Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Histories discussion: Book Six

The burial mound (Soros) and grave stela at Marathon
Picture source: courtesy of

The Athenians, as defenders of the Hellenes, in Marathon
destroyed the might of the golden-dressed Medes
- composed by Simonides

The Soros, the extraordinary burial mound built over the graves of the Athenian troops who died at Marathon. The bones of Athenian military dead were normally returned to Athens and, after proper ceremony, interred outside the city. Its original height is thought to have been more than 45 feet. Over time, erosion has reduced it to its current dimensions--roughly 100 feet in diameter and just over 30 feet high.
- from The Landmark Herodotus, page 477

Miltiades said to Kallimachos, “It is now up to you, Kallimachos, whether you will reduce Athens to slavery or ensure its freedom and thus leave to all posterity a memorial for yourself which will exceed even that of Harmodios and Aristogeiton. For from the time Athenians first came into existence up until the present, this is the greatest danger they have ever confronted. If they bow down before the Medes, it is clear from our past experience what they will suffer when handed over to Hippias; but if this city prevails, it can become the first among all Greek cities. I shall explain to you how matters really stand and how the authority to decide this matter has come to rest with you. We ten generals are evenly divided in our opinions, some urging that we join battle, other that we do not. If we fail to fight no, I expect that intense factional strife will fall upon the Athenians and shake their resolve so violently that they will medize [become like Persians]. But if we join battle before any rot can infect some of the Athenians, then, as long as the gods grant both sides equal treatment, we can prevail in this engagement. All this is now in your hands and depends on you. If you add your vote for my proposal, your ancestral land can be free and your city the first of Greek cities. But if you choose the side of those eager to prevent a battle, you will have the opposite of all the good things I have described.

- The Athenian general Miltiades to the polemarch (military official with religious and legal duties) Kallimachos before the battle at Marathon, 490 BC (from paragraph 109)

(All quotes and spelling in this post are from The Landmark Herodotus with translation by Andrea L. Purvis)

My approach in writing about the Books in The Histories has varied depending on everything from how the text strikes me to how much free time I have. I didn't plan on this being the summer of Herodotus, but so be it. This post will run through Book Six (but won’t be comprehensive) and look at a few themes or ideas covered by Herodotus.

Book Six covers the second half of the Ionian revolt (497/6 – 494 BC) through the battle at Marathon in 490 BC. Aristagoras, the replacement tyrant of Miletus, was killed during a siege of a Thracian city during his escape from Ionia (covered at the end of Book Five). Histiaios, the tyrant of Miletus that Darius had kept at the Persian court in Susa, has been released from the royal court and allowed to return to Ionia. Artaphrenes, the governor of Sardis, calls Histiaios out on who was responsible for the revolt: “You stitched up the shoe, and Aristagoras put it on.” After being found out and while fleeing, Histiaios answers the question of why he initiated the revolt with the tale that Darius had planned to uproot both the Ionians and Phoenicians and have then swap homelands. While this was a lie, Darius had moved entire populations previously at a whim so Histiaios’ excuse sounded plausible. When Histiaios attempted to reestablish his leadership at Miletus the Milesians, “who had tasted liberty, were so happy to be rid of Aristagoras that they had no desire whatsoever to accept another tyrant into their land.” Histiaios, upon being repulsed, sails to the area around Byzantium and turns to piracy. (A sidenote: there are many analyses investigating how fair a trial Aristagoras and Histiaios get from Herodotus.)

As the Persian army and navy gather to punish Miletus, the Ionians concentrate on defending the city by taking on the Persian fleet. In order to weaken their enemy’s size and resolve, Persian generals instruct former Ionian tyrants (who Aristagoros had turned out of office in order to shore up his anti-Persia support in those cities through democracy) to try and turn their former subjects back to Persian rule. If the former subjects accept, the former tyrants will be treated nicely. If the people refuse, “we shall lead them into captivity as slaves, and we shall turn their sons into eunuchs and drag their virgin daughters away to Baktria and give over their lands to others.” (from paragraph 9)

Every Ionian leader rejects the offer, each thinking they were the only one receiving the proposal. The Ionian fleet, unfortunately, did not show the same amount of character. After Dionysios of Phocaea drills the fleet for a week, the Ionians complain about the amount of work he requires and they refuse to obey his orders (an early version of the recent French World Cup team—with the same result). The Samians panic at the realization that the Ionians refuse to train so they cut a deal with Persia. Once the Battle of Lade starts, most of their ships sail back to Samos while other ships follow their lead. The Persians defeat most of the remaining Ionian fleet and capture Miletus while making good on many of their claims in the earlier offer. Soon after the battle the Athenian playwright Phrynikos composed and produced a play titled The Fall of Miletus, to which “the audience burst into tears, fined him 1,000 drachmas for reminding them of their own evils, and ordered that no one should ever perform this play again.” (from paragraph 21)

