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The Dreams of Xerxes, Revisited: Herodotus 7.12-18 and the Role of Religious Ideology in the Second Persian Invasion of Greece

Ronnie Shi

Stanford University

Why did the Persian Empire invade Greece in 480 BCE?  The sole ancient narrative we possess of the Persian decision-making process, Herodotus 7.1-18, emphasizes the decisive importance of a disturbing series of dreams that convinces Xerxes that God has willed the invasion (7.12-18).  Yet despite the prominence Herodotus gives this event amid a host of other causes, modern historians consider the dream episode irrelevant to a historical understanding the invasion’s origins (Briant 2012: 526).  Scholars of Greek historiography (e.g. Grethlein 2009; Harrison 2000; Immerwahr 1954; Munson 2001), for their part, have largely assumed the dreams of Xerxes are a literary invention.

My paper argues that, far from being a Herodotean fabrication, the tale of Xerxes’ dreams was likely Persian in origin, as Herodotus himself insists (ὡς λέγεται ὑπὸ Περσέων, 7.12), and was intended to provide a justificatory account of the decision to invade Greece to a Persian audience.  Accordingly, we should revise our assumptions about the value of this narrative as historical evidence pertaining to Persia’s decision to invade Greece.

The bulk of my paper lays out my case for the dream episode’s authenticity and origin in three steps:

(1) The episode is unlikely on textual and literary grounds to have been Herodotus’ fabrication: it is self-standing and actually fits poorly into Herodotus’ larger narrative.  The “seams” that give it away are the discrepancies between the way God’s will is portrayed within the episode itself (i.e. a deceptive force that punishes Xerxes’ sober judgment) and in the rest of Herodotus’ narrative (an equalizing force that punishes Xerxes’ hubris; cf. Hdt. 7.139.5).  While critics have tried to make sense of this discrepancy by reading the dream story as a tragic episode (e.g., Kornarou 2004; Saïd 2002), I argue it indicates the episode was originally a freestanding story, composed from a Persian point of view under the expectation of a Persian victory.  This story would have justified Xerxes’ decision to invade Greece by portraying him as an obedient executor of God’s will to make Persia supreme.  When incorporated into Herodotus’ History, however, it was forced to fit a larger narrative framework in which cosmic forces had ordained a victory on the Greek not Persian side.

(2) The dream story is plausible as a story of Persian origin when checked against the surviving Persian evidence.  Persian royal inscriptions overwhelmingly stress the will and favor of the supreme Persian god, Ahuramazda, when narrating the King’s exploits and decisions (Lincoln 2008; Root 1979), and the centrality of divine favor within those narratives is consonant with the role it plays in the tale of Xerxes’ dreams.

(3) Herodotus is likely to have known and consulted reliable Persian sources because he demonstrates an accurate understanding of the nature and rhetoric of Persian royal ideology.  I point especially to how Herodotus’ Xerxes, when addressing his cabinet at Hdt. 7.8a-d, presents his intention to invade Greece in religiously charged rhetoric whose very wording closely parallels the formulaic text of Persian royal inscriptions, especially the famous Behistun inscription of Darius I (Asheri; Balcer; Root 2013).

The remainder of my paper explains the implications that arise from reading the dream episode as a narrative of Persian origin:

(A) In contrast to what modern historical assessments claim, the episode does hold some value as historical evidence: it suggests that, however many “hard” or “rational” factors might have caused the Persians to decide to invade, religious belief and ideology mattered greatly to them in justifying the decision.

(B) Far from being an enthusiastic fabricator of anecdotes (as alleged by, e.g., Pritchett), Herodotus, at least while describing the run-up to the Persian invasion, was probably simply reporting what he heard.  That he included the dream story at such great expense to the thematic coherence of his narrative could suggest, in turn, that it was of considerable cultural and ideological importance in its context of origin—a key piece in the puzzle of history.

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Herodotus and Thucydides

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