Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

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:


       Buy Now!                                         Buy Now!                                     Buy Now!