[Partly Revised 9/19/17]

 

HERODOTUS/PERSIAN WAR

Introduction: Wars as Turning Points in History

One of the common complaints about the old history books is that they were dominated by accounts of battles and wars.  Students would get bogged down in details, trying to keep straight who was on whose side in the War of the Roses or to master the ins-and-outs of the Thirty Years' War.
 
Modern textbooks have drifted away from accounts of fighting and have replaced political history with social, economic, and cultural history.  But there was a reason why accounts of battles and wars dominated the old history texts: several reasons, really.  One, warfare makes clear what people really value, what they are willing to fight and kill for. 

Times of war are also the times when we see most clearly the underlying tensions that exist in any society, tensions that, in ordinary times, may be well below the surface.

Most important, wars change things.  Wars, even single battles, are often turning points in history.  For want of a nail, the shoe was lost.  For want of a shoe, the horse was lost.  For want of a horse, the rider was lost.  For want of a rider, the battle was last.  For want of a battle, the war was lost.  For want of a war, the kingdom was lost--and all for the loss of a horseshoe nail.

Can the flap of a butterfly's wings change the weather a continent away?  Well, in war time trivial things do get magnified in exactly the way chaos theory might guess.

In Greek history in particular, wars are turning points. The Dorian invasion of Greece (infortunately not so well documented) was obviously a major turning point.  And then there is the war we talk about today: the great war with Persia.

The Persian War is one of the great turning points of history, and a fascinating war as well.  Herodotus in right in thinking it's a story that shouldn't be forgotten.

Fortunately for us, Herodotus makes the Persian War unforgettable.  He's a great story-teller.  In addition, Herodotus is the first true historian: the man who first used the word "historia" for what we call history today.  But not only is Herodotus the first historian: he is one of the greatest.
  
Criticisms of Herodotus

Modern historians are often rather derogatory in their evalutions of Herodotus' work.  Among the criticisms:

The real trouble with Herodotus, though--form the modern point of view--is that he seems to believe that there are forces grater than man guiding human affairs.  He sees the hand of the gods--or maybe just God--at work in human history.  Explaining events in terms of forces like hubris and nemesis: well, you don't get your work published today if resort to that kind of thing.

But even admitting all this, Herodotus does something few modern historians can do.  He's a master of narrative history, and, long after most of today's history books are gathering dust, reduced to antiquarian curiousities, my guess is that Herodotus will still be read and reread.

I can't even come close to Herodotus in terms of narrative skill.  But what I'll do here is to give you the basic story of the Persian war so that you know the overall course of where Herodotus' narrative is going and you can sit back an enjoy history as told be a true master of the craft.
 
Greek Settlement of Ionia

Herodotus begins his story by talking about the theft of women (Europa, Io, and Helen) women who, if they really lived at all, lived hundreds of years before the war Herodotus is planning to tell us about.  Herodotus then moves on to talk about Croesus, king of Lydia.  He then backs up to tell a story about Croesus' ancestor Gyges and the man he replaced, Candaules.

At first, one might think Herodotus had already lost control of his narrative, simply throwing together all the good stories he had collected during his travels.  But this isn't so.  Herodotus has started in a  very appropriate way, and I, too, will back up clear to the Trojan war to start the story.

In Homer's account, the Greeks (whom he calls Achaeans and modern historians might call Mycenaeans) attack and eventually sack Troy.  But not very long after, these Myceneaens were themselves attacked by the Dorians and, in many instance, displaced.  Where did these Myceneaeans go?  Athenian traditions suggest some made their home in Attica itself.  But other Mycenaean Greeks would have gone to Asia minor and to the islands off the coast of present-day Turkey, an area we call Ionia.

The agriculatural revolution (8th-6th century) led to further migration and colonization  in Ionia--no bad thing for the Greeks willing to resettle.  These Ionian Greeks were a trading and sea-faring people, and this made them in general wealthier than those living in Greece proper.  Culture takes off:  Homer very likely came from Ionia, as did Herodotus himself.  Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes--the first Greek philosophers--also came from Ionia. 

