Ancient History & Civilisation




In Lacedaimon are to be found those who are the most enslaved [douloi] and those who are the most free.

Critias of Athens, Spartan Society

HERODOTUS BEGINS by placing his chosen subject of the Graeco-Persian Wars in the broadest framework of East versus West historical and (what we should call) myth-historical conflict. A major ‘moment’ in that chronic Greek–barbarian, West–East contest was the Trojan War sung by Homer in the Iliad. Like its companion epic the Odyssey, the Iliad was the culmination of a long bardic tradition of oral poetic composition and recitation stretching back to the Late Bronze Age or Mycenaean era. But if there was one Homer, that genius of a monumental poet who created the unified stories of Achilles and Odysseus, he would have lived somewhere in east Greece; that is, along the west Anatolian littoral or on one of its offshore Greek islands such as Chios, at around 700 BCE.

This was also, and not coincidentally, when Ilium or New Troy was founded on what was taken to be the site of Homer’s Troy by Greeks coming out from central mainland Greece to settle permanently in north-west Asia Minor. Ilium was just one of a whole host of such new Greek foundations established during the age of Greek ‘colonization’ which occupied the two centuries from about 700–500.* This great movement of people was prompted by a variety of motives and factors including land hunger, political faction-fighting and sheer adventurism. By the end of it, Greeks were to be found perched (as Plato later put it) like frogs or ants around a pond – or rather two ponds, the Mediterranean and the Black Sea.

The resulting Greek world in the year 500 was not a political unit but rather a series of individual, independent, often mutually hostile political communities that mostly called themselves poleis, or cities. We would call them republics, though there were a number of monarchies among them too – and a unique ‘dyarchy’, or double kingship, Sparta. There were well over one thousand such independent units all told, scattered around much of the Mediterranean and Black Sea coasts – from, as the Greeks themselves said, the Pillars of Heracles (Straits of Gibraltar) to Phasis (in modern Georgia at the far eastern end of the Black Sea).

Most lived in Europe, extending from Byzantium (modern Istanbul) in the east to the southern coast of Spain in the far west, and taking in most of coastal Sicily and southern Italy and part of the French Riviera. There were some Greeks settled in Africa too, along the Mediterranean coasts of today’s Libya and Egypt, most notably at Cyrene and at Naucratis in the Nile delta. But there were many more Greeks living in Asia than in Africa, and it was in Asia that settlement out of the Greek mainland had first begun, well before the ‘colonization’ movement proper. Miletus, for example, in Ionia was founded already in the eleventh century BCE, at the beginning of an era known to scholars as the Greek Dark Age (c. 1100–800). It was the Greeks of Asia and the major offshore islands (Lesbos, Chios and Samos) who first felt the lash of the Persian whip.

By 500 the Persian Empire, founded just half a century earlier, was established as the fastest-growing empire in the entire history of the ancient East. It stretched from the Indian subcontinent to the eastern shore of the Aegean, and it encompassed the ancient territories of Egypt and Babylonia besides its Iranian heartland. The two cultures, the Greek and the Persian, overlapped, intermingled or clashed first at the western, Mediterranean margins of the Persian Empire. Some Greek cities located at the western fringe of Asia had even been forcibly incorporated into the Empire in the 540s. This situation provoked mixed reactions among the conquered Greeks themselves and among their cultural and ethnic kinspeople yet further to the west. In 499 a number of these eastern Greeks raised the flag of revolt, aided and abetted by the newly democratic city of Athens. The seeds of the Graeco-Persian Wars of 490 and 480–479 had been sown. The encounter at Thermopylae was only a matter of time.

The Graeco-Persian conflict must first be situated within its broadest geopolitical limits. The account that follows will move from East to West and look at the world through mainly Persian eyes. It begins in the Far East, with what the Greeks rather hopefully called ‘India’, though they meant only what is now Pakistan and Kashmir and but a relatively tiny part of the modern state of India.* The Persians were the first power with any claim whatsoever to a ‘European’ identity – via their membership of the ‘Indo-European’ language family – to establish a physical and political toehold on the subcontinent, during the reign of Darius I (about 522–486).

