This post is written to announce that I am writing a book. If you would like more information on this book please see the contact form below, which I have strategically placed at the end of this post, so I will get credit for all of the ads you will need to scroll through.
The book is not yet finished, but it is well on its way to being finished. I have decided to announce the book so that I will be motivated and duty-bound to finish it. If I’m lucky, I may even get someone to publish it. (Looking at you Douglas Wilson and Canon Press).
This post contains a brief description of the upcoming book, along with an excerpt for your enjoyment. The working title of the book is:
The Forgotten Liberal Art: An Argument to Complete the Classical Christian Liberal Arts Curriculum
And the forgotten liberal art is “Astronomy,” one of my favorite subjects, and a key part of this blog.
As students of the liberal arts know, there are seven liberal arts. The first three are the “trivium,” and the last four are the “quadrivium.” They are:
These seven subjects constitute the foundation of education that is blossoming in Christian higher education and homeschooling right now. As such, hundreds of thousands of smart young students and undergraduates are studying their Latin grammar, learning Euclid’s elements, and taking classes in music appreciation.
What they are NOT studying is ASTRONOMY, and that is a problem. My book will argue for astronomy’s inclusion in Classical Christian Liberal Arts Education.
But of course, this book is by me, and that means that I am not talking about the ordinary and respectable modern discipline of astronomy, dealing with the life cycle of stars and the activities of NASA. No, I am making an argument for the full consideration of the CLASSICAL utilization of the subject. As such, I argue for a geocentric, observational approach to astronomy completely devoid of telescopes, rockets, physics, and pictures from the James Webb Space Telescope. Well, maybe we can have James Webb photos, but only because they are really cool.
Instead, I am proposing an understanding of the ancient subject of astronomy, as understood by the ancient and medieval minds who developed the classical liberal arts. As such, I am proposing a study of chronology, keeping time, calendars, constellations, mythology, historical interpretation, celestial navigation, and the interpretation of heavenly omens and astrology, all from a Christian perspective.
Most Christian Homeschooling Parents Right Now: I’m sorry… …what? Did he just say “heavenly omens” and “astrology” all from a CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE.
Yes. Yes, I did. And I meant every word of it.
You see, much to my disappointment, thousands of young Christian youths in evangelical homeschooling settings are not learning the basic disciplines which would allow them to go outside and find Jupiter in the sky, tell the time or discern cardinal directions from the shadows cast by of the Sun, navigate the open oceans using a sextant and the stars, or even learn the basic astrological principles involved of an eclipse in the heavens.
THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE! WHAT IS HAPPENING TO THE EDUCATION OF OUR CHRISTIAN YOUTH?
Of course, I am joking in one of those examples, as youths should not be expected to navigate the open oceans using a sextant and the stars until at least their late teenage years. But everything else, I am quite serious. The failure to study the FULL RANGE of what the ancient and medieval scholars termed “astronomy” is a failure of classical Christian liberal arts education. That’s what my book will argue.
However, all joking aside, I realize how strange this idea may sound to parents and educators, and I understand why there may be some hesitancy to either read or have any interest in such an upcoming book. I also feel too guilty to market a grand bait-and-switch where customers think they are getting a respectable argument for expanding their child’s respectable education, only to be greeted by a bunch of Zodiac signs and glyphs.
That is the reason for the excerpt below, where you can see a practical application of taking “weird” things seriously in a disciplined way.
Everything below is a part of the upcoming book:
The Forgotten Liberal Art:
An Argument to Complete the Classical Christian Liberal Arts Curriculum
by J. Caleb Jones
Fill out the contact form at the bottom to ask questions and receive updates.
Hope you enjoy!
The Liberal Art of Astronomy Applied to Classical Studies
To illustrate the importance of studying astronomy as a classical liberal art, and not merely as a modern scientific discipline, I wish to explain how this would work in practice. I will do so by showing how important the “influence” of the heavens on the earth is in a particular classical work: The Histories.
In 430 BC, Herodotus of Halicarnassus composed his Histories, which told of the Persian invasions of Greece, culminating in the defeat of Xerxes’s forces. This is the first work of true “history” in the classical canon, and it covers centuries of history behind the Persian invasion, describing not only what happened but why.
