A Closer Look at Sources: Herodotus, Polybius, and Aeschylus

It would be great if all sources we used to create history were complete, with perfect viewpoints, and no agendas of any kind, but that’s simply not true. It’s never been that way, even among the earliest of historians. Limitations due to point of view, time, and distance affect us all. In this post, I’m going to take a look at three ancient writers, Herodotus, Polybius, and Aeschylus, and show some of the characteristics and factors that affect their view of certain events.

One of the big issues when it comes to describing naval warfare, as opposed to land warfare, is point of view. In most situations, unless the battle was near an elevated terrain feature, it would be difficult for an eyewitness to describe the exact movement of naval forces against each other. Eyewitnesses are limited to the ship they occupied and its view. Herodotus and Polybius show us that there can be hundreds of ships in any ancient naval battle, and the spread of forces had the potential to be much wider than in a land engagement. Land battles in the ancient world are usually more compact affairs, and the potential to observe coordinated movement of troops would be greater, for observers and participants.

The general body of knowledge regarding naval warfare is not as well-known as that of land warfare. A typical historian writing well after the fact can  more easily imagine the movements and collision of forces on land than the specialized tactics and movement of ships. The exception, of course, is the historian experienced in that sort of warfare.

Herodotus, the “Father of History.”

Herodotus’ account of the Battle of Salamis suffers from a lack of detail regarding the tactics of what happened during the battle. In   fact, he almost dismisses the collision of the main body of ships: “For as the Greeks fought in order and kept their line, while the barbarians were in confusion and had no plan in anything that they did, the issue of the battle could scarce be other than it was”[1]. That, according to Herodotus, sums up what happened in one neat little line. Apparently that was enough?

Though Herodotus is light on tactics, he does provide however, a who’s who of participants in the battle, a summary of how the squadrons were lined up, and the fates of several groups of participants. He provides a good deal of information on the actions of Queen Artemisia of Halicarnassus [2], which could be due to Herodotus himself being from Halicarnassus.

It seems that the biggest problem Herodotus faced when recounting Salamis was not the strategic meetings and maneuvering before the battle but the actual tactical disposition of the ships during the battle. This could have been because the history was written 40 years after the fact, when larger details would have stood out more than smaller ones, particularly if eyewitnesses by that time were hard to come by. We also have to remember that Herodotus was one of, if not the first person to bring together historical accounts into record. He did not have the benefit of much that was written down before him. Had there been written accounts of what happened at Salamis before Herodotus created his history, he may have been able to provide a more accurate account of the tactics of the battle.

Polybius, on the other hand, benefited from more than 200 years of historiographic practice between Herodotus and himself. His accounts of Roman naval tactics are much more detailed, presumably because he was able to draw from more accurate sources.

Polybius on a pedestal.

Polybius gives a highly detailed tactical account of the naval Battle of Ecnomus, which resembled the land Battle of Cannae, with an attempt by the Carthaginians to execute a pincer maneuver on the Roman fleet.  Polybius describes the movements of all of the Carthaginian and Roman squadrons, including the pivotal moment when the two Roman squadrons in the center were able to flip direction and attack the flanking Carthaginians in the rear [3].

Elsewhere, Polybius also very accurately describes the structure of the corvus boarding ramp [4] and gives details of how it was used for the first time in battle [5]. Polybius wisely relates to his readers how this device worked near the beginning of his account of the major naval actions of the First Punic War. As this was a primary Roman naval machine used throughout war, the reader has the function of the corvus in mind while reading the tactical accounts of a battle like Ecnomus. Polybius, also being a close ally of the Scipio family, had access to information about the Punic Wars that other writers did not possess.

Even a poet in the right place and time can provide insight into a battle. Aeschylus’s play, The Persians, fills a different sort of role for those seeking information on the Battle of Salamis. We know from the play, written eight years after the battle, that the Battle of Salamis was viewed by the Greeks as an event worthy of dramatic retelling, and worthy of inclusion in a sacred event. Greek theatre was intended to honor the gods, and Aeschylus demonstrates Xerxes’s offense against the gods, bridging the Hellespont, as an act of hubris:

“Remember Athens: henceforth let not pride,

Her present state disdaining, strive to grasp

Another’s, and her treasured happiness

Shed on the ground: such insolent attempts

Awake the vengeance of offended Jove.

But you, whose age demands more temperate thoughts,

With words of well-placed counsel teach his youth

To curb that pride, which from the gods calls down

Destruction on his head” [6]

Aeschylus, warrior-poet.

