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Herodotus on the Ethics of Retaliation

Elizabeth Irwin

This paper examines the recurrence at the close of Herodotus' Histories of the themes of the limits of vengeance taken in victory and the question of whether certain acts generally recognized as beyond the pale can nevertheless be legitimately justified in terms of retaliation.

At the end of the Histories different individuals and collectivities are portrayed as holding opposing views on precisely this question when the Spartan king Pausanias in quick succession rejects the encouragement to defile the corpse of Mardonius as ‘like return’ for his treatment of Leonidas (9.78) and upholds the principle that the sons of a Theban medizers are not to be held accountable for their fathers’ crimes (9.88), whereas the Athenian general Xanthippus chooses to crucify the Persian hierosylos Artayctes, forcing him to watch the stoning of his son (9.118) – brutal punishment that occurs both as the Histories’ final event and explicitly after the Spartans have left (9.115).

The portrayal of their contrasting views constitutes Herodotus’ intervention in a central debate among his contemporaries. Retaliation was the justification, according to Thucydides, of the Athenian murder of Spartan ambassadors in the summer of 430 (2.67), an event which Herodotus refers to as the culmination of a narrative which tells how not even Xerxes would violate the universally recognized sacrosanctity of emissaries (7.136). Herodotus’ contrasting portrayal of Athens and Sparta on this issue anticipates the end of the Atheno-Peloponnesian War when, contrary to the Athenians’ fears (Xen. 2.2.3, 10) and their allies’ demands (Xen. 2.1.31-2, Isoc. de Pace 77-9), the victorious Spartans refused to do what the Athenians had done and would have done to them, a position so characteristic of the Spartans and nevertheless so notable as to be the subject of Aristides, On Peace with Athens (Behr VIII).

Herodotus was, however, also interested in making a contribution to the debate that he knew would still be on-going among his future readers – the deeds of men, including their choices to engage in or abstain from retaliation – were not to become exitela through time. Here my paper counters scholarly approaches to Herodotus, narrowly focused on revenge (the ‘tit-for-tat’ approach), in which description of the behavior of characters in Herodotus’ text becomes transformed into a prescriptive claim about Herodotus’ or his culture’s own values and understanding of historical causation, which is naturally somehow more primitive than our own (see de Romilly; Gould; Flower and Marincola). The focus of the paper is instead on the behavior of belligerents in the face of norms designed to limit the threatened descent into barbarity represented by war.

In this respect I oppose such views as those expressed by Ober (1994) that use evidence based almost entirely on the questionable behavior of the Athenians in order to conclude erroneously that ‘there is not much to say about classical Greek laws regarding general military conduct’ (12). By contrast, not only did the founding fathers of international law find much in Herodotus to guide them – see e.g. Vattel’s Law of Nations, the Introduction to the Study of International Law (1860) by Woolsey, professor of Greek at Yale, and the Lieber Code (1863) governing the conduct of Union troops during the war – but also that the contours of the current debate have not substantially changed. Herodotus’ implicit meditation on the legitimacy and limits of retaliation in war, resonates equally clearly with the seminal work of Walzer, as well as with the concerns raised by Lichtenberg in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, and is not only timely but urgent to recognize as we choose how to conduct ourselves in our ‘counter-terrorist’ war. Herodotus' adherence to and implicit argument for the existence of certain absolute ethical norms amid a Zeitgeist obsessed with ethical relativity offers much to fortify those of us who wish in similarly fraught times to champion a commitment to certain absolute values as the basis of our humanity.


Session/Panel Title:

Herodotus at 2500

Session/Paper Number

4.3

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