Ancient History & Civilisation


The Persian Wars

When they had finished dining, they had begun the drinking and the Persian [Attaginus] said as follows to the Greek, a man from Orchomenus, who was sharing a couch with him. ‘Since you are my companion at table and we have shared in the same libations, I want to leave you with a memorial of what I think, so that you may have foreknowledge and be able to decide what is to your own advantage. You see these Persians dining here and the army which is camped up by the river: in a short while, out of all these people you will see only a few left alive.’ As the Persian said this, he shed copious tears… Then he said, ‘My friend, no man can turn aside what must come about from God… Nobody wants to heed even those who say what is trustworthy. Many of us Persians know this but we follow, bound by necessity. This is the most hateful anguish of all among men, to understand much and to prevail in nothing.’

Herodotus, 9.16, on the Persian–Theban drinking-party
before the battle of Plataea (479 BC)

When the sixth century BC began, the Persians were living in a trivial kingdom south-east of modern Shiraz in Fars in Iran. It is most unlikely that any Greek, Egyptian, Jew or Levantine had ever heard of them. They had contacts with the more civilized court at Susa, seat of the Elamite kings on their western borders, but their own society was tribal, their riches still mainly in their flocks. At his accession, their king would drink sour milk and chew the leaves of the terebinth tree. No Persian bothered to learn to read or write. Their values were much more straightforward: tell the truth, ride a horse and shoot arrows.

Between the 550s and 520s the Persians overran the entire Near East from Egypt to the river Oxus. They profited from discontent in several of the major neighbouring kingdoms, the total absence of a popular nationalist opposition and their own hardy style of warfare with bow and spear on foot and horseback. Susa, Sardis, Babylon and Memphis fell to invaders who had never even seen a city, let alone cities of such splendour. In 530 their great King Cyrus died in an aggressive war against a tribal army out east in central Asia beyond the river Oxus. The Greek historian Herodotus claimed to know at least seven Persian versions of Cyrus’ death, but the one which he chose to tell had none of the others’ solemnity. Cyrus’ opponent, he wrote, the tribal queen Tomyris, had taunted him for being ‘insatiable for blood’.1 When he attacked her army and was killed, she proved her point by filling a bag with blood, hunting for King Cyrus’ corpse and stuffing its head into the bag to give it more of the blood it had craved.

The Persians, like the Greeks, worshipped many gods, except for a small minority who respected the dualist teachings of their reforming prophet Zoroaster (of uncertain date, but perhaps c. 550–520 BC). Wherever they went, they worshipped the local gods of the land, not through ‘tolerance’ but through prudence. On conquering Babylon in 539, King Cyrus was approached by many groups of petitioners who wanted favours for cults which the previous Babylonian rulers had harmed. Among them was a group of exiles from the Near East who asked for leave to rebuild a temple to their favoured god in their homeland and to restore its cult-objects. These petitioners were Jews, deported to Babylon about fifty years earlier. Cyrus gave them permission, as we can still read at the start of the biblical Book of Ezra, and so these Jews returned home to Judaea to honour their particular god, Yahweh. In due course they developed in their homeland the Temple-cult which would remain central to Jewish worship for nearly six centuries. Like the Greeks, who ignored Judaea, Cyrus had no idea of the momentous implication of his decision, one among many which he made in Babylon. His favour gave Yahweh’s devoted supporters the upper hand among their own fellow Jews in Judaea, without which ‘God’ might have remained the cult of a minority.

In western Asia, too, Cyrus’ generals were open to approaches from prominent petitioners. They included Greeks from the east Greek city-states who were offering surrender and sometimes, like the exiled Jews, bringing favourable oracles from their local gods. Persians had no idea of citizenship or political freedom. Unlike the Greeks, they had never lived through a military hoplite reform and towns were simply not their sort of thing. Cyrus is said to have described the agora, or ‘market-place’, in Greek cities as a place where people met to tell lies and cheat each other.2 Noble Persians preferred their country ‘towers’ and parks (‘paradises’, the origin of our word) where they could plant trees and hunt wild animals on horseback (on their seal-stones, we see them spearing foxes, outrageously, with a sort of three-pronged trident).

