Pericles Making Athens Great

The cause of his authority was not mere words, but, as Thucydides said, the opinion of his life and the honesty of the man, being conspicuously incorruptible and above bribes. And from greatness, [Pericles] made [Athens] the greatest and wealthiest city. [He] far surpassed kings and tyrants in power, some of whom made him the guardian of their sons, but he did not enrich his estate by a single drachma from what his father left him.

Αἰτία δ᾽ οὐχ ἡ τοῦ λόγου ψιλῶς δύναμις, ἀλλ᾽, ὡς Θουκυδίδης φησίν, ἡ περὶ τὸν βίον δόξα καὶ πίστις τοῦ ἀνδρός, ἀδωροτάτου περιφανῶς γενομένου καὶ χρημάτων κρείττονος, ὃς καὶ τὴν πόλιν ἐκ μεγάλης μεγίστην καὶ πλουσιωτάτην ποιήσας, καὶ γενόμενος δυνάμει πολλῶν βασιλέων καὶ τυράννων ὑπέρτερος, ὧν ἔνιοι καὶ ἐπίτροπον τοῖς υἱέσι διέθεντο ἐκεῖνον, μιᾷ δραχμῇ μείζονα τὴν οὐσίαν οὐκ ἐποίησεν ἧς ὁ πατὴρ αὐτῷ κατέλιπε.

Plutarch, Life of Pericles 15.5

There are always going to be accusations of impropriety and Pericles is no exception. We are told that Pericles was charged with dressing Athens in bangles and ornaments like a wanton woman (Plut. Per. 12.2), misappropriating money from allies to pay for building projects (Plut. Per. 12.1) and various forms of sexual impropriety (Plut. Per. 24; Athenaeus 12.45, 13.25), but these are for the most part slander from political opponents bitter about his power or mean jokes composed for the comic stage.

Plutarch here offers an explanation for why Athens flourished under the guidance of Pericles. Intelligence and presence help, but the fact that Pericles resisted using his position for personal, monetary gain was critical to Athens to becoming great. He might be onto something.

Thucydides on Public Outcry

Lately I have been thinking about about “The Four Hundred,” an oligarchic coup in Athens in the year 411 BCE when the Assembly voted away their rights. Here is how Thucydides describes the scene:

“Thus by the actions of these (intelligent) men even unnatural deeds of such enormity came to pass; to have their freedom curtailed nearly a century after the tyrants were cast down was bitter for the Athenian demos, not only having not been ruled, but for half that time being accustomed to ruling over others. Since no one spoke in opposition, the assembly ratified the proposal and was dissolved.”

ὥστε ἀπ᾽ἀνδρῶν πολλῶν καὶ ξυνετῶν πραχθὲν τὸ ἔργον οὐκ ἀπεικότως καίπερ μέγα ὂν προυχώρησεν, χαλεπὸν γὰρ ἦν τὸν Ἀθηναίον δῆμον ἐπ᾽ ἔτει ἑκατοστῷ μάλιστα ἐπειδὴ οἱ τύραννοι κατελύθησαν ἐλευθερίας παῦσαι, καὶ οὐ μόνον μὴ ὑπήκοον ὄντα, ἀλλὰ καὶ ὑπὲρ ἥμισυ τοῦ χρόνου τούτου αὐτὸν ἄλλων ἄρχειν εἰωυόντα. ἐπειδὴ δὲ ἡ ἐκκλησία οὐδενὸς ἀντειπόντος, ἀλλὰ κυρώσασα ταῦτα διελύθη…

Thuc. 8.68-9

“…and the rest of the citizens did not resist, but kept quiet.”

…καὶ οἱ ἄλλοι πολῖται οὐδὲν ἐνεωτέριζον, ἀλλ᾽ ἡσύχαζον.

