Discussion Questions for Herodotus Books 6 & 7
Dear fellow Herodoteans,
Here are some discussion questions to help you think through Books 6 & 7. Exciting stuff here.
Herodotus Book Six Discussion Questions
1. In Book VI ch. 30, Histiaeus’ end at the hands of Artaphrenes and Harpagos is related in gruesome but cursory fashion: “they took him to Sardis and there hanged him from a stake. But they embalmed his head and brought it to King Darius in Susa” (p. 437). Just prior to this remark, Herodotus himself tells the reader that in his opinion “if, after being captured alive, Histiaeos had been taken to Darius, I suppose that Darius would have forgiven him for his offense and that he would have suffered no harm” (437). Knowing what we know about Darius in the Histories, would that be an accurate prediction? Why does Herodotus feel this way and what evidence from earlier in our reading could support his assertion?
2. In chs. 51-55, Herodotus digresses on the origins of the Spartan dual kingship. He comments on both the Spartan version and the common Greek traditional version. What are we to make of the story? Is Herodotus favoring one or the other? Are there other versions deliberately not mentioned by Herodotus? Why does Herodotus suddenly proclaim: “let that be the extent of what is said on this topic” (449)?
3. In ch. 84, Herodotus presents various views on the Spartan king Kleomenes’ madness and eventual death. After presenting the Argive and Spartan explanations, Herodotus claims: “For myself, I think that the best explanation is that Kleomenes was punished for his treatment of Demaratos” (460). What does this say about Herodotus’ judgment? Is he taking sides or does he have justification, according to his evidence, that his assertion has credence? What does this remark say about Herodotus’ regard for history in general?
4. Herodotus uses 94 chapters to set the stage for one of the most important battles in history. Given the actual details of the battle, why does Herodotus not go into more detail about the individuals and events on the battlefield? How does Herodotus contrast the Athenians to the Persians in this conflict? How is Sparta compared/contrasted with Athens? Persia??
5. Ch. 121 just seems to leap out of nowhere. After a description of the battle of Marathon and Sparta’s late arrival, Herodotus seems eager to address the veracity of Alkmeonid treachery against Athens: “I am astonished by that story about the Alcmeonids” (478). He then goes on to elaborate on the Alcmeonid clan, seemingly making an appeal for them, through chapter 131. How convincing is his defense? Why does Herodotus make this appeal here? What sort of tensions are betrayed in Herodotus’ words that show the movement between myth and history, fact and fiction?
Book 7 Discussion Questions
1. The decision for the Persians to invade Greece is a highly significant one. Starting in Book 7, chapter 8, what are Xerxes’ reasons for doing so? Are they based on national security? personal revenge? tradition? anything else?
After Xerxes’ dreams convince the Persians to invade, does that make Mardonios’ reasons any stronger? Why or why not?
2. In chapters 27-29, Pythios voluntarily offers Xerxes a great amount of resources to help the war effort. Xerxes appreciates the offer, but becomes angry at Pythios soon after (38-39). Is Xerxes justified in doing so? Does this story, which surrounds Xerxes’ order to ‘punish’ the Hellespont, show Xerxes’ madness? wisdom?
3. The Ancient Greeks believed that “hubris” or ‘overweening pride’ would lead to a just punishment from the gods. In which instances in Book 7, does Herodotus show Xerxes’ “hubris?” In which instances is Xerxes prudent? How does Xerxes compare with his predecessor Darius in balancing “hubris” with prudence?
4. Before the crossing of the Hellespont, Xerxes and Artabanos have a dialogue that begins with the ‘shortness of human life’ (chs. 46-52). Both Xerxes and Artabanos have differing views on this and on the coming invasion of Greece. How does Xerxes justify his position vis-a-vis Artabanos? Given the situation and regardless of the outcome, do either Xerxes or Artabanos have the stronger argument?
5. Given Xerxes’ decision to allow the three captured Greek spies to see his whole Persian force (ch. 147), what is Xerxes’ strategy as he approaches Thermopylae? Even with the exiled Spartan king Demaratos’ advice, what does Xerxes nevertheless cling to as his military advantange? What advantage to the Greeks is Xerxes constantly overlooking? Why?
6. The Delphic oracle predicted for the Spartans that “either their city must be laid waste by the foreigner or a Spartan king be killed” (ch. 220). Was this the main reason Leonidas decided to remain at Thermopylae? What other reasons are there? Was the battle of Thermopylae militarily significant or merely symbolic?
7. What are your favorite stories from Book 7? Which, if any, have you heard about before in movies, books or popular media?