Reconfiguring the Past: Thyrea, Thermopylae and Narrative Patterns in Herodotus
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Reconfiguring the Past:
Thyrea, Thermopylae and Narrative Patterns in Herodotus

The recurrence of the wise–advisor, the endless parade of dynasts who destroy themselves through their self–delusion and excess, the inevitability of vengeance are all familiar motifs and story–patterns to those who read Herodotus; and indeed, scholars have long recognized the repetition of character types and story–lines in his History.1 To this ever increasing list of repeated narrative patterns I would like to add another: the duel and the sole survivor in Herodotus. In particular I will examine two passages from two widely separated parts of the history that bear a striking resemblance to one another:2 the contest between Argos and Sparta for the control of a place called Thyrea (1.82),3 and the Spartan defence of the pass at Thermopylae (7.175, 202–32).

But in exploring the connection between these two events, and others like them, I would like to move beyond simply providing the taxonomy of a new story pattern; I would like also to raise historiographic questions of major importance. If Herodotus tells us two remarkably similar stories that are widely separated by time and narrative space—indeed one that comes from what we may call the more legendary portion, and one from the more historical—does that mean he wants us to see the events as similar or even connected in some way? If the connection between them cannot reliably be considered "intended," what do we make of the similarities? Was Herodotus a liar who had certain "default" settings into which his mind naturally slipped when inventing? To what degree is a robust or "thick" description of the duel useful, one that aims at recovering the cultural assumptions that shape Herodotus' understanding and so explains perhaps the similarities between the conflicts?4 What, finally, can be learned by trying to see how Thyrea can be seen as a model for Thermopylae?

Indeed it is with this last issue that I believe most is to be gained towards a better understanding of Herodotus' overall aims in his History. The narrative of Thyrea reflects an unconscious tendency of Herodotus to present duels and their sole survivors as tests that require "ratification" by a second contest. The "Thyrea" pattern, when applied to the battle of Thermopylae, reveals the more famous conflict to be one that Herodotus reconfigured from a defeat into a victory. Thermopylae, after the fashion of Thyrea, was a contest that tested the national character of both Sparta and Persia; it was a battle that Herodotus tried to show the Spartans actually won; and as proof of the Spartans' victory, the true outcome of the battle was in a sense ratified by the refighting of the contest at the battle of Plataea. At the conclusion of the paper I will briefly examine the Thermopylae Ode (PMG 531) of Simonides and show by way of corroboration that Herodotus was not alone in reconstituting the battle as a victory.

Using Thyrea as an interpretive guide to Thermopylae will not only help illuminate this reconfiguring of the more famous battle, it will also help to shed light on two interrelated problems of more general importance to the study of Herodotus that I mentioned at the outset: the issues of narrative patterning and of Herodotus "the Liar." At issue, ultimately, is the difference between history and fiction. I will show that although Herodotus may be engaged in activity that overlaps significantly with the creation of literature, inasmuch as distinct and therefore presumably unhistorical patterns for the duel can be seen to emerge in his work, he was nonetheless attempting to present what he believed were facts about real events and real persons from the past. The reconfiguring of Thermopylae, while partially a literary enterprise, must finally be understood as an attempt to capture the truths of history.5

The Story of Thyrea (Hdt. 1.82)

Herodotus reports that at around the time of Croesus' request for help against the Persians (c. 547 B.C.), Sparta and Argos were in dispute (eris) over the borderland of Thyrea, an area that had been under Argos' control but which at some point prior to that...