Thuc. 8.70

Did the assembly passively and silently vote away their liberty with nary a dissenting voice? I have my doubts. Thucydides emphasizes bloody revolution and counter-revolution on Samos in a nearby passage, not to mention elsewhere in his work, so he was clearly aware of what could happen in these situations. The episode is crafted to emphasize the gravity of the situation after the fiasco in Sicily and the privileges that the Athenians were giving up, with nods to the uncanny ability of the conspirators. All the while, the Athenians were still at war with Sparta.

This passivity did not last, and the democracy was restored after a brief civil war. I am nevertheless intrigued by how Thucydides describes recalcitrant, argumentative, and litigious people passively handing over their freedoms.

2017 has been a year of protests, but what this actually looks like varies by news outlet. How one views the world depends a great deal on which version of events is being consumed. Then there ongoing processes of the legislative bodies acquiescing to handing power to another branch of government. What will this year look like in ten years, let alone several thousand? Will the reports focus on the protests or the legislature? Will the reports be sanitized to quash even the possibility of dissent in the model of 1984? Or could these protests be signs of a crisis to restore the democratic system after the start of a silent coup that dates back more than fifteen years?

Thucydides offer no answers, but, then, history is often best used to think with rather than looked to for a solution.

Isocrates, on corrupt politicians

“For a long time now we have been corrupted by men who have no other ability than to cheat, men who are so disdainful of the mass of ordinary people that whenever they want to incite hostilities against anyone, these men who take money to speak,* they dare to say that we need to imitate our ancestors, not allow those looking on to mock us, and deny the sea to those who are unwilling to pay us their contributions.”

*Probably that they accepted bribes.

διεφθάμεθα γὰρ πολὺν ἤδη χρόνον ὑπ᾽ἀνθρώπων οὐδὲν ἀλλ᾽ἢ φενακίζειν δυναμἐνων, οἳ τοσοῦντον τοῦ πλήθους καταπεφρονήκασιν ὥσθ᾽, ὁπόταν βουληθῶσι πόλεμον πρός τινας ἐξενεγκεῖν, αύτοὶ χρήματα λαμβάνοντες λέγειν τολμῶσιν ὡς χρὴ τοὺς προγόνους μιμεῖσθαι, καὶ μὴ περιορᾶν ἡμᾶς αὐτοὺς καταγελωμένους μηδὲ τὴν θάλατταν πλέοντας τοὺς μὴ τὰς συντάξεις ἐθέλοντας ἡμῖν ὑποτελεῖν.

Isocrates, 8.36

The Greek world was particularly unstable in the 350s BCE and Athens had long since lost most of its dominant position in the Aegean. In this decade, Isocrates, already the Grand Old Man of the Athenian political scene, published his On the Peace, which is dedicated to the virtues of peace. He goes on to ask these politicians what, exactly, they mean by emulating their ancestors and suggesting several possibilities, including the battle of Marathon, which was nearly as long ago in his time as is the American Civil War is to this time. Isocrates then attacks the hypocrisy of these politicians who simultaneously heap praise upon their ancestors and act in the opposite manner.

Isocrates should not be mistaken for a bleeding heart in On The Peace. He can be high-minded in his values, but the overriding concern in this speech is the preservation of Athens and the Athenian democracy. Toward that end, he is unflinching in his opposition of politicians who put their private interests ahead of the state.

“We may restore the polis and make it better, first by appointing as advisors the sort of men for common affairs as those we would wish for our private ones, that we may stop considering sycophants* as public councilors and the men who are good and true** to be of the oligarchic faction, recognizing that no man belongs by nature to one of these, but for each they wish to establish the type of government that will accord them honor.”***

* Here, in the root sense of the word as prosecutors who took up court cases in the hopes of currying favor or receiving money.
** A loaded Greek phrase that probably holds both the meaning of the people in the aristocratic strata of society and “good people”.
*** Honor here is somewhat ambiguous, but probably best encapsulates advancing their political power and, with it, opportunities for economic enhancement.

