The Corner

Give Me Liberty, or…

A reader (the stuff they remember!) has dug up the following, from a piece I wrote 4 years ago. I am writing about one of Herodotus’s stories:

“It’s from book 7 of the History, sections 134-5. I had better say that this is not a very original selection. I have seen it extracted by other authors–it is in Wittfogel’s Oriental Despotism somewhere, for example. It is, however, very well worth repeating, and I make no apology for being the umpteenth person to direct his readers’ attention to it. I’m going to quote from one of the quirkier translations, done by the eccentric English classicist and politician Enoch Powell. Powell translated the whole thing into Biblical English, to give the right (as he saw it) flavor of archaism. You either like that kind of thing or you don’t, and I just do.

“The story needs a bit of background. During the first quarter of the fifth century B.C., the new empire of Persia was expanding aggressively under two great kings: Darius, up to 486, and then Xerxes. They wanted to conquer the young Greek city-states, and sent expeditionary forces for that purpose. During one of these forays, the city-state of Sparta had killed some Persian envoys by throwing them into a well. In the years that followed, things did not go well for Sparta, and all kinds of bad omens were observed. The Spartans eventually decided they should make some collective restitution for their crime. They therefore called for patriotic citizens willing to go to Persia and offer their own lives in payment for those of the slain ambassadors. Two well-born young Spartan men, Sperthias and Bulis, volunteered. They set out for Susa, the Persian capital.

“Persia was a sprawling despotic empire of the pre-modern type. An infallible god-king effected his will through a huge bureaucratic apparatus, the whole thing financed by crushing taxation. (Rather like the Democratic Party, in fact.) On their way to Susa the two Spartans–whose selfless mission was well-known, and widely admired–were given hospitality by a high Persian official named Hydarnes. Impressed by these two brave young men, Hydarnes attempted to recruit them into the king’s service. ‘For,’ he said:

[Then the following long quote from Herodotus/Powell] “‘When ye regard me and mine affairs, ye see that the king knoweth how to honour valiant men. Ye also likewise, if ye would give yourselves unto the king, because ye are esteemed of him to be valiant men, might each of you rule over land in Greece, which the king should give you.’ Then they answered him thus: ‘Hydarnes, thy counsel as touching us is not evenly weighed. For, of the one thing thou hast made trial, but of the other thou art without experience: what it is to be a bondservant thou knowest full well, but of freedom thou hast never yet made trial, to know whether it be a sweet thing or not. For if ever thou hadst experience thereof, thou wouldest counsel us to fight for it not with spears only but with axes.’ Thus they answered Hydarnes.

“I must have read that passage thirty or forty times in half a dozen translations; yet still, every time I read, it I want to jump up out of my seat, pump my fist in the air, and yell: ‘YEEE-HAAA!’”

Well, perhaps my outlook was sunnier then. What occurs to me now, reading that, is that those Persians were the remote ancestors of today’s Iranians.

This freedom-in-the-Middle-East project could take an awfully long time.

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