Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

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.

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