Culture and Nationhood in the World of Herodotus: An Evolutionary Analysis, Part 2

“King Nomos”: The Power of Culture and the Universality of Cultural Chauvinism

Herodotus had traveled far and wide across the Mediterranean, thus coming across nations with often radically different cultural assumptions and ways of life. Accounting for this astonishing diversity, he is much impressed by the social power of culture. As noted above, the historian remarks that “custom [nomos] is king of all” and that every people tends to think that its own customs are the best:

If one were to order all mankind to choose the best set of rules in the world, each group regards its own as being by far the best. . . . There is plenty of other evidence to support the idea that this opinion of one’s own customs is universal . . . Pindar was right to have said in his poem that custom is king of all. (3.38)

Herodotus writes this in the context of the Persian king Cambyses killing a sacred bull during his stay in Egypt, a bull which the Egyptians had considered to be their god Apis. The historian considers Cambyses’ sacrilegious contempt for local Egyptian custom as proof of his madness, an infamy on a par with his murder of his own brother and sister. (Cambyses dies shortly thereafter as a result of his actions.) Herodotus also takes the example of how Greeks and Indians treat corpses differently: Greeks burn their corpses, while Indians (allegedly) eat them, the practice of each being equally repulsive to the other. Hence, by giving societies radically different norms, taboos, and assumptions, cultural drift tends to polarize humanity into different, mutually-uncomprehending groups.[1]

The supremacy of “King Nomos,” or custom, in every society reflects the power of culture to shape that society’s behavior. If genes and physique are the hardware of humanity, culture and ideas are our software. The world-view, assumptions, values, and taboos of a society have a powerful effect on human behavior, even if this can never eliminate our in-born proclivities. Herodotus makes clear that the power of a society’s culture is necessarily paired with a sense of superiority over foreign customs. Indeed, how could it be otherwise? If the members a society thought foreign customs superior, would they not seek to make them their own? A corollary however is that if peoples with starkly different cultures and values must live in close proximity, they are liable to come into conflict. Among foreign cultures, the wise man will tread carefully.

All this does not mean that national cultures are completely closed-off and autarkic memetic units.  On the contrary, Herodotus is quite cognizant of cultural porosity and mutual influence between nations. He freely admits the barbarians’ superior achievements, such as the Egyptians’ calendar and their monumental pyramids, as well as their influence on Greek culture. The Greeks, he says, owe their alphabet to the Phoenicians and much of their religion and basic geometry to the Egyptians. It is furthermore striking that the first great philosophical flourishing of the Greek world, the so-called “Ionian Renaissance,” occurred in the Persian-occupied Greek cities of Asia Minor (today’s western Turkey). The Persians themselves were apparently the most culturally open-minded people in the world, for they “adopt more foreign customs than anyone else” (1.135).

Despite this, Herodotus records innumerable examples of cultural chauvinism and of reverence for ancestral tradition, two characteristics which would obviously help a culture to perpetuate itself. He makes clear that ancient societies were often highly chauvinist, depreciating other cultures, and putting a supreme value on the perpetuation of their own traditions. This is perhaps not surprising: the longest-lasting customs would be precisely those that were most impervious to spontaneous innovation and foreign influence.

The ancient Greeks were notoriously xenophobic. Among their greatest thinkers, Plato thought Greeks should avoid conflict with one another because of their ties of kinship; while Aristotle believed barbarians were incapable of freedom, and thus should rightly be enslaved by Greeks. The Greeks were not alone in their chauvinism however. The Persians may have been open to foreign customs, but they deprecated foreign peoples on the most literal ethnocentric grounds: “they regard themselves as by far the best people in the world in all respects, and others as gradually decreasing in goodness, so that those who live the furthest away from them are the worst people in the world” (1.134).

