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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 May 2016

Roel Konijnendijk*
Institute of Historical Research, University of London


In Herodotus' royal council scene, where Xerxes decides whether or not to punish the Greeks, the king's cousin and adviser Mardonius is made to say these famous lines (Hdt. 7.9β.1):

καίτοι [γε] ἐώθασι Ἕλληνες, ὡς πυνθάνομαι, ἀβουλότατα πολέμους ἵστασθαι ὑπό τε ἀγνωμοσύνης καὶ σκαιότητος. ἐπεὰν γὰρ ἀλλήλοισι πόλεμον προείπωσι, ἐξευρόντες τὸ κάλλιστον χωρίον καὶ λειότατον, ἐς τοῦτο κατιόντες μάχονται, ὥστε σὺν κακῷ μεγάλῳ οἱ νικῶντες ἀπαλλάσσονται· περὶ δὲ τῶν ἑσσουμένων οὐδὲ λέγω ἀρχήν, ἐξώλεες γὰρ δὴ γίνονται.

Yet, the Greeks do wage war, I hear, and they do so senselessly, in their poor judgement and stupidity. When they have declared war against each other, they find the finest, flattest piece of land and go down there and fight, so that the victors come off with terrible loss—I will not even begin to speak of the defeated, for they are utterly destroyed.

This passage has long been one of the pillars of the ‘orthodox’ view of Greek warfare. It appears to describe a very peculiar way of war, in which conflicts were resolved by single battles at prearranged times, fought on open ground where neither side had an advantage. Fairness counted for more than tactical skill; all conditions were made equal, so that the winners could truly claim to be the braver and stronger men. The result, as Mardonius stressed, was needlessly bloody—but it was quintessentially Greek. Modern authors have argued that this ‘agonistic’ style of fighting, this ‘wonderful, absurd conspiracy’ of open hoplite battle, determined the shape of Greek warfare until the long and hard-fought Peloponnesian War changed the rules.

Research Article
Copyright © The Classical Association 2016 

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This article is based on a paper first presented at the International Ancient Warfare Conference, Aberystwyth, in September 2013. I owe much to Hans van Wees for his comments at various stages of writing, and to CQ's anonymous reviewer and its editor Andrew Morrison for their very helpful suggestions. All translations used in the article are my own.


1 See for example G.B. Grundy, Thucydides and the History of his Age (London, 1911), 251; M. Detienne, ‘La phalange: problèmes et controverses', in J.-P. Vernant (ed.), Problèmes de la Guerre en Grèce Ancienne (Paris, 1968), 119–42, at 124; J.K. Anderson, Military Theory and Practice in the Age of Xenophon (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1970), 1; R. Lonis, Guerre et Religion en Grèce a l’Époque Classique (Paris, 1979), 15; P. Ducrey, Guerre et Guerrier dans la Grèce Antique (Paris, 1985), 64; Connor, W.R., ‘Early Greek land warfare as symbolic expression’, Past and Present 119 (1988), 329 CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 18; V.D. Hanson, The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece (New York, 1989), 9–10; J.F. Lazenby, ‘The killing zone’, in V.D. Hanson (ed.), Hoplites: The Classical Greek Battle Experience (New York, 1991), 87–109, at 88; D. Dawson, The Origins of Western Warfare: Militarism and Morality in the Ancient World (Boulder, CO, 1996), 47–8; S. Mitchell, ‘Hoplite warfare in ancient Greece’, in A. Lloyd (ed.), Battle in Antiquity (London, 1996), 87–105, at 91; M.M. Sage, Warfare in Ancient Greece: A Sourcebook (London, 1996), 73–4; J.E. Lendon, Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity (London, 2005), 42; V.D. Hanson, ‘The hoplite narrative’, in D. Kagan and G.F. Viggiano (edd.), Men of Bronze: Hoplite Warfare in Ancient Greece (Princeton, 2013), 256–75, at 269.

