Oh Have You Seen Lydia?


It may seem odd that Herodotus, writing in the 5th century BCE about the war between Greeks and Persians that took place in his father’s lifetime, should trace the conflict back to the Trojan War, which, to the extent that it isn’t a total fabrication, would have ended 600 years earlier.  But Troy loomed so large in Greek culture that this probably didn’t surprise people as much as the fact that Herodotus gives what purports to be the Persian side of the story.

The idea is that it all started when Greeks and Asians started making raids and abducting each other’s women. He includes Europa and Io, who are more famous for having been seduced or raped by Zeus, and in his desire to present fair and balanced coverage, he also reports the rumor that Io wasn’t abducted at all, but was having an affair with a Phoenician sea captain and, having gotten pregnant, chose to run off with him rather than face her parents’ wrath. Be that as it may, everything was on a controlled tit-for-tat basis until the Greeks  decided to send an army to Asia to get Helen back.  This escalated the matter into a lasting conflict, needlessly so, in the view of H’s Persians:

The Persians believe that raping women is the work of evil men, but that making a great to-do about vengeance after women have been raped is the work of fools.  Prudent men are not concerned about women who have been raped, since it is perfectly plain that they could not be raped if they didn’t really want to be. 

There are several interesting aspects of this nugget:

(a)    If Todd Akin ever gets tired of Missouri, he apparently has friends in ancient Iran.

(b)    Seriously, I doubt that most Persians had even heard of Helen, any more than Herodotus had probably heard of Moses.  As with much of what H says, we should preface the statement with “I met this guy who told me….”

(c)    For what it’s worth, the Greeks who sailed to Troy weren’t exactly trying to vindicate the rights of women; recall that Agamemnon was willing to murder his own daughter to get a favorable wind.

Plutarch, a much later Greek historian, was scandalized both by Herodotus’ lack of reverence for the Trojan War and by his fascination with non-Greeks, so much so that he called H a ‘philobarbaros,’ a lover of barbarians.  As you may know, a barbarian was anybody who didn’t speak Greek because to a civilized person, non-Greek languages just sound like “bar-bar-bar.”  Herodotus drives Plutarch crazy by tracing (plausibly or not) the mutual influence of Greek and non-Greek cultures: when he says that the Greeks borrowed their gods from the Egyptians, and also when he says that the Persians picked up from the Greeks the idea of having sex with boys.



As you can see from this last example, part of the fun for the modern reader is how much H tells us about his own culture when he means to tell us about the foreigners.  Here’s another example:

You see for the Lydians, as for practically all the barbarians, it is a great shame for even a man to be seen naked. 

I like the “even.”

Sometimes it’s hard to know just what to think:

 [The giant tomb of King Auleates of Lydia]  It was built by market people, craftsmen, and street whores. When I was there, five pillars were still on top of the tomb, with engraved records of the work contributed by the three groups; comparison showed that the whores had done the most work. 

At this point, you may be hoping for some explanation of why public works projects are shared among the Chamber of Commerce, the trade guilds, and the Prostitutes’ Union.  Well, I used to have a colleague who would respond to a query with “Let me answer a slightly different question”:

You see, all of the daughters of the Lydian common people work as prostitutes, and they keep at it until they save up enough of a dowry to get married.  They also decide for themselves who they will marry.

Oh-Kay.  Now it all makes sense.  The funny thing is that Lydia was not a far-away land of Oriental wonders.  It was in western Asia Minor (now Turkey), as was H’s home town of Halicarnassus.

Finally, here’sa  little story about the Scythians, horsey steppe people who would sometimes invade the territory of sedentary farmers:  In this case, they are retreating through the city of Askalon:

Although most of them passed through it without doing any harm, a few of the stragglers stripped the temple of the heavenly Aphrodite….The goddess afflicted the Scythians who stripped the temple in Askalon, and all their descendants, with effeminacy.  Even the Scythians admit that they became sick for this reason, while those who travel into the Scythian territory can see for themselves how it is with those whom the Scythians call the ‘sissies.’

In Herodotus’ Histories, the wacky ethnography and folk-tale motifs (exposed baby rescued by peasants, turns out to be prince; revenge exacted by feeding wrongdoer his own son….) live side-by-side with hard-headed skepticism.  For example, the Spartans say a certain bronze statue was stolen by the Samians, but the Samians claim they bought it, H concludes that most likely the Spartans who were taking it to Lydia heard that its intended recipient was no longer in power and decided to stop in Samos and fence it for what they could get.  When they got back to Sparta, they naturally reported it stolen so they could keep the money.  Likewise, H portrays Themistocles, the hero of the battle of Salamis, as a great general, but also a venial bastard who was not above shaking down small cities for protection money.

All in all, it’s a bizarre mix; you might say, inverting Terence, that everything human is strange to him, but he seems to like it that way.

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3 Responses to Oh Have You Seen Lydia?

  1. Ann Foxen says:

    Thank you for that entertaining romp through ancient, and even more ancient, times. I think that, as an act of kindness, you should send it to Todd Akin. He needs all the allies he can get, even if they are Iranian and dead.

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