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Category Archives: Military History

The Rise of Themistocles (part 2)

by June 22, 2013

In a previous article we discussed one of Greece’s most notable and successful general and statesman. It was none other than, Themistocles, who from early on seemed bound for great deeds. During the time of early democracy in Athens he appealed to the average citizen and consequentially wielded great influence in Athenian politics. As one of the first great Athenian politicians, he had several ambitions for his city and for Greece.

Atheniannavy

The warships of ancient Athens

Themistocles was a continual supporter of the Athenian navy. It was his belief that the future warfare of Greece would rely heavily on naval power and Themistocles was determined to wield the greatest navy in all of Greece. In 483 BCE large silver deposits were found in a nearby Athenian mine and Themistocles used this as an opportunity to create his navy. He proposed that the silver be used to build 200 Athenian war ships known as triremes.

To Themistocles, this was the destiny of Athens. However, not everyone agreed.

Aristides would often be remembered as Themistocles’ greatest rival. A man born into moderate fortune, he often sided with the aristocracy of ancient Athens. He first gained attention with his decisive leadership as a General at the battle of Marathon. He entered politics around the same time as Themistocles and gained a reputation as being fair, honest, and genuinely concerned with the well being of Athens. He was given the nickname “The Just” and was called by Herodotus as being:

“the best and most honourable man in Athens”- Herodotus, Histories

Aristides was seen as being starkly contrasted to Themistocles. He was considered a man of humility which was rather different from Themistocles, who reveled in personal luxuries and political advancement. Additionally, Aristides looked to maintain a conservative policy and took the stance that Athens should strive to become a land based military power. This went directly against Themistocles’ dream of building a formidable navy; it was an obstacle that Themistocles would be forced to confront.

The tension between Themistocles and Aristides would come to a head in 482 BCE. A rather unique part of Athenian democracy was that the citizens would be allowed to regularly vote to exile a politician of their choosing. The citizens would be told to write the name of a politician on a shard of pottery, and whichever politician received the most votes for exile would be ostracized from Athens for 10 years.

aristides pottery

Piece of pottery with the name “Aristides” written

This was done as a check to ensure that wealthy or influential families did not overpower the needs of the citizens. However the rivalry between Themistocles and Aristides was so prominent that the vote of exile essentialy came down to one of the two politicians.

The story goes that an illiterate citizen approached Aristides during the vote for exile. Not knowing who Aristides was, the man asked the politician to write on the shard the name “Aristides”. Aristides asked the man if the politician had ever wronged him. The man is said to have replied:

 “I don’t even know him, but it irritates me to hear everybody call him ‘the just'”.

Aristides then wrote his own name on the shard.

Themistocles’ rival was banished from Athens. With no more decisive political opponents blocking him, Themistocles was allowed the opportunity to build his navy. The Athenians were very aware of the imminent Persian invasion and even voted to build more war ships than Themistocles had originally asked for. Athens was now the dominant naval power in all of Greece, and with the Persians growing ever bolder to invade, preparations had to be made.

In 481 BCE, a congress of 30 Greek city-states met to discuss an alliance. All of Greece was in danger of the massive Persian army, which led to a swift agreement among the Greek leaders to band together. At the forefront of this alliance was Athens and Sparta, the cities with the largest navy and land army, respectively. With all the Greek city-states banded together and no political opponents to oppose him, Themistocles became the most powerful man in Athens.

The invasion was coming and Themistocles would be ready.

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The Rise of Themistocles (Part 1)

by June 20, 2013

Themistocles

The Athenian General Themistocles

While the Greco-Persian wars have remained a topic of sincere interest for those of us who study the ancients, it can be said that an undo amount of attention has been paid to particular engagements… while the rest of history has remained obscure. The Spartans and their heroic stand at Thermopylae captured the imagination of modern society and spawned several recreations in popular media. The Spartans were lucky enough to have two films and a graphic novel created in their honor, even if they did have to prance around in leather speedos.

