What does Herodotus say about Free Speech?

Answer by Sara Forsdyke

The short answer is that Herodotus says nothing explicitly about free speech in the modern sense of the word. In so far as free speech today primarily refers to freedom from government intervention in free expression, it is remote from ancient Greek understandings of freedom of speech. For the ancient Athenians, there was no separation between the government and the citizens and therefore no need to conceptualize freedom of speech as a protection from a potentially oppressive government. In Athens, the citizens were the government and for them freedom of speech (parrhesia) was necessary in order to hear all opinions and make the best decisions. As Arlene Saxonhouse puts it, for the ancient Athenians “freedom of speech was a tool of self-government, not a bulwark” (2006, 30).

A second important point is that there are two words relating to ancient Greek ideas of free speech. The first, mentioned above, is parrhesia, usually translated as “free or frank speech”. The second is isegoria, that is the “equal right to speak”. Isegoria was considered so central to democratic governance that it sometimes served as a byword for democracy itself. Most famously, Herodotus celebrates the value of isegoria/democracy by asserting that it was the cause of the Athenians’ victory over their enemies in 506 BCE. As free men under the democracy, Herodotus reasons, the Athenians had a stake in the outcome of the war and committed themselves fully to the joint effort. By contrast, under the previous tyrannical regime, the masses shirked their duty since they knew that the rewards of victory would go to their ruler (5.78).

Herodotus does not use the word parrhesia at all in his Histories. That said, several episodes emphasize the value of free speech through the depiction of the disastrous consequences of its absence in Persia. In one episode, the Persian King Xerxes summons an assembly of the Persians to discuss an invasion of Greece (7.8-11). Two advisors speak out – one flattering and the other, named Artabanus, speaking frankly in opposing Xerxes’ plan. Xerxes responds angrily to Artabanus and ignores what turns out to have been sound advice. Herodotus underscores the value of free speech in this episode by depicting Artabanus as explaining to the monarch the value of competing ideas: “O King, if no opposing opinions are given, it is impossible to select the better one. In such circumstances, it is necessary to use the [single] opinion that is expressed. By contrast, when opposing opinions are given, it is possible [to select the better one], just as we discover what is better gold, not by rubbing pure gold against itself, but by rubbing it against a lesser gold” (7.10a).

In a second episode, Xerxes confers with the exiled Spartan King Demaratus on the chances of his success against the Greeks (7.101-105). When Demaratus sees that the King wants to be praised for the size and strength of his army, he asks “Your majesty, shall I tell you the truth or shall I say what will please you?” When Xerxes, uncharacteristically, gives Demaratus leave to speak his mind, the Spartan king describes the martial superiority of the Greeks – and especially the Spartans – over the Persians.

Another episode dramatizing the absence of free speech in Persia features one of the most capable naval commanders in Xerxes’ army, the Greek woman Artemisia. Strikingly, this woman voices an opinion that is counter to the obsequious views of all the other (male) commanders (8.68-69). Herodotus makes note of the surprise of the others when Artemisia is not punished by Xerxes for speaking her mind. Needless to say, Xerxes does not follow Artemisia’s advice and suffers a defeat at Salamis.

For more reading on free speech in Herodotus and ancient Greece generally, see:

  • Forsdyke, Sara. 2001. “Athenian democratic ideology and Herodotus’ Histories”, AJP 122: 329-58.
  • Forsdyke, Sara. 2006. “Herodotus, political history and political thought”, in Carolyn Dewald and John Marincola eds. The Cambridge Companion to Herodotus. Cambridge. 224-241.
  • Saxonhouse, Arlene. 2006. Free Speech and Democracy in Ancient Athens. Cambridge.
  • Sleuter, Ineke and Ralph Rosen. eds. 2004. Free Speech in Classical Antiquity. Leiden.