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Herodotus On Tyrants And Autocrats Notes

Classics Notes > Greek Literature of the 5th Century BC Notes

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Herodotus on Tyrants and Autocrats Herodotus' characterisation of autocrats is book three centres around two key things; firstly the character of Cambyses, whose rule stretches through a good proportion of the book, and secondly the constitutional debate, the political theorising of which fits neatly into the context of the story. This debate follows the murder of the two Magi, who have usurped the throne of Cambyses, by the seven conspirators; the most influential members of this group, Darius, Otanes and Megabyzus, then discuss by what system Persia should be governed. It is certainly well integrated into the account of the story as a whole because it follows a discussion the conspirators had earlier in which they plotted how to kill the imposter; this sets precedence in terms of the dynamic of the group, that is to say they are not simply a single man aiming to acquire power selfishly for himself, as the Magus was, but they have been charged by the legitimate ruler on his death bed to avenge the betrayal. Since they act so closely as a group throughout the whole episode it follows naturally that they will hold a fair and equal discussion about with who and how the rule of the empire will continue. This is reflected after the debate by the way in which they promise benefits to those six men not elected to be king and in particular Otanes who does not enter himself for consideration. More importantly though the main protagonists in the discussion display the same characteristics throughout the whole episode, from the plotting stage right through until the contest for the kingship; Otanes, for example, is extremely cautious and seems very concerned about his own safety despite the fact he is plotting against the rulers. Darius, on the other hand, is incredibly bold and vehemently passionate about acting without delay, so much so that he threatens to betray the whole conspiracy if they do not act immediately. Also, crucially, he always speaks last and has the casting vote, making him seem like the most natural and strongest leader, even if the characterisation that follows in later books becomes rather bland, here at least he is fiery and single-minded. Although there is no question that the debate fits the context of the story as it appears here there are concerns as to whether it fits what might be described as the ethos of Persian culture. Throughout the Histories so far Herodotus has portrayed the Easterners as men who are so used to the concept of being ruled by an autocrat that even if they depose one leader on the grounds of fighting for their freedom they soon find that they cannot live without one and appoint another; the story of Deioces in book one is a good example of this. This may seem like a contradiction to modern ears, even Greek ones, but in Eastern culture it just seems to work and although that maybe should be the thing that sounds odd perhaps rather it is the notion that a discussion about any method of ruling other than autocracy would have been held is that should. The concept of isonomy in particular does not arise elsewhere in a Persian context, the only justification Herodotus can find later is the remark that Mardonius sets up democracies in Ionic cities, but these are Greek ideas in Greek cities; if isonomy would not fit or even work in Persian culture surely Otanes would know this and

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