Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Sunday, December 1, 2019


August of 2020 marks the 2,500th anniversary of the Battle of Thermopylae.
Leading up to that anniversary, I am posting a series of entries on key events and personalities relevant to that historical event.
 Today I continue the series with a brief biographical sketch of the man who would lead the invading Persian forces in 480 BC: Xerxes

As highlighted last month, the Persian campaign ending in the Battle of Marathon was viewed by both sides as a victory and settled nothing. The Persian King Darius became more determined than ever to crush Athens because he now felt he had to punish both Athens' support for the Ionian rebellion and for humiliating his army at Marathon. He announced his intention to personally lead an army -- greater than any before -- against Athens. To provide that army with the necessary ships, horses, weapons and provisions, however, took time and taxes. The Egyptians objected to the taxes and rebelled, and as it turned out Darius did not have the time he needed either. He died in 486 at 64 years of age. 

Darius was succeeded not by his eldest son, but a younger son born to a daughter of Cyrus the Great. He was at the time of his succession already 36 years old and had been carefully groomed for his future as king by serving twelve years as governor in Babylon. After coming to power, he successfully quelled rebellions in both Egypt and Babylon. Significantly, in the later he broke with his father's tradition of religious tolerance and melted down the most important statue of the God Bel. 

By 483 his attentions had turned to Greece. Xerxes' actions suggest that he was anxious to complete his father's unfinished campaign against Greece and thereby avenge the "humiliation" of his father. Herodotus, however, suggests that he was goaded into action by his cousin Mardonius.

Herodotus puts the following speech into Mardonius' mouth:
" will not allow the wretched Ionians in Europe to make fools of us. It would indeed be a fearsom thing if we who have defeated and enslaved the Sacae, Indians, Ethiopians, Assyrians, and many other great nations who did us no injury ... should fail now to punish the Greeks who have been guilty of injuring us without provocation. (Book 7:9)
Once Xerxes had made up his mind to attack Greece, there is no question that he undertook a campaign with single-mindedness, determination, and foresight. Massive amounts of provisions were pre-positioned along the invasion route. In addition, to avoid losing his fleet as Mardonius had done in 492, he ordered a canal cut across the Athos peninsula.  Herodous, however, dismisses the later as "mere ostentation" because (he claims) there would have been "no difficulty" hauling the ships overland. Xerxes built the canal, Herodotus says "to show his power and to leave something to be remembered by." (Book 7: 34)

This is the tone of Herodotus' commentary, which he underlines with examples Xerxes arrogance and cruelty. On the one hand, we have the story of Xerxes ordering the waters of the Hellespont lashed 300 times (like a disobedient slave) because a storm had destroyed his pontoon bridge -- an action that epitomizes the stupid arrogance of a man obsessed with his own allegedly "divine" power. On the other hand, he tells the gruesome story of the Lydian noble Pythius. The latter voluntarily offered lavish hospitality to Xerxes and his army and also put his fortune at Xerxes disposal for the war -- to the tune of 3,993,000 gold Darics (a vast fortune). Yet when he asked that the eldest of his five sons be exempted from service in the army, Xerxes gave the following answer (according to Herodotus):
"You miserable fellow," he cried, "have you the face to mention your son, when I, in person, am marching to war against Greece with my sons and brothers and kinsmen and friends -- you, my slave, whose duty it was to come to me with every member of your house, including your wife? ... now your punishment will be less than your impudence deserves. Yourself and four of your sons are saved by the entertainment you gave me; but you shall pay with the life of the fifth, whom you cling to most."
Herodotus continues:
Having answered Pythius in these words Xerxes at once gave orders that the men to whom such duties fell should find Pythius' eldest son and cut him in half and put the two halves one on each side of the road, for the army to march out between them. The order was performed.

Propaganda? Maybe, but Herodotus was capable of showing respect and offering praise to Xerxes predecessors Cyrus and Darius. That the tone of his commentary is so decidedly different must have a cause beyond mere prejudice or politics. The fact that he can site incident after incident of Xerxes' bizarre behavior also suggests that there is at least some basis for his characterization. 

Tellingly, Xerxes had thrones set up in safe places from which to watch his battles -- whether Thermopylae or Salamis. Xerxes sent other men to die, often under the lashing of whips, rather than leading from the front. And when things went badly, he just went home with some of his army while abandoning the rest of his "slaves," those he expected to bleed for him. 

After returning to Susa, he appears to have lost interest in military affairs and to have focused on grandiose construction projects, including a palace that was twice the size of his father's. It is hard to escape parallels with other dictators like Hitler and Stalin. 

In 465, Xerxes was assassinated by the commander of the royal bodyguard. That too tells us something about his popularity among his closest associates.

Spartans and their unique culture are depicted as realistically as possible in all my Spartan novels:


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Friday, November 15, 2019

"Athens discards her heroes..."

Great as the victory at Marathon had been, it was not decisive. The Persian capacity to launch a new campaign was undiminished and the Persian determination to do so increased. The Spartans knew what was coming, and in this excerpt from A Heroic King, Leonidas is in Athens trying to assess the willingness and ability of Athens to withstand a new assault.

Rain, driven by a strong wind, swept in from the east. The sky darkened dramatically and the clouds hung low, reaching out ephemeral yet ominous hands toward the rooftops. The temperature dropped abruptly and men clutched capes and cloaks more tightly around their shoulders, even before the first heavy drops of rain fell from the hostile sky. The torrent that followed pelted the open squares so violently that the drops jumped up again like millions of tiny fountains, while the rooftops reverberated. The rush of water overwhelmed the gutters and fell in sheets from the roofs, to join the rivulets cascading over the paving stones and sweeping refuse down the alleyways.

