Herodotus Gives a Reading at the Odeon in Athens
I am blind. But I am not deaf. Because of the incompleteness of my misfortune, I was obliged yesterday to listen for nearly six hours to a self-styled historian whose account of what the Athenians like to call "the Persian Wars" was nonsense of a sort that were I less old and more privileged, I would have risen in my seat at the Odeon and scandalized all Athens by answering him.
But then, I know the origin of the Greek wars. He does not. How could he? How could any Greek? I spent most of my life at the court of Persia and even now, in my seventy-fifth year, I still serve the Great King as I did his father-my beloved friend Xerxes-and his father before him, a hero known even to the Greeks as Darius the Great.
When the painful reading finally ended-our "historian" has a thin monotonous voice made even less charming by a harsh Dorian accent-my eighteen-year-old nephew Democritus wanted to know if I would like to stay behind and speak to the traducer of Persia.
"You should," he said. "Because everyone is staring at you. They know you must be very angry." Democritus is studying philosophy here at Athens. This means that he delights in quarrels. Write that down, Democritus. After all, it is at your request that I am dictating this account of how and why the Greek wars began. I shall spare no one-including you. Where was I? the Odeon.
I smiled the poignant smile of the blind, as some unobservant poet characterized the expression of those of us who cannot see. Not that I ever paid much attention to blind men when I could see. On the other hand, I never expected to live long enough to be old, much less go blind, as I did three years ago when the white clouds that had been settling upon the retinas of my eyes became, suddenly, opaque.
The last thing that I ever saw was my own blurred face in a polished-silver mirror. This was at Susa, in the Great King's palace. At first I thought that the room was filling up with smoke. But it was summertime, and there was no fire. For an instant I saw myself in the mirror; then saw myself no longer; saw nothing else, ever again.
In Egypt the doctors perform an operation that is supposed to send the clouds scurrying. But I am too old to go to Egypt. Besides, I have seen quite enough. Have I not looked upon the holy fire, which is the face of Ahura Mazdah, the Wise Lord? I have also seen Persia and India and farthest Cathay. No other man alive has traveled in as many lands as I.
I am digressing. This is a habit of old men. My grandfather in his seventy-fifth year used to talk for hours without ever linking one subject to another. He was absolutely incoherent. But then, he was Zoroaster, the prophet of Truth; and just as the One God that he served is obliged to entertain, simultaneously, every aspect of all creation, so did His prophet Zoroaster. The result was inspiring if you could ever make sense of what he was saying.
Democritus wants me to record what happened as we were leaving the Odeon. Very well. It is your fingers that will grow tired. My voice never deserts me, nor does my memory . . . Thus far.
There was deafening applause when Herodotus of Halicarnassus finished his description of the Persian "defeat" at Salamis thirty-four years ago. By the way, the acoustics of the Odeon are dreadful. Apparently, I am not alone in finding the new music hall inadequate. Even the tone-deaf Athenians know that something is wrong with their precious Odeon, recently thrown together in record time by order of Pericles, who paid for it with money that had been collected from all the Greek cities for their common defense. The building itself is a copy in stone of the tent of the Great King Xerxes which somehow fell into Greek hands during the confusions of Persia's last campaign in Greece. They affect to despise us; then they imitate us.
As Democritus led me to the vestibule of the music hall, I heard on every side the phrase "The Persian ambassador!" The throaty syllables struck my ears like those potsherds on which Athenians periodically write the names of anyone who has happened to offend or bore them. The man who gets the most votes in this election-or rejection-is exiled from the city for a period of ten years. He is lucky.
I give a few of the remarks that I heard en route to the door.
"I'll bet he didn't like what he heard."
"He's a brother of Xerxes, isn't he?"
"No, he's a Magian."
"A Persian priest. They eat snakes and dogs."
"And commit incest with their sisters and mothers and daughters."
"What about their brothers and fathers and sons?"
