Ancient History & Civilisation




There are many and powerful factors preventing us from doing this even if we were to wish to (which we do not) … For the Athenians to be traitors to all that would not be well.

Herodotus, Histories 8.144

IN 492, SOME twenty years after Darius’s first European démarche, the Persian maw opened yet wider – wide enough to swallow up Macedonia on the fringes of mainland Greece proper. This was a direct consequence of an episode that we refer to compendiously as ‘the Ionian Revolt’. This label is actually doubly misleading, because it was not only the Greeks of Ionia who revolted. They were joined by their fellow Asiatic Greeks from Aeolis to the north and from Caria and Lycia to the south, as well as by Greeks from islands lying off the Anatolian coast. Besides, it was not by any means only Greeks who revolted against their Persian masters during the first decade of the fifth century BCE. Some of the Greeks’ Near Eastern neighbours joined in too, including some from as far south as the island of Cyprus, which forms a natural bridge between Anatolia and the Levant. However, the conventional terminology is at least convenient.

Herodotus is our major and only continuous narrative source for the Revolt, but his account presents difficulties. Above all, he has excessively personalized its motivations, either as a result of his (mainly oral) sources, or because of his own predispositions and predilections. He makes a very great deal hang in particular on the machinations of Histiaeus, the former sole ruler of Greek Miletus in the Persian interest, and of his supposed protégé Aristagoras. No doubt their personal contributions were significant, but by themselves they could not have brought on or sustained a revolt that quickly far overleaped the confines of Ionia and that lasted six whole summer campaigning seasons (499–494). Some objective factors had to have been operating in addition, and operating strongly.

If these were not primarily economic, they are likely to have been political or ideological. In a nutshell, the Greek rebels wanted to be free. Subjection to an alien imperial power abroad and to rule by quisling tyrants at home was no longer considered an acceptably ‘modern’ mode of political rule. It contradicted one of the possible definitions of freedom – freedom as political independence and self-determination – and it did so the more blatantly since the major advance in Greek freedom constituted by the Athenian Revolution of 508/7.*

It was that year, to be brief, that the Athenian Assembly endorsed the radical political reform package proposed by Cleisthenes. This was a direct form of democratic self-government, more like a dictatorship of the proletariat (that is, the poor majority of the citizens) than any version by which the electorate surrenders power on an everyday basis to a government of elected representatives.

At the root of the Athenian democratic project was a notion of citizen freedom. This was twofold: both negative freedom from external coercion (whether domestic or foreign) and positive freedom to participate in and indeed decide matters of prime importance to the community of citizens as a whole. This new-style Athenian regime at first believed it would be able to coexist with the Persian Empire, if only Persia would leave Athens alone. It therefore gave to the Persian authorities at Sardis in 507 or 506 those formal tokens of submission, earth and water, which to Darius as to any Great King signalled subordination and loss of independence. Half a dozen years later, however, in 500/499, when Ionian Greeks came to Athens to request Athenian aid for their proposed revolt, the Athenian democracy had come to think quite differently about its place in the world and specifically about its relation to Persia.

There were, in any case, strong sentimental links between Athens and the Greeks of Ionia. A century earlier the Athenian poet-statesman Solon had referred to the Athenians’ home territory of Attica as ‘the oldest land of Ionia’, and the Athenians were keen to foster the myth that the Greeks speaking the Ionic dialect of Greek who had settled on the west coast of Anatolia had not just set sail from Athens but had done so under Athenian inspiration and leadership. Of the Ionian Greek cities the most important was Miletus, and it was Miletus that in 500 took the lead in approaching Athens. The Athenian democracy now believed that it could with impunity and profit lend both material and spiritual aid to its Ionian ‘cousins’ in their revolt against the Persian Great King.


This bronze weight in the form of an astragal (knucklebone) tips the scales at a cool 93.7kg; it was found at Susa, but the long Greek inscription indicates that it was looted by the Persians from the Greek oracular shrine at Didyma and so probably taken after their sack of nearby Miletus following the crushing of the Ionian Revolt in 494.

