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Herodotus’ Xerxes on futility, suffering, risk-taking and action

… and hubris.

Long, and worth it – like the Histories as a whole.

The king [Xerxes] took his seat… and looking down over the shore, was able to see the whole of his army and navy at a single view. As he watched them he was seized by a desire to witness a rowing-match. The match took place and was won by the Phoenicians of Sidon, to the great delight of Xerxes, who was as pleased with the race as with his army.

On Futility

And when he saw the whole Hellespont hidden by ships, and all the beaches and plains of Abydos filled with men, he called himself happy – and the moment after burst into tears.

Artabanus his uncle, the man who in the first instance had spoken his mind so freely in trying to dissuade Xerxes from undertaking the campaign, was by his side; and when he saw how Xerxes wept, he said to him: “My lord, surely there is a strange contradiction in what you do now and what you did a moment ago. Then you called yourself a happy man – and now you weep.”

“I was thinking,” Xerxes replied; “and it came into my mind how pitifully short human life is – for of all these thousands of men not one will be alive in a hundred years’ time.”

On Suffering

“Yet,” said Artabanus, “we suffer sadder things in life even than that. Short as it is, there is not a man in the world, either here or elsewhere, who is happy enough not to wish – not once only but again and again – to be dead rather than alive. Troubles come, diseases afflict us; and this makes life, despite its brevity, seem all too long. So heavy is the burden of it that death is a refuge which we all desire, and it is common proof amongst us that God who gave us a taste of this world’s sweetness has been jealous in his giving.”

“Artabanus,” Xerxes replied, “the lot of men here upon earth is indeed as you have described it; but let us put aside these gloomy reflections, for we have pleasant things in hand. Now tell me – if that figure had not appeared to you so vividly in your dream, would you have clung to your original opinion and tried to prevent me from making war on Greece, or would you have changed your mind? Answer me truly.”

“Sire,” said Artabanus, “I pray that the dream we had may not disappoint either my hopes or your own. But ever since that night I have been beside myself with dread; many things contribute to the cause of it, but nothing so much as my knowledge that the two mightiest powers in the world are against you.”

Too Big to Fail

“What a strange man you are,” said Xerxes; “tell me, what powers do you mean? Have you any fault to find with my army? Isn’t it big enough? Do you think the Greek army will be several times as large, or our navy smaller than theirs? Which are you afraid of? Both perhaps! But if you feel that our force is inadequate, another army could easily be mustered with little delay.”

“No man of sense, my lord,” Artabanus answered, “could find any fault with the size of your army or the number of your ships. If you increase your forces, the two powers I have in mind will be even worse enemies to you than they are now. I will tell you what they are – the land and the sea. So far as I know there is not a harbour anywhere big enough to receive this fleet of ours and give it protection in the event of storms: and indeed there would have to be not merely one such harbour, but many – all along the coast by which you will sail. But there is not a single one; so I would have you realize, my lord, that men are at the mercy of circumstance, and not their master.

On Overreaching

“Now let me tell you of your other great enemy, the land. If you meet with no opposition, the land itself will become more and more hostile to you the further you advance, drawn on and on; for men are never satisfied by success. What I mean is this – if nobody stops your advance, the land itself – the mere distance growing greater and greater as the days go by – will ultimately starve you. No: the best man, in my belief, is he who lays his plans warily, with an eye for every disaster which might occur, and then, when the time comes, acts boldly.”

On Probability and Risk

“There is good sense,” Xerxes answered, “in everything you have said; nevertheless you ought not to be so timid always, or to think of every accident which might possibly overtake us. If upon the proposal of a plan you were always to weigh equally all possible chances, you would never do anything. I would much rather take a risk and run into trouble half the time than keep out of any trouble through being afraid of everything.

“If you dispute whatever is said to you, but can never prove your objections, you are as likely to be wrong as the other man – indeed there is nothing to choose between you. And as for proof – how can a man ever be certain? Certainty, surely, is beyond human grasp. But however that may be, the usual thing is that profit comes to those who are willing to act, not to the overcautious and hesitant. Just think how the power of Persia has grown: if my predecessors had felt as you do – or even if they had not, but had taken the advice of men who did – you would never have seen our country in its present glory. No indeed: it was by taking risks that my ancestors brought us to where we stand today. Only by great risks can great results be achieved.

Hubris

We, therefore, are following in the footsteps of our fathers; we are marching to war at the best season of the year; we shall conquer all Europe, and – without being starved to death anywhere or having any other unpleasant experience – we shall return home in triumph. For one thing, we are carrying ample stores with us; for another, we will have the grain belonging to any country we may enter, no matter who lives there. Our enemies, remember, are not nomad tribes – they are agricultural peoples.”

Herodotus – Histories, Book Seven

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