Oracles and Acts of War

“[These bad things] happened because the Euboeans
regarded an oracle of Bacis they had received as nonsense…”
—Herodotus, 5th Century CE

The winners of history are often guided by providence. After all, who else’s side could God be on except those who survive the perils of war? Survival, my friend, is pretty strong proof that someone is looking after you.

Of course, the ancient world also turned to the to the fates in harrowing circumstances. Herodotus’s Histories is a great example of how the Greeks believed the gods took sides on the battlefield. But even more than choosing the victory, religious apparati such as oracles, could serve to justify acts of war.

Oracles are all over the ancient world. From the oracle of Apollo in Delphi with its famous proclamation to “know thyself” to divine pronouncements of Egyptian priests, the ancients looked to the words of the prophets to make sense of their lives.

Herodotus, often considered the first Western Historian, is very much a product of this world where the God’s make their desires known though their earthly—yet prophetic—representatives. In fact, the Histories depicts numerous oracles which pull the strings of destiny in the Persian wars.

Herodotus himself was a strong believer in oracles. “I cannot argue against the truth of oracles [when they speak clearly],” he says. “I hesitate to challenge the validity of oracles myself, and I do not accept such challenges from others either.” (8.77; translation, Waterfield 513)

Now, many people are familiar with the prophecy that only a “wooden wall” could save the city of Athens during the Persian wars, which was interpreted by the general Themistocles to mean the Greeks should take to ships to do battle with Xerxes’ army (Bowie 13). And that’s a good example. But I would like to look at another oracle which Herodotus uses to justify an act of war.

Let us turn to the bleating goats of Euboea.

Here’s the background: The Greeks had been battling with the Persians with both sides suffering losses. Now, I am not an expert in ancient warfare (or modern warfare, but that’s beside the point), but my impression is it was rough. The troops had to march for months just to get from their destination, and the victor of the battle had the privilege of cleaning up the corpses. Life was tough. It’s no wonder they burned cities to the ground when things didn’t turn out as expected.

Anyway, The Greeks are at Euboea deliberating about what to do next. They’re outnumbered and the best case scenario has them pulling even. Sucks.

So they slaughter all the goats on Euboea.

Now, you may be wondering the following: Didn’t this upset the Euboeans? After all, these were their livestock, don’t they get first dibs? Nope. Themistocles tells the army to do this because it is better for them to have the animals than the Persians. I presume they’re looking to feed to troops here, but the text is not clear. Maybe there is a lost papyrus out there and one day we’ll know the truth.

Anyway, this is where the oracle steps in. Herodotus suggests the slaughter was justified because the Euboeans had earlier ignored the oracle of Bacis and did not fulfill its wishes. In other words, they deserved what was coming to them.

Here’s the oracle:

“φράζεο, βαρβαρόφωνος ὅταν ζυγὸν εἰς ἅλα βάλλῃ
βύβλινον, Εὐβοίης ἀπέχειν πολυμηκάδας αἶγας.”

“Let it be known that whenever a Barbarian speaker throws a yoke of papyrus on the sea, to keep the bleating goats away from Euboea”*

(Herodotus Histories, 8.20.2)

Like most oracles, this one is sufficiently vague to apply to a number of circumstances. Even knowing the background doesn’t help too much. Sure, we can understand this to referring to Xerxes building a bridge across the Hellespont, but…really?

Herodotus says, yes, really.

Thus, the mass slaughtering of goats and sheep on Euboea by the Greeks is justified by the oracle. After all, when the Persians built their bridge, the Euboeans should have moved their goats. This is classic blaming the victim with a divine twist: Sorry we killed your goats, but you left them out in the first place; obviously, the Gods want you to suck it.

Now it’s unclear from the passage whether the Greeks used this reasoning when they devastated Euboea, or if this is Herodotus conjecturing after the fact. What is clear is that Herodotus draws a clear line between the slaughter of the sheep and the Euboeans refusal to carry out the commands of the oracle. As Herodotus says, “They brought disaster upon themselves…Since they learnt nothing from these words…misfortune was their teacher about what is really important” (8.20; translation Waterfield 495). Herodotus obviously is privileging divine order here, suggesting that humans are compelled to obey the will of the gods or suffer the consequences.

Herodotus also doesn’t tell us too much about the Euboean’s part in this whole scenario.** We don’t know whether they flat-out refused the obey the oracle, or if they misinterpreted it. (Which is what happened to some unlucky Athenians with the aforementioned “wooden wall” message. Spoiler: they died.) All we know is that Herodotus interprets the events as being consonant with the oracle’s pronouncements. The brutal actions of the Greeks are justified, not just by circumstances of war, but by the Gods.

This passage shows an interesting mix of politics, warfare and religion. While it’s particular to the ancient world, isn’t so far removed from modern-day claims of divine justice. That said, we can see how the oracle was important, not just in influencing Greek tactics on the ground, but also to the historians who recorded events for posterity. In this case, a little editorializing by Herodotus about the irreverence of the Euboeans shows the emphasis ancient Greek culture placed on obeying the gods—and how it could be used to justify otherwise questionable actions.

Photo by mharrsh.


Frankfurter, David. Religion in Roman Egypt.: Assimilation and Resistance. Princeton University Press, 1998.
Herodotus. Histories. Ed. A.M. Bowie, Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Herodotus. Histories. Trans. Robin Waterfield, Oxford University Press, 2008.

*Translation mine, with help from my professor.
**Or maybe he does in another book of the Histories that I haven’t read.

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