2 V.D. Hanson, ‘The ideology of hoplite battle, ancient and modern’, in Hanson (n. 1 [1991]), 3–11, at 6.

3 Grundy (n. 1), 276; Cartledge, P., ‘Hoplites and heroes: Sparta's contribution to the technique of ancient warfare’, JHS 97 (1977), 1127 CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 11; Connor (n. 1), 27–8; J. Ober, ‘The rules of war in Classical Greece’, in J. Ober, The Athenian Revolution: Essays on Ancient Greek Democracy and Political Theory (Princeton, 19992), 53–71, at 66–70; Mitchell (n. 1), 95–6, 101–2; Sage (n. 1), xix-xxi; V.D. Hanson, ‘Hoplite battle as ancient Greek warfare: when, where and why?’, in H. van Wees (ed.), War and Violence in Ancient Greece (London, 2000), 201–32, at 205, 212, 213; J.W.I. Lee, ‘Land warfare in Xenophon's Hellenika’, in R.B. Strassler (ed.), The Landmark Xenophon's Hellenika (New York, 2009), 391–4, at 391.

4 Or indeed any period; one of the greatest weaknesses of these passages is their lack of any indication of what age they are referring to. For recent critiques, see P. Krentz, ‘Deception in Archaic and Classical Greek warfare’, in H. van Wees (ed.), War and Violence in Ancient Greece (London, 2000), 167–200, at 168–71, 178; id., Fighting by the rules: the invention of the hoplite agon ’, Hesperia 71 (2002), 2339 Google Scholar, at 27–9; H. van Wees, Greek Warfare: Myths and Realities (London, 2004), 115–16; J.C. Dayton, The Athletes of War: An Evaluation of the Agonistic Elements of Greek Warfare (Toronto, 2005), 127–36, 146, 148, 151–3; R.M. Sheldon, Ambush: Surprise Attack in Ancient Greek Warfare (Croydon, 2012), 49–50.

5 E.L. Wheeler and B. Strauss, ‘Battle’, in P. Sabin, H. van Wees and M. Whitby (edd.), The Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Warfare 1: Greece, the Hellenistic World and the Rise of Rome (Cambridge, 2008), 186–222, at 190.

6 H. Delbrück, Geschichte der Kriegskunst im Rahmen der politischen Geschichte (Berlin, 19082), 1.129; C. Pelling, ‘Thucydides’ Archidamus and Herodotus' Artabanus', in M.A. Flower and M. Toher (edd.), Georgica: Greek Studies in Honour of George Cawkwell (London 1991), 120–42, at 132; Krentz (n. 4 [2002]), 25–9; Dayton (n. 4), 52–5; L. Rawlings, The Ancient Greeks at War (Manchester, 2007), 64; P. Krentz, ‘War’, in Sabin, van Wees and Whitby (n. 5), 147–85, at 147. M. Moggi, ‘L'oplitismo secondo Mardonio (Erodoto 7, 9)’, in S. Alessandrì (ed.), Ἱστορίη: Studi Offerti dagli Allievi a Giuseppe Nenci in Occasione del suo Settantesimo Compleanno (Lecce, 1994), 319–32 has rightly stressed (at 330–2) that Mardonius' judgement is flawed at the most fundamental level in its assumption that all Greeks waged war in the same way.

7 Hdt. 1.82; Thuc. 5.41.3; van Wees (n. 4), 134; Dayton (n. 4), 48; Rawlings (n. 6), 66. At Plataea, Mardonius himself is said to have offered a similar challenge to the Spartans, which was also turned down (Hdt. 9.48).

8 The evidence is gathered in P. Krentz, ‘Casualties in hoplite battles’, GRBS 26 (1985), 13–20, and discussed in Dayton (n. 4), 81–102.

9 F.E. Adcock, The Greek and Macedonian Art of War (Berkeley and Los Angeles 1957), 7; Holladay, A.J., ‘Hoplites and heresies’, JHS 102 (1982), 94103 CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 97; Hanson (n. 2), 3–5; id. (n. 3), 203, 207, 216, 219, 222.

