BMCR 2007.01.44

Erodoto, Le Storie. Libro IX. La battaglia di Platea. Commento aggiornato da P. Vannicelli. Testo critico di A. Corcella. Traduzione di A. Fraschetti

, , , , , , , , Le storie. Scrittori greci e latini. Milan: Fondazione Lorenzo Valla, 1977-2017. volumes 1-9; in 12 : illustrations (some color), maps ; 20 cm.. ISBN 8804306661 €27.00.

This new edition of the IX book by Herodotus, edited by A. Corcella and translated by A. Fraschetti, replaces A. Masaracchia’s edition, which had a less extensive commentary and was published in the same series nearly thirty years ago.1 The introduction and commentary, written by D. Asheri, were updated by P. Vannicelli after Ahseri’s death in 2000. This new edition will be an essential reference book for the study of this book of Herodotus and of the events described in it. The title chosen by the publisher ( The Battle of Plataea) highlights only one of the moments around which Herodotus’s tale evolves. As Asheri rightly points out, we can distinguish three different logoi in it. They correspond to the three final battles fought by the Greeks against the Persians in 479 BCE: the logos of Plataea, the logos of Mycale, the logos of Sestos.

The tale spans about five months altogether, between June and the late autumn of the year 479 BCE. The description of the actual battles lasts only a few short chapters. Herodotus prefaced them with a long introduction about negotiations and pre-war skirmishes, and they are followed by anecdotes about the sharing out of the booty and the consecration of votive dedications. For instance, the battle of Plataea is described in chapters 59-70 and the battle of Mycale in just five chapters (100-105).

Book IX presents virtually no ethnographical digressions (Asheri, pp. XI-XII). Other digressions, where present, appear well integrated in the narrative context. See for instance the biographical digressions about the Greek soothsayers Teisamenus, Hegesistratus and Euenius (ch. 33-37 and 93-95); the story about the hoplite Sophanes (ch. 73-75). The most conspicuous digression, laden with ‘oriental’ flavour, is the tale about Xerxes’ falling in love with the wife of his brother Masistes (ch. 108-113). Herodotus placed this tale, which implies a moralising message, towards the end of the Histories. It underlines the final decadence of Persian Empire, symbolised by the horrible mutilation of Masistes’s wife the deaths of Masistes’s family and (after the conclusion of Herodotus’ work) of Xerxes himself. On this, see Asheri, pp. 327-328 and 342, who also stresses the contrast between the Xerxes depicted in this tale and the moral message given by Cyrus the great in the very last chapter of the work (IX 122).

Asheri rightly defines book IX as ‘Spartan’ (p. XV). Spartan generals are the main actors in most parts of the book; the regent Pausanias is the undisputed hero of the battle of Plataea as Leotychidas is in the fight at Mycale. According to Herodotus’s interpretation, if we want to reach an understanding of the meaning of the events and the role played by Sparta in 479, it is necessary to remember an oracle quoted in one of the final chapters of book VIII.

Herodotus, just after the description of the battle of Salamis, reports that the oracle of Delphi ordered Sparta to exact from Xerxes the compensation for Leonidas’s death at Thermopylae (VIII 114, 1-2). Here, as often, Herodotus stresses the theme of tisis, ‘compensation’. According to Herodotus, Plataea and the following battles are but the penalty imposed on the Persians for the destruction of the Spartan hoplites at the Thermopylae. Herodotus himself states as much in IX 64.1, as Ahseri stresses (see p. 258).2

It is not by chance that the main figures of book IX are, in the two opposed fields, the Spartan Pausanias,3 the avenger of Leonidas, and the Persian Mardonius, guilty, even though indirectly, of the Thermopylae slaughter. The Persian commander has been compared to the Troian Hector, a fearless fighter fatally doomed to defeat and death. One can detect several Homeric echoes in book IX. The victory of Plataea and the following death of Mardonius seem to put to a definitive end, at last, to the very long series of fights between East and West, that had started in far-off times under the walls of Troy. Pausanias, after the victory of Plataea, prevents the mutilation of Mardonius’s body, and, with this pitiful behaviour, avoids provoking new reasons for a Persian revenge.

