History Snippets: Cradle-land of Battles

“History Snippets” serializes small bits of research from an unfinished test project. The theme is technology and natural events that shaped our modern world.

You have seen it all before, in Egypt’s disintegrating Middle Kingdom. The shifting dunes of time covered man’s works just as surely as the surf and incoming tide leave no trace of the child’s sand fortress on the shores …

Persepolis - from Elvis's weblog

“How the mighty have fallen! The weapons of war have perished!” — David’s Lament for Saul and Jonathan

Cradle-land of Battles

This is about the world of Athens and Sparta in the time of the Battle of Marathon. Sparta did not participate in this battle, but later redeemed itself in the even more famous Battle of Thermopylae. We’ll not rehash those famous battles. We’ll instead seek a cameo snapshot of the people and their embattled civilizations of that time. For their contributions to what would become western civilization, we owe a great debt. In their failures, there may be great lessons yet to be fully realized.

The year was -490, or “490 BC” in the way we reckon years today. It was a time of contentious – should we say global? – preparations for the defense of a divided and vulnerable western world against the generals of the mighty Persian king, Darius.

“Global” meant known land masses within roughly a thousand miles of the Mediterranean, and perhaps included what little might have been known of a few lands even beyond that.

Darius has already conquered and subdued the Greek presence along all of the western shores of Asia, along and inland of the Aegean Sea. We don’t need to brush up on history to recognize many of the place names: Hellespont, Troy, Lesbos, Chios, Ionia, Sardis, Magnesia, Maeander River, Dorian Cities, Rhodes. Once a conquered city found itself paying tribute to the Persian superpower, life wasn’t bad. Stability and security were practically guaranteed. Trade, agriculture and commerce flourished in the Persian war-free zone. It was hard for the homeland Greek cities of the peninsula to win back the affection of those conquered Aegean city-states. Grecian by heritage, those conquered people felt no loyalty to an Athens which had betrayed and warred with them so many times in the past.

So, to meet the new Persian threat, Sparta initially offered to assist their rivals, the Athenians, against the Persians they called Medes. In the end Sparta was unable to keep their promise when the actual Persian attack came. By their own religious law, Spartans were prevented from doing battle until the full moon, by which time it was too late. The religious alibi may have been as the Spartans claimed. It did seem inconsistent with the interests of a military state whose reason for being was war, and it did fit a general Spartan pattern of always serving the immediate interests of Sparta. It could not have escaped the Spartan generals’ consideration that a battered Athens could cheaply change the balance of power in the region, in Sparta’s favor.

Thus it happened, then, that Athens grudgingly accepted the aid of its neighbors from the nearby city of Plataea (see map). Plataea had originally offered its services to Sparta, but Sparta turned them down. Plataean assistance turned out to be very useful to Athens. They helped face Darius’ hordes on the plain of Marathon in a great battle that has been told and studied over the centuries. This alliance staved off the full brunt of the Medes for a full ten years, until faced again in the even greater battle at a place engraved in the collective memory of the centuries. The name of that place we still know as Thermopylae.

And why did the Persians so despise these Hellenes, and wish to subjugate them? The Greeks were great and innovative peoples, creators of great wealth and military strength, but so divided against themselves that they were constantly at war with each other in battles for spoils, slaves, tribute and power. There was no time in their history when they were not at war. No sooner did civilization seem to start to advance, than they smacked it back down again. Homer is full of the epic early legends of destruction and defeat. Given the spectacle of this sorry disarray, it is understandable how Persia grossly underestimated Greek strength, training, independence and determination.

Region of Athens,. Sparta, Marathon and Themopylae

Athens and Sparta. From Herodotus’ Histories, Strassler translation. The entire land mass of Greece is roughly the same area as Northern California. This image was previously used in our feature article Bottleneck at Thermopylae.

Greek preparation for the defense against the Medes is a textbook illustration of military and political disarray. We already know Sparta was unwilling to assist on the grounds their religion prevented timely action. According to Herodotus, Greek city-states treated each other very badly, even in times of regional emergency. Concerning Plataea:

Alliance with Athens and presence at Marathon

Herodotus tells that in order to avoid coming under Theban hegemony Plataea offered to “put themselves into Spartan hands”. However, the Spartans refused this offer and, wishing to cause mischief between the Boeotians and Athens, recommended that the Plataeans ally themselves with Athens instead. This advice was accepted and a delegation sent to Athens, where the Athenians were agreeable to such a proposal. On learning that Athens had accepted the alliance, the Thebans sent an army against Plataea, but were met by an Athenian one. Corinth attempted to mediate the dispute, and achieved an agreement that set the borders between Thebes and Plataea. In addition to this, Thebes made a commitment not to interfere with cities that did not want to be a part of a Boeotian state. However, after the Corinthians had left and Athenians were starting their journey home, they were set upon by the Boeotians. In the subsequent battle, the Athenians prevailed and set the river Asopus as the border between Thebes and Plataea.

With Athens as their allies, the Plataeans were able to avoid subjugation by their neighbours and maintain their freedom. In honour of this debt, at the Battle of Marathon, Plataea alone would fight at the Athenians’ side, since the Spartans were preoccupied with their annual religious festivals and sent their regrets. Plataea sent “every available man” in support, when it became Athens’s time to face invasion and conquest. In acknowledgment and gratitude, the Athenians gave the Plataeans the honour of the left flank during the battle. After the battle the Plataeans were allowed to share Athenian memorials and participate in the normally exclusively Athenian religious rites, sacrifices and games –asking for the blessing of Athens’s patron gods.

The Spartans had already built their legendary military killing machine, through harsh regimentation, murderous training and brutal discipline. This war machine was both a source of fear and contempt to Athenians, as well as to most of the rest of the known world (except, inexplicably, to the Persians). Sparta later became the source of admiration and object of emulation to military leaders everywhere for the next 2,500 years.