However, perhaps we should also remember what happened after Thermopylae. The Persian invaders certainly didn’t throw down their weapons and send 100,000 men home. In fact, they continued their march through Greece, perhaps stepping gingerly over the fresh corpses of Leonidas and his men. And if it weren’t for the steeled determination of the Greeks to repel the invaders, they might have conquered the entire known world.

At the front of the Greek forces was one Athenian general who had risen from poverty to power. It can be said that ancient Greece owed much thanks to the brave Themistocles.

The Greek historian Herodotus as well as the Roman essayist, Plutarch, wrote extensively about the life and achievements of Themistocles. The first interesting thing about Themistocles was that he was not born into wealth. Themistocles was the son of Neocles, a very obscure Athenian citizen of modest means. His mother was believed to have been an immigrant, and not much else is really known about the early life of Themistocles. However Plutarch tells that he grew up as an outsider, living in an immigrant district of Athens, never really being accepted by the other Athenian children.

It was claimed by Plutarch that he was a voracious learner. While other children were playing, Themistocles committed himself to his studies and training. As a child, he was so intent on improving himself that his teachers would regularly tell him:

“You, my boy, will be nothing insignificant, but great one way or another, either for good or for evil.”                -Plutarch, from “Themistocles”

Themistocles grew up during a time of societal upheaval in ancient Athens. There had previously been several years of unstable rule by various leaders including the tyrant Peisistratos, who died in 527 BCE. After several failed rulers, Athens eventually resorted to a new form of government, one where the power would be invested in the people. It was the beginning of democracy, and Themistocles was poised to be its first great politician.

Themistocles gained popularity in Athens by painting himself as a man of the people. He campaigned in the streets of Athens the way nobody had ever done before. He toured the taverns and docks and met with the underprivileged citizens who had now been granted the right to vote for their leader. Themistocles took care to remember people’s names and he courted and took interest in the commoners. And for this, they loved him. The modern historian Tom Holland, writes about Themistocles in his book Persian Fire:

“he wooed the poor; and they, not used to being courted, duly loved him back. Touring the taverns, the markets, the docks, canvassing where no politician had thought to canvas before, making sure never to forget a single voter’s name, Themistocles had set his eyes on a radical new constituency” -Tom Holland, Persian Fire

The popularity of Themistocles would grant him great influence in the new democratic Athens. By the time he was 30 he was elected Archon Eponymous, the highest government office in Athens. He would use his political influence to pursue his goal of expanding the Athenian navy. In addition to being a brilliant speaker, politician and statesman, Themistocles also possessed the gift of foresight. A second Persian invasion was imminent, and Themistocles was determined to be prepared.

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Lagash and the Too Fertile Valley

by April 22, 2013

Tigris and Euphrates River

Tigris and Euphrates River

Between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers lies a land known as Mesopotamia. It was here that men found suitable terrain, which they proceeded to pierce, rip, and seed. Once these seeds took root, civilization was born.

Unlike pastoral societies that roam around looking for food, agriculturalists sought unity by teaming together, settling in one spot, and growing their food. In doing so, they created a village, a society of their own. However, it takes more than farming to create a state.

After a few generations, people slowly began to build upon their knowledge of agriculture, animal husbandry, and writing. With these new found skills, plus many more, the villages gained a greater sense of the self. Such awareness allowed for the creation of law, trade, private property, social interest, internal order and identification. This development enabled the Mesopotamian villages that dotted the landscape to evolve into a series of city-states.

The Sumerians were the first to carve out a civilization in Mesopotamia. By the third millennium BCE, the land of Sumer consisted of a dozen or more of these city-states. They were walled, but still surrounded by suburban villages and hamlets.

In addition, the city-states of Sumer were centralized. Their centrally controlled society needed an administration to conduct the day-to-day redistribution of resources and to direct all social activity.

Lagash, like other city-states of its time, shared control over resources and social activities between the palace and the temple. The temple oversaw a great amount of land and exerted a powerful influence over the inhabitants. Meanwhile, the palace authority controlled as much, if not more, land than the temple. This arrangement was fine until later on, when the palace wielded an even greater command over the people. In doing so, the king was able to amalgamate the palace with the temple, in which the king saw himself as god’s own representative on earth.

