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.

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.

Herodotus on rejecting the expertise of physicians

The second wisest [Babylonian] custom is this: they carry those suffering from illness into the agora, for they have no use for physicians. And coming there to consult with the sick about their illness are any who have suffered from the same disease or who have seen others doing so, consulting and exhorting how they or others flushed out the disease. And it is not permissible to walk past the sick person in silence, before having asked after the illness.

δεὺτερος δὲ σοφίῃ ὅδε ἄλλος σφι νόμος κατέστηκε: τοὺς κάμνοντας ἐς τὴν ἀγορὴν ἐκφορέουσι: οὐ γὰρ δὴ χρέωνται ἰητροῖςι. προσιόντες ὦν πρὸς τὸν κάμνοντα συμβουλεύουσι περὶ τῆς νούσου, ἔι τις καὶ αὐτὸς τοιοῦτο ἔπαθε ὁκοῖον ἂν ἔχῃ ὁ κάμνων ἢ ἄλλον εἶδε παθόντα, ταῦτα προσιόντες συμβουλεύουσι καὶ παραινέουσι ἅσσα αὐτὸς ποιήσας ἐξέφυγε ὁμοίην νοῦσον ἢ ἄλλον εἶδε ἐκφυγόντα. σιγῇ δὲ παρεξελθεῖν τὸν κάμνοντα οὔ σφι ἔξεστι, πρὶν ἂν ἐπείρηται ἥντινα νοῦσον ἔχει.

(Histories 1.197)

It is probably for the best that Herodotus didn’t live in the age of the internet.

Rehabilitating Thucydides

Thucydides gets a bad wrap. Okay, so he was not a great general and drastically changes tone when he was ostracized from Athens, but he also is clear and decisive about what he is doing. He does his best to use valid sources and get accurate information. Often he is derided in the text for doing exactly what he said he would do within the first few pages.

An admitted participant and therefore biased observer, Thucydides starts off by saying that he started writing his text because the war that started would be more worth writing about than any that had previously happened, and then elaborates as to why this is so. One may argue the merits of his particular argument, but he is quite clear that for Greeks, this was a world war, one for the supremacy of the most important region of the world. Compared to this long, bloody conflict, the issues with Persia were child’s play. Following the pronouncement, Thucydides introduces his world and how it became the way it was. This is mythic history and the familiar characters abound, but it is also a linear progression taken as fact for the purposes of creating the setup for the land of Hellas, rather than the war between East and West in Herodotus. Each had their own modus operandi.

Unlike Herodotus, who heard different stories and then laid them out for interpretation, Thucydides makes the judgments for you. Thucydides uses evidence and attempts to cross check them. He purposely discards information that is exaggeration and comes to conclusions to the best of his ability. This also opens the door for accusations of bias, but such can always be said about historians, and that is no reason for dismissal.

Perhaps the most common accusation leveled is that he made up speeches, but this claim ignores a line straight from the introduction:

“I have made use of set speeches some of which were delivered just before and others during the war. I have found it difficult to remember the precise words used in the speeches which I listened to myself and my various informants have experienced the same difficulty; so my method has been, while keeping as closely as possible to the general sense of the words that were actually used, to make the speakers say what, in my opinion, was called for by each situation.”

Okay, in an age of mass media, recording devices and the like, Thucydides’ methods would be deplorable, but he didn’t live in such an age. He lived in one where he made do as he could and when it came to such speeches what should have been said was second best to the actual speeches when it came to overarching view of this world war.

Say what you will, Thucydides has his faults, but does do what he set out to do and did so in a manner much more reminiscent of modern history than any other author before him and afterward for hundreds of years.

What really matters?

Is what matters about history the narration of the events that came before or the interpretation of the events? Are the events themselves, or the historians’ perception thereof, more significant than the analysis of how the causes? Are there historical events with a deeper truth that are more valuable than those without? Is the true value of history the series of stories that may be used to provide solid basis for analytical arguments? How much about history is sequencing and descriptions, and how much is nothing more than an exercise in self-discovery?

Whether consciously or not, these are all questions that must be addressed by a historian at some point or another and even more so by a would-be history teacher. Sciences tend to be about facts, statistics, proofs; history has no such luxury. There is no such thing as truly unbiased source information, be it modern or historical. Historical research is a journey into the human condition, biases and perceptions, as much as it is a journey into the story of what came before. Successive generations of historians seek to surpass their predecessors in point of style or in revealing new inner truths, to paraphrase Livy. Most often these author’s merely bring to light a new or, at most a slightly varied, perspective. Whether this validates the acclaim (or lack thereof), accorded to them is another matter entirely.

This point about perspective can be seen clearly in a brief review of two famous scholars and their work: the late N.G.L. Hammond, and Victor Davis Hanson. In his time, the former was the best known scholar of Macedonian and Illyrian history, concentrating on the time before and after Alexander III (the Great). To read his obituary is to discover a man who threw himself completely into the pursuit of ancient Macedonia. As a senior at Brandeis University, I found myself sputtering at what I wryly derided as the prattling of a dead Englishman. I wanted to throttle, argue and prove him wrong all at once. In time that feeling subsided and I was able to laugh at the presumptiveness of this upstart college student, full of himself and still sophomoric, despite two years’ removal. Later, I found renewed respect for this esteemed scholar, but I was no less convinced that his conclusions were wrong. This is an argument that will never be resolved; he is incapable of providing me with any more counterexamples or clarifying his argument; likewise, I am unable to elucidate my argument to him. However, I am able to use his work and perspective as a foundation for my own analysis.

Victor Davis Hanson is best known for his theory about the Western Way of War, which, simply put, is that “the West” prefers to settle conflicts and disputes with a decisive conflict or battle that is often horrifying. In contrast, “the East” prefers a prolonged conflict with light-armed troops, one that is less likely to provide a decisive victory, but will also prevent catastrophic loss. I would not call his views on this and other matters scripture, but I tend to agree with most of what Professor Hanson argues. In the grand conflict between East and West, as is the setting for the history of Herodotus, scholars may point to other fundamental differences or claim that Hanson’s is nonsensical, but their argument is as indicative of their perspectives as is Hanson’s. Neither One is not more valid than another. Once a perspective exists, the only barometer of validity is the ability to persuade; the ability to persuade resides in argumentation.

Alexander is the perfect example of this challenge of validity. At times it seems as though everyone under the sun has written a book on the greatest and worst of humans, and, invariably, entitled it “Alexander the Great.” Many of these are “whodunits” built around the claim that the author has discovered who really killed Alexander. Two of the more recent books claim that either Ptolemy or Roxane killed him and offer “definitive” proof that the cause of death was poison based on the symptoms. Neither of these books is persuasive, in large part because of the unreliability of the sources to the required degree of detail, and Alexander’s death will forever remain one of the world’s great mysteries, because of the dearth of evidence. If, on the other hand, someone were able to provide evidence and afterwards argue their theory, then it would gain validity and come into vogue.

My own thoughts on the subject of Alexander’s death not withstanding, for merit is these core philosophical truths about history that move it from the beyond the simple memorization of names and dates and into the realm of higher learning. To embrace the fundamental concepts of discourse, research, analytical thought, the written word and to connect it to the personal—and the more general human—story, is to embrace history. To embrace history is to embrace not only the stories, the events and the dates, but also the nature of people and the beauty of language. Whether an idle pastime or a vocation, history transcends names and dates of the simple timeline and the arbitrary boundaries of subjects; history is universal and should be taught as such instead of tedious memorization.