A short commentary on Herodotus and the Samians

Herodotus presents us with the tale of Polycrates that seems fairly consistent with the common hubristic themes found in Greek tragedies. Amasis, the king of Egypt warns Polycrates of his overreaching successes that might cause offence to the gods ‘I cannot rejoice at your excessive prosperity.’ (III. 39). Amasis plays the role of the humble advisor who understands that the gods dislike mortals who bridge the gap between gods and men, a theme which Greek myth is full of; the myth of Arachne for example. Polycrates’ attempts to sidestep the divine retribution fails and Polycrates is eventually brought low after his string of successes in true hubristic style. This episode is historically significant because it allows the reader a detailed 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 factually accurate and B.M. Mitchell suggests a more political reason for Polycrates distancing from Amasis. The historical significance of this allows us to question the bias of Herodotus when writing this episode which has a clear Samian bias, possibly because of his relations with Samian aristocrats. 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. Herodotus unblinkingly accepts the story of Polycrates throwing his signet ring into the sea and receiving it back, and secondly that Polycrates most likely broke off relations with Amasis because of the growing sea power that was Cambyses and his threat to Egypt.[2]. Although this is a good argument, I wonder whether the historical significance of this passage is to show off Herodotus’ unique style of storytelling that is almost diametrically opposed to Thucydides; Herodotus fills his inquiry with stories of myths and half-truths, for example during the first Persian War when the fleet at Athos is destroyed the crew are eaten by sea monsters and the story of Polycrates and Amasis is Herodotus showing his interest for the extraordinary and magical.

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

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