Who are Herodotus’s Persians? Interpreters of Herodotus’s Histories have long wrangled over the extent to which Herodotus’s account can be trusted – whether it is factually inaccurate, overly flattering, or an example of objectionable “othering.” Leaping into this still-simmering agon, Vernon Provencal’s Sophist Kings offers a provocative thesis: Herodotus depicts the Persians as sophists, positioning them on one side of a cultural polarity with the Greeks on the other. On this reading, the Persians represent an implicit understanding of the law of nature that anticipates arguments by Sophists such as Protagoras, Gorgias, and the Callicles and Thrasymachus of Plato’s dialogues, while the Greeks represent the rule of law grounded in pious recognition of the subjection of human affairs to divine retribution. For Provencal, Herodotus thus confronts his readers with an ideological division at the heart of human affairs, one that culminates in a split between the erotic tyranny toward which the sophistic Persians strive and the Greek ideal of isonomia or equality under laws. Original and stirring, this argument has moments of brilliance, yet its rigid categories seem to omit too many of the details that give the Histories their wondrous amplitude. Herodotus’s Persians may not be as singular as Sophist Kings claims them to be.
Drawing on his own interpretations of Herodotus’s text as well as secondary literature on the broader contexts of the period, Provencal’s argument mostly restricts itself to claims about the meaning of the Histories. First Provencal tracks the arc of Herodotus’s life (Chapter 1) and its intersection with the rise of sophistic thought (Chapter 2). Provencal then steps back from the details of the Histories to show crucial aspects of Persian history missing from its account (Chapter 3). The absence of “real Persia” creates a gap that Herodotus fills with a sophistic other and the Persians become the cultural other for the Greeks (Chapter 4). In contrast to the Greeks’ lives of freedom under rule of law, the Persians play the role of “Persosophists” in the Histories (Chapter 5). Herodotus ascribes sophistic ideology not only to the Persian kings and empire but also to the whole way of life of the Persians.
Why would Herodotus depict the Persians as sophistic others? For Provencal, Herodotus sought to commemorate the birth of national consciousness among the Greeks, a birth that began in the inherent conflict of opposed ideologies. On this argument, Herodotus views the conflict between the Persians and the Greeks as rooted in the rivalry between monarchic despotism and the Greek polis. By representing the Persians as sophistic others, Herodotus reminds the Athenians of the defenders of freedom they once were, and the degree to which tyranny is the cultural antithesis to isonomia, the equality under the laws established only with the end of tyranny in Athens. The ideology of despotism and imperialism attributed to the Persians is a simulacrum of the Athenian ideology of the sophists, the intellectual movement that Provencal sees Herodotus opposing. Herodotus intends his Histories to call the Athenians (and the Greeks more broadly) back to their better selves.
Echoes of the sophists abound in Herodotus. Different parties offer opposing logoi for the conflict between the Persians and the Greeks. The Constitutional Debate presents an antilogy. Xerxes adopts eristic argumentation on the eve of his invasion. As narrator, Herodotus appears to employ a number of sophistic approaches: an interest in language and the precise use of words; a sense of humanity as universal; agnosticism and skepticism about religion; a distinction between phusis and nomos; incipient relativism about moral responsibility as well as truth and responsibility; and the use of theoretical categories for describing politics. Protagoras, Gorgias, Prodicus, Hippias, Antiphon, and Critias may not appear in the Histories but their imprint is undeniable.
For Provencal, these examples of sophistic techniques or approaches do not merely amount to echoes or anticipations. They instead suggest a project within the Histories. While previous interpreters of Herodotus have suggested that the different justifications offered for the conflict between the Persians and the Greeks in the Proem are Herodotean invention or parody, Provencal argues that Herodotus begins with the Persian justification for their conflict with the Greeks to show the fundamental difference between Greek and Persian ideology. The Greeks offer an account of mythic nomos transgressed, but Herodotus presents the Persians as justifying their invasion with interpretations of legends which cannot be verified or falsified. The Persians, in other words, engage in spin. Herodotus reports the story under protest, but marks this rhetorical use of myth as distinctly Persian – an example, according to Provencal, of Persian sophistry.
The depiction of the Persians as sophists does not correspond to the reality of the Persians as far as we know it. Provencal surveys the Elamite empire to highlight the “astonishing neglect” by Herodotus of evidence available in his time. Provencal calls particular attention to the distinctive development of Persia as a diverse and largely tolerant empire. Persian sovereignty was less a matter of conquest, as in Herodotus’s account, than gradual acculturation. As many different religions as distinct peoples coexisted within the empire. Herodotus appears unacquainted with the distinctive Achaemenid theology of empire. Appointed by Ahuramazda the creator, the Achaemenid ideal king possessed excellence of mind and body; royal wisdom meant knowing and practicing justice. The king and the people were united in a harmonious relationship within this theology and Persia functioned as the “perfect, still center” around which the periphery of the empire, Greece included, extended. Yet the Medo-Persian kings portrayed in Herodotus lack these virtues and the world instead centers on the Hellenes.
