The Wild Words of Demaratus (Best Stories of Herodotus)

As he began the march into Greece, Xerxes inspected his army and his navy; and much pleased with what he had seen, he wondered how the Greeks would react to his overwhelming power. Therefore he sent for Demaratus, the exiled Spartan king, who was accompanying him on the march in the role of a counsellor:

VII. 101.”Demaratus, it is my pleasure at this time to ask thee certain things which I wish to know. Thou art a Greek, and, as I hear from the other Greeks with whom I converse, no less than from thine own lips, thou art a native of a city which is not the meanest or the weakest in their land.

Tell me, therefore, what thinkest thou? Will the Greeks lift a hand against us? Mine own judgment is, that even if all the Greeks and all the barbarians of the West were gathered together in one place, they would not be able to abide my onset, not being really of one mind.”

Demaratus was nobody’s fool and knew only too well what would happen to him if he displeased the capricious Xerxes. His first reaction, therefore, was to return a question of his own:

“O king! is it thy will that I give thee a true answer, or dost thou wish for a pleasant one?”

Only when Xerxes told him to tell the truth and promised he would not suffer for doing so, did Demaratus reply; but his reply was not what the Persian king expected:

102. “Brave are all the Greeks who dwell in any Dorian land; but what I am about to say does not concern all, but only the Lacedaemonians. First then, come what may, they will never accept thy terms, which would reduce Greece to slavery; and further, they are sure to join battle with thee, though all the rest of the Greeks should submit to thy will.

As for their numbers, do not ask how many they are, that their resistance should be a possible thing; for if a thousand of them should take the field, they will meet thee in battle, and so will any number, be it less than this, or be it more. ”

And Xerxes replied with laughter:

103. “What wild words, Demaratus! A thousand men join battle with such an army as this! … If then each one of them be a match for ten of my soldiers, I may well call upon thee to be a match for twenty … how is the speech that thou hast uttered more than a mere empty boast?”

Not unreasonably – given the size of his army – Xerxes considered it impossible for any army to withstand his. In fact, he didn’t really believe they would even try:

“For, to go to the very verge of likelihood – how could a thousand men, or ten thousand, or even fifty thousand, particularly if they were all alike free, and not under one lord – how could such a force, I say, stand against an army like mine? Let them be five thousand, and we shall have more than a thousand men to each one of theirs.

Suspecting that Xerxes was thinking him partial to his own people, painting them in a more favourable light than they deserved, Demaratus pointed out that he had no reason to love the Spartans who exiled him, insisting that he was speaking truth:

104. “I knew, O king! at the outset, that if I told thee the truth, my speech would displease thine ears. But as thou didst require me to answer thee with all possible truthfulness, I informed thee what the Spartans will do.

And in this I spake not from any love that I bear them – for none knows better than thou what my love towards them is likely to be at the present time, when they have robbed me of my rank and my ancestral honours, and made me a homeless exile, whom thy father did receive, bestowing on me both shelter and sustenance.

Demaratus then went on to tell Xerxes what his forces would face when – and not if – they joined battle with the Spartans:

104. …the Lacedaemonians, when they fight singly, are as good men as any in the world, and when they fight in a body, are the bravest of all.

For though they be free-men, they are not in all respects free; Law is the master whom they own; and this master they fear more than thy subjects fear thee. Whatever he commands they do; and his commandment is always the same: it forbids them to flee in battle, whatever the number of their foes, and requires them to stand firm, and either to conquer or die.”

Xerxes, however, could not understand the concepts Demaratus talked about and dismissed him laughing. Importantly, he believed that free men would not have the courage to fight as bravely as his own men would fight under the lash. And in this he made the usual mistake of tyrants of all ages.

Xerxes said:

If, indeed, like our troops, they had a single master, their fear of him might make them courageous beyond their natural bent, or they might be urged by lashes against an enemy which far outnumbered them. But left to their own free choice, assuredly they will act differently. For mine own part, I believe, that if the Greeks had to contend with the Persians only, and the numbers were equal on both sides, the Greeks would find it hard to stand their ground.

History is full of examples to the contrary: of free men taking on impossible odds in order to defend their freedom, of free men fighting better than soldiers driven forward under fear of their commanders. They didn’t always win; but the notion that slaves fight better than free men, that ‘democracies can’t take losses’ is fundamentally flawed. And this is why Herodotus is great… because he bothers to tell us this conversation between Xerxes and Demaratus. It is to make a point; in fact, he makes this same point repeatedly throughout his Histories. Make no mistake: in the end, The Histories are all about the fight for freedom.

The Greeks were no saints – although in this context they’re often painted as such. They were a quarrelsome lot, beset by not just wars between city states but also by tyrants of their own.

The tyrant of the Chersonese
Was freedom’s best and bravest friend;
That tyrant was Miltiades!

Lord Byron: The Isles of Greece, Don Juan, Canto III

Many city states, Athens included, had a history of tyrants, against whom they kept rebelling – and who kept returning throughout their history, nevertheless. Miltiades, the hero of Marathon himself had been the tyrant of the Chersonese and was viewed with some suspicion in Athens. Only the Spartans were exempt from this constant turmoil of tyrants, rebellions and democracy taking turns; and of course, they were a peculiar, military society – one, however, in which the power of the kings (they had two) was very much limited; contrary to general belief, the Spartans did in fact have some democratic institutions; “checks and balances” if you will.

And to make matters worse, the Greek city states could also hardly ever agree among themselves. The Greek world was not some sort of an ideal, peaceful coexistence of democracies; neither at the time of the Persian wars, nor afterwards. (Think of how, during the Peloponnesian war, Athens famously asserted that ‘might was right’ to the islanders on Melos who refused to join the Athenian dominated Delian League.)  Not even when faced by the power of the Persians, these outsiders who threatened their way of life and who stood for ideas so completely different from their own, could the Greek states all agree to unite.

Yet Herodotus understands that there is this difference between the Greeks and the Persians, this difference of political opinion (to put it in modern terms) between an absolutist monarchy and a constitutional monarchy and/or a democracy, and that it is fundamental to the outcome of the conflict between them. Two thousand and five hundred years ago Herodotus already understood something that many people still don’t: the significance of freedom or the lack of it. 

The battle between the Persians and the Spartans was about to begin. And how Demaratus’ words would come back to haunt Xerxes…

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