ἔστι δ᾽ἐξ ὧν ἂν ἐπανορθώσαιμεν τὰ τῆς πόλεως καὶ βελτίω ποιήσαιμεν, πρῶτον μὲν ἢν συμβούλους ποιώμεθα τοιούτους περὶ τῶν κοινῶν, οἵους περ ἂν περὶ τῶν ἰδίων ἡμῖν εἶναι βουληθεῖμεν, καὶ παυσὠμεθα δημοτικοὺς μὲν εἶναι νομίζοντες τοὺς συκοφάντας, ὀλιγαρχικοὺς δὲ τοὺς καλοὺς κἀγαθοὺς τῶν ἀνδρῶν, γνόντες ὅτι φύσει μὲν οὐδεὶς οὐδέτερον τοὐτων ἐστίν, ἐν ᾗ δ᾽ἂν ἕκαστοι τιμῶνται, ταύτην βούλονται καθεστάναι τὴν πολιτείαν.

Isocrates, 8.133

Public Funding and Monumental Buildings, a few thoughts

I want to make a few observations about public funding of monumental buildings in ancient Greece and modern America–not so much for conclusions as for musings. To put it bluntly, I am thinking out loud.

Before diving in, I want to acknowledge a few caveats because it is always dicey business to equate the two time periods.

  1. The state of public financing, both in terms of state income and state obligations are hardly similar between modern America and ancient Greece. For instance, the United States doesn’t employ twelve carrier-archs to underwrite the cost of the navy.
  2. Obviously, the form and function of monumental buildings are different between the ancient and modern contexts, particularly since the most common of the monumental buildings in the American context, at least among those that are publicly funded, are sports arenas rather than temples, though I would be remiss if I overlooked the 1.5 billion dollars congress offered to build the Freedom Tower in New York on the site of the World Trade Center.
  3. I do not want to go into actual values because the problems, since, to provide one example, Modern America has a monetary economy, whereas there are a number of ways in which Ancient Athens was only partially monetized.

In the Greek context, monumental buildings often demonstrated the prominence of a city and of the state or people who commissioned or funded it. For instance, the Stoa Poikile in Athens, which contained painted panels of both mythological and historical images from the Athenian past was in part commissioned by the Philaid clan (the family of Miltiades, the hero of Marathon, and his son Cimon), but, probably as the result of political conflicts in the mid-fifth century, their names were removed from the structure. Later that century, Pericles oversaw one of the largest Athenian building programs that included the Propylaea and the Parthenon, which were partially constructed using the tribute from the Delian League. In addition to beautifying the city, these buildings provided the backdrop for city Dionysia, Lenaia, and Panathenaic festival, which people usually point out as sources of added income to the city because it would have brought people from the countryside and from abroad for the festival where they would have done what people everywhere on trips do–spend money on food, lodging, and souvenirs, but more on this below.

Miletus in Ionia, much like Athens, had a large number of monumental sanctuaries, with the most famous being the eternally incomplete sanctuary at Didyma, which has sometimes been taken to indicate that Miletus was exceptionally wealthy. The problem I have with this observation is that it one one hand fails to account for the source of much ancient wealth and on the other where the money for the sanctuaries came from. Miletus, in particular, was poor when it came to mineral wealth, though it was rich in terms of agricultural land, marble, and clay. The marble would have been of use in constructing the temples, but there is not much in the way of fungible assets that Milesians could use. The money spent on the sanctuaries, particularly Didyma, was not local, but the donation of foreign potentates, whose names are left inscribed on the buildings. Sure, the number of sanctuaries shows a certain type of wealth for the polis, but, at least in this example, it may be better to consider the sanctuaries more as a sources of wealth than as a demonstration of it.

