A Case Study of Historical Methodology in Classical Literature: The Historicity of Sicinnus Warning the Persians

I recently read The Battle of Salamis, by Barry Strauss. The Battle of Salamis was a naval battle in which the Greeks defeated a much larger Persian fleet, saving the Athenian people -- and perhaps Greek civilization -- in the process from domination by Xerxes' Persian Empire. The Athenians constituted the largest part of the Greek fleet, though many other Greek states contributed and the fleet's formal leader was a Spartan. The Persian fleet greatly outnumbered the Greek fleet and was made up of diverse sea-fearing nations and states who were part of the Persian Empire. Nevertheless, the Greek fleet was able to destroy the numerically superior Persian fleet. This resulted in the retreat of the bulk of the Persian army and the eventual defeat of the forces left behind at the Battle of Plataea.

The reason for the Greek victory is attributed to many factors, including greater Greek motivation and stouter ships. Another important factor was that the Persians fought after a long night of rowing whereas the Greeks fought a much shorter time and distance from their base. They were, comparatively, much fresher than the Persians; no small advantage when dealing with man-power-intensive rowed vessels of the day. What brought about this curious timing of the battle? According to Herodotus, the leader of the Athenians -- Themistocles -- sent his servant, Sicinnus, to the Persians to warn them about an attempt by the Peloponnesian members of the Greek fleet to set off for their homeland and avoid a conflict. Since this would have resulted in the abandonment of the Athenian people who had fled the destruction of their city, Themistocles hoped to prompt the Persians to sail early, surround the Greeks, and force a battle. Sicinnus's "betrayal" was believed by the Persians, causing them to act quickly, forestalling the division of the Greek fleet and forcing the battle on terms more favorable to the Greeks.

Some have doubted the story, noting discrepancies and improbabilities in the source material. Strauss goes through the sources, analyzes them, and concludes the story authentic. His analysis stood out to me because it is more involved many others I have read in books on Classical History and bears some similarities to New Testament Studies. Students of the New Testament cannot help but be familiar with the kinds of tools used to analyze the early Christian source material, such as the criteria of multiple attestation, dissimilarity, coherence, and embarrassment, with emphasis given on genre and literary style.

I have seen varied criticisms of the methodology of New Testament scholars ranging from attacks on the criteria as unique to New Testament studies to claims that their application of historical methodology lacks the vigor or sophistication of that of classical historians. Some have dismissed their efforts as mere apologetics. While the limitations of such historical methodology should be explored, it has not been my experience that New Testament scholars are less zealous or sophisticated in their application of the tools of historical methodology. To the contrary, New Testament scholars seem to obsess about the use of formal methodology more than classical and other historians. Nor is it true that the tools employed by New Testament scholars are unique to their field and unemployed by classical and other historians. While many of the historians I have read do not employ these tools as often or with the rigor as do New Testaments scholars, there are many instances where these non-New Testament historians consider the number of sources (multiple attestation), the fit of the account with more established accounts (coherence), the inclusion of facts that are not well-suited to the author's goal (embarrassment), the impact of genre, and the "vividness" of accounts to evaluate historical probabilities.

Strauss' discussion of the historicity of Sicinnus is an example of a classical historian employing some of the same tools as New Testament histories on a questioned episode. Some have doubted the historicity of Sinnicus' warning the Persians of the Greeks' intent to flee and avoid battle. Against those who would claim that the episode is improbable on its face, Strauss responds, "that is a poor argument, since history is full of the improbable." Strauss notes that three sources contain the account: Herodotus, Aeschylus, and Plutarch. Because Plutarch wrote so much later, he focuses on the first two, noting that "Not just Herodotus, a Halicarnassian who wrote two generations after the events of 480 B.C., but Aeschylus, and Athenian who wrote in 47 B.C., confirms Sicinnus's deed."

His sources do not seem to agree in all their details. Yet, as many New Testament scholars have noted regarding the early Christians sources, apparent discrepancies or real disagreements are not necessarily decisive arguments against historicity. As stated by Struass, "They differ about the details, but reports of secret missions often do conflict, and besides Aeschylus and Herodotus wrote in different genres (respectively, tragic poetry and history), for different audiences, and for different purposes. Stark disagreements between the two should not surprise us."

In addition to employing the criteria of multiple attestation and evaluating genre to determine historicity, Strauss employs what could be called the criteria of coherence. He notes the Persian's acceptance of Sinnicus' story -- a Greek or Greeks betraying their people to the Persians -- coheres with their prior experience and expectations. It also coheres with the manipulate genius accredited to Themistocles in other accounts:
Themisctocles knew how badly Persian wanted to hook a big Greek traitor. And so he sent the Persians Sicinnus. Themistocles knew how the Persians had used traitors at Thermpolyae in August and in the naval battles at Lade and off Cyprus about fifteen years earlier.

Given this track record of Greek betrayal preceding Persian victories, the initial "improbableness" of the episode recedes and the coherence of the account with other, more established historical knowledge raises the probability of the account.

Obviously this is not a full throated defense of New Testament studies or the methodology employed pursuant thereto. Any methodology can be misapplied and properly employed methodology may have significant limitations. But it is an example of how history inquiry is done, in this case by a classical historian but using tools also used by New Testament scholars.

(All quotes from The Battle of Salamis, by Barry Strauss are from Chapter Six).


JD Walters said…
Great post. Thanks for writing this up.

I agree about the methodological sophistication of HJ scholars, but I also think they have kind of shot themselves in the foot by insisting that there's this huge problem of the relationship between faith and history. Not to mention this really weird title 'the historical Jesus'. Is there another figure of ancient history whom people feel compelled to address as 'the historical so-and-so'?
Layman said…

I have heard some people refer to the "Historical Alexander" but it likely was in mimic of the search for the "historical Jesus."

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