Through the course of the play, Aeschylus recounts the names of many Persian lords who perished at the hands of the Greek fleet. Whether this list can be trusted is debatable, as Aeschylus could be just making up names for dramatic effect. However, Aeschylus is believed to have been a veteran of the Battle of Salamis, so he might have had privileged knowledge of the commanders involved in the battle.

Aeschylus’s status as a veteran of the battle lends credence to the play’s usage as a primary source for the Battle of Salamis. While it can provide little in the way of tactical description of the battle, it does demonstrate the mindset of at least one veteran, who believed that his actions, and the actions of his fellow sailors, were a divine instrument of punishment against a prideful and reckless foreign leader. By bridging the Hellespont, Xerxes laid offense to the people of Greece, the gods and the land itself. Furthermore, it also shows an attitude of acknowledgement by the people of Greece that the gods played a role in the victory, and that victory was definitely not assured otherwise. If the Greeks were confident that the victory was entirely their doing, the play would be celebrating themselves, and not the gods. This would indicate that to the Greeks, the Battle of Salamis was indeed a desperate and serious battle for the survival of Greece itself.

Take a moment and look at the featured image above this blog post. The painting is Wilhelm von Kaulbach’s Die Seeschlacht bei Salamis (1868). Notice that the idea of divine intervention in this battle is one that has lasted through the centuries. Those figures floating in the upper right corner of the painting are gods. Aeschylus helped create the lasting notion that the gods were watching and acting at Salamis. You can actually see Aeschylus’s influence reflected in the painting, more than 2,300 years after Aeschylus fought at Salamis.


[1] Herodotus, The History of Herodotus, trans. George Rawlinson, accessed June 24, 2015, http://classics.mit.edu/Herodotus/history.8.viii.html.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Polybius, Histories, trans. W.R. Paton, accessed June 25, 2015, http://penelope.uchicago.edu/thayer/e/roman/texts/polybius/home.html, 28.10.

[4] Ibid., 22.3.

[5] Ibid., 23.5.

[6] Aeschylus, The Persians, trans. Robert Potter, accessed June 25, 2015, http://classics.mit.edu/Aeschylus/persians.pl.txt.

Copyright 2016 Copperkettle Media LLC

The End of the Bronze Age – When is Guessing Okay?

Recommended. You should check it out.

Robert Drews’s book, The End of the Bronze Age, is an interesting read in terms of content and methodology. Drews attempts to explain the sudden end of the Bronze Age in the Eastern Mediterranean by attributing it to a mysterious Catastrophe, which  has its origins in military change.  According to Drews, the losses of palace-based aristocratic chariot soldiers both on the battlefield and in societies created a disruption within many Late Bronze civilizations from which there was no recovery [1]. Drews makes the case that this military change was the direct cause of the Catastrophe, which ended or weakened dominant civilizations across the Eastern Mediterranean around the year 1200 BC, and marked the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age.

When determining his hypothesis for the Catastrophe, Drews considers a number of factors. First, what was the Catastrophe and, specifically, what was the difference between the civilizations of the Late Bronze Age and the Early Iron Age? Drews spends the first two parts of his three-part book explaining both the nature of the Catastrophe and debunking the alternate explanations for it: earthquakes, migrations, drought, systems collapse and raiders. Critics of Drews’s work have varying opinions on this analysis of the alternate causes of the Catastrophe. Young and Thomas make generally favorable remarks, but there is tough criticism from Van Wees and Cline. The former characterizes Drew’s attempts to discredit the alternate explanations, particularly the “raiders” theory as unconvincing due to a lack of evidence [2]. Cline accuses Drews of distorting conflicting explanations for the Catastrophe to fit his hypothesis [3] and of incorrectly labeling systems collapse and raiders as consequences of the Catastrophe, instead of causes. In part three of the book, Drews details the prominence of chariot warfare in the Late Bronze Age and its disappearance in the Iron Age. The decline of the chariot coincided with the rise of infantry as the main focus of the Iron Age military. This distinction is the focal point of Drews’s work.

Let’s be real. We all know it was the Sea People, right?

