Tuesday, 22 September 2015

The Greeks and the Persians (II)

Relief from the Acropolis depicting a trireme

Arguably the defeat at Marathon was not a huge blow for the Persians. Darius faced a much more serious problem with a revolt in Egypt, and Greece, poor, remote and mountainous, was far less important as a prize. But the Greek sources are clear that the defeat at Marathon gnawed at Darius. When he died in 486 BC his vendetta against the Greeks passed to his son and successor, Xerxes I

Herodotus tells us that c. 482 BC Xerxes had two pontoon bridges built across the Hellespont at Abydos in order that his army could cross into Greece. Both bridges were destroyed by a storm and Xerxes had those responsible beheaded and the strait itself whipped.

In the intervening years, the Athenians had made preparations for a second invasion. At the instigation of the archon (magistrate) Themistocles, a brilliantly ambitious young man with great powers of persuasion, they had constructed the great harbour complex of Piraeus and were building up their navy. Two hundred triremes were constructed and the citizens of Athens were trained as rowers.

The Athenians were also helped by a stroke of luck.  In 483 they had discovered a huge new seam of silver in the mines of Larium. On hearing the news of this windfall, Themistocles, with some difficulty, persuaded the Assembly to spend the bulk of the income on the fleet.

Map of the Greek world at the time of the Persian wars

In 480 BC, Xerxes personally led the second Persian invasion of Greece with one of the largest ancient armies ever assembled, probably numbering 250,000. In the spring the army crossed the Hellespont. In his play The Persians, Aeschylus was to interpret this action as hubris, defying a limit set by the gods.

The Athenians consulted the oracle at Delphi. The first message advised flight, but when they consulted her again she gave the ambiguous advice that the Athenians trust in their wooden walls. 
Themistocles convinced the Assembly that this meant that the Athenians should commit themselves to naval warfare. 

Remains of the snake column set up
to commemorate the League of
Corinth. Now at Istanbul.
At the same time the key Greek states met at the Isthmus of Corinth
and set up an anti-Persian league. 

As the Persians advanced south, their advance was halted by the pass of Thermopylae, held by the Spartan king Leonidas. A local resident betrayed a path over the mountains to the Persians and Leonidas and his 300 Spartans were killed. (There is a discussion of the battle of Thermopylae on Melvyn Bragg's 'In Our Time'. Click here to listen.) 

This victory allowed the Persians to overrun most of mainland Greece.  The Athenians evacuated their city and took refuge on the island of Salamis, though they left a guard on the Acropolis. The Persians then occupied Athens and set fire to the temples on the Acropolis, an act of sacrilege the Athenians never forgot. 

However, while seeking to destroy the combined Greek fleet, the Persians suffered a severe defeat at the Battle of Salamis. Xerxes retreated to Persia leaving his cousin Mardonius in charge of his huge army.

In 479 the confederated Greeks went on the offensive. The Persians again advanced into Attica, occupied Athens and reduced the city to rubble. However a Greek army led by the Spartan general, Pausanias, defeated the Persians at the the battle of Plataea, at which Mardonius was killed. 

On the same day the allied Greeks destroyed the rest of the Persian fleet at the Battle of MycaleThis marks the end of the Persian invasion.  Xerxes, who also faced a revolt in Babylon, could no longer afford to commit men and resources to the conquest of Greece. In the next phase of the wars, the Greeks counter-attacked. The Greek cities of Asia Minor again revolted. The Persian garrisons were expelled from Sestos in the Thracian Chersonese in 479 and Byzantion in 478. 

The military factors

The key factor in the victory at Salamis was the latest warship, the trireme, powered by 200 rowers drawn from the citizen body. This was made possible because the Athenian fleet had multiplied in size three years previously thanks their use of the discovery of silver in the mines at Laurium.  The Athenians were also aided by Xerxes’ mistakes: his sailors could not swim and he did not cut off the grain ships sailing from the Black Sea to Athens. 

The land battles were won by the hoplites, who proved resistant to the Persian cavalry charges.

Hoplite warriors in the two attack positions

These were victories not for professionals, like Xerxes' elite fighters, 'The Immortals' but for citizens. This was to have powerful implications for the Athenian democracy.

The cultural factors

The Greeks represented the wars as a triumph of the united Hellenes against the barbarian Persians, who were represented as the oriental ‘other’. In Aeschylus’ play, The Persians (put on at the City Dionysia in 472), Xerxes is treated with respect but there is never any doubt that the Greeks represent freedom and simplicity and the Persians slavery and luxury. Greece’s destiny is to be a beacon of hope to the unfree peoples: 
‘For the people of Asia will not endure to remain the slaves of Persia for long; to be strong-armed into paying tribute to their master, to prostrate themselves before him on the ground. Kingship itself and all its power are dead.’ 
After Plataea the victorious Spartan general, Pausanias, sacrificed to Zeus Eleutherios, ‘Zeus of Freedom’ in the town’s agora – even though Sparta was the least democratic of the Greek city states.  

But the reality was more complex that a straightforward narrative of Greek freedom and Asiatic slavery. The quarrelsome nature of Greek politics played into the hands of the Persians. In 472 Themistocles was ostracised by his fellow Athenians (ostracism will be explained in a later post), and in disgust at his treatment, he made his way to Susa and the court of King Ataxerxes. He passed his last days at the court in Sardis advising the Persians on how to defeat the Greeks. It's as if Churchill had gone over to the Germans! 

Nevertheless at the time and later the war was seen as ideological - a battle not for a king but a concept. This was isonomia - equality under the law.