Meanwhile Histiaios, on hearing of the Persian victory, overruns the island of Chios. While foraging for food on the Ionian mainland Histiaios is captured by the Persians. Artaphrenes and his general Harpagos predict Histiaios will receive no punishment if returned to Darius so they kill him in order to prevent any future meddling. The Persians spend the next couple of years conquering the islands off of Ionia then move north and west to capture islands and cities around the Hellespont and in Thrace. Darius appoints his son-in-law Mardonios as his general in Asia. Mardonios deposes many of the tyrants in Ionia and establishes democracies in their place in order to maintain popular support. In the spring of 492 BC, Mardonios crosses the Hellespont on his way to attack Eretria and Athens for their role in the sack of Sardis during the Ionian rebellion. After most of his fleet sinks while trying to sail around Mount Athos (off the Macedonian coast) and the army suffers heavy losses from Thracians, Mardonios turns for home.

I will skip over the Spartan history Herodotus provides at this point, not because it isn’t interesting (I especially enjoyed the Spartan version of why they have two kings) but because it involves more detail than a quick summary can provide. Also, Herodotus does a very good job, especially the history of the expulsion of Spartan king Demaratos and how he made his way to Darius’ court. We will hear from him again.

Mardonios is replaced after the aborted invasion of Athens with the generals Datis and Artaphrenes (son-in-law of the earlier mentioned Artaphrenes). The new leaders are instructed to “enslave Athens and Eretria and to bring back the captive slaves into his [Darius’] presence.” In the earlier attempt under Mardonios, the Persian army and fleet went north through Ionia, crossed the Hellespont, and went through Thrace and Macedonia before retreating. This time everything, including cavalry, was loaded onto ships and sailed island by island from Samos to Eretria (located on an island just east of Athens). While this invasion from Persia is in the works, Athens and nearby Aegina carry on an intra-Greek war—a recurrent theme of “internal” squabbling while the Persian threat looms. Even on Eretria, after receiving assistance from Athens, bickering and betrayals keep the Eretrians from forming a coherent defense of their homeland. The leading men of Eretria advise the Athenians to leave because of the disarray, which they do. After the Persians defeat Eretria, Hippias (son of Athenian tyrant Peisistratos and a former tyrant) directs the Persians to land at Marathon where the nearby plain would be ideal for cavalry.

The Athenian generals, including Miltiades, send the long-distance runner Philippides with a message to Sparta asking for help. He arrived in Sparta (an 150 mile run) the day after he left Athens, encountering the god Pan along the way. The Spartans agree to assist but only after their religious holiday was over ends. Even though the Spartans also fail to act in a timely manner in support of their own troops at Thermopylae (later in The Histories), Herodotus makes it clear that the Spartans “considered the things of the gods more weighty than the things of men.” [Note: Plato says in Laws that the Spartans could not provide assistance at Marathon because they were fighting the Messenians at the time.] Forces from Plataea arrive but the ten Athenian generals are divided between attacking the Persian troops or remaining on the defensive. Miltiades’ argument to attack carries the day and, when the sacrifices look favorable, the Athenians charge at the run, beginning the Battle of Marathon. The struggle turns into a rout, the Athenians losing 192 soldiers while Herodotus estimates the Persian dead at 6,400. Marathon was chosen by the Persians specifically for their cavalry, but Herodotus makes no mention of them during the battle. Did the sudden rush after the standoff catch the Persians unready for battle? The Persians flee, sailing to Athens hoping to find the city unguarded. The Athenian soldiers march the 25 miles back to their city and arrive before the Persian fleet. After waiting a few days at anchor the Persian ships leave. Herodotus defends the Alkmeonids from collusion with the Persians and provides some of that family’s history. A sidenote: Herodotus only mentions Philippides and his run to (and implied return from) Sparta. Later writers would conflate the runner and the troops’ quick return to Athens, creating the myth of the marathon run.