10 Krentz (n. 4 [2000]), 183–4; Sheldon (n. 4), 86.

11 Hdt. 6.18, 6.101, 7.172-5, 7.201, 8.71, 9.20.1, 7.176.3-5.

12 L. Rawlings, ‘Alternative agonies: hoplite martial and combat experiences beyond the phalanx’, in H. van Wees (ed.), War and Violence in Ancient Greece (London, 2000), 233–59, at 234; id. (n. 6), 66–9. Hanson (in Hanson [n. 1 (1991)], x) identified twenty-two ‘major Greek battles' for the entirety of the Archaic and Classical periods combined, of which only seventeen were of Greek against Greek.

13 P. Krentz, ‘The strategic culture of Periclean Athens’, in C.D. Hamilton and P. Krentz (edd.), Polis and Polemos: Essays on Politics, War and History in Ancient Greece in Honor of Donald Kagan (Claremont, CA, 1997), 55–72, at 61, 65–70; id. (n. 4 [2000]), 177.

14 Detienne (n. 1), 124 n. 21; Holladay (n. 9), 97; Ducrey (n. 1), 287; J.A. Evans, ‘The dream of Xerxes and the nomoi of the Persians’, in J.A. Evans, The Beginnings of History: Herodotus and the Persian Wars (Campbellville, Ontario, 2006), 123–8, at 124; Lendon (n. 1), 42–3; Wheeler and Strauss (n. 5), 190–1; van Wees (n. 4 [2004]), 116; id., ‘Defeat and destruction: the ethics of ancient Greek warfare’, in S. Tausend (ed.), “Böser Krieg”: Exzessive Gewalt in der antiken Kriegsführung und Strategien zu deren Vermeidung (Bayreuth, 2011), 69–110, at 99.

15 At 8.10.1, the Greeks are again considered ‘completely insane’, this time for sailing against the Persian fleet at Artemisium while heavily outnumbered.

16 The case for ‘Herodotean dramatic irony’ was made most recently in P. Cartledge, ‘Hoplitai/politai: refighting ancient battles’, in D. Kagan and G.F. Viggiano (edd.), Men of Bronze: Hoplite Warfare in Ancient Greece (Princeton, 2013), 74–84, at 78–9.

17 K.A. Raaflaub, ‘Philosophy, science, politics: Herodotus and the intellectual trends of his time’, in E.J. Bakker, I.J.F. de Jong and H. van Wees (edd.), Brill's Companion to Herodotus (Leiden, 2002), 149–86, at 171, 178; id., ‘Persian army and warfare in the mirror of Herodotus's interpretation’, in R. Rollinger, B. Truschnegg and R. Bichler (edd.), Herodot und das persische Weltreich/Herodotus and the Persian Empire (Wiesbaden, 2011), 5–37, at 30; L.A. Tritle, ‘“Laughing for joy”: war and peace among the Greeks', in K. Raaflaub (ed.), War and Peace in the Ancient World (Malden, MA, 2007), 172–90, at 173–4; id., ‘Warfare in Herodotus’, in C. Dewald and J. Marincola (edd.), The Cambridge Companion to Herodotus (Cambridge, 2007), 209–23, at 211–12; J.R. Hale, ‘Not patriots, not farmers, not amateurs: Greek soldiers of fortune and the origins of hoplite warfare’, in D. Kagan and G.F. Viggiano (edd.), Men of Bronze: Hoplite Warfare in Ancient Greece (Princeton, 2013), 176–93, at 178.

18 R.W. Macan, Herodotus: The Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Books 1.1 (London, 1908), 14; see Pelling (n. 6), 134; S. Forsdyke, ‘Herodotus, political history and political thought’, in Dewald and Marincola (n. 17), 224–41, at 235.

19 Lattimore, R., ‘The wise adviser in Herodotus’, CPh 34 (1939), 2435 Google Scholar, at 31; Krentz (n. 13), 60; M.A. Flower and J. Marincola, Herodotus Histories Book IX (Cambridge, 2002), 193; Rawlings (n. 6), 64–5.