Leonidas and his companions dived for cover under the nearest roof and found themselves in the shopfront of a shoemaker. Belts hung from hooks hammered into the plaster wall, and pairs of sandals were lined up in neat rows. The man and his two apprentice sons looked up astonished from their workbenches as four armored men suddenly burst into the humble shop.

One of the boys gaped with an open mouth, but the older man, sitting astride his workbench and pushing a thick needle with thread through the sole of a sandal, got to his feet and came forward, bobbing his head. “My lord, what an honor!” His words were directed not to the Spartan king, whom he did not recognize, but to young Kimon, who had offered to help Leonidas negotiate with the outraged landlord about the damages allegedly done by the Minotaur’s crew.

“Ah―” Kimon took a moment to remember the name, and then it came to him. “Demeas! What a surprise! How are you?” Before the man could answer, he added, “This is King Leonidas of Sparta.” The shoemaker dutifully bobbed his head to Leonidas, while Kimon continued with the introductions. “Demeas fought with my father at Marathon.”

“Indeed! What a day that was! Look!” the shoemaker ordered the Spartan king, “I got this wound there!” He turned slightly sideways and lifted his short, rough chiton to reveal an ugly scar that ran down the side of his thigh. “And there hangs my hoplon!” He pointed deeper into the darkness of the shop, where a battered hoplon hung beside a sword in its baldric.

“Are you well, Demeas?” Kimon asked the shoemaker with apparent interest. “I heard you were ill.”

“No, not really, but business is bad.” He shook his head. “Too many cheap wares fl flooding the market from Thessaly these days. They have cheap leather up there because they have room for huge herds of cattle. The workmanship is crap, but people aren’t willing to pay for quality anymore. All they care about is the price! If it’s cheap, they’ll buy it even if the straps break in a fortnight. Then they run back and buy another pair of cheap sandals, rather than investing in good wares like these!” He grabbed a pair and held them out to Kimon as if he expected him to inspect them.

Kimon nodded politely and remarked, “I’m sorry I have not sent my steward around to buy for the household as my father used to do. I just can’t afford it.”

“I know, my lord―not after the fines the Assembly leveled on your good father. I voted against it! You can be sure many of us did.”

“I know, Demeas,” Kimon assured him. “I was there, even if I wasn’t old enough to vote.”

“They drove your father to his grave, they did―Xanthippos and the others.”

Kimon drew a deep breath but answered with restraint, sad rather than angry: “My father was seriously wounded, Demeas. There was little hope for his recovery.”

“But these ungrateful wretches! If you’d but seen him at Marathon. No one fought better than he did―but they would not even let him put up a monument to himself!”

“But it is true, Demeas, that he could not have won the battle without the others―without you.”

“Well said,” Leonidas remarked, prompting Kimon to add, “In Sparta, no living man is allowed a monument―isn’t that right, Leonidas?”

“Yes. Not even Olympic victors,” Leonidas agreed.

Demeas looked surprised, but not particularly taken with the idea. “But why not? If a man has done something noteworthy, why should he have to die before it is commemorated?”

“Perhaps because too much praise can go to a man’s head―and a man who is top-heavy tends to fall down,” Leonidas explained.

Demeas liked that and laughed heartily, but then he turned to Kimon again and asked, “Is it true, my lord, that we’re all to get ten drachma apiece from the silver mines?” 

“That’s the proposal of the Council,” Kimon assured him. 

“I could use ten drachma!” Demeas admitted. “There’s a break somewhere in the drainage pipe from our latrine, and I need to have the whole thing dug up and replaced. Besides, my daughter’s almost twelve, and I’ll need a dowry for her soon.”

“Ten drachma won’t last for long, though, will it?” a deep voice growled as another man entered the little shop. The newcomer was stocky with a burly chest and a thick, short neck. His short-cropped curly beard and short hair were wet with rain. His chiton came to mid-calf, an awkward length that had neither the elegance of the long robes worn by the rich nor the practicality of the knee-length clothes of workmen and slaves. His nose was rather flat in his broad face, but his eyes were sharp and seemed to glint even in the poor light. They focused directly and pointedly on Leonidas. “King Leonidas, if I’m not mistaken?”
“You are not mistaken, and with whom do I have the honor?”
“Themistocles, son of Neocles.”

“Ah!” Leonidas recognized the name. He had heard much about this man already. But to be sure he was not mistaken, he added, “The man who wanted to build a wall around Piraeus?”

“Yes, that’s me,” Themistocles agreed, his eyes still inspecting Leonidas intently. Abruptly he broke eye contact with Leonidas and turned on the poor shoemaker. “So, Master Shoemaker, you could use ten drachma, but what happens after the ten drachma are used up?”

Demeas shrugged, “At least I’ll have a fixed drainage pipe.”

The others laughed, but not unkindly. Themistocles clapped him on the shoulder and declared, “Indeed, so you would. But what would you say to money that comes in year after year? Not just once, but with every summer?”

“Is there that much silver in the mines?”

“No. That’s the point. The silver won’t go on forever. But if we invest the silver in something that makes Athens strong―really strong―we could multiply the benefits many-fold and keep the money coming in for years into the future.”

“How?” the shoemaker wanted to know.

“You’ll hear about it at the Assembly tomorrow,” Themistocles promised. “But remember what I said. My proposal will put money in the hands of Athens’ poor for generations to come.” Then, without even drawing a new breath, he pointed to a pair of sandals and declared, “Those look about my size.”

