Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

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.”

Friday, May 1, 2020

Hold for Making of a Hero IV - Diplomat

Fans of “300” may find it hard to think of Leonidas as a diplomat.  In the Hollywood cartoon, Leonidas is portrayed as the brutal antithesis of a diplomat: he personally throws a Persian ambassador down a well.  But there is no more historical evidence that Leonidas committed this crime than that Xerxes was a monster. The historical record, foggy and imprecise as it is, suggests that far from being a tactless brut, Leonidas was probably a very savvy diplomat. 

Before turning to Leonidas' role as a diplomat, it is useful to remember that Clausewitz claimed that war was diplomacy by other means. This may explain why Sparta, popularly known as a militaristic society, was in fact a city with a long history of effective diplomacy and high regard for the diplomatic profession.

Sparta founded the first non-aggression pact in recorded history when it stopped seeking to conquer its neighbors but sought defensive alliances with them instead. A series of bilateral treaties evolved into what became known as the Peloponnesian League. While initially this organization was an instrument of Spartan hegemony, which required Sparta's allies to follow her lead, in or about 500 BC the allies successfully asserted their power and effectively converted the League into an alliance in which every member - including Sparta - had an equal vote.

Sparta’s diplomatic history, however, started earlier. According to Herodotus, for example, Sparta sent an envoy to the Persian court in mid-6th Century, long before the Persians had become interested in Greece. Allegedly, the Spartan envoy warned the Great King against enslaving Hellenes - which prompted the bewildered master of the Eastern world to ask who (in the hell) the Spartans were?

The Spartans also maintained a temple dedicated to Talthybius, the herald of Agamemnon. It was here that eerie lights and strange noises were allegedly seen and heard after the murder of the Persian ambassadors sent to obtain earth and water in 491. Eventually, the Spartans became so concerned about arousing the wrath of the gods by breaching the diplomatic immunity of the Persian ambassadors they sent two men as sacrifices to Xerxes to atone for the murdered ambassadors. Both men were volunteers and Spartiates of good family, Sperchias and Bulles.

Although usually dismissed as simply “natural,” the fact that Sparta forged an alliance together with Athens, Corinth, Aegina, (all hated rivals of one another!) and other lesser cities to oppose the Persian invasion of 480 is also a brilliant Spartan diplomatic achievement. I say Spartan, because the election of Sparta to lead on land and sea suggested that Athens would not have been able to hold this alliance together without Spartan influence. Arguably, it was Leonidas’ ability to put together a “coalition of the willing” to fight against Xerxes, more than his untimely death at Thermopylae, that was his greatest legacy.

Several of Sparta’s best commanders were also excellent diplomats. Brasidas comes to mind as a man whose greatest power came not from the strength of his arms, but his ability to win over allies and detach cities from the Delian League. Likewise, Sparta’s success in Syracuse was certainly not a military success, no Spartan hoplites were in action at any time. It was, however, an enormous diplomatic success that severely weakened Athenian strength and morale.

The weaker Sparta became, the important it was for Sparta to forge alliances and out-wit rather than out-fight her enemies. It may be an indication of weakness, but it was nevertheless a diplomatic coup that Sparta was one of the first city-states in Greece to forge an alliance with a rising Rome, for example.

All in all, Sparta's diplomatic culture deserves much more attention and research. A comprehensive work on Spartan diplomacy from the Archaic to the Roman Periods would be a welcome addition to existing scholarly literature. For now, however, let me return to the subject of Leonidas.

The evidence for Leonidas’ diplomatic talent is indirect rather than explicit. It is evident in what he did, rather than what is said about him.  Quite simply: During his brief reign, Leonidas managed to forge a coalition of Greek states willing to oppose the Persian invasion and to convince this loose coalition of independent and proud city-states to agree to a unified command.  The significance of such an achievement can be measured by the fact that ten years earlier Athens had been unwilling to place even her own army under the command of a single Athenian; no less than ten generals shared command of the Athenian army at Marathon.  Equally notable, while Leonidas’ brother Cleomenes alienated Lacedaemon’s Peloponnesian allies to the point of provoking revolt, Leonidas won over new Allies such as Mycenae and Tiryns.  

As for the incident with the Persian ambassadors, Herodotus tells us that the Spartans shared the guilt for the murder of the ambassadors.  According to Herodotus, the entire city was threatened by ill-omens and the Spartan Assembly met repeatedly in order to find volunteers from among the citizens willing to appease the Gods by dying in atonement for the murdered Persian ambassadors.  If, as when Cleomenes’ burned the Sacred Wood near Argos, the crime had been committed by either of the Spartan kings, the Spartans would have expected/demanded that the king bear responsibility -- not the citizens. In short, whoever killed the Persian ambassadors, it wasn't Leonidas (or Leotychidas) and so the entire Spartiate population felt collectively guilty about it – something that suggests the Persian emissaries had not been the victims of a spontaneous act of violence but rather condemned by the Spartan Assembly.  (Something which in turn suggests that Spartan Assemblies could be quite rowdy affairs, but that is a subject for another day….)

Leonidas' sophisticated diplomacy is an important theme in the third book of my three-part biographical novel of Leonidas: A Heroic King.