However, it is also an excellent work of literature, and as I will argue, the inability of modern readers to comprehend its literary quality is a result of the failure to understand and apply the forgotten liberal art of astronomy. This is especially pronounced in the field of understanding the signs and omens of Heaven’s influence on Earth.
Omen, dreams, prophesies, and astronomical and astrological events pervade key plot points of the Histories. But they are often completely overlooked by modern commentators, including those in the sciences and the humanities. The way in which the Greeks and Persians encounter their oracles and interpret their omens cannot be understood because the basic knowledge of the contents of these omens is absent from the mind of modern readers. In this chapter, I would like to apply this classical understanding of astronomy to the Histories, demonstrating what an ignorance of astronomy withholds from the student of history.
The true subject of the Histories is the Second Persian Invasion of Greece, which occurred during the reign of Xerxes of Persia, who reigned from 486 BC to 465 BC. But the story begins with the kingdom of Lydia, a kingdom in western Anatolia, modern-day Turkey.
In the first book of the Histories, a Lydian king, Croesus, who reigned from around 585 to 545 BC. He was the richest king of his time, and he thought that he had an opportunity to add territory to his realm. However, rather than make a military and logistical assessment of his chances, he does something completely alien to the modern mind. He sends a series of delegations across the Aegean sea to the Oracle at Delphi, in Greece. He asks the Oracle whether he should send an expedition against the Persian Empire and whether he should seek the aid of any of the Greeks in this endeavor.
In response, the Oracle gives a reply. This is what we read in the Histories:
“Such was their inquiry; and the judgment given to Croesus by each of the two oracles was the same, to wit, that if he should send an army against the Persians he would destroy a great empire. And they counselled him to discover the mightiest of the Greeks and make them his friends.Herodotus, Histories, Book I, Chapter 53.
Based on this advice, Croesus incorrectly believes that he will be successful in his war. And Herodotus uses this as a broad theme of how luxury corrupts the heartiness of the empires that it touches. This theme is raised in the difference between the wealthy Lydians and the gruff and “Spartan” Persians (a pun that is certainly intended, as this chapter will reveal):
Croesus, mistaking the meaning of the oracle, invaded Cappadocia, thinking to destroy Cyrus and the Persian power. But while he was preparing to march against the Persians, a certain Lydian, who was already held to be a wise man, and from the advice which he now gave won great renown among the Lydians, thus counselled him (his name was Sandanis): “O King, you are making ready to march against men who wear breeches of leather and their other garments of the same, and whose fare is not what they desire but what they have; for their land is stony. Further they use no wine, but are water-drinkers, nor have they figs to eat, nor aught else that is good. Now if you conquer them, of what will you deprive them, seeing that they have nothing? But if on the other hand you are conquered, then see how many good things you will lose; for once they have tasted of our blessings they will cling so close to them that nothing will thrust them away. For myself, then, I thank the gods that they do not put it in the hearts of the Persians to march against the Lydians.” Thus spoke Sandanis; for the Persians, before they subdued the Lydians, had no luxury and no comforts; but he did not move CroesusHerodotus, Histories, Book I, Chapter 71.
The climax of the story of the war between Croesus the Lydian and Cyrus the Persian occurs when Croesus realizes that that the oracle was not wrong. It was true that when Croesus attacked the Persian Empire, a great empire would be destroyed. Croesus failed to understand that the empire to be destroyed was his own. As Herodotus explains throughout the entire work, it was the hard lifestyle of the Persians – something that today would be called a “Spartan” – is what allowed them to prevail. However, when the Persians tasted the wealth and prosperity they conquered in Lydia, this led to their own downfall among the Greeks, whose own land and customs have prophetic similarities to the Persians in the time of Cyrus.
But this is well-trod ground in the study of Herodotus. However, what is completely absent from commentary on the oracle of Delphi is that it came in two parts. Yes, Croesus was told that if he attacked the Persians, a mighty empire would fall. But Croesus was also told to make the mightiest of the Greeks his friends. What does that mean?