Demeas hastened to hand them to him. Themistocles inspected the sandals closely, pulling expertly at the places where they were most likely to come apart, then sat down on the nearest bench, removed the muddy sandals from his feet, and tried on the new pair.

Meanwhile, Kimon, noting that the rain had let up, suggested to Leonidas that they continue….[Outside, Kimon explained Themistocles plan to build 100 triremes, adding] “Themistocles is a brilliant man. My father mistrusted him yet warned me never to underestimate him. Themistocles seems to have an uncanny ability to anticipate developments. Certainly, if Themistocles’ walls had been finished in time, we would have had no need to fear the Persians during the last invasion. Can a navy replace walls? Can it defeat an enemy like Persia before it lands? I don’t know. But I certainly doubt whether even Themistocles can convince the Athenian Assembly―men like Demeas―to give up their ten drachma for the sake of a navy.”
“But the navy would put money in their pockets, too. That was his point,” Eurybiades entered the conversation. “He’s trusting that men much poorer than Demeas will see the advantages of a standing fleet that needs more than seventeen thousand oarsmen―year after year.”

“Yes, that’s what he’s counting on,” Kimon agreed. “But triremes don’t last forever. They ream from beaching too often or grow barnacles from being too long at sea. And once they start taking on water or can’t keep up with the others, they will be discarded like a pair of old shoes. Who will pay then for the new ships? Go down to Piraeus and count the number of hulks rotting on the shore―all once-proud triremes.”

“Athens discards her heroes when they no longer serve her,” Leonidas reflected sadly, adding softly, “Like your father.” Kimon sighed and looked away, not meeting Leonidas’ eyes. “Why do you stay? With the money you paid to an ungrateful Assembly, you could have founded a colony somewhere else. My brother did.”

“I can’t leave,” Kimon admitted, helplessly gesturing to the city around him. “Athens isn’t Aristides and Xanthippos―much less Kallixenos or Pheidon! It’s not even Themistocles or my father. It’s Demeas and all the men like him: men without any particular politics or vision, yet a dogged determination to be themselves. Demeas can’t afford his panoply, and he is certainly no trained soldier like you Spartans, but when the Persians landed at Marathon, he was there with that battered hoplon and his cheap sword, and he stood for six hours with blood gushing from his thigh against the onslaught of an army twice our size.” Kimon shrugged. “I can’t explain it, but it has to do with something in the air here. Freedom―despite the stink of broken latrines.” He paused and turned to look at Leonidas. “And, I promise you, they will fi ght for it as they did at Marathon. They will fight when the Persians come, by land or by sea. They will die fighting rather than surrender their freedom. You can count on that, Leonidas. On us.”

Friday, November 1, 2019

The Empire Strikes -- the Marathon Campaign

August of 2020 marks the 2,500th anniversary of the Battle of Thermopylae.
Leading up to that anniversary, I am posting a series of entries on key events and personalities relevant to that historical event.
 Today I continue the series with a brief summary of Marathon Campaign.

Darius had vowed to punish the independent Greek Cities, Athens and Eretria, for aiding the Ionian rebels. He did not consider them important enough or dangerous enough, however, to warrant a major campaign under his personal command. Instead, he sent a sizable (but not enormous) expeditionary force under Mardonios, who had orders to obtain submission from these two cities. Mardonios was the son of Darius' sister, while one of his sisters was one of Darius wives, and one of Darius' daughters was one of Mardonios' wives -- incest was not frowned upon by the Persian elite. 

Mardonios left Susa in the spring of 492 and assembled his fleet and land forces in Cilicia before proceeding up the Ionian coast deposing Greek tyrants and re-establishing democracies, presumably -- and intelligently -- as a means to increase the loyalty of these cities to the Persian empire. He also conquered remaining outposts of independence such as the strategic island of Thrasos, before advancing deep into Macedonia, which submitted to Persia and was absorbed into the satrapy of "Thrace." The Persian land army continued to advance as far as Thessaly, closing in inexorably on Athens and Eretria from the north.

But the expedition ran into trouble when the fleet tried to round Mount Athos and encountered a violent contrary gale. Allegedly, 300 ships and 20,000 men were lost in this catastrophe. While possibly an exaggeration, the violence of Mediterranean storms should never be underestimated and still sink ships today. Without a fleet and with Mardonios wounded in an engagement that the Persians had won, the campaign of 492 ended. 

Darius needed to rebuild his fleet (that is order ships built in the various shipyards of his empire from Phoenicia to the newly subdued Ionian islands), so the next expedition was set for 490. Mardonios was evidently still disabled by his wounds, since a new commander was named for the next expedition, namely Datis. Although his exact origins are unknown, he was a "Mede" rather than a Persian and certainly not a member of the ruling family. This underlines the fact that Darius did not expect any particular trouble subduing the Athenians. He was annoyed that they had dared to support a revolt against him; he did not particularly respect them. His orders were for Datis to bring the Athenians and Eretrians back to him in chains -- slaves.

Datis' strategy (or the strategy dictated to him) was to strike directly across the Aegean, rather than taking the long way around over the Hellespont as Mardonios had done. The expeditionary force again gathered in Cilicia, and this time the entire army with their horses (in special horse transports) embarked on what Herodotus says was 600 ships. Modern historians have tried to calculate how many man and horses might have been transported by these ships and come up with an estimate a maximum of 24,000 troops and 36,000 crew (sailors) while others, based on the water resources at Marathon that sustained the Persian army for a whole week suggest the maximum number was closer to 16,000. 

