Warfare and Society in Ancient Greece Lecture 9 The Persian War and the development of Greek warfare


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Warfare and Society in Ancient Greece
Lecture 9

The Persian War and the development of Greek warfare
The sacrilegious sack of the acropolis
Herodotus, 8.51-53

51. Since the crossing of the Hellespont, where the barbarians began their journey, they had spent one month there crossing into Europe and in three more months were in Attica, when Calliades was archon at Athens. [2] When they took the town it was deserted, but in the sacred precinct they found a few Athenians, stewards of the sacred precinct and poor people, who defended themselves against the assault by fencing the acropolis with doors and logs. They had not withdrawn to Salamis not only because of poverty but also because they thought they had discovered the meaning of the oracle the Pythia had given, namely that the wooden wall would be impregnable. They believed that according to the oracle this, not the ships, was the refuge.

52. The Persians took up a position on the hill opposite the acropolis, which the Athenians call the Areopagus, and besieged them in this way: they wrapped arrows in tar and set them on fire, and then shot them at the barricade. Still the besieged Athenians defended themselves, although they had come to the utmost danger and their barricade had failed them. [2] When the Pisistratids proposed terms of surrender, they would not listen but contrived defenses such as rolling down boulders onto the barbarians when they came near the gates. For a long time Xerxes was at a loss, unable to capture them.

53. In time a way out of their difficulties was revealed to the barbarians, since according to the oracle all the mainland of Attica had to become subject to the Persians. In front of the acropolis, and behind the gates and the ascent, was a place where no one was on guard, since no one thought any man could go up that way. Here some men climbed up, near the sacred precinct of Cecrops' daughter Aglaurus, although the place was a sheer cliff. [2] When the Athenians saw that they had ascended to the acropolis, some threw themselves off the wall and were killed, and others fled into the chamber. The Persians who had come up first turned to the gates, opened them, and murdered the suppliants. When they had levelled everything, they plundered the sacred precinct and set fire to the entire acropolis.

Xenophon, Hellenica 2.2.19-20

Now when Theramenes and the other ambassadors were at Sellasia and, on being asked with what proposals they had come, replied that they had full power to treat for peace, the ephors thereupon gave orders to summon them to Lacedaemon. When they arrived, the ephors called an assembly, at which the Corinthians and Thebans in particular, though many other Greeks agreed with them, opposed making a treaty with the Athenians and favoured destroying their city. [20] The Lacedaemonians, however, said that they would not enslave a Greek city which had done great service amid the greatest perils that had befallen Greece, and they offered to make peace on these conditions: that the Athenians should destroy the long walls and the walls of Piraeus, surrender all their ships except twelve, allow their exiles to return, count the same people friends and enemies as the Lacedaemonians did, and follow the Lacedaemonians both by land and by sea wherever they should lead the way.

The oath of the Athenians before the battle of Plataea

From a fourth-century marble stele

Tod ii 204, ll. 46-51

"I will not hold life dearer than liberty, nor will I desert the leaders, whether they be living or dead, but I will bury all the allies who have perished in the battle; and if I overcome the barbarians in the war, I will not destroy any one of the cities which have participated in the struggle; nor will I rebuild any one of the sanctuaries which have been burnt or demolished, but I will let them be and leave them as a reminder to coming generations of the impiety of the barbarians."


Herodotus, 8.83-84

As dawn glimmered, they held an assembly of the fighting men, and Themistocles gave the best address among the others. His entire speech involved comparing the better and lesser elements in human nature and the human condition. [2] He concluded his speech by advising them to choose the better of these, then gave the command to mount the ships. Just as they embarked, the trireme which had gone after the sons of Aeacus arrived from Aegina.

Then the Hellenes set sail with all their ships, and as they were putting out to sea the barbarians immediately attacked them. The rest of the Hellenes began to back water and tried to beach their ships, but Ameinias of Pallene, an Athenian, charged and rammed a ship. When his ship became entangled and the crew could not free it, the others came to help Ameinias and joined battle. [2] The Athenians say that the fighting at sea began this way, but the Aeginetans say that the ship which had been sent to Aegina after the sons of Aeacus was the one that started it. The story is also told that the phantom of a woman appeared to them, who cried commands loud enough for all the Hellenic fleet to hear, reproaching them first with, “Men possessed, how long will you still be backing water?”

Herodotus, 8.86

Thus it was concerning them. But the majority of the ships at Salamis were sunk, some destroyed by the Athenians, some by the Aeginetans. Since the Hellenes fought in an orderly fashion by line (naumacheonton kata taxin), but the barbarians were no longer in position and did nothing with forethought, it was likely to turn out as it did. Yet they were brave that day, much more brave than they had been at Euboea, for they all showed zeal out of fear of Xerxes, each one thinking that the king was watching him.

