The long and bitter struggle between the great Persian Empire and the fledgling Greek states reached its high point with the extraordinary Greek victory at Salamis in 480 B.C. The astonishing sea battle banished forever the specter of Persian invasion and occupation. Peter Green brilliantly retells this historic moment, evoking the whole dramatic sweep of events that the Persian offensive set in motion. The massive Greek victory, despite the Greeks' inferior numbers, opened the way for the historic evolution of the Greek states in a climate of creativity, independence, and democracy, one that provided a model and an inspiration for centuries to come.
Green's accounts of both Persian and Greek strategies are clear and persuasive; equally convincing are his everyday details regarding the lives of soldiers, statesmen, and ordinary citizens. He has first-hand knowledge of the land and sea he describes, as well as full command of original sources and modern scholarship. With a new foreword, The Greco-Persian Wars is a book that lovers of fine historical writing will greet with pleasure.
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The Greco-Persian Wars
By Peter Green
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 1996 Peter Green
All rights reserved.
DARIUS AND THE WEST
The great conflict between Greece and Persia — or, to be more accurate, between a handful of states in mainland Greece and the whole might of the Persian empire at its zenith — must always remain one of the most inspiring episodes in European history. As Aeschylus and Herodotus clearly saw (despite the obfuscations of national pride and propaganda) this had been an ideological struggle, the first of its kind known to us. On one side, the towering, autocratic figure of the Great King; on the other, the voluntary and imperfect discipline of proudly independent citizens. In Herodotus's account, Xerxes' soldiers are driven forward to fight under the lash; the recurrent Persian motif of flogging, mutilation and torture throughout his narrative repays study. The Greeks, on the other hand, fought because they had a personal stake in victory: their struggle was to preserve a hard-won and still precarious heritage of freedom.
In Aeschylus's play The Persians, produced only eight years after the crowning mercy of Salamis, and written by a man who had fought in the battle himself, what matters is not so much the picture of the Persians — an inevitable caricature: no Greek ever really understood Achaemenid ethics — so much as the spirit, the ideal, which Aeschylus shows us animating the Greeks. The Queen Mother Atossa, Darius's widow, asks a Royal Councillor various questions concerning Athens, and finally (as one might expect from a dowager in her position) quizzes him on the Athenian power-structure, which she assumes to be a replica, mutatis mutandis, of that at Susa.
'What man rules them?' she asks. 'Who is in command of their armies?' The answer surely drew a round of applause from that all-too-partisan Athenian audience: 'They say they are no man's slaves or dependents.' This to Atossa suggests incompetent anarchy, a view which the Athenian demos, in its more perverse moments, might seem to confirm. 'Then how,' she enquires, 'could they stand against a foreign invasion?' — a feed-line if ever there was one. 'So well,' the Councillor tells her, 'that they destroyed the great and magnificent army of Darius'.
Aeschylus, like most Athenian patriots, may have exaggerated the military significance of Marathon, but hardly its psychological impact. David had taken on Goliath, against all reasonable odds, and won. That Juggernaut, the Persian war-machine — nothing so formidable had appeared since the collapse of the Assyrian empire — was not, after all, invincible: the lesson went home. Ten years after Marathon, when Greece faced invasion on a scale that made this previous landing look like a mere border raid, the memory of victory still kept Athens, Sparta and her allies fighting. It was, by any rational calculation, an insane piece of intransigence. Those who thought of themselves as long-term realists — including the priests of the Delphic Oracle, and the leaders of nearly every Northern Greek state and Aegean island — argued, like French Vichy politicians in 1940, that resistance was hopeless, and collaboration the only logical answer to Persia's threat. Logically, they were quite right. But great victories of the human spirit against fearful odds — as both Themistocles and Churchill so clearly saw — are not won, in the last resort, by logic. Reason alone is not enough.
About the middle of the sixth century BC, just before the Persian conqueror Cyrusoverran Ionia, Phocylides of Miletus wrote: 'A little polis living orderly in a high place is stronger than a blockheaded Nineveh.' Though Ionia fell, and Miletus — alone of Ionian cities — made a treaty with the invader, Phocylides, in the long view, was absolutely right. This is a shining central truth which we should never forget when studying the Graeco-Persian wars. In recent years, thanks to spectacular work by Oriental scholars and archaeologists, our knowledge of Achaemenid Persia has increased out of all recognition. Today we are in a position to assess Darius, Xerxes, and their civilisation with greater insight and less a priori bias than was possible for even so open-minded an enquirer as Herodotus. Our picture is no longer the xenophobic libel produced by Greek witnesses: what we now have to watch out against is a mood of indiscriminate over-enthusiasm.