Now to a modern context. I am not in any way an expert on publicly financed (or privately financed, for that matter) buildings, whether in an American or foreign context, but there has recently been quite a bit of controversy over the public financing for sports complexes. Supporters of public financing argue that the stadiums will bring in business–they will provide jobs for construction and to operate them, bring in concerts, and restaurants and hotels in the immediate vicinity to service the thousands of people who come to the events. Opponents point out that most of these stadiums seem to have a shelf-life of a decade or two before the teams begin to clamor for a new one, the jobs created through stadium construction tend not to be particularly well paying and are usually seasonal, and that a single sport-stadium is generally used at most a quarter of the days in a year, while creating a bubble around the stadium where the customer traffic is tied to the stadium’s use, meaning that it is largely abandoned three quarters of the year. Further, opponents point out that the owners of the sports teams (regardless of sport) are in multi-billion dollar industries that have government sanctioned monopolies and lucrative media contracts and ask for hundreds of millions of dollars of tax dollars to fund the stadiums, often with the threat of relocation should the city refuse.

The case of the opposition becomes heightened with the other massive sporting complexes created for events such as the World Cup or the Olympics where the price-tag is higher, most of the use is concentrated in a single extended event, and the majority of the complex immediately falls into disuse.

The industrialized nation state in a monetary economy wields far more financial capacity (at least in terms of spendable money) than many ancient states could and the ancient states often compensated for this weakness by relying on wealthy individuals to pay for buildings and services on a fairly regular basis. Sanctuaries benefited from donations by states and individuals and, when they weren’t being plundered by invading armies, became quite wealthy. Beyond the contributions of the wealthy, tribute that came into imperial states, such as Athens, could be used for building projects, as well as for defense. The modern state has far more obligations and more sources of revenue than most ancient states did, but, at least at first blush, enormous amounts of tax money being given to (effectively) private entities is an inversion of the responsibilities of the wealthy in the two societies–and no, using a cigarette or other regressive tax to raise money for a stadium, as is the case in Minnesota, means there can be no claim that the wealthy pay more than their equal share into the pot of money being used for the stadiums the way that it might with an income tax.

Of course, I am grossly oversimplifying both processes for this account. A larger consideration, and one that I just want to throw out there as a conclusion, is that perhaps sanctuaries and festivals should be thought about along these lines w/r/t the economy and prosperity of a state.

The Spartan Mirage and American Militarism

Several years ago I wrote a post for this site claiming that the Spartan mirage is/was rooted in military excellence. As I later pointed out on that post, this characterization is inaccurate. In fact, the Spartan mirage stems from the stability of the Spartan constitution. The state did not suffer from the same internecine stasis that plagued other poleis and thereby allowed the Spartans to have an extended period of military hegemony in classical Greece. But I still had the idea that the mirage was one of military invincibility, ironically calcified by the death of 298 Spartans at Thermopylae, damaged by the Spartan surrender at Sphacteria and shattered by the defeat at Leuctra.

I built the idea from my own readings of translated sources as a college student. I had also heard the term mirage, but I did not know the origin. To me it was self evident that military prowess–the eternal demonstration of Spartan power–was at the crux of the mirage, [1] after all, the other Greeks were aware of the perioikoi with whom they might have traded [2] and they also were aware of the extremely precarious position that the Spartan helot system created.[3] While neither of these situations is the same as stasis, the state of factional violence between citizens, neither was Sparta an entirely stable state.

Even as I write these words in light of what I now know about Greek culture, philosophy and society, they ring false. A citizen body without factional strife was such an ideal situation that if it could be maintained on the brink of a precipice, that could be preferable to stasis.[4] To keep that utopia, any and all means of preservation would be warranted. Sparta might be weird in organization, but whatever weirdness appeared acceptable.[5] The real point here is that this is a first impression that I held on to for far longer than I had any business doing. While my mistaken belief is my own problem, I want to suggest here that it is not one isolated in me.

