“As there are no accounts of these events which are independent of Herodotus, a historical reconstruction, as opposed to a validation of all or part of Herodotus’ narrative, is impossible”Figueira, “Herodotus on the Early Hostilities between Aegina and Athens,” The American Journal of Philology 106.1, Spring 1985, 49).
The famine in Epidaurus
The Epidaurians’ crops failed, and so they consulted the oracle of Delphi. The oracle answered that the Epidaurians must create images to goddesses Damia, of the earth, and Auxesia, of growth, and that these images were to be made of olive wood.
The Athenians possessed the best olive trees – or, some say, the only olive trees – and so Epidaurus asked Athens for permission to cut olive wood from the plains of Attica.
The Epidaurians received the Athenian olive wood and made the holy images. In return, the Epidaurians promised to render upon Athens yearly sacred dues to Athena, the city’s patron goddess, and to Erechtheus, the city’s mythic founder.
The oracle did not say: “Go beg for food from Athens.”
The oracle offered a magical solution, that carved images from an olive tree would end the drought. Instead of images of bronze or stone that Epidaurus could make on its own, the oracle prescribed olive wood that could only be found in Athens.
Athens took advantage of its monopoly by demanding an annuity rather than a one-time payment, as the annual tribute would bring neighboring Epidaurus closer to powerful Athens. In return, Epidaurus might have cause to ask Athens for help during any future famine.
If crops had continued to fail even with possession of the carved images, the Epidaurians would have said to the Athenians: “You say Athenian olive trees are holy, but your olive wood has failed us, and this is your fault.” The Athenians would have been honor-bound to support the Epidaurians, whose tribute was a form of insurance.
The olive-tree images served their purpose, and the crops returned.
What would have happened if the crops had failed again?
Perhaps Athens, after having received annual payments during the good years, would have been amenable to sharing its wealth during the bad years.
However, the moral force of the agreement would have weakened over time. The Athenians could claim that the images had already done their job by ending the first famine; and that the new crop failure was no longer their fault, but rather divine displeasure incurred by the Epidaurians on their own account. The Epidaurians would then have to enter into greater debt with the Athenians by purchasing more olive-wood in exchange for higher annual tributes. Or, Epidaurus could travel to Delphi for another expensive consultation.
Unless Epidaurus believed that it would receive good faith support from Athens during a future crop failure, the annual offerings would have become harder to justify.
How might the Epidaurians have broken the contract?
The Epidaurians couldn’t simply return the images to Athens. The arrangement was made under an oracular pronouncement. Any person that denied the religious significance of the oracle and of the efficacy of the images to Damia or Auxesia would be in serious jeopardy, even more so if the crops were to fail following their removal.
The politics of the contract were also important. Epidaurus would have to tread lightly with nearby Athens, their mighty maritime neighbor. In addition, a small state would hardly wish to put itself in direct opposition to the oracle. Delphi was a powerful enemy, and their pronouncements could be bought. One can easily imagine a future oracular pronouncement: “Destroy the Epidaurians.”
If Epidaurus had wanted to annul the contract, they would have had to find another way, one that respected the gods, one that saved face with Athens, and one that preserved the integrity of the oracle.
The raid of the Aeginetans
Aegina was a former colony of Epidaurus that built its own ships and then revolted. With ships, an island people no longer must subject themselves to the rule of farmers. With ships, an island people can embark on raiding and trading. With ships, an island people can take revenge.
The Aeginetans “ravaged Epidaurus, and even carried off these very images of Damia and Auxesia, which they set up in their own country, in the interior, at a place called Oea, about twenty furlongs [2.5 miles] from their city.”
It’s a suspicious theft. Perhaps by stealing the olive-wood holy images from the Epidaurians, the Aeginetans hoped to invoke another famine or spark conflict between Epidaurus and Athens. Or maybe it was a chance opportunity to steal a prize from their former masters.
But what if someone among the Epidaurians enticed the Aeginetans, or colluded with the Aeginetans, or made it easy for the Aeginetans? Placing the blame on the Aeginetans would be an ideal exit clause from their annual obligation to the Athenians.
In any event, the Aeginetans reinstalled the stolen images in their own sanctuary.
… they fixed a worship for the images, which consisted in part of sacrifices, in part of female satiric choruses; while at the same time they appointed certain men to furnish the choruses, ten for each goddess. These choruses did not abuse men, but only the women of the country. Holy orgies of a similar kind were in use also among the Epidaurians, and likewise another sort of holy orgies, whereof it is not lawful to speak.Herodotus
Epidaurus stopped paying tribute to Athens, as they no longer had the olive-wood holy images.
Athens asked Aegina for the return of the olive-wood holy images, and Aegina refused, as they had no obligation to Athens.
But Athens wanted the olive-wood holy images returned to Epidaurus so that the tribute could resume. Plus, Athens had its reputation to consider.
