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Herodotus and the “Constitutional Debate” (3.80-82)

Brian M. Lavelle

The so-called “Constitutional Debate” (3.80-82) has long been the subject of intense interest among Herodotean scholars. Some hold that the debate is authentic, grounded in Persian sources traceable to the occasion (cf. Brannan, Traditio 19 [1963] 427-38).  Others aver that the passage is fictitious, whether Herodotos or another invented it (e.g., Maass, Hermes 22 [1887] 581-95; cf. Lateiner in Munson, ed. Herodotus:  Volume 1:  Herodotus and the Narrative of the Past [Oxford, 2013] 197).  Although Herodotos asserts its authenticity (3.80.1; 6.43.3), it has been observed that the debate would more reasonably involve “Cleisthenes, Isagoras or a Peisistratid as speakers” (Asheri, Lloyd, and Corcella, A Commentary on Herodotus I-IV. Murray & Moreno, eds. [Oxford, 2007] 472). 

            Some scholars, disregarding the question of historicity, focus instead on what must at least reflect contemporary thinking about prevailing forms of ancient Greek governments in Herodotos’ time.  The pros and cons of democracy were a “hot topic” in mid- to late fifth-century BCE Athens (Raaflaub, in Bakker, DeJong, and van Wees, eds. Brill’s Companion to Herodotus [Leiden, 2002] 161):  the debate then reflects Herodotos’ lively participation in Greek politics, perhaps becoming part of his views on contemporary Athenian democracy (cf. Moles in Bakker et. al. loc.cit., 33-52).  A recent interpretation of the “Constitutional Debate” suggests that Herodotos might have been a proponent of a “mixed” constitution – rather ahead of his time (Roy, Histos 6 [2012] 298-320).  At all events, it is commonly held that Herodotos is “… well-versed in the political debates of his time” and “a skilled narrator, who through careful construction of thematic and verbal patterns, expressed views on some of the most pressing political issues of his day.” (Forsdyke in Dewald and Marincola, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Herodotus [Cambridge, 2006] 224).

            But how is the passage to be understood?  To answer this question, we first must consider its source.  Herodotos either acquired the information from another source or, more unlikely, invented the passage himself.  His beliefs in it veracity suggests that he considered his source authoritative, but the possibility that the passage is actually veracious is diminished by problems of transmission – the agreement between his account of the Magian affair and the Behistun inscription notwithstanding.  While one might trace Herodotos’ source to Demokedes of Kroton, source alone does not explain the passage’s appearance in Book 3.  In fact, the chances of the passage’s historicity are very slim.

            Second, what did Herodotos actually intend to communicate in this passage?  Herodotos’ explicit intention will have been, as it is in the Histories, to convey factual information; but he must have meant also to explain (or to shore up the explanation for) the establishment of democracies in Ionia by Mardonius (6.43.3).  The negative implications of Dareios’ choice of government, however, cannot be disjoined from a) the nature of Greek tyranny and negative Greek attitudes about it in the fifth century BCE, and b) the hybristic behavior of Dareios’ son Xerxes during the invasion of Greece.

            Finally, is this passage reflective of Herodotos’ own political involvement or convictions, and, if so, is it didactic?  Other than Herodotos’ own association with Athens, grounds are sparse for thinking that the Persians’ sentiments mirror Herodotos’ own in specifics.  Moreover, his avowed purpose in the Histories is explanatory, not didactic.  Elements of the Histories involving the “tragic formula” are indirectly prescriptive and didactic but are based on past construable actions and outcomes, not projections into the future about which Herodotos, like Sophokles, is uncertain (1.32.4).  If there is anything “tragic” in the debate, it attaches to the Persians’ choice of government; it is not a monition pointed at Athenian imperialism.

            The paper seeks to address these questions by investigating the passage’s immediate textual and extended intellectual and political contexts.  It aims to clarify Herodotos’ purpose and to explain why the passage appears in the Histories.

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Herodotus’ “Constitutional Debate” From the Inside Out

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