In 2005, Andrew Bacevich, a self-identified conservative, wrote The New American Militarism. He argues that in the past century Americans of all political affiliations have become enthralled with military power. [6] Bacevich tries to warn the readers about the dangers of excessive militarism and how it shapes the consciousness of American citizens. I generally agree with his sentiments, but, for my part, I wonder if this sort of cultural fascination makes it more likely that Americans identify the singularity of Sparta in the military success rather than in the political stability. Instead of seeing political stability as leading to military success, military power could be what ensures political stability. More than simply being a chicken-and-egg problem, this inversion can lead to drawing the wrong conclusions entirely.


[1] I am now aware that this is faulty logic. Invincibility could be a mirage of sorts, but the (unbroken?) string of military victories is a fact. The mirage, then, would be the perceived cause of the success.

[2] Recall that the people who defended Athenian honor in the Spartan war council, according to Thucydides, were Athenian merchants. Presumably they were aware who produced any goods they traded for.

[3] In the mid-fifth century, the Athenians sent a military force to help suppress a helot revolt. During the Peloponnesian Wars, one of the Athenian strategies was to encourage helots to escape from Sparta.

[4] Hyperbole, but not by much.

[5] Emphasis on appearance. I am quite convinced by Stephen Hodkinson’s Property and Wealth in Classical Sparta that Sparta functioned much more normally than assumed. Lysander might still take the rap for unsettling the politics, but not because he introduced money to Sparta.

[6] For a single snapshot of this phenomenon, one could look at the foreign policy debate in the 2012 presidential debate.

The Problem of Exemplarity

One of my biggest academic pet peeves is the extent to which Athens is overrepresented in textbooks, lectures, and scholarship. An example of this phenomenon (and not a particularly egregious example at that) is that in one textbook the entire chapter on Western Greeks before the fifth century comprised six pages, while the chapter on reforms to the Athenian Constitution in the Archaic period was close to thirty.

There are several reasons for this infatuation, including the availability of written sources for Athens, a perceived connection with the “birthplace of democracy,” and (more importantly, I think) the juxtaposition of “Athens” with “Greece” that took place in Greece while under Roman rule. Thus there is a long tradition of promoting Athens as legitimately Greek while other Greek states were judged by the Athenian “norm.”

I dream of teaching a Greek history survey that does not talk about Athens except as an outsider to the other Greek people and places that are focused on in the course. In order to assuage concerns that I will simply erase Athens from Greek history, I would then teach a second course that is a survey of Athenian history as distinct from Greek history.

This structure could work, but I also run the risk of exemplifying Athens too far in the other direction. Simply by making Athens abnormal for Greek history and then turning around and teaching another course on Athens, I make Athens appear unique. The problem is that it doesn’t fit. Athens does not conform to any of the rules and doesn’t fit into the Greek paradigm. It is like trying to teach a course on the history of cities in the United States and then predominantly teaching about New York City, only in this scenario, New York is producing most of the political, cultural, and rhetorical documents, is hailed as the center of learning in America, and people two hundred years from now look back upon it wistfully as the American standard. Athens, like New York, is the city that is so grotesquely magnified beyond all recognition that you can’t ignore it, but also can’t really normalize it with the other examples.

That is my problem. The only way I can see to give Athens a fair shake, but also to keep it from entirely overshadowing the other areas, is to excise it entirely from the course. In turn, this magnifies Athens more while inaccurately representing much of Greek culture. At least I have identified the problem.

The First Reconstruction of Athens: Between Salamis and Plataia

The story goes that between the defeat at Thermopylae and the arrival of the advance Persian troops at Athens, the Athenian leadership managed to remove the entire population of Attike to the island of Salamis. At this point it is commonly accepted that not all of the population went to Salamis, and that a sizable portion went either to Athens’ traditional rival Aigina,1to Salamis, or to the Peloponnese. For this reason, and simply the population of Attike at the time, the evacuation must have begun before Thermopylae. This may have also taken place under the supervision of Kimon, the son of Miltiades, since he was supposed to have led a procession among the first departures, Themistokles was with the fleet at Artemision, and the other two most prominent Athenian politicians of this section, Xanthippos and Aristides, were both Ostracized until almost immediately before Salamis.2

