A short commentary on Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War I.126-138

Herodotus presents us with a typically tragic tale of Polycrates that seems consistent with common hubristic themes in Greek tragedies. Amasis, the king of Egypt with whom Polycrates had a pact of friendship warns him of his overreaching successes that might cause offence to the gods ‘I cannot rejoice at your excessive prosperity.’ (III. 39). Amasis understands that the gods dislike mortals who bridge the gap between gods and men, a theme which Greek myth is full of; the story of Arachne for example. Polycrates’ attempts to sidestep the divine retribution that Amasis suggests by throwing away something most precious to Polycrates fails to come to fruition as the signet ring he threw away is found in the belly of a fish brought to the king by a fisherman. As a consequence of this Amasis ends the pact of friendship with Polycrates in order to avoid collateral damage that might fall on him from Polycrates’ retribution.

This episode is historically significant because it allows the reader a good look into the religious mindset of the Greeks at the time because embedded in Herodotus’ story of Polycrates and the Samians is a religious undercurrent of both the ways in which mortals cannot live a fully pleasurable life ‘for I have never yet heard of a man who after an unbroken run of luck was not finally brought to complete ruin’ (III. 40) but also the helplessness of mortals to escape such divine justice.

Herodotus’ narrative however seems to be too similar to a tragic play’s formula to be true and B.M. Mitchell in his paper ‘Herodotus and Samos’ suggests a more political reason for Polycrates distancing from Amasis. Mitchell accuses Herodotus of providing a ‘naïve and fatalistic account of Polycrates’[1] which I am inclined to agree with based on the evidence he supplies for Herodotus account being mistaken. Mitchell makes two clear points that back up his argument; firstly that Herodotus unblinkingly accepts the story of Polycrates throwing his signet ring into the sea and receiving it back, and secondly that Polycrates broke off relations with Amasis because of the growing sea power that was Cambyses and his threat to Egypt.[2] The historical significance of this begs the question of why Herodotus doesn’t mention the more plausible explanation for Polycrates’ actions.

Herodotus provides us with a lengthy account of the grievances done to the Corinthians by the Samians, their motive for providing help to the Spartans which I think is historically significant because it gives an insight to familial relations in the 5th century

During the battle between the Spartans and the Samians Herodotus focuses his account on two Spartan warriors Archias and Lycopes who fight with exceptional courage and bravery and Herodotus wonders how the Spartans would have fared if they had all fought in the same manner as the two warriors (III. 55) This style of writing is typical of the Histories as a whole, the Histories is littered with little digressions that focus on individuals, which is one of Herodotus’ motives in writing his Histories “human achievements may not become forgotten in time, and great and marvellous deeds –some displayed by Greeks… may not be without their glory” Moreover the brevity of the war between Samos and Sparta, the focus of the previous twenty sections is notable. Henry R Immwerwahr notes this in his paper ‘The Samian Stories of Herodotus saying:

“The account of this war seems an anticlimax: for forty days the Spartans besiege Samos, then they return. It is clear that the importance of this war does not lie in its course or its results, but merely in its symbolic significance as a transgression of Sparta in Asia.”[3]

[1] B. M. Mitchell, The Journal of Hellenic Studies Vol. 95 (1975), pp. 75-91

[2] Mitchell, 1975, p. 79

[3] The Samian Stories of Herodotus, H R Immerwahr, The classical studies, Vol. 52, No. 7 (Apr., 1957), pp. 312-322

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