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'Oh King'
Reconsidering the Much-Maligned Father of History
© 2021 James LaFond
As a young man, trying to educate myself, I wished to follow academic standards and avoid the wonder-reading of my youth. The single most maligned of the ancient historians, who we call their father, because we are unable to name his fathers named his book “Inquires.” Herodotus declares on certain subjects, that he will not conduct an investigation of his own, as so many books have been written on them, books so common that they need not be named for the reader.
We amateur historians should remember, that Herodotus is our father—the one we know—for he was not an acredited and indoctrinated teacher and he questioned and inquired rather than taught a course of indoctrination. Like he, we should also respect the now lost records of those who inspired and taught him.
It is an addiction of modern folk of most kinds to demean the ancients, to point to their follies and claim they lied, that they made up the numbers of the enemy to boost their own status. The Romans are clearly free of this blame as they admitted to vastly outnumbering Hannibal and still being slaughtered on numerous occasions.
The blame for this “exaggeration” falls most squarely on Herodotus. Thus, after reading him once as a boy, and data-mining his unabridged Loeb editions for boxing and wrestling references in 1999, and reading an abridged edition of his work for the onset of this project in 2018, I obeyed academia and left Herodotus “the folklorist” for Thucydides. Thucydides is acclaimed by current military historians as the real father of scientific history, Herodotus a mere fabulist.
I read Thucydides twice, once annotated and unabridged and once unabridged. Then I listened to his unabridged account of the Red-face-island War three times on audio-book. That done, I listened to Herodotus twice—some books thrice—on audiobook. The accounts of the crossing of the great Persian host from Asia to Europe I listened to five times, in amazement, and the account of the final battle at Plataue thrice.
What I discovered, is that Thucydides and Herodotus used the exact same methodology, using multiple sources to chart chaotic war activity, having sources from the opposing sides—including an exiled Spartan King, Krotonian doctor and an Athenian citizen, as members of the invaders advisory board!
The numbers of the Greek combatants are scrupulously confirmed, by this history written by a man who was talking to survivors of the war from both sides. When historians declare that proof that Herodotus was biased and inflated the numbers of the Persian invaders, was his claim that the Persian army was so vast that it drank rivers dry, we see a modern distortion.
Actually, what Herodotus mentions on at least three occasions, all in the same region of northeast Greece, was that with certain rivers 'The Waters Failed to Sustain the Host.' That is different from drinking a river dry. In this period of the campaign, numerous earthquakes, numerous storms that wiped out fleets and even drowned an army, and also the flooding of a wetland that drowned a besieging army with an unusual tide, are all related. I have been in the Rocky Mountains and seen rivers and lakes drunk dry by man and beast because they also suffered from a lack of resupply in the from of rain.
Some profound natural calamities, like those related by Thucydides a few decades later and those inscribed by the slaves of the Hittite King and the Egyptian Pharaoh around 1190 B.C., a time of multiple warlike migrations, were occurring in the specific area where the rivers failed to meet all of the army's needs. This was just across the narrow seas from the area where Achilles famously battled a river.
Might that have been a symbolic account of rivers effecting man's efforts at making war?
The numbers of the Greek host at the final battle were agreed upon by the participants, as were those of the enemy, both sides citing the accuracy of these armies that were unprecidented in size—and in disorganization and ineffectiveness. Herodotus notes that the Greeks could have marshaled many more than the over 100,000 strong force [which modern historians claim was too large to sustain in the field]. Indeed, tens of thousands of the Persian host were Greeks, like the Thebans and Macedonians.
The coursework on why Xerxes could not have marched between a quarter million and 2 million men into Europe, involves bringing supply by beast of burden, and that the beasts themselves eat so much that this is grossly inneficient. Such an army would melt, the historians tell us.
Well, according to Herodotus it did melt!
Nowhere in his account, does the Persian King show any concern for the well-being of the soldier or sailor, who were his slaves. He cared only for a handful of close “friends,” his trusted advisors. Even these, prefaced their every statement with “Oh King” in dread of his disapproval. There is no reason to suppose, that the great king cared at all to sustain his army in the field.
Indeed, there is ample evidence throughout the account, that the vast army was mostly comprised of hostages, soldiers in national divisions, commanded by Persians, and whipped into battle by overseers and punished by “those whose business it is to perform such unpleasant tasks.”
Before going on to how this host was counted—for Xerxes had no idea how many men he had “at his behest,” one should keep in mind that the Persian army itself was a mere fifty thousand men, that they had beaten nation after nation over three generations since Cyrus, and kept the conquered nations in line largely by taking their best fighting men away to fight other nations as part of an army that was a migratory prison of sorts.
It is clear from the evidence proffered by Herodotus that Xerxes took as many men into Europe as he could get there, with three contingencies:
-If he won he would leave the non-Persian troops to garrison Europe under a Persian commander with a core Persian division of horse and foot each.
-If he fought a marginal punitive campaign of the type Darius had, he could maroon many of these racial aliens among mutual enemies to destabilize Europe. The Persian dominance in horse among their “allies” made desertion of the latter problematical.
-If he lost, which he did, he could leave with a core of loyal followers and leave behind in Europe the man most likely to challenge him at home—the headstrong Mardonius—at the head of a still vast throng of unmotivated slave soldiers.
This morning, in Ocean City, Maryland, on a thronged beach, I noted how a few dozen lifeguards, actually fit people, herded a vast multitude of useless eaters from raised chairs not unlike the raised throne Xerxes viewed his army and navy from one day, when he decided to have them counted.
The army had been marched through outer provinces which were stripped bare of food, men and money, in rude Napoleonic fashion. The vast army, once it arrived at the margins of the empire, was initially fed from vast supply dumps brought in from seven nations by ship. This vast hoard of food was barely enough to get the army into Europe. And, as his trusted advisor warned him, a man who he sent back to Persepolis because he liked him and wanted him safe at home, this army would surely die in Europe. This host was not fed by food carried by animals, but from supply dumps filled by a fleet which was four times reduced to splinters by Gods and men, most of the ships and crews gone by campaign's end
I think that this was a forced migration of slave soldiers in national hostage contingents, with the intent of using his captive enemies as tools against his free enemies and then marooning them in Europe as colonists or corpses.
The host was measured by crowding together a set number of men, 1,000 or 10,000, surrounding them with a fence, and then marching men in and out of this enclosure like so many steers and multiplying. The numbers were very exact and included many Asian horsemen serving as infantry—a genius move that left these potential rivals in Europe and on foot while their pastures and herds were left behind to serve the King.
The bone pile after the final battle was a stupendous artifact of what I now suspect was an abrupt, few-years long human extinction event managed by a cruel King over Kings who seemed to be under migratory pressure from without and settled on the solution of using internal enemies against external enemies.
For a person familiar with the shipping of millions of underclass Europeans to North America to reduce population pressure in the British isles and subdue alien lands in one stroke, this was no difficult leap of reason—but obvious to me as well as it had been to Xerxes.
Alexander of Macedon was the great grandson of a Macedonian king who served Xerxes as a war slave. As a final army of 60,000 Persians and “allies” retreated through his ancestral lands, it was not able to sustain itself while retracing its ravaged course. On the way into Greece, at the beginning of the campaign, most of the animals had been eaten. 150 years later, Alexander the Younger, would settle on an army of about 35,000 men as sustainable as an operational tool of war and maneuver. I suspect that Xerxes himself knew these logistical realities in his day, and that his great host was marched to its death as a goal as much as a tool.
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