Looking at the Halys River

I’ve been wanting to use this space to talk some about the ancient world, but have been struggling to settle on a niche. I have posted some relevant translations, but that isn’t really my thing and Sententiae Antiquae has created something of a monopoly there, I’m not sure I have the attention span and dedication to write different public history essays like Sarah Bond, and I don’t have a deep and abiding cause like Neville Morley with Thucydides. I admire each of these people, but this space is never going to be predominantly dedicated to the ancient world because I envision is more in the model of John Scalzi’s Whatever, an outlet to write about things I want to write about outside of professional obligations. Most of my time, if not always most of my words, go to other projects.

What seems to work best for me is to pop in from time to time and write about topics that I’ve been thinking about or come across in my reading. Sometimes that will involve reaction to events or articles, like the one where I wrote about Alexander the Great and concussive brain injury, and, even if I don’t say so outright, all of the passages from ancient sources that I have posted here I came across while researching and happened to note some contemporary resonance. In the past year and a half I have spent a good deal of time writing or teaching about Athenian Comedy and Greek Oratory, particularly Isocrates, in case that wasn’t obvious.

The third thing I want to do a better job of writing about are inchoate research projects, i.e. things I am not actively writing about for articles, book manuscripts, or conference papers, are adjacent to work that I am doing and that I keep coming back to as a potential line of research. Basically: musings, incomplete thoughts, works in progress. That is where this post comes in.


Two things that have long fascinated me are geography and how geographical features are used to delineate ideological frontiers. Sometimes this is to my detriment, such as when I took a stand in a graduate seminar on whether Istanbul is an “Asian” city since, geographically, its center is actually in Europe. (My larger point was about how the book was framing the division between Europe and Asia; this is a complex topic that I thought the author was treating in a ham-handed manner and I voiced my displeasure with equal bluntness.) This fascination has also manifested itself in my work, since ancient Ionia resided exactly on the border between the ideological constructs “Greek Europe” and “Barbarian Asia,” with the region sometimes split down the middle between the two.

It is in this framework that I’ve been thinking about the Halys River (modern Kızılırmak) in Turkey. Herodotus describes the river as the site of conflict between the Medes and the Lydians, with one battle stopping on account of a solar eclipse that happened during the fighting (1.103) and a second series of indecisive skirmishes along that frontier before Cyrus eventually conquered Lydia (1.72; Thuc. 1.16). The Halys as the border between Lydia (or Phrygia) and Persia is the basic meaning of the river, and the Roman geographer Strabo updates that definition to make the Halys the limit of the province of “Asia” (2.5.25; 15.3.23).

But the Halys River took on an ideological significance in the fourth century when Isocrates repeats on three occasions that during the days of the Athenian Empire the Persians could not bring armies closer than the sea than this border (4.144; 7.80; 12.59; in each he uses the phrase ἐντὸς ῾Άλυος). These statements are sometimes used as part of a flimsy argument for a fifth-century peace treaty between Athens and Persia (usually the “Peace of Callias”) that ended hostilities and set terms that pushed the Persians back past the Halys.

The problems with the Peace of Callias are manifold, and some of them are evident when thinking about the Halys. In each case, Isocrates juxtaposes the good-old-days of the fifth-century with the present, arguing that the Persians run roughshod over the Greeks because Sparta and others gave away the protections afforded by Athenian imperialism. And yet, if there was a treaty that prevented war, it certainly did not stop armies from crossing the Halys since there were two, sometimes three, persian satrapies (provinces) west of the river. Nor were the communities inland in Lydia considered culturally Greek until at least the Hellenistic period (323-31 BCE) and I suspect even later, so the Halys river does not mark a limit to the Greek world.

What, then, does the Halys River signify? For Isocrates, at least, the river serves several purposes. First and foremost, it invokes the pre-Persian status quo. Lydia is absent from this argument, but the Greeks came in contact with the Persians after they crossed the Halys, to their great tragedy. This is an appeal to nostalgia: if the Persians are the bad guys, and for Isocrates they are, then exiling them past the former border would free Greece. Second, there is an appeal to the former power of Athens. Isocrates implies that Athenian hegemony over Greece to the nostalgic days before Persia arrive, thereby exaggerating Athenian successes and almost supplanting Lydia as the political and military force that held back the barbarians. But this is a rhetorical stance only made possibly by his contemporary circumstances and as far as I have seen doesn’t appear either before or after the fourth century.

The Halys River is curious in this respect: for a short time in the fourth century it served as a shorthand for the line that must be reached in order to ensure the freedom of Greece. But the river bears little actual relevance on ancient Greece and so could only function as a fateful red line for an elite Athenian when Persia was a central concern and Athenian power was at a nadir. Both before and after such moments the Halys river remained a physical border between Lydia/Phrygia and Media/Persia, but it did not carry the same ideological weight.

Pious imperialism

A recent book about the Persian Wars hit upon one of my many pet peeves with regard to discussing the ancient world. This book, which I thought was, for the most part, a fairly innocuous account of the wars between the Achaemenid kingdom and the Greek city states, had strengths and weaknesses, and I had bigger complaints about book as a whole, but one point that the author kept coming back to rubbed me the wrong way.

The author kept saying that the Achaemenid expansion (and, particularly, the invasion of Greece) was essentially a jihad or crusade—i.e. a religious imperative. He reaches this conclusion by looking at Persian propaganda that presents the king as the earthly representative of Ahura Mazda and the bringer of order to the lands inhabited by chaos. The Persian royal ideology mandated continual conquest and justified the kings’ place atop the social hierarchy, but does this royal ideology mean that there was a religious imperative for conquest that could be used to inspire followers? I think not.

