Herodotus’ Histories are generally taken to present inter alia a demonstration of the practical and moral inferiority of a way of life (for recent reevaluations and earlier bibliography: Isaac 257-283, Gruen 21-39). Opulence, it is said, naturally and inevitably breeds cowardice, and the luxurious are bound to experience defeat and slavery (cf. 9.122). The Histories, however, contain many apparent counter-examples to the principle: Lydians bravely resist Persians (1.79.3), Persians fight practically bare-handed against heavily armed Greeks (9.62), etc. These circumstances make Herodotus’ description of the Battle of Lade (6.11-17) of particular importance, since the passage seems to offer both a reference to this principle and an example of its operation. The essential facts: shortly before the battle, Dionysius the Phocaean urged the Ionians to avoid μαλακιÌη and submit to rigorous training under his command. The Ionians agreed, but came to regret their decision, worn out by these hardships. They withdrew from training, and defeat soon followed. Mention of “softness” is taken as a reference to the belief in the Ionians’ “ancestral propensity” toward effeminacy caused by luxury (Nenci 179), and Lade is understood to illustrate the practical results of this ethnic trait.
It is my argument that in this passage the effects of luxury are less important to Herodotus than generally accepted; rather, the historical principle illustrated is the Greek tendency to see any attempt to promote the common good as an infringement of individual independence and self-interest. 6.11-17, however, also has a larger significance: it offers a rare subjective view of the phenomenon of τοÌ€ εÌ“θελοκακειÍ‚ν, the deliberate display of cowardice. As such, it should be read alongside passages in which the martial qualities of subject peoples are impugned (e.g., Demaratus’ debate with Xerxes, 7.102-104).
Most treatments take Dionysius’ warning against softness as thematic for this episode, but the word need not refer to an ethnic characteristic. The Ionians would experience ταλαιπωριÌαι as part of their training. This term indicates not “inflamed hands and blistered buttocks” (Evans 35), but severe hardships. The Ionians endured these for seven straight days, and we should recognize that not only they, but most other Greeks would have found themselves “unfamiliar with such toils” (6.12.2).
In any case, to focus on μαλακιÌη is to undervalue the other failing Dionysius warns against: αÌ“ταξιÌη. Here αÌ“ταξιÌη is, like μαλακιÌη, subjective and psychological. Dionysius’ “disorder” addresses the Ionians’ likely reluctance to submit to his will. As foreseen, Dionysius’ actions as commander provoke αÌ“ταξιÌη; the quality is on display as the Ionians discuss withdrawal from training. Specifically, the sailors characterize Dionysius as a severe tyrant: á¼¡μÎας λυμαÎ¯νεται λÏμá¿ƒσι á¼€νηκÎστοισι (6.12.3). The phrase is striking; both noun and verb generally describe the insulting physical abuse of the powerless by the powerful (e.g., 1.214.4, 5.33.2-3). In their eyes, the Ionians were being treated with violent dishonor by an “upstart captain of three ships” (6.12.3). Thus, their expressed preference for the “prospective over the present servitude” (6.12.3). Jealousy and suspicion of power, not softness, is for Herodotus the apparent cause of defeat (cf. αÌ“ταξιÌην πολληÌν, again at 6.13.1), and the Ionians share this attitude with many other Greeks in the Histories.
It is tempting to read the Ionians’ complaints as humorous and the passage as ironical. Caution is necessary: the Ionians’ behavior is characterized as τοÌ€ εÌ“θελοκακειÍ‚ν at 6.15.1. The same quality explains the Athenians’ military weakness under the Peisistratids (5.78.1). Further, this phenomenon is described with approval in a contemporary discussion of Asiatic Greek customs ([Hp.] De aëre 16, 23). Thus, the Ionians’ reaction is natural, although perhaps misplaced, and this fact warns us not to take notorious statements such as “my men have become women” (8.88.3) or “an inferior nature is improved by fear of the lash” (7.103.4) at face value. Herodotus is keenly attuned to the interplay of divergent self-interests, and the Histories must always be read with this in mind.
- James Allan Stewart Evans. 1976. “Herodotus and the Ionian Revolt.” Historia 25: 31-37.
- Erich S. Gruen. 2011. Rethinking the Other in Antiquity. Princeton and Oxford.
- Benjamin Isaac. 2004. The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity. Princeton and Oxford.
- Giuseppe Nenci. 1998. Erodoto. Le Storie. Libro VI, La battaglia di Maratona. Milan.