CLIO 7 (Side Treks 2: the Persian Empire)
What follows are some of the digressions from the main narrative that Herodotus explored in this section, packaged separately for your convenience.
SOME OF THE CITY-STATES HARPAGOS SACKED!
The Carians! These guys invented putting crests on helmets! Also shields were their idea! Before the Carians came up with holding a shield, the state of the military art was to wear two breastplates, a close-fitting one and a loose one that you just hung around your neck. The Carian innovation was moving the second breastplate off your neck and into your hand. While we know basically nothing about the Carians nowadays, thanks to the archaeological record we know Herodotus is roughly correct in his assertions about how shields were used, and how the use of shields changed.
The Lycians! The Lycians were crazy, says Herodotus. They actually traced their ancestry through the mother, rather than the father, which was unheard of. Later historians, for many centuries, decided that this meant that the Lycians (about whom there isn’t much in the way of records) must have been an extremely primitive tribe; they weren’t advanced enough to be patriarchal. This view has shifted somewhat with time. Since the discovery of many, many coins that date to the time and place they supposedly lived, the consensus has shifted to the notion that Lycians were quite rich by the standards of their neighbors. A descendant of Harpagos was the king of the Lycians about a hundred years after the events described here. Beyond that, historians don’t know any more about the Lycians than they do the Carians.
The Cnidians! These were Spartan colonists in what’s now the Datca Peninsula, which is just south of Ionia. The peninsula was and is about fifty miles long but very narrow; it’s just a half-mile wide at its narrowest point. The Cnidians came up with the idea of digging a trench there to cut themselves off from the mainland and convert their territory into a more-defensible island. However the Oracle at Delphi told them to quit screwing around trying to play God. “If Zeus had wanted Datca to be an island instead of a peninsula, then it would have already been an island,” the oracle said, except she said it in iambic trimeter. So the Cnidians surrendered to Harpagos instead.
And the Pedasians! The Pedasians lived up in the mountains and weren’t very interesting, except that they worshipped Athena. Whenever a great disaster was about to befall them or their neighbors, the priestess of Athena would spontaneously grow a massive beard, Saint Wilgefortis style. This did not protect them from Harpagos, though.
AN OVERVIEW OF IONIA
Herodotus provides a fairly lengthy explanation of the local political framework. The first thing to understand is that “the Greeks” was a blanket term including a bunch of closely-related ethnic groups, including the Aeolians, the Ionians, the Dorians, the Achaeans, and others.
Though the region under discussion is the west coast of modern-day Turkey, it was the home of a whole passel of Greek city-state colonies. These city-states were largely all independent of one another, but twelve of them had banded together to form the Panionium League.
The Panionium League was made up entirely of Ionian city-states, but Herodotus wants us to understand that it wasn’t a collection of every Ionian city-state. Athens, for instance, was Ionian, but not part of the Panionium League. Athens was also on the other side of the Aegean Sea from the region we’re discussing, but Herodotus doesn’t mention that. Furthermore, it’s important to Herodotus that we know that the Panionium cities took in immigrants that weren’t Ionian in their heritage, meaning that the Panionium were most definitely not all pureblooded Ionians and having your city made up of pureblooded Ionians was not requirement to be in the league. Herodotus might be rebutting some unknown ancient scholar who held the contrary position.
The twelve city-states of the Panionium League could be further divided into four distinct cultural groups, all of whom spoke slightly different dialects: the Carians (four city-states), the Lydians (six city-states, most of which were in or near Lydia, hence the name), the Samians (the island of Samos), and the Chians and Erythraeans (the city-state of Erythrae and the island of Chios).
Herodotus compares the Panionium League to the Six-City League, another similar polity of city-states. The Six-City League, however, was made up of Dorian Greeks, not Ionian Greeks. By Herodotus’s time the Six-City League had been rechristened the Five-City League, because one of the cities, Halicarnassus, took the league’s big track-and-field trophy home at the end of a track meet instead of leaving it in place at the Dorian stadium. This was a big no-no and Halicarnassus was kicked out of their league.
