Scythians, Amazons, and Persians: Isokrates on the superiority of the Athenian people (early fourth century BCE)

Ancient author: Isokrates, Panegyrikos, or Festival Speech 4.64-72 (link Greek text and full translation).

Comments: This speech by Isokrates of Athens, which was probably written around 380 BCE but may or may not have actually been delivered, provides an example of how foreign peoples or “barbarians” figure into a Greek’s sense of ethnic self-understanding. The speech is written at a time when Athens is no longer in charge as Sparta has gained the upper hand and at a time when the threat of the Persian power (the ultimate image of the “barbarian” for Athenians like Isokrates at the time) under Artaxerxes II remains. One of Isokrates’ main points is that Athenians are superior to other Greek peoples due to Athenians’ achievements against “barbarian” peoples in the past and he is ostensibly calling on Greeks of other city-states to unite with Athens against the common barbarian enemy of Persia. In the process, however, Isokrates asserts the superiority of Athenians as a people not only over “barbarians” like Scythians, Amazons, and Persians but also other Greek peoples such as the Spartans. This provides another angle on ethnic relations beyond what we find by looking at writings that were more expressly concerned with describing other peoples.

Source of the translation: G. Norlin, Isocrates, volume 1, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1928), adapted by Harland.

‗‗‗‗‗‗‗

[Question of which Greek people is superior: Athenians]

But I can make the matter clear more briefly: Setting aside our own city for the moment, among all the Greek city-states Argos, Thebes, and Lakedaimon [Sparta] were at that time the greatest, as they still are to this day. And yet our ancestors were manifestly so superior to them all that on behalf of the defeated Argives they dictated terms to the Thebans at the moment of their greatest pride. (65) Also, on behalf of the sons of Herakles, our ancestors conquered the Argives and the rest of the Peloponnesians in battle, and delivered the founders and leaders of Lakedaimon out of all danger from Eurystheus. Therefore, as to what city-state was the foremost power in Greece, I do not see how anyone could produce more convincing evidence.

[Athens’ achievements in relation to barbarians: Scythians, Thracians, Persians]

(66) But it seems appropriate to me that I should also speak about the city’s achievements against the barbarians, especially since the subject which I have undertaken is the question of who should take the lead against them. Now if I were to go through the list of all our [Athenian] wars, I would speak too long. Therefore, I will confine myself to the most important, endeavoring to deal with this topic also in the same manner in which I have just dealt with the other. (67) Let us single out, then, the descent groups (genē) which have the strongest instinct for domination and the greatest power of aggression: Scythians, Thracians and Persians. It happens to be that every one of these groups have had hostile designs concerning us and that our city has fought decisive wars against all of them. Yet what ground will be left for our opponents if it is shown that those among the Greeks who are powerless to obtain their rights think it is appropriate to appeal to us for help, and that those among the barbarians who aim to enslave the Greeks make us the first object of their attacks?

(68) Now, while the most celebrated of our wars was the one against the Persians, certainly our achievements of the old days still offer evidence no less strong for those who dispute over ancestral rights. For while Greece was still insignificant, our territory was invaded by the Thracians, led by Eumolpos, son of Poseidon, and by the Scythians, led by the Amazons, the daughters of Ares. This was not at the same time, but during the period when both groups were trying to extend their dominion over Europe. For even though they hated the whole Greek descent group, they raised complaints against us [Athenians] in particular, thinking that in this way they would wage war against one city-state only, but would at the same time impose their power on all the city-states of Greece. (69) They were truly not successful. No, in this conflict against our ancestors alone they were as utterly overwhelmed as if they had fought the whole world. How great the disasters were which happened to them is clear, because the tradition about these disasters would not have continued for so long if what happened at that time had not been without parallel.

(70) Anyways, we are told regarding the Amazons that not one of them returned alive among all those who participated, while those Amazons who had remained at home were expelled from power because of the disaster here. Regarding the Thracians, we are told that, whereas at one time they lived beside us on our very borders, they withdrew so far from us in consequence of that expedition that in the spaces left between their land and ours many peoples and descent groups of every kind and great cities have been established.

(71) These achievements are truly noble. Yes, and appropriate for those disputing over the hegemony. But a closely related case to those which have been mentioned – and a case that would naturally be expected of men descended from such ancestors – are the actions of those who fought against Darius and Xerxes. For when that greatest of all wars broke out and numerous dangers presented themselves at one and the same time, when our enemies regarded themselves as irresistible because of their numbers and our allies thought themselves endowed with a courage which could not be excelled, we outdid them both. (72) We surpassed each in the way appropriate to each. After proving our superiority in meeting every danger, we were immediately thought worthy of the prize for bravery. Not long after that, we obtained the sovereignty of the sea by the willing grant of the Greeks at large and without protest from those who now seek to snatch it from our hands.

Leave a comment or correction

Your email address will not be published.