The End of the Histories: Land, Wealth, and Empire in Herodotus

K. Scarlett Kingsley

  Kingsley, K. Scarlett. "The End of the Histories: Land, Wealth, and Empire in Herodotus." CHS Research Bulletin 8 (2020). .


The monograph interrogates the close of the first historical work, Herodotus’ Histories, as an entrée to key refrains in the work as a whole, including migration, wealth, and empire. K. Scarlett Kingsley (Agnes Scott College) and Tim Rood (Oxford) approach this passage ‘in the round’, examining its immediate context at the end of the Greco-Persian Wars and the beginning of Athenian imperial dominance; its interrelations with episodes stretching back to the beginning of the work; and its thematic contacts with fifth-century intellectual culture. Additionally, we innovate methodologically by juxtaposing this analysis with the rich afterlife of the final chapter in a series of reception studies from antiquity to modernity. The Histories’ conclusion with Cyrus’ warning to the Persians that ‘soft lands give rise to soft peoples’ has itself given rise to a wide variety of interpretations. Nevertheless, scholars have consistently viewed Cyrus as a traditional ‘wise advisor’ figure warning against the dangers of imperialism and luxury, and regard this as an aetiology for Persian defeat and as directed to the imperial Athenians in Herodotus’ present. Each chapter of the monograph revises this reading, arguing that the closure reaffirms Persia’s commitment to imperialism and that the text does not portray the Persians as enervated cowards on the battlefield. The book as a whole sheds light on Herodotus’ characterization of the Persians, as well as his parting sentiments on leadership, the nature of expansion, and the endurance of empire.

This collaborative research project aims to expand our understanding of the themes animating the final chapter of Herodotus’ Histories (9.122) and by extension, the text as a whole. In an introduction and seven chapters, my co-author, Tim Rood, and I approach this passage by maintaining a productive tension between a new historicist reading informed by traditional philology and reception studies, which takes its cue from reader response theory. By putting these methodologies in dialogue, we examine Herodotus’ analepsis and its return to the court of the first Persian king, Cyrus, at the close of the Histories from a highly interdisciplinary perspective, one that yields new answers to old questions. Ultimately, the interaction between Herodotus and his readers ancient and modern reveals the powerful afterlife that the passage enjoyed, the rhetorical uses to which it was put, and the way in which this mediation continues to fuel contemporary debates on Herodotus’ sense of an ending.

The exchange between the Persians and their ruler touches upon key refrains of the narrative, including empire, wealth, and migration, and this parting scene has given rise to a wide variety of interpretations. Still, Cyrus is consistently viewed as a traditional ‘wise advisor’ figure warning against the dangers of imperialism and luxury and championing the preservation of simplicity and limit. It is viewed, therefore, as a neat reference to the cause of the Persians’ defeat at the hands of the hardy Greeks, and also as a warning directed toward an imperial Athens in Herodotus’ present. Each chapter of the monograph revises this reading. As a fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies, I drafted Chapter 5 of the monograph, ‘Luxury, Wealth, and Status’ in cooperation with my co-author. Chapter 5 focuses on the contested concept of ‘luxury’, its function in Cyrus’ warning and in the Histories as a whole, and its later reception.  

Herodotus’ parting image of Cyrus is a prominent exemplum in the eighteenth-century discussion of the historical ramifications of luxury. It is present in, for example, the works of Edward Wortley Montagu, Jean-François de Saint-Lambert, and Henry St John, Lord Bolingbroke. In the latter’s statesman’s essay On Luxury (1727), luxury precipitates the collapse of nations. Cyrus and the Persians offer an early paradigm of the principle: Cyrus is presented as an ideal ruler inhibiting the baser instincts of his Persian subjects through his rejection of their desire to depart from the harsh territory of Persis and migrate into a more fertile, ‘delicious’ country. Such countries, Bolingbroke’s Cyrus cautions, only breed effeminate men, suitable for submission rather than rule. The subsequent fall of Persia’s empire is then brought forward as proof of the truth of these claims: only two hundred and twenty years after Cyrus’ speech, Alexander the Great was able to bring the Persian empire and its enervated inhabitants to its knees. The historical lesson could hardly be clearer – luxury invites imperial collapse. Twentieth-century scholars of Herodotus from Heinrich Bischoff onward have adopted these assumptions about the importance of luxury for the interpretation of Cyrus’ closural address, but without any theorization of luxury as the product of a unique historical context.

