Herodotus about Sparta and the ‘foreign barbarian’ Alexander I of Macedon

AncientsHerodotus about Sparta and the 'foreign barbarian' Alexander I of Macedon

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Herodotus was one of the first ancient historians, living in Greece at the time when Alexander I ruled the kingdom of Macedonia. He was the first Macedonian king to gain admission from the Greeks for the ancient Olympic Games.

This circumstance, the recognition of Alexander I as “Greek” and his participation in the games, aroused resistance among the Greeks. A resistance that could already be felt before the games against Alexander I. Alexander I and Macedonia were at that time also vassals of Persia, the worst enemy of the ancient Greeks.

Alexander only switched sides before the threat of an invasion of Greece by Persia, and sided with the Greeks. This also earned him the nickname “Philhellen” (friend of the Greeks).

According to Herodotus, before his reign Alexander was an opponent of Persia who had the envoys of the Persian king Darius I killed when they came to his father’s court at the time of the Ionian Rebellion.

However, during the invasion of Greece by Darius’ son Xerxes I, he was forced to subdue Macedonia to the Persians and acted as agent of the Persian governor Mardonius in the peace negotiations following the Persian defeat at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC.

Despite his collaboration with Persia, he frequently supported and advised the Greeks, warning them of Mardonius’ plans before the Battle of Plataea in 479 BC.

Thus, in Herodotus’ Histories, Book 8, we read an interesting reference to Sparta’s reaction when Alexander I of Macedon, as emissary to the Persians, brought an offer from Mardonius to the Greeks.

They were anything but happy about it, calling the Macedonian king a barbarian when they spoke of “not doing anything against Hellas and not accepting any offer from the barbarian”.

Briefly about the author Herodotus:

Herodotus of Halicarnassus (born 490/480 BC; died c.430/420 BC) was an ancient Greek historian, geographer and ethnologist. Cicero gave him the nickname “Father of History”, which is still often quoted today.

His surviving works are the nine books of histories, which, in the form of a universal history, describe the rise of the Persian Empire in the late 6th century BC. and the Persian Wars in the early 5th century BC.

The geographical horizon laid out by Herodotus in the histories even included the fringes of the world imaginable to the Greeks of his time, in which there was room for mythical creatures and imaginary images. The composition of the Persian army under Xerxes I during the campaign against the Greeks was also an occasion for Herodotus to go into the diverse peculiarities in the external appearance and culture of the peoples involved.

He also referred to his own impressions of his extensive travels. The work contains a large number of references to a wide variety of everyday customs and religious rites, but also reflections on power-political constellations and constitutional issues of the time.

Herodotus on Macedonia

As mentioned at the beginning, Herodotus lived at the time of Alexander I of Macedon, Herodotus wrote some short passages about Macedonia.

The Persian armies were ready to invade Greece, the defenders rallied their allies and were ready to defend the country. Mardonius, the Persian commander, sent Alexander I to Athens with a message to the Greeks.

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This news provoked reactions in Sparta, who feared an alliance between the Persians and Athenians, and in turn sent an envoy to Athens to appeal. As luck would have it, both Sparta’s envoy and Alexander I addressed the Athenians on the same day.

When Alexander I brought the message from Mardonius and wanted to persuade the Greeks to accept the Persian offer, the envoy of Sparta spoke up:

Let not Alexander the Macedonian win you with his smooth-tongued praise of Mardonius’ counsel. It is his business to follow that counsel, for as he is a tyrant so must he be the tyrant’s fellow-worker; it is not your business, if you are men rightly minded, for you know that in foreigners there is no faith nor truth.

From this passage we see that the Spartans regarded the Macedonians as foreigners by referring to Alexander I of Macedonia as such.

“Not accept the barbarian’s offer”

Not only was Alexander I of Macedon described as a foreigner, the Spartan envoy also described the Macedonian as a barbarian from whom no offer should be accepted – that would be – unfair and dishonorable for any Greek.

Thus Herodotus reports in his Histories 8.142.1:

Alexander I of Macedon statue, Skopje, Macedonia

8.142.1 So when Alexander had made an end of speaking, the envoys from Sparta said, “We on our part have been sent by the Lacedaemonians to entreat you to do nothing harmful to Hellas and accept no offer from the barbarian. That would be unjust and dishonorable for any Greek, but for you most of all, on many counts; it was you who stirred up this war, by no desire of ours, and your territory was first the stake of that battle in which all Hellas is now engaged.

8.142.3 Apart from that, it is unbearable that not all this alone but slavery too should be brought upon the Greeks by you Athenians, who have always been known as givers of freedom to many. Nevertheless, we grieve with you in your afflictions, seeing that you have lost two harvests and your substance has been for a long time wasted.

8.142.4 In requital for this the Lacedaemonians and their allies declare that they will nourish your women and all of your household members who are unserviceable for war, so long as this war will last. Let not Alexander the Macedonian win you with his smooth-tongued praise of Mardonius’ counsel. It is his business to follow that counsel,

8.142.5 for as he is a tyrant so must he be the tyrant’s fellow-worker; it is not your business, if you are men rightly minded, for you know that in foreigners there is no faith nor truth.” These are the words of the envoys.

Sources used:

  • Ancient Macedonians: Differences Between the Ancient Macedonians and the Ancient Greeks, J.S.G. Gandeto
  • Herodotus, The Histories – Perseus University Chicago

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