Those with a naturally authoritarian cast of mind tend to be fascinated by the Achaemenid empire for just the reasons which induced the Greeks to hold out against it: monolithic (if not always efficient) administration, theocratic absolutism, lack of political opposition (except for the occasional bloody-minded palace intrigue), and easygoing provincial administration by the satraps (provided their subjects made no trouble and paid their taxes regularly). Arnold Toynbee has even suggested that it would have fared better with the Greeks had they lost the Persian Wars: enforced unity and peace might have stopped them dissipating their energies on absurd internecine feuding (and parochial lost causes) until they were absorbed by the benevolent pax Romana of Augustus.
What such arguments fail to appreciate is that the whole concept of political and intellectual liberty, of the constitutional state — however individually inefficient or corrupt — depended on one thing: that the Greeks, for whatever motive, decided to stand out against the Oriental system of palace absolutism, and did so with remarkable success. Modern Europe owes nothing to the Achaemenids. We may admire their imposing if oppressive architecture, and gaze in something like awe — from prostration-level, as it were — at the great apadana of Persepolis, with its marvellous bas-reliefs. Yet the civilisation which could produce such things is almost as alien to us as that of the Aztecs, and for not dissimilar reasons. Achaemenid Persia produced no great literature or philosophy: her one lasting contribution to mankind was, characteristically enough, Zoroastrianism. Like Carthage, she perpetuated a fundamentally static culture, geared to the maintenance of a theocratic status quo, and hostile (where not blindly indifferent) to original creativity in any form.
Against this monolithic opposition the Greek achievement stands out all the more clearly, an inexplicable miracle. We sometimes take it for granted that democratic institutions should have evolved in the city-states from Solon's day onwards, reaching their apogee in the Persian Wars and the fifty years which followed. Nothing could be further from the predictable course of events. Free scientific enquiry, free political debate, annually appointed magistrates, decision by majority vote — all these things ran flat counter to the whole pattern of thought in any major civilisation with which the Greeks had to deal. Their achievement, however brought about, and for whatever self-seeking or otherwise disreputable motives, becomes all the more extraordinary when viewed against such a background.
It would be hard to labour this crucial point too much, especially since the story which follows is, in detail, often far from inspiring. For one Greek Churchill there are a dozen Greek Lavals. Cowardice, self-interest, treacherous double-dealing and political in-fighting, between cities and factions within those cities, meet us at every turn. Hostile propaganda and the calculated smear-technique are commonplaces: not even Herodotus wholly avoids suspicion here. Even the most glorious and best-known of actions often turn out, on close inspection, to have singularly mixed motives behind them. Yet nothing, in the last resort, can tarnish the splendour of that marvellous achievement, when, as Pindar (a Theban, not an Athenian) wrote, 'the sons of Athens laid a bright foundation-stone of freedom'.
'The Persian empire', it has been well said, 'was created within the space of a single generation by a series of conquests that followed one another with a rapidity scarcely equalled except by Alexander, and by the Arabs in the first generation after the death of Mohammed'. It also survived, with its boundaries intact, and under the same ruling house, for over two hundred years, which is more than can be said for Alexander's oikoumené — or, strictly speaking, for Islam. In the mid-sixth century the Near East was parcelled out into several small empires: those of Media, ruled over from Ecbatana by Astyages; Babylonia, and Lydia, where Croesus held sway. At this time the inhabitants of Parsa were mere upland tribesmen, hardy fighters but little known — and probably without power — beyond their own domains. Yet a bare twenty-five years later this limited region (now Fars, centred on modern Shiraz) controlled a greater empire than that of Assyria at her apogee: the largest single administrative complex that had ever existed in the ancient world hitherto. For this achievement one man, ultimately, was responsible.
