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.

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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.

Person and People: Herodotus

“A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals.”

So Kay declares in Men in Black, using this to justify keeping the public in the dark about the existence of aliens. This is a memorable scene, but, despite ongoing debates about government secrets and a contentious presidential election, not to mention elections in Europe, that raised questions about mass participation in politics and how decisions are made, it is something of an outlier in modern discussion about democracy.

The same is not true in ancient Greece. In Athens during the 5th century BCE one of they key questions was about the fickleness of the crowds and how dangerous this could be. When a leader was both respected and responsible, such as Thucydides credits to Pericles, the system worked, but there were repeated concerns about the masses being bought by crafty politicians. (Cleon is the usual target of accusation, but Plato says something similar about Pericles in his Gorgias.) I wrote about how Aristophanes describes this problem in Clouds where he stages a debate between Just and Unjust Logos, the unjust argument declaring that his brand of speaking works better in front of a crowd. This performance, though, appears to be a reflecting an Athenian aphorism about democracy.

From Herodotus (5.97):

It seems easier to mislead the many than the one, since Cleomenes of Lacedaemon alone was not deceived, but [Aristagoras] did this to to thirty thousand Athenians.

πολλοὺς γὰρ οἶκε εἶναι εὐπετέστερον διαβάλλειν ἢν ἕνα, εἰ Κλεομένεα μὲν τὸν Λακεδαιμόνιον μοῦνον οὐκ οἷός τε ἐγενετο διαβάλλειν, τρεῖς δὲ μυριάδας Ἀθηναίων ἐποίησε τοῦτο.

The year was 500/499 and Aristagoras, tyrant of Miletus, travelled to both Sparta and Athens looking for support for the rebellion against Persia he was trying to orchestrate (the Ionian Revolt). Cleomenes, the king of Sparta, effectively told Aristagoras to pound sand. There were a multitude of reasons why Cleomenes might have done this that had nothing to do with the failure of Aristagoras to dupe him, but Herodotus pairs the failure in Sparta with the vulnerability of democracy.

More political wisdom from Ancient Greece

In a speech alleging to defend his educational program, Isocrates offers the following political advice, to his errant pupil, Timotheus, in the form of a fictional dialogue. Timotheus’ tragic flaw, Isocrates suggests, was his trust that the people of Athens would recognize the services he performed, while others went about flattering them.

I (and others) frequently advise that for those who wish to engage in public life and want to be looked upon favorably it is necessary for them to do the things that are of the greatest good and to speak the truest and most just words, but neither can that person neglect consideration as to how everything they say may demonstrate their graciousness and philanthropy, since those who esteem these things little are considered by their fellow citizens burdensome and overbearing.

You see the nature of the masses, how disposed they are to sweet words, and better love those who indulge them than those who do well by them and (prefer) those who cheat them with joy and amiability than those who succor them with honor and solemnity. You have given these words no regard, but believe that if you attend to matters affairs abroad, then the people at home will look upon you favorably.

This is not so, and the opposite often comes to pass. If you please those people, they will not judge you by the truth of the matter, whatever you do, but will support you, overlooking mistakes and praising the things you do to the high heavens. For good will disposes all men this way.

καί τοι πολλάκις καὶ παρ᾽ ἐμοῦ τοιούτους λόγους ἤκουσεν, ὡς χρὴ τοὺς πολιτευομένους καὶ βουλομένους ἀρέσκειν προαιρεῖσθαι μὲν τῶν τε πράξεων τὰς ὡφελιμωτάτας καὶ βελτίστας καὶ τῶν λόγων τοὺς ἀληθεστάτους καὶ δικαιοτάτους, οὐ μὴν ἀλλὰ κάκεῖνο παρατηρεῖν καὶ σκοπεῖν, ὄπως ἀπιχαρίτως καὶ φιλανθρώπως ἄπαντα φανήσονται καὶ λέγοντες καὶ πράττοντες, ὡς οἱ το´των ὀλιγωροῦντες ἐπαχθέστεροι καὶ βαρύτεροι δοκοῦσιν εἶναι τοῖς συμπολιτευομένοις.

ὁρᾷς δὲ τὴν φύσιν τὴν τῶν πολλῶν ὡς διάκειται πρὸς τὰς ἡδονὰς, καὶ διότι μᾶλλον φιλοῦσι τοὺς πρὸς χάριν ὁμιλοῦντας ἤ τοὺς εὖ ποιοῦντας, καὶ τοὺς μετὰ φαιδρότητος καὶ φιλανθρωπίας φενακίζοντας ἤ τοὺς μετ᾽ ὄγκου καὶ σεμνότητος ὠφελοῦντας. ὦν οὐδέν σοι μεμέληκεν ἀλλ᾽ ἤν
ἐπιεικῶς τῶν ἔξω πραγμάτων ἐπιμεληθῇς, οἴει σοι καὶ τοὺς ἐνθάδε πολιτευομένους.

