Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Spartan Ambassadors in Persia

As described in my last post, Sparta sent two men to Persia to atone for the Persian ambassadors murdered by the Spartans. Here's an excerpt from A Heroic King describing the encounter between Xerxes and the Spartiates Sperchias and Bulis -- with a short introduction describing Xerxes initial reaction.

“What did you say?!” Xerxes sprang up from his throne in anger and stared at his uncle Artaphernes. Then, not giving the older man a chance to answer, he demanded in a tone of outrage. “Spartans? Is that what you said? Spartan Ambassadors dare to come here, all the way to Persepolis, to crave audience with me!”

“Yes.” Artaphernes was not in the least intimidated by his nephew. He did not think he was particularly gifted, brilliant or competent ― but he had no interest in civil war either and was content to let him be the “Great King.”

“How dare they!” Xerxes demanded.

“Oh, they are nothing if not impudent,” Artaphernes observed. “Have you forgotten that they ‘warned’ Cyrus to keep out of Greece? No one here had even heard of them at the time. An insignificant city, but a singularly self-important one.”

“Self-important? You call a people that could murder two ambassadors carrying an offer of peace and friendship ‘self-important’? A strange choice of words, uncle! I call such men barbarians. Did you not hear the account Zopyrus made of their brutality?”

“Zopyrus was badly shaken.”

“As I think we all would have been, uncle, under the circumstances” Xerxes told him primly.

Artephernes raised his shoulders and conceded. “No doubt you are right, but I would advise you to hear these men out nevertheless.”

“Why?” Xerxes asked sharply. “I have half a mind to ―”

“I know what you have a mind to do, and understandable as it is, I still advise you to hear them out.”

“Give me one reason why I should?”

“Curiosity, your magnificence, curiosity.”


“What is your name and your station?” The young man asked Sperchias in a haughty voice.
Sperchias bowed his head respectfully and announced. “I am Sperchias son of Aneristus and my colleague is Bulis son of Nicoles. We are full Spartan citizens, as our former king Demaratus can verify.”
“Are you noblemen? Men of property?” Xerxes wanted to know.
“We are both,” Sperchias assured him.
“Why did your king pick you to be slaughtered? Why you and not someone else?”
“Our king did not send us here,” Sperchias answered.
“And could not have made us come, if he had wanted to,” Bulis added gruffly. “We are here of our free will.”
Xerxes’ eyes shifted briefly to Bulis and then settled again on Sperchias. “So, if your king did not send you, why are you here?”
“As I said before: we are here to make reparation for the murder of your emissaries. To offer up our lives in payment.”
“We do not understand. Who sent you, if not your king?”
“Sparta has two kings, but the kings do not make policy. Sparta’s citizens in Assembly make policy. It was the Spartans that killed your ambassadors, and the Spartans who make reparations, not our kings.”
“The Spartans ― collectively,” Xerxes sound skeptical, or was it contemptuous?
“And why did they collectively choose you?”
“They did not; we chose ourselves,” Sperchias answered, but because Xerxes looked as if he did not understand, Bulis added, “Have you never heard of volunteers? Does no one in your whole Empire ever do anything of his free will?”
Xerxes raised his eyebrows and his expression lifted somewhat as if he were intrigued, even pleased. “You volunteered to come here and offer yourself as sacrifices?”
“Yes,” Sperchias and Bulis said in unison.
“Ah.” Xerxes leaned back in his throne and his eyes shifted from one to the other. Then he looked up at the older man to the right and behind his throne and smiled slightly. “Very interesting. So you will accept any sentence the Great King makes?”
“Our lives are yours to do with as you please.”
“You are either very brave men or very stupid. Do you not know the punishment for crimes against the Great King?”
“King of the Medes,” Sperchias began, “we have heard that your father instituted many very wise laws, one of which is that no man should be put to death for only one crime, but always given a second chance ― “ Xerxes drew a breath to answer, but Sperchias kept talking, “but we know this does not apply to us because what the Spartans did was not a crime but an offense against the gods. Also, we have heard that men who speak against you have their tongues twisted out of their mouths, and men who give false witness have their eyes burned out with hot pokers. We know that men caught spying have their ears cut off and then spikes are pushed into their ears until their eardrums bleed out of their heads, while those who rise up in rebellion against you have their skin cut off from their living bodies and are then hung up to feed the flies. We have not heard the specific punishment for men who kill the personal representatives of the Great King, but we presume,” Sperchias glanced once at Bulis and he nodded almost imperceptibly, “we presume that it is terrible.”
Xerxes considered the men before him, his eyes again shifting from one to the other. Then he nodded once and spoke in a loud voice pitched at the chronicle of history more than the men in the room. “Then hear the sentence of the Great King. The King of the Persians and the Medes, of the Parthians, Babylonians, Elamites, Scythians, Indians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Armenians, Arabians, Nubians, Ionians, Kretans and many other peoples, Xerxes son of Darius will not sink to the level of beasts who murder ambassadors in violation of the laws of civilized men. The Great King will not do that very thing for which he holds your countrymen in the most abject contempt. Nor will he,” Xerxes was raising his voice, whether for greater effect or because he was genuinely agitated, “nor will he, by taking reprisals on two brave yet insignificant sacrificial lambs, absolve the Spartans of the burden of guilt for their crime. You cannot make reparation ― brave and noble as your gesture may be ― you cannot save your fellow citizens from the punishment they deserve ― and will reap!
“So, remain as long as you wish in my capital. My servants and treasury are at your disposal. You will want for nothing as long as you wish to remain my guests, and when you wish to return, you will be escorted by a company of cavalry, who will see to your safety and comfort.
“But take this message back to Sparta ― her kings and her citizens alike: Sparta is not yet absolved of its barbarous crime and has yet to pay the price of offending the law of civilized nations.”


Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Ambassadors from Persia -- and Back

We remember battles more than averted battles, which is why military history is popular and diplomatic history an arcane discipline. Yet as the German military philosopher Clausewitz pointed out: the decision to go war lies with the victim of aggression, not the aggressor. What aggressor wouldn't be happy to obtain his objectives without war? 
When the Persians decided to invade Greece, they gave the Greek city-states a chance to surrender to them peacefully instead. Sparta's answer was vividly depicted in the Hollywood film "300"  -- but it is only a very small piece of the fascinating diplomatic story around the Persian Wars 490-479.

Darius gave Athens, Eretria and all the other cities of Greece the opportunity to submit without war.  Many Greek states, having witnessed the brutality of the Persian suppression of the Ionian revolt, submitted voluntarily. Key among these was Aegina -- a rival of Athens that sat dangerously close.

Sparta's most dangerous enemy and neighbor, on the other hand, was Argos. Sparta had just defeated Argos a decisive battle that included slaughtering a generation of fighting men. It would have been understandable if the Argives had sought Persian "protection" by submitting. That they didn't is to their credit. 

What they did do, however, is less clear. Herodotus relates that conflicting stories circulated about the policy of Argos. The Argives themselves said they offered to join the anti-Persian coalition on the condition they received a 30-year truce from Sparta -- and joint command; the Spartans offered them a single voice in a trio of commanders composed of the two Spartan kings and the Argive commander. Other (unnamed) sources claimed that the Persians sent word that they (the Persians) considered the Argives "of the same blood" (going back to a joint ancestor in the Iliad) and so should not fight one another. Fact is that Argos refused to join the anti-Persian coalition, and so remained a threat to Sparta, but did not exactly submit to Persia either.

Both Athens and Sparta rejected the Persian offer to "come to terms" without conflict with exceptional -- indeed shocking -- vehemence. In both cases, contrary to prevailing customs, the Persian envoys were killed. The Athenians threw the Persians into a pit and the Spartans threw them down a well. 

Curiously, however, it was the Spartans rather than the Athenians who suffered remorse. Herodotus tells us in Book Seven (133-136) the following story. The Spartans (also notable) had a temple to Agamemnon's herald Talthybius. After throwing the Persian ambassadors down a well to their death, the Spartans noticed strange things happening at the temple to Talthybius (some sources speak of strange lights and sounds) and realized that the gods were angry.  They also made a connection between the murder of the Persian Ambassadors and the anger of this god and felt compelled to appease his anger.

So, the Spartans held frequent assemblies at which they asked for volunteers to go to the Persian court. What they expected is made clear by the question asked at Assembly: "Is there any Spartan willing to die for his country?" The fate awaiting these men was expected to be so horrible that the question had to be asked repeatedly before two volunteers were found: Sperchias, son of Aneristus, and Bulis, son of Nicoles. The Spartiates "both men of good family and great wealth, volunteered to offer their lives to Xerxes in atonement for Darius' messengers who had been killed in Sparta." 

The two sacrificial envoys set out for Persia, stopping first at the palace of the Persian satrap on the Asian coast of the Aegean, Hydarnes. The latter feasted the Spartan ambassadors with great pomp and during the meal advised the two Spartiates to become "friends" to the Persian king. He drew attention to his own wealth and position, and then told the Spartan ambassadors that, being men of merit and courage, that if they submitted to Xerxes they might find themselves "in authority over lands in Greece which [Xerxes] would give you."

According to Herodotus, the Spartan envoys answered: "Hydarnes, the advice you give does not spring from full knowledge of the situation. You know one half of what is involved but not the other half. You understand well enough what slavery is, but freedom you have never experienced.... If you ever did come to experience it, you would advise us to fight for it not with spears only, but with axes too."

So the Spartan ambassadors continued to Susa and were brought before Xerxes. As soon as they entered the King's presence, the royal bodyguard tried to force them to bow down on the floor in an act of abject submission or worship, but the Spartans absolutely refused, fighting back against the guards that tried to push their heads to the floor. They said Spartans did not worship "a mere man like themselves." They also, somehow, managed to tell Xerxes why they were there.

Xerxes with restraint quite uncharacteristic of him (if we are to believe Herodotus' other tales about him) did not order the two Spartans tortured, flayed alive, dissected, or dismembered. Instead, he replied that he "would not behave like the Spartans, who by murdering the ambassadors of a foreign power had broken the law which all the world holds sacred." Xerxes "had no intention of doing the very thing for which he blamed them." Thus to their utter amazement, not only were Sperchias and Bulis' lives spared, they were also allowed to return to Sparta in all honor. 

There was only one catch. Because Xerxes had refused to take the lives of the ambassadors, the debt had not been paid to Talthybius, nor had the Spartan crime against the recognized international law of diplomatic immunity been atoned. Sparta still owed not only Persia but the gods for what they had done to the Persian ambassadors.

Both the murder of the Persian ambassadors and the mission of Sperchias and Bulis are described in "A Heroic King":

                                  Buy Now!


Sunday, December 15, 2019

Persian Ambassadors in Sparta

Darius of Persia did not savagely attack the Greek city-states without warning. Being intelligent, he sought to obtain submission first by peaceful means; being a highly civilized man he employed diplomats to convey his message to the Greeks, including Sparta. In this scene from A Heroic King, Darius' ambassadors present their credentials to Sparta's ephors and the two kings. 


The Persian ambassadors bowed more deeply and at last pulled their credentials from their long, flowing sleeves for Zopyrus to hand to the Spartan kings. For a moment, Zopyrus was disconcerted because, with two kings, he did not know which took precedence. He decided to give the credentials to the man who looked older, but the man frowned and waved toward the other man. The fairer man unrolled the scrolls and his eyes scanned the contents that were in both Persian and Greek. Then he handed the scrolls back to Zopyrus and with a nod, remarked, “Deliver your message to the ephors. We are here at your request only as witnesses.”

The Persians consulted but agreed that they should proceed. They carefully positioned themselves between the ephors and the kings so they could deliver their message without having their backs to either.

Tisibazus was an eloquent man, and Zopyrus felt his Greek was not always up to the requisite level. He found himself using some words over and over again, and he was frustrated that he could not seem to convey the message adequately, because the Spartans listened utterly expressionless.

Tisibazus reminded the Spartans of the Great King’s many conquests, stressing both his great generosity to those who submitted to his justice and his great wrath with those who defied him. He spoke of the utter obliteration of the defiant Samians, and described vividly the crushing of the Ionian revolt. By this time, three of the ephors appeared to have fallen asleep with their eyes open.

Tisibazus realized he might have talked too long. He shortened his prepared speech slightly, coming to the point. “Athens and Eretrea ― without cause or provocation ― chose to attack the Great King. They burned and sacked his city of Sardis. They killed his soldiers and captured his ships. Yet the Great King has not punished them. He has ― with infinite and truly sovereign restraint ― sent ambassadors to these cities just as he has sent us to you.  All with just one purpose, to secure peace and end this senseless bloodshed unworthy of two civilized peoples. He begs you come to your senses, to use reason rather than passion, as civilized peoples do. He begs you to accept his offer of peace, to bask in the sun of mutual prosperity ― rather than call down the horrors of war upon your innocent wives and children.”

Tisibazus paused. Their audience sat blinking at them blankly like a flock of sheep or sun-bathing lizards. Tisibazus looked to Zopyrus in exasperation.

Finally, one of the Spartans officials, apparently more quick-witted than the rest, seemed to sense that the Persians were finished with their appeal, and asked. “The Great King is offering peace?”

“Yes, exactly,” Tisibazus responded, as soon as Zopyrus had translated. He was relieved that at least one of these apparent idiots had grasped what he was saying.

“But that’s what we already have,” the shorter, darker king burst out, scowling. “We are not at war with Persia.”

“Not yet, perhaps,” Tizibazus responded as soon as Zopyrus had translated, “and war is what the Great King in his divinely inspired mercy is anxious to avoid. He wishes nothing more earnestly than peace for both our peoples.”

“Well, he can have it. We aren’t going to attack him.” The short, dark king declared decisively, glaring at his fellows as if daring them to contradict him. Zopyrus was relieved that at least one of the kings had the backbone to act like a king, while his co-regent raised an eyebrow but said nothing.

“That is wonderful news!” Tisibazus declared when he heard Zopyrus’ translation. He laid a closed fist on his chest and bowed first to the king who had spoken, then to the other king and finally to the ephors, while Zopyrus translated, ending with, “Then you will send the tokens of submission back with us?”