With the “real Persians” largely omitted from the Histories, Provencal argues that Herodotus placed his constructed Persians in a Hellenocentric cultural grid. Here Provencal extends previous studies on Herodotus’s “map of the world” and its organization of the world’s inhabitants in terms of polarities: the Egyptian-Scythian axis of south-north and the Greek-Persian axis of west-east. Along these axes differences in religion, morality, society and education, kingship, and ideology define themselves. Yet between the Greeks and the Persians, unlike the Egyptians and the Scythians, these polarities are antagonistic. On the one hand, the natural lust for power among the Persians gives rise to their ideology of nomos phuseôs, the rule of natural instincts. On the other hand, the cultural unity that emerges among the Greeks in reaction to the Persians is organized around nomos basileus, the rule of law. This basic polarity extends to every aspect of the ideology: Persocentrism versus Hellenocentrism; Persian hierarchism versus Greek egalitarianism; Persian determinism versus Greek providence; and Persian naturalism versus Greek idealism. These differences culminate in different political constitutions: despotic tyranny among the Persians and isonomia, or equality of law, among the Greeks.
While not all of the Persian kings chronicled by Herodotus count as archetypal sophist kings, Provencal treats them as variations on a theme. For the Persians, according to Provencal, “ sophia serves erôs turannidos in founding a constitution in which nomos is founded upon phusis ” (224). Thus Deioces uses his knowledge to establish himself as the measure of all things political, first as a judge and then as a tyrant. The Median sophist kings Phraortes, Cyaxares, and Astyages refashion nomos to serve their imperialistic desires. Cyrus “manipulates the Persians” with “rhetoric crafted to awaken erôs turannidos ” (229). Cambyses shows how reason is a slave to erôs, violating nomoi without restraint. Darius is a “master sophist king,” a conspirator who wins the Constitutional Debate with sophistries and maintains law and justice for the sake of absolute power. Xerxes takes the homo mensura attitude of the sophist kings one step farther by making himself into a god.
The Greeks themselves exhibit certain similarities to the “Persosophists” that serve to associate tyranny in Greece with Asian despotism. Pisistratus and Thrasybulus are classic examples. Polycrates of Samos demonstrates unremitting erôs turannidos and the inevitable fate it entails. For Provencal, Herodotus also creates echoes between Periander of Corinth and Cambyses (with Periander’s necrophilia and Cambyses’s marrying and murdering of his sister) as well as Themistocles and Darius (with their “Odyssean intelligence”). These parallels heighten the contrast between Persians and Greeks by showing how the Greeks “become Persian” when they act tyrannically.
On Provencal’s argument, Herodotus places himself on the side of the Greeks. While the Histories evince a constant dialogue between the sophistic conventionalism (and all it allows) of the Persians and the arkhaioi nomoi realized in the unity of the Greeks, the resolution comes not with synthesis but rather with victory of one side over another. Herodotus sides with the victors. The writing of the Histories is meant, according to Provencal, to remind these victors of what they fought for and thus what is worth preserving of Hellenism.
In many ways Provencal’s study remains within the general framework developed by François Hartog in Le miroir d’Hérodote. Like Hartog, Provencal focuses on a particular set of relationships that have strong structural elements. Yet also like Hartog, Provencal downplays (or completely ignores) parts of the Histories that do not fit his model. What about the differences among the Hellenes, for example? Provencal speaks of isonomia and nomos despotês as if these were held by all parties. Both are far trickier. Isonomia is never applied to the Athenians or the Spartans: the Athenians are distinguished by their isêgoria (5.78); the Spartans by their isokratia (5.92). These characterizations also come in the mouths of different characters: Otanes proclaims isonomia which the Herodotean narrator redescribes as dêmokratia; the narrator also praises the Athenians’ isêgoria, which might suggest a consistency of judgment of implicit differences. What explains these different concepts? They seem to complicate any generalizations about to Hellenikon.
The matter of who says what (and to whom) also has significance for nomos despotês. Does it make a difference that Demaratus uses this phrase? That he has been cast out of Sparta? That he is speaking to Xerxes? Provencal does not say. Abstracted from its particular context, the concept comes to mean “rule of law” in a quite general sense, but Herodotus has already called our attention to the quite different developments of nomoi in the Athenian and Spartan cases. Is it correct to say that the Athenians treat nomos as a despotês when the laws are regarded as products of the will of the dêmos ?
Taking account of the complexity within the Hellenes also raises questions about why Herodotus would portray Persians as “sophist kings.” While Provencal sets his argument against readings of Herodotus as a “relativist,” he does not offer reasons for Herodotus’s preference of isonomia and nomos despotês beyond their being what unified the Hellenes. Yet if this unity cannot be attributed directly to a coherent ideology, then where do we put Herodotus? Was he a partisan of Pericles or a critic? Are the Histories a paean to Greek freedom or to Athenian democracy more specifically?
The chief contribution of Sophist Kings lies in the range of evidence it adduces for the sophistry of the Persians. Yet one could draw the opposite conclusions from Provencal on the basis of the same evidence. The Persians are the heroes of the Histories, after all, and the portrayals of Cyrus and Xerxes are especially complex. Yes, they may exhibit sophistic characteristics but they are also psychologically nuanced in ways that many non-Persians are not. Provencal ends Sophist Kings by suggesting that Herodotus may well have engaged in “prolonged dialogue” with Protagoras as much as with Sophocles. Yet the dialogue with Sophocles, the sense of tragic characters struggling with their fate, seems missing. In dialogue with both Protagoras and with Sophocles, Herodotus is reducible neither to their mouthpiece nor to their antithesis. We have yet to comprehend the complexities of Herodotus’s Persians – and the Histories more generally.