Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Spartan Ambassadors in Persia

As described in my last post, Sparta sent two men to Persia to atone for the Persian ambassadors murdered by the Spartans. Here's an excerpt from A Heroic King describing the encounter between Xerxes and the Spartiates Sperchias and Bulis -- with a short introduction describing Xerxes initial reaction.

“What did you say?!” Xerxes sprang up from his throne in anger and stared at his uncle Artaphernes. Then, not giving the older man a chance to answer, he demanded in a tone of outrage. “Spartans? Is that what you said? Spartan Ambassadors dare to come here, all the way to Persepolis, to crave audience with me!”

“Yes.” Artaphernes was not in the least intimidated by his nephew. He did not think he was particularly gifted, brilliant or competent ― but he had no interest in civil war either and was content to let him be the “Great King.”

“How dare they!” Xerxes demanded.

“Oh, they are nothing if not impudent,” Artaphernes observed. “Have you forgotten that they ‘warned’ Cyrus to keep out of Greece? No one here had even heard of them at the time. An insignificant city, but a singularly self-important one.”

“Self-important? You call a people that could murder two ambassadors carrying an offer of peace and friendship ‘self-important’? A strange choice of words, uncle! I call such men barbarians. Did you not hear the account Zopyrus made of their brutality?”

“Zopyrus was badly shaken.”

“As I think we all would have been, uncle, under the circumstances” Xerxes told him primly.

Artephernes raised his shoulders and conceded. “No doubt you are right, but I would advise you to hear these men out nevertheless.”

“Why?” Xerxes asked sharply. “I have half a mind to ―”

“I know what you have a mind to do, and understandable as it is, I still advise you to hear them out.”

“Give me one reason why I should?”

“Curiosity, your magnificence, curiosity.”


“What is your name and your station?” The young man asked Sperchias in a haughty voice.
Sperchias bowed his head respectfully and announced. “I am Sperchias son of Aneristus and my colleague is Bulis son of Nicoles. We are full Spartan citizens, as our former king Demaratus can verify.”
“Are you noblemen? Men of property?” Xerxes wanted to know.
“We are both,” Sperchias assured him.
“Why did your king pick you to be slaughtered? Why you and not someone else?”
“Our king did not send us here,” Sperchias answered.
“And could not have made us come, if he had wanted to,” Bulis added gruffly. “We are here of our free will.”
Xerxes’ eyes shifted briefly to Bulis and then settled again on Sperchias. “So, if your king did not send you, why are you here?”
“As I said before: we are here to make reparation for the murder of your emissaries. To offer up our lives in payment.”
“We do not understand. Who sent you, if not your king?”
“Sparta has two kings, but the kings do not make policy. Sparta’s citizens in Assembly make policy. It was the Spartans that killed your ambassadors, and the Spartans who make reparations, not our kings.”
“The Spartans ― collectively,” Xerxes sound skeptical, or was it contemptuous?
“And why did they collectively choose you?”
“They did not; we chose ourselves,” Sperchias answered, but because Xerxes looked as if he did not understand, Bulis added, “Have you never heard of volunteers? Does no one in your whole Empire ever do anything of his free will?”
Xerxes raised his eyebrows and his expression lifted somewhat as if he were intrigued, even pleased. “You volunteered to come here and offer yourself as sacrifices?”
“Yes,” Sperchias and Bulis said in unison.
“Ah.” Xerxes leaned back in his throne and his eyes shifted from one to the other. Then he looked up at the older man to the right and behind his throne and smiled slightly. “Very interesting. So you will accept any sentence the Great King makes?”
“Our lives are yours to do with as you please.”
“You are either very brave men or very stupid. Do you not know the punishment for crimes against the Great King?”
“King of the Medes,” Sperchias began, “we have heard that your father instituted many very wise laws, one of which is that no man should be put to death for only one crime, but always given a second chance ― “ Xerxes drew a breath to answer, but Sperchias kept talking, “but we know this does not apply to us because what the Spartans did was not a crime but an offense against the gods. Also, we have heard that men who speak against you have their tongues twisted out of their mouths, and men who give false witness have their eyes burned out with hot pokers. We know that men caught spying have their ears cut off and then spikes are pushed into their ears until their eardrums bleed out of their heads, while those who rise up in rebellion against you have their skin cut off from their living bodies and are then hung up to feed the flies. We have not heard the specific punishment for men who kill the personal representatives of the Great King, but we presume,” Sperchias glanced once at Bulis and he nodded almost imperceptibly, “we presume that it is terrible.”
Xerxes considered the men before him, his eyes again shifting from one to the other. Then he nodded once and spoke in a loud voice pitched at the chronicle of history more than the men in the room. “Then hear the sentence of the Great King. The King of the Persians and the Medes, of the Parthians, Babylonians, Elamites, Scythians, Indians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Armenians, Arabians, Nubians, Ionians, Kretans and many other peoples, Xerxes son of Darius will not sink to the level of beasts who murder ambassadors in violation of the laws of civilized men. The Great King will not do that very thing for which he holds your countrymen in the most abject contempt. Nor will he,” Xerxes was raising his voice, whether for greater effect or because he was genuinely agitated, “nor will he, by taking reprisals on two brave yet insignificant sacrificial lambs, absolve the Spartans of the burden of guilt for their crime. You cannot make reparation ― brave and noble as your gesture may be ― you cannot save your fellow citizens from the punishment they deserve ― and will reap!
“So, remain as long as you wish in my capital. My servants and treasury are at your disposal. You will want for nothing as long as you wish to remain my guests, and when you wish to return, you will be escorted by a company of cavalry, who will see to your safety and comfort.
“But take this message back to Sparta ― her kings and her citizens alike: Sparta is not yet absolved of its barbarous crime and has yet to pay the price of offending the law of civilized nations.”


Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Ambassadors from Persia -- and Back

We remember battles more than averted battles, which is why military history is popular and diplomatic history an arcane discipline. Yet as the German military philosopher Clausewitz pointed out: the decision to go war lies with the victim of aggression, not the aggressor. What aggressor wouldn't be happy to obtain his objectives without war? 
When the Persians decided to invade Greece, they gave the Greek city-states a chance to surrender to them peacefully instead. Sparta's answer was vividly depicted in the Hollywood film "300"  -- but it is only a very small piece of the fascinating diplomatic story around the Persian Wars 490-479.

Darius gave Athens, Eretria and all the other cities of Greece the opportunity to submit without war.  Many Greek states, having witnessed the brutality of the Persian suppression of the Ionian revolt, submitted voluntarily. Key among these was Aegina -- a rival of Athens that sat dangerously close.

Sparta's most dangerous enemy and neighbor, on the other hand, was Argos. Sparta had just defeated Argos a decisive battle that included slaughtering a generation of fighting men. It would have been understandable if the Argives had sought Persian "protection" by submitting. That they didn't is to their credit. 

What they did do, however, is less clear. Herodotus relates that conflicting stories circulated about the policy of Argos. The Argives themselves said they offered to join the anti-Persian coalition on the condition they received a 30-year truce from Sparta -- and joint command; the Spartans offered them a single voice in a trio of commanders composed of the two Spartan kings and the Argive commander. Other (unnamed) sources claimed that the Persians sent word that they (the Persians) considered the Argives "of the same blood" (going back to a joint ancestor in the Iliad) and so should not fight one another. Fact is that Argos refused to join the anti-Persian coalition, and so remained a threat to Sparta, but did not exactly submit to Persia either.

Both Athens and Sparta rejected the Persian offer to "come to terms" without conflict with exceptional -- indeed shocking -- vehemence. In both cases, contrary to prevailing customs, the Persian envoys were killed. The Athenians threw the Persians into a pit and the Spartans threw them down a well. 

Curiously, however, it was the Spartans rather than the Athenians who suffered remorse. Herodotus tells us in Book Seven (133-136) the following story. The Spartans (also notable) had a temple to Agamemnon's herald Talthybius. After throwing the Persian ambassadors down a well to their death, the Spartans noticed strange things happening at the temple to Talthybius (some sources speak of strange lights and sounds) and realized that the gods were angry.  They also made a connection between the murder of the Persian Ambassadors and the anger of this god and felt compelled to appease his anger.

So, the Spartans held frequent assemblies at which they asked for volunteers to go to the Persian court. What they expected is made clear by the question asked at Assembly: "Is there any Spartan willing to die for his country?" The fate awaiting these men was expected to be so horrible that the question had to be asked repeatedly before two volunteers were found: Sperchias, son of Aneristus, and Bulis, son of Nicoles. The Spartiates "both men of good family and great wealth, volunteered to offer their lives to Xerxes in atonement for Darius' messengers who had been killed in Sparta." 

The two sacrificial envoys set out for Persia, stopping first at the palace of the Persian satrap on the Asian coast of the Aegean, Hydarnes. The latter feasted the Spartan ambassadors with great pomp and during the meal advised the two Spartiates to become "friends" to the Persian king. He drew attention to his own wealth and position, and then told the Spartan ambassadors that, being men of merit and courage, that if they submitted to Xerxes they might find themselves "in authority over lands in Greece which [Xerxes] would give you."

According to Herodotus, the Spartan envoys answered: "Hydarnes, the advice you give does not spring from full knowledge of the situation. You know one half of what is involved but not the other half. You understand well enough what slavery is, but freedom you have never experienced.... If you ever did come to experience it, you would advise us to fight for it not with spears only, but with axes too."

So the Spartan ambassadors continued to Susa and were brought before Xerxes. As soon as they entered the King's presence, the royal bodyguard tried to force them to bow down on the floor in an act of abject submission or worship, but the Spartans absolutely refused, fighting back against the guards that tried to push their heads to the floor. They said Spartans did not worship "a mere man like themselves." They also, somehow, managed to tell Xerxes why they were there.

Xerxes with restraint quite uncharacteristic of him (if we are to believe Herodotus' other tales about him) did not order the two Spartans tortured, flayed alive, dissected, or dismembered. Instead, he replied that he "would not behave like the Spartans, who by murdering the ambassadors of a foreign power had broken the law which all the world holds sacred." Xerxes "had no intention of doing the very thing for which he blamed them." Thus to their utter amazement, not only were Sperchias and Bulis' lives spared, they were also allowed to return to Sparta in all honor. 

There was only one catch. Because Xerxes had refused to take the lives of the ambassadors, the debt had not been paid to Talthybius, nor had the Spartan crime against the recognized international law of diplomatic immunity been atoned. Sparta still owed not only Persia but the gods for what they had done to the Persian ambassadors.

Both the murder of the Persian ambassadors and the mission of Sperchias and Bulis are described in "A Heroic King":

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