In the chapter, we argue that the modern concept of luxury is the product of a series of debates arising in the seventeenth century. The discourse that emerges defines luxury as rare and expensive goods and as the enjoyment of these goods. It is associated with excess and well-being as well as with self-gratification. Above all, it is defined in opposition to what is essential or necessary.

The notion of transhistorical luxury has resulted in a series of discursive and terminological confusions. Of course, from an etic perspective it is always possible to identify exotic material goods as ‘luxuries’. Yet this perspective is typically conflated with the emic one through which modes of consumption and the ideology of luxury are disclosed in ancient texts. The ‘language games’ that scholars have often played via luxury are with the terms habros and chlidê and their cognates. In addition to a variety of other shades of meaning, these words are regularly translated as ‘luxury’ and ‘luxurious’. Through a diachronic linguistic study, we argue that these translations are imprecise and import connotations that are absent into the ancient texts and thus distort our understanding of them. Further, from an emic vantage point, we contend that there is no evidence that a discourse on luxury emerges with and through them. No notion approximates our modern ‘luxury’ until the final decades of the fifth century with tryphê and its cognates. Given its emergence at this time, it should come as no surprise that it occurs nowhere in the Histories.

Herodotus’ own language of wealth and status includes habr– and chlid-terminology, as well as the language of eupatheia, which is often associated with comfort and ease. But most distinctive to his vocabulary of conspicuous consumption is the more generic ta agatha, signifying wealth and the goods arising from it. As in preceding verse usages, so too in the Histories it is a positive term, one contributing to human flourishing. Even in passages where it is clear that the pursuit of ‘good things’ is problematic (e.g. 7.8.γ1), it is not the goods themselves that are morally questionable. Herodotus’ preference for this terminology is an important narrative choice, and one that complicates the traditional interpretation of his work’s reliance on luxury as a negative causal paradigm.

Following this linguistic analysis, the chapter turns to a broader conception of luxury as a marker of wealthy peoples. In the Histories, the Lydians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Ionians, and the Persians are often taken to be salient examples of ‘luxurious’ peoples. In successive case studies, we consider markers of excess in relation to each people’s performance of masculinity in warfare and their relation to self-determination as a check on the conclusions drawn from the traditional interpretations of Cyrus’ final words to the Persians. The outcome of this research is that Herodotus does not structure luxury as a cause of social and political decline, a fact that contributes to the reevaluation of the positive function of consumption in the Histories. Rather, material prosperity is overwhelmingly associated with power and status and expansionism and appears to have no causal role in determining one’s courage in battle or ability to fight for or maintain autonomy.

The positive function of wealth in the Histories puts Cyrus’ advice in a different light. His assimilation of soft lands to soft men cannot be a reference to wealth’s creation of luxurious individuals who are by definition weak in war; at least, it cannot be interpreted this way without doing serious violence to the conception of wealth presented throughout the Histories. Cyrus’ rejection of Artembares’ suggestion that the Persians migrate to enjoy greater prestige and social standing is not, however, a rejection of wealth either. His response pivots to the implications of agriculturalism, implications that are bound up in a separate question that he answers, even if he has not been directly asked it, on how best to maintain Persia’s empire. Implicitly, Cyrus accepts the value of wealth and status, he differs from his internal audience in placing its acquisition purely in the sphere of martial exercise.

The preoccupation with luxury is not, for all of this, solely a modern phenomenon. This reading of the Histories is evident already in the fourth-century BCE reception of the Persians as found in Xenophon’s Cyropaedia and Plato’s Laws. Given this pedigree and its long afterlife, even if Herodotus’ Persians can dispense with luxury, we do so at our own interpretive peril.

This fellowship offered me an intellectually stimulating environment, ample academic resources, time, and excellent working conditions (and this in spite of the pandemic) for the completion of Chapter 5 of the monograph in collaboration with Tim. We both look forward to the opportunity to complete the final three chapters during Tim’s postponed research stay in the spring of 2021.

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