Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

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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