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Justifying Violence in Herodotus’ Histories 3.38: Nomos, King of All, and Pindaric Poetics

K. Scarlett Kingsley

Perhaps due to its long afterlife, rendering the statement something of a cliché, the famous Pindaric fragment quoted by Herodotus that ‘nomos is king’ (fr. 169a) has been judged by scholarship as a confused appropriation by the historian, included either as a decontextualized proverbial statement or as a willful subversion of its original meaning  (e.g. Schroeder 1917; Gigante 1956; Ferrari 1992; Bloomer 1993; for a dissenting view, Ostwald 1965). Yet Herodotus cites not an ossified maxim, but the lyrics of Greece’s foremost contemporary composer. Against the communis opinio, I argue that a reading of the remark within its original Pindaric context indicates that Herodotus' incorporation of Pindar displays a sophisticated technique of quotation and sustained intertext: it serves both a proximate purpose – in acting as an immediate comment on the naturalism of respecting one’s own nomoi, while hinting at a soft cultural relativism – and a distal one, through its Pindaric hypotext.

In beginning the third book of his Histories (3.1-38), Herodotus narrates the exceptionally violent reign of the Persian king Cambyses. As often noted, the narrative arc provides a template for the irrational actions stereotypical of the Greek tyrant (e.g. Munson 1991). The exceptionally critical narratorial remarks climax in a description of the famous experiment made by the Persian king Darius, who, to test the tenacity of funerary nomoi, attempted to bribe the Greeks and Callatiae Indians to practice each other’s funerary customs. Their subsequent revulsion and unwillingness is capped by the narrator’s integration of a gnomic statement from Pindar’s fr. 169a: ‘Pindar seems to me to have done right, calling nomos king of all’ (3.38.4). Herodotus’ citation is usually read as implying that had Cambyses been sane, he would have understood that each holds his own nomoi dearest, and thus respected his own (cp. Pindar fr. 215 (a)).

            The text of Pindar fr. 169a consists of over 50 lines, taken from Plato’s Gorgias, Aelius’ Aristides On Rhetoric, and papyrus fragments (Snell-Maehler 1987). Pindar’s incipit is bolstered by τεκμαίρομαι, ‘inferring from evidence’ (a favorite terminus technicus of Herodotus): τεκμαίρομαι ἔργοισιν Ἡρακλέος, after which Pindar recounts the brutal assaults of Heracles against Geryon and Diomedes. While debate continues as to the precise meaning of nomos in the fragment, there is an emerging consensus (Payne 2006) that Heracles is viciously violent, but that this is sanitized by Zeus (Lloyd-Jones 1972) or convention (Wilamowitz 1919; Pohlenz 1948). The actions of the hero come under the moral scrutiny of the poet (cp. Pindar fr. 81), and a disturbing paradox results: though Heracles himself violates nomos through his theft of the cattle of Geryon and the horses of Diomedes, he is also protected by nomos through the will of Zeus, or convention. The poetic hermeneutics in both the Gorgias and On Rhetoric also register this ambivalence in terms of nomos and Heracles as problematic.

            Building on the analysis of the vexed relationship between Heracles and nomos, I argue that Herodotus’ intertext activates this complex nexus of moral turpitude and sanitization in the context of the Cambyses narrative. Cambyses’ close connection to the rule of law (3.31.4) – however transgressive he has proven in relation to ancestral Persian nomoi – recurs in the Constitutional Debate, and results in a fossilization of the monarchic constitution as one of Persia’s ‘traditional nomoi’ (3.82.5) by Darius, who becomes a test case for his own future experiment confirming that nomos rules all. The theme of transgression of law and its justification returns at the outset of the invasion of Greece, when Xerxes declares expansion a Persian nomos, conflates it with the notion of a divine agent leading them (7.8α.1), and refuses to distinguish between the just and the unjust (7.8δ.1). Far from being a superficial reader of Pindar, Herodotus harmonizes the historical narrative to engage with Pindar’s nomos basileus, by interrogating the complex interplay between nomos and the justice of the king.

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Men and War

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