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Friday, May 15, 2020

Fractious Allies - An Excerpt from "A Heroic King"

At the start of the month, I pointed out that Leonidas had to be a savvy diplomat to have forged the anti-Persian alliance of 480 BC -- and retained the cooperation of the bickering members. This excerpt from "A Heroic King" attempts to provide an inkling of the divisions in the coalition.

The guardsmen made way for him, and he found himself facing five men: the representatives from Mycenae, Tiryns, Aegina, Troizen, and Thespiae. The sight of Demophilus drew a smile from Leonidas. “Demophilus! When did you get here?” He embraced the Thespian before acknowledging the rest.

Demophilus held Leonidas’ arm and looked him hard in the eye. “I came as fast as I could. We heard about your oracle.'”

 “'Yes, and what of your own?”

Send your children and your wives to the halls of Fair Helen, for the Muses have fled before the horns of Hektor’s avengers and the harvest of Helicon will soothe the wounds of Perseus’ sons, even as the lions of Thespiae live forever beside the Divine Twins.

“Your wives and children are welcome. Spartiate families will each host a family of Thespians, and your children will play with ours on the banks of the Eurotas. We, my brother, will pit our strength against the bulls of Persia with the courage of lions.”

“And what of us?” the Aeginan asked indignantly. “Will you abandon us?”

“Of course not! Why would we?” Leonidas asked back. “Our position at Thermopylae and Artemisium provides as much protection to Aegina, Mycenae, and Tiryns as to Thespiae.”

“The position, yes, but not the command!” the Aeginan retorted hotly. “We will not fight under the Athenians. Athens, with their brand-new fleet manned by amateurs, has no right to command the rest of us. Indeed, they do not even have enough men to man their fleet. They have asked Chalcis to provide oarsmen for twenty of their triremes and have requested the poor of Plataea to bring up to strength the crews of the rest of their fleet. Put an Athenian in command of the fleet, and you don’t know where it will end up―maybe plundering Aegina before continuing on to take Kythera, or simply running away to Sicily like the oracle told them to do!”

Leonidas was shocked by two facts: the bitterness of Aegina’s opposition to Athenian leadership, and the fact that his casual assurance to Themistocles about Sparta not claiming naval command was already known. “And what does Corinth say?” he asked, starting back toward the theater and forcing the others to accompany him in an agitated group, trailed by his guardsmen.

“Corinth is as outraged as we are!” the Aeginan assured Leonidas.

This sounded too self-serving to be accepted at face value―except that the other men were nodding, including Demophilus.

“Megara is outraged, too,” the Mycenaean added. “They have threatened to withdraw from the coalition altogether if Athens is given command of the naval forces.”

“And Troizen agrees,” the Troizen representative asserted emphatically.

“How many ships do these cities represent?” Alkander asked.

“Megara and Aegina have twenty triremes each, and Troizen five; Corinth has forty. Together it’s nearly a hundred.”

“Would Aegina accept Corinthian command?” Leonidas asked the Aeginan.

“Adeimantus? No. He’s a tile-maker, not an admiral. Put him in command and the whole fleet will soon be cowering behind the Isthmus.”

That had been Leonidas’ impression, too, but it was one opinion he would have preferred not to have confirmed. Why couldn’t the Corinthians have given their command to the experienced and unshakable Erxander? How could they let internal rivalries get in the way of sound military decisions? As it was, the second-largest contingent of ships was commanded by a man who was only partially committed to the fight. A stand at Thermopylae would be totally pointless unless the Greek fleet held the Persian ships at Artemisium. If the fleet failed, the Persians would simply bypass Thermopylae and land their troops somewhere south of the Hot Gates.

“Who, then?” Leonidas asked the Aeginan. They were rapidly approaching the theater, where a a lively debate was evidently in progress―at least, there were a large number of catcalls, boos, and hisses being hurled at the speaker.

“Sparta, of course,” the Aeginan answered without hesitation.

“Sparta’s fleet is also young―and much smaller than Athens’.”

“Not as young as Athens’, and you did not build it with the declared intention of crushing us!” the Aeginan reminded Leonidas.

Although Leonidas personally believed that crushing Aegina had only been a pretext to convince the Athenian Assembly to build the fleet, he could not deny that Themistocles had argued his case by promising the humiliation of Aegina.

“We will not accept Athenian command!” the Aeginan reiterated emphatically, seconded by his colleague, who declared, “Nor will Troizen.”

Leonidas nodded and stopped. He could see into the theater and noted that the speaker was from Kos, an island bringing just two triremes and two penteconters to the coalition. The speaker had clearly tried the patience of his audience with his long-winded defense of Athens’ claim to naval command.

Leonidas turned to the Aeginan. “Sparta will provide an admiral, if that is the wish of the majority of the coalition members that have naval assets, but we will not actively claim command at sea.” Turning to Alkander, he requested of his friend, “Please go in and tell Sperchias that. Bring me word of the decision, when there is one.”