The peoples of Herodotus’ world are often hostile to the adoption of foreign customs. He says that the Scythians, a warlike nomadic Aryan nation who lived on the northern edge of known world, in today’s Ukraine and Central Asia, “are another people who are absolutely set against adopting customs imported from anyone else, especially Greeks” (4.76). Herodotus says that at least one Scythian leader was killed for adopting Greek customs. The Egyptians were perhaps the most chauvinist of nations, having limited contact with foreigners, and having reputedly the most ancient culture and customs. Herodotus says: “They perpetuate their traditional customs rather than acquiring new ones” (2.79). Furthermore: “The Egyptians refer to anyone who does not speak the same language as them as a barbarian” (2.158).[2] Interestingly, Herodotus tied the uniqueness of Egyptian customs to their being “exceedingly religious,” thus recognizing a strong role for religion in the formation of social norms. Surely the most effective way to make a custom enduring is to make it a religious obligation.

Perhaps we would say that an adaptive national culture would distinguish between those foreign cultural practices which can be beneficial to one’s people and those which undermine one’s own identity and adaptive values. In any event, culture had an overwhelming role in Herodotus’ world, both in determining behavior within a society and magnifying the differences between societies. Despite cultural porosity and mutual influence, cultural chauvinism and reverence for ancestral tradition were common, two factors which allowed customs to sustain themselves in the face of both time and foreign influence; a point that should be highlighted given the present age when the hegemony of the left has resulted in demeaning and rejecting core traditions throughout the West.

Familial Kin-Solidarity

In addition to culture, kinship, both familial and ethnic, is a pervasive theme throughout the Histories. Again and again, Herodotus tells stories in which kinship is sufficient grounds for solidarity and mutual duties, especially among immediate family members.[3] A closely related theme is filial piety;[4] the Persians in particular apparently had an extremely elevated notion of it:

They say that no one has ever killed his own father or mother. They insist that all such incidents would inevitably be found on examination to have been the work of a child substituted for a genuine child, or of a bastard; they simply deny the plausibility of a full parent being killed by his own child. (1.137)

A Persian nobleman, prior to sending his daughter on a dangerous mission to determine whether the throne has been usurped by non-kin, says: “Daughter, your noble birth means that you have to accept any risk I, your father, tell you to run” (3.69).

Familial kinship and solidarity were overwhelming factors in ancient politics, many monarchic and oligarchic regimes being nothing more than family mafias. The power of kinship could be exploited in political strategies in both domestic politics and international relations. A common strategy for ruling elites was to form a distinct and solidary extended family by only marrying among themselves. This was practiced by the ruling Bacchiadae clan of Corinth (5.92).  The half-dozen conspirators who seized power and restored the Persian monarchy under Darius decided that “the king was not to marry outside the families of his fellow revolutionaries” (3.85). Such strategies could also extend to international relations, in attempts to moderate the unstable and often violent relationships between states. Upon making a peace treaty, the Lydians and Medes decided to organize a marriage among the ruling families “on the grounds that strong treaties tend not to last in the absence of strong [kinship] ties” (1.74).

Both within and between societies, much of history has arguably been determined by whichever loci of kin-solidarity was strongest: family, clique, clan, city, or nation. The level at which identity and solidarity were strongest was also the level at which there was the most collective agency, a self-conscious and solidary group always overcoming a disorganized mass.

Reproduction is a common imperative in the world of Herodotus. Among the Greeks, one’s duty towards one kin was above all that towards one’s parents, and that included a religious duty to perpetuate one’s line. Among the Persians, Herodotus claims that Cambyses once asked whether he was a greater man than his father, Cyrus the Great, who had founded the Persian Empire. One adviser said Cambyses was greater, for his empire was bigger, another disagreed, saying: “In my opinion, my lord, you do not bear comparison with your father, because you do not yet have a son of the caliber of the one he left behind” (3.34). Cambyses was reputedly “delighted” with this answer. Having prosperous descendants was a fundamental marker of success in life. Conversely, the gods would strike the impious and immoral with a lack of descendants as a supreme punishment. The oracle of Apollo at Delphi warned on one occasion that dishonesty and theft would mean “All a man’s offspring, all his house” are destroyed, “But an honest man’s offspring will gain in the long run” (6.86).[5]

