Spectacle of Enquiry: The Violent and Macabre in Herodotus
By Liam Thomas Ahern
Bachelor’s Thesis, University of Sydney, 2011
Abstract: This thesis endeavours to explain the role of graphic violence in Herodotus’ Histories. It attempts to look past explanatory models of othering that catagorise acts of violence as manifestations of the other and deeds of transgression. Instead it presents an alternative model that considers Herodotus in the context of his intellectual and cultural milieu. In enquiring into the role of violence, it examines episodes in context and considers their meaning in regards to Herodotus’ broader historiographical project. It also explores the intense dialogue that can be found between Herodotus’ work and other arenas of violence, either past literary works, contemporaneous thinkers or cultural institutions. It argues that the style of Herodotean violence was influenced by his exposure to practices such as philosophical and medical dissection and forensic torture. It argues that the rhetorical language of violence as an integral part of investigation strongly influenced not only Herodotus’ representation of violence and the body but also his narratological use of these scenes. It ultimately claims that both the style and rhetorical position of Herodotean violence is a manifestation of the historian’s critical enquiry.
Introduction: Otanes’ father Sisamnes had been put to death by Cambyses: he was one of the royal judges, and as a punishment for receiving a bribe and so diverting justice Cambyses had him flayed. His skin was peeled back and cut into strips, and these were stretched across the seat of a chair on which he sat in court. Cambyses then appointed his son to be judge in his place, and told him not to forget what his chair was made of. (Hdt. 5.25)
This passage sees Sisamnes introduced to Herodotus’ narrative only to disappear again in an explosion of extreme and graphic violence within the same sentence. That this brief digression on Otanes’ genealogy makes up the entirety of Sisamnes’ presence in the Histories does not seem to have diminished the potency of this character. Gerard David’s 15th Century series of paintings, The Judgement of Cambyses and The Flaying of Sisamnes, attest to the lasting power of this gruesome image. Thomas Preston’s seminal Elizabethan play, King Cambyses, also continued to explore this character and the macabre horror of his downfall so vividly recounted by Herodotus.2 Perhaps this scene has resonated so strongly due to its almost poetic moral lesson, as a corrupt judge is literally transformed into the seat of justice by an unforgettable show of punishment and retribution. Indeed, Herodotus’ text goes deeper than this, for just as Sisamnes’ skin is peeled back to reveal the corruption inside, so too does the audience get to see inside Otanes, his background, his relationship to Cambyses and justice. And just as Otanes’ is given this chair, a token by which he may be reminded of the horror of bribery, neither will the audience forget Otanes’ history, this scene of gore seared onto the narrative, a gruesome flare of rhetoric.