A Greek in Persian Clothing: Early Greek Political Thought in Herodotus’ Histories

Written by on July 29th, 2014. Subject: History. Filed in Ancient History, about Herodotus Greek Persian

|||Herodotus. The Histories. trans Robin Waterfield. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.|||

Persian Relief of Darius Five days later, when things had settled down, the conpirators against the Magi met to discuss the general state of things. There are those in Greece who are not convinced of the authenticity of the speeches that were delivered there, but they did take place. p. 204

The Histories of Herodotus are not just a record of the Greeks’ wars against the Persians. They are also a primer in Greek political thought. The ideas and assumptions of Greek political philosophy, so famously presented and expanded on by Plato and Aristotle, are in this earlier work shown to be already in the Greek collective consciousness. The primary vehicle to see this is a discussion that Herodotus relates in Book Three.

The discussion is centered around a conversation between three leaders of a counter-coup in the Persian Empire. The circumstances of the original coup are rather convoluted. King Cambyses, Cyrus the Great’s eldest son, was away from Persia for many years conquering Egypt. He was also one of the most insane monarchs who ever sat a throne. He was known to have killed and maimed anyone who displeased him—and his displeasure was impossible to predict. He was so completely insane, that he once killed an advisor’s only son with a bow and arrow to prove how sane and lucid he was—no crazy man could have made such a shot. The King had also secretly killed his own brother, who was named Smerdis.

Cambyses’ insanity, misrule, and absence from the capital led two magi brothers to decide they should take the empire and rule it themselves. One was named Patizithes, and he served as the King’s steward. The other was named, coincidentally, Smerdis, and he actually bore a resemblance to Royal Smerdis—aside from the fact that he had no ears. They announced that Cambyses had died in Egypt (he actually would soon, but they didn’t know that). They proclaimed that Cambyses’ brother Smerdis was now King, and put forward Magi Smerdis in place of the conveniently dead Royal Smerdis (there is no accepted theory on how they covered up his lack of ears). They then promptly hid the new pretender in his harem, and all business was run through his new chancellor, Patizithes.

There are some twists to the story, but in the end a coalition of Persian nobles overthrew the magi. While the dust was settling, the three most prominent of those nobles - Otanes, Megabyzus, and Darius - met to decide what to do with the empire that had been freed. This discussion is the occasion for Herodotus to have his historical personages engage in a debate regarding the nature of government.

The discussion follows lines established by later philosophers - the nature of the rule of the one, the few, and the many. Herodotus gives each of his interlocutors a principle to stand behind, and a type of governance to champion as the future of Persia - Otanes champions rule of the many, Megabyzus, rule of the few, and Darius, rule of the one. Each gives the best case for his respective form of government, enumerating its virtues while calling attention to all the vices of the opposing viewpoints.

Otanes, the eldest member of the troika, proposes the rule of the many. He begins by enumerating the vices which plague monarchy. “Monarchy is neither an attractive nor a noble institution…How can monarchy be an orderly affair, when a monarch has the licence to do whatever he wants, without being accountable to anyone?”1 Accountability is central to Otanes’ argument. He sees the lack of accountability as not just a hazard that a monarch should beware, but as a transformative force. “Make a man a monarch, and even if he is the most moral person in the world, he will leave his customary ways of thinking. All the advantages of his position breed arrogant abusivness in him, and envy is ingrained in human nature anyway.”2

It is not that a good monarch can direct his reign for the common good, and thereby create a just kingship. Monarchy is, in Otanes’ view, a force which corrupts anyone who takes a throne. A king, “resents the existence of the best men . . . [welcomes] slander . . . subverts a country’s ancestral customs, takes women against their will, and kills men without trial.”3 The role itself leads to envy and moral decay.

He proposes, in its stead, majority rule. He chooses not to call it ‘democracy’ or ‘people’s rule’, but instead, “the best of all names…equality before the law.” After enduring the abuses of Cambyses, and with a certain amount of historical precedent on his side, Otanes is ready to diffuse power through the citizenry. His rule of the many, “is accountable government, and it refers all decisions to the common people.”4 Otanes’ solution spreads responsibility and power to all men of Persia, so that any decisions, and their concomitant consequences, are shared by everyone.

The next nobleman to speak is Megabyzus. He upholds Otanes’ misgivings about monarchy, but disagrees about the feasibility of turning power over to the people. “A mob is ineffective, and there is nothing more stupid or more given to brutality. People are hardly going to tolerate escaping from the brutality of a despot only to fall into the brutal clutches of the unruly masses.”5

The masses are unfit for rule because they cannot possess the level of knowledge necessary for good governance. “How could anyone know what is right without either having been taught it or having innate awareness of it? No, the approach of the general populace is that of a river swollen with winter rain: they rush blindly forward and sweep things before them.”6 Passion rules the mob, and so they cannot see clearly to make good decisions.

The only option for Megabyzus between the corruption of the one and the ignorant passions of the many is the oligarchy of the few. Since the mob has no training, and even a good king will be corrupted out of his virtue into selfish vice, the governance of Persia should be given to, “a number of the best men.”7 Let several men rule who know what is good and right, but who can share accountability between themselves, sharing the virtues of both monarchy and democracy.

The final speaker is Darius, the youngest and most ambitious of the nobles. He begins by asking the men to consider all three kinds of governance in their highest form. When the three are compared, “the best monarchy far oustrips the others. I mean, if you have a single person, and he is the best person in the world, how could you hope to improve on that?”8 This is a very good argument, used many times after.

What about the corruption that Otanes said comes with every king? Darius counters with an examination of the corruption inherent in the other forms as well. Neither is stable, and both devolve in similar ways. “In an oligarchy…violent personal feuds tend to arise, because every one of them wants to come out on top and have his own views prevail. This leads them to become violently antagonistic towards one another, so that factions arise, which lead to bloodshed, which leads ultimately to monarchy.”9 Oligarchy will always lead to monarchy in the end.

As for Otanes, Darius posits that corruption is just as inevitable when the people rule. In a democracy, “the corrupt [men] become firm friends, rather than opponents, because corrupt practitioners of politics act by forming alliances. This kind of thing goes on until someone emerges as a champion of the people…” and thus establishes a monarchy.

Darius offers the ingenious argument that no matter what form of government you chose, at the end of the cycle is always a king. Or, as is so often the case, a tyrant.

Herodotus’ discussion of the possible regimes for Persia introduces the discussion of politics in Western philosophy. His arguments for the cycle of political decay prefigure Plato in the Republic, as his discussion of what is best prefigures Aristotle in the Politics. Herodotus shows how many of the ideas that later philosophers would use in their political examinations were already in the intellectual air of the Greek world. In fact, it’s possible that an examination of how Herodotus treats concrete examples of rule of the many, of the few, and of the one might help to illuminate for us how the Greeks saw political life.

About Kenneth Scagel

Kenneth Scagel is the dean at The Roper School, and online classical school based in Fort Worth, Texas. Mr. Scagel is a native of New Hampshire, but after 20+ years he believes himself to be a naturalized Texan. The Texans generally think him to be somewhat tolerable, for a yankee.

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  1. p. 205

  2. Ibid

  3. Ibid

  4. p. 205

  5. Ibid

  6. Ibid

  7. pp. 205-6

  8. p. 205

  9. Ibid.