Thursday, September 09, 2010

The Histories discussion: Book Eight: Who leads the fleet?

The Spartans provided the commander who had supreme authority over them all, Eurybiades son of Eurykleides. For the allies had refused to follow Athenian leaders and had asserted that unless a Laconian led them, they would call off the anticipated assembly of their armed forces. … [T]he Athenians yielded to them because they considered the survival of Hellas of paramount importance, and they knew that if they quarreled over the leadership, Hellas would be destroyed. They were indeed quite right in this, for compared to a united war effort, internal quarrels are as bad as war itself is when compared to peace. And so, because they were well aware of this, they yielded and did not resist, but they did so only for as long as they really needed the allies, as they later demonstrated.

- from paragraphs 2 and 3; all quotes and spellings are from The Landmark Herodotus with translation by Andrea L. Purvis

I know I’ve asked this question before but I’ll bring it front and center again: what does it say about Athens when the Hellenic league members did not want the leader of either the armies or the fleet to be from that city? Asking Sparta to lead the armies makes sense given their focus on military training, but how does demanding a landlocked city lead the fleets, especially when Athens is providing half of the ships? What kind of behavior from Athens over the years does it take to generate that level of ill will? Were the recent wars between the Athenians and the Aeginetans (mentioned in the last post) a factor?

It’s nice to see Athens could put survival ahead of pride except, of course, when they didn’t. What about the assistance offered by Argos and Syracuse (in Book Seven) that was rejected? Both cities may have demanded full or partial leadership as a bluff in order to deny support when supreme leadership wasn’t granted, but envoys from Sparta and Athens made it clear they were looking for troops and not a leader. I can understand the concern about the quality and quantity of troops from Syracuse they would be inviting to their homeland—assuming the Greeks defend themselves successfully against the Persians, will the allied forces leave peacefully? Or would those troops hang around in Athens or Sparta? That factor alone may have been enough to kill any deal with such strings attached.

A side-thought: It seems the Hellenic cities overestimated the importance or effectiveness of the supreme leader. While more than just a symbolic position, the role appears to have been limited to confirming overall strategy while each army or ship stayed under the direct command of their local leaders. Such a loose alliance proved risky, as demonstrated at the battle of Artemision (Artemesium), where many ships panicked and sailed away. In addition, Themistokles’ actions imperiled the entire fleet, not just his own Athenian ships.

In the quoted passage at the tops of the post, Herodotus once again provides a mild rebuke to Athens and their behavior after the Persians are defeated, but I think he glosses over the level of animosity other Greek cities held toward it before and during the Persian threat. That enmity surfaces into the open every now and then, such as in my post on Athens and Sparta in Book Seven. I need to revisit a statement in that post stating “That may be the reason he [Herodotus] believes his statement will cause offense--he is able to differentiate between the Athens of 480 BC and of the 430s BC, while others may not.” It may be the case that there might not have been as much difference between the two periods as I assumed.

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