The final part of book IX offers a foreboding of and a reflection on future events. Chapters 119-120 tell the story of the miserable death of the tyrant Artayctes and his son. The former was hanged and the latter stoned by order of the Athenian Xanthippus, Pericles’s father. In spite of his insistence, Artayctes, guilty of plundering Protesilaus’s temple in Elaeus, was not allowed to pay the penalty for his criminal act with money, by refunding the riches he had stolen. The miserable death imposed on him by the Athenian commander Xanthippus, according to Herodotus’s point of view, was inevitably even if not declaredly destined to open a new cycle of revenge, of which Athens would be responsible from that moment onwards. The death of Artayctes and, most of all, the Athenian victory in Sestos, became a crucial turning point in the history of V century, not only in Herodotus’s opinion. After their victory at Mycale the Peloponnesian, under Leotychidas’s orders, decided to go back to Greece instead of going to Sestos, leaving to the Athenians and Xanthippus to continue the war and control the freed Ionia (ch. 106). It can be said that this very event started the Athenian imperialism. According to Herodotus’s tale, Athenian imperialism started with a very violent act, the murder of Artayctes. This act was destined to bring revenge and blood to Athens. One can suggest that Herodotus seems to forebode sceneries of the Periclean time and to foresee the future ruin of the superb and violent Attic city.

Herodotus judges the victory in Plataea “the most beautiful among the ones we know” (IX 64.1) and Pausanias, its author, a person of indisputable value. In fact later ancient historians judged the Spartan victory less brilliant than the successes in Marathon and Salamis and considered this military event less important than the slaughter at Thermopylae. As to Pausanias, he was shortly seen as a controversial person, an opinion not shared by Herodotus (see Asheri p. XVII).

These are the main points discussed by Ahseri in his introduction (pp. IX-XXI). Asheri provides ample bibliographical references. His notes on the text (pp. 173-344) are rich and detailed. P. Vannicelli has accurately updated introduction and commentary with references to publications which appeared in the years 1999-2005. The book is equipped with a rich apparatus of indispensable geographical maps (pp. χλ and a useful index with chronological tables (pp. XLVII-LII). Two appendices collect the ancient evidence on the Hellenic coalition and on Greek monuments commemorating the Persian wars (pp. 347-376). P. Vannicelli publishes the fragments of the Elegy for the battle of Plataea by Simonides, with a short introduction and commentary (pp. 377-395). The elegy by Simonides is of fundamental importance, and helps to understand some hints of the tale by Herodotus, who might have known the elegy itself. Simonides makes a clear reference to the war of Troy and to Achilles, just as Herodotus implies a comparison between the battle of Plataea and the Iliadic saga. Simonides, like Herodotus, gives a very positive judgement on Pausanias, who quickly fell into disgrace. It has been suggested that Pausanias himself could have commissioned the elegy just after the victory.

On the whole, this new edition is a very useful working tool both on the text of Herodotus and on the historical period described in the book. This work can be considered at least on the same level as the recent similar book edited by M. A. Flower and J. Marincola for Cambridge University Press.4 Flower and Marincola print the Greek text with a concise apparatus. The Valla edition includes a Greek text with a very detailed critical apparatus, prepared by A. Corcella, and the excellent Italian translation by A. Fraschetti. Finally, Asheri offers a detailed commentary and examines the historical problems of the text with his usual mastery.


1. Erodoto, Le Storie. Libro IX. La sconfitta dei Persiani, a cura di A. Masaracchia, Milano 1978.

2. D. Asheri, “Platea vendetta delle Termopili: alle origini di un motivo teologico erodoteo”, CISA XXIV, 1998, pp. 65-86.

3. On Pausanias see M. Nafissi, “Pausania, il vincitore di Platea”, in C. Bearzot-F. Landucci (a cura di), Contro le ‘leggi immutabili’. Gli Spartani fra tradizione e innovazione, Milano 2004, pp. 53-90.

4. Herodotus. Histories. Book IX, ed. by M. A. Flower and J. Marincola, Cambridge 2002.