In the story of Croesus and the Persians, Herodotus indicates that Croesus followed this advice. He investigated all of the city-states of the Greeks and found that the Lacedaemonians – better known today as the “Spartans” – were the mightiest of all the Greek city-states. He therefore, made an alliance with them in his coming war.
But this did not help him at all. So, was the Oracle of Delphi wrong?
Once again, the Oracle of Delphi is not wrong, but seeing why it is not wrong involves taking the omens, prophesies, and signs of the heavens mentioned in the Histories quite seriously. The reason that Croesus should have made friends with the Lacedaemonians is only revealed by the entire narrative of the Histories, both what happens in the lands of the Persians and what happens in the activities of the Greeks.
Surprisingly, it also has a hidden meaning for Herodotus’s listeners in 430 BC, as it is a sophisticated commentary on the then-prescient issue of the Greek world: The Peloponnesian Wars between the Athenians and Spartans, which had only just begun in 431.
The Story and Oracles of the Persians
In the story of the Persian invasion of Greece, Herodotus begins his story with a dream of Xerxes in Persia, shortly after the time he came to power in 486 BC. This dream was interpreted by the priests of the Persian Empire, the Magians – better known as “Magi” to bible-readers at Christmas-time. The Magians interpret this dram as a sign from the gods to mean “The entire world will be the slave of Xerxes.”
Xerxes interprets this as a firm assurance that nothing in heaven or on earth will be able to hinder the fate that he will successfully invade Greece. For this reason, after he briefly subdues a revolt in Egypt, Herodotus tells us he makes his grand preparations:
For full four years from the conquest of Egypt he was equipping his host and preparing all that was needful therefor; and ere the fifth year was completed he set forth on his march with the might of a great multitudeHerodotus, Histories, Book VII, Chapter 20
The first major issue is how to transport his massive army from Asia to Europe. To accomplish this, Xerxes ordered that a floating bridge be constructed of ships fastened together, spanning the strait of the Hellespont. When a storm destroys the works and delays his progress, Xerxes is extremely angry, which leads to a famous incident in the story:
When Xerxes heard of that, he was very angry, and gave command that the Hellespont be scourged with three hundred lashes, and a pair of fetters be thrown into the sea; nay, I have heard ere now that he sent branders with the rest to brand the Hellespont. This is certain, that he charged them while they scourged to utter words outlandish and presumptuous: “Thou bitter water,” they should say, “our master thus punishes thee, because thou didst him wrong albeit he had done thee none. Yea, Xerxes the king will pass over thee, whether thou wilt or no; it is but just that no man offers thee sacrifice, for thou art a turbid and briny river.” Thus he commanded that the sea should be punished, and that they who had been overseers of the bridging of the Hellespont should be beheaded.Herodotus, Histories, Book VII, Chapter 35
After the bridge is repaired, there is another incident that occurs in the heavens. As such, Xerxes calls the Magians again to interpret the celestial omen and bring down the knowledge. We read the following starting with the completion of the second bridges and the beginning of the march into Greece:
When the bridges and the work at Athos were ready, and the moles at the canal’s entrances, that were built to prevent the surf from silting up the entrances of the digged passage, and the canal itself was reported to be now perfectly made, the army then wintered, and at the beginning of spring was ready and set forth from Sardis to march to Abydos. When they had set forth, the sun left his place in the heaven and was unseen, albeit the sky was without clouds and very clear, and the day was turned into night. When Xerxes saw and took note of that, he was moved to think upon it, and asked the Magians what the vision might signify. They declared to him, that the god was showing to the Greeks the desolation of their cities; for the sun (they said) was the prophet of the Greeks, as the moon was theirs. Xerxes rejoiced exceedingly to hear that, and kept on his march.Herodotus, Histories, Book VII, Chapter 37
There is a great deal of debate about whether or not this eclipse occurred, and if it occurred, when it occurred. I will briefly address my own opinions later in this book. Here, however, I would like to point to the complete misinterpretation of this passage that results from an ignorance of heavenly omens among our modern educated classes.