Herodotus, 8.90-91

It also happened in this commotion that certain Phoenicians whose ships had been destroyed came to the king and accused the Ionians of treason, saying that it was by their doing that the ships had been lost. It turned out that the Ionian generals were not put to death, and those Phoenicians who slandered them were rewarded as I will show. [2] While they were still speaking, a Samothracian ship rammed an Attic ship. The Attic ship sank and an Aeginetan ship bore down and sank the Samothracian ship, but the Samothracians, being javelin-throwers, by pelting them with missiles knocked the fighters off the ship that had sunk theirs and boarded and seized it. [3] This saved the Ionians. In his deep vexation Xerxes blamed everyone. When he saw the Ionians performing this great feat, he turned to the Phoenicians and commanded that their heads be cut off, so that they who were base not slander men more noble. [4] Whenever Xerxes, as he sat beneath the mountain opposite Salamis which is called Aegaleos, saw one of his own men achieve some feat in the battle, he inquired who did it, and his scribes wrote down the captain's name with his father and city of residence. The presence of Ariaramnes, a Persian and a friend of the Ionians, contributed still more to this calamity of the Phoenicians. Thus they dealt with the Phoenicians.

The barbarians were routed and tried to flee by sailing out to Phalerum, but the Aeginetans lay in wait for them in the strait and then performed deeds worth telling. The Athenians in the commotion destroyed those ships which either resisted or tried to flee, the Aeginetans those sailing out of the strait. Whoever escaped from the Athenians charged right into the Aeginetans.

Herodotus, 8.93-94

In this battle the Hellenes with the reputation as most courageous were the Aeginetans, then the Athenians. Among individuals they were Polycritus the Aeginetan and the Athenians Eumenes of Anagyrus and Aminias of Pallene, the one who pursued Artemisia. If he had known she was in that ship, he would not have stopped before either capturing it or being captured himself. [2] Such were the orders given to the Athenian captains, and there was a prize offered of ten thousand drachmas to whoever took her alive, since they were indignant that a woman waged war against Athens. But she escaped, as I said earlier, and the others whose ships survived were also in Phalerum. 94.

The Athenians say that when the ships joined battle, the Corinthian general Adeimantus, struck with bewilderment and terror, hoisted his sails and fled away. When the Corinthians saw their flagship fleeing, they departed in the same way, [2] but when in their flight they were opposite the sacred precinct of Athena Sciras on Salamis, by divine guidance a boat encountered them. No one appeared to have sent it, and the Corinthians knew nothing about the affairs of the fleet when it approached. They reckon the affair to involve the gods because when the boat came near the ships, the people on the boat said, [3] “Adeimantus, you have turned your ships to flight and betrayed the Hellenes, but they are overcoming their enemies to the fulfillment of their prayers for victory.” Adeimantus did not believe them when they said this, so they spoke again, saying that they could be taken as hostages and killed if the Hellenes were not seen to be victorious. [4] So he and the others turned their ships around and came to the fleet, but it was all over. The Athenians spread this rumor about them, but the Corinthians do not agree at all, and they consider themselves to have been among the foremost in the battle. The rest of Hellas bears them witness.


Aeschylus and the Persians

Aeschylus, Persians 9-64

Chorus. Yet as regards the return of our King and of his host, so richly decked out in gold, [10] the soul within my breast is distressed and presages disaster. For the whole populace of the Asian nation has come and murmurs against its youthful King, nor does any courier or horseman [15] arrive at the city of the Persians, who left behind them the walled defence of Susa and Agbatana and Cissa's ancient ramparts, and went forth, some on horseback, some in galleys, others on foot [20] presenting a dense array of war.

Such are Amistres and Artaphrenes and Megabates and Astaspes, marshals of the Persians; kings themselves, yet vassals of the Great King, [25] they press on, commanders of an enormous host, skilled in archery and horsemanship, formidable to look upon and fearful in battle through the valiant resolve of their souls. Artembares, too, who fights from his chariot, [30] and Masistres, and noble Imaeus, skilled with the bow, and Pharandaces, and Sosthanes, who urges on his steeds. Others in addition the mighty, fecund Nile sent forth — Susiscanes, [35] Pegastagon of Egyptian lineage, mighty Arsames, lord of sacred Memphis, Ariomardus, governor of ancient Thebes, and the marsh-dwelling oarsmen, [40] well-skilled and countless in number.

Behind them follows a throng of luxurious Lydians and those1who hold in subjection all the people of the mainland, whom Metrogathes and brave Arcteus, their regal commanders, [45] and Sardis rich in gold sent forth, riding in many a chariot, in ranks with three and four steeds abreast, a spectacle terrible to behold. They too who live by sacred Tmolus pledge themselves [50] to cast the yoke of slavery upon Hellas—Mardon, Tharybis, anvils of the lance, and the Mysians, hurlers of the javelin. Babylon, also, teeming with gold, sends a mixed host arrayed in a long line, both mariners borne in galleys [55] and those who rely on their skill in archery. The nation too which wears the sabre follows from every part of Asia in the fearful procession of the King. Such are the warriors, the flower of the Persian land, [60] who have departed, and in fierce longing for them the whole land of Asia, their foster-nurse, laments, while parents and wives, as they count the days, shudder at the lengthening delay.

