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Megabyxus in the Constitutional Debate

Rosaria V. Munson

In an important book, Margaret Miller argues that fifth-century Athenians, even while engaging in anti-Persian rhetoric, nevertheless 'appropriated and reshaped aspects of Achaemenid culture to their own social and imperial needs'.  As evidence for this receptivity, Miller cites the Athenians' adoption of Persian art and other items of material culture (1997:1).  I would like to explore a different side of Athenian receptivity towards Persia.  Always against the conspicuous background of a culture-war between Greeks and barbaroi (Hall 1989), we detect another tendency, which we still have in modern days:  the desire to lend to a stranger/opponent values that we claim as our own, or at least the capacity to understand and embrace those values, if only…, that is to say, if only historical circumstances were different, if only the better part of the foreign community would prevail, or in the absence of certain constraints.

     Herodotus' Constitutional Debate has been interpreted as an awkwardly transplanted Greek sophistic dialogue, as a theoretical document that confirms Herodotus' overall narrative, or as a message to a Greek audience about the perils of every political system and the resiliency of authoritarian rule (Brannan 1969; Lasserre 1976; Evans 1981; Lateiner 1989; Briant 2002: 108-13; Pelling 2002). Without denying the validity of these approaches, I would like to propose that the scene contributes to Herodotus' attempt to represent the Persians specifically as a community attached to freedom in the Greek sense of the word.

      The interregnum that followed the deaths of Cambyses and the usurper Magus (522 BCE) gives Herodotus a rare narrative space to see the Persians au naturel, i.e. without their king, just as it affords the speakers in the Debate the story space to express subversive views about kingship.  Otanes is even given permission to invent Cleisthenic democracy about fifteen years before it will be implemented in Athens (3.80.6).   

      Otanes' impossibly radical stance marks him at the outset as anomalous in the Persian context, as his final refusal either to rule or be ruled clearly shows (3.83). On the other end of the spectrum, Darius embodies the necessary narrative outcome and the historically factual status quo of the Persian regime (3.82). He is the obvious protagonist, who argues in favor of monarchy and then proceeds to secure the job for himself.  The middle speaker Megabyxus, who expresses his agreement with Otanes' anti-monarchical opinion and declares himself in favor of a constitutional government of 'best men' (3.81.3), does not, unlike Otanes and Darius, have a prominent role elsewhere in Herodotus' narrative. But I propose to show how he is the speaker who formulates the most plausible alternative to Persian monarchical rule--certainly as a Greek thought experiment, but perhaps also in the ideology of historical fifth-century Persians such as Herodotus had the opportunity to know (Balcer 1984; Lewis 1977 and 1985; Badian 1993:35-6).

    Evidence for this interpretation derives from the overarching context of the debate as much as from Megabyxus' speech.  The end of Herodotus' debate narrative and its relation to his account of Darius' rise to the throne and subsequent rule suggest that in some quarters the new regime did not live up to the more egalitarian and meritocratic idea of monarchy that the conspirators had finally agreed to implement (3.83-84). Herodotus, moreover, traces a direct connection between Megabyxus of the Constitutional Debate and contemporary Persians by recalling Megabyxus' descendants (3.153-160), whose troubles with the royal house were well known to fifth-century audiences. What else we know about these men (from Ctesias, Thucydides, and Diodorus) makes this family not necessarily a source for Herodotus, but fit representatives of the Persians whom Herodotus describes as a collectivity at the beginning of the Histories (1.1-5) and in the Persian ethnography (1.130-141).  The speech of Megabyxus the Elder in the Debate thus foreshadows the reservations of elite Persians of Herodotus' times in the face of the fully implemented Achaemenid regime.

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Herodotus’ “Constitutional Debate” From the Inside Out

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