Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Persian Ambassadors in Sparta

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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:


       Buy Now!                                         Buy Now!                                     Buy Now!