Herodotus himself was a Dorian Greek and has been accused intermittently for the last twenty-five hundred years of racism against Ionian Greeks. This is another interpretation of his statements regarding the Panionium not being pure-blooded; he thought they were a bunch of mongrels and that was why the Persians conquered them so easily, maybe? I like Herodotus, or at least I want to like Herodotus (I’m spending an awful lot of time on the dude) so I prefer the non-racist interpretation.
There was also a league of Aeolian city-states. One of those, Smyra, got kicked out of that league, too, which is a funny story.
See, Smyra took in refugees from Colophon (one of the Panionium cities) after an unspecified trouble. Then one day while all the Smyraens were out in the field sacrificing to Dionysius in the big annual Dionysius festival-orgy, the Colophonese refugees closed up the city gates and declared themselves the rulers of Smyra. After a lot of back and forth, the Smyraens eventually ceded them the city in exchange for the refugees letting them go in and get all their furniture. The Smyraeans distributed themselves among the other five cities in the Dorian league. The refugees, now calling themselves Smyraens despite their Colophonese heritage, soon learned that Smyra had been expelled from the Aeolian league. They petitioned to join the Panionium League but were not admitted.
Herodotus had a bunch of Persian Facts he’s been looking for a chance to unload real quick. Check this out before we move on: Herodotus is a straight-up primary source in re ancient Persian culture and religion; this is some of the oldest Western accounts of proto-Zorastrianism extant.
PERSIAN FACT! The Persians didn’t maintain temples to the gods or even altars! (Technically this was not true, but certainly they had orders of magnitude fewer temples than the Greeks.)
PERSIAN FACT! The reason they didn’t maintain temples was because they thought the gods couldn’t care less about the doings of mortals!
PERSIAN FACT! Nevertheless they worshipped the same gods as the Greeks, specifically Zeus and Aphrodite, says Herodotus, because he’s habitually ecumenical like that. He admits the gods were given different names, but supplies only the Persian name for Aphrodite, and in fact the wrong one (Mithra instead of Ishtar or Astarte)! The Persian name for the masculine supreme being was Ormazd, not Zeus, but Herodotus doesn’t mention that.
PERSIAN FACT! When a Persian wanted to sacrifice to Zeus (because you got to sacrifice to Zeus even if you don’t keep any temples) he’d take an animal out to a desolate place, cut it up, and then watch a Magus sing. No burning of the sacrifice and no wine, in contrast with the drunken and pyre-happy Greeks.
PERSIAN FACT! Then he picked up the remains of the animal that he just sacrificed and did whatever he wanted with them! He didn’t have to burn them up at all, and he didn’t have to give any to the priests. He could just eat it, if he wanted.
PERSIAN FACT! The Persians celebrated birthdays with large feasts! Aristophanes, the playwright, made jokes about this.
PERSIAN FACT! They ate dessert in the middle of the meal instead of at the end!
PERSIAN FACT! They thought it was rude to vomit or urinate in public! (I’m amazed Herodotus thinks this is worthy of mention.)
PERSIAN FACT! When they had a bad problem to solve, they got drunk and figured it out!
PERSIAN FACT! Then after they sobered up they reconsidered their answer!
PERSIAN FACT! They measured the worth of an ethnicity by how close to Persia that ethnicity’s homeland was! The Medes were Persia-adjacent, so they were almost as good as the Persians; the Lydians were Mede-adjacent, so one rank lower, and so on.
PERSIAN FACT! They didn’t used to use young boys for sex, but then they learned from the Greeks and soon couldn’t get enough! (Or so Herodotus claims; apparently the oldest Zoroastrian religious texts contain laws forbidding pederasty, so no, the Greeks didn’t actually invent it.)
PERSIAN FACT! If you thought the Persians were atypically egalitarian with regards to women, you thought wrong! Persian women had to put with the same bull hockey as women everywhere!
PERSIAN FACT! Fathers didn’t interact with their sons until adulthood, so that if the boy died young the father wouldn’t feel as bad! (Herodotus thinks this custom is very smart.)
PERSIAN FACT! Herodotus also commends their version of the death penalty, which is, they kept a running tally of how much you contributed to society versus what horrible crimes or atrocities you’d committed, and if the latter ever outweighed the former, boom, firing squad!