Herodotus, who was not an Ionian (Halicarnassus spoke the Doric dialect) and possibly was guilty also of some anachronistic hindsight, took a very dim view of this Athenian decision. He contrasted it unfavourably with Sparta’s sober-sided rejection of Ionian pleas for help and viewed it, Homerically, as ‘the beginning of evils’1 for all Greece. For he detected a single chain of causation running from this fatal Athenian decision through to the expeditions of reprisal and would-be conquest in mainland Greece launched first by Darius and then by Xerxes, and on into the later part of the fifth century:

During the three generations comprising the reigns of Darius the son of Hystaspes [521–486], and of his son Xerxes [486–465] and his grandson Artaxerxes [465–424], Greece suffered more evils than in the twenty generations before Darius was born.2

This was one of only a handful of references to the period after his main subject of the Graeco-Persian Wars. Since Herodotus certainly lived to see the outbreak of the disastrous Spartan-Athenian conflict known as the Peloponnesian War, which was a sort of prolonged intra-Greek civil war, he very likely had that specifically in mind when he gave this doom-laden judgement.

It is questionable, though, whether the Revolt in general or Athens’s role in it can bear the interpretative and causal weight placed upon them by Herodotus. He seems to have underplayed the rebelling parties’ military and political successes, which involved unique military co-operation between Greeks and non-Greeks both on the Asiatic mainland and on Cyprus, and conversely to have exaggerated the degree of independence allowed the Greeks by the allegedly magnanimous Persians even after their final defeat. The showdown took place at sea at Lade near Miletus in the summer of 494. The result was a total victory for the mainly Phoenician Persian fleet. The rebels’ disgrace was the greater because a major Greek contingent from the island of Samos had abandoned their comrades-in-arms immediately before the final battle.

Yet Herodotus believed that in 493–492 Darius’s appointee as governor of the region allowed the Ionian cities to become ‘democracies’,3 for all the world as if they were on a par with the – then still in fact unique – Athenian democracy.* At most, modern scholars rightly hold, some sort of local ‘town council’ independence might conceivably have been granted. However, by the time of Xerxes’s invasion in 480 quisling tyrants had again ominously reared their less than prepossessing countenances in several of the Ionian Greek cities. Moreover, the Ionian Revolt had done nothing to deter Darius from thinking he could further expand Persian power permanently in Europe. On the contrary: the subjugation of Macedonia by Megabazus, satrap of Thrace, ensued immediately.

It was not, though, by land and through northern Greece that Darius authorized his next major military initiative, in 490. This took a sea route, through the Aegean, and was directed against first the city of Eretria on Euboea and then Athens. A more or less direct route led the mainly Phoenician fleet from its home waters off Lebanon via the largest Cycladic island of Naxos (which had caused trouble in 500) to Euboea and then on to Attica. The expedition was commanded by Artaphernes, a brother of Darius, and by a Mede called Datis (who we know from Persian records had had prior personal experience of the Empire’s western sector).

The ostensible motive of the expedition was punishment. Almost a decade earlier both Eretria and Athens had dared to aid the revolting Ionians, and such defiance of the imperial power and interference in ‘its’ sphere, however minor in their practical long-term impact, had to be seen to be visited with severe retribution.

But it is doubtful that this was all that Darius had in mind. All empires by a law of their nature worry about security at the fringes. For example, one of the proclaimed reasons for Julius Caesar’s first invasion of Britain in 55 BCE was that the pesky Britons had been giving aid to their Celtic cousins across the Channel in Gaul. Another of Caesar’s motives was to ‘cross Ocean’, a previously unheard-of feat. Darius in 490 surely aimed at least to deter any further mainland intervention in ‘his’ Asiatic sphere by turning the Aegean into a Persian lake patrolled by his Phoenician navy.

