Herodotus, “The History” I.163-169: The Story of the Phocaeans

Having put down a rebellion, Cyrus split his forces in order to take that much more beyond his empire. Harpagus was appointed general of one part of the army, and he warred against the Ionians. He alone conquered many cities, Cyrus conquering many more, but Herodotus spends quite a bit of time talking about the first conquest in Ionia, a city named Phocaea. The story which follows is peculiar, to say the least.

I

The Phocaeans were daring seafarers, going on long voyages to the ends of the Mediterranean. They found a king in a distant land who so valued their friendship that he offered to settle them anywhere in his kingdom. When they were worried about the Medes, this same king gave them all the money they needed to build immense and powerful fortifications.

When Persia invaded, the Phocaeans bought time to flee their city through a negotiation of sorts. Harpagus said that if they tore down just one part of the wall and consecrated a house, he would be content. The Phocaeans said they needed a day to think about this, in which time they put their children, women, and as many goods as they could carry to sea, including some images from the temples and sacrificial items. They sailed south, trying to buy some islands for settlement from another people, but were rebuffed.

They then decided to sail to Corsica, where before they had built a city on account of an oracle. Before they did this, they went back to Phocaea, murdered the Persians left guarding it, and sunk in the sea a bar of iron to pronounce a curse. No Phocaean was to linger behind on the relocation to Corsica, and only unless the bar surfaced would any Phocaean come back there. Despite this, half the citizens did sail back on the journey to Corsica, “seized with such homesickness and pity for their city,” breaking the oath they made (1.165).

II

If you’re wondering what we’re supposed to think of the Phocaeans after all that, join the club. The story only gets crazier. Those who sailed to Corsica did make it, joining with those who had founded the city before, setting up their shrines again. However, they decided to act like pirates and bandits toward the neighbors with their newfound strength. This brought the Etruscans and Carthaginians into common cause against them. They met in a naval battle, with the Phocaeans at least as strong as both the others combined. Technically, the Phocaeans won, but they had so many unusable ships after the battle that they had to flee their settlement in Corsica in the same way they fled Phocaea originally. They eventually settled in another country, founding a city with another name, twice removed from Phocaea. The city after Phocaea was Alalia, the city after that Hyele.

Herodotus adds that after the naval battle, the Carthaginians and Etruscans cast lots for the abandoned crews of wrecked Phocaean ships. The people of Agylla won many crews. Apparently, they were furious at the Phocaeans, or were just awful excuses for human beings, as they brought them ashore to stone them to death. This resulted in a curse:

After this, among these Agyllaeans, every living thing that passed the place where the Phocaeans were stoned and buried – every living thing, be it flocks and herds or beasts of burden or men – became alike twisted, crippled, or paralyzed. The people of Agylla sent to Delphi, wishful to heal their offense. The Pythia laid upon them the command that the Agyllaeans are still discharging to this day. For they have splendid religious celebrations for the dead Phocaeans and in their honor hold athletic contests and horse races. (1.167)

The curse of the place where the massacre occurred affected the beauty and motion of those who passed it. Hence, athletic spectacles in honor of the victims are an appropriate remedy. There is another detail of importance with which Herodotus ends this story. The Phocaeans eventually reinterpret the oracle that sent them to Corsica, as a local hero near their newest city had a name equivalent to Corsica.

III

I wonder what this whole story means. Herodotus says the Phocaeans were the first of the Greeks to go on long sea voyages. He mentions that they use a specific sort of boat. One could speculate that technology caused them to be as daring as they were.

One might wonder about piety, too. The Phocaeans heeded an oracle that told them to go forth and settle, to do something they would do anyway. They do not fight to the death for their ancestral homeland, nor do they take special pains to relocate or hide the weightiest images in the temples.

For me right now, the Phocaeans are this consideration: What if a people were entirely heroic? They would be awesome friends. Kings would willingly want them at their court, to learn from them and bask in their natural glory. They would be adventurous, using even misfortune as an opportunity to do more and see more. They would be secure and conflicted in their identity. To insist on the absurdity of being more Phocaean for leaving Phocaea itself is the sort of thing characteristic of any given hero. And they are celebrated in funeral games, just like other figures in epic.

Joe Connole beautifully expanded on this thought, adding that it looks like they turn barbarian quickly, asserting themselves a bit too naturally. And their identity, the very thing they insisted upon so much initially, is lost because of their own actions. One might be tempted to say the city doesn’t need heroes. It needs strong formal institutions and a willingness to slowly and steadily progress. That does seem to be a hidden theme of a more thoughtful approach to our democratic age, as our heroes dunk basketballs, win American Idol, and once in a while discover something amazing (which they get money and fame from. Never forget the cash and interviews, otherwise you wouldn’t know how heroic they were).

But maybe the foundations of the city are a deeper problem. Maybe it is the case that political life depends on heroes, even asking us to become them. In which case, we are always in danger of transcending the city itself, losing our sense of justice because we need to feel powerful and free. Some commentators think that power simply corrupts, for if you have power, you’re always tempted to do something bad with it. To be frank, that’s pretty idiotic. It’s more like this: morality is clearest when you don’t have power. When you do have it, moral choices become a lot more difficult. Sometimes, such choices are directly dependent on whether you can effect or provide something. You’re stuck playing god, like it or not; people depend on you and weigh you with their expectations.

To be sure, the Phocaeans eventually settle down, both in spite of their heroism and because of it. They were right to flee in their crazy, bold, adventurous way. And it was inevitable that they would act unjustly and almost imperially for a time, worried that without power, they would be powerless against those who would take their home away.

References

Herodotus, The History. tr. David Greene. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.