In 559 Cyrus son of Cambyses (more correctly Kurash son of Kambujiwa, but Herodotus's Greek transliterations have become too familiar to abandon) ascended the throne of Anshan, a Median vassal kingdom lying north and east of Susa. Cyrus's house, founded by Achaemenes [Hakamanish] had for some time held sway in Parsa and its environs; but Cyrus himself was a man of more far-reaching ambitions, and fully endowed with the military and political genius necessary to achieve them. He united the various Parsa tribes under his leadership; he built a new Achaemenid capital, Pasargadae; and he made a profitable alliance with Nabonidus, who had usurped Nebuchadnezzar's throne in Babylon. After thus preparing the ground, he launched a full-scale rebellion against Astyages — who, like so many weak rulers, was both cruel and unpopular.
The first army Astyages sent against Cyrus deserted en masse to the Persians — largely at the instigation of their commander, Harpagus, whose son Astyages had previously executed in a most unpleasant fashion. The Median King then took the field himself. Outside Pasargadae his troops mutinied, and turned him over to Cyrus. This was in 550. Cyrus proceeded to capture the Median capital, Ecbatana, which yielded him a fabulous amount of booty. From now on Media lost its independence, and in fact became the first satrapy of the new Persian empire. In order to have a secure base for further expansion, Cyrus took no punitive measures against Media, and for all intents and purposes placed the Medes on an equal footing with his own people. Harpagus was only the first of many Median nobles to hold high civil or military office under Cyrus and his successors: ironically, where we would speak, generically, of 'the Persians', Herodotusand other Greek writers always refer to 'the Medes'.
By conquering Astyages Cyrus also laid claim — ex officio, as it were — to all Media's satellite dependencies: Mesopotamia, Syria, Armenia, Cappadocia, the disiecta membra of the old Assyrian empire. Here, of course, he came into direct conflict with Nabonidus, who had ambitions to recover some at least of the lost glories of the old Babylonian empire. But Cyrus, far from giving away Mesopotamia or Syria to a potential rival, meant, ultimately, to absorb Babylon itself. There were too may vultures circling the carcase already — including Croesus of Lydia, who in 547 marched east across the Halys River in the hope of picking up a few more outlying provinces. He had been encouraged in this action by the Delphic Oracle, which informed him, with classic ambiguity, that if he crossed the Halys he would destroy a great empire. So he did; but it happened to be his own. His cavalry horses fled in terror from the rank and unfamiliar smell of Cyrus's camels. In 546, after a fortnight's siege, the Lydian capital Sardis fell, and Croesus probably committed suicide by self-immolation to save himself worse indignities. Various popular legends about his end — such as Apollo's miraculous intervention to save him from the flames — look like self-exculpatory propaganda put out by Delphi after the event.
Cyrus himself merely recorded, with sinister brevity, that 'he marched to the land of Lydia. He killed its king [?]. He took its booty. He placed in it his own garrison.' This process, with variations, was to be repeated in a good many places. Between 546 and 539 Cyrus systematically mopped up the coastal cities of Greek Ionia and the Dardanelles: only the half-savage Lukku (Lycians) offered more than a token resistance to his seemingly invincible armies. During the same period he subjugated the whole of the great Iranian plateau, penetrating far beyond the Caspian, to Samarkand and the Jaxartes River (now the Syr-Darya, flowing from the mountains of Tien-Shan to the Aral Sea). Finally came the absorption of Babylonia. Nabonidus had been unwise enough to form a private alliance with Croesus: whether this made any difference to his ultimate fate is debatable. While he held court in Arabia, his son Belshazzar was left to govern Babylon. Nabonidus, an archaising religious dilettante, had contrived to offend the powerful priesthood of Bel-Marduk: his capital seethed with discontent and treachery. It hardly needed a Jewish prophet to spell out the meaning of the writing on the wall for Belshazzar's benefit. On 29 October 539 Cyrus made a ceremonial state entry into Babylon without a blow being struck against him, and the following year his son Cambyses was installed as Viceroy.
Cyrus now found himself undisputed master of the greatest empire the Near East had ever seen. What was more, he showed himself a most subtle and sophisticated conqueror. He was the first Oriental autocrat to realise that toleration and benevolence, far from being signs of weakness, could be made to pay handsome dividends: that more could be done by clever conciliatory propaganda than through any amount of iron-fisted terrorisation. In Babylon there were no pogroms or deportations, while local deities were treated with scrupulous respect — in return for which, naturally enough, Cyrus claimed to have their divine backing. 'When I made my gracious entry into Babylon,' he announced, 'Marduk, the great lord, turned the noble race of the Babylonians towards me, and I gave daily care to his worship. My numerous troops marched peacefully into Babylon. In all Sumer and Akkad I permitted no unfriendly treatment.' For modern readers, however, Cyrus's most famous example of religious toleration is probably his edict for the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem (537). Whenever possible, he believed in placating minorities. It cost little, and it paid handsome dividends.