This tentative occupation involved passage over the Hindu Kush mountain range, what the Greeks called the Paropamisus, and passage, most easily, through the Khyber Pass. Hardly surprisingly, though, the Persians’ reach soon exceeded their grasp. The conquest of their version of ‘India’ proved just a brief moment within the two-hundred-year span of the Achaemenid imperial monarchy as a whole. From the Indians the Persian Empire demanded tribute, as it did from all its subjects. Herodotus tells us that India’s contribution amounted to the fantastic, indeed fabulous, sum of 360 talents of gold-dust, in an era when gold was reckoned fourteen times more valuable, weight for weight, than silver.


Besides Pasargadae and Persepolis, the third major palace in southern Iran was located at Susa in Elam; here in 1972 a massive headless statue of its builder, Darius I, was excavated beside his eponymous Gateway. But it had been made to be displayed in Egypt (conquered in 525 by Cyrus’s son Cambyses) – hence the use of Egyptian hieroglyphic writing as well as Persian cuneiform on the statue itself, and the depiction round the base of Nilotic gods.

But if the Persian Empire’s Far East could be more or less willingly relinquished after Darius without threatening its integrity, that was not at all the case with the Empire’s north-east frontier: the steppelands of Sogdiana, and Bactria, today’s central Asia and northern Afghanistan. It was here that the Empire’s great founder, Cyrus II, had met a gory end, fighting the Massagetae tribespeople of central Asia led by their fierce queen Tomyris (as the Greeks transcribed her name). And Darius’s propagandistic relief sculpture at Bisitun in Media (not far from Ecbatana, modern Hamadan in northern Iran) was suitably rounded off by an image of Skunkha (who, by any other name, would presumably have smelled sweeter): he was King of the Skudra (Scythians) living east of the Caspian Sea.

Moving westwards through the Empire we come next to its Iranian heartland. In the deep south of Iran the region known as Fars preserves the speaking trace of its original Persian occupants. The Greeks gave two names to the major capital located down here. The earlier was ‘Persai’ – literally ‘the Persians’. Later, when Iran had become part of the post-Alexander hellenized Middle East, it became Persepolis, ‘City of the Persians’. This is the name that has stuck, though in its suggestion that Persepolis was a polis (citizen-state) in anything like the same sense as Athens, Thebes or Sparta it can be grossly misleading.

In Achaemenid times Persai/Persepolis functioned as, among other things, the Empire’s chief ceremonial capital. It was the site of the great New Year festival and the place where tokens of imperial tribute were ceremonially borne in procession by representatives of the many subject peoples, as lavishly depicted on the walls of the Apadana, or great regal Audience Hall. It was near here too, at Naqsh-i-Rustam, that the Persians’ kings were buried – or at least commemorated – in handsome rock-cut tombs. Almost as important to the Persians themselves was another capital further to the north and west in Iran – Susa in Elam, which served mainly as the principal administrative centre of government. Also important as a capital city was Ecbatana in Media. The Persian kings seem to have evolved a regular schedule of movement from one palatial capital to another depending on the time of year; upland Ecbatana, for example, was the royal residence in high summer. Apart from its sheer practicality and symbolic value, this royal nomadism may ultimately reflect the Persians’ origins as transhumant pastoralists.


At Darius’s palace in Susa relief sculpture in stone was often replaced by friezes of colourful glazed brick made from sintered quartz; this (restored) example is said to have come from the north-east corner of the palace’s central courtyard. The two opposed winged lions have human heads wearing the horned crown of divinity, with the royal symbol above.

Next towards the West is Mesopotamia, the ‘Between-the-Rivers Land’ of modern Iraq, between the Tigris and the Euphrates. In 539 Cyrus secured the key citadel of Babylon on the Euphrates. This fabled city of great antiquity and of the wondrous ‘hanging gardens’ of Nebuchadnezzar was where another great conqueror, Alexander the Great, was to die two centuries later, and where, arguably, he intended to place the centre of his own new empire. The wealth of Babylonia was legendary, in both mineral resources and in arable crops.*

West again of Mesopotamia the Persians entered Anatolia, modern Turkey. It is very striking indeed that Cyrus should have thought to extend his empire as far as the Aegean, and therefore to embrace all Anatolia including certain Greek cities, in the 540s, before making sure of Babylonia next door. Immediately before Cyrus’s reign the great power of Anatolia was the kingdom of Lydia, the inland region just to the east of Greek Ionia with its capital at heavily fortified – and heavily hellenized – Sardis. Ruled, in the mid-sixth century, by the proverbially wealthy Croesus, it was this kingdom that provided the political and cultural link between Anatolia and the Greeks of the mainland and Aegean islands.