Phoenician naval superiority was not then in question. The Battle of Lade in 494 had proved it beyond a shadow of doubt. The Greeks’ crippling naval defeat was due partly to inferior discipline, but no less to inferior hardware, tactics and experience. In 490 Eretria was simply rolled over. The city was taken over and torched, and many Eretrians were transported a very long way from home, deep into the heart of the Persian Empire. The Athenians, predictably, offered no naval resistance. Apart from not having much of a fleet themselves as yet, they were in no way helped by the decision of their neighbours on the island of Aegina, who did possess a significant war fleet, to give formal tokens of submission, earth and water again, to Darius’s ambassadors. So the Persians landed unopposed in the broad bay of Marathon in east Attica. The issue was then whether, and how, the Athenians might put up any serious resistance on land.

Sensibly, despite the various contretemps that had afflicted relations with Sparta some years before, they sent at once for Spartan help, employing the services of the extraordinary long-distance runner Philippides (or Pheidippides). He reached Sparta from Athens, a distance of some 250 kilometres, in well under forty-eight hours.* Sparta was then by a long way the most powerful Greek military state in terms of conventional land warfare. It was under the dominant influence of King Cleomenes I, who was known to be violently hostile to Aegina. It had also, like Athens, treated Darius’s ambassadors with great contempt, and indeed some irreligion, by murdering them. The Spartans now reacted positively to the Athenians’ request for military aid, save only that a prior religious commitment (they claimed) prevented them from sending that aid immediately. In the event, the Spartan force arrived at Marathon on the day after the great battle, leaving Athens and its sole ally, neighbouring Plataea, to face the Persian music.

It will never be quite clear why exactly the Persian invaders lost the Battle of Marathon, and lost it so comprehensively. The role – or rather the lack of a role – played by the Persians’ cavalry will probably have had a good deal to do with it. In its absence the battle was a straight fight between heavily armed Greek soldiers who, under the inspiration of the tactical genius of the aristocratic general Miltiades, were fighting over (in more than one sense) their own home soil, and the relatively lighter-armed, more heterogeneous and less motivated troops at the disposal of Artaphernes and Datis. The Greek forces came out well on top and suffered relatively few casualties: according to Herodotus, a mere 192 Athenians died, as opposed to some six and a half thousand on the Persian side. There was some concern about a possible fifth column at Athens, prepared to do a deal with the Persians, but this never in fact materialized.

Darius died in 486, presumably a less than entirely contented man as regards Greek affairs, despite all his many other staggering successes. The upshot of his failure at Marathon was that in 485 Persia’s imperial writ had not yet been extended over mainland Greece proper. By then his son and successor Xerxes had established himself as Great King, had suppressed rebellions in Babylonia and Egypt, and was considering what sort of a mark he might be able to impose on his king-ship and on the Empire.

Herodotus at the start of the seventh book of his Histories records a supposed debate between Xerxes and his closest advisers, especially an uncle called Artabanus. He also presents a good deal of supernatural apparatus that supposedly pulled Xerxes first one way, then the other. Despite Herodotus’s dramatization, there was almost certainly never much doubt in Xerxes’s mind that the conquest of mainland Greece was unfinished family business and a top priority for imperial action. If that motive of revenge recently weighed (as it surely did) with an elected President of the non-monarchical, democratic United States, how much more so will it have weighed with an absolute monarch motivated by personal as well as imperial considerations of revenge, security and prestige.

In 484 or so mainland Greeks south of Macedonia first got wind of Xerxes’s hostile intentions and preparations. It was open to them in principle to consider true Greekness incompatible with ‘slavery’ – that is, subjection to the ‘barbarian’, non-Greek rule of Persia. And that is indeed how those mainland Greeks who decided under Spartan leadership to resist the Persian invasion in 480 did eventually decide to couch their resistance, ideologically speaking. But such loyalist Greeks were decidedly thin on the ground, and – with notable exceptions – rather thin in spirit too: they needed the beef and steel that Sparta alone was able to inject. One explanation for this lies in the very nature of Hellas – and Hellenism.