Herodotus’ Definition of National Identity

Solidarity on grounds of kinship extended not only to a family or a clan, but indeed to entire ethnic groups. Expressions of solidarity were common among Greeks as well as among kindred cities. (Mother cities and the new settlements they created continued to consider each other relatives, even if they came into conflict.) Herodotus famously quotes a speech in which the Athenians pledge to never surrender to the Persians on the grounds of their duty to the Greek nation:

We are all Greeks—one race speaking one language, with temples to the gods and religious rites in common, and with a common way of life. It would not be good for Athens to betray all this shared heritage. So if you didn’t know it before, we can assure you that so long as even a single Athenian remains alive, we will never come to terms with Xerxes. (8.144)

The Athenians then defined nationhood by shared blood, language, religion, and customs. As Martin Aurelio has argued, this is a powerful working definition of nationhood which remains valid to this day. The Greeks would define “Greece” as being wherever Greeks happened to live, extending for instance into Sicily.[6]

The Persians as imperial rulers were often posed with the problem of the ethnic loyalties of their highly diverse subjects. The Phoenicians on one occasion would not attack their daughter-city of Carthage: “The Phoenicians, however, refused to obey; they were bound by solemn oaths, they said, and it would be wrong for them to attack their own sons” (3.19). And during Persia’s invasions of Greece, both Greeks and Persians often commented on the reticence of the Persians’ Greek subjects to fight against their co-nationals.[7]

Certainly, ethnic intermarriage is a common feature in the world of Herodotus. His characters are often obsessively proud of their genealogies. However, any concerns about purity were often thrown to the wayside in the face of the drive to procreate. Herodotus has many tales of men happily kidnapping and/or marrying foreign women, individually or en masse, thus founding mixed populations.[8] Indeed, this seems to have been common for at least some Indo-European groups that originally consisted of male war bands in which conquering males would take wives and concubines from the conquered population. This ethnocentric world was evidently a genetically porous one.[9]

Herodotus is generally skeptical of claims of racial purity and observes on various occasions that Greek populations have mixed ancestries: that Ionian Greeks of Asia Minor have mixed with the neighboring Carians (possibly a fellow Aryan people; 1.46), that Athens includes Hellenized Pelasgians (the indigenous pre-Greek inhabitants of the Greek peninsula; 1.54-56, 8.44),[10] and that Ionians in the Peloponnese have become culturally assimilated Dorians (the Greek ethnic group associated with Sparta, 8.73). Herodotus himself came from Halicarnassus, a Dorian city with partly Carian heritage, with many of the Greeks there having names of Carian origin. The learning of a particular ethnic group’s language is frequently the marker of assimilation.

These observations of intermarriage and mixed ethnic backgrounds do not, I would argue, invalidate the relevance or evolutionary adaptiveness of cultural chauvinism and ethnic solidarity. Marxist scholars have often argued that nations are purely arbitrarily socially-constructed collective hallucinations with no underlying biological reality or even cultural identity. The Ancients certainly did not see things this way—and indeed, they weren’t. The various Greek populations were not completely identical—there was variation in ancestry, regional dialects, religious worship, and lifestyle—nonetheless, Greek civilization was a perfectly identifiable bioculture, a cluster of peoples whose members on the whole clearly shared these traits with one another far more than they did with barbarians.

I would argue that Herodotus’ observations are eminently compatible with a scientific and evolutionary perspective on race/genetics and ethnicity. Race is, especially in geographically contiguous land masses, typically a clinal phenomenon, with gradual change in genetic characteristics (i.e. allele frequencies) as one moves, for instance, from northern Europe to central Africa. While intermarriage tends to spread genes, gene flow is slowed by geographical and ethno-cultural boundaries, leading to significant racial-genetic clumping and differentiation.

The birth of a nation, ethnogenesis, occurs when linguistic, cultural, and possibly genetic drift leads a particular population to acquire an ethnic identity distinct from its neighbors. Cultural chauvinism and ethnic sentiment work together in this, magnifying one another: cultural traits such as language and customs become more and more similar within the in-group, while differences with out-groups become more and more marked. Thus, a point on the genetic cline is hardened into a more-or-less discrete ethno-cultural node and genetic cluster: a nation. The degree of nationhood is defined precisely by the population’s level of genetic and cultural commonality.

