As I normally do every semester, I’m auditing a class at Princeton University. Of course, I’m doing the assigned reading, and last week’s homework was Herodotus’s Histories, as translated by Aubrey de Selincourt.
The book is also available on line, translated by George Rawlinson. For the purposes of this post I’ll be quoting from Rawlinson.
The Histories is a most interesting and at times very amusing read.
Interesting, because Herodotus brought to us the history of the 300. The Histories deals with great detail on the long-ranging war the Greeks battled against their Persian invader, Xerxes, and his immensely cruel army.
Books 7-9 are called the ‘Xerxiad’ which looks at Xerxes’s Greek campaigns at Thermopylae, Artemisium, Salamis and Mycale. These three books are dedicated to ‘Polumnia’ the muse of hymns, ‘Urania’ the muse of astronomy, and ‘Calliope’ the muse of epic poetry. Herodotus merges these three themes of the stars, hymns and epics to bring alive an event that took place thousands of years ago.
Thermopylae means “the hot gates”, and indeed the Spartans were fighting in hell.
On the 300, Herodotus writes,
[7.220] It is said that Leonidas himself sent away the troops who departed, because he tendered their safety, but thought it unseemly that either he or his Spartans should quit the post which they had been especially sent to guard. For my own part, I incline to think that Leonidas gave the order, because he perceived the allies to be out of heart and unwilling to encounter the danger to which his own mind was made up. He therefore commanded them to retreat, but said that he himself could not draw back with honour; knowing that, if he stayed, glory awaited him, and that Sparta in that case would not lose her prosperity. For when the Spartans, at the very beginning of the war, sent to consult the oracle concerning it, the answer which they received from the Pythoness was “that either Sparta must be overthrown by the barbarians, or one of her kings must perish.” The prophecy was delivered in hexameter verse, and ran thus:-
O ye men who dwell in the streets of broad Lacedaemon!
Either your glorious town shall be sacked by the children of Perseus,
Or, in exchange, must all through the whole Laconian country
Mourn for the loss of a king, descendant of great Heracles.
He cannot be withstood by the courage of bulls nor of lions,
Strive as they may; he is mighty as Jove; there is nought that shall stay him,
Till he have got for his prey your king, or your glorious city.
The remembrance of this answer, I think, and the wish to secure the whole glory for the Spartans, caused Leonidas to send the allies away. This is more likely than that they quarrelled with him, and took their departure in such unruly fashion.
As we all know, Leonidas and his men perished, but not before killing thousands of Persians and two of Xerxes’s brothers. Leonidas and his men continue to inspire us, as Herodotus preserves their names,
[7.226] Thus nobly did the whole body of Lacedaemonians and Thespians behave; but nevertheless one man is said to have distinguished himself above all the rest, to wit, Dieneces the Spartan. A speech which he made before the Greeks engaged the Medes, remains on record. One of the Trachinians told him, “Such was the number of the barbarians, that when they shot forth their arrows the sun would be darkened by their multitude.” Dieneces, not at all frightened at these words, but making light of the Median numbers, answered “Our Trachinian friend brings us excellent tidings. If the Medes darken the sun, we shall have our fight in the shade.” Other sayings too of a like nature are reported to have been left on record by this same person.
[7.227] Next to him two brothers, Lacedaemonians, are reputed to have made themselves conspicuous: they were named Alpheus and Maro, and were the sons of Orsiphantus. There was also a Thespian who gained greater glory than any of his countrymen: he was a man called Dithyrambus, the son of Harmatidas.
[7.228] The slain were buried where they fell; and in their honour, nor less in honour of those who died before Leonidas sent the allies away, an inscription was set up, which said:-
Here did four thousand men from Pelops’ land
Against three hundred myriads bravely stand.
This was in honour of all. Another was for the Spartans alone:-
Go, stranger, and to Lacedaemon tell
That here, obeying her behests, we fell.
I mentioned that the Histories is also amusing. As it turns out Herodotus was a dude who had come across marijuana in the good old days when the hippies didn’t wash, either. In Herodotus’s time they weren’t called hippies, they were called Scythians (emphasis added),
[4.74] Hemp grows in Scythia: it is very like flax; only that it is a much coarser and taller plant: some grows wild about the country, some is produced by cultivation: the Thracians make garments of it which closely resemble linen; so much so, indeed, that if a person has never seen hemp he is sure to think they are linen, and if he has, unless he is very experienced in such matters, he will not know of which material they are.
[4.75] The Scythians, as I said, take some of this hemp-seed, and, creeping under the felt coverings, throw it upon the red-hot stones; immediately it smokes, and gives out such a vapour as no Grecian vapour-bath can exceed; the Scyths, delighted, shout for joy, and this vapour serves them instead of a water-bath; for they never by any chance wash their bodies with water.
Herodotus doesn’t say whether the
hippies Scythians got the munchies after all their shouting for joy. Considering the Scythians’ eating habits, he was probably wise not to ask.
For those interested in a spa treatment there was the 24-hour hemp facial, too:
Their women make a mixture of cypress, cedar, and frankincense wood, which they pound into a paste upon a rough piece of stone, adding a little water to it. With this substance, which is of a thick consistency, they plaster their faces all over, and indeed their whole bodies. A sweet odour is thereby imparted to them, and when they take off the plaster on the day following, their skin is clean and glossy.
Considering the “spa weekend” trend, I see business possibilities. Of course, it would depend on the customer. No way I’d spend 24 hours wrapped in wood chip paste.
The Scythians were also into piercing even when they weren’t amenable to a “peace and love” attitude, so maybe they were more of a punk mindset than a hippie mindset.
But fret not, we have the modern-day equivalent of the Scythian beauty treatment,
Read the Histories, and learn from this immortal tale how little things change.
Victor Davis Hanson has an excellent essay on the 300. You might also want to watch the movie, which has been banned in Iran, as VDH points out,
The film has actually been banned in Iran as hurtful American propaganda, as the theocracy suddenly is reclaiming its “infidel” ancient past.
Read Herodotus, watch 300.