Now Xerxes sacked Athens, destroyed the acropolis, but after Salamis made preparations to withdraw, possibly disguising his intent by preparing to build a mole across to the island. In the fall of 480 Xerxes returned to Asia Minor, leaving Mardonios in Northern Greece with one large army, a second army in Thrace and a third in Northern Asia Minor. To set up these armies and withdraw at least beyond Thermopylae may have take upwards of two months past the Battle of Salamis, which took place in September of 480. Before the Battle of Plataia, Mardonios returned to Athens, first to enlist the Athenians to his side, and second to destroy the city as punishment when the refused. Purportedly he arrived in June of 479.

Assuming my time line laid out above from knowledge of the Persian logistical system, modern scholarship and superimposing the speeds on the way into Greece, this left at least six months between Xerxes’ departure and the return of Mardonios. Somehow between the two, at least some portion of Athenians decided that it was safe to rebuild and re-inhabit their city. Further, the process was well enough under way that it was worth the effort on Mardonios’ part to specifically come back, negotiate and then re-destroy the city, and possibly destroy a second harvest before withdrawing to Boiotia.

A second possibility is that the Persian army only destroyed the Acropolis the first time around. Strictly speaking Herodotus mentions that Thespiae and Plataia were sacked and that the temple complex on the Acropolis was destroyed when Xerxes took the city. That said it is hard to imagine that with such a huge force, and before and/or after losing Salamis, Xerxes did not simply have the city destroyed in its entirety. Further, he purportedly began construction of a mole to Salamis and, as Alexander would later do at Tyre, one convenient source of materials for a mole is a city (Alexander used New Tyre to build his).

While this thought process feels open ended, I have no answers, just a few half-completed thoughts about symbolism and that where the soul of a polis was the citizens, they needed that physical location, too. I just find the conception that rebuilding occurred so quickly after Salamis and before the Persian land army in Greece was defeated curious.

1 One of the reasons for the Athenian acceptance of Spartan hegemony is that it was a compromise Athens, Corinth and Aigina could accept and thereby both employ their fleets towards defense, rather than one or more withdrawing some or all to stop the others.

2 Unless the decree recalling the exiles took place before this time.

Athenian Allies

In the funeral oration venerating the Athenian dead as reported by Thucydides, one of the themes is the inherent differences between Athenians and Spartans. Perikles strikes on government differences, educational differences, personality, et cetera, while praising Athens and downplaying the virtues of their opponents. One of the striking contrasts (according to the Perikles of Thucydides) is between bravery, as Perikles mentions that:

When the Spartans invade our land, they do not come by themselves, but bring all their allies with them; whereas we, when we launch an attack abroad, do the job by ourselves… (2.39)

He then goes to to describe that Athens never sends out its entire strength, so their enemies should fear that day, since they are already defeated by mere detachments.

In such a speech it stands to reason that he would praise the exploits of Athenians, exhorting and calling upon-as Admiral Nelson would later put it-‘Every man to do his duty’. To say, though, that Athens stood alone where Sparta required contributions from their empire to invade Attike is nothing more than hyperbole, as it overlooks the nature of the Athenian ‘Empire’. Even further, during the first year of the war and increasingly thereafter, Athenian allies did contribute to military expeditions.

The Delian League was set up in such a way that the allies were required to submit either a certain number of troops or a certain amount of tribute. Lesbos, Chios, Zakynthos, Kerkyra and a small handful of other states repeatedly appear providing triremes for the Athenian fleet. Those that did not contribute instead provided Athens with money to build, equip, and man up to 250 triremes on active duty at any given time. These two aspects together make it so that Athens was hardly fighting alone, even on those occasions when it was a purely Athenian fleet raiding the Peloponnesian Shores. Sparta alone could summon an imposing army, but her league did not pay tribute to Sparta, but was geared instead to march at the call of Sparta. Thus the Peloponnesian War truly was between Sparta and her Allies and the Delian League, whether or not the financial contributions, if anything encouraged, were recognized.