For example, writing on the subject of this “Eclipse of Xerxes,” a respected 19th century astronomer – G.B. Airy, an English mathematician, scientist, astronomer, and four-time president of the Royal Astronomical Society – concludes that this event could not have been an eclipse of the sun, but must instead have been an eclipse of the moon. He gives the following reasoning in his scholarly discussion:
Abandoning then the idea of explaining this account by a solar eclipse, I have examined into the possibility of referring it to some other phenomenon. First, I cannot doubt that there was something unusual and alarming, as the solemn consultation of the Magi by Xerxes seems to have been a matter of notoriety. Secondly, Herodotus repeatedly expresses himself doubtful on matters of detail which occurred during the movements of Xerxes on the eastern side of the Aegean sea. Thirdly, the notion that the Sun was the peculiar divinity of the Greeks and the Moon that of the Persians, is entirely opposed to all that we know of the religious ideas of the Persians generally, or of Xerxes in particular. For instance, when Xerxes was preparing to cross the Hellespont, he waited for the rising of the Sun, and the addressed to the Sun his prayers for success. The Greeks however appear to have attached great importance to the appearance of the Moon, as is evident from their terror, and its calamitous consequences, at the lunar eclipse in the Syracusan war (Thucydides, book vii.). The reply of the Magi therefore, which (as given by Herodotus) is, on the face of it, absurd, would seem to be much more plausible if we suppose that the information received by Herodotus was wrong in one particular, and that the observation in question was an eclipse of the moon, instead of the sun.G.B. Airy, “On the Eclipses of Agathocles, Thales, and Xerxes,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Vol. 143 (1853). Pp. 179-200. https://www.jstor.org/stable/108561, p. 199.
But there is a serious problem with this interpretation by Airy. Namely, every one of Herodotus’s ancient audience would have known that the interpretation was incorrect – not only on the basis of the history that they knew, but also on its face.
That is because the “Eclipse of Xerxes” is not the only solar eclipse described in the text. Earlier in the work, Herodotus describes the “Eclipse of Thales.” This occurred in a war between the Lydians and the Medes. This war began because a relative of the Lydian king sent several youths on a hunting expedition with a group of Scythians, who were part of the Median Empire at that time. When the Scythians returned with no game, the king chastised them greatly, and so the Scythians slaughtered one of the boys who were on the expedition and fed it to the king and his nobles. When the Lydians heard of this, they demanded that the Medes turn over these Scythians, and the Medes refused. This started the war between the Lydians and Medes. The war continued on for several year, and was extremely fierce. Herodotus notes that it was so fierce, the two sides even fought a battle at night. The war continued until an event at a battle on the River Halys, where the Eclipse of Thales was seen by all. Upon seeing this eclipse, a particular Babylonian official fighting on behalf of the Medes urged both sides of the war to stop the fight, as the Babylonians were famed in antiquity for their skill and knowledge of astrology. On the basis of this advice, the two sides of the war – the Lydians and Medes – not only stop the battle, but make peace in the war to their mutual benefit.
As such, it is clear that the sign that Herodotus describes was understood by all.
G.B. Airy is also ignorant of the status of the Magians in Persian society, which is far more complex than he recognizes. While it is true that the Magians were the official religious authorities of the Persian Empire, they were not exactly “respected” in Persian society.
In Book III of the Histories, Herodotus tells the story of the death of Cambyses, which involved a Magians coup of the Persian Empire for seven months. This coup was uncovered and ended by the Persian king Darius the Great. As a result of this event, the Persian Empire had a national holiday to the detriment of these “respected” Magians:
This day is the greatest holy day that all Persians alike keep; they celebrate a great festival on it, which they call the Massacre of the Magians; while the festival lasts no Magian may come abroad, but during this day they remain in their housesHerodotus, Histories, Book III, Chapter 79.
This is the true complicated status of the Magians, and it is far more complex that Airy believes.
But this also makes the interpretation of the omen a key literary plot point. As experts in the interpretation of heavenly omens, the Magians knew better than anyone that the eclipse was a terrible omen. But they also knew that they were not very well liked by the Persian rulers. They also knew that the invasion of Greece had been initiated after their interpretation of Xerxes’s dream. They also knew that when Xerxes was merely delayed by the gods in the storm that destroyed his first bridges, those in charge of that bridge were beheaded and the sea itself was humiliated by Xerxes. They knew that a similar misfortune could meet them depending on their answer.
