Herodotus as a Morality Tale

While the main point of Herodotus’ the Histories is to cover the events leading up to and during the Greco-Persian Wars, there are a great many themes present throughout his works. These include the origins and myths of various peoples, the roots of the conflict between the Persians, as well as trying to put forth a sense of Hellenicity. However, one of the most important themes of the book is the morality and virtue of those presented. Here hubris is presented as being one of the major moral failings of the characters involved, as well as their ultimate downfall. In this paper, this author will show the role that hubris, and its consequences, play in Herodotus’ the Histories.

One of the underlying assumptions made by Herodotus is surmised nicely in this quotation from Book 2, “When great wrongs are done, the gods will surely visit them with great punishment.” (Hdts.2.120) For Herodotus, wrongdoing has its own consequences somewhere down the line.

One example given is the story Croesus, King of Lydia. Clearly, Croesus serves as a warning to those who follow him. It is made clear to us readers that Croesus is a man who suffers from his own hubris, and because of this, attempts to force fate to fall in his favor.

The first story that we get about Croesus’ hubris is the visit of the Athenian statesman Solon to Croesus’ court in Sardis. Herein Croesus asks him, “Now therefore I am fain to ask you, if you have ever seen a man more blest than all his fellows." (Hdt.1.30) Here he supposed that he would be deemed the most blessed man on earth. However, “without flattery” Solon responds that it is not Croesus, but a farmer in Attica named Tellus who had a comfortable life and a “glorious death.” (Hdts.1.30) When pressed about who was second, Solon responded that it was the brothers Cleobis and Biton who also had a comfortable life and a “most excellent end to their lives.” (Hdts.1.31) Angered, Croesus asks how it’s possible mere commoners were more blessed than him. Solon responded that it would be premature to say how blessed Croesus was before he saw how he died. Miffed by this, Croesus sent him away. (Hdts.1.33)

Herodotus argues that Croesus was punished for his hubris. This punishment came in the form of a prophecy, given to him in a dream, that his son Atys would be killed by a “spear of iron.” (Hdts.1.34) Despite Croesus’ best efforts, Atys would be tragically killed in a boar hunting accident, thus, fulfilling the prophecy.

It would be in a final fit of hubris that Croesus would finally understand his folly. The Kingdom of Lydia had come under threat from the growing Persian Empire. Croesus goes to the Oracle of Delphi to seek guidance on whether or not he should attack the Persians. He is given the warning to “beware of the day when a mule is lord of the Medians[.]” (Hdts.1.55) In his hubris, Croesus determined that he would be victorious over the Persians because “a mule would never be King of the Medians.” (Hdts.1.56) Despite being warned by a man named Sandanis to not do so, Croesus attempts to invade Cappadocia and is summarily defeated and the Lydian capital Sardis is besieged and captured by Cyrus and his Persians. (Hdts.1.71)

Herein, Croesus was to be burned on a large pyre. As it was lit Croesus, repentant for his foolishness, called out the name of Solon. Hearing this, the Persians took him off the pyre and questioned him and Croesus tells Cyrus his story and his mistakes. (Hdts.1.86) His hubris had not only led to the death of his son and the loss of his throne, but also the fall of his kingdom to the Persians.

In a great bit of irony, Cyrus would fall into the same trap that Croesus had fallen into. Cyrus, hearing Croesus’ story, would take Croesus on as an advisor. (Hdts.1.88) As Cyrus expanded the Persian Empire, he decided to attack the Massagetae. (Hdts.1.201) However, their Queen Tomyris warns Cyrus against this, warning him that it would lead to his defeat and that he ought to be patient and content with his holdings. Croesus too warns Cyrus against going to war against the Massagetae. (Hdts.1.205-7) However, Cyrus chooses to ignore both of their advice and attacks the Massagetae and is subsequently slain. (Hdts.1.214) Cyrus’ own hubris led to his downfall, even after being given the example of Croesus.

Another example of hubris given by Herodotus is that of King Xerxes. After the death of King Darius, Xerxes vowed to invade and subjugate Greece and quickly dismissed the advice of Artabanus who argued that such an invasion would only lead to defeat. (Hdts.7.10) He amassed an absurdly large force to do just this and he is described as arrogantly ordering a land bridge to be built across the Hellespont. (Hdts.7.33) When this fails, he orders the water and waves themselves to be lashed for their insolence. (Hdts.7.35)

Even after several setbacks, like at the Battle of Thermopylae(Hdts.7.234), the Persian host would eventually march into Attica where they ravaged the land and ultimately captured Athens. Herein, Athens was burned, and Xerxes next turned his attention to the remaining Greek fleet that had amassed in the Bay of Salamis. (Hdts.8.53)However, he would be warned against sending his fleet into the bay by Queen Artemisia, who argued instead that the Persians ought to just wait for the Greeks to leave the narrow confines of the Bay and destroy them there or else just invade the Peloponnese. (Hdts.8.68) Predictably, Xerxes, with the encouragement of his other advisors, opted to send his fleet in to destroy the Greeks.

It is here we can see the counter-example to Xerxes’ hubris in the Greeks. During the invasion, with the exception of Argos, the Greeks had stood united against the Persians. The Athenians had received a prophecy from the Oracle of Delphi that a “wall of wood” would save the Greeks. (Hdts.7.141) When Attica was invaded and Athens captured, the Greeks under the Athenian Themistocles correctly interpreted the prophecy and convinced all the Greek hosts to make their stand at Salamis instead of at the Isthmus of Corinth as was proposed by the Spartans. (Hdts.8.56) The Battle of Salamis would result in the defeat of Persian forces and it would result in Xerxes and his army retreating from Greece.

So what do all these examples and stories have in common? Well, firstly and most obviously, is hubris. Croesus, Cyrus, and Xerxes all felt themselves to be too powerful to possibly fail. And because of this, the consequences for all three were dire. Secondly, all are given the chance to back down. All this is presented in opposition to the Greeks, led by Themistocles who wisely heeded the advice, even as Athens burned, of the Oracle and convinced the other Greeks to make their stand at Salamis. What can be ultimately said of Herodotus’ morality tale in the Histories is that it is the ultimate battle between humility and wisdom, and hubris. And more than this, those with hubris will ultimately be humbled as they pay the consequences of their hubris.


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