"You are insatiable, Glaucon."
"Magians are always blind. They have to be. Is that his grandson?"
"No. His lover."
"I don't think so. Persians are different from us."
"Yes. They lose battles. We don't."
"How would you know? You weren't even born when we sent Xerxes running home to Asia."
"That boy is very good-looking."
"He's Greek. He has to be. No barbarian could look like that."
"He's from Abdera. The grandson of Megacreon."
"A medizer! Scum of the earth."
"Rich scum. Megacreon owns half the silver mines in Thrace."
Of my two remaining and relatively unimpaired senses-touch and smell-I cannot report much of the first, other than the wiry arm of Democritus, which I clutched in my right hand, but as for the second! In summer Athenians do not bathe often. In winter-and we are now in the week that contains the shortest day of the year-they bathe not at all, while their diet appears to consist entirely of onions and preserved fish-preserved from the time of Homer.
I was jostled, breathed upon, insulted. I am of course aware that my position as the Great King's ambassador at Athens is not only a perilous one but highly ambiguous. It is perilous because at any moment these volatile people are apt to hold one of their assemblies in which every male citizen may speak his mind and, worst of all, vote. After listening to one of the city's many corrupt or demented demagogues, the citizens are quite capable of breaking a sacred treaty, which is what they did fourteen years ago when they sent out an expedition to conquer the Persian province of Egypt. They were roundly defeated. This adventure was doubly shameful because, sixteen years ago, an Athenian embassy had gone up to Susa with instructions to make a permanent peace with Persia. The chief ambassador was Callias, the richest man in Athens. In due course, a treaty was drafted. Athens acknowledged the Great King's sovereignty over the Greek cities of Asia Minor. In turn, the Great King agreed to keep the Persian fleet out of the Aegean Sea, and so on. The treaty was very long. In fact, I have often thought that during the composition of the Persian text, I permanently damaged my eyes. Certainly, the white clouds began to thicken during those months of negotiation when I was obliged to read every word of what the clerks had written.
After the Egyptian debacle, another embassy went up to Susa. The Great King was superb. He ignored the fact that the Athenians had broken the original treaty by invading his province of Egypt. Instead, he spoke warmly of his friendship for Sparta. The Athenians were terrified. Quite rightly, they fear Sparta. In a matter of days it was agreed that the treaty, which neither side could ever acknowledge, was once more in force, and as a proof of the Great King's faith in his Athenian slaves-so he calls them-he would send to Athens the friend closest to the bosom of his late father Xerxes, Cyrus Spitama, myself.
I cannot say that I was entirely pleased. I never thought that the last years of my life would be spent in this cold and windy city amongst a people as cold and windy as the place itself. On the other hand, and what I say is for your ears alone, Democritus-in fact, this commentary is largely for your benefit, to be used in any way you like once I am dead . . . a matter of days, I should think, considering the fever that now burns me up and the fits of coughing that must make this dictation as tiring for you as it is for me . . . I have lost my train of thought.
On the other hand . . . Yes. Since the murder of my beloved friend Xerxes and the accession of his son Artaxerxes, my position at Susa has been less than comfortable. Although the Great King is kind to me, I am too much associated with the previous reign to be entirely trusted by the new people at court. What little influence that I still exert derives from an accident of birth. I am the last living grandson in the male line of Zoroaster, the prophet of the One God, Ahura Mazdah-in Greek, the Wise Lord. Since the Great King Darius converted to Zoroastrianism a half-century ago, the royal family has always treated our family with reverence, which makes me feel something of an impostor. After all, one cannot choose one's grandfather.
At the door of the Odeon, I was stopped by Thucydides, a somber middle-aged man who has led the conservative party at Athens since the death of his famous father-in-law Cimon three years ago. As a result, he is the only serious rival to Pericles, the leader of the democratic party.