Therefore, faced with a clear sign that the gods did not approve what was occurring on Earth, the Magians were faced with the choice of giving an accurate interpretation or an inaccurate one.
They choose to give the inaccurate one, because they knew that Xerxes could not be stopped. The desire of Xerxes to be stopped is mentioned several more times, including an instance when the entire army was almost prevented from marching forward by a storm, which held back supplies of food:
The corn-bearing ships of merchandise and other craft destroyed were past all counting; wherefore the admirals of the fleet, fearing lest the Thessalians should set upon them in their evil plight, built a high fence of the wreckage for their protection. For the storm lasted for three days; and at last the Magians, by using victims and wizards’ spells on the wind, and by sacrificing also to Thetis and the Nereids, did make it to cease on the fourth day, or mayhap it was not of their doing but of itself that it abated.Herodotus, Book VII, Chapter 191.
While some may judge the Magians harshly for their choice to facilitate and fail to stop the doomed march of the Persian invaders, the Magians knew that just as the dream had predicted, the entire world – even the wind and the waves – were made “slaves” to Xerxes. And now, no matter what they would have said and no matter what they could have done, nothing in heaven or on earth would be able to hinder the desire of Xerxes to successfully invade Greece. It was his fate.
The Story and Oracles of the Greeks in Herodotus
Anyone familiar with the Second Persian Invasion of Greece knows of the major battles, including the battle of Thermopylae, the burning of Athens, the naval victory at Salamis, and the final defeat of the Persians at Plataea.
At Thermopylae, most know that the Lacedemonians sent a small detachment of soldiers to secure the narrow pass of Thermopylae. The most famous of these were the 300 royal body-guards of Leonidas, or “the 300 Spartans.” What most do not know is that the entire Greek contingent was around 5,000 men, according to Herodotus, and the Lacedemonians were one of the smallest contingents. Further, the main defense of the Spartans was not at Thermopylae, but at the isthmus of Corinth. The stand at Thermopylae was described by Herodotus in the following passage:
These, the men with Leonidas, were sent before the rest by the Spartans, that by the sight of them the rest of the allies might be moved to arm, and not like the others take the Persian part, as might well be if they learnt that the Spartans were delaying; and they purposed that later when they should have kept the feast of the Carnea, which was their present hindrance, they would leave a garrison at Sparta and march out with the whole of their force and with all speed. The rest of the allies had planned to do the same likewise; for an Olympic festival fell due at the same time as these doings; wherefore they sent their advance guard, not supposing that the war at Thermopylae would so speedily come to an issue.
Such had been their intent; but the Greeks at Thermopylae, when the Persian drew near to the entrance of the pass, began to lose heart and debate whether to quit their post or no. The rest of the Peloponnesians were for returning to the Peloponnese and guarding the isthmus; but the Phocians and Locrians were greatly incensed by this counsel, and Leonidas gave his vote for remaining where they were and sending messages to the cities to demand aid, seeing that he and his were too few to beat off the Median host.Herodotus, Histories, Book VII. Chapters 206-207
And from this passage we see something rather strange. The Spartans were not so intent on protecting “Greece.” Instead, they were intent on protecting their homeland of the Peloponnese. Additionally, all of the Greeks were delayed in putting up a strong military defense because of the religious festivals which were preventing their full attention being given to the war. All of the Greeks were delayed by the Olympic festival, and the Spartans more than all others, as their local holiday – the Feast of Carnea – caused them to visibly send a small contingent to Thermopylae, led by Leonidas. But this was only to give assurances to the other Greeks city states to send their own soldiers, as a Spartan refusal to march to war would tempt them to join the side of the Persians.
Modern readers caught up in the intricacies of the battles will overlook the fact that the most amazing events in the Persian invasion of Greece do not concern battles between Persians and Greek men, but between Persians and Greek gods.
The following is the account of Herodotus concerning what happened when the Persians tried to capture Delphi:
The purpose . . . was, that they might plunder the temple at Delphi and lay its wealth before Xerxes; who (as I have been told) knew of all the most notable possessions in the temple better than of what he had left in his own palace, and chiefly the offerings of Croesus son of Alyattes; so many had ever spoken of them.