If god chooses the king, then logically the temple must obey. However, this settlement does not mean there would never be strife again between the palace and temple authorities. So long as they existed side by side, the ambition to control and hold a monopoly over the other’s institution was desirable, especially if one wishes to control the masses. The divinity of the king, therefore, placed the temple in a predicament.

Eannatum in Lagash

Map of the region

The power struggle in Lagash was even more enticing when one contemplates what was at stake. The city was located northwest of the junction of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers and east of the city Uruk. Lagash was a fertile area, with irrigation canals feeding its farms via the Shatt al-Gharraf channel that filtered from the famous waters.

Consequently, Lagash grew bountiful crops and its location made it a prime economic powerhouse. Its convenient waterways were instrumental for commerce. For a substantial period, commercial competition between Lagash and the other city-states was healthy. There comes a time, however, when hostility rises and the need to settle disputes requires war.

Sculpture of Eannatum

Sculpture of Eannatum

Enter Eannatum, King of Lagash (c. 2455-2425 BCE), who established the first Mesopotamian empire in history through constant warring. But how did Eannatum achieve this, how did he create the first verifiable empire in history?

Eannatum, son of King Akurgal of Lagash, ascended the throne after his father got into a bit of a squabble with his northwestern neighbors, the city-state of Umma. Eannatum’s spat with Umma would lead him on a quest for dominance in the region… which would ultimately ruin his empire.

 

Tune in Next Week to see how Eannatum conquers the fertile crescent and builds the first empire.

“Lagash and the Too Fertile Valley” was written By Cam Rea

Cam Rea has a BA and MA in Military History. He recently published “March of the Scythians: From Sargon II to the Fall of Nineveh.” In addition, he is an ancient history junky and a Teaching Assistant at the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

You can also grab the book on kindle HERE.

Thermopylae: Battle in the Shade

by April 17, 2013

The year was 480 BC and the Battle of Thermopylae was about to commence. King Leonidas I was dispatched from Sparta with only his royal bodyguard of 300 men to help him stop the oncoming Persian invasion, led by Xerxes I.

Leonidas at the Battle of Thermopylae

Leonidas at Thermopylae, by Jacques Louis David, 1814. This is a juxtaposition of various historical and legendary elements from the Battle of Thermopylae.

Fortunately Leonidas was not entirely alone. He was able to procure more soldiers: an additional number of support troops, including 1,000 Phocians, drawn from other parts of Lacedaemon. He was also able to reinforce his army en route, taking contingents from cities as he passed through. Eventually, he amassed around 7,000 men to block the pass at Thermopylae.

When he arrived, Leonidas camped out at the ‘middle gate’, the narrowest section of the pass. Unfortunately, news arrived from Trachis, the local town, that there was, in fact, a mountain track. It wasn’t large, but it could be used to outflank the Greeks, and therefore destroy their strategy. Leonidas quickly sent the Phocians troops to protect the spot.

Finally, in mid-August the Persian army was spotted. But how many men were the Peloponnesians and their allies up against?

The most fascinating aspect about the Battle of Thermopylae is the numbers, yet the actual figures are highly contended. The first writer to throw in his hat was Herodotus… and his calculations were some of the most amazing of them all.

The ‘Father of History’ described the scene as 6,100 Greeks, including 300 Spartans, 700 Thespians and 400 Thebans in comparison to an impressive 5.2 million Persians. Simonides, a near contemporary poet, estimated 4 million in Xerxes’ army. Modern scholars, however, say these figures were exaggerations, but still consider at least 70,000 to 300,000 in the invading forces.

Either way, the Greeks were clearly outnumbered.

At this time, Xerxes sent an emissary to negotiate with Leonidas. Their terms were that if the Greeks got out of their way, they would be offered their freedom and the title of “Friends of the Persian People”. In addition, they would be given land which was considered even better than what they already had.

Leonidas refused completely.

The ambassador then, more forcefully, demanded that the Greek troops lay down their arms.

Leonidas, once again refused. He only replied: “Come and take them”.

A messenger was then sent to Leonidas’ general, reporting the refusal and threatening, “Our arrows will block out the sun”.

Leonidas’ general retorted, “Then we shall have our battle in the shade!”

War was inevitable.

Xerxes waited four days for the opposing troops to disperse, and when they didn’t, they began to attack.

First Xerxes ordered 5,000 archers to fire a barrage of arrows at the Greeks, but their bronze helmets and shields deflected the attack. No real damage was done. Then Xerxes sent a force of 10,000 men which soon turned into a full frontal assault.

Meanwhile, Leonidas’ army stayed at the smallest section of the pass and spanned the opening with a standard Greek phalanx. They stood shoulder to shoulder to create a wall of overlapping shields, with their spear points dangerously protruding outwards. He rotated different units from each city to prevent battle fatigue. They also used a tactic where they would feign retreat, then turn and kill the soldiers as they tried to run after them.

Greek Phalanx

Greek phalanx formation based on sources from the Perseus Project.

The Persians, with their inferior weaponry, were not able to effectively engage the Greek soldiers. It was said that Xerxes jumped out of his seat three times as he watched his men get slaughtered. According to Ctesias, this first wave only resulted in two or three Spartans dead.

For his second assault on the same day, Xerxes sent in his elite forces, ‘the immortals’ to do what his previous men could not. Unfortunately for the Persians, ‘the immortals’ fared no better. The Spartans were just that good.

On the second day of battle, Xerxes sent his infantry, supposing that the much smaller Greek army would be weakened, tired and at least a little wounded from yesterday’s onslaught. However, once again Leonidas’ men triumphed, and Xerxes at last deceased the assault. He returned to camp, “completely perplexed”.

It was then that Xerxes received his first bit of good news.

The 'Immortals'

Depiction of Persian warriors, most likely the Immortals.

While thinking of what to do next, a Trachinian traitor named Ephialtes (a name which became synonymous with the word ‘nightmare’), told Xerxes of the secret mountain pass. Moreover, he promised to lead the army there. Xerxes immediately sent the rest of his dear ‘immortals’ to check it out.

It was now the third day, at dawn, when the Persian forces surprised the Phocians who were meant to be guarding the mountain track. Unprepared, the Phocians began to retreat when Xerxes’ men bombarded them with arrows. They marched past the wounded Phocians with the goal of encircling the Greek army.

Leonidas’ mission was now doomed.

The Spartan king heard the unfortunate news from a runner and called for a council of war. Leonidas told them that he would not leave, but most of his contingents decided otherwise. All Leonidas had left was his own 300 royal bodyguards, 400 Thebans, as well as 700 Thespians. The Thespian general, Demophilus, refused to desert, but instead choose to fight to the death. This was all the more incredible, as the 700 men were all the hoplites the city could muster.

And so on the third day, the battle came to an end. Xerxes waited just long enough for his ‘immortals’ to descend the other side of the mountain, and then poured 10,000 men into the fight. The few remaining Greeks left their position at the wall in attempt to kill as many Persians as possible.

Many great men fell, including Leonidas who was brought down by archers. The two sides fought over his body, but eventually the Greeks were able to get possession. The dwindling army fought with their spears, until they were all shattered. Then they battled with their short swords. Eventually, according to Herodotus, “they defended themselves to the last, those who still had swords using them, and the others resisting with their hands and teeth”.

Location of the Battle of Thermopylae

The site of the battle today:
the road to the right is built on reclaimed land
and approximates the 480 BC shoreline.

Finally, the very last defenders were surrounded, and died under a rain storm of arrows. In 1939, a large numbers of Persian bronze arrowheads were excavated on the spot.

Xerxes’ army won the battle of Thermopylae, with the estimated loss of 20,000 men. The Greek rearguard, however, suffered in total around 2,000 deaths over the course of the three day battle.

Many have asked, why the self-sacrifice? Why did those remaining Greek soldiers stay, and not depart with the others?

Of course no one can know for sure, but one favorable interpretation is that it was a clever tactic by Leonidas. If all the contingents had stayed, then everyone would have been killed. Likewise, if they all left, the Persians would have been able to follow after them and finish the Greek army. Only with a small group of valiant warriors could they protect the Greek retreaters, who would live to fight another day.