Second, even before the Periklean strategy of limited operations was abandoned, Athenian allies contributed forces to the allied efforts, even if they were just tokens. After his death, Athens began to campaign more widely and instead of using their own forces, would often contribute a token force, supplemented with Messenian, Elian, Mantineian, or other allied forces. In particular these were hoplites, and wherever an Athenian fleet would go, they would enlist allies to make up the bulk of the force. Exceptions to this include Demosthenes’ Boiotia strategy where his force enlisted allies, while the main Athenian army bumbled into the Thebans at Delion and lost.

In some ways the vast over-extension of Athenian resources was enabled by the allies they could call upon, whether in Akarnania, Thrace, Sicily or the Peloponnese. In the infamous Sicilian Expedition, less than a third of the hoplites sent were Athenian; while the Athenian loss of life was staggering because of the fleet losses and reinforcements sent, a mitigating factor in it all was that a relatively small porportion were actually Athenians. Not that this helped much, but it should still be noted.

True, the speech is exhorting bravery of Athenians and the courage to abandon land and homes for the city, seeking to belittle the Spartans and simultaneously paying homage to that the vast majority of the fleet was Athenian; this is even without recognizing that the power of the Athenian fleet was magnified by skill to the point that they routinely were willing to engage Peloponnesian forces twice their size. It just manages to omit one of the key factors that enabled Athens to reach and then overreach.

Democracy, republicanism and war

Are democracies inherently flawed when it comes to running a war? Does a strong executive (to use the modern terminology) make the running of a war more efficient, if not always more successful?

Thucydides would say so, and indeed he lays the blame for Athenian defeat mostly at the hands on the demagogues, who were non-aristocrats who became leaders. Lincoln and Roosevelt would also say so, and both took extraordinary steps to suspend basic liberties in light of wars, intending to relinquish their hold once the crisis passed. Romans would agree, having two consuls run the war efforts, but when times became most critical they nominated a dictator to take over all power for six months and completely direct the war effort. Napoleon would agree, Han Solo would agree, and every president since Vietnam would agree, the list goes on.

The virtue of having a sole, or very small group of leaders does not guarantee success in a war, and in some instances the virtue of having one person in command of the overall strategy could guarantee defeat, but there is not the fickle aspect of democracy and there is a time when one person needs to step to the fore and expedite the process.

The Spartan Myth – Martial Prowess & Invincibility

On the eve of the Persian Wars1 Sparta was undeniably the most powerful military force in Greece. The only true competitor during this period was Argos, but under Kleomenes, Sparta annihilated their army at Sepeia, supposedly killing half of that generation’s military capacity. Athens had a naval component of sorts, but it was not until almost fifteen years later that the first large naval buildup took place after an especially profitable year at the Laurium mines, but I digress.

There is some evidence that suggests that the Ionian rebellion and Croesus of Lydia tried to enlist Spartan aid for their cause, not Athenian, though ultimately it was an Athenian fleet that took part in the sack of Sardis. On land Sparta could call upon more hoplites than could Athens, between 5,000 Spartitiates, 5,000 Periokoi of Lakedaimon, and several thousand (up to 15) from their Peloponnesian allies, as demonstrated by the campaign leading up to Plataia. Now this force was a more or less all out attempt, though some number must have remained behind to prevent uprising and intervention from Argos. There is logic behind these capabilities, the Peloponnesian League and the storied agoge for acquiescing to Spartan hegemony against Persia. Further, in the years leading up to the wars two Spartan kings, Kleomenes and Leonidas, may have spent their energies enlisting a panhellenic effort against Persia.