Aeschylus, Persians 269-271

Chorus. Alas, alas! In vain did our vast and variously armed host [270] go forth from the land of Asia against the hostile soil of Hellas.

Aeschylus, Persians 337-347

Messenger. If numbers had been the only factor, be assured that the barbarians would have gained the victory with their fleet. For the whole number of the ships of Hellas amounted to ten times thirty, [340] and, in addition to these, there was a chosen squadron of ten. But Xerxes, this I know, had under his command a thousand, while those excelling in speed were twice a hundred, and seven more. This is the total of their respective numbers. Do you think that we were simply outnumbered in this contest? [345] No, it was some divine power that tipped the scale of fortune with unequal weight and thus destroyed our host. The gods preserve the city of the goddess Pallas.
Aeschylus, Persians 384-432

Messenger. Night began to wane, [385] yet the fleet of the Hellenes in no way attempted to put forth by stealth. When, however, radiant Day with her white horses shone over all the land, a loud cheer like a song of triumph first rang out from the Hellenes, and, at the same instant, [390] clear from the island crags, an echo returned an answering cry. Terror fell on all the barbarians, balked of their purpose; for then the Hellenes chanted their solemn paean, not as in flight, but as men rushing to the onset with the courage of gallant hearts. [395] The trumpet with its blast set all their side afire, and instantly, at the word of command, with the even stroke of foaming oars they struck the briny deep. Swiftly they all came clear into view. Their right wing, well marshalled, [400] led on in orderly advance, next their whole army pressed on against us, and at the same time a loud shout met our ears: “On, you men of Hellas! Free your native land. Free your children, your wives, the temples of your fathers' gods, [405] and the tombs of your ancestors. Now you are fighting for all you have.” Then from our side arose in response the mingled clamor of Persian speech, and straightaway the ships dashed together their bronze prows. It was a ship of Hellas [410] that began the charge and chopped off in its entirety the curved stern of a Phoenician boat. Each captain drove his ship straight against some other ship. At first the stream of the Persian army held its own. When, however, the mass of our ships had been crowded in the narrows, and none could render another aid, [415] and each crashed its bronze prow against each of its own line, they splintered their whole bank of oars. Then the Hellenic galleys, not heedless of their chance, hemmed them in and battered them on every side. The hulls of our vessels rolled over, and the sea was hidden from our sight, [420] strewn as it was with wrecks and slaughtered men. The shores and reefs were crowded with our dead, and every ship that formed a part of the barbarian fleet plied its oars in disorderly flight. But, as if our men were tuna or some haul of fish, [425] the foe kept striking and hacking them with broken oars and fragments of wrecked ships. Groans and shrieks together filled the open sea until the face of black night hid the scene. But as for the the full extent of our disasters, this, even if I had ten days in succession to do so, I could not describe to you. [430] However, you can be sure that so great a multitude of men never perished in a single day.

Aeschylus, Persians 480-487

Messenger. [480] The commanders of the ships which still remained fled with a rush in disorder wherever the wind bore them. As for the survivors of the army, they perished in Boeotian territory, some, faint from thirst, beside a refreshing spring, while some of us, exhausted and panting, [485] made our way to the land of the Phocians, to Doris and the Melian gulf, where the Spercheus waters the plain with kindly stream.
The Persian Wars and naval organization
Thucydides, 1.14

These were the most powerful navies. And even these, although so many generations had elapsed since the Trojan war, seem to have been principally composed of the old fifty-oars and long-boats, and to have counted few galleys among their ranks. [2] Indeed it was only shortly before the Persian war and the death of Darius the successor of Cambyses, that the Sicilian tyrants and the Corcyraeans acquired any large number of galleys. For after these there were no navies of any account in Hellas till the expedition of Xerxes; [3] Aegina, Athens, and others may have possessed a few vessels, but they were principally fifty-oars. It was quite at the end of this period that the war with Aegina and the prospect of the barbarian invasion enabled Themistocles to persuade the Athenians to build the fleet with which they fought at Salamis; and even these vessels had not complete decks.

Thucydides, 1.89-93.1

The way in which Athens came to be placed in the circumstances under which her power grew was this.