As it happened, only Spartan citizens could own property, which was the source of wealth due to their system under which property held a monopoly on income generated through land use. For reasons not quite clear, full citizenships declined critically in number from 10,000 at the time of Marathon to less than 1,000, two hundred years later. This caused one of the bloodiest butchers of all time, a north European in my father’s century, to say this about Sparta:

Adolf Hitler praised the Spartans, recommending in 1928 that Germany should imitate them by limiting “the number allowed to live”. He added that “The Spartans were once capable of such a wise measure… The subjugation of 350,000 Helots by 6,000 Spartans was only possible because of the racial superiority of the Spartans.” The Spartans had created “the first racialist state.”

Long before the later Roman slave and gladiator known as Spartacus, there was a vast slave population in most areas under Spartan control. These were known as Helots. Slaves in every modern sense, they could legally be killed at the whim of a Spartan citizen, but only in the autumn. However, a Helot could be set free after military service, and, as Sparta’s fully franchised citizen population dwindled in a sea of disenfranchised, Helots were conscripted more and more into military service, satisfying mutual defense pacts with other city-states in situations where able-bodied male Spartan citizens with military training were themselves seriously decreased in number. A large number of Helots eventually won their freedom, adding to the overall social instability of the Peloponnese (peninsular) region.

Athenians brought to the world Demos, the first and classical Athenian democracy. They also brought us sculpture, architecture, drama, poetry, literature and philosophy. Some, notably Spartans, criticized Athens for its profligate lifestyle, meaning, chiefly, Athenian citizens preferred to do as they pleased, rather than appoint others to tell them what to do. This bad blood eventually resulted in the ruinous Peloponnesian Wars.

Athens would be the only western city of ancient times to survive continuously to this day, reviving as a thriving modern metropolis. The names of the other places would survive, but only as legends, as historical places where the tourists come on day trips to glimpse a bit of ancient history. It is worth noting that Athens was indeed finally sacked by Xerxes, a sacrificial lamb offered by Athenian generals to entice Xerxes to over-extend his supply lines. The ploy worked. Other pressing matters finally sent the Persian army elsewhere.

And what should we say of the legacy of those Hellenes and Persians? Of the great civilizations of that time, many would contribute to the rich lore of mankind’s history, and one of those was unknown to the west. Three of them would heavily impact the world’s future development: Persia, China, and Athens. Persia, at the crossroads of trade, conquered and reborn three times, gave the world science and mathematics, poetry, and political headaches. Enigmatic China gave the world medicine, agriculture, and something called gunpowder. Quarrelsome Athens gave the world systematized reason, logic, oratory and democracy: the tools of freedom.

Hellenes would bring forth two of the greatest philosophers the western world has ever known, and the thinking of Plato and Aristotle shaped the thinking of the people and the institutions the Greeks formed and passed on.

Many nations in the small Mediterranean corner of the world had advanced the culture of warfare, including Greece, the Egyptians, and the Persians. Hellenes advanced war to a scientific discipline. “Shock and awe” – massively overwhelming force – was not invented there, but Greeks took it to the next level, paving the way for the Roman superpower.

Despite breakthrough advances in science, reason and public life, the military mindset continued to dominate. Conquest begat power and wealth, and everyone understood the barbarians, held at bay outside the gates, always awaited any slackening of will and preparation.

After the world of Alexander of Macedon, in which Grecian culture paid back the Medes by sacking Persepolis, the shifting sands of power began to bury the old world again.

The torch passeth. Perhaps no one was paying sufficient attention to that war machine building in Rome. Thanks to Greek skill in accumulating and disseminating knowledge, and cultivation of the art of war, tribes in a slightly more northern Europe, whom the Greeks vainly ignored, would eventually begin borrowing and developing Greek knowledge in any way they fancied. These “barbarians” would learn to apply this to engineering and military feats, systematizing the disciplines and logistics of conquest on a scale previously unknown to the ancient world. Greeks knew the barbarian ancestors as Etruscans, related to Etruria by conquest and assimilation, not by birth. History knows them as Romans.

From the north, those armies of of engineers and soldiers descended.

Roman might crushed the Greek world for a time, and also the world of the Medes, and the Egyptians, and other nations that Greeks had not heard of. Romans would rule the rebellious provinces with unparalleled brutality, but, having conquered, like the Persians before them, they would then rule in comparative tranquility.

Finally, the time came when that empire, like the mightiest star that has run out of fuel, collapsed upon itself and was followed by a thousand years of darkness, death and despair in the west. In the east, Persia flourished … and waited.

Like seeds buried in the soil when a huge fire blackens and sterilizes the land, a few survived and germinated when the rains finally came again. The conifers, grasses, flowers, weeds and poisonous plants – a few of each always repopulate the hills and plains, and the legacies of the old times begins again. We have learned much, and we have learned nothing.

This is the last planned post of my “History Snippets” series: Cradle-land of Battles, China, Measurement, Manned Flight, Hydrogen Bomb, Mt. St. Helens, Santorini, Battleships, Cast-iron Cannon. That’s not to say there won’t be more. These were mined from a much larger pilot project. That project was scrapped, because it became too obviously open-ended: I never had any intention of writing a world history. What theme, then, might these snippets have in common? The pessimist might say that our potential for self-destruction rivals any catastrophe Nature can throw at us. The optimist might say that in the same seed technologies of destruction lie our means of salvation. Whatever else one might say about the character of humankind, we do persevere by our wits, while might only buys us the moment. I would go no further than to say that a perspective on the mistakes and triumphs of our past may help us tilt the balance in favor of survival.

Alex Forbes ©2009 summitlake.com

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