20 Krentz (n. 13), 60, citing Hdt. 7.5, 8.100, 9.41, 9.58; Sears, M.A., ‘A note on Mardonius' emissaries’, Mouseion 9 (2009), 21–8CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 21–3, 27.

21 Hdt. 7.10η; Moggi (n. 6), 324–6.

22 Pelling (n. 6), 132; id., ‘Speech and narrative in the Histories’, in Dewald and Marincola (n. 17), 103–21, at 110; Forsdyke (n. 18), 234; see also Lattimore (n. 19), 31; Moggi (n. 6), 326–8; id., ‘Artabano in Erodoto’, in M. Giangiulio (ed.), Erodoto e il ‘Modello Erodoteo’: Formazione e Transmissione delle Tradizioni Storiche in Grecia (Trento, 2005), 193–214, at 196, 198; Grethlein, J., ‘How not to do history: Xerxes in Herodotus' Histories ’, AJPh 130 (2009), 195218 Google Scholar, at 200–1.

23 J.F. Lazenby, The Defence of Greece 490-479 b.c. (Warminster, 1993), 218–21, 228–30.

24 Sears (n. 20), 23–7.

25 Moggi (n. 22), 196; A.M. Bowie, Herodotus Histories Book VIII (Cambridge, 2007), 9, 117; Grethlein (n. 22), 201–2; Sears (n. 20), 21. In the words of Pelling (n. 6), 120 characters like Artabanus ‘positively ooze wisdom’, even if their cautious views are not always wholly vindicated by the events that ensue.

26 Of course, Mardonius is not wrong about everything; it has been noted (Pelling [n. 22], 110; Forsdyke [n. 18], 235) that he rightly stresses the disunity of the Greeks, which nearly proved fatal during Xerxes' invasion, and which led to catastrophic internecine war during Herodotus' lifetime. However, I would argue that Herodotus' point here is not to suggest that even the most misguided counsellors are capable of saying clever things, but rather that what most discredits the Greeks is that they proved Mardonius right.

27 van Wees (n. 4 [2004]), 116.

28 Grethlein (n. 22), 200–2.

29 The stark contrast between the speakers has been stressed by Lattimore (n. 19), 31 and more recently Moggi (n. 22), 193–4.

30 At 7.9α.2, Mardonius makes explicit reference to these events.

31 Pelling (n. 22), 110 in fact called it ‘absurdly wrong’, but this seems too harsh; Herodotus took care to provide Mardonius with a reason to believe his own words.

32 Hdt. 5.49.2-4; Wheeler and Strauss (n. 5), 191 n. 20 have noted this link between the two passages. Forsdyke (n. 18), 234–5 has pointed out that these two speeches are also similar in their reliance on flattery.

33 K.A. Raaflaub, ‘Herodot und Thukydides: persischer Imperialismus im Lichten der athenischen Sizilienpolitik’, in N. Ehrhardt and L.-M. Günther (edd.), Widerstand – Anpassung – Integration. Die griechische Staatenwelt und Rom (Stuttgart, 2002), 11–40, at 23–5.

34 Thuc. 6.20-3, 7.87.6; V.J. Hunter, Thucydides the Artful Reporter (Toronto, 1973), 127–8. Lattimore (n. 19), 35 n. 31 rightly noted that we should not raise Nicias to the status of wise adviser; Thucydides' characterization of the general is more complex. However, Nicias certainly takes the part of the ‘tragic warner’ and the voice of caution in this case.