When the Delphians learnt all this they were sore afraid; and in their great fear they inquired of the oracle whether they should bury the sacred treasure in the ground or convey it away to another country. But the god bade them move nothing, saying that he was able to protect his own. . . .
Now when the foreigners drew nigh in their coming and could see the temple, the prophet, whose name was Aceratus, saw certain sacred arms, that no man might touch without sacrilege, brought out of the chamber within and laid before the shrine. So he went to tell the Delphians of the miracle; but when the foreigners came with all speed near to the temple of Athene Pronaea, they were visited by miracles yet greater than the aforesaid. Marvellous indeed it is, that weapons of war should of their own motion appear lying outside before the shrine; but the visitation which followed upon that was more wondrous than aught else ever seen. For when the foreigners were near in their coming to the temple of Athene Pronaea, there were they smitten by thunderbolts from heaven, and two peaks brake off from Parnassus and came rushing among them with a mighty noise and overwhelmed many of them; and from the temple of Athene there was heard a shout and a cry of triumph.Herodotus, Histories, Book VII, Chapters 35-37.
The drama continues when the Persians march beyond Thermopylae and down to Athens. But the Athenians look – not to their generals and not to their allies – to decide what to do. Instead, they inquire of the Oracle at Delphi about their fate. And the oracle responds:
Wretches, why tarry thus? Nay, flee from your houses and city,Herodotus, Histories, Book VII, Chapter 141.
Flee to the ends of the earth from the circle embattled of Athens!
Body and head are alike, nor one is stable nor other,
Hands and feet wax faint, and whatso lieth between them
Wasteth in darkness and gloom; for flame destroyeth the city,
Flame and the War‑god fierce, swift driver of Syrian horses.
Many a fortress too, not thine alone, shall he shatter;
Many a shrine of the gods he’ll give to the flame for devouring;
Sweating for fear they stand, and quaking for dread of the foeman,
Running with gore are their roofs, foreseeing the stress of their sorrow;
Wherefore I bid you begone! Spread courage over your evils.
And as such, the Athenians were given a bit of hope, but a disagreement arose about what was meant. After all, this is the Oracle of Delphi. Herodotus describes the disagreement as follows:
Some of the elder men said that the god’s answer signified that the acropolis should be saved; for in old time the acropolis of Athens had been fenced by a thorn hedge, and by their interpretation it was this fence that was the wooden wall. But others supposed that the god signified their ships, and they were for doing nought else but equip these. They then that held their ships to be the wooden wall were disabled by the two last verses of the priestess’ answer:
Salamis, isle divine! ’tis writ that children of women
Thou shalt destroy one day, in the season of seed-time or harvest.
This verses confounded the opinion of those who said that their ships were the wooden wall; for the readers of oracles took the verses to mean, that they should offer battle by sea near Salamis and be there overthrownHerodotus, Histories, Book VII, Chapter 142.
In other words, the Athenians did not know if Salamis would be the overthrow of the Persians or themselves. History would prove that it would be the overthrow of the Persians, but at the time of the battle, the Greeks did not know. Though they had sought information from the Oracle of Delphi, the information was unclear. But while the oracle’s information was unclear, its instruction in the first inquiry was not:
Wherefore I bid you begone! Spread courage over your evils!
As such, the story continues, and the Athenians flee to Salamis, and the Persians destroy the city. The battle is a great defeat for the Persians, which causes Xerxes himself to return from Europe to Asia. However, the Persians remain and continue to oppress the Greeks in the following year.