‘Luxury’ was widely invoked to explain their conquering progress. The Greek cities of Asia were said to have gone soft because they indulged in too much scent and finery and therefore capitulated to hardy Persian warriors. In fact, there was brave local resistance: ‘luxury’ was irrelevant to the Greek defeat and the Persians outmatched the Greeks in Asia with their manpower and the art, learned in the Near East, of heaping mounds against city-walls so as to overtop them. Some of the eastern Greeks fled westwards to escape the whole ghastly conquest. They were not being unwisely ‘Hellenocentric’, as multi-cultural critics might nowadays suspect. The conquering Persians settled some of their faraway subjects as garrison-troops and colonists so as to hold down Asia; tribesmen from the Caspian Sea were drafted west to new settlements with names like ‘Cyrus’ Plain’ or ‘Darius’ Village’. Persians had no tradition of provincial government and they inflicted the most savage penalties on suspected enemies. In his public record of his accession, their King Darius publicized vast, precise numbers of the ‘opponents’ to his own usurpation, including the number of nobles whom he had had impaled. Persian methods of punishment were utterly beastly, including physical mutilation of ‘rebels’ by cutting off their nose and ears.

Nonetheless, the king did profess to be a fine dispenser of justice. ‘I am a friend to right,’ proclaimed King Darius in his ‘official version’ of his reign. ‘I am not a friend to wrong. It is not my wish that the weak man should have wrong done to him by the mighty…nor that the mighty man should have wrong done to him by the weak.’3 The king was also not overcome by anger: ‘I am not hot-tempered. Whatever develops in my anger, I keep firmly under control by my thoughts. I rule firmly over my own [impulse].’ The trouble was that practice was rather different: ‘justice’ was decided by what was in the king’s interest. There was no new ‘Persian law’ imposed on all of his growing Empire. At most, local laws were assembled in a province and then applied to it alone as the ‘king’s law’. In c. 512/1, after a campaign beyond the Black Sea, the Persian King Darius came down to Sardis and took up his seat in the suburb of the city: requests and petitions were then made to him personally, not least by insecure tyrants from the eastern Greeks’ cities. It was a cardinal moment in Greek history, the first time that a ruling king of an entire Greek region (Ionia) was accessible and sitting in judgement within reach of ambitious Greek petitioners. Not only did some of Darius’ rulings for Greek sanctuaries live on for centuries in their local keeping; his presence is the first instance of the giving of justice by petition and royal response, a pattern which was to become entrenched, some one hundred and sixty years later, with the rise of the kings of Macedon. It would then prevail for centuries with the establishment of Roman emperors.

As conquerors, the Persians took tribute from all of Asia, piling up uncoined bullion in their distant royal palaces. They also took land locally for their own provincial estates. Conquest, in turn, was believed to have brought luxury to the Persians and to have corrupted these hardy sons of an austere home kingdom. Having no court-culture, the Persians certainly borrowed from peoples whom they conquered. Their kings started to wear splendid robes and cosmetics and to be protected by court-ushers, symbols which were taken over from their predecessors, the kings of the Medes in Iran. According to Herodotus, the Greeks taught the Persians pederasty, in the palace maybe, or in those erotic hot beds, the army and navy, where Greeks were recruited: physical beauty may account for the rise of particular Greek favourites at the Persian court. But sex and luxury did not sap ambition. The truly missing link among Persians was political freedom, a Greek value which Persian kings increasingly threatened.

The Persians’ favoured solution for the Greek cities in Asia was to rule them through a friendly tyrant or a small clique: true to their values, Persians often gave them power as a reward for ‘services rendered’ to the king’s interests. By c. 510 BC Darius I had even gained the submission of the king of the Macedonians in the north of Greece beyond Mount Olympus. Further pressure on Greece would probably have occurred anyway, as each Persian king would have tried to win renown and extend his dominions. It was hastened, however, by a clear sequence of ‘tit for tat’. In 499 BC Greeks in western Asia rebelled against the Persian rule which they had endured for nearly fifty years. The rebellion has become known as the ‘Ionian Revolt’, although it called on the bravery of other Greeks in Asia besides the Ionians and also involved some of the minor kings on Cyprus. It was supported, too, by the valiant non-Greek Carians in south-west Asia. Two of the most prominent Greek leaders in the revolt were probably playing a double game, at best, and keeping a sharp eye on the possibility of a career in Persian service and a place high up in its graduated system of rewards in kind. But in most of the Ionian cities, most citizens wanted something else when given half a chance: democracy, as in Athens for the past nine years. The continuing revolt and its battles would root this desire even more strongly among the main Greek participants.