“What tokens of submission?” The dark king demanded.

“Earth and water ― a jar of each ― mere symbols,” Zopyrus explained without waiting for Tisibazus’ answer.

“Symbols of submission, did you say?” the taller king asked.

Zopyrus repeated the word confident he had made no error of translation here, embellishing on his own, “Yes, yes, a mere gesture to show that you wish the Great King no harm and accept him as your overlord.”

What happened next was confusing. As if the five ephors had indeed fallen asleep during the bulk of the speech, they now all started looking at one another and repeating the word, “overlord?”

“What is the matter?” Tisibazus asked Zopyrus irritably.

“They seem unhappy with the word ‘overlord’ ― or indeed the idea of submitting earth and water.”

“Nonsense!” Tisibazus exclaimed. “Tell them it is a small price to pay for peace.” Zopyrus passed the message.

“Small?” The taller king asked in a voice that silenced the room. “You call it small?”

“Yes, of course,” Zopyrus answered even before translating.

Tisibazus elaborated on the answer. “Most subjects of the Great King are compelled to send tribute of all kinds and worth thousands of gold pieces to the Great King. Yet in his infinite mercy and generosity, he has chosen to ask of you only tokens. All we are talking about is a jar of earth, a jar of water, mere acknowledgment of the objective facts.”

“What facts?” the stocky king demanded frowning as if he wasn’t following the speech, despite it being delivered in Greek. Zopyrus began to suspect that the man was thick in the head.

“Why, the plain fact that you are weak and cannot hope to defend yourselves against the might of the Great King.” Came the expected answer from Tisibazus, which Zopyrus translated simultaneously. “By submitting freely to Darius the Allmighty, accepting his sovereignty over you, you do no more than bow to the inevitable, to what is reasonable, and what is right.”

“How dare you tell us what is right!” The stocky king growled belligerently.

Zopyrus translated with some trepidation, but Tisibazus was an experienced diplomat and took the insult in his stride. He bowed with mock respect to the petty king with a smile on his lips that betrayed his contempt, “Forgive me. Perhaps it is presumptuous for us to tell you what is right, but you will also have to acknowledge that whether it is right or not, the Great King commands armies of millions and fleets of thousands and your pitiable army will be crushed like ants beneath the heel of a giant, if it dares to defy us ― just as your brothers in Ionia learned.”

Everyone in the room seemed to hold their breath while Zopyrus translated this reply. When he finished it was the taller, fairer king who answered: “That, sir, is tantamount to saying that the prospect of defeat is grounds for surrender.”

“Isn’t it?” Tisibazus asked opening his arms in a gesture of absolute innocence and his answer seemed to need no translation. He continued, “Is it not the duty of reasonable men to bow to the inevitable? Is it not the privilege of intelligent men to avoid foreseeable disaster? You look like an intelligent man to me,” Tisibazus admitted generously, gesturing for Zopyrus to do his part, and then, this message delivered, he added, “Surely you can see that it is sometimes wiser to bend with the wind than to fight a storm you cannot beat?”

“You have misjudged me,” the tall man snapped, rudely (or so it seemed to Zopyrus) rejecting the compliment the Persian had paid him.

Baffled, Tisibazus cast his colleague a look of incomprehension. They had expected the Athenians to be emotional and foolish, but the picture they had been given of Sparta was of a single-minded, disciplined people, well suited to life inside the Persian Empire. Why these men were so docile and obedient, they had been told, the sons of even their noblemen allowed themselves to be publicly flogged!

Tisibazus’ companion took over, speaking in shorter sentences to ensure the translation went faster. “My colleague has been too oblique perhaps,” the second ambassador said. “The Great King is making you an offer. It is a simple and fair offer. Surrender your sovereignty to him and enjoy his benign reign, or face his wrath.”

“Surrender? Without a fight? To some stranger on the other end of the earth?” The stocky king demanded in a loud voice, his face turning red. “You’re out of your minds!”

Zopyrus did not dare translate that verbatim, but he didn’t need to. Tisibazus, who understood some Greek, had understood the gist of it without translation and answered immediately. “No. Rather you are mad not to accept this generous offer. The Great King could simply have come with his armies and wiped you out. He could have obliterated your entire insignificant city without so much as a siege!” He gestured with his hand as if he were shooing away a fly. “Instead, His Magnificence has shown the kindness of a father toward a wayward son. He has given you the chance to be taken under his care. He has given you an opportunity to become part of his great empire. You should be grateful.”

The two kings looked at one another, and then both stood and walked out of the chamber together without another word. One of the five officials hastily announced. “We will have to take this to the Assembly. We will put it to the Assembly. You will have your answer in three days.”