Lashing the Waves

When King Xerxes (r. 486-465 BC) brought down the military might of the Persian Empire on the independent city states of ancient Greece, he expected a quick and decisive victory. Instead, he suffered a crushing defeat. In Greek eyes, he became a prime example of hubris, the arrogant pride which drives humans to strive for things beyond their grasp and leads to their destruction.

According to one famous story, told by the Greek historian Herodotus, a storm destroyed the bridge that the Persian king had built to cross the Hellespont. In a rage, Xerxes commanded his soldiers to punish the water with three hundred lashes. While doing so, they had to say: “Bitter water, (…) Xerxes the king will pass over you, whether you want it or not; in accordance with justice no one offers you sacrifice, for you are a turbid and briny river.” From such foolish and offensive behaviour, it was clear that Xerxes’s campaign was doomed before he had even left Asia.

Literature

• Nicolas R.E. Fisher, Hybris: A Study in the Values of Honour and Shame in Ancient Greece (Warminster 1992)
• George Cawkwell, The Greek Wars: The Failure of Persia (Oxford 2005)
• Emily Baragwanath, Motivation and Narrative in Herodotus (Oxford 2008)

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