< meta name="DC.Date.Valid.End" content="20050825"> Amendment Nine: Herodotus

Friday, January 21, 2005


Amendment Nine reader Big Sully adds some valuable commentary on my post concerning Xerxes.
While the sentiments expressed by our blogger are valuable in their own right, the chances that X[erxes] allowed debate of any sort in this case are slim indeed. H[erodotus] is, rather generously, attributing the institution of a familiar Greek process to the Persian despot.
It sounds right to me that Herodotus was likely attributing Greek custom to Persia. But the point still stands that even in ancient times, the decision to go to war was considered and debated far more vigorously than it is today... In fact, that he gets it wrong here makes the point all the more interesting in my view. Almost as if Herodotus is saying: "no one really goes to war without throwing open the debate." Of course, it turns out that today, we do just that.

Big Sully continues:
More plausible is the so-called Constitutional Debate at 3.79-83. Here H[erodotus] answers potential criticism by his Greek readers/auditors, stating that, while it will seem difficult to believe, the debate actually did happen much as he presents it. The debate takes place in 522 B.C., after the Magian pretender to the Persian throne has been deposed. The seven Persian noblemen who formed the junta that had gotten rid of the Magian usurper now debate the merits of the various forms of (Greek) constitutions, and which one ought to be adopted by their new regime. Monarchy, of course, wins the day, but the speech is important because the noble who argues for democracy, Otanes, presents an early formulation of 'isonomia', that is, equality before the laws, one of the cornerstones of Greek democratic political theory.
Obviously this is ancillary to the discussion on how we go to war, however, I'd like to point out this story intrigues me in light of the Bush inaugural speech. One reason, perhaps, that Herodotus feels compelled to apologize for the veracity of this story is that Greek readers would no doubt find it unbelievable. That a group of leaders could decide, after reasoned debate, to reject democracy in favor of monarchy would seem as foreign to them as the rule of law seemed to Xerxes when he hears, in that famous passage, that Spartans will never give in, regardless of the odds, because they fear the law more than any man. It seems to me that Bush is playing on the foreigness of other approaches to self-government when he obligates us to spread democracy across the globe. Isn't that a contradiction anyway? Can you really impose democracy on everyone? More on that later.