[Partly Revised 9/19/17]
Introduction: Wars as Turning
Points in History
One of the common complaints about the old history books is
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
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
Can the flap of a butterfly's wings change the weather a
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
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
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.
- Herodotus gets his numbers wrong: there
couldn't possibly have
been as many Persian soldiers as he says.
- Herodotus plays favorites: his really unfair in
his evaluation of
- Herodotus didn't understand the Persian tactics
- Herodotus didn't understand the Athenian
tactics at Marathon
- Herodotus gets side-tracked too easily
- Herodotus accepted stories he shouldn't have
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
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
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
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
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.