τὸ δ᾽ οὐχ οὕτως ἀλλὰ τοὐναντίον φιλεῖ συμβαίνειν. ἢν γὰρ τούτοις ἀρέσκῃς, ἅπαν ὅ τι ἂν πράξῃς οὐ πρὸς τὴν ἀλήθειαν κρινοῦσιν ἀλλὰ πρὸς τὸ σοὶ συμφέρον ὑπολήψονται, καὶ τὰ μὲν ἁμαρτανόμενα παρόψονται, τὸ δὲ κατορθωθὲν οὐρανόμηκες ποιήσουσιν, ἡ γὰρ εὔνοια πάντας οὕτω διατίθησιν.

(Isocrates, Antidosis 132-4)

Timotheus was put on trial, found guilty, and given a staggering fine. Isocrates is a difficult writer and not always the most charitable to the virtues of democracy, often considering true democracy not that differently from how the founding fathers did—that is, fickle and dangerous—but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s wrong.

The fate of oratory

There was much hand-wringing over Donald Trump and the fate of oratory during the 2016 campaign, leading to the ever-present and ever-painful game “which ancient person does modern politician X best resemble?” There were a lot of Roman names being tossed about, but the debate usually wandered its way over into the Athenian Assembly. This makes sense. The Assembly was the stage for some of the greatest speech writers of all time and Athens a place where the study of rhetoric began. The orators who took that floor, men like Demosthenes, Aeschines and Hyperides, have been canonized for their skill, and we have only second-hand reports about the speeches of their predecessors such as Pericles and Alcibiades who dominated the Athenian body politic for decades, for better and for worse.

Modern commentators tend not to put Trump on such a pedestal, instead often making the comparison with Cleon, the up-jumped son of a leather tanner who Thucydides calls the bloodiest man in Athens. Cleon is mocked by Thucydides and others, including the comic poet Aristophanes, for his vulgarity, his brutality, and his authoritarian leanings. Cleon:Trump starts to sound like an apt parallel, but I hasten to add that it comes with several caveats: a) we know about Cleon almost exclusively from hostile sources; b) the built in assumption for the comparison is that Cleon was dramatically inferior to Pericles; and c) even for the orators whose speeches survive we don’t know what was said in the Assembly, how it was presented, or what people said in response.

Taken into the modern world, labelling Trump Cleon was part and parcel with lamenting the deplorable state of modern oratory, particularly during the last presidential election cycle. Like many, I was appalled by much of what was said and none of the speeches is going to go down as an example for the ages, let alone coin a term the way that Demosthenes’ Philippics (speeches against Philip) did. And yet, oratory, in the words of Sam Seaborn, should raise your heart rate, oratory should knock the doors off the place. By all accounts, Trump did this whatever you think of the actual message. The election demonstrated some of the worst features of demagoguery, and there were plenty of opinion pieces that dealt with that topic and other legacies of classical antiquity.

Along with perpetual side-eye and exclamations of disbelief (he said WHAT??) and the the explosive growth of fact-checking services, one of the developments in the past year or so has been a cottage industry dedicated to combing through speeches and social media to find a person saying the exact opposite of whatever it is they just said. Trump was obviously the main target of this practice, but it has also extended to other politicians and his political appointees, including, most recently, Anthony Scaramucci’s tweets. In turn, this has led some to scrub their social media profiles to eliminate contradictory, embarrassing, or politically disadvantageous comments, which brings me back to Ancient Greece.

The public speeches are one part of the presentation for Donald Trump (or anyone else), the social media persona is a second. Leaving aside that people are allowed to change their mind, it is absolutely reasonable to plumb both categories and hold politicians to account for inconsistencies and other problematic statements. At the same time, when reading the speeches of the Attic orators, the lack of internal consistency from speech to speech is striking. These are historical records in the modern sense, but rather works of persuasion that provide some insight into their contemporary times. One might still be tempted to denounce the speaker, berating him with a series of facts, and that may well have happened, but the speeches also serve as a microcosm of a broader ancient Greek relationship with truth, past of present.

This was particularly true in terms of foreign policy in ancient Greece. Launching a rhetorical assault on another city, praising the same city as a reliable ally, and inventing a mythological genealogy that links the two are not mutually exclusive depending on what context is needed for a given speech. The sheer amount of data that exists in the modern world dwarfs that of the ancient, making these blurred lines much clearer and allowing one to trace the lineage of a given statement, but the relationship to facts bears remarkable similarity.

Rhetoric, anyway, is alive and well.