Better Fled than Dead: Land and Power in Herodotus 4.11

Jonathan Chicken

Indiana University

In a little-studied corner of his Histories, Herodotus discusses the Cimmerians, a people inhabiting the shores of the Black Sea.  In this story found in 4.11, Scythian nomads threaten the Cimmerians, who break into deliberations as to their course of action.  "Opinions were divided," Herodotus tells us; that of the noble faction, the "kings" (tōn basileōn) was to remain behind and fight for their land (peri tēs khōrēs); the opinion of the people (tou dēmou), on the other hand, is that they should flee, for they do not wish to die "on account of dust" (pro spodou). Eventually the people decide to leave, while the nobles remain and are slaughtered in their patrida. The demos then returns, buries them, and leaves permanently.

In reading the logos I propose considering it a sort of Herodotean morality tale, an "ethnologic satire" as James Romm might call it.  The pragmatic view of the demos has an analog in Athenian history,  in the evacuation of most of the city of Athens to the island of Salamis during the invasion of Xerxes in 480.   We may also see an echo of Athens in the argument between kings and demos, as the upper-class farmers during the Peloponnesian War (notably in Aristophanes' Acharnians) find fault with the Periclean strategy of waiting out the war behind the walls while the Spartan invaders ravage the farms of Attica, destroying their economic power base.  For the Cimmerian basileis, as it is for the Acharnians, land is wealth and power. 

When we look at Herodotus' version of events preceding the Battle of Salamis (8.49 ff), we find another telling moment.  Athens has been invaded and sacked, and so the Corinthian Adimantus scoffs at Themistocles that "a man without a city (apoli andri) should keep quiet" (8.61).  Far from being cowed, Themistocles replies that "so long as they had two hundred manned ships, the Athenians had both a city and a land greater than theirs" (tr. Godley).  Here it is clear that the physical location and land are not the definition of a polis: it is the people who define "Athens," in rejection of traditional sources of power.  Furthermore, Herodotus at 4.46.2 praises the Scythian custom of rejecting land and being completely mobile, "not living by tilling soil" as the "cleverest" (sophōtata) and the "greatest of human affairs" (megiston tōn anthrōpēiōn pragmatōn).  The Scythians are praiseworthy because they have embraced the ideals of the Cimmerians and the Athenians at Salamis and rejected the old aristocratic source of wealth and power: landholding. 

On a broader level, the logos and its associated points fit into an overall scheme of

what Rosaria Munson argues is a pervasive anti-imperialist theme running throughout the work, especially in the foreign logoi.  The acquisition and possession of land provide for an economic boom, which in turn cements the power of those who acquire and possess that land.  Without land, therefore, there can be no empire; with the acquisition of and reliance upon land, a state acquires weakness.  At Salamis the only "land" the Athenians possess is their own vessels, the equivalent of the Scythian wagons; their city is themselves, not the territory they control.  The Scythians have no attachment to the land, nor does the Cimmerian demos. The logos becomes emblematic of a rejection of the Persian (and later, Athenian) ideal of acquisition and possession, and especially the refusal to give up territory.  Herodotus' story thus provides a model in foreign dress for Greek emulation.


Back to 2006 Meeting Home Page