second Persian expedition to Athens, and in the ethics of that expedition. For some people today, it is about freedom and slavery. For others, it is a clash between two races or nations to determine which is stronger and will absorb the loser. But when the ancients thought about the rights and wrongs of that war, they brought up some other aspects. Lets have a look at the famous story about the Persian heralds who came to Greece to ask the cities to submit to the King’s authority by giving him earth and water.

The Internet loves the image of the tough Spartans throwing Persian emissaries into a pit rather than give them what they had asked for (it makes a great meme). But the ancients knew that this was against the laws of gods and men. So Herodotus spends one sentence on the crime, then five paragraphs on the punishment which befel the Spartans and the Athenians for their crime.

When Darius had previously sent men with this same purpose, those who made the request were cast at the one city into the Pit and at the other into a well, and bidden to obtain their earth and water for the king from these locations. What calamity befell the Athenians for dealing in this way with the heralds I cannot say, save that their land and their city were laid waste. I think, however, that there was another reason for this, and not the aforesaid. Be that as it may, the anger of Talthybius, Agamemnon’s herald, fell upon the Lacedaemonians. At Sparta there is a shrine of Talthybius and descendants of Talthybius called Talthybiadae, who have the special privilege of conducting all embassies from Sparta. [2] Now there was a long period after the incident I have mentioned above during which the Spartans were unable to obtain good omens from sacrifice. The Lacedaemonians were grieved and dismayed by this and frequently called assemblies, making a proclamation inviting some Lacedaemonian to give his life for Sparta. Then two Spartans of noble birth and great wealth, Sperthias son of Aneristus and Bulis son of Nicolaus, undertook of their own free will to make atonement to Xerxes for Darius’ heralds who had been killed at Sparta. [3] Thereupon the Spartans sent these men to Media for execution. Worthy of admiration was these men’s deed of daring, and so also were their sayings.

“The Lacedaemonians have sent us, O king of the Medes, in requital for the slaying of your heralds at Sparta, to make atonement for their death,” and more to that effect. To this Xerxes, with great magnanimity, replied that he would not imitate the Lacedaemonians. “You,” said he, “made havoc of all human law by slaying heralds, but I will not do that for which I censure you, nor by putting you in turn to death will I set the Lacedaemonians free from this guilt.”

– Hdt. 7.133-137

Herodotus takes it for granted that it would have been appropriate for the gods to cause Athens to be razed to the ground for this crime, but he is not sure that they actually did so because there was “another reason” why the gods might punish the Athenians in this way. So to Herodotus, his Athenian friends have gone to war with Sparta while the gods are probably waiting to punish them for the great sin of murdering heralds. As for the Spartans, he thinks their sin was repaid when the sons of Sperthias and Bulis were captured by the Thracians and handed over to the Athenians for execution during the Archidamian War. Under the moral principle of an eye for an eye, the Spartans murdered two heralds, so two of their own messengers were killed.

Ever since the Spartans and Athenians murdered the heralds, people have been talking about it. But as long as it was in living memory, one thing they talked about was how to atone for this atrocious act and whether the offenders had been punished enough or still had divine judgment waiting.

Four hundred years later, word reached Rome that Julius Caesar had attacked the Germans during a truce (“they started it!” said the general). And Cato stood up in the senate and said that of course the city should offer sacrifices for this sin, but they should also surrender Caesar to those he had wronged, so that the gods would punish him and not the city (Plutarch, Life of Cato the Younger, 51.1-2, cp. Life of Caesar 22.4)

The rules of ancient warfare were hard: Xenophon’s Cyrus says that it is the law of all times and all men that the conquerers of a city may do with the inhabitants as they like. But there were rules, and the ancients talked about who had broken them and what punishment had fallen upon them. The ancient and modern amoralists, the believers that might makes right and all states are perpetually at war with all other states, were always a minority. Homeric shepherds and spinners probably had a different philosophy of violence than Homeric kings. Thucydides implies that many people in his time will reproach pirates and expect them to be ashamed of their actions (1.5), although the pirates themselves are sometimes proud. Here is the speech which Xenophon’s Cyrus give to his soldiers when he has conquered Babylon:

“Friends and allies, thanks be above all to the gods that they have vouchsafed to us to obtain all that we thought we deserved. For now we are in possession of broad and fertile lands and of subjects to support us by tilling them; we have houses also and furniture in them. And let not one of you think that in having these things he has what does not belong to him; for it is a law established for all time among all men that when a city is taken in war, the persons and the property of the inhabitants thereof belong to the captors. It will, therefore, be no injustice for you to keep what you have, but if you let them keep anything, it will be only out of generosity that you do not take it away.”

– Xen. Cyr. 7.5.72-73

Xenophon’s Cyrus takes it for granted that some of his soldiers might have nagging moral doubts about taking foreigners’ bodies and goods and land just because they can. And he sets out to address these qualms right at the start of his speech.

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Thanks to Dr. Helena P. Schrader in her blog post “Ambassadors from Persia- And Back” for reminding me of this passage in her novel Leonidas of Sparta: A Heroic King. If you want to learn more about ‘eye for an eye’ morality, check out Kenneth James Dover’s “Greek Popular Morality in the Time of Plato and Aristotle” (1974)

Edit 2023-07-19: see also Keegan, Six Armies in Normandy (1982) p. 303 on French colonial officers in 1944 who objected when their black troops were not allowed to help liberate France.

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1 thought on “Anachronistic Morality and the Persian Wars

  1. Review: “The Greek Hoplite Phalanx” by Richard Taylor – Book and Sword says:

    […] cities of Greeks, and the kings of Macedon were just as brutal. Xenophon’s Cyrus says that it is law among all men (not just barbarians) that the conquerors can do as they like with the peopl…, although the fact that he needs to tell his soldiers this suggests that in Xenophon’s […]

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