PERSIAN FACT! The Persian legal code is harsh! Talking about illegal things is illegal! Lying is illegal! Debt is illegal! Leprosy is illegal!
PERSIAN FACT! Herodotus is pretty sure that all Persian names ended with the same letter, sigma! This was absolutely not true, but Herodotus is really proud of himself for noticing a fact about the Persian language that no one else had ever picked up on.
PERSIAN FACT! An upper-class Persian funeral isn’t over until a dog has chewed up the body and then the body has been covered in hot wax!
Okay. Herodotus is done with Persian Facts for right now. If he thinks of any more, he’ll let us know.
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE PHOCAEANS
This story is relatively involved but it has next to nothing to do with the main narrative. The Phocaeans liked to claim that they were the first mariners and the best, not just in the Aegean Sea but the entire Mediterranean. They said they’d been all the way to Tartessus — we might call this Seville, in Andalusia, I.e. southern Spain. Not only that, but the king of Tartessus, who was a hundred and twenty years old and super smart, had liked the Phoceans so much that he’d invited them to move to Andalusia. They’d been far too genteel to accept such an offer, of course, and so the king instead gave them city walls as a present.
Herodotus doesn’t know about the veracity of this story, but certainly they had some nice city walls, he says. Harpagos dealt with these walls by building enormous earthwork ramps, which took time. The Phocaeans escaped by sea, vowing never to return.
While Harpagos looted their city, the Phocaeans considered their options. An oracle suggested they relocate to Corsica, but instead for some reason they sailed to Chios. You may remember it as the city-state that tried to sell Pactyes to the Persians. Unsurprisingly, the Chians refused to let the Phocaeans in. “It would spoil our plans to kiss up to the Persians,” they explained.
“Fair enough,” said the Phocaeans, and sailed back to Phocaea with their heads held low. Sad music played.
By the time they returned to Phocaea, Harpagos’s army had already looted the place pretty much out, and moved on to the next city-state. Harpagos hadn’t had a lot of troops to spare, so left only a skeletal garrison in the looted city. The Phocaeans had little trouble retaking their home, but then they were in a quandary.
“Didn’t we swear an oath never to return?” asked one.
“Shut up,” suggested another.
“No no, she’s right,” said a third. “We should go to Corsica like I wanted to in the first place!”
“Screw that, I’m staying!”
And so the Phocaeans split into two groups. Half stayed in their ancestral home, while the other half settled the island of Corsica. Corsica was at the time a Phocaean colony anyway, so this wasn’t such a tremendous upheaval.
Out in the western Mediterranean, the folk of Corsica became infamous pirates, drawing the ire of the major powers of the area: the Etruscans in Italy and the Carthagians in Tunisia.
The Etruscans and Carthagians mounted a naval attack on Corsica, which the pirates successfully defended against, but at the cost of many ships and a substantial loss of crew. The surviving pirates pulled up stakes and relocated to the southern tip of Italy, across the channel from Sicily.
Meanwhile those pirates whose ships had been sunk were picked up by the remnants of the Etruscan and Carthagian fleets. The various city-states that had allied together against the pirates held a slave raffle. Most of the captured Phocaean-Corsican pirates ended up the property of the Etruscan city of Agylla, in central Italy. The Agyllans celebrated their luck by mass-executing the pirates.
And everything was great, except that the Agyllans all started to die of horrid diseases. They consulted the Pythia, who told them that they’d offended their gods with their careless pirate-murder. To make it up to them, the Agyllans founded a big track-and-field festival honoring the memory of the Corsican pirates.
“That makes sense, right?” asks Herodotus.
“Of course,” we all assure him. “It makes perfect sense.”
Meanwhile, on the southern tip of Italy opposite Sicily, the handful of pirates who’d escaped brutal Etruscan justice decided that back when they’d decided to move to Corsica and become pirates, they’d misinterpreted their oracle’s instructions. They hadn’t been supposed to settle the island of Kyrnos (Corsica), says Herodotus. They had been supposed to build a temple to the legendary hero Kyrnos, son of Heracles. Ironic trombone sound here!