But the Greeks of Ionia faced a rather tricky set of poltical problems.  For business people, freedom and independence tends to work best.  But a close 2nd is to have the cooperation and protection of a benevolent overlord.

Croesus, king of Lydia, was an overlord of that type.  Trade was making him rich ("rich as Croesus"), and his capital city (Sardis) was particularly wealthy. Croesus was friendly to Greek ways, consulting the oracle at Delphi, for instance.

But the situation was complicated, and many of the Ionian city-states went through the same kinds of political changes we talked about in connection with Athens, shuffling back and forth between democracy, rule by a tyrant, and oligarchy.  Herodotus, by the way, describes these changes in some detail.

The decisive factor: the rise of a new power on the scene: Persia.

I describe Persia as a new power, and that's pretty much what they were: they seemed to come out of nowhere.  Both the Bible and the Greek sources tend to speak of "Medes and Persians" in one breath, but there was something of a difference.  Prior to around 550 BC, rulership was in the hands of the Median king.  The man that changed that: Cyrus the Great.

Cyrus (d. 539) seized power for himself, and rule over the Medes and Persians went to him.  He then extended the empire west (taking over in Lydia), south (taking over in Babylon), and somewhat north and east as well.  At his death, his son Cambyses took over and added Egypt to the empire.  There followed a period of confusion until Darius takes over.  Darius, the great organizer, added Thrace and Macedon to Persian dominions.  Four rulers and (about) 50 years, and, all of a sudden the Persians have the mightiest empire on the face of the earth.

Now I have given you in just a couple of sentences a story Herodotus tells in much detail: five books--and one might think that Herodotus has gotten off on a really bad side track--though, at least, he is not talking about Jimmy Carter.  But all this really is related to the story he intends to get to, the war between the  Persians and the Greeks.  First of all, one needs to know the nature of the Persian empire.  But also, as Herodotus tells the story of the rise of Persia, he's showing us a repeated pattern--a pattern that finds it's greatest expression in the Greek/Persian war.

The conquest of Lydia brought the Ionian Greeks into direct contact with the Perians--and it made things rather awkward.  At first, they treated the Persians as they had treated Croesus, but, during the reign of Darius, they revolt (499-494 BC).

Ultimately, Darius crushes the revolt, destroying (for instances) the city of Miletus.  Darius now determines to punish the Greeks who had helped stir up revolt in Ionia, particularly Athens and Sparta.

This one would have thought a fairly easy task for the mighty Persian empire--especially since the Greeks were divided among themselves. Sparta and Argos were at each other's throats.  Athens and Aegina were at odds over trade.  Sparta was likewise having internal problems with one of the two kings exiled.  And Athens likewise had just gone throught a period of internal political strife.

And (490 BC) here come the Persians.  The capture Naxos.  Then Eritria.  And then they land a huge force at Marathon--just a little more than 20 miles from Athens.

Now things were not quite as bad as they might have been.  The Spartans had recently defeated Argos, and the Argives were beginning to copy the Spartan life style!  The Spartans held hostage a number of important figures from Aegina, making sure Aegina couldn't connive with the Persians to stab them in the back. 

Things were bad enough nevertheless.  The Athenians didn't get immediate Spartan help--and it's not altogether clear why.  The Spartans told Athenian messengers they were "celebrating a feast," and, perhaps, they didn't feel there was any rush: the Athenians would be safe behind their walls for a good long time.

But retreating behind their walls wasn't a safe strategy.  The Eritrians had been betrayed by one of their own, and, with all the political turmoil in Athens, there was no guarantee Athens wouldn't also have traitors who would betray the city.  And maybe that's why the Athenians, instead of waiting behing their walls, decided to march out to Marathon and attack.

Previous Persian success had been based on coordination of archers and cavalry.  Archers threw the enemy into disarray, and then the cavalry swept in to destroy a disorganized enemy.