Whatever its exact size, the Persian army struck across the water at Rhodes. Here the population took refuge in their city of Lindos and when they had just five days of water left, they asked the Persians for a truce for five days, promising to surrender at the end of that time "if nothing happened to rescue them." Datis allegedly laughed but generously granted the peace. The next day, unexpected, torrential rains (very unusual in the Mediterranean in summer) refilled the cisterns of Lindos. The Persians duly made a treaty of "friendship" with the Rhodians and dedicated gifts at the local temples before sailing onwards. Unclear is just what this "friendship" entailed, but historians suspect Rhodes accepted a kind of subject status that left them nominal independence in exchange for token tribute. 

The Persians struck next at Naxos, evidently taking the island by surprise. Rather than offer resistance, the population fled into the hills. The Persians duly burned the city and enslaved those individuals they could capture before sailing for Delos. Here Datis found the population fled from their tiny island altogether, taking refuge on a nearby island. Datis sent word to them, saying he had orders from the "Great King" (Darius) to honor the sanctuary of Apollo and do the residents no harm. He duly made more gifts to the temple after the people returned to witness his generosity. The message was clear: the Persians demanded political loyalty but respected religious diversity. It was a potent combination designed to reduce resistance to their rule, but it was also an enlightened policy that should not be disparaged. It was also largely successful, bringing the rest of the Cyclades into the Persian camp. 

Datis' expeditionary force arrived on the southern tip of Euboea next and quickly subdued the city of Karystos and proceeded to Eretria itself. Eretria chose resistance, and the Persians chose assault. In six days of bitter fighting, there were heavy casualties on both sides -- until two traitors betrayed their city. The details are lacking, but the descendants of the traitors were encountered a century later, their ancestors having received land elsewhere. Eretria itself was "put to the sword." The Temples were looted and burned, the city sacked and the surviving population (said to be just 780 people including old men, women, and children) were sent to Persia as slaves. 

At last, Datis could focus his attention on the main enemy: Athens. While resting his troops (and cleaning up) he gave Athens a last chance to surrender peacefully. He pointed out that not a single Eretrian had survived in freedom. Meanwhile, the Athenian pleas for help had produced only two positive responses: from Plataea and Sparta. The latter, however, could not deploy immediately. (See: Nevertheless, Athens had an estimated 10,000 hoplites plus 600 more from Plataea, and prospects of another 5,000 Spartans showing up within a fortnight. All three cities had an unknown number of light troops, which may have numbered between 8,000 - 12,000 more men. Given that the Persian army had now sustained some losses, the imbalance of forces was not really so overwhelming even if we take the higher number of 60,000, while it might have been smaller than the Athenian army if it was really only 16,000 strong. In addition, the Athenians would be fighting on their own territory for their own city and way of life. They chose defiance.

Datis sailed his expeditionary force across the narrow straits to land on the north shore of the Attican coastline, roughly 40 kilometers or 26 miles north of Athens. As soon as the Athenians learned where the Persians had come ashore, they sent word to the Spartans and Plataeans, mustered their own men, and deployed to the southern side of the plain of Marathon, blocking the roads to Athens. The two armies now faced one another across the plain of Marathon separated by roughly three miles.

The Athenians had ten generals and one supreme commander ("polemarchos"); one general from each of the Athenian "tribes" or demes, and a more honorary than effective "supreme" commander with no real authority. Once the Athenians had deployed there was a war council to decide what to do next and this proved divided equally between those who wanted to attack and those who wanted to remain on the defensive and force the Persians to attack them. One of the Greek generals, Miltiades, a man with experience fighting with the Persians, argued passionately for attack and convinced the "supreme commander" Kallimachos to cast the deciding vote in favor of an attack. Yet, still the generals rotated the actual command, and Miltiades had to await his "turn" before his day to command came.

Many historians have found hints that the Persians, seeing the entire Athenian army in front of them, concluded that it would be easier to take Athens from the figurative "back door" -- ie via Peireius. That is, if they could sail around the peninsula of Sounion and sail into Peireius harbor, they would by-pass the Athenian army at Marathon and would be able to march straight into Athens unopposed. To do that, however, they needed to keep the Athenian army pinned down at Marathon. This dictated a division of their force, keeping half at Marathon and sending the remainder around the peninsula to take Athens from the rear. 

Although some historians dispute this, the thesis is supported by evidence that there were traitors in Athens (supporters of the deposed tyrant Hippias, who was with the Persians advising them), and by the fact that the Persian fleet appeared in Peireius harbor the day after Marathon -- something physically impossible if the ships had remained in Marathon until the end of the battle, then taken on the exhausted troops. The division of the Persian force into two, with one half remaining in position at Marathon while the other half sailed around Sounion to reach Peireius would also explain, why Militiades chose to attack without awaiting the Spartans, who were, by then, already on the march.

Whatever the reason, on a certain day (we don't know the exact date since modern calendars were not in use), Miltiades chose to attack. The two biggest advantages of the Persians were their cavalry and their archers. If the Greeks could get in close, their better armor gave them an advantage in hand-to-hand combat. The Persian cavalry appears to have camped closer to the springs and pastures on the fringe of the Persian force and it took time to catch, tack, and deploy it. By attacking early, the Greeks stood a chance of getting to grips with the Persian infantry before the cavalry could intervene. The faster they deployed, the greater the advantage of surprise. (They could assume the Persians would be surprised; Greeks did not usually attack Persians.) That left the archers to deal with, but the faster the Greeks advanced the more they could reduce the amount of time they were exposed to a barrage of arrows. 

This translated into a "run" for what Herodotus describes as 8 "stadia" (lengths of the Olympic stadium), or -- in modern terms -- roughly a mile. Indeed, Herodotus makes the claim that the Greeks at Marathon were the first Greeks to run simultaneously into battle. Yet the run has been a point of controversy ever since. Early historians claimed it was a "physical impossibility" to "run" for a mile in full Greek hoplite panoply -- and still be fit to fight in a life-and-death struggle on arrival. This lead many to conclude that the Athenians didn't actually run but march "at the double." 

Recent historians have pointed out that early estimates of the weight of Greek panoply were hugely exaggerated. Modern military experience seems to bear out the plausibility of the run. Soldiers in condition can "jog" for a mile (or indeed more) carrying 30 pounds of equipment, or roughly what a Greek hoplite did. It would have taken them roughly 12 minutes to cover those 8 "stadia" and engage the Persian line -- which, taken by surprise and not particularly worried, was still forming. 

During the course of this run, whether intentionally or unintentionally, the wings became stronger and the center weaker. This should have been disastrous because the Persian center was held by their stronger (read Persian and Medan) troops, while the wings were held by various allied troops of less reliability and skill. This resulted in the Greeks pushing the Persian wings back while the Persian center stopped the momentum of the Greek center. Some versions suggest the Greek center broke, but the wings either joined and attacked the Persians center from the rear or turned toward the center and crushed the Persians between them. Everyone agrees it was a fierce and brutal fight that lasted several hours.

At some point, the Persian forces cracked, panic set in, men started running for their ships.  The Greeks pursued, cutting down many of the Persians as they struggled through the shallows desperate to board a ship.  Ultimately, the Greeks captured seven of those ships. Out of a possible 600 (or if the fleet had indeed been divided -- 300) ships that would hardly have been noticeable from the Persian perspective. What was far more remarkable was that the Persians allegedly left 6,400 dead upon the field of Marathon compared to just 192 Athenian and a handful of Plateans.

It was a great victory for Athens -- and Plataea. The Athenians made much of it -- and the Athenians were very good at telling a good story, particularly one to their credit. Plays were written. Pottery, painting, and sculpture commemorated the victory. Men bragged about participating in the battle on their tombstones. But the 4th century Chian historian Theopompos warned that "the battle of Marathon did not happen  as everyone celebrates it, nor did any of the other  things that the city of Athens brags about and uses to deceive the Greeks." (Fake news!) [Peter Krentz, The Battle of Marathon, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010) 12.]

More important, it didn't reslove anything. Indeed, it only made Darius more anxious to subdue the pesky mainland Greeks. The campaign as a whole had been a success, bringing Rhodes, Naxos, Delos, and Euboea into the Persian sphere of influence. Now only Athens, Thebes, Sparta, Corinth and some lesser cities of Southern Greece remained. In short, no sooner had the bulk of the troops and ships returned than planning for the next campaign could begin. That next campaign would lead to Thermopylae.

Next month I look at the commander of that expedition, Xerxes. Meanwhile....

Spartans and their unique culture are depicted as realistically as possible in all my Spartan novels:


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Tuesday, October 15, 2019

The Chians did not go crawling on their bellies....

The Ionian Revolt was hastily suppressed, leaving hundreds of men dead -- and the women and children in slavery. Herodotus specifically mentions the castration of attractive boys. In this excerpt from A Heroic King, one of those slave boys, now serving the concubines of a Persian Ambassador on a diplomatic mission, finds himself in Sparta 

“What can I sell you today, young sir?” said the woman behind the sweets stand, bringing him back to the present.

“Oh, I’m just a slave,” he hastened to correct her, ever conscious of his status. “But―but I do have money to buy―for my mistress. I’m sure she’d like some of these.” He pointed to the honey squares.

Only those?” the saleswoman asked, astonished. “What about some of the raisin and walnut tarts? Or my lemon squares? Do you want to test my wares to be sure they are good enough?” she suggested with a little wink.

Danei understood her gesture as one of kindness from a woman showing sympathy for a boy in bondage. Her kindness lured a smile from him as he glanced up and asked, “May I try the lemon squares and the almond tarts, please?”

She smiled back and bent to retrieve a knife from under the counter to start cutting into her wares. His eyes focused hungrily on the sweets, Danei did not realize someone had come up behind him until a deep male voice asked, “Where are you from, young man?”

Danei nearly jumped out of his skin. He turned to look over his shoulder at the owner of the voice and felt his heart in his throat. It was one of the Spartiates―tall, muscular, tanned, and wearing bronze armor including a helmet tipped on the back of his neck, the nosepiece resting on his forehead. Danei wanted to flee. He started to shrink back, away from this man who smelled of sweat and bronze and freedom. “I―I’m―no one,” Danei told him. “I’m sorry.” He turned to run, but the woman stopped him.

“There’s nothing to be afraid of, young sir. That’s just the master come to snatch a slice of cheesecake for himself. Here.”

Still poised to flee, Danei turned to look at her. She was smiling at him, an almond tart on the palm of her hand. “You need it more than he does,” she noted with a little nod in the direction of her master―who, incomprehensibly, laughed at her impudence.

Danei gaped. No Persian’s slave would risk using such a tone of voice with his master, and if they did, they would probably have their tongue torn out. “It’s all right,” she assured him gently, “the master won’t hurt you.”

“She’s right. I won’t.”