This story is actually the best historical evidence for an answer to the question “why didn’t the Greeks just expand westward across the Mediterranean, given their penchant for colony-building?” They had a few colonies out Italy way (Rhegium, Corsica, et cetera) but nothing on the order of their activity in the Aegean. The answer: Carthage and Etruria.
You would be surprised how many places I had to look before I found “Etruria” as the name for “where the Etruscans were.”
FAST MASSAGETAI FACTOIDS!
Herodotus doesn’t know much about the culture whose queen proved to be Cyrus’s better. But on the plus side, what he does know he’s willing to share with us. Also, he knows more than anyone else. The Massagetai did not leave much in the way of archaeological records.
1) The Massagetai were kind of like the Scythians! Except they were different. They used horses and axes and bronze, which are qualities worth mentioning for some reason.
2) The Massagetai had marriage, but they did it differently! When a Massagetai man married a woman, that woman became the wife of all the married Massagetai; all the married women belonged to all the married men, as a group. If a man wanted one he just grabbed her for for a while. (Herodotus’s source for this was definitely not some horny teenager.)
3) When a Massagetai got old (no particular age, just generically old, it varied from person to person) their family got together and held a feast in which they they honored and also ate the old person. This is, in case you haven’t been keeping track, the third reference to intrafamily cannibalism in CLIO.
4) When a Massagetai died of disease, they didn’t get eaten, they got buried instead.
5) They really liked milk.
6) And maybe they were into Sun-worship and sacrificed horses to the sun on the grounds that horses are fast and the sun moves quickly across the sky? Herodotus isn’t a hundred percent on that one.
7) Milk, though, definitely. He can totally confirm they were crazy for milk.
FAST BABYLON FACTOIDS!
Unlike the Massagetai, the Babylonians did leave a lot of records. That doesn’t stop Herodotus from telling a lot of probably-not-entirely-invented facts about them. Get ready for the truth-bombs that fall from Herodotus’s lips!
1) In Babylon people were crazy rich! Babylonian taxes paid for literally one third of the Persian Empire’s military budget!
2) In Babylon the land was crazy dry but they had a lot of irrigation. Ditches and things. It would take a scientist to explain, says Herodotus. Just trust him on this one.
3) In Babylon the land was also crazy fertile thanks to all those ditches and whatnot. Sesame, barley, wheat, dates, if it’s a grain you could get it in Babylon.
4) In Babylon they had this crazy awesome portage system. Cargo went downstream on these light leather barges, which Herodotus describes pretty vaguely. The awesome part is that once the workers had taken their cargo downstream and sold it, they disassembled their barges and loaded the leather and frames onto donkeys, and walked back home. Herodotus thinks this was awesome. Reusable leather barges! An incredible innovation!
5) In Babylon if you got sick, you’d go down to the market and chill. Passersby would diagnose you, amateur-style, and you’d medicate based on the consensus.
6) In Babylon when that didn’t work out and you died, they entombed you by burying you in honey.
7) In Babylon some folks ate a lot of fish that they dried in the sun. Less interesting, sure, but more probable than some of these supposed facts.
8) Speaking of highly dubious facts, in Babylon every spring they’d gather up all the single girls of marriageable age in each village. They’d sort the girls in order of prettiness, and auction them off. Pretty girls were expensive, ugly girls sometimes had to be attached to cash-prize dowries to get someone to take them.
9) But women weren’t treated entirely like livestock, in Babylon! If a man bought a girl and married her and she hated him, she could leave him and he had no say in the matter. He would, however, be entitled to a full refund.
10) Actually by Herodotus’s time they’d stopped with the woman-auctioning thing, and just had prostitutes like everybody else. Herodotus is describing an already-archaic custom, because he thinks it’s neat.
11) Speaking of prostitutes, in Babylon every single woman had to go to the temple of Aphrodite and be a prostitute! For one night, at least. This was mandatory; you weren’t allowed out until someone had paid for sex with you. Rich women would do it, just as though they were dirty poors, and bring servants and luxury goods in with them. Women who couldn’t get a man to sleep with them for money would be stuck in the temple; some ended up staying for years.
I have no idea how Factoid #8 and Factoid #11 are supposed to be compatible. Maybe the system in #11 replaced the one in #8, which Herodotus did call out as obsolete.
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