This perspective recognizes the powerful but not exclusive role of culture in the formation of ethno-national identity. Cultural elites can actively contribute to the formation or preservation of ethno-cultural identity (such as by spreading a common language and customs) and genetic identity (such as by banning miscegenation). Conversely, cultural elites can seek to suppress cultural chauvinism and ethnic solidarity, for example by glorifying foreign cultures and shaming ethnic, pride as is common throughout the West at the present time (such nations are unlikely to survive long however).[11]

One does not need a population with an absolutely “pure” lineage for ethnocentrism to be evolutionarily adaptive. On the contrary, one needs only sufficient genetic and cultural similarity for the members of the community to form a common identity and become a solidary in-group, and there must be greater average genetic similarity among individual in-group members than there is between individual in-group members and the members of out-groups they come into conflict with.[12] In any event, in the world of Herodotus, the importance of kinship, both familial and ethnic, is fundamental and pervasive across both Greek and barbarian nations.

The Greeks in Herodotus were fiercely proud of their heritage. True, the sentimental love for Hellas was often overridden by personal or political interests. Prominent Greek leaders and cities frequently collaborated with the Persians, either because the alternative was oblivion or simply for profit. Nonetheless, one is struck by the pervasiveness of pan-Hellenic discourse and expressions of Greek pride. The Athenians and Spartans invariably cited their sacrifice to defeat the Persians and save Greece as their greatest glory, their great claim to legitimacy as international powers. At the conclusion of the war, one Greek tells the Spartans: “The god has allowed you to earn more fame than anyone else we know of, for saving Greece. What you need to do now is follow up this achievement, to enhance your reputation even more and to make any foreigner in the future think twice before committing obscene crimes against Greeks” (9.78).

End of Part 2

[1]Sophists contemporary with Herodotus would argue that humans were essentially alike and only artificially divided by custom. Plato has Hippias of Elis say:

I regard you all as relatives and family and fellow citizens—by nature, not by convention. For by nature like is akin to like, but convention is a tyrant over humankind and often constrains people to act contrary to nature. (Protagoras, 337c-d)

Antiphon says in his own voice, in one of his few surviving fragments, that all peoples are essentially the same:

[T]hose who dwell far away we neither know nor respect. That has led to our behaving like foreign savages towards one another, when by nature there is nothing at all in our constitutions to differentiate foreigners and Greeks. We can consider those natural qualities which are essential to all human beings and with which we are all equally endowed . . . (DK 87B44B)

Such attitudes are understandable insofar as racial differentiation is clinal and difficult to see at short distances, much like the curvature of the Earth. The harsh divisions and differences between the Greeks and their immediate neighbors are more likely to have been fundamentally due to culture than genetics. We cannot say what these Sophists would have believed had the ancient Greeks constantly interacted with more genetically-distant and biologically-different peoples in the Americas, Sub-Saharan Africa, and East Asia, as modern colonial-era Europeans have.

[2]The historian Carolyn Dewald says that in this context the term is clearly xenophobic. She elsewhere says that many of the tales Egyptian priests told Herodotus were “nationalist propaganda” (p. 624).

[3]A Persian, when asked to kill an infant, responds: “There are plenty of reasons why I won’t kill the child, not the least of which is that he’s a relative of mine” (1.109). When two Scythians come into conflict, one asks: “You are my sister’s son. Why should we fight each other?” (4.80). Herodotus thinks its noteworthy that two Spartan brothers and their descendants quarreled constantly, despite their kinship (6.52). The Agarthysians, a Scythian tribe, in a prefiguring of the radical suggestions in Plato’s Republic, were said to not have distinct families, so that familial solidarity would extend to the entire community: “Any woman is available to any man for sex, to ensure that the men are all brothers and that they are on amicable and good terms with one another, since they are all relatives” (4.104).

