Herodotus on Resisting Tyranny

170220dancerThe ancient Greek historian Herodotus was deeply concerned with the question of how democratic societies can defend themselves from tyranny. In the seventh and sixth centuries BCE, cities all across Greece saw outbreaks of tyranny: wealthy aristocrats seized power by force and ruled without regard to law or tradition. A few of these regimes lasted for a few generations, but most were overthrown in a matter of years. In the fifth century, Greece faced the larger threat of conquest by the Persian empire, whose Great King the Greeks perceived as kind of tyrant writ large.

Herodotus wrote about this history in his account of the wars between Greece and Persia. He told the stories of how the Athenians ousted their tyrants and how the Greeks organized to repel the Persian invasions. Some of his lessons in resisting tyranny, however, come in less obvious ways. Consider, for example, the story of Hippocleides (Herodotus, Histories 6.129).

The tale is set in the Greek city of Sicyon, generations before the Greco-Persian wars. A rich man named Cleisthenes had made himself tyrant and was looking to marry off his daughter, Agariste, to some rich young man from another city who could be a useful ally. Young men of fortune from all around Greece came to Sicyon to compete for Agariste’s hand. Cleisthenes hosted them for a year in his house, testing them on their credentials and talents. After a year, an Athenian, Hippocleides, son of Teisandrus, emerged as the favorite and preparations were made for a wedding. The story picks up on the day of the wedding:

After dinner, the suitors held a competition in music and speaking before the assembled audience. As the drinking began, Hippocleides, holding the attention of the room, called for some pleasant music, and having gotten the flute player to play, began to dance. And while I suppose Hippocleides pleased himself with his dancing, Cleisthenes looked on the whole thing with distaste. After a while, Hippocleides called for a table to be brought in. Getting onto the table he first danced some Laconian figures on it, next some Attic ones, but for his third act he planted his head on the table and waved his legs in the air.

Now Cleisthenes, at the first and second performances, was horrified at the thought that he might still end up tied by marriage to such a shameless dancer, but he kept silent; yet when he saw the man’s legs waving about he could no longer contain himself and declared: “Son of Teisandrus, you have danced yourself out of a marriage!”

The young man replied: “Hippocleides doesn’t care.”

– Herodotus, Histories 6.129

My own translation

This story may seem like a curious place to look for political advice, but Herodotus has an important point to make. A tyrant’s justification for his power is that he is the smartest man around and therefore he can make better decisions for the state than anyone else. “Trust me,” says the tyrant, “I know what I’m doing, so just let me run everything and don’t ask questions.” Cleisthenes is a perfect example of the tyrant: while the suitors who came from around Greece to compete for Agariste’s hand were trying to show off their skills to him, the whole competition was an opportunity for him to show off his superior judgment. The wedding was supposed to be the culmination of that year, when Cleisthenes could tell the people of Sicyon: “Look what a good choice I made for my daughter; surely I can make better choices for you than you would have made for yourselves.”

How can such a tyrant be resisted? Rational arguments are useless. A rational argument requires, at a minimum, the willingness on both sides to listen to reason and to be open to the possibility that they might be wrong, but for a tyrant to admit that he might be wrong and someone else might have a better idea than he does would invalidate the entire basis of his authority. How do you argue with someone who cannot, must not, imagine that they could ever be wrong?

Hippocleides finds the answer: you don’t argue with them. Hippocleides doesn’t try to debate Cleisthenes, to make him see reason or to defend his dancing. He knows that’s an argument he can’t win, so he doesn’t try. What he offers instead is a mocking, ridiculous defiance. Cleisthenes has to either go ahead with the wedding and accept that he will forever be tied to a clown like Hippocleides, or else cancel it and admit that his judgment was flawed. Simply by showing the world that he values his freedom to do as he likes—even to make a fool of himself—over the chance at a marriage alliance with Cleisthenes, Hippocleides undercuts Cleisthenes’ claim to power.

Perhaps this seems like a lot to take away from what is really just the story of a man doing a silly dance at a party, but the same principle appears in much more serious circumstances elsewhere in Herodotus’ history. In the late sixth century, the Persian king Darius attempted to conquer the Scythians, who lived on the steppes north of the Black Sea. Rather than stand and fight, the Scythians, a semi-nomadic people of riders and wagons, simply retreated farther and farther across the land, leading the Persian army a long chase over the steppe.

In exasperation, Darius finally sent a message to Idanthyrsus, the Scythian king. If the Scythians thought they were strong enough to best the Persians, Darius argued, they should stand and fight. If they knew they were not, they should stop running away and acknowledge the Great King of Persia as their master.

Idanthyrsos sent a message back scoffing at Darius. It was the Scythian way to travel across the steppe at this time of year, he said. The presence of the Persians in their land made no difference to them. And as for Darius’ claim to be master of the Persians, he had only one answer: “Weep.”

Finding that they could not come to grips with the Scythians, the Persians eventually turned around, went home, and gave up on conquering Scythia. Just like Hippocleides, Idanthyrsus did not try to reason or argue with Darius but instead answered the Great King’s assertion of power with defiance and scorn. This, Herodotus is hinting to us, is how you deal with a tyrant: mockery, defiance, and a refusal to reason with a person who is incapable of being reasonable.

Thoughts for writers

Herodotus was a historian, but he was also an accomplished story-teller. He appreciated the power of a story to explain an important idea. The tale of Hippocleides’ dance seems like a ludicrous digression with no place in a serious history. It reads more like a fable or a joke than like part of a historical narrative, and that’s also part of Herodotus’ point. The world is full of wisdom, but we may miss something important just because it doesn’t sound important. Stories matter because they express our ideas about how the world works. When we dismiss something as “just a story” or “just a joke,” we ignore the way stories and jokes function as vehicles of experience.

This is part of our power as writers, and also part of our responsibility. The stories we choose to tell matter because we are always doing more than telling a story: we’re sharing part of ourselves with the world. Even the simplest story has the power to convey important ideas.

Image: Dionysiac dancer, photograph by Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikimedia (currently Louvre; c. 40-30 BCE; marble)

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.