To my mind, the biggest difference is that while the Persian kings crafted religion into an ideology that justified their imperialism and rule, it was, for the most part, not used to motivate soldiers. I qualify that statement mostly because an appeal to Ahura Mazda might have motivated the Persian contingents and commanding officers, but much of the Persian army in Xerxes’ invasion of Europe was not Persian and therefore it is improbable that the vision of the universe presented by Zoroastrianism would serve as a motivation for, say, Egyptians or Ethiopians. One need not totally believe that the soldiers were driven to battle by whip-wielding overseers to suggest that they religiously inspired.

In contrast, the Platonic ideal of a crusade (as it were) is a religious imperative, not just on the part of the leadership, but on the part of all followers, to wage a war of conquest for religious reasons. [This is true under one definition of jihad, too, but the issue is somewhat more complex.] Leadership can manipulate the impetus for conquest and benefit from it. Eventually religion will justify conquest if they are successful, but it is religious fervor that opens the door for conquest. In the Persian example, the step of using religious fervor for conquest is skipped.

Ultimately, the most damning fact with regard to the religious imperative of conquest is that the Persian kings gave up invasions of Greece after Xerxes’ invasion in 480. They continued to be involved in Greek politics to the extent that they can plausibly be said to have conquered Greece without an invasion, but the wars of expansion largely stopped and yet the dynasty continued to exist for another hundred and fifty years, seemingly satisfied to be a beacon of light for the territory they already possessed. There are mundane reasons for why the expansion was curtailed—dynastic infighting, rebellions, difficulties of managing such a large territory, etc—but one would expect at least one additional attempt at expansion if conquest of the entire world was a religious imperative the way this author presented it. What is left is a royal ideology that justified Persian rule as the representative of Ahura Mazda and thereby sanctioned conquest, which was not at all unusual, in the ancient world or otherwise. In fact, this sort of propaganda is hardly different than more recent justifications for invasions, bringing light to dark places in the world.

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.

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.

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.

Alexander Essay no. 1

The series of Alexander Essays is taken courtesy of a course taught by Professor Waldemar Heckel at the University of Calgary. The list of topics may be found here

Evaluate Darius III as a political and military leader. Is he rightly depicted as cowardly and incompetent?

I feel obliged to preface this essay with a warning about expertise; I am not an expert on Ancient Persia. I do not know the customs well, nor am I as familiar with the political system as I should be. I am somewhat of a Greek history buff, although I stop short of expert, and am intimately familiar with the reign of Darios III through the Greek and Macedonian point of view, with the image of an incompetent, cowardly leader who tries to surrender half of his empire and twice allows his forces to be slaughtered as he flees to protect his royal hide. Then again, in battle the defeated had two options: give in and die in battle or flee and attempt to salvage a semblance of victory from the ruins o. The following is entirely generated from this knowledge, only afterward corroborated and edited with a review of Wikipedia.

Darios himself was only tenuously related to Cyrus the Great and the Achaemenid dynasty; one of hte reasons for the Persian weakness when Alexander invaded was that Darios had just securted the throne from the usurper Bagoas, and re-centralized the state after a series of local rebellions, including one in Egypt. Just when stability seemed neigh, the Macedonian invasion began.

In the histories and biographies Darios appears as a character four times: the Battle of Issus, in a letter to sue for peace, at the Battle of Gaugamela and in a death scene after Bessos stabbed him. In each of these appearances he appears a failure, especially in contrast to the daring of Alexander.

Greek kings and generals fought with their soldiers, often on the front lines and when the troops broke and ran, it was often a given that the commander had fallen. This was the contrast between Leonidas and Xerxes at Thermopylae as much as it was between Alexander and Darios. Persian aristocracy and the royal family risked themselves, but the Great King was something entirely; instead of fighting on the front, he was to lead the entire heterogenous force. Thus at both Issos and Gaugamela, Darios did not fight. Further, Darios did not stay to rally (i.e. die with) his troops. On one hand this is the mark of a coward, but on the other he had responsibilities to more than ust those soldiers on the field.

Upon close inspection, life would have been simpler for Darios to die or flee into ignomity, but he did not. The reason for flight became apparent ad Darios raised a second force; no doubt he would have done so, or attempted to do so again after Gaugamela if given the chance. This is the mark of a fighter.

In the letter sent to Alexander, Darios played a shrewd card in that many of Alexander’s men prefered to stop, too, so Darios sought to “grant” Alexander those territories he had already won, which also happened to be those most unruly provinces. While this would be an enormous hit to the Persian prestige, the empire and all of the Capitols would remain intact.

Lastly we have an account of Darios’ death. This often is used to portray a failed and defeated King, which it does, but also implies incompetence. Darios had been defeated, but this does not imply that he had made huge mistakes or that the betrayal of Bessos was anything more than a play to curry favor from the new victor–or a power play of his own. Behind the scenes Darios had funded a Spartan insurrection and launched his own counter in Memnon of Rhodes, an officer who had out-maneuvered Parmenion in the last years of Philip’s reign. The persistence of Alexander, the death of Memnon and the betrayal of Bessos were all beyond the control of Darios. That he played the game and lost does not preclude his incompetence, merely his unluck and that Alexander outdid him.