The remaining eight years of his life Cyrus devoted, for the most part, to organising this great and heterogeneous empire he had acquired. He divided it into about twenty provinces, each under a viceroy whose Persian title — khshathrapavan, 'Protector of the Kingdom' — was transliterated by the Greeks as satrapes, and has given us the generic term 'satrap'. Two of these satrapies contained Greek subjects: Lydia, with its governmental seat at Sardis, included the Ionian seaboard, while Phrygia covered the Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmara [Propontis], and the southern shore of the Black Sea. These satraps, especially in the vast eastern provinces, wielded enormous power. They not only concentrated all civil administration in their own hands, but acted as military commander-in-chief as well. Such centralisation of authority was convenient, but had obvious dangers — not least that some ambitious governor might become too big for his satrapal boots, and attempt to usurp the throne. To avoid such a contingency, the Chief Secretary, senior Treasury official, and garrison commanders of each province were appointed by the Great King, and directly responsible to him. More sinister was the travelling inspector, or commissar, known as 'the Great King's Eye', who made a confidential yearly report on the state of every imperial province.
Cyrus spent much time at Pasargadae, his new capital, where he built himself a great palace — its audience-hall alone was 187 feet long — and a walled park, the lodge-gates of which were guarded by Assyrian-style winged bulls. Above, he had cut the proud trilingual inscription: 'I am Cyrus, the King, the Achaemenid.' Pasargadae stands some 6,000 feet above sea-level, a chill upland plateau: the coda to Herodotus's Histories describes a move on the part of the Persian aristocracy to relocate their capital in a milder region. This proposal, however, was flatly vetoed by Cyrus, and his nobles agreed, choosing rather 'to live in a rugged land and rule than to cultivate rich plains and be slaves'. Here, too, Cyrus built his tomb, perhaps in premonition of what was to come: work on the palace was still unfinished when, in 530, he marched east to fight the wild tribesmen beyond the Syr-Darya, and was killed in battle. His career — astonishing enough in sober truth — soon acquired an overlay of heroic myth, to which admiring Greek writers contributed more than their share. Xenophon's Cyropaedia, that remarkable essay in historical fiction, shows how far the process had gone by the fourth century BC.
Cyrus's son Cambyses ascended the throne without incident in September 530, after some years' training as Viceroy of Babylon. The hostile picture of him drawn by our sources aroused some suspicion in Herodotus, and is almost certainly much exaggerated. Neither the Egyptians whom he conquered, nor his ultimate successor Darius, as we shall see, had much good reason to praise him in retrospect. Modern research suggests that the atrocities he was said to have committed — in a fit of insanity — after his invasion of Egypt were, for the most part, invented by Egyptian priests summarily deprived of their rich temple perquisites. In fact Cambyses seems to have gone out of his way, as Culican says, to 'adopt the titles of Egyptian royal protocol and to put himself in proper relationship to the Egyptian gods'. Here he was clearly carrying on Cyrus's successful policy elsewhere. But even if not the sadistic, heavy-drinking paranoiac of tradition, Cambyses proved a tougher, less paternalistic despot than his father, and made numerous enemies in consequence. Apart from Egypt (where he spent most of his short reign) he obtained the submission of Cyrene and Cyprus and, most important, of the Phoenician states. Persia thus acquired at one stroke what hitherto she had notably lacked: a strong fighting navy.
Excerpted from The Greco-Persian Wars by Peter Green. Copyright © 1996 Peter Green. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of ContentsList of Illustrations
List of Maps
Introduction to the 1996 reprint
Preface and Acknowledgments
Part One: Darius and the West
Part Two: The Legacy of Marathon
Part Three: Waiting for the Barbarian
Part Four: The Corner-stone of Freedom
Part Five: The Wooden Wall
Part Six: The Doors of the Peloponnese
Part Seven: The Last Enemy