At this point, it should be noted that the Lacedemonians have not yet fought in any significant manner. The final encounter with the Persians comes at the battle of Plataea, and the Athenians send envoys to Sparta to ask for assistance. But the Spartans are very reluctant to join with the other Greek city states, and they delay and delay. Instead, it seems the Spartans are concerned – not with war and not with battle – but with honoring the gods and defending only themselves. Herodotus explains this in the final book of the Histories:
Now this was how the Athenians had passed over to Salamis. As long as they expected that the Peloponnesian army would come to their aid, so long they abode in Attica. But when the Peloponnesians were ever longer and slower in action, and the invader was said to be already in Boeotia, they did then convey all their goods out of harm’s way and themselves crossed over to Salamis; and they sent envoys to Lacedaemon, who should upbraid the Lacedaemonians for suffering the foreigner to invade Attica and not meeting him in Boeotia with the Athenians to aid; and should bid the Lacedaemonians withal remember what promises the Persian had made to Athens if she would change sides, and warn them that the Athenians would devise some succour for themselves if the Lacedaemonians sent them no help.
For the Lacedaemonians were at this time holiday-making, keeping the festival of Hyacinthus, and their chiefest care was to give the god his due; moreover, the wall that they were building on the Isthmus was by now even getting its battlements. When the Athenian envoys were arrived at Lacedaemon, bringing with them envoys from Megara and Plataeae, they came before the ephors and said: “The Athenians have sent us with this message: The king of the Medes is ready to give us back our country, and to make us his confederates, equal in right and standing, in all honour and honesty, and to give us withal whatever land we ourselves may choose besides our own. But we, for that we would not sin against Zeus the god of Hellas, and think it shame to betray Hellas, have not consented, but refused, and this though the Greeks are dealing with us wrongfully and betraying us to our hurt, and though we know that it is rather for our advantage to make terms with the Persian than to wage war with him; yet we will not make terms with him, of our own free will. Thus for our part we act honestly by the Greeks; but what of you, who once were in great dread lest we should make terms with the Persian? Because now you have clear knowledge of our temper and are sure that we will never betray Hellas, and because the wall that you are building across the Isthmus is well-nigh finished, to‑day you take no account of the Athenians, but have deserted us for all your promises that you would withstand the Persian in Boeotia, and have suffered the foreigner to march into Attica. For the nonce, then, the Athenians are angry with you; for that which you have done beseems you ill. But now they pray you to send with us an army with all speed, that we may await the foreigner’s onset in Attica; for since we have lost Boeotia, in our land the fittest battle-ground is the Thriasian plain.”
When the ephors, it would seem, heard that, they delayed answering till the next day, and again till the day after; and this they did for ten days, putting off from day to day. In the meantime all the Peloponnesians were fortifying the Isthmus with might and main, and they had the work well-nigh done. Nor can I say why it was that when Alexander the Macedonian came to Athens the Lacedaemonians were urgent that the Athenians should not take the Persian part, yet now made no account of that; except it was that now they had the Isthmus fortified and thought they had no more need of the Athenians, whereas when Alexander came to Attica their wall was not yet built, and they were working in great fear of the Persians.Herodotus, Histories, Book IX, Chapter 6-8.
Why are the Spartans reluctant to go to war on behalf of the Greeks? Why are they abandoning their Greek allies and busying themselves with defending their own territory? The answer is given by Herodotus, when he describes why Cleombrotus, the leader of the Spartans, decided not to march forth in battle against the Persians. But to understand it, one must know how omens of the heavens were interpreted:
The reason of Cleombrotus’ leading his army away from the Isthmus was that while he was offering sacrifice for victory over the Persian the sun was darkened in the heavens.Herodotus Histories, Book IX, Chapter 10.
This is very important. The Spartan king was offering a sacrifice to the gods, asking for victory over the Persians. But when he did so, “the sun was darkened” in the heavens. This is an astronomical event. This leads the Spartans to believe that a message has been brought down from the heavens that their expedition against the Persians is not favored. However, after Cleombrotus receives this sign and decides not to march off, Herodotus notes that Cleombrotus died shortly thereafter. This is the reason that the Spartans are now led by Pausanias. It is Pausanias who decides to march to the aid of the Greeks.
