Herodotus’ Lesson for a Cruel Regime

Chiang Mai, THAILAND

Herodotus: a Bust of the Ancient Greek Historian

BOOK ONE of Herodotus’ Histories: Croesus, king of the Lydians, has a “craving to extend his territories.” He has just asked the oracle at Delphi what the outcome of an attack against Cyrus and the Persian Empire might be. The oracle responds, telling him that if he attacks Cyrus, he will destroy a great kingdom.

Herodotus continues:

Croesus, who had failed to grasp the true meaning of the oracle, now prepared an expedition against Cappadocia, sure of success in bringing down the power of Cyrus and the Persians. But while the preparations were going on, he received a piece of advice from a Lydian named Sandanis, who was already known for his good sense, and by the opinion he then expressed greatly increased his reputation among the Lydians. ‘My lord,’ he said, ‘you are preparing to fight against men who dress in leather – both breeches and everything else. So rough is their country that they eat as much as they have, never as much as they want. They drink no wine but only water. They have no good things at all, not even figs for dessert. Now if you conquer this people, what will you get from them, seeing that they have nothing for you to take? And if they conquer you, think how many good things you will lose; for once they taste the luxuries of Lydia they will hold on to them so tightly that nothing will make them let go. I am thankful myself that the gods have never put it into the Persians’ heads to attack the Lydians.’

Croesus did not take this advice – though Sandanis was right: the Persians before their conquest of Lydia had no luxuries of any kind.¹

The general lesson to powerful nations: don’t attack a people if you have nothing to gain from conquering them and they have all the more to gain from conquering you. But what of an enduring power struggle of inequality within one country? What if we were to examine the Burmese regime’s suppression of its own people in light of Sandanis’ advice? Well, the crony military has bulked up its own treasury by selling off natural resources to a few big companies in countries like China, and it has bolstered its own elite by cutting crooked deals to a group of elite insiders. Its military leadership lives a life of luxury and corruption at the expense of its own people, who live as second-class citizens to their own government.

Let the Burmese junta be warned by Sandanis’ wisdom. While they continue to exploit a people with little to lose, they stand to gain nothing but entrenched power based on corruption and exploitation. If just once the oppressed populace is allowed to taste the privileges of power, the regime stands to lose big time. Now it’s a zero-sum game: how can they gradually release a power schema so skewed without unleashing total revolt? Just as the oracle at Delphi bade the overweening Croesus, the Burmese junta’s mastermind Than Shwe is destroying a once-great kingdom.

¹ Herodotus. The Histories, tr. Aubrey de Sélincourt (New York: Penguin Books, Ltd., 1954): 68-69.

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