Herodotus tells his story of Croesus’s dealings with various Greeks with his usual lively aplomb. To start on the negative side of the ledger, Croesus was the first historical oriental king permanently to subjugate Greeks. At first he confined his attention to those of the Asiatic mainland (of Aeolis, Ionia and Caria, going from north to south), but he is said to have seriously contemplated adding to his domain the main adjacent Aegean islands, Lesbos, Chios and Samos, until it was pointedly borne in upon him that he was a land-based power and lacking any sort of suitable navy. On the other, positive side, the imperial rule of Croesus over the Greeks of Asia does not appear to have been massively burdensome. Herodotus tells a jolly moral tale of the reforming lawmaker Solon (appointed troubleshooter at Athens in 594) taking time out from his domestic business to visit Croesus in Sardis and deliver to him a homily on the true nature of happiness for a human being. The implication is that Croesus, though an absolute ruler, was no terrifyingly deadly oriental despot.


The practice of stamping gold, electrum (a natural gold-silver mix) and silver coins with distinctive decoration on front (obverse) and back (reverse) goes back to the Lydians in the early 6th century. Here in about 485 the Greeks of Cyprus, in a typical show of cultural miscegenation, have borrowed the Lydian lion for the obverse design of a silver coin and coupled it on the reverse with an octopus symbol borrowed from Greek Eretria on the island of Euboea (destroyed by the Persians in 490). The letter at below left of the reverse side is a Cypriot ka replacing Eretrian E.

Herodotus’s tale of their meeting must on chronological grounds be sheer fiction (since Solon was almost certainly dead well before Croesus came to the throne of Lydia about 560), but it is not fiction that Croesus engaged in sympathetic dealings with Greeks. Herodotus refers to his gifts to the oracle of Apollo at Delphi, and the extraordinarily well made group of chryselephantine statues (gold and ivory on a wooden core) discovered here, probably representing Leto and her two children Apollo and Artemis and done in an eastern Greek style, may well be a token or reflection of that generosity. Proof of this is still visible at Ephesus on the Ionian coast of Anatolia: here Croesus paid for elaborately beautiful architectural enhancements to the temple of Ephesian Artemis – St Paul’s ‘Diana of the Ephesians’ – which in a later incarnation was ranked one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world.

What of the Persians’ interest in the Levant and in Africa, especially Egypt? Cyrus II’s designated successor was his eldest son Cambyses. Like father, grossly unlike son. Whereas Cyrus was fêted even by his conquered subjects (the restored Jews went so far as to call him ‘Messiah’), Cambyses suffered from a hostile press, both from his own Persian side and from the side of the Greeks. However, precisely, Cambyses died – it may have been by suicide or by murder – it was in unfortunate circumstances. His brief and relatively inglorious reign was followed by an interregnum, if not some sort of usurpation. But he had at least achieved one major feat: the conquest of Egypt. Greek sources tended to imagine that Cambyses was unhinged by his success, and that in his delirium he killed Apis, the Egyptians’ sacred bull, at the old capital of Memphis. The sober records of the Apis priests themselves survive – and tell a different story. Cyrus’s was a hard act for Cambyses to follow – as Darius’s was to be for his son and successor Xerxes. But Cambyses should be given the credit for the incorporation of Egypt into the Empire, along with the Phoenicians of the Levant and Cyprus, who thereafter provided the bulk of the Empire’s Mediterranean navy.

Our survey of the Persian Empire’s development up to the year 500 concludes with Darius’s expedition of 513 to ‘the lands beyond the sea’; that is, to European Thrace beyond the Black Sea across the Bosporus strait dividing Asia from Europe. Today there is a permanent Bosporus bridge. Darius had to commission a temporary one, a pontoon bridge of many boats – likewise, the bridge whereby he crossed the Ister (Danube) later on in the same campaign. The Greeks liked to make out that this ‘Scythian’ campaign was a fiasco, but it presumably achieved what it set out to do. A new Persian province of European Thrace was thereafter firmly in place to guard Darius’s north-west frontier, and a stepping-stone had been laid down for further European expansion in due course if and when that was felt desirable or necessary. By 500 Macedonia, on Thrace’s western border, was also a Persian vassal state, and the Persians’ tax-demanding writ extended to the borders of Greek Thessaly.