And so, the battle of Thermopylae was decided… but the war was yet to end.

You can read more of the Prelude to the Battle of Thermopylae Here: http://classicalwisdom.com/battle-of-thermopylae

Thermopylae The Battle in the Shade” was written by Anya Leonard

Battle of Thermopylae

by April 10, 2013

It was a battle so great that many movie makers, writers and graphic novelists have attempted to capture it. Within its bloodied tale, embodies ideals such as patriotism, freedom, the underdog and resistance to excessive imperial powers. Its story is compelling, breathtaking and heartbreaking. It is none other than the Battle of Thermopylae.

The King Darius I

Darius the Great

Like many campaigns both before and after, this one did not occur without plenty of backstory. Its history has deep and tangled roots, starting with third king of the Persian Achaemenid Empire, Darius I, also known as Darius the Great.

Darius’ empire was still young and expanding… and he had eyes for Greece.

Unfortunately the Ionian revolt threw a wrench in his plans, and threatened to disturb the integrity of his terrain. Darius vowed to punish those involved. He also thought it was a good opportunity to soak up some new lands.

As his first step, Darius sent emissaries to all the Greek city-states in 491 BC. Each domain was expected to provide a token gift of ‘earth and water’ to show their submission to the powerful Persian. The majority did… except for Sparta and Athens. The rebellious cities made sure to murder the foreign representatives, either by throwing them in a pit or simply chucking them down a well.

Darius was not pleased and responded with violence. The notorious Battle of Marathon took place, where the Athenians won a remarkable victory. The Persians were forced to retreat.

Now Darius was really upset. He planned to fully subjugate the Greeks, and amassed a great army to do just that. Unfortunately an Egyptian revolt postponed his plans and he died while preparing to march there.

The baton was now passed to his son Xerxes I, probably full of revenge for his father’s defeat and desire to make his own name. Xerxes also made sure to learn from his predecessor’s mistakes.

Xerxes I

Xerxes I, son of Darius I

After crushing the disobedient Egyptians, Xerxes started planning properly. He stockpiled supplies for a long-term battle and organised an astonishing army and navy. He also built two enormous pontoon bridges at Hellespont as well as a canal across the isthmus of Mount Athos, both extraordinary feats in that time, in order to move his men into position.

Meanwhile the Greeks also prepared for invasion. Despite the current skirmishes among the city-states, they came together in a congress in late autumn of 481 BC in Corinth. They created a confederate alliance in order to combine and dispatch troops to necessary points. Their first strategy to block entry to the land was immediately moot, Xerxes already crossed Hellespont. His Persian forces were on their way.

The second strategy, therefore, became essential.

The Battle of Thermopylae Campaign map.

The Battle of Thermopylae Campaign map.

It was suggested by Themistocles that Xerxes’ army would have to traverse the narrow pass of Thermopylae in order to reach southern Greece. This small mountain pass could be easily blocked, preventing the oncoming onslaught. In addition, the navies should be sent to the straits of Artemisium to stop the Persians wishing to bypass Thermopylae by sea.

The Greeks agreed, but also made back-up plans to defend the isthmus and evacuate Athens en masse.

The Persian’s huge army made slow progress down through Thrace and Macedon, but they continued to march straight for Thermopylae.

The Spartans, however, were not engaging in their usual warlike manner. They were celebrating in the religious festival Carneia and consequently, all military activity was forbidden. The Olympic games were also taking place and the Greeks had swapped their swords and spears for sports. To ignore these rites was the epitome of sacrilege.

Then news of the Persians’ imminent arrival reached the Greeks’ ears in August, thanks to a spy. The leaders of Sparta decided that an exception to their religious beliefs had to made, the urgency was too great. The King Leonidas I, was dispatched to go to Thermopylae in order to stop the entire army amassed by Xerxes.

Leonidas was only allowed to bring with him his royal bodyguard, just 300 men.

The Battle of Thermopylae was soon to commence.

Read Part 2: Battle in the Shade: http://classicalwisdom.com/thermopylae-battle-in-the-shade/