When the revolt began, the Greek participants met in common council at the Ionians’ central religious shrine (the Panionion on Mount Mycale, the promontory opposite Samos). Their unity was very fragile and in due course there were some conspicuous Greek ‘neutrals’ in the area, including the important city of Ephesus. Within five years, the full Persian fleet, manned by skilled Levantines, proved far too strong in open combat for the Greeks’ rowers and their triremes. On Cyprus, too, there were strong examples of anti-Persian, pro-Greek loyalty, but no lasting success. It is on this island that the main relics of the revolt are still to be seen, the impressive siege-mound which Persian troops piled up in order to take the walls of the royal city of Paphos and the great buried tomb at Kourion which probably belonged, like its excavated ‘treasure’, to one of the main participants, King Stesanor, who treacherously deserted the rebels’ cause.

Initially, this uprising among the eastern Greeks received support from two mainland Greek communities, Eretria on Euboea and Athens. The Athenians paraded the strength of their ‘kinship’ with the first Greek settlers in Ionia, and sent ships with a commander called Melanthus (evoking the name of the Ionian hero Melanthius). When the revolt was crushed in 494 BC, Persian revenge against Athens and Eretria was inevitable. It came in two waves, the second bigger than the first (5 million men, in later Greek tradition) and provoked five crucial battles: Marathon (490), where the Athenians beat the Persian raiders on land in Attica; Thermopylae (480), where the 300 brave Spartans tried to hold the pass into central Greece against a full Persian invasion, perhaps of 250,000 men; Salamis (480), where Athenian and Corinthian crews distinguished themselves in the biggest naval engagement known in all ancient history; Plataea (479), where Spartan hoplite infantry were crucial in the defeat of Persia’s remaining land-army on Greek soil; Mycale (479), where a Spartan and an Athenian commander won a final victory off the Asian coast having followed the Persian fleet across the Aegean.

For the big sea-battles, the Athenians accepted a near-total mobilization. Their fleet of triremes had only multiplied in size three years before, thanks to their wise use of a new silver-strike in their Attic mines. Into these recently built ships, tens of thousands of Athenians now packed themselves (200 to a trireme), willing to risk all in the heat, sweat and chaos of ramming-battles against the experienced Phoenician fleet. We cannot really imagine how intense and transforming this experience was. Even the reconstruction of one trireme has taken years of scholarly skill and dispute and it is still unexplained how the rowers could be guided and kept to an overall plan in the din of battle. The modern reconstructed trireme used loudspeakers because ‘the length of the hull… and 170 sound-absorbing human bodies…meant that calls at maximum volume reached at most one third of the way down the ship’. Otherwise, the best method was found to be the humming of a well-known tune by all crew-members: ‘unfortunately, there is no clear evidence that the ancient Greek ever hummed in our sense, either at sea or ashore.’4

It was unfortunate, but not culpable, for a naval enterprise that the Persian participants in the main invasions could not swim. It was downright stupid that King Xerxes did not cut off the grain-ships which he met sailing to Greece from the Black Sea or that he did not send ships ahead to seize Cythera, the island off Sparta from which the Spartans themselves could have been attacked. With hindsight, both of these errors were recognized by the Greeks who knew their potential danger. Only a small proportion of the ‘Persian’ invasion was actually Persian. Their cavalry was excellent, but the main army was recruited from their subjects and was at its best when engaging in vast projects of forced labour. For three years, a canal more than half a mile long was dug through Mount Athos to assist the Persians’ advance into Greece. The workmen were driven on by whips, under the skilled planning of Phoenicians, and their surviving handiwork has recently been surveyed and verified on site. A remarkable bridge of boats and rope, woven from flax, was intertwined to ferry the Persian king’s troops across the Hellespont. In both 490 and 480 horses were transported by sea in boats, a use of ‘floating horseboxes’ which is said to have been invented by Greeks from Samos.

In 490, it was said, the brave Athenians at Marathon were the ‘first who held out when they saw [Oriental] Median costume, and people wearing it: until then, the very name of the “Medes” was a terror for Greeks to hear’.5 Even the Greek Herodotus (author of these words) could respect the ‘spirit and impulse’ of the Persians, the equal of the Greeks’ own; what they lacked, he thought, was good armour, know-how and expertise (sophia). Certainly, the heavy-armoured solid ranks of the Greek hoplites proved crucial on land. At Marathon, the Athenian hoplites proved to have been the first to attack ‘at the run’, across a mile (or so they said). At Plataea, in 479, the solid Spartiates were decisive against the lightly armoured Persians who rushed on them in fatally small groups. The fine Persian cavalry had horses which were proved by experience to be even faster than the Thessalian horses, the pride of many Greek racecourses. Their riders sometimes wore heavy suits of metal, but again they could not charge down a hoplite formation which stood firm. Nor could the famed Persian archers break through so much metal armour. The Spartan hoplites could even move backwards in formation, as if retreating: at Plataea, the manoeuvre was critical. At Thermopylae, their 300 used it less formally in the narrow pass and ended by grappling and biting the barbarians with their teeth. At Marathon, the Athenian ‘run’ was surely a fearsome shock tactic too, plunging the Persians into hoplite battle as an American historian, Victor Hanson, has tried to visualize it: ‘the awful thud of forceful impact at the combined rate of ten miles an hour…the unusual size and bowl-like shape of the Greek hoplite shield helping to create a feeling of absolute protection in the last seconds of the run… Any man who stumbled or fell wounded was in danger of being ground up as the men in the rear lumbered forward, blinded by dust and the press of bodies.’6 But that horror was what Greek citizenship and political freedom could sustain.