35 Raaflaub (n. 33), 21, 35; Grethlein (n. 22), 196 in fact calls this ‘the popular reading of the Histories’.

36 For helpful treatments, see N. Sekunda, The Persian Army 560-330 b.c. (Oxford, 1982); D. Head, The Achaemenid Persian Army (Stockport, 1992); Lazenby (n. 23), 21–33; J.W.I. Lee, ‘The Persian army in Herodotus’, in R.B. Strassler (ed.), The Landmark Herodotus (London, 2008), 805–9; Konijnendijk, R., ‘“Neither the less valorous nor the weaker”: Persian military might and the battle of Plataia’, Historia 61 (2012), 117 Google Scholar, at 7–10, although C. Tuplin (‘All the king's horse’, in G.G. Fagan and M. Trundle [edd.], New Perspectives on Ancient Warfare [Leiden, 2010], 101–82, at 178–82) has argued that we should not overestimate the importance of cavalry in Persian society and warfare.

37 Thuc. 1.111.1, 6.20.4, 6.21.1, 6.22, 6.68.3, 7.11.2, 7.13.2; Xen. An. 3.4.24.

38 ‘ἱππέας εἰς πεδίον’ προκαλῇ Σωκράτη εἰς λόγους προκαλούμενος, Pl. Tht. 183d.

39 Hdt. 6.102, 9.13.3, 9.20.1, 9.41, 9.49-51; P. Krentz, The Battle of Marathon (New Haven and London, 2010), 103, 139, 143; K.A. Raaflaub, ‘Early Greek infantry fighting in a Mediterranean context’, in D. Kagan and G.F. Viggiano (edd.), Men of Bronze: Hoplite Warfare in Ancient Greece (Princeton, 2013), 95–111, at 98.

40 G. Cawkwell, The Greek Wars: The Failure of Persia (New York, 2005), 103–5.

41 To my knowledge this was first suggested by Krentz (n. 4 [2000]), 178, who unfortunately did not elaborate on this essential point. Tritle (n. 17 [2007], ‘Laughing’), 173 remarked that the speech served ‘to convince Xerxes that a conquest of Greece would pose few problems’, but, like Krentz, he did not expand on this insight.

42 Lazenby (n. 23), 33, 43–4; Rawlings (n. 6), 93–4; Krentz (n. 39), 159. C. Tuplin (‘Intolerable clothes and a terrifying name: the characteristics of an Achaemenid invasion force’, in C. Carey and M. Edwards [edd.], Marathon – 2,500 Years: Proceedings of the Marathon Conference 2010 [London, 2013], 223–39, at 224) discusses Herodotus' comment (6.112.3) that the Athenians were the first Greeks to face the Persians without panicking.

43 Mardonius takes care to remind him that the Persians are ‘the best warriors of all mankind’ (7.9β.2); at 7.103.5, Xerxes is made to boast that some of his spearmen would gladly take on three Greeks at once.

44 Bowie (n. 25), 117–8 notes the significance of this connection.

45 Μαρδόνιε, κοίους ἐπ᾽ ἄνδρας ἤγαγες μαχησομένους ἡμέας, Hdt. 8.26.3.

46 At 7.10θ.3, Artabanus already predicted that those left behind ‘will hear that Mardonius has inflicted great evils on Persia’.

47 Hdt. 5.36.2, 5.124.1, 6.13.1, 7.168.2, 8.10.1–2, 8.24.2, 8.140; see T. Harrison, ‘The long arm of the king (Hdt. 8.140-142)’, in Rollinger, Truschnegg and Bichler (n. 17), 65–74, at 67–8.

48 Moggi (n. 6), 321–4 offers an overview of the things Mardonius neglects in his speech.

49 For the full account, see Hdt. 9.19-70; Plut. Ar. 14–19. Veith's brief treatment of the battle in J. Kromayer and G. Veith, Antike Schlachtfelder: Bausteine zu einer antiken Kriegsgeschichte (Berlin, 1924–1931), 4.167–9 remains excellent in its essential point; for more detailed modern analyses, see especially Lazenby (n. 23), 217–46, 249–55; L.J. Worley, Hippeis: The Cavalry of Ancient Greece (Boulder, CO, 1994), 56–8; S.M. Rusch, Sparta at War: Strategy, Tactics, and Campaigns, 550-362 b.c. (London, 2011), 56–66; Konijnendijk (n. 36).

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