This begs a question: do the sources exist to explain what happened in the Catastrophe, and to solidly support Drews’s hypothesis? The short answer is no, and Drews seems to be the first to admit it. “On many questions one can only guess, and since guessing seems unprofessional, historians do as little of it as possible,” Drews writes. “The result, however, is that for lack of evidence one of the most important things about the preclassical world is largely ignored. There is good reason to think that the evolution of warfare made and unmade the world of the Late Bronze Age. Even though we cannot be certain about this evolution, and especially about its details, it is time that we begin to guess.”[4]

Now comes the philosophical question which I think is very important to history: is it okay to guess? I was quite surprised to see that many of Drews’s reviewers failed to address the act of guessing directly. Rather, most who criticized Drews’s hypothesis as inconclusive, such as Cline [5] and Haggis [6], did so by pointing out a lack of evidence. Only Young directly addressed the issue of guessing. Of Drews, he says, “…he marshals old and new evidence on what he calls ‘the Catastrophe’ in a masterly fashion which, mixed with a little guesswork, provides us with significant and exciting new scholarly insights on a pivotal period in ancient history. Would that we could all ‘guess’ as effectively.”[7]

The great obstacle to any study of the ancient world is a scarcity of sources. Even within the range of available sources, there are bad translations, bias,  and great variances in quality of authorship. Does this great obstacle and its associated, smaller obstacles excuse Drews’s approach, in which he unabashedly admits guessing at the main points in his work? Young seems to applaud the effort. I am conflicted. On the one hand, all hypotheses are guesses to some degree, backed by evidence. On the other, when evidence is so lacking, is it better to not present a half-baked hypothesis?

There are more questions to ask when confronting this particular historical issue: is there a single cause for the Catastrophe or multiple causes? Is the cause the same from civilization to civilization? How sudden was the transition from chariot to infantry?

Drews presents the idea of a military shift as singular causation, but there are critics that remain unconvinced. Cline states that Drews’s explanation for the Catastrophe is not the only possible explanation, and does not provide the final answer [8]. Young states that Drews’s argument does not negate the theory of systems collapse effectively, and that a military change and systems collapse are not mutually exclusive [9].

Haggis is concerned with Drews’s one-size-fits-all approach to causation. Drews presents the military shift as the singular cause of the Catastrophe for civilizations from one end of the eastern Mediterranean to the other. Were these cultures not different from one another? Haggis suggests this hurts Drews’ assertion of singular causation, and that Drews should provide more explanation regarding to the culturally specific variables of each region, relative to his thesis [10].

Lastly, the lack of sources and frames of reference on time have the potential to make events in the ancient world seem closer together and more connected in the causal chain. This is another criticism that Haggis has of Drews’s argument. Haggis suggests Drews’s narrative makes the Catastrophe seem like it occurred more quickly than it actually did. Haggis says that length of time could have allowed for a more gradual, internal shift to dominant infantry than Drews suggests [11]. Young defends Drews by stating that the destructions of the Catastrophe took place in a compressed enough period of time for them to be considered closely related events.

After thinking about it for a bit, I can see that Drews is sincere about what he is attempting to do. At one point, he even unnecessarily apologizes for writing a military history while not being a military historian [12]. So he is aware that he is operating in an imperfect situation and he makes it clear that he’s doing the best he can with the resources he has.

I also suspect that his reviewers were happy to see a new work of scholarship on the Late Bronze Age Catastrophe and were respectful of an attempt to inject new life into an old mystery. Ancient history can be very intimidating to write. Ideas are often stopped before they start because of the vast amount of writing that has already been done on the era, combined with the scarcity of sources.

It just struck me odd when I was reading Drews’s conclusion that I came across so many terms indicating uncertainty. This is the thesis wrap, where the author is supposed to be most convincing in his argument. On page 216 and 217, I flagged a “whatever,” a “very likely”, two “imagines” and a “perhaps” all in a pretty close arrangement regarding a key point of support for his thesis [13].

I agree with Young, who says that Drews’s work seems partially developed and he would like to read more of what Drews has to say [14]. It’s a very entertaining book, but I think Drews is really stretching his reasoning pretty thin. I want to believe him, but I’m sticking with multiple causation when it comes to the Catastrophe.


[1] Stephen Morillo, Jeremy Black, and Paul Lococo, War in World History: Society, Technology, and War from Ancient Times to the Present, vol. 1 (New York, NY: McGraw Hill, 2009), 14.

[2] Hans Van Wees, “Review,” Greece and Rome, Second Series, vol. 41, No. 1, (April 1994), 75

[3] Eric H. Cline, “Review,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 56, no. 2 (April 1997): 127.

[4] Robert Drews, The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe CA.1200 BC (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 98.

[5] Cline, “Review,” 129.

[6] Donald C. Haggis, The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 116, No. 2 (Summer 1995), 323.

[7] T. Cuyler Young, Jr., “Review,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 115, no. 2 (June 1995): 312.

[8] Cline, “Review,” 129.

[9] Young, “Review,” 312.

[10] Haggis, “Review,” 324.

[11] Ibid., 323.

[12] Drews, “The End,” 102.

[13] Ibid., 216-17.

[14] Young, “Review,” 312.

Copyright 2016 Copperkettle Media LLC