The End of the Histories: Land, Wealth, and Empire in Herodotus
At the end of Herodotus’ Histories (9.122), the narrative abruptly departs from the victory at Sestos, Athens and her new allies, and the crucified body of the Persian governor, Artaÿctes, to move back in time and east in space to the court of the founder of the Persian empire, Cyrus. In an enigmatic closural moment, an ancestor of Artaÿctes’, Artembares, has come up with a proposal to improve the splendor of the Persians who now rule ‘all of Asia’. Through intermediaries, he suggests that the Persians migrate from the rough country of Persis to a fertile land in order to become more marvelous. Cyrus, however, pointedly refuses to marvel at this scheme, and counters with the memorable phrase that ‘out of soft lands come soft men’; he then clarifies that the bravery of the Persians in war is dependent on the absence of the fertility of their land. In the final analysis, Artembares’ Persian intermediaries are convinced of the wisdom of Cyrus and choose to be rulers instead of sowing crops and becoming slaves.
This passage revisits critical themes that predominate in the work and that were heavily debated in the latter half of the fifth century BCE. For this reason, it invites contextualization in light of the narrative of the text as a whole and its analysis of the relationship of migration to enslavement, fertility to enervation, and empire to freedom. It also requires contextualization in the ideological landscape of the Athenian empire, the climate of the Peloponnesian War, and the position of Persia in the Mediterranean at the time when the Histories was being composed. The rich afterlife of this conclusion also comes in for discussion, as we intertwine close reading and a historicist approach with a series of reception moments from Thucydides to Henry St John, the Viscount Bolingbroke. The book aims to challenge the communis opinio that Cyrus is a traditional ‘wise advisor’ figure warning against the dangers of imperialism and luxury and that this close provides an etiology for the Persian defeat in 479 B.C.E., with the Persians departing from Persis against Cyrus’ injunctions. Similarly, we counter the notion that this is a veiled ‘warning’ directed exclusively to the imperial Athenians in Herodotus’ present. Such interpretations have resulted in a sanitization of Cyrus’ Weisheit and a blinkered conception of Herodotus’ cosmopolitan audience.
During my time at the CHS, I will research, draft, and revise two chapters of the book, ‘Luxury and Status’ and ‘Land and Determinism’. My co-author, Tim Rood, and I will then collaborate on these together at the Center during his month-long stay. ‘Luxury and Status’ explores the function of wealth and status markers in the Histories. Informed by critical luxury studies, this chapter questions the influential argument that the Persians are defeated by the Greeks because of their enervation through luxury because they have departed from Cyrus’ admonition. It demonstrates that wealth and its display regularly have a positive descriptive function and that luxury is multi-discursive in the Histories. It also argues that poverty is not valorized as a goal in itself in the moral order of the text, but as a means to another end, a fact that complicates a straightforward reading of Cyrus’ warning to the Persians to remain in Persis. ‘Land and Determinism’ turns to environmental determinism and the relationship of Cyrus’ biophysical analogy of humans and landscapes to the Hippocratic treatise, Airs, Waters, Places. In it, we argue that attention to landscape in the Histories, with Assyria and Egypt as case studies, will complicate this apparent law of geography and military history.
Scarlett Kingsley is an Assistant Professor of Classics at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta, Georgia. She holds a PhD from Princeton University (2016) and an MSt from the University of Oxford (2009). Her research interests include Greek historiography, Presocratic philosophy, and cognitive approaches to the ancient world. She has written articles on lyric and philosophical intertexts in Herodotus and Thucydides and is in the final stages of completing the manuscript for her monograph, Herodotus the Presocratic: Inquiry and Intellectual Culture in the Fifth Century, for which she was awarded a Loeb Classical Library Foundation Fellowship for the academic year 2019-20. While at the CHS, Scarlett will be working on a jointly authored monograph with Tim Rood (Oxford), The End of the Histories: Land, Wealth, and Empire in Herodotus. This research leverages the final passages of the Histories into a broad discussion of key refrains in the narrative as a whole, including migration, land, and empire. They approach this passage ‘in the round’, examining its immediate context, its interrelations with episodes stretching back to the beginning of the work, and its resonance with fifth-century intellectual culture and beyond.