What of the other Greeks of the mainland? It was to them (if Herodotus is to be believed) that Croesus of Lydia’s thoughts had turned in the 540s when he learned of the threatening rise of Cyrus to his east. Nor was it just these Greeks’ military force that he hoped to exploit, but also the numinous power of their oracular gods. Croesus supposedly tested the alleged infallibility of a number of Greek oracular shrines. In the event, only Apollo’s oracle at Delphi in central Greece, the ‘navel of the universe’, was able to solve his riddle. Croesus then formally consulted the Pythia, Apollo’s prophetic priestess who with the aid of male priests issued measurably correct but sometimes fatally ambiguous pronouncements, on how he should react to Cyrus. The Delphic response solemnly informed him that if he crossed the River Halys, the eastern frontier of his kingdom, he would destroy a great empire. He did, and he did, but the empire he destroyed was, alas, his own, not Cyrus’s. As things turned out, he was unable to derive any support at all from the mainland Greek city to which he had allied himself on the grounds that it was the most powerful military state in Greece. That state was Sparta.

Sparta in about 550, as Herodotus tells the tale, had recently undergone some sort of serious upset, but now it was flourishing both in its domestic political stability, guaranteed by the wise laws of Lycurgus, and in all its external wars. Herodotus was indeed persuaded that the Peloponnese as a whole was already ‘subjugated’ by Sparta. But there was one notable exception. The city of Argos never accepted Sparta’s hegemony of the Peloponnese, let alone of any wider tract of Hellas. In about 545 Argos challenged Sparta to some kind of knockout test of supremacy: a battle between three hundred picked champions on either side. Sparta apparently lost initially, in so far as two Argives were left alive to Sparta’s lone survivor, Othryades. But whereas the two Argives rushed off home to Argos to tell their fellow citizens the good news, Othryades did what a good Spartan hoplite (heavy-armed phalanx infantryman) had been trained from an early age to do. He remained ‘in post’ (en taxei) on the battlefield. This enabled the Spartans to claim, rather speciously, that it was they who had ‘really’ won the Battle of the Champions.

However much truth may, or may not, lie behind this improving parable, in gritty reality the Spartans and Argives did at about this time fight a full-scale pitched hoplite battle, and this the Spartans undoubtedly and unsurprisingly won. That demonstrated Sparta’s preeminent military prowess sufficiently for Croesus. An eulogizing epigram on the victory, of uncertain date, captures an essential part of what we might call the Spartans’ ‘Thermopylae spirit’: ‘for Sparta, it is not dying but fleeing that is death’.*

The Spartans’ writ now ran up the east coast of the Peloponnese as far north as Cynuria, also known as Thyreatis, uncomfortably close to Argos’s own home territory. But notwithstanding Sparta’s relative power at home, and despite Croesus’s blandishments, the Spartans honoured their pact of friendship and alliance in only a verbal and token way. On behalf of Croesus they sent as a herald, or diplomatic envoy, to Cyrus himself, a no doubt distinguished and experienced citizen called Lacrines, to warn him solemnly to keep his hands off Lydia. But Cyrus, already in Sardis, answered Lacrines contemptuously:

Never yet have I been afraid of men who set aside a special meeting-place [agora] in the centre of their cities where they make and break oaths and cheat each other. If I have anything to do with it, it’s troubles in their own backyard and not in Ionia that they will have to chatter about.1

The passage is remarkable for a number of reasons. Cyrus in 545 was apparently totally ignorant, not only of the Spartans’ numbers (itself a very salient issue, as we shall see), but even of their very existence. Perhaps this is just a Herodotean dramatic device, but it may also be an accurate reflection of reality – and a salutary warning against adopting too hellenocentric a perspective on Graeco-Persian affairs. Cyrus is hardly likely to have said the same, let alone said it honestly, about the Babylonians, for example.