The ‘colonizing’ movement of the seventh and sixth centuries had left Greeks permanently settled pretty much all round the Mediterranean basin and round the Black Sea to the north-east. The resulting Greek world – or ‘Hellas’, to use the ancient Greeks’ own term – was as much, and as little, a unity as the ‘Arab world’ is today or ‘Christendom’ was in medieval times. Politically speaking, it was not a unity or even an entity at all. Pericles of Athens with his usual gift for the memorable phrase said of his Boeotian neighbours that they were so disunited and mutually hostile that they reminded him of tall trees caught in a strong wind: their tops crashed against each other so that they acted as each other’s executioners. And this, even though the Boeotians were not only fellow Greeks but members of the same Boeotian ethnolinguistic group with an actively used religious centre in common. Another illustration: Herodotus – in the context of 480, post-Thermopylae and leading up to the Battle of Salamis – reported that in his view the only reason the Phocians alone of all the Greeks north of Attica did not medize was ‘simply and solely their hatred of the Thessalians. If the Thessalians had remained loyal, the Phocians would doutbless have gone over to the Persian side.’4

So much for panhellenic solidarity! What did unite all Hellenes were a number of other, non-political factors: myths of shared descent, ultimately from a god; other shared religious beliefs and practices, especially animal blood-sacrifice on an open-air altar; other social and societal norms and customs; and a common language (with its dialect variants). Herodotus, combining his brilliant narrative and analytical gifts, placed in the mouths of the Athenians an expression of the nature and force of this composite notion of Greekness at a deeply critical juncture of the Graeco-Persian Wars. The context is the troubled winter of 480/79. The Persians have been rocked by their defeat at Salamis, and Xerxes has returned to Asia, but he has left Mardonius with a powerful enough land army and sufficient naval support vessels to have every reasonable expectation of finally finishing off the Greek resistance the following spring and summer.

The Persians at first, though, employ a diplomatic strategy of divide and rule by bribery – a technique that would often bring them handsome dividends in dealing with the mainland Greeks over the next century and more.* To that end Mardonius dispatches his vassal King Alexander I of Macedon as an envoy to the Athenians, offering them huge amounts of money if they would desert the loyalist Greek coalition.

The choice of Alexander was in itself massively controversial. On the one hand, he claimed he was a Greek with the best interests of Greece at heart. On the other, the very Greekness of the Macedonians was fiercely contested: it was an issue then, as it has been unhappily in more recent times, whether and how far the ancient Macedonians were true-blue Hellenes. Mythological genealogy was on their side, since it made Macedon an early and quite central branch of the Hellenic family tree. Etymology was perhaps on their side also: philhellenic Macedonians like Alexander himself derived the name of their ruling royal house of the Argeadae (the descendants of Argeas) from unimpeachably Greek Argos in the Peloponnese. But custom and practice – what the Greeks called nomos – and above all language seemed to tell crucially in the other direction.

Macedonian political nomos did not yet extend to the construction of the characteristic Greek form of self-government, the polis or citizen-state. There were indeed no citizens properly so called in Macedonia, only subjects (as in Persia), and the Macedonians remained politically an ethnos(people) ruled by a hereditary and absolute king – or rather by a tribal warlord. Indeed, even the title of that supreme warlord to suzerainty over his fellow – or rival – war-lords was questionable. For, despite the single kingship, the land of the Macedonians was not properly unified either governmentally or militarily before the Persian conquest.*

The language criterion of Greekness was vital, since the Greek verb hellênizein, literally ‘to be Greek’, basically and originally meant to speak Greek. And this for the Macedonians was a problem. There existed an adverb, makedonisti, that meant ‘in Macedonian’ (the language or dialect), and that betokened the fact that Macedonians could speak among themselves a language or dialect that was incomprehensible to other, more ‘standard’ Greek-speakers. And incomprehensible, too, in such a way as to raise the issue of whether Macedonian speech was even fundamentally Greek. There were some Greek-speakers, it is true, whose version of Greek (local idioms and/or thick accent) caused other Greeks to sneer or laugh at them. The Spartans’ spoken Greek struck the Athenians this way, for example. But there was no question of their being thought not Greek – or not wholly Greek or not Greek enough – as a result. This was, however, the case with the Macedonians’ local language. It is therefore quite telling that when another standard test of Greekness was applied to the Macedonians – namely, whether or not they were eligible to compete in the all-Greek and only-Greek Olympic Games – the answer delivered by the authorities (of the city of Elis) in charge of the Games was deeply ambivalent. Only the King of the Macedonians, they decreed, should be considered eligible – meaning that the Greek status of all his subjects was left at best in limbo.

