the Greek epic, Interlude: out of democracy and in to battle
We ended the last post with the beginning of a new era in Greek history – Cleisthenes’ installation of democracy in Athens in 508 BC exists - to me - as the foundation for the Classical era of Greece.
At this point, Athens began to breathe the first breaths of the Greek empire, yet these breaths were exhaled upon a new, uncertain world. While Athens began to blossom, the other city-states around the Mediterranean followed suit. Across the continent to the east, the Persians - under rule of the Achaemenid empire - governed over the largest empire by landmass ever in recorded history. And they were beginning to grow weary of the threat of a growing, flourishing Grecian nation beyond its western border. It had been about 300 years since Homer had depicted the Greek ideals of wisdom, fortitude and courage in his famous poems – and it was almost time that they – along with the Grecians who embodied them – were put to the first real test.
Whereas the previous chapter in our Greek epic was one of democracy, this will be one of war.
To set the stage for this chapter, it’s worthwhile to touch upon developments outside of Athens contemporary to the periods of our friends Solon, Peisistratus and Cleisthenes. Putting things into perspective, it's worthwhile to note that we only really talk about Athens so much because it is the place from which the most evidence (be it literature/ art/etc.) remains. During the Archaic period, the Greek alphabet was developed as were techniques in literature, sculpture, pottery and architecture. Tyrants reigned for much of the seventh century, eventually giving way to reasonable kings (in most cases). Coinage was introduced around the middle of the 7th century. An incredibly important trend over this period was the increasing prominence the role of the “hoplite” across the lands which would one day become known as Greece – in one summarizing sentence, hoplites were citizen-soldiers who utilized the famed phalanx formation in battle. While in the phalanx, hoplites worked as a team to efficiently overpower their opponents in battle – quite the critical thing when you have tyrants running rogue left, right and center. In short, many historians believe the hoplite citizen-soldier to be the number one reason why Greek civilization was allowed to rise to greatness. Elsewhere in the lands which would one day become known as Greece, the sanctuary at Delphi was established, and colonization was rampant across the entire Mediterranean.
Sparta, whom we met through the eyes of the legendary Wolf king Lycurgus, had emerged as the most feared – and powerful – city state in the Grecian mainland. At this time (and actually, for much of Grecian history) they were viewed as the leaders of the region, far-surpassing Athens based on fear of war alone. As time progressed Athens became the dominant power at sea while Spartans remained superior on land, but at this time no one but a Spartan dared to challenge another Spartan in any environment. They had ruthlessly conquered the vast region of Messenia and enslaved much of its population as Helots over the first 200 years of the Archaic period.
Spartan social structure was quite complex, but it essentially boils down to this: Spartans spent their time training for battle, while Helots did the rest. Helots were “bound to the land” – although they could not own land, they were responsible for maintaining it. In essence, Helots were glorified (or unglorified, depending on your source) slaves. Of note is the role of women in Spartan society – unlike their Athenian counterparts, Spartan women could own land and were considered as true citizens; they were generally more educated and respected in the community as well. Ephors – something like a committee of elders – became powerful enough to limit the power of Spartan kings (of which, interestingly, Sparta always had two). Under guidance from the ephors, Spartan kings formed alliances with nearby city states. These alliances would develop into the “Peloponnesian League” in around 550 BC. This Spartan-led Peloponnesian League included as many as two-dozen city states, including Corinth, Megara, Pylos, and Boeotia.
Argos – Sparta’s regional rival – was notably absent from the Peloponnesian League. It rose to its greatest power under King Pheidon, an exceptionally charismatic figure in Greek history (definitely I’d recommend looking up a few stories about him if you are interested). Argives (i.e. citizens of Argos) were strong warriors who were talented in the arts – it is unfortunate that they were cursed with being geographically located to the war-oriented Spartans as it would have been interesting to see their history unfold had they not suffered a crushing blow at the hands of Sparta in 494 BC at the Battle of Sepeia. After this battle, Argos would remain an important city state along the Mediterranean but it would never truly regain its glory in Ancient Greece.
Lastly, and most importantly for the forthcoming chapter, to the continental far-east lied the Persians. The Achaemenid empire, established by Cyrus the Great in 550 BC, was at the time the largest empire that had ever existed in human history – before his death in 530 BC Cyrus would expand its borders from Lydia in west all the way to the Indus valley in the east. That’s an empire of approximately 2 million square miles – by comparison, the whole of modern-day Greece only encompasses about 50 000 square miles.
Cyrus the Great was called as such for a reason – he was as exceptional of a military leader as he was an administrator. Under his rule, the Achaemenid Empire became known for its exceptional governing strategies, multicultural policy (as long as allegiance was pledged to the "King of Kings")
alongside its massive, fear-inducing trained army. Lydia, home to cities such as Sardis, Smyrna, Ephesus and Miletus, was a Grecian-inhabited kingdom that governed over the eastern continental shelf of the Mediterranean. Lydia was conquered by Cyrus in 546 BC at the Battle of Thymbra, really putting Persian pressure on the Grecian border. He successfully subjugated the Babylonian empire in 539 BC, which is totally another story for another day. Cyrus died in battle in central Asia in 530 BC and his eldest son, Cambyses, took over where he left off, subjugating Phoenicia and Cyprus by 525 BC, and Egypt shortly thereafter. A lot of crazy shit happened following his invasion of Egypt, but it’s enough for us to say that he died shortly thereafter and in 522 BC Darius the Great - another man of legend - took control of the Achaemenid empire.
And Darius the Great – now King Darius the Great – proved to be quite the thorn in the side of ancient Grecians. Darius proved to be an excellent statesman and leader – it was under his rule that the Achaemenid Empire grew to its largest extent (in around 500 BC). By this time, the Persians had subjugated lands all along the European border of the Black Sea, as well as much of Thrace and Macedonia. As Darius returned back to the capital Asia Minor, he elected tyrants to rule over these lands, giving them the principal goal of further expanding the borders of the Persian empire. expansion. And, as we know, tyrants - such as the famed Aristagoras who was put in charge of Miletus - are not always the best people to have in charge. A little terminology that will prove useful as we proceed – “Ionians” are Greek inhabitants of Asia Minor, the land that was subjugated by the Persians.
And, I mean it goes almost without saying that upon being placed under the rule of tyrants it was only a matter of time before these “Ionian” colonies, fueled by 300 years of Homeric inspiration, would revolt. Cue the Ionian Revolt of 499 BC – the first major pushback against the ever-expanding Achaemenid empire and perhaps the one event that preserved the fate of the western world.
Notably, these revolts gained the open support of Greek city states outside of Ionia – a key event occurred in 498 BC as Athenian and Eritrean troops set fire to the Persian capital of Sardis. While the revolt would be squashed decisively by the Persians in the same year at the Battle of Ephesus, it inspired further revolts in other regions across Asia Minor that really put fear into the eyes off King Darius. Each subsequent uprising was quickly put down by the Persians and they regained full control over Ionia by 494 BC. However, the damage was already done in the mind of King Darius – the Achaemenid empire was under threat. And, put bluntly, King Darius was not about to fuck around.
In 492 BC, King Darius made his decision. He would invade Greece with hatred in his eyes and a mind that would not forget the burning of Sardis. And that's where we will resume our Greek epic, in the next chapter.