But a debate in the Peloponnese continues as to whether or not it is right to go to the aid of the Athenians, especially since the Persians seem to have offered the Athenians peace in exchange for joining their war against all of Greece. All of Sparta is in confusion, and they worry that even with their walls across the isthmus, they might not be able to stand against a combined Athenian and Persian force. Their minds soon change away from the decision of Cleombrotus, but once again, it is omens that hold sway over their decision:
As for the Lacedaemonians, when they were come to the Isthmus, they encamped there. When the rest of the Peloponnesians who chose the better cause heard that, seeing the Spartans setting forth to war, they deemed it was not for them to be behind the Lacedaemonians in so doing. Wherefore they all marched from the Isthmus (the omens of sacrifice being favourable) and came to Eleusis; and when they had offered sacrifice there also and the omens were favourable, they held on their march further, having now the Athenians with them, who had crossed over from Salamis and joined with them at Eleusis.Herodotus, Histories, Book IX, Chapter 19
The Peloponnesian make two sacrifices and receive two favorable sins. The first is made before they depart the Peloponnese. The second is made before they join with the Athenians at Eleusis. And thereafter, the combined Greek force goes to meet the Persians, where they are soundly defeated at the Battle of Plataea.
After this battle, the Greeks pursue the Persians back to the Hellespont. They cut the cables holding the bridges together, thereby ending the Persian invasion.
The Explanation of the Oracle of Delphi and the Oracle of Herodotus
This brings us back to the Oracle of Dephi which was given to Croesus at the beginning of the Histories. Croesus was told that if he attacked the Persians, a mighty empire would fall. He was advised to make the mightiest of the Greeks his friends. And from the story in the Histories, we see that the mightiest Greeks are the Lacedaemonian Spartans.
But strangely, it is not the military skill of the Spartans that rules over their actions. Instead, the drama reveals that the Spartans are REMARKABLY superstitious. Though they unquestionably possess a great strength of arms, they do not rely upon those arms. Instead, they inquire of the gods and keep to themselves. That is their constitution and nature.
Had Croesus made these mightiest of Greeks his friends, and had their nativist propensities been incorporated into the Lydian kingdom, then Croesus never would have gone on his expedition against the Persians. The Peloponnesian peoples do not use their military skills to exercise dominance over their neighbors, but instead, they are fierce guardians of the status quo.
This was also a relevant lesson in Herodotus’s day. In the aftermath of the Second Persian Invasion of Greece, the Athenian state had achieved wealth and power beyond anything they had seen before. They exercised control over the Delian league, and continued to expand their power over various city-states across the Aegean. These actions would lead to the destruction of the power of Athens at the end of the brutal Peloponnesian Wars.
It was during these wars that Herodotus completed The Histories in 425 BC. He was a citizen of Halicarnassus, an ally of Athens in the Peloponnesian Wars, but a city that had been an ally of Persia during the Second Persian Invasion of Greece. He knew the dangers of wealth descending on a noble empire, and he knew the dangers of misreading the omens sent from the heaven.
Prior to the completion of his work, a deadly plague had ravaged Athens, killing as many as twenty-five percent of its population, including its famed leader Pericles. It was Pericles who sought to continue making war against the Persians, expanding the empire of trade and influence through Athens’ mastery of the Delian League. It was this growing influence and power that caused the friendship between Athens and Sparta to disintegrate.
It was during this time that Herodotus completed and shared his work with the Greek world. It began with a message of wisdom from the Oracle of Delphi that came int two parts:
- If war was made against the Persians, a great empire would be destroyed.
- Discover the mightiest of the Greeks and make them his friends
Both of these lessons were relevant to the present situation of his countrymen, and he seems to have understood this, based on what he wrote in the introduction of his work:
What Herodotus the Halicarnassian has learnt by inquiry is here set forth: in order that so the memory of the past may not be blotted out from among men by time, and that great and marvelous deeds done by Greeks and foreigners and especially the reason why they warred against each other may not lack renown.Herodotus, Histories, Book I, Chapter 1.
These are the types of lessons from history that are only available to classical Christian liberal arts students if they understand the lessons of astronomy as a classical liberal art and not a modern scientific discipline. Only by studying it as a classical liberal art will it include the knowledge of interpretation of signs from heaven.
But for the classical Christian liberal arts student, there is no need to cross the sea like Croesus to inquire of the Oracle of Delphi. There is no need to consult the Magians to bring down knowledge from the heavens above. Instead, our God has given us a different instruction:
“For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.(Deuteronomy 30:11-14, ESV)
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