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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