Looking at the Halys River

I’ve been wanting to use this space to talk some about the ancient world, but have been struggling to settle on a niche. I have posted some relevant translations, but that isn’t really my thing and Sententiae Antiquae has created something of a monopoly there, I’m not sure I have the attention span and dedication to write different public history essays like Sarah Bond, and I don’t have a deep and abiding cause like Neville Morley with Thucydides. I admire each of these people, but this space is never going to be predominantly dedicated to the ancient world because I envision is more in the model of John Scalzi’s Whatever, an outlet to write about things I want to write about outside of professional obligations. Most of my time, if not always most of my words, go to other projects.

What seems to work best for me is to pop in from time to time and write about topics that I’ve been thinking about or come across in my reading. Sometimes that will involve reaction to events or articles, like the one where I wrote about Alexander the Great and concussive brain injury, and, even if I don’t say so outright, all of the passages from ancient sources that I have posted here I came across while researching and happened to note some contemporary resonance. In the past year and a half I have spent a good deal of time writing or teaching about Athenian Comedy and Greek Oratory, particularly Isocrates, in case that wasn’t obvious.

The third thing I want to do a better job of writing about are inchoate research projects, i.e. things I am not actively writing about for articles, book manuscripts, or conference papers, are adjacent to work that I am doing and that I keep coming back to as a potential line of research. Basically: musings, incomplete thoughts, works in progress. That is where this post comes in.


Two things that have long fascinated me are geography and how geographical features are used to delineate ideological frontiers. Sometimes this is to my detriment, such as when I took a stand in a graduate seminar on whether Istanbul is an “Asian” city since, geographically, its center is actually in Europe. (My larger point was about how the book was framing the division between Europe and Asia; this is a complex topic that I thought the author was treating in a ham-handed manner and I voiced my displeasure with equal bluntness.) This fascination has also manifested itself in my work, since ancient Ionia resided exactly on the border between the ideological constructs “Greek Europe” and “Barbarian Asia,” with the region sometimes split down the middle between the two.

It is in this framework that I’ve been thinking about the Halys River (modern Kızılırmak) in Turkey. Herodotus describes the river as the site of conflict between the Medes and the Lydians, with one battle stopping on account of a solar eclipse that happened during the fighting (1.103) and a second series of indecisive skirmishes along that frontier before Cyrus eventually conquered Lydia (1.72; Thuc. 1.16). The Halys as the border between Lydia (or Phrygia) and Persia is the basic meaning of the river, and the Roman geographer Strabo updates that definition to make the Halys the limit of the province of “Asia” (2.5.25; 15.3.23).

But the Halys River took on an ideological significance in the fourth century when Isocrates repeats on three occasions that during the days of the Athenian Empire the Persians could not bring armies closer than the sea than this border (4.144; 7.80; 12.59; in each he uses the phrase ἐντὸς ῾Άλυος). These statements are sometimes used as part of a flimsy argument for a fifth-century peace treaty between Athens and Persia (usually the “Peace of Callias”) that ended hostilities and set terms that pushed the Persians back past the Halys.

The problems with the Peace of Callias are manifold, and some of them are evident when thinking about the Halys. In each case, Isocrates juxtaposes the good-old-days of the fifth-century with the present, arguing that the Persians run roughshod over the Greeks because Sparta and others gave away the protections afforded by Athenian imperialism. And yet, if there was a treaty that prevented war, it certainly did not stop armies from crossing the Halys since there were two, sometimes three, persian satrapies (provinces) west of the river. Nor were the communities inland in Lydia considered culturally Greek until at least the Hellenistic period (323-31 BCE) and I suspect even later, so the Halys river does not mark a limit to the Greek world.

What, then, does the Halys River signify? For Isocrates, at least, the river serves several purposes. First and foremost, it invokes the pre-Persian status quo. Lydia is absent from this argument, but the Greeks came in contact with the Persians after they crossed the Halys, to their great tragedy. This is an appeal to nostalgia: if the Persians are the bad guys, and for Isocrates they are, then exiling them past the former border would free Greece. Second, there is an appeal to the former power of Athens. Isocrates implies that Athenian hegemony over Greece to the nostalgic days before Persia arrive, thereby exaggerating Athenian successes and almost supplanting Lydia as the political and military force that held back the barbarians. But this is a rhetorical stance only made possibly by his contemporary circumstances and as far as I have seen doesn’t appear either before or after the fourth century.

The Halys River is curious in this respect: for a short time in the fourth century it served as a shorthand for the line that must be reached in order to ensure the freedom of Greece. But the river bears little actual relevance on ancient Greece and so could only function as a fateful red line for an elite Athenian when Persia was a central concern and Athenian power was at a nadir. Both before and after such moments the Halys river remained a physical border between Lydia/Phrygia and Media/Persia, but it did not carry the same ideological weight.

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