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The Fairest of Constitutions? Democracy and Its Discontents in Herodotus’ Histories

Ellen G. Millender

           Although post-Cleisthenic Athens is the only actual democracy featured at length in the Histories, Herodotus provides numerous accounts of groups – both Greek and non-Greek – engaged in deliberation and voting.  These examples of group political activity provide Herodotus’ readers with the opportunity to assess (1) the validity of the claims about popular rule that the Persian conspirators make in the “Constitutional Debate” and (2) Herodotus’ reputation as a fan of popular rule.  Indeed, scholars have long viewed Herodotus as an exponent of democracy (cf., esp., Lateiner 1989, 163-86,) since he extols Athenian isēgoria (5.78; cf. 5.66) and has the Persian Otanes claim in the debate that Athens’ constitution has the fairest of names:  isōnomia (3.80.6).

            A careful reading of the Histories, however, reveals that Herodotus’ descriptions of collective decision-making and suffrage consistently fail to support Otanes’ belief that open debate, accountability, and the political equality they produce can restrain self-interested individuals from gaining excessive power (3.80.6).  Herodotus’ accounts of group deliberation and suffrage rather bear out both Megabyzus’ and Darius’ critiques of the plēthos/demos (3.81.1-2, 3.82.4) and, more particularly, Darius’ belief that human self-interest cuts across all political structures, overrides civic-mindedness, and makes one-man rule inevitable (3.82.3-4).  Herodotus’ accounts of popular rule, moreover, portray the people as passive and easily duped by the kind of persuasive language that Darius himself earlier lauds at 3.72, and thus at the mercy of clever and ambitious individuals like the self-interested Darius that Herodotus first introduces at 3.71.

            The Histories’ description of the rise of Deioces in Media, for example, highlights several weaknesses in Otanes’ model of the effective plēthos at work.  While the recently liberated Medes gather to deliberate on their present state of lawlessness, they ultimately prove incapable of self-rule and rather passively allow persuasive speech and the unfettered ambition of Deioces to return them to one-man (1.95.2-101).  Herodotus provides an equally negative treatment of collective decision-making in his account of Cyrus the Great’s rise to power (1.107-30).  In his account of the Persians who met to support Cyrus’ proposed revolt from Median rule, Herodotus depicts another passive assembly that unthinkingly surrenders its freedom to another clever leader and is manipulated by persuasive speech.  After being persuaded by Cyrus to revolt, the Persians immediately obey his every command and win a freedom that is not true liberty but rather a gift bestowed by Cyrus on condition of the Persians’ absolute obedience (1.126.5-6; cf. 3.82.5).

            Equally troubling are Herodotus’ account of the development of democracy in Athens under Cleisthenenes and descriptions of Athenian democracy in action under the leadership of two more elite figures, Miltiades and Themistocles.  Herodotus’ structuring of the Cleisthenes logos (5.66-73), together with his repeated emphasis on the Alcmaeonid leader’s use of the Athenian demos to gain personal power (5.66.2, 5.69.2), casts the foundation of Athens’ democracy as the accidental byproduct of both stasis among competing elites and a cheap political tactic employed by the desperate grandson of a tyrant. 

            Herodotus’ narrative of Miltiades in Book Six of the Histories again highlights the weaknesses of popular rule.  From his election as general after only recently escaping punishment for his tyranny in the Chersonese (6.104) to his unquestioned influence over the Athenian demos (6.132) and his death in much the same circumstances as the transgressive Persian king, Cambyses (6.136.3; cf. 3.64.3-5), Herodotus’ Miltiades confirms Darius’ belief in the demos’ inability to curb ambitious individuals.  Herodotus provides an equally damning account of democratic practice in his account of the Athenians’ prosecution of the war against Persia under the leadership of Themistocles in Books Seven and Eight.  Themistocles, indeed, follows the trajectory paved by figures like Deioces and Miltiades from his initial service to the demos (7.143-144) to his self-interested deception of the people (8.109) and descent into quasi-tyrannical hubris and use of compulsion to achieve his ends (8.111.2).

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Herodotus’ “Constitutional Debate” From the Inside Out

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