Yet in the modern mind, and possibly even the ancient (though this is harder to prove, if it was even the case), Spartan prowess in battle devolves to one heroic three-day stand on road through a narrow passage north of Boiotia: Thermopylae. Poems, books, and movies have all been made about this one event, with the epitaphs about it evoking shivers. So prominent is it that it is easy to forget that it accomplished exactly nothing, and was a total defeat which cost Sparta 300 homoioi (equals).2 While the Persian losses were large at Thermopylae, he had troops to spare, so that when he left for Asia following Salamis, he still left behind Mardonios with an army larger than the combined Greek force, plus a second army somewhat smaller to protect the road through Macedonia, and a third in Northern Asia minor. It was costly to take the pass, but not in a significant manner.

There is also one brand of scholarship that argues that Leonidas himself was disobeying orders by remaining at Thermopylae when the situation had become untenable, though he may not have known how quickly the Persian flanking force would arrive and therefore thought that he could beat a fighting retreat. The suggestion from this derives from the boat that was to inform the Greek fleet of the defeat which did not leave until relatively late on the third day, suggesting that it was not a suicidal last stand, in which case the boat would have departed immediately.

The argument that he was buying time begs the question: time for what? The “final stand” he was buying time for their retreat, but as suggested he was only a rear-guard, not a suicidal mission and expected to beat a retreat later. Yet the initial deployment to Thermopylae is often seen as a delaying mission, so the question again arises. It was not to raise an army, since three days matters not at all when the actual land battle was not fought for another year. It was not to evacuate Athens, though three days would matter more there, since they must have already been evacuating, and it would take the Persians another week or more to reach the city from Thermopylae. No, sacrificing four or more thousand Greeks for three days is a ludicrous possibility.

I agree with the line of thinking that says that Leonidas did not intend a suicidal stand, but a fighting retreat; he held Thermopylae as long as he could, expecting reinforcements–for example, one of the two surviving Spartans missed the battle because he was off as an envoy gathering reinforcements. Thus Leonidas expected more troops and fully expected to be able to stave off the Persians, effectively stemming their invasion, while the fleet at Artemesion held off or defeated the Persian fleet.

This logic, and the subsequent sacrifice leads to a logical conclusion of a legend about Sparta putting it all out for Greece. This aspect is not lost, but this sort of responsibility already existed and the other states seemingly expected that Sparta would do it, so Thermopylae was their duty, not the foundation of a new legend. Instead it is usually cited as the rigidity, discipline and martial prowess of Spartans and while their standing firm is impressive, they all died. Leonidas miscalculated his capacity to retreat and died early on the third day before they had reached the point of retreat. Disciplined to the point of stupidity, led bravely in a failed effort (though it should be noted that Leonidas led as he was supposed to and if he was given 40,000 hoplites, not all of whom would have fit in the pass anyway, he would have done just fine), the rise of the legend is perplexing. It does make a great story, but it was a heroic failure. Sparta was largely interested in defending the Peloponnese and if Leonidas was breaking with policy by standing and dying, then it shows a weakness on the part of the Greek alliance.


EDIT FROM THE FUTURE, 5/13/2013
The Spartan Myth also has a great deal to do with the supposed absence of strife in Sparta during the classical period.


1 I will not go into a detailed discussion about the events leading up to the Persian Wars, though that topic may be forthcoming over this week. Note that at least some of my topical choices will be based in my course work this semester–Problems in Greek History and The Roman Empire.

2 Two issues about this number: 1) Actually it was 298, but one of the survivors committed suicide and the other died fighting in a frenzy at Plataia. 2) 300 was the traditional Spartan number for dangerous missions, though it is unlikely they were intended to be a suicide force, but moreover, during the Peloponnesian War around 175 homoioi were captured by Athens on Sphacteria and this was sufficient cause to offer a truce until they were returned. For a state with such a small population of full citizens, 300 was a large force, and too large of one for a suicide mission.