Compare – and contrast – the case of the Greeks of Sicily. This was one of the very first areas outside ‘old’ Greece to be ‘colonized’. Syracuse, for example, was founded in the later eighth century BCE, traditionally in 733. Some Greek women were no doubt taken along on some of the many colonizing expeditions to Sicily which eventually saw Greeks settled all over the island, except in the far north-west, a Phoenician enclave. These women will have included members of priestly families, with a view to maintaining continuity of religious practice and identity with the ‘old’ country. Indeed, religion together with kinship constituted the closest affective ties between a metropolis (mother city) and its colonial ‘daughter’ foundation. And yet most of the Greek colonists will have been young, unmarried men who took for their wives and sexual partners women of the indigenous Sicel and Sican populations. Thus most Sicilian Greeks of the early fifth century will have been of mixed Greek-’barbarian’ stock originally. Even so, when the tyrant of Syracuse, Gelon, claimed a share of the command of the anti-Persian resistance forces, his admittedly unacceptable and imperious demand was not rebuffed on the grounds that he was not, or not sufficiently, Greek. ‘Greekness’, in short, like ethnicity in probably all societies and cultures, was situationally constructed rather than naturally given. The Macedonians’ problem was that typically they failed to demonstrate their claims to Greekness with sufficient clarity and lack of ambiguity. That Alexander was a Persian vassal-king in 480 did his cause no good whatsoever.


Occasionally, Greek potters and painters, such as the two men nicknamed by scholars the Sotades Potter and the Sotades Painter, ventured into elaborate vase shapes; here a rhyton, a ritual vessel for pouring libations to the gods, in the form of a ram’s head with a decoration of an ivy frieze in red-figure technique, possibly imitating a Persian metal vessel captured as booty in 480 or 479.

The Spartans somehow learned of Alexander’s mission, and – revealingly – were sufficiently frightened that the Athenians might be persuaded to abandon the coalition by offers of Persian gold that they at once sent their own counter-legation to Athens. This gave the Athenians a wonderful platform – or perhaps we should say it enabled Herodotus to offer them one; and here is what the Athenians said to allay the Spartans’ fears, or rather what Herodotus makes them say:

There are many and powerful factors preventing us from doing this [deserting the coalition] even if we were to wish to (which we do not). First and greatest of all is religion: the images of the gods and their shrines that the Persians have burned and destroyed we must of necessity avenge to the best of our capacity rather than do a deal with the perpetrator of these outrages. Then there is the fact of our being Hellenes: we are of one and the same blood, and use one and the same tongue, we have in common the establishments of the gods and the sacrifices we perform in their honour, and we share the same customary ways. For the Athenians to be traitors to all that would not be well.5

The three constituent elements of the Athenians’ persuasive definition of to hellênikon, which I have translated above as ‘the fact of our being Hellenes’, are, then, common blood, common language and common customs, especially common religious beliefs and practices. Herodotus gave a great deal of weight to what we would call marital and sexual attitudes and practices, and to food habits. Tell me how and with whom you have sex, and what and how you eat, and I will tell you who you are. But if pressed, he would probably have privileged common religious practices above all other common customs, and not least common funerary arrangements.

So when Herodotus wanted to illustrate by means of an exemplary parable both the differences between ethnic customs and the fact that different ethnic groups imagine their own customs to be not just better than those of others but absolutely the best possible, it was precisely funerary arrangements that he chose for purposes of demonstration.6* As a matter of hard historical fact, it was not the case that all Greek societies practised identical funerary customs. Far from it. And the Spartans’ ways of death were probably the most idiosyncratic of all.

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