The ancient Greek city-state of Sparta had a social hierarchy that was different from many of its neighbors. The top of the social pyramid was occupied by the two kings, whose powers were checked by a ‘council of elders’. These elders were chosen from the next class, the Spartiates. Below this aristocratic class was a middle class which was called the Perioeci. The lowest class, which was also the largest, in Spartan society was held a group known as the Helots.
According to the Greek geographer Pausanias, the Helots hailed from a city called Helos. This city is said to have been conquered by the Spartans, and its inhabitants became their first slaves. Subsequent peoples enslaved by the Spartans were also called Helots. The Greek historian, Thucydides, however, gives a different account of the origins of the Helots. According to this writer, