Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

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!”

Sunday, September 1, 2019

The Rise of Persia

Next year, August 2020, marks the 2,500th anniversary of the Battle of Thermopylae.
In the coming year, I plan a series of posts that consider key events leading up to that key battle and the individuals involved. I start the series today with a brief summary of the rise of Persia.

It has been alleged that all ancient history (as we define it in the West) "sprang from the conflict between Persian (Iranian) culture and that of the Greco-Roman world." [Ernle Bradford, Thermopylae: The Battle for the West (New York: De Capo Press, 1993) 40.] While that may be a bit grandiose, there can be no doubt that the Persian empire was home to one of the greatest civilizations of the ancient world. 

The Persian ascent started with the revolt of the Persian King Cyrus against the overlordship of the Medes, which historians estimate occurred between 553 and 550 BC. It resulted in the establishment of the Achaemenid dynasty. Having established himself in the old Mede empire, Cyrus rapidly added what had been Assyria and present-day Armenia. Just three years after coming to power, he defeated the famous King Croesus and absorbed Lydia (now Eastern Turkey) into his empire as well. Within eight years of coming to power, his empire already stretched from Anatolia to the Indus and from Armenia to the Persian Gulf. From this power base, he turned his armies against Babylon and conquered that as well. Babylon at this time included (as vassal states) Syria and Phoenicia -- or what we know as the Levant. 

Significantly, Cyrus pursued a policy of religious tolerance toward his subject peoples. This included the emancipation of the Jews forced into slavery and exile by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar. The Jews were allowed to return to Palestine and to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. Cyrus appears to have enjoyed widespread respect for his wisdom and fairness -- by contemporary standards -- even among Greek observers. Herodotus, for example, tells the story of how, after the conquest of Babylon, a courtier suggested to Cyrus that the Persians leave their arid and mountainous homeland and resettle somewhere more fertile and pleasant. Cyrus allegedly replied that it was a bad suggestion because (to paraphrase) soft-countries breed soft men and soft men soon become slaves. Cyrus was killed in battle on his way to conquer Egypt in or around 530 BC. 

There are good reasons to doubt the "official version" of what happened next, given the fact that this was written by the man who ended up on the Persian throne. Historians suspect that Darius was actually the leader of a conspiracy against the legitimate heirs of Cyrus, but this is impossible to prove. According to Darius, Cyrus' son Cambyses II succeeded his father and successfully subdued Egypt, but failed to take Nubia. Instead, he turned back to put down a revolt only to die of "natural causes" along the way. The alleged revolt in Persia was led by an "imposter" claiming to be Cambyses brother. Darius and his co-conspirators assassinated him before proclaiming one of their number, Darius, the new "King of Kings."

Historians' suspicions that Darius' real role are both fed by the fact that Darius was not widely recognized as the legitimate successor to Cyrus/Cambyses. Indeed, according to Darius' own admission, he had to subdue no less than 19 rebellions against his rule in his first year in power. These included revolts led by other members of the royal family. Darius put them down and dealt ruthlessly with the "liars." For example, he bragged about publicly torturing the leaders and their lieutenants before killing them. 

Yet it would be wrong to see Darius as a barbaric tyrant. His rule was characterized by sophisticated administrative reforms, starting with the reorganization of the empire into 23 "satrapies" or provinces. Significantly, he also established a new legal code. This was based in large part on existing laws, judgments, and customs, but the notion of writing it all down into a single code -- with supplemental "case books" recording judgments of the past -- was novel; remnants of these laws still find expression in Iranian law today. Notably, the Persian legal code relied heavily on evidence and precedent. There were also severe penalties for corruption -- particularly on the part of judges. Allegedly, one corrupt judge was skinned alive, his skin worked into leather and then used to cover the chair of his successor.

Darius also introduced standard units for measuring everything from grain and oil to land, i.e. he established standards for weights and measures. In addition, he introduced a sound (gold) currency and fixed rates of tribute based on the assessed wealth of the various provinces. He employed an extensive, educated bureaucracy to ensure the enforcement of the laws, the collection of taxes and the recruitment of troops across his wide and diverse empire. They, in turn, developed sophisticated systems of accounting, recording, and reporting.

Darius built magnificent monuments to himself and he built splendid palaces. He also founded a new capital at Persepolis. The gardens of the palace there have been uncovered by archaeologists revealing paths and plants laid out in harmonious patterns, colonnaded pavilions and a sophisticated system of irrigation. Yet Darius was no decadent despot lolling in luxury. He was more interested in economic development and administrative control. These led him to build a network of roads across his vast empire, and the first "Suez Canal" -- a canal connecting the easternmost branch of Nile River to the Red Sea. This was 101 miles long, 16 feet deep and wide enough for two triremes to pass one another with their oars extended.  

Yet for all his bold ventures and successes, Darius was a cautious man. He did not respond to events spontaneously but after due deliberation and investigation. Before each of his wars of conquest, he first sent out spies to investigate the political and physical landscape of his intended target. We have evidence of these "scouting expeditions" in the Indus Valley, the Balkans, Greece, and Italy. The fact that Darius controlled the fleets of Phoenicia, Cyprus and Egypt made Persia a naval power as well as a land power. Furthermore, at the height of his power, Darius had created an empire that could field 700,000 fighting men.

Beside such might, Sparta's 6,000 citizens and 6,000 Perioikoi were not particularly impressive. Yet it is worth noting the following incident recorded in Herodotus (Book One: 152-152):
...the Spartans dispatched a fifty-oared galley to the Asiatic coast, in order, I suppose, to watch Cyrus and what was going on in Ionia. The vessel put in at Phocaea, and the most distinguished of the men on board, a man called Lacrines, was sent to Sardis to forbid Cyrus, on behalf of the Lacedaemonians, to harm any Greek city or they would take action.
 Cyrus' response was to ask some Greeks at his court "Who are the Spartans?" On learning who they were and how small their city was, he replied:

I have never yet been afraid of men who have a special meeting place in the center of their city, where they swear this and that and cheat each other. Such people, if I have anything to do with it, will not have the troubles of Ionia to chatter about, but their own.

In the event, Cyrus did not have anything to say about it -- but his son and grandson did indeed bring war to the Spartans as future entries will outline.

This series continues next month with "The Ionian Revolt." 

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


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Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Night at Thermopylae

Athough historians doubt the tale told by Diodorus of a Spartan raid into Xerxes camp on the night before the final battle at Thermopylae,
the story is just too good to exclude from a novel. Here's an excerpt from "A Heroic King," which describes how it may have come about.

By the time Dienekes and Oliantus reached Leonidas' tent, a heated argument was raging among Leonidas' closest friends. "For all we know, he's a fake, a plant, a traitor," Alkander was arguing.

"So what?" Prokles answered. "He came out of Xerxes camp, and he knows where the bastard's tent is."

"But why should he lead you to it?"

"Because I'll have a sword up his ass!"

"So he'll lead you to Hydarnes' tent, and when you're surrounded by Immortals, he'll squeal."

"So what? Then I die sooner rather than later. What the hell difference does it make? But if I can get him to lead me to the Great Asshole himself, there's a chance I could cut off the snake's head. If Xerxes is killed, that whole anthill won't be able to take another step!" Prokles was gesturing contemptuously toward the Persian positions. "They'll be headless -- or rather, all Xerxes' brothers will be so busy fighting one another for the throne, they won't have another thought for us. That's the real advantage of their polygamy, you know; they produce packs of royal whelps who hate one another more than anyone else in the world."

"And what do you propose to do? Stroll through the West Gate by the light of the full moon and say 'cheers' to Persians sentries as you walk past?"

"You're still a stupid little--"

"Prokles!" Leonidas cut him off and turned to Dienekes. "Everything alright?"

"Yes, an eager young lad by the name of Gylis is on his way right now. What's this all about?"

"We have in the form of this Tyrrhastiadas of Cyme," Prokles answered, "a man in our midst who knows the exact location of Xerxes' tent. He could lead me to it. All I need to do is slip inside --"

"The unguarded, isolated royal tent--" Alkander mocked sarcastically.

Leonidas clapped his hands once sharply to shut Alkander up, and Prokles continued, "And cut his throat. Then the whole war, let alone this battle, will be over."

Leonidas looked straight at Dienekes without a word.

"It sounds like a good idea to me. I'd say, six men. No more and no less."

"Why so many? THey'd just attract attention!" Prokles protested.

"The idea is too good to put all our hopes on the likes of you!" Dienekes retorted bluntly. "We should send in two teams of three men each. One can take the path that leads up from the Hot Gates over the spot where Xerxes had his throne. The helots can show the way up, and our deserter can show them the way down. The other three can take a fishing boat around to the back of the camp," he gestured vaguely toward the lights that dotted the dark stretch of the coast beyond the Malian Gulf. "From there they can ask their way to Xerxes' tent, which will hardly be a secret. Given the number of Ionian troops with the Great King's army, no one will take any note of a trio of Greek hoplites. We should have thought of this days ago."

"Choose the men, Dienekes -- anyone but yourself," Leonidas warned.

"For the three men to go over the mountain: Mindarus, Labotas, and Gallaxidoros. They're all born mountaineers, used to hunting in the harshest parts of Taygetos. For the sea route: Prokles here, Bulis, who speaks some Persian and has seen Xerxes face-to-face, and...." He paused for a moment, thinking carefully, before deciding, "Temenos."

Leonidas started slightly at this last choice, but he had told Dienekes to make the selection and had no grounds for calling his decision into question. "Fetch them," he ordered Meander.  

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Thermopylae: The Night Raid

The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, writing in the first century BC, related a story about the Battle of Thermopylae some 400 years earlier that was not recorded in Herodotus. Diodorus and other later historians claim that on the night of the second day of the battle, knowing that his flank had been turned, Leonidas sent a raid into the Persian camp in order to murder the Persian Emperor Xerxes. Most modern historians dismiss this tale as mere legend. Today I want to look more closely at the legend.

The Pass at Thermopylae as it looks today.

In his book on the Battle of Thermopylae, Ernle Bradford* both relates and dismisses the tale of a night raid in the following language: "Diodorus and others also tell a tale, which most authorities have considered suspect, that Leonidas, knowing all was lost, personally led a suicidal attempt on the Persian lines to try to kill Xerxes. We can be sure that this is untrue, for we know that Leonidas stayed to the last at Thermopylae, as was his duty and as befitted a Spartan king." (137)

Tom Holland in his book Persian Fire** is less conclusive commenting in a note that: "Several sources claim that Leonidas, on the eve of the Spartan' last stand, launched a raid on the royal tent and was killed. It is hard to know what is made of this story -- since Leonidas himself certainly died in battle -- unless it hints at a garbled memory of a foiled mission to assassinate Xerxes." (282)

As both historians emphasize, the notion of Leonidas leading a raid into the enemy camp on the eve of the final day of battle is both absurd and demonstrably untrue. First, the C-in-C of an large army composed of diverse allied forces does not take the role of a platoon leader. Leonidas was C-in-C because he commanded the trust and respect of the allied commanders; he could not risk the disintegration of the entire operation by exposing himself to unnecessary risk. Likewise, a Spartan king's place in the line of battle was very rigidly circumscribed by tradition. A Spartan king led from the front protected only by his personal guard, which included Olympic victors. It was considered a great honor in Sparta to be allowed to fight in front of the king. Finally and most importantly, Leonidas died far too publicly on the third day of battle. There were thousands of witnesses to his last hours on the Persian side who lived to tell about it. His corpse was fought over, then mutilated and displayed. Herodotus had the opportunity to speak with the survivors of Thermopylae and his account of Leonidas' death can be trusted in this. There is no way Leonidas led -- and died -- on a raid the night before.

But does that mean the raid itself is impossible? 

In his article "Thermopylae: A glorious sacrifice or failed 'black operation'" Stefanos Skarmintzos notes that Diodorus claims Leonidas had additional Laconian troops with him in addition to the 300 Spartiates of his personal guard. Certainly Spartan fielded 5,000 perioiki hoplites at the Battle of Plataea, and it is thus probably that Leonidas had at least some perioiki troops with him at Thermopylae as well. This may have included the Skiritan, Sparta's light cavalry scouts. Skarmintzos suggests Leonidas may have taken elements of the Krypteia with him as well. 

Assuming there was a Krypteia at this time (and more and more historians question this, arguing it was not created until after the helot revolt of 465), the members of such a unit would have been well-trained and experienced in both night operations and murder. Yet, even if the Krypteia had not yet been created, is it completely unreasonable to imagine some sort of equivalent to the British SAS or U.S. Navy Seals? If not a permanent institution, we should not forget that all Spartan hoplites were trained to move and operate in the dark and the creation of an ad hoc "special task force" to undertake a dangerous and secret mission is hardly unreasonable.

Furthermore, Leonidas had every reason to want to kill the tyrant who had initiated the invasion of the Greek peninsula. Yes, his personal mission was to command the defense at the Pass. That was his place and he knew it was his destiny to die there. However, that is not the same thing as assuming that everyone else was going to die with him or that the sacrifice of his life would be in vain, i.e. in a defeat. 

Leonidas did not go to Thermopylae to die. He went to halt the Persian invasion. His "job" was to do that anyway he could. The assassination of the man driving forward that invasion, of the supreme leader of an absolutist state, offered the prospect of, at a minimum, creating temporary confusion in the enemy camp and, at best, causing the entire invasion to collapse due to fights over the succession. If a spy or a scout suggested to Leonidas that it might be possible to smuggle Spartan (or other Greek) troops into the Persian camp with a chance of gaining access to Xerxes tent and killing him, Leonidas would have been a fool not to attempt such an operation. 

As Skarmintzos puts it: "If the night raid [had been] successful, today we would talk about the great victory at Thermopylae and how a few Greeks resisted the might of an Empire." Yet because it failed, we cannot be sure it ever happened at all. 

Like Stephen Pressfield, I find the notion of a night raid by a select body of Spartan troops tasked with eliminating the man who commanded the might of Persia irresistible as a novelist. A night raid, therefore, features in:

* Bradford, Ernle. Thermopylae: The Battle for the West.(New York: Da Capo Press, 1993)

** Holland, Tom, Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West (New York: Anchor Books, 2005)

Monday, July 15, 2019

The Captain from Kythera - An Excerpt from "A Heroic King"

Eurybiades was the Spartiate elected admiral of the combined Greek fleet that faced the Persians in 480. We know almost nothing about him, but I knew he had to be a character in my biographical novel about Leonidas -- and I couldn't resist associating him with my own home: Kythera.

In this scene, an Aegian penteconter has been terrorizing Athenian shipping in Lacedaemonian waters, and Leonidas has joined his fledgling navy to try to intercept her. After successfully forcing her to surrender, the officers of the penteconter are brought aboard the Lacedaemonian trireme.

"The crew of the penteconter is first rate," the [Perioikoi] captain continued, "but then, that's what you'd expect of the Aeginans. It's no wonder their symbol is the sea turtle. No sooner is an Aeginan born that he waddles down to the sea and starts to swim. They can row and sail before they can talk."

Leonidas glanced back at their prize, and then forward to where two perioikoi marines were escorting the Aeginan officers to him. "But they failed to capture their prize," Leonidas pointed out.

"Pah! They never intended to capture her. They drove her on the rocks intentionally."

"Why would they do that?" Leonidas wanted to know. "There's no booty from a wrecked grain carrier."

The captain shrugged. "We'll have to ask them." He nodded toward the two prisoners. One was a grizzled veteran with shoulder-length hair, more grey than brown, and wearing the breastplate, greaves, and helmet of a marine. His face and arms were burned a dark brown from decades on decks in the blaze of the Mediterranean sun, and the lines around his eyes were cut deep into his skin. The other man looked much younger by contrast, although he was no youth. His almost-black hair was cut short at the back and his beard was neatly trimmed.

Leonidas started violently. The elder man was none other than his childhood friend Prokles, who had been exiled for dereliction of duty just before reaching citizenship. Almost as astonishing, he was accompanied by a young Spartiate, whose name escaped Leonidas at the moment.

"Prokles! What are you doing preying on innocent ships -- and under the turtle of Aegina?"

Prokles, who had been fussing at the guard and not focused on the men on the afterdeck, broke into a grin. "Well, I'll be damned! I never expected a landlubber like you to catch me off guard like that." He glanced at the perioikoi captain and nodded once in respect, giving credit where he thought it was due.

"You didn't answer my question," Leonidas pointed out and turned to the younger man, who at least had the decency to look worried, to add, "and you need to explain yourself, young man!"

"I went off active service at the winter solstice, my lord," he spoke up at once, "and I'm on leave from my syssitia."

"With what possible excuse?" Leonidas wanted to know.

"To look after my affairs, my lord. My estates are on Kythera."

"Since when did looking after your affairs include attacking innocent merchant ships?"

"That's the second time you've used the adjective 'innocent,'" Prokles pointed out. "But you are using the term inadvisably. The Aeginans provided our ship and are paying us. The Aeginans do not view Athenian ships as 'innocent,' while Eurybiades here has a grudge against the Argives, whose ships have been our principal target."

"The Argives burned my kleros to the ground and murdered every man, woman, and child on it," Eurybiades explained at once.

Leonidas well remembered the damage wrought by the Argives on Kythera, but he still did not approve of someone taking the law into his own hands. "In my waters, I'll decide who can be attacked and who can go free," Leonidas countered. 

"Your waters be damned!" Prokles spat in the direction of the side of the ship, and the perioikoi marines stiffened in alarm, looking to Leonidas for orders to put the impudent man in his place. Leonidas signaled for them to relax, even as Prokles continued. "Power has gone to your head, Leo. We didn't break any law. Can we help it if an Athenian captain puts his own ship on the rocks?"

Leonidas addressed himself to the baffled perioikoi marines, who appeared ready to slit Prokles' throat for his impudence. "Untie them. They will do us no harm." The perioikoi obeyed with obvious reluctance, and then moved a short distance away, both curious and suspicious.

Prokles demonstratively stretched and wriggled his shoulders, while Leonidas asked, "Just what are the terms of your commission with Aegina?"

Prokles shrugged. "Ask Eurybiades. He's the captain. I'm just the commander of marines."

Leonidas looked at the younger Spartiate, even more amazed. "How did you come by an Aeginan commission? And where did you learn seamanship?"

Eurybiades, his hands now free, gestured vaguely around them. "Here, my lord. I spent my holidays here, not just on Kythera, but on the waters around it."

"Who is your father?"

"Eurykleides, my lord."

The name was familiar. Eurykleides had a distinguished career behind him and had served once as ephor. He stood a good chance of election to the Gerousia when the next vacancy came up. Generally seen as conservative, he had nevertheless, Leonidas now remembered, spoken forcefully in favor of the building of a fleet, and he also supported the law to allow helots to improve their status through service on Lacedaemonian ships. 

"My mother killed herself when she realized the Argives had breached the wall of the courtyard," Eurybiades continued, breaking in on his thoughts. "My father remarried and has two younger sons by his second wife. I inherited my mother's property here."

"Where did you recruit the crew of the penteconter?" Leonidas asked next.

"Oh, mostly in Skandia."

"They're Kytheran, not Aeginan?" the perioikoi captain asked astonished.

"For the most part," Eurybiades agreed, "maybe a third are Aeginan."

Monday, July 1, 2019

A Spartan Admiral

In 480 BC, the Persian invasion of Greece was confronted at sea by a rag-tag fleet composed of 271 triremes and 16 penteconters. Although the bulk of this fleet (147 triremes) was built in Athens, the command was entrusted to a Spartan, Eurybiades, son of Eurycleides. He is a forgotten Spartan hero.

According to Herodotus, this was because “the other members of the confederacy [against Persia] had insisted on a Lacedaemonian commander, declaring that rather than serve under an Athenian they would break up the intended expedition altogether.” (The Histories: Book 8:2)

Herodotus rightly stresses the refusal of the allies to accept Athenian command, and this undoubtedly had historical reasons. Athens was not a significant sea power in the 6th century BC, and it did not build its massive fleet until after the discovery of silver in Laurium in 483 BC. In short, in 480, Athens was a parvenu naval power. The naval powers of the 6th Century, Corinth and Aegina, both had good reason to be wary of Athens. Aegina and Athens had been involved in an undeclared war for more than a decade, while Corinth and Athens were manufacturing centers that increasingly competed in trade. It is not, therefore, surprising that these and other cities rejected Athenian leadership. Noteworthy is that they wanted a Spartan commander. After all, Corinth provided the second largest contingent of ships (40 triremes) and four-times as many as Sparta’s modest if respectable contribution. Corinth, with a long history of naval power and such a significant number of ships, could have claimed command for itself.

That Corinth instead requested a Spartan commander cannot be dismissed as mere subservience to Sparta. Corinth was the city that had forced Sparta to break-off an invasion of Attica and ended Sparta’s ability to take the Peloponnesian League to war without the consent of all members. Corinth was an ally of Sparta, not a vassal-state or satellite. That Corinth joined other allies in insisting upon a Lacedaemonian commander, therefore, suggests that the demand was more than anti-Athenian and not merely pro-Spartan; it indicates that Sparta was considered a naval power capable of providing competent leadership at sea.

We know that Sparta conducted a campaign against Samos in the last quarter of the 6th Century which required considerable naval power in the form of transports and fighting ships to defend those transports. In addition, Cleomenes’ first attempt to depose the Athenian tyrant Hippias also entailed naval capability since the Spartan task force was landed at Phalerum. Theoretically, these earlier naval expeditions could have been conducted with perioikoi ships and crews, but Herodotus explicitly tells us Eurybiades was Spartiate. 

Furthermore, in Herodotus’ list of ship contingents to the battles of Artemisium and Salamis, he makes a notable distinction between ten “Spartan” ships at Artemisium and sixteen “Lacedaemonian” ships at Salamis. This implied that ten ships were financed and at least officered by “Spartans,” whereas the sixteen ships at Salamis included an additional six ships provided and manned by Perioikoi. Significantly, one year later, King Leotychidas led a naval expedition, demonstrating that naval command was not ipso facto beneath the dignity of Sparta’s kings. In short, at least some Spartiates at the start of the 5th century BC, most notably Eurybiades, had obtained naval experience and demonstrated competence at sea.

Contrary to popular opinion, there is no evidence that Eurybiades was a mere figurehead. While Eurybiades was not the originator of the winning strategies (all of which are attributed to Themistocles), Herodotus makes it clear that Eurybiades' support was essential for the implementation of Themistocles plans. Eurybiades commanded enough respect to be obeyed once he made up his mind, which would not have been the case if his position had been purely nominal.

The two instances in which Eurybiades opposed Athenian wishes/suggestions highlight his very real power. At Salamis, the position of greatest honor was given to the Aeginans, to the disgruntlement of the Athenians. While Athens had every reason to feel that they deserved pride of place because they provided half the fleet and had lost their city, Eurybiades’ decision was the right one for the commander of a multi-national force. Athens was going to fight regardless, but Eurybiades had to retain the loyalty and morale of the smaller contingents that resented Athenian dominance. Aegina’s was an important naval power with a significant contingent of triremes. By honoring Aegina, Eurybiades effectively prevented the smaller allied contingents from falling away or losing heart at a very critical moment.

Even more significant is Eurybiades’ role in preventing a fool-hardy destruction of Xerxes’ bridge across the Hellespont. The Persian fleet withdrew across the Aegean after the battle of Salamis. The victorious Greeks, waking up on the day after the Battle to find the Persian ships gone, gave chase. They reached the island of Andros without even catching sight of their quarry and stopped to consult. Themistocles at once proposed sailing north to destroy the bridge across the Hellespont by which the Persians had entered Greece and would need to retreat. Eurybiades wisely pointed out that trapping the undefeated Persian army in Greece was the last thing that the Greeks wanted! (This was before the battle of Plataea, and Persian land forces were only marginally weakened by the brief delay at Thermopylae.) Without an escape route, the Persians would have no choice but to lay waste to all Greece, using their superior numbers to slaughter everything in their path. The fact that Themistocles could even suggest such a course of action will not have endeared him to the men from cities other than Athens that had not already been raised to the ground. Certainly, Eurybiades was supported by all a majority of those voting and the plan was abandoned.

This was Eurybiades last significant act. Herodotus records that he was honored in Sparta, along with Themistocles,  for his role in defeating the Persians at sea. Then he disappears from history. So what do we know of him?

In Herodotus, Eurybiades serves primarily as a foil for Themistocles. Themistocles is the intriguer. He is constantly seeking and taking bribes, he sends secret messages to Xerxes, he takes credit for ideas that are not his own. Themistocles is depicted as a brilliant tactician and a gifted orator (something Athenians particularly admired), and he saves Greece. But as Herodotus portrays him, he is a shady character nevertheless.

Beside Themistocles, Eurybiades is an almost featureless shadow. At Artemisium, Herodotus claims he took a bribe from Themistocles to stop him from ordering the fleet to withdraw. Yet according to Herodotus, Themistocles was himself bribed by the local inhabitants. Given the fact that this was at the very moment when Eurybiades' King was making his unequivocal stand at Thermopylae, I personally find it inconceivable that Eurybiades considered retreat. After Thermopylae fell and Artemisium was militarily worthless, yes, but not before. Some of the other contingents might have been in a panic (so were many of the other Greeks who fought with Leonidas) but Eurybiades is unlikely to have been any less steadfast than Dienekes and rest of Leonidas' troops. In short, like Themistocles himself, may have taken the money without any intention of retreating.di

Otherwise, Herodotus depicts him diligently consulting with the commanders of the various contingents, calling conferences to discuss the course of action, and hearing everyone out before taking a decision. He appears to have been scrupulously respectful of the independence and rights of all the allies and to have diplomatically kept Athens from dominating the alliance. Once a decision was made, he acted decisively and commanded the respect of all involved – including the Athenians. His performance at sea is not singled out for special praise, but he positioned the Lacedaemonian ships in the middle of the line, where, as admiral, he would have the best overview.

The fact that he disappeared from history after this short moment of glory in 480 hints at one last characteristic: Eurybiades was no Pausanias and no Lysander, who turned his military success into a political agenda. He appears to have faded again into the anonymous ranks of the Spartan line, but his successful foray into history suggests that Sparta had greater naval competence than is widely recognized and foreshadows Sparta’s victory over Greece’s greatest naval power a half-century later – at sea.

Spartans and their unique culture are depicted as realistically as possible in all my Spartan novels. Eurybiades is given a small role in "A Heroic King":


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Saturday, June 15, 2019

A Girl's Education - An Excerpt from "A Boy of the Agoge"

The co-educational nature of education in Sparta was the scandal of the ancient world, and particularly the physical education component of that education drew the voyeuristic attention of the many visitors that flocked to Sparta's religious festivals. 

In this excerpt from "A Boy of the Agoge," Leonidas and his friends have gone to see Alkander's sister participate in a girls' race and find themselves surrounded by "strangers" (i.e. Greeks from outside of Sparta.)

 "Does Hilaira have any chance of winning?" Prokles asked skeptically.

"She certainly does," his mother told him firmly.

"Why are there so many strangers here?" Leonidas asked because he noted that almost everyone around them, although Greek, was speaking a different dialect -- most Ionic.

"Oh, that's because they don't have maiden races in other cities," Prokles grandmother explained. "In fact, they don't let their maidens out of their houses at all." Leonis knew what she was talking about because she had lived in Tegea for a time when Lysandridas was in exile there.  

"So how do they go to school?" Prokles wanted to know.

"They don't."

"They don't go to school?"


"And that is the proper way of things!" one of the men standing near them insisted, butting into the conversation firmly. He addressed himself to the boys rather than the women. "Everything a girl needs to know in life, she can learn at her mother's knee in the safety and seclusion of her own home. By letting girls run around in public view, you only encourage licentiousness and disobedience! The less a girl sees and hears, the better she is."

The three Spartan boys stared at the stranger in open bafflement. Because he looked at least 40 and by his rich clothes and carefully coifed hair appeared to be a man of wealth, they dared not contradict him.

It was Prokles' grandmother who answered him sharply. "IF it is such a scandal, why are you here?"
"See! That's just what I mean!" the man declared, still addressing the boys. "Silence. SILENCE is a woman's greatest virtue." Then, turning on Leonis, he sneered at her. "Flaunting your bodies is not half so bad as the way you chatter and interfere in men's affairs!"

"If you are afraid of women's words, go back where you came from!" Leonis retorted.

"I intend to do just that!" the man said indignantly and would have turned away, but Leonidas stopped. 

"Excuse me, sir."

The older man looked back. "Yes?"

"May I ask where you are from, sir?"

"I am from the great city of Athens!" the man proclaimed loudly enough to make others take notice.


Leonidas looked so surprised that the man's curiosity was aroused. "Does that surprise you?"

"It does, sir."

"Why?" the man asked, perplexed. He evidently felt that his nationality should have been obvious by his clothes and accent.

Leonidas hesitated. He glanced a little uncertainly at Prokles' grandmother. She could not know what he was going to say, but she awaited it expectantly. "It's only that I was taught Athens was a great and powerful city, sir."

"As indeed it is, boy --  nothing like this provincial pig-sty you call a city! Why, your whole acropolis wouldn't qualify as more than a collection of third-rate district temples in Athens, and your agora could fit inside ours three time over!"

"I accept your word for it, sir, but it surprises me nevertheless -- although I knew you had walls..." Leonidas trailed off enticingly. 

"What surprises you, boy?" The man asked impatiently, frowning, sensing something behind Leonidas' words that he could not identify yet.

"It surprises me that you are so easily frightened."

"Frightened?" the Athenian demanded, flabbergasted and uncomprehending.

"I mean," Leonidas still sounded baffled and respectful because it was a guise he had long since honed to perfection in the syssitia. "If you fear even the words of women, how you must tremble before the spears of men."

The man's jaw dropped in shocked outrage, and there was no knowing what he would have said if around him other spectators, both domestic and foreign, hadn't hooted with laughter. Angrily the Athenian pushed away into the crowd, with a loud sneer of "Whores and their whelps!" tossed over his shoulder.

Prokles leaped after him, apparently intent on making him retract this insult, but his mother caught him by the neck of his chiton. "Leave it! Leonidas won the round, and he knows it. Here's your sister now."

Based primarily on Nigel Kennel's comprehensive study of the Spartan agoge, the first novel of my Leonidas Trilogy depicts the Spartan "upbringing" one year at a time through the eyes of young Leonidas and his (fictional) friends. Experience the Spartan agoge in the age of Leonidas in: