Political relativism: implicit political theory in Herodotus' Histories Public Deposited

Downloadable Content

Download PDF
Last Modified
  • March 22, 2019
  • Roy, Cornelia Sydnor
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Classics
  • This dissertation argues that Herodotus presents political institutions in a manner similar to the way he presents customs and cultural institutions. That is, he promotes a position of political relativism parallel to his cultural relativism. The dissertation first explores the Constitutional Debate and establishes that Herodotus' political thought is primarily applied thinking that is dependent upon temporal and social context. The second and third chapters establish the close relationship between cultural description and political description. Chapter Two examines this relationship in two ways: semantically and developmentally. Herodotus uses similar vocabulary and syntax in order to talk about political and cultural behavior. The developmental approach examines societies in their early stages of existence. I determine that, at the most basic level, societies seek justice, stability, and cultural representation from their governments. Political practices and institutions closely mirror the customs of the societies that practice the, Chapter Three extends this developmental examination to six more advanced and better defined societies in the Histories: Lydia, Egypt, Scythia, Sparta, Persia, and Athens. I show that even these societies have political structures that develop from and are limited by their cultural background. Chapter Four brings together the arguments of the prior chapters by focusing first on the idea of freedom as it is presented in the Histories. The text supports freedom in the abstract, but recognizes that freedom is a subjective experience within the societies presented in the Histories. I examine models of political relativism found in the text that are related to this conception of freedom. I conclude by exploring the impact of this kind of thinking on later Greek history and, in particular, the Peloponnesian War. I suggest that Herodotus' political relativism is, in part, a belief that political ideology is a complex issue and not a reason to go to war.
Date of publication
Resource type
Rights statement
  • In Copyright
  • Vasunia, Phiroze
Degree granting institution
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • Open access

This work has no parents.