Despite a cluster of Greek deserters and traitors, many of the Greek states did agree, in 481 BC, on a common ‘Hellenic Alliance’ whose representatives would meet at Corinth to decide major matters of war. During the invasion Greek ‘expertise’ included some very artful tricks, none more so than those of Themistocles, the Athenian politician. When the Persian fleet was anchored off Euboea in September 480 BC he had messages inscribed on the rocks urging their east Greek contingents to desert (he assumed, therefore, that some of them were liter-ate). At Salamis, for the crucial naval battle in late September 480, he sent a false message to the Persian king by the hand of his old tutor Sicinnus, implying that the Greek fleet was about to try to break out of the narrow Bay. The tutor Sicinnus was a slave, possibly a bilingual slave from Asia, and he had three effects. He persuaded the Persians to divide their fleet into four, two parts of which went off to block irrelevant exits in the Bay. He kept the Persian crews at their oars all night, in case the Greeks tried a night-time escape: by dawn, they were exhausted. He also influenced the heavier Persian warships to move up into the narrowest entry to the Bay in the morning, expecting to find most of the Greeks gone. In fact, they were all there and broke the Persians’ left wing, catching them in the narrows where their superior numbers were no help to them. Themistocles’ trick was the ultimate cause of the Greek victory.

If the Persians had won in Greece, Greek freedom would have been curbed and with it, the political, artistic, dramatic and philosophical progress which has been a beacon to Western civilization. Satraps would have ruled Greece and dispensed personal justice; a few Greek traitors and collaborators would have flourished, and, at most, Persians might have dined on sofas and encouraged and watched the Greeks’ athletic games, although their kings would never have risked competing in them for fear of losing, and, for good Persians, naked exercise (though titillating) was shameful and out of the question. In 480 brave Greeks and their families died for freedom not slavery. Posterity has remembered several of them, Pytheas from the island of Aegina who died in a sea-battle from so many wounds that even the enemy kept his corpse on board their ship to honour it, or Aristodemus of Sparta who survived alone from the glorious Spartan band of 300 ‘Knights’ at Thermopylae and then, out of shame, fought way beyond the line with frenzied bravery so as to acquit himself, next year, at Plataea. To commemorate the victories, a column of three entwined serpents, made of bronze, was set up at Delphi to the god Apollo and was inscribed with the names of thirty-one grateful Greek states. Among them, the Spartans at Plataea and the Athenians deserved a particular praise. In 490 the Athenians had won the first round of battle against the Persian invasion at Marathon. In Winter 481/0 they acted on their dire decision to evacuate their city and left it, with their dogs swimming beside them. In their absence they saw a great Persian sacrilege, the burning and ruin of the temples on their Acropolis. For two consecutive harvests they were out of their own territory, but nonetheless they ignored offers of terms from the Persian king and continued to fight heartily at Salamis, Plataea and Mycale. The Delphic oracle, by contrast, took the Persian side, and then had to invent stories of its ‘divine’ protection in order to explain why the Persian invaders, its friends, had not sacked it.

The battle was for Greek freedom, but the contrasts of justice and luxury were woven into memories of it. Persians were capable of a terrible ruthlessness, decapitating and impaling corpses, having young boys castrated and, in Xerxes’ case, ordering an attempted ‘draft dodger’ of a father to be flayed. The father’s skin was then stretched as a covering on the very seat from which he had once given justice. Greek values of restraint, modesty and justice were affronted by these anecdotes. The invaders’ finery made an equally profound impression and was remembered in some vivid episodes. One Persian cavalryman had armour entirely made of gold; Persian cavalry-horses ate from mangers made of solid bronze, too; the Greek concubine of a Persian nobleman dressed herself and all her maids in gold jewellery in order to win pardon from the Greek commander after the defeat at Plataea. An astounding quantity of gold and silver objects, including wonderful clothing, was taken as spoils in the battle. Some of it was stolen by the Spartans’ helot-serfs, but some was still being found in the nearby fields many years later. Just once, in 479, the young Spartan commander Pausanias ordered the captive cooks of King Xerxes to prepare a magnificent Oriental dinner and set it out for his guests in the former royal tent. He then ordered a Spartan meal to be prepared too and served in all its sparseness beside the Persian one. Among the king’s lavish silver and gold furniture, Pausanias is then said to have told his Greek guests how silly the king had been to come so far, when he had so much, in order to invade a Greece which had almost nothing.

The costumes, the jewellery, the gold which the Greeks observed were classed as soft and ‘effeminate’. In subsequent Athenian art, in vase painting and in the theatre, barbarian Orientals were indeed represented in these ‘Oriental’ terms. But this representation was not a new Greek ‘invention’ of the barbarian, in the wake of victory. Greeks abroad in the West and East had already anticipated it, beginning with Homer’s description of a ‘barbarian-speaking’ Carian who was dressed in gold ‘like a girl’ (barbaros referred to the alien ‘bar-bar’ sound of non-Greek speech).7 Rather, old stereotypes were reinforced by the Greeks’ amazing triumph. The barbarian losers were presented as ‘slaves’ to one master, their king (Persian kings did indeed refer to their subjects as their ‘inferiors’, a word which Greeks translated as ‘slaves’). By contrast, the free Greeks were hardened by their poor land. The Spartans, Xerxes was said to have been told, were free men who knew only one master, their law.

The ultimate victors were the Greek gods and semi-divine heroes. They seemed to be present in the awful tumult of battle; their very multiplicity kept up morale. If prayers and sacrifices to one of the gods proved ineffective, there was always another one to try hopefully instead. Persians, by contrast, included Zoroastrians who believed in two warring powers, one good, one evil, and when things went badly, the evil one, Ahriman, would seem unstoppable. Victory monuments to the Greek gods were built at the great Greek athletic centres, Olympia, Delphi and the Isthmus. In a fine celebration after the victory of 479, the Spartan king Pausanias, a warrior in his early thirties, sacrificed to Zeus Eleutherios, ‘Zeus of Freedom’, in the main agora of brave little Plataea. It is the most touching victory-celebration in all ancient history.

Evidence of the wars continues to reappear, with more, no doubt, to be found. In 1959 a reinscribed text of what appears to be Themistocles’ proposal for the evacuation of Athens in 481/0 was found on a stone at the ancient site of Troezen: it was itself a later copy, evidence of the event’s continuing fame.8 In 1971 another inscribed text was found at Plataea whose citizens had helped the Athenians at Marathon in 490 and had witnessed Pausanias’ great sacrifice after the nearby battle in 479. This text testified to a cult some two centuries later of ‘Zeus the Liberator and the Concord of the Greeks’ and to an athletic contest which the Greeks were still celebrating ‘for the brave men who fought against the barbarians for the liberty of the Greeks’.9 ‘Freedom’ games remained popular, and for us the ‘tombs’ and the ‘heroes’ have acquired more meaning. In 1992 parts of a celebratory poem by the great poet Simonides were recovered from a piece of papyrus: they compare Pausanias, the Spartan commander at Plataea, with the hero Achilles, the star of Homer’s Trojan War against barbarians.10 In Athens, during the 1990s, yet more fragments of an inscribed text which was set up to honour the valiant dead at Marathon were recovered during building work. A further inscription now shows that they belonged to a special cenotaph in the heart of Athens which was set up like the one at Marathon to honour the Athenian dead.11 For centuries, Athenians continued to honour both monuments; their famous Funeral Speeches began to be recited by a picked orator at the city cenotaph.

Six centuries after the event, Greeks who presided over the cults at Plataea were also priests of the cult of the Emperor Hadrian ‘the Panhellene’. Greek freedom had changed, but the fame of the great days of 480 lived on under the Roman Empire. They owed their preservation, above all, to the Histories of Herodotus, the author who preserves for us the stories, values and turning points in the Greek triumph. At dawn on the awesome September day of Salamis it was Themistocles, he tells us, who made the best speech. ‘Throughout, he contrasted what is noble with what is ignoble, and told them, in everything which concerns man’s nature and predicament, to choose the nobler part.’12 King Xerxes was remembered for no such speech, and freedom, we may be sure, was at the heart of the choice Themistocles offered. It was a crucial reason why the Greeks won.

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