What to do?  The Athenian polemarch, Callimachus, deferred to one of the strategoi, Miltiades, who came up with an effective plan.  He deliberately weakened the Athenian center.  He ordered his men to run full speed ahead at the Persians, taking advantage of the fact that the Persians hadn't gotten their cavalry in place.  Ultimately, this strategy pays off really well.  The Athenians lost 192 men.  The Perisians lost about 6400--and we've got one of our great turning points in history.  We've also got the inspiration for the marathon!  With (supposedly) Phidippides, having alreay run to Sparta and back in the preceeding few days, now runing back to Athens and collapsing with a single joyous word: nikomen (we have won!).

The Perian threat was by no means at an end: Marathon was a minor defeat to such a great power.  Darius began to regroup, raising an army large enough to do the job right.  But a revolt in Egypt delayed him, and Darius own death added to the delay.  Not until 10 years later did the Persians renew their advance on Greece.

This time, the Persian leader was Darius' son, Xerxes.  Xerxes made splendid preparations: 5 million soldiers, says Herodotus.  Well, no.  But there were plenty.  The basic plan: a coordinated naval and land invasion moving across the Bosphorus and then working it's way south along the coast.

The Greeks met together to decide a strategy.  For fighting on land, they turned, naturally enough, to the strongest land-power for leadership: Sparta.  For leadership in fighting on the seas, they naturally turned to--well, here too they turned to Sparta--a potentailly fatal mistake.

The Greeks are unable to hold Thessaly.  Next, they try to hold off the Perian land forces at Thermopylae and the Persian navy at Artemisium. At Thermopylae, the Greeks have 7-8 thousand troops, led by king Leonidas and his personal bodyguard of 300 Spartans.  Somewhat difficult to know why the Spartan contingent was so small: perhaps because the Peloponnesians weren't really interested in fighting for the north. 

The Greeks do ok for a while until a traitor shows the Persians how to get around the pass at Thermopylae.  Leonidas sends some of the Greeks home, but he and his 300 Spartans fight to the death.  Heroic, but the Persians now can head south.  The Greek navy at Artemsium is in an untenable position and it also has to retreat.

Athens in particular is in tremendous trouble.  Their allies want to go south and defend the Peloponnesian peninsula.  What to do?

"Trust to the wooden walls" says the oracle at Delphi, and many Athenians say that means to defend the acropolis with its old wooden walls.

Themisticles, one of the strategoi, interprets the oracle differently.  Wooden walls?  That's our ships!

At his suggestion, most Athenians evacuate the city and take refug on Salamis--continuing, by the way, to hold regular government meetings and regular classes!

The city of Athens is sacked, but the real Athens--the people--continue on.  However, it looks like the Greek navy may give up on Salamis.  Themistocles proves himself a master trickster, tricking the Persians into fighting in the straits of Salamis and the tricking the Greeks into a position where they have to stay and fight.

Salamis turns out to be a great Greek victory--and Xerxes goes home, leaving behind his brother-in-law Mardonius in command of the Persian land forces occupying much of Greece.  Had Mardonius convinced the Athenians to go over to his side, things would have looked grim.  But Athens, despite the fact that the other Greeks had let them down, refuses to join the Persians.

In 479 BC, Sparta, reluctantly, sends troops north to join other Greeks in confronting the Persains.  They end up in a strategically unsound place at Plataea, and, after a few days, they more or less decide to find a better place to defend.  But communication is poor, and the retreate isn't well coordinated.  The Persians see an opportunity and attack.  But Spartan doggedness and determination now come into play.  They stand their ground, and, while the Persians fight brovely and have a superior position, they are no match for the Spartans.  Other Greeks regroup and come to Sparta's aid.  Mardonius dies in the fighting, his troops lose heart, and the Greeks turn the battle into a rout.

On the same day, Greek naval forces at Mycale defeat the Persians there, and the Persian threat to Greek freedom--at least for a time--comes to an end.