[2] After the Medes had returned from Europe, defeated by sea and land by the Hellenes, and after those of them who had fled with their ships to Mycale had been destroyed, Leotychides, King of the Lacedaemonians, the commander of the Hellenes at Mycale, departed home with the allies from Peloponnese. But the Athenians and the allies from Ionia and Hellespont, who had now revolted from the king, remained and laid siege to Sestos, which was still held by the Medes. After wintering before it, they became masters of the place on its evacuation by the barbarians; and after this they sailed away from Hellespont to their respective cities. [3] Meanwhile the Athenian people, after the departure of the barbarian from their country, at once proceeded to carry over their children and wives, and such property as they had left, from the places where they had deposited them, and prepared to rebuild their city and their walls. For only isolated portions of the circumference had been left standing, and most of the houses were in ruins; though a few remained, in which the Persian grandees had taken up their quarters.


Perceiving what they were going to do, the Lacedaemonians sent an embassy to Athens.

They would have themselves preferred to see neither her nor any other city in possession of a wall; though here they acted principally at the instigation of their allies, who were alarmed at the strength of her newly acquired navy, and the valor which she had displayed in the war with the Medes. [2] They begged her not only to abstain from building walls for herself, but also to join them in throwing down the walls that still held together of the ultra-Peloponnesian cities. The real meaning of their advice, the suspicion that it contained against the Athenians, was not proclaimed; it was urged that so the barbarian, in the event of a third invasion, would not have any strong place, such as he now had in Thebes, for his base of operations; and that Peloponnese would suffice for all as a base both for retreat and offence. [3] After the Lacedaemonians had thus spoken, they were, on the advice of Themistocles, immediately dismissed by the Athenians, with the answer that ambassadors should be sent to Sparta to discuss the question. Themistocles told the Athenians to send him off with all speed to Lacedaemon, but not to despatch his colleagues as soon as they had selected them, but to wait until they had raised their wall to the height from which defence was possible. Meanwhile the whole population in the city was to labour at the wall, the Athenians, their wives and their children, sparing no edifice, private or public, which might be of any use to the work, but throwing all down. [4] After giving these instructions, and adding that he would be responsible for all other matters there, he departed. [5] Arrived at Lacedaemon he did not seek an audience with the authorities, but tried to gain time and made excuses. When any of the government asked him why he did not appear in the assembly, he would say that he was waiting for his colleagues, who had been detained in Athens by some engagement; however, that he expected their speedy arrival, and wondered that they were not yet there.

91. At first the Lacedaemonians trusted the words of Themistocles, through their friendship for him; but when others arrived, all distinctly declaring that the work was going on and already attaining some elevation, they did not know how to disbelieve it. [2] Aware of this, he told them that rumors are deceptive, and should not be trusted; they should send some reputable persons from Sparta to inspect, whose report might be trusted. [3] They despatched them accordingly. Concerning these Themistocles secretly sent word to the Athenians to detain them as far as possible without putting them under open constraint, and not to let them go until they had themselves returned. For his colleagues had now joined him, Abronichus, son of Lysicles, and Aristides, son of Lysimachus, with the news that the wall was sufficiently advanced; and he feared that when the Lacedaemonians heard the facts, they might refuse to let them go. [4] So the Athenians detained the envoys according to his message, and Themistocles had an audience with the Lacedaemonians, and at last openly told them that Athens was now fortified sufficiently to protect its inhabitants; that any embassy which the Lacedaemonians or their allies might wish to send to them, should in future proceed on the assumption that the people to whom they were going was able to distinguish both its own and the general interests. [5] That when the Athenians thought fit to abandon their city and to embark in their ships, they ventured on that perilous step without consulting them; and that on the other hand, wherever they had deliberated with the Lacedaemonians, they had proved themselves to be in judgment second to none. [6] That they now thought it fit that their city should have a wall, and that this would be more for the advantage of both the citizens of Athens and the Hellenic confederacy; [7] for without equal military strength it was impossible to contribute equal or fair counsel to the common interest. It followed, he observed, either that all the members of the confederacy should be without walls, or that the present step should be considered a right one.


The Lacedaemonians did not betray any open signs of anger against the Athenians at what they heard.

The embassy, it seems, was prompted not by a desire to obstruct, but to guide the counsels of their government: besides, Spartan feeling was at that time very friendly towards Athens on account of the patriotism which she had displayed in the struggle with the Mede. Still the defeat of their wishes could not but cause them secret annoyance. The envoys of each state departed home without complaint.


In this way the Athenians walled their city in a little while.

Thucydides, 1.96

The Athenians having thus succeeded to the supremacy by the voluntary act of the allies through their hatred of Pausanias, fixed which cities were to contribute money against the barbarian, which ships; their professed object being to retaliate for their sufferings by ravaging the king's country.

[2] Now was the time that the office of ‘Treasurers for Hellas’ was first instituted by the Athenians. These officers received the tribute, as the money contributed was called. The tribute was first fixed at four hundred and sixty talents. The common treasury was at Delos, and the congresses were held in the temple.


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