Miltiades, with heroic status for his leadership at Marathon, requests ships, troops, and money without revealing what he plans to do with them other than return with lots of wealth. After being granted all he wished, he sails to Paros and attacks the city/island because of a personal grudge. After failing miserably and receiving injuries that will eventually cause his death, Miltiades returns to Athens where he is put on trial for deceiving the Athenians. He avoids the death penalty but is fined a massive amount, his son Kimon paying the penalty after Miltiades’ death. Herodotus, not content to end his account of Miltiades on a sour note (like a Johnny Unitas fan omitting the San Diego year), recalls how he had outfoxed the Pelasgians, allowing Athens to acquire the island of Lemnos.

In this Book, as in previous ones, Herodotus shows royal Persian behavior in a mixed light. Darius provides clemency to those that rebel against him while brutally seeking submission of other groups. Even though he relocates the surviving Eretrian population, he decides not to follow through on all of his gruesome threats. In addition, high-profile captives are treated well. Herodotus’ apparent even-handedness in portraying Persian leaders (when it suits him…Cambyses didn’t receive such balance) can be remarkable.

The same can be said for Herodotus’ treatment of traitors. While he doesn’t go into much detail on Hippias helping the Persians, the return of a former Athenian tyrant can only be considered in a negative light. Yet Herodotus seems kindly disposed to the Spartan king Demaratos who flees to the Persians to help their cause. Part of this mild treatment may stem from the Spartans unfairly unseating him from his kingship. But there seems to be more going on since his entire family is painted in a very sympathetic light. Demaratos will provide help to Xerxes during his invasion of Greece while also providing Herodotus a useful literary device.

I enjoyed this excerpt describing how Sparta used Plataea to endanger Athens, demonstrating that geopolitics has been around as long as man has existed:

They [the Plataeans] had earlier placed themselves under the protection of the Athenians, who had then exerted much effort on their behalf. This had happened in the following way. Once, when the Plataeans were being hard pressed by the Thebans, they had offered themselves to Kleomenes son of Anaxandridas and the Lacedaemonians [Spartans], since the Lacedaemonians happened to be present in their region at the time. But the Lacedaemonians refused to accept them, saying, “We live too far away, and any assistance we could offer you would be cold and remote. You could be enslaved many times over before we ever heard anything about it. So we advise you to give yourselves to the Athenians for protection instead; they not only are your close neighbors, but also are no sluggards when it comes to lending military assistance.” The Lacedaemonians gave this advice not so much out of goodwill toward the Plataeans as out of their wish to create trouble for the Athenians by provoking them into active hostilities against the Boeotians [the area where Thebes is located].
(from paragraph 108)

So how big was the Athenian (and Plataean) victory at Marathon? Persia clearly thought the invasion would be a routine exercise, something similar to their siege of Eretria which only lasted about a week. While I can understand the Athenians waiting on the Marathon plain to engage the Persians—not only did Miltiades wait until it was his ‘day’ to be in charge of the army but stalling would increase the chances for Spartan assistance—the lack of engagement by the Persians, who simply waited on the beach within sight of the Athenians, remains questionable. The easiest explanation would be to assume they were waiting for Greek defections in order to increase their odds in battle. In addition, as happened at other locations, traitors dreaming of personal wealth might be found to undermine the Greek armies. When these events didn’t happen, why wait and let the Athenians take the initiative? Since the Persians apparently did nothing, that points to how much of a surprise the Athenian charge must have been.

The disproportionate impact of Marathon to the Greeks and to the Persians is something I want to come back to at the end of The Histories. After Marathon the Greeks must have viewed their victory like the Jets over the Colts in Super Bowl III, something nobody could have predicted. But how did the Persians view their loss? They still had a huge empire as well as untold strength and reserves. Continuing the bad analogies, the Persians probably felt like the Dolphins after Garo Yepremian’s miscue in Super Bowl VII—disappointed they gave away an easy score but knowing they had what it takes for the overall victory. Darius’ setbacks, first in Scythia and now at Marathon, do not appear to have significantly damaged the Persian empire. Even though Persia escapes somewhat unscathed, the damage they wreak in their quests provides Herodotus with many examples of the changing fortunes that time (and force) can effect.

Final points to think about over the last third of the book—Although not ideal and counter to Herodotus’ wish for Greek unity (or at least harmony), the squabbles and skirmishes between Greek cities seem to have prepared the Athenians for their battle with the Persians. At least Athens maintained their independence and isn’t it fitting that Miltiades’ plan to attack was chosen in such a democratic fashion?

Picture source


Dwight said...

As the Persian ships sail away from Athens, cue the voiceover by John Facenda (of NFL Films): "For the Minnesota Vikings, there would be another day."

Dwight said...

I was on some kind of football roll when writing this, although now I can't remember why. I apologize well after the fact, although I'm not going to edit the post. It reminds me never to do this again.