Other tribes, such as the Nasamones (4.172) and the Auseës of Lybia are also said to practice such sexual sharing of women. Herodotus says of the Auseës: “They have intercourse with women promiscuously; rather than living in couples, their sex life is like that of herd animals. When a woman’s baby is grown, in the course of the third month the men all convene and the child is taken to be the son or daughter of whichever of the men it resembles” (4.180).

[4]A Greek father whose son had run away and rejected his authority lamented: “I am the last person in the world you ought to treat this way. . . . You now know . . . what it is like for people to be angry with their parents and their betters” (3.52).

[5]Many of Herodotus’ stories have to do with individuals being forced to choose between various extreme imperatives: duties to self, to family, and to the state often clash with one another. On one occasion, a Persian woman is told she may save one member of her immediate family. She chooses to save her brother rather than her husband or children, saying: “God willing, I may get another husband and more children, if I lose the ones I have at the moment. But my parents are dead, so there’s no way I can get another brother” (3.119). Thus in this instance, the woman put her duty towards her own ancestral line ahead of that towards her husband and children. (According to the French historian Fustel de Coulanges, the Greeks thought of kinship as going especially through the male line.) On another occasion, Persian overlords abuse their Macedonian hosts by molesting their wives and daughters at the dinner table. The Macedonians then conspire to slaughter the Persians (5.21).

[6] The Athenians tell the Syracusan tyrant Gelon: “rulership of Sicily means that quite a large portion of Greece is in your hands” (7.137). The point may seem banal, but Herodotus observes that the social and national fact is so important that humans tend to name regions after the peoples inhabiting them, as opposed to, say, purely geographical criteria. He says: “Egypt is the whole land inhabited by Egyptians, just as Cilicia or Assyria are the countries where Cilicians or Assyrians live” (2.17).

[7] I will say more on this in a planned article on pan-Hellenic patriotism in the Persian Wars.

[8] For example, Herodotus claims that when the Scythian men left their womenfolk for many years while on a foreign war, the woman took the extreme measure of marrying their own slaves in order to have children. The men of Babylon are supposed to have killed their own wives and children in order to hold out longer during a siege, and similarly had to import foreign women en masse to form families again.

[9] I would note that more generally, these cases of intermarriage reflect the fact that different parts of a given race or nation have genetic interests which do not fully overlap. Individual male conquerors for instance may have an interest in spreading their seed far and wide across foreign nations, even though this may be conflict with the narrower interests of their tribe.

[10] Andrew Hamilton has written on Herodotus’ discussion of the Athenians and the Pelasgians, the former sometimes seeming to have an instinctive racial pride over the latter. Andrew Hamilton, “Ethnic Cleansing in Ancient Attica & Lemnos,”, (April 15, 2014).

[11] The suppression of ethnic sentiment is a constant struggle because such sentiment stems from an in-born human drive to identify and be solidary with perceived kin. This natural sentiment can however be partially suppressed, magnified, and/or channeled in various ways by culture. Cultural influence over the sex drive is exactly analogous: traditional Christianity could never eliminate the sex drive, but it could promote monogamy and make adultery taboo, thus channeling that powerful instinct into an arguably pro-social direction. I would argue the nation-state was an institution which similarly channeled the ethnocentric instinct in a pro-social direction, helping to fashion a solidary body of citizens.

I would argue that a common language and race (by which I mean intra-continental genetic proximity) are minimum requirements for the formation of a common ethno-national identity.  That humans have an evolved, hard-wired tendency to identify ethnic kin according to language and race is suggested by studies which have shown that infants as young as six months discriminate against foreign accents and races. “Racial bias begins in infancy, new insight on cause: Kang Lee’s studies show babies favour own race as early as six months of age,” University of Toronto press release, April 11, 2017. “Five-month-old babies prefer their own languages and shun foreign accents,” Phenomena National Geographic blog, June 14, 2009.

[12]Conversely, if two genetically-close nations fight each other, thus empowering a more genetically-distant third nation, this would a case of maladaptive ethnocentrism. Sadly, as shown by the Greek fratricide of the Peloponnesian War and the European fratricide of the World Wars, this phenomenon is only too common in Western history.

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