The word agora in Greek could mean a political meeting-place as well as a commercial marketplace; in fact, it bore the former meaning before it acquired the latter. But Herodotus took Cyrus to be making a general reference to the existence and central importance of market exchange in the Greek world generally, since he added that the Persians have not a single such agora of their own anywhere. In a sense, Herodotus was technically correct about the Persians, because the royal command economy operated a centrally controlled redistributive system rather than a private-enterprise marketing system for the exchange of goods and services. But it was a very odd thing to make Cyrus say to the Spartans, of all peoples, since they were known to be the least commercially minded and oriented of all the Greeks. That, though, may have been part of Herodotus’s subtle point, another way of underlining the Persian Great King’s ignorance of the opponents who would, at the end of his story, play the leading role in confounding Cyrus’s prediction of a Persian walkover against any Greek opposition – whether in Asia or, as he hints, in Europe.

Sparta, then, did not engage in any hostilities with Persia in the 540s – nor would it encounter the Persians directly in battle for another sixty years. Yet, despite Cyrus’s rolling over of Croesus and his Asiatic Greek subjects, the Spartans felt so secure in their own backyard and so confident of their ability to throw their weight about abroad that in the last quarter of the sixth century they actually launched two naval expeditions. The former of these came as close to Asia as was possible without actually setting foot on the mainland, the furthest east that Sparta ventured militarily until the Atheno-Peloponnesian War. It was directed, in about 525, against the island of Samos and its tyrant ruler Polycrates. The antics of this piratical figure with his powerful navy had aroused the anxiety of Persia as well as of the local Samian aristo-crats and oligarchs, whom he either suppressed or exiled. Sparta undertook this naval operation jointly with its Peloponnesian ally Corinth, a city with a longstanding naval tradition and of vital geopolitical significance, lying as it did athwart the isthmus separating the Peloponnese from central Greece.



In the early fifth century, Persian scenes were understandably in vogue for decorating Athenian fine ‘red-figure’ painted pottery; on the main side of this amphora Myson has depicted a defeated King Croesus of Lydia atop his pyre (shortly to be miraculously quenched by Apollo), on the reverse Athens’s founder-hero King Theseus together with his best buddy Peirithous in the act of carrying off the quintessentially oriental Amazon queen Antiope.

The attempt to unseat Polycrates was a failure – it was left to the Persians and their Phoenician naval forces to finish that job off properly and keep their Aegean frontier secure. Nevertheless, in about 512, Sparta again sent out a naval expedition, but this time against a much nearer Greek power, Athens. At stake here for Sparta was pre-eminence not just in the Peloponnese but in southern mainland Greece more generally. Croesus had been given to understand that already in the 540s Athens was Sparta’s nearest rival in military power. This was still the case thirty-plus years later, but during that period the political situation at Athens was transformed, introducing a further, ideological dimension to the conflict between them. Since about 545 Athens had been ruled by the family tyranny, or dynasty, of Peisistratus and his sons, and tyranny was coming to be identified with the denial of the Greeks’ birthright of political freedom.

Once more, a Spartan naval campaign met with no success. But an expedition sent more conventionally, by land, two years later in 510 was a different story altogether. The energetic, expansionist and interventionist Spartan king Cleomenes I overthrew Peisistratus’s eldest son and main successor Hippias. A more or less direct consequence of Sparta’s termination of the Peisistratid family tyranny was the birth at Athens of the world’s first democracy – though a democracy of the ancient Greek type, very different from any modern democracy. This was achieved through the reforms in 508/7 attributed to the leading aristocrat Cleisthenes; and it was hardly the result the Spartans had expected or desired. Instead of a pro-Spartan oligarchy they now had to deal with an anti-Spartan democracy.

This was the starting-point of an ideological polarity – Spartan oligarchy against Athenian democracy – that played itself out over the next hundred years, culminating in the disastrous Atheno-Peloponnesian War of 431–404.* Moreover, ex-tyrant Hippias had departed promptly for the more hospitable climes of Asia. He went over, that is, to the Persian sphere and dedicated himself as a vassal of the Persian Great King. The key linkage of Greek freedom and Persian tyrannical despotism was thereby forged.

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