William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Two-and-a-Half Millennia Don’t Change Much

Herodotus begins his history by telling us that some Phoenician traders came to Argos, Greece and, on a whim, abducted the king’s daughter Io and took her to Egypt. Later, to show that two could play at that game, the Greeks slid over to Phoenicia and stole their king’s daughter, Europa.

(Bad pun: and how these ladies ended up with Jupiter, nobody knows.)

“So far,” Herodotus, checking his sums, said, “the scores were even.” But then the Greeks, into the game, decided to do a one-up. The went back to another Phoenician stronghold and kidnapped that king’s daughter, Medea.

The king wanted her back and asked the Greeks, “How much?” The Greeks, in a fit of pique, said, “Not a chance.” They were still miffed that they hadn’t received any royalties for Io.

So things stood for two score years. You can guess what happened next. Alexander, son of Priam, came to Greece and swiped the beautiful Helen. All even again, after two rounds.

From the Waterfield translation:

Although the Persians regard the abduction of women as a criminal act, they also claim it is stupid to get worked up about it and to seek revenge for the women once they have been abducted; the sensible course, they say, is to pay no attention to it, because it is obvious that the women must have been willing participants in their own abduction, or else it could never have happened.

Therefore, it is not surprising that the Phoenicians disputed the Greek story about Io’s kidnapping. They say she slept with the captain of the traders who came to Argo, and got herself pregnant. She was thus too embarrassed to go home and went “willingly” to Egypt. How she could have known she was pregnant so quickly—the Phoenician traders were only in Greece for five or six days—is left unexplained.

The Greeks would have none of this. They actually took offense at Helen’s capture. Her kidnapping took all the fun out of the game.

And the Greeks were not satisfied with a tie, either. They launched some ships and attacked Asia before, they reasoned, Asia could attack them. The Greeks won the initial battle, destroying Priam and his forces.

Herodotus could have written his next line yesterday: “Ever since then, the Persians have regarded the Greeks as their enemies.”

Therefore, as all these events took place two-and-a-half millennia ago, and that attitudes, cultures and sets of minds have not changed much since then, it is rational to suppose that the next two-and-a-half millennia won’t change much, either.

3 Comments

  1. Wasn’t it Paris that took Helen to Troy?

  2. A Roman commander once said that the population of the Balkans would be forever bound to warfare and conflict. He wasn’t wrong.

  3. Alexander is Paris — Different historians, different names. Something about the Greek – Trojan / Trojan – Greek dictionary.

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