The massacre at Aegina
Athens conducted a raid on Aegina, sending ships to retrieve the images by force. There’s no consensus on what happened during the raid, but only one man of Athens returned alive.
“It is, however, unlikely that the Athenians could have penetrated to the Damia/Auxesia sanctuary at Oie in the Mesogaia c. 490. It would have been imprudent for them to detach a large force (strong enough to annihilate a picked corps of 1000 Argive hoplites) while an Aiginetan fleet of 70 triremes might reappear. The interior of the island, in any case, is rough terrain for the most part, scarcely the place to fight a hoplite engagement.”Thomas J. Figueira, Excursions in Epichoric History, 45.
Herodotus offers two accounts of the events that transpired.
In the first version, according to the sole Athenian survivor, Athens had sent a single trireme whose men tried to haul the images away.
“In the midst of their hauling suddenly there was a thunderclap, and with the thunderclap an earthquake; and the crew of the trireme were forthwith seized with madness, and, like enemies, began to kill one another; until at last there was but one left, who returned alone to [the Athenian port of] Phalerum.”Herodotus
The second version, told by the Aeginetans and their Argive allies, held that Athens sent a large number of ships to Aegina. The Athenians came inland to fetch the images, and in dragging them, the two statues “fell down both upon their knees.” Meanwhile, the Argives and Aeginetans cut off the Athenians from their ships and attacked. At that moment, as with the other account, there was thunder and an earthquake.
Why would there be Argives in Aegina? Thomas Dunbabin suggests that Argos may have encouraged the Aeginian revolt to weaken, and then conquer, Epidaurus. In return for protection, Argos would have a friendly port and other advantages.
Yet there’s something missing in both accounts.
“Only in the Aiginetan version (albeit supported by the Argives) did a military conflict takes place. To the Athenians, their ship had come to grief mysteriously. Aiginetans and Athenians both agreed on a single survivor, but the motif of the single survivor might have played a different role in each of their reports to Herodotus.
“For the Athenians, the existence of the survivor provides a witness or guarantee that the Athenians did not suffer a military defeat. Neither Athenians nor Aiginetans bother to tell us how the survivor got back to Attica. The Aiginetan version ends with Athenian humiliation, while we have no Athenian report at all of an aftermath to the expedition.”Figuera, Excursions in Epichoric History, 52
The surviving sailor
Herodotus says that the Athenian emissaries went to Aegina demanding the return of the images, and they are turned away.
Maybe so, but I think something else happened.
What if the Athenian emissaries had been offered a different form of recompense for their stolen olive wood?
“We are not farmers like the Epidaurians and can offer no tribute of that kind,” said the Aeginetans, “but would you care to participate in our ritual ceremonies?”
The details of these ceremonies – it’s not lawful to speak of it.
The Athenian emissaries get a taste. They return home. They spread the word to certain people. A group of likeminded Athenian citizens assemble to discuss.
“Satiric chorus, holy orgies. Who’s in?”
“This thing on Aegina, it’s got potential.”
“But what do we tell our wives?”
“And won’t they expect us to come back with the statues? How do we explain that?
They come up with a plan, to put on their armor, make a big show of protecting the honor of Athens, and then sail to Aegina for a few days of partying. They’ll come back empty-handed.
“Those sneaky Aeginetans must have hidden the holy images.”
“We’ll just have to try again next year, and the year after that.”
But it all went wrong. The satiric chorus and holy orgies, that was the bait. The Athenians took it and they paid with their lives, all but one. The sole survivor returned with the thunder-and-earthquake story, but that story didn’t hold together.
Plus, someone else in Athens knew about the expedition. And the women knew something strange was going on with their husbands. The wives of the dead Athenians were not satisfied with the lone sailor’s story.
Out came the brooch pins.
Each of the widows, in turn, asked “Where’s my husband?” and then stabbed the sailor using the brooch pin holding up her tunic.
“Where’s my husband?” Brooch pin to the neck.
“Where’s my husband?” Brooch pin to the chest.
The sole survivor, brooch-pinned to death by a crowd of topless widows.
That sailor’s name: Testocles.
The rest is Histories.
This is how this man met his end, and the Athenians found the action of their women to be more dreadful than their own misfortune. They could find, it is said, no other way to punish the women than changing their dress to the Ionian fashion. Until then the Athenian women had worn Dorian dress, which is very like the Corinthian. It was changed, therefore, to the linen tunic, so that they might have no brooch-pins to use.
The truth of the matter, however, is that this form of dress is not in its origin Ionian, but Carian, for in ancient times all women in Greece wore the costume now known as Dorian.
As for the Argives and Aeginetans, this was the reason of their passing a law in both their countries that brooch-pins should be made half as long as they used to be and that brooches should be the principal things offered by women in the shrines of these two goddesses.Herodotus 5.87-88