Political designations hereabouts are imprecise. The leaders of both factions are aristocrats. But certain nobles-like the late Cimon-favor the wealthy landowning class, while others-like Pericles-play to the city mob whose notorious assembly he has strengthened, continuing the work of his political mentor Ephialtes, a radical leader who was mysteriously murdered a dozen years ago. Naturally, the conservatives were blamed for the murder. If responsible, they should be congratulated. No mob can govern a city, much less an empire.
Certainly, if my father had been Greek and my mother Persian-instead of the other way around, I would have been a member of the conservative party, even though that party can never resist using the idea of Persia to frighten the people. Despite Cimon's love of Sparta and hatred of us, I would like to have known him. Everyone here says that his sister Elpinice resembles him in character. She is a marvelous woman, and a loyal friend to me.
Democritus reminds me, courteously, that I am again off the subject. I remind him that after listening all those hours to Herodotus, I can no longer move with any logic from one point to the next. He writes the way a grasshopper hops. I imitate him.
Thucydides spoke to me in the vestibule of the Odeon. "I suppose that a copy of what we've just heard will be sent on to Susa."
"Why not?" I was both bland and dull, the perfect ambassador. "The Great King enjoys wondrous tales. He has a taste for the fabulous."
Apparently I was insufficiently dull. I could sense the displeasure of Thucydides and the group of conservatives who were in attendance. Party leaders in Athens seldom walk out alone for fear of murder. Democritus tells me that whenever one sees a large group of noisy men at whose center looms either a helmeted onion or a scarlet moon, the first is bound to be Pericles, the second Thucydides. Between onion and autumnal moon the city is irritably divided.
Today was the day of the scarlet moon. For some reason the helmeted onion had not attended the reading in the Odeon. Could it be that Pericles is ashamed of the acoustics in his building? But I forget. Shame is not an emotion known to the Athenians.
Currently Pericles and his cabal of artists and builders are constructing a temple to Athena on the Acropolis, a grandiose replacement for the shabby temple that the Persian army burned to the ground thirty-four years ago, a fact that Herodotus tends not to dwell on.
"Do you mean, Ambassador, that the account we have just heard is untrue?" Thucydides was insolent. I daresay he was drunk. Although we Persians are accused of heavy drinking because of our ritual use of haoma, I have never seen a Persian as drunk as certain Athenians and, to be fair, no Athenian could ever be as drunk as a Spartan. My old friend King Demaratus of Sparta used to say that the Spartans never took wine without water until the northern nomads sent Sparta an embassy shortly after Darius laid waste their native Scythia. According to Demaratus, the Scythians taught the Spartans to drink wine without water. I don't believe this story.
"What we have heard, my dear young man, is only a version of events that took place before you were born and, I suspect, before the birth of the historian."
"There are still many of us left who remember well the day the Persians came to Marathon." An old voice sounded at my elbow. Democritus did not recognize its owner. But one hears that sort of old voice often enough. All over Greece, strangers of a certain age will greet one another with the question, "And where were you and what did you do when Xerxes came to Marathon?" Then they exchange lies.
"Yes," I said. "There are those who still remember the ancient days. I am, alas, one. In fact, the Great King Xerxes and I are exactly the same age. If he were alive today, he would be seventy-five years old. When he came to the throne, he was thirty-four-the prime of life. Yet your historian has just finished telling us that Xerxes was a rash boy when he succeeded Darius."
"A small detail," Thucydides began.
"But typical of a work that will give as much delight at Susa as that play of Aeschylus called The Persians, which I myself translated for the Great King, who found delightful the author's Attic wit." None of this was true, of course; Xerxes would have gone into a rage had he ever known to what extent he and his mother had been travestied for the amusement of the Athenian mob.
I have made it a policy never to show distress when insulted by barbarians. Fortunately, I am spared their worst insults. These they save for one another. It is a lucky thing for the rest of the world that Greeks dislike one another far more than they do us outlanders.
Copyright © 2002 by Gore Vidal. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.