Danei still hesitated, but now it was in shame rather than fear. The man was the embodiment of masculinity, and Danei felt the scar between his legs as if he were naked. He looked down at the pavement beneath his feet, rooted to it from sheer humiliation. He was remembering how they had been lined up and castrated on a bloody block, one after the other, without so much as a glass of wine. Two men held the boys down backward over the block. The surgeon made a few expert cuts with his knife. The removed genitals landed in a bucket that had to be emptied several times before the day was over, and then each new eunuch was pushed off the block to make room for the next victim.

Danei had struggled too much at the wrong moment. The surgeon’s knife slipped and the man cursed in professional annoyance. Another man grabbed Danei and crushed a cloth down into his wound with all his might, ignoring Danei’s screams. Danei passed out. When he came to again, a crude bandage was made fast to his crotch with tarred twine and the bleeding had slowed to a trickle, but he would never again walk without a limp.

He was yanked from his memories by the saleswoman. She reached out and took his hand, pressing her pastry into it. As he looked up and met her eyes, he saw only his mother looking back at him, not just pitying him but encouraging him, too. He closed his eyes, unable to bear it.

“You speak with the accent of the islands,” the terrifying Spartan hoplite insisted. “Which island are you from?”

Danei looked up at him and mouthed the word. When was the last time he’d dared utter it? “Chios, master,” he whispered, and then he dropped his eyelids over his eyes to hide his tears. The word, said at last, instantly conjured up images: the sun coming up over the Aegean, the smell of the soil when his father turned it with a plow, the humming of the bees in their little orchard, his mother singing ….

“Chios?” the Spartan inquired, unsure if he had read the youth’s lips correctly.

Danei nodded, his eyes still down and staring, unintentionally, at the Spartan’s sandaled feet while his free hand tugged unconsciously at the hem of his shirt, pulling it down to cover his crotch more completely.

There was a pause. Then the deep voice said softly, “A man’s heart―not his extremities―make him a man. My life was once saved by a squadron of Chian triremes. I know the Chians did not go crawling on their bellies to the Persians, but died upright, as free men. I believe the sons of such men have the hearts of lions―no matter what the Persians have done to their bodies.”

Danei gasped and looked up. Their eyes met only for an instant, and then the Spartan turned and was gone. Danei stood rooted to the pavement and watched the Spartan continue down the street. He was filled with a strange sensation of lightness.

Danei’s father had been boatswain on one of Chios’ proud triremes, and he had been killed at sea in the great sea battle. More than half of Chios’ ships had been crushed and sunk in that battle, but the remainder, with shattered rams and crushed sides, limping and listing, had been dragged to Chios by the triumphant Persians. There the captive men had been hog-tied and run up the halyards of their own ships like bunting. There they had been left to die slowly of thirst as the sun burned them like rotting grapes. Danei had recognized some of the men, the fathers and brothers of friends, his cousins, a maternal uncle. While the men died overhead, the Persians had herded the boys onto the open decks and divided them into categories: the galleys, the mines, whores, eunuchs ….

Danei stared after the Spartan until he turned a corner and was lost from sight, and still he stared after him, trying to remember with every nerve of his body what he had said. A man’s heart, not his extremities…. The image of his father, dressed as he had been the day he sailed away for the last time…. His father had died a free man…. The sons of such men…. He turned and looked at the saleswoman in wonder.

She was no longer alone. The exchange had attracted two other Spartiates. They were younger than the man who had spoken to Danei. The first, wearing a striped chiton and hair braided at a rakish angle, remarked, “You can take his word for it, young man. He knows what he’s talking about.”

“But―who was he, master?”

“That was Leonidas, the man who should be king of Sparta.”

Danei looked again in the direction in which the Spartan had disappeared, as if hoping he might re-emerge, but he did not. When Danei turned back, the other Spartiates, too, had faded into the crowd. Only the woman selling sweets was still there. “How many do you want?” she asked.


Tuesday, October 1, 2019

The Ionian Revolt

August of 2020 marks the 2,500th anniversary of the Battle of Thermopylae.
Leading up to that anniversary, I am providing a series of posts on key events and personalities relevant to that historical event.
 Today I continue the series with a brief summary of the Ionian Revolt -- the incident that triggered the first Persian invasion of 490 BC. 

The revolt of Greek city-states of Ionia against the might of Persia triggers analogies with Star Wars. Modern (Western) sympathy is immediately drawn to the underdog -- the rebels -- fighting a presumably "evil" empire. But history is rarely as neat and unequivocal as Hollywood.

The Ionian Revolt was the child of a certain Aristagoras of Miletus, a tyrant who owed his position of privilege to Persia. Aristagoras, not content with ruling the wealthy city of Miletus, was tempted by prospects of even greater wealth when Naxian exiles requested his assistance in being restored to their wealth and positions. Thinking that by assisting them he could put himself in power in Naxos, Aristagoras sought Persians support for the expedition and received no less than 200 "Persian" triremes (i.e. ships manned by client-states) under a Persian commander. The attack began in 499 -- and was a miserable failure. The Naxians were intelligent enough not to try to fight 200 triremes at sea. They withdrew behind their walls and after 4 months the large expeditionary force was out of supplies. In the face of failure, no one had the resources to pay for the ships, crews, and troops, who they had expected to reward with loot.

Aristagoras feared Persian retribution for luring them into this debacle and, to save his own skin, decided to foment revolt among all the Greek cities of the Eastern Aegean then living under Persian rule -- after obtaining promises of aid from the still independent Greek cities. He went first to Sparta, where he tried to win King Cleomenes (known as unstable and inclined to foreign adventures) to the cause. Herodotus famously describes how he sought to ignite Cleomenes' greed with a map of the world in which Sparta is a tiny dot at the fringe and the Persian Empire stretches from edge to edge. All this would be his, Aristagoras suggested to Cleomenes. Hearing, however, that it was a three-month march from the sea to the Persian capital of Susa, Cleomenes indignantly dismissed Aristagoras and ordered him to leave Lacedaemon. When Aristogoras resorted to promises of up-front cash payments, Cleomenes' daughter Gorgo intervened saying: "Father, you had better go away, or the stranger will corrupt you." [Herodotus, Book Five: 51]

Aristagoras went next to Athens where he spoke before the entire Assembly. Again he conjured up images of Persia's immense wealth and assured the Athenians they could triumph because the Persians had become soft and effeminate. The Athenian Assembly made up of thousands of presumably educated (as well as uneducated) adult males proved easier to bamboozle than one Spartan girl. The Athenians agreed to send 20 triremes to assist the rebels with an unknown number of marines (hoplites) on board. (The usual number was 20 per trireme or in this case 400 hoplites.) The only other city on mainland Greek to provide assistance was Eretria, which committed five triremes to the common cause.

These forces proved sufficient for a daring attack overland on the Lydian capital of Sardis (present-day Sartmustafa in Western Turkey) in the spring of 498. The move was so unexpected, they caught the defenders flat-footed. The latter offered no resistance and fled to the acropolis. Then, whether intentional or accidental, the Greeks set fire to the city. The Persians and residents fled to the open market to escape the flames and there, allegedly, their numbers intimidated the Greeks into returning to their ships -- or, possibly, the Greeks had no stomach for the senseless slaughter of women and children after achieving the objective of destroying the city and its sanctuary.

This striking success rapidly encouraged other Greek cities to join the revolt. From the Bosporus to Cyprus cities declared their independence from Persia. This, of course, begs the question 'why?' While Aristagoras' motives for revolt were self-serving and Athenian Eretrian motives were venal, these subject city-states must have been driven to rebellion by other considerations. 

Suggestions that the cities were bled dry by Persian "tribute" or economically ruined by Persian trading monopolies won't wash; the archaeological evidence shows that these cities were building monuments and accumulating reserves of silver coinage. In short, they appear to have prospered under Persian rule. References to loss of liberty or independence, on the other hand, are a bit too vague to justify such a risky venture as revolt. 

The real issue appears to have been Persian settlers/colonists that took land from locals, and -- emotionally more explosive -- conscription.  Peter Krentz in his excellent monograph on the Battle of Marathon notes that the Persian invasion of Scythia had entailed the conscription of tens of thousands of Greek sailors, and the Naxos fiasco had required as many as 40,000. [Peter Kretz, The Battle of Marathon, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010) 70.] The Greeks on the Ionian islands and coast along with those in Cyprus may have believed that these demands were only the beginning. They may also have feared that the next target of Persian aggression was likely to be other Greeks. They may have wanted to avoid a fratricidal war fought in the interests of distant Susa. Then again, fratricidal war was the order of the day throughout most of ancient Greek history. Maybe they were simply swept away by the prospect of jumping on what appeared to be a winning bandwagon.

Whatever their reasons, joining the revolt was a mistake. Persia was a huge, centralized Empire. Like a supertanker turning, it took a little time to react, but once it was on course it was a juggernaut. 

The Persians caught up with the rebel raiding force at Ephesus and defeated it with heavy Greek losses. The survivors, however, managed to escape in their ships.  In Cyprus, this pattern was repeated, the rebels lost the land battle and the Ionians sailed back to their own cities leaving the Cypriot cities to face the Persians alone. One by one the Persians battered the Cypriot cities into submission by siege. Siege ramps and tunnels testify to the intensity of these sieges, and the loss of life must have been considerable, as the evidence suggests these sieges lasted for months.  The last stronghold fell in 496.

Meanwhile, after their retreat from Cyprus, the remaining rebels engaged in no further joint campaigns on land. Instead, the Persians started to pick off the rebel cities one at a time. In 495 the target was Miletus, where it had all begun, and the remaining rebels rallied to fight a naval battle. They pulled together 353 triremes off the coast of Miletus and in the Battle of Lade went down in ignominious defeat -- each blaming the others for turning tail and running first. Miletus fell in 494, and the other islands went down one by one until by the end of 493 there were no rebels left.

The Persians did not go gentle with rebels that resisted to the end. At each island, the victors formed a human chain and walked from one side of the island to the other collecting all the survivors. According to Krentz, "they castrated the best-looking boys, took the prettiest virgins for the king, and burned the cities and their sanctuaries." Those of either sex not pretty enough for "special treatment," were simply sold into common slavery. 

Unsurprisingly in light of this treatment, many islands capitulated on terms. These city-states avoided complete destruction and enslavement. However, the tribute owed to Persian was re-assessed and, tellingly, the cities were forced to agree to submit all future disputes to Persian arbitration. Darius apparently blamed the incessant Greek rivalries (the exiled Naxians who had talked Aristagoras into supporting a restoration attempt?) for the problems.

Darius also blamed the Athenians and Eretrians for meddling. Allegedly, he ordered a servant to whisper to him three times whenever he sat down to dinner: "Master, remember the Athenians." [Herodotus, Book Five: 106] Darius didn't. In 490, he sent an expeditionary force to punish both Eretria and Athens for the impudence of fostering rebellion in Ionia. But that is the subject of next month's post.

Spartans and their unique culture are depicted as realistically as possible in all my Spartan novels:


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Sunday, September 15, 2019

An Improper Proposal

One of the key events leading to the confrontation between Persia and Greece at Thermopylae in 480 BC was the subject status of the Greek cities of the Eastern Aegean. These cities had submitted to Persian overlordship in the reign of Cyrus, but they soon grew restless. When the "tyrant" of Miletos Aristogoras grew tired of Persian suzerainty over his city, he looked for allies to help him regain his independence. The first place he went was to Sparta. The excerpt below from A Peerless Peer is based on Herodotus.

Aristagoras opened his appeal: “I hope, Cleomenes, that you are not too surprised by my visit. After all, Sparta is the leading city in all Greece, and you are the Spartan king with the greatest intelligence and vision.” Cleomenes bowed graciously at the compliment, although he had far from forgotten the insults of this morning.

“Now, the fact is this,” Aristagoras continued: “the Ionians have become slaves to the Persians. This is not only their shame, but yours.” Cleomenes raised his eyebrows. “It is your shame, King Cleomenes, because—as I said earlier—the Spartans are the leaders of Greece; and if any Greek is enslaved, then it diminishes your own glory.”

“Ah,” Cleomenes remarked ambiguously.

“But if you do that which is pleasing to the Gods and come to the aid of your oppressed brothers, you will find rich rewards. I do not speak only of the rewards of glory and fame—although these would be yours in abundance—but also the rewards of riches quite beyond counting.”

“We have highly trained accountants here,” Cleomenes corrected the impertinent stranger.

“So I heard—your women.” Aristagoras laughed to show he recognized this was a joke.

Cleomenes only frowned.

“Please, may I show you something I had made and transported all this way merely to show you where your own interests lie?”

Cleomenes was scowling now. “What?”

“If I may send to my quarters?”

“Of course.” Aristagoras asked one of the attending helots to go to his quarters and ask his own slaves to bring “the map.”

Shortly afterward, four of Aristagoras’ slaves appeared, carrying the awkward box offloaded at Limera. Cleomenes was curious, and he got up to stand over the slaves as they pried open the wooden box, revealing a large bronze sheet on which a map of the world had been etched. “Here,” Aristagoras explained, pointing, “are the Gates of Herakles. Here is Italy and Sicily, and here is Hellas, with this dot representing Sparta.”

Cleomenes pointed, “And that is the Isthmus, Corinth, and there is Athens.”

“Exactly! Now, look here. These are the oppressed cities of Ionia. Here is the Persian provincial capital of Sardis, and here—all the way over here—is the principal seat of the Great King, Susa. But his Empire does not end here. It goes on and on and on to the very ends of the earth in the East. The riches of all this vast Empire would be yours, if only you defeat the Persians in Ionia.”

Cleomenes gave the tyrant-emissary a skeptical look.

“I have seen your army and I have heard that it is the best in the world—that is why I wonder so much at its staying here idle when your brothers cry out to you to save them from the Persian yoke. You will have no trouble beating the Persians. They fight in turbans and trousers, and their weapons are bows and short spears hardly better than their arrows. They are softened by a life of luxury and rich foods, nothing like your tough young men! If you defeat these effeminate men with their perfumed hair and painted faces in Ionia, you will not only have freed your brothers, but this whole, vast Empire will be yours for the taking.” He gestured with his hand.

“Odd that these perfumed men with painted faces have conquered such a vast empire, then, isn’t it?” Cleomenes noted.

“That was decades ago, under Cyrus. The new generation is soft.” Aristagoras dismissed Cleomenes’ objection and pointed to the map again. “Look, here is Lydia, a fine, rich country where the noblemen have houses filled with gold; and then Armenia, rich in cattle; here are Assyria and Cilicia and Media; and here Arabia, rich in spice, Phoenicia, the master of the Mediterranean, and Egypt, with all the riches of the Nile; here is conquered Babylon and humbled Media. Here, beyond the banks of the Choaspes, is Susa.” He pointed to a star on the map. “This is where the Great King lives and keeps his treasure—the tribute paid by all these subject states and peoples. But beyond is still half the Empire—there is Parthia, Bactria, and India.” He paused again and looked at Cleomenes’ face.

Cleomenes’ eyes were narrowed, and he appeared to be calculating.

“Look!” Aristagoras drew his attention back to the lower left-hand quarter of the map, where the Greek peninsula was etched onto the bronze. “Isn’t it time you stopped squabbling over this insignificant rocky scrap of land and turned your attention—and your superb army—to places of great fertility and wealth? Why do you shed the blood of your beautiful young men in interminable skirmishes with the Argives and Arcadians? Why not set before them a task worthy of their skills and courage? There is no gold or silver to be taken from Messenia or Arcadia—poor, rocky places that they are. But here!” He pointed again to Persia and Susa. “Here are treasures beyond imagination, and all waiting for whoever is bold enough to seize them.”

Cleomenes’ eyes were swinging from Greece to Susa and back again. At last, he asked, “Just how far is it from Sparta to Susa?”

“Your troops, I am told, march very fast. I was told that they can be in Messenia in a day or Athens in three. So if they were to set off from Miletos marching at that pace, they could reach Susa in three months.” Aristagoras was being generous. Even Persian royal messengers using relays of horses took a month. He did not really think a Spartan army could cover the distance in three months, but he thought this sounded plausible enough to impress upon Cleomenes how vast the Persian empire was.

Cleomenes, however, took a step back from the map, which he had been examining closely, and announced sharply, “Stranger! Your proposal to take the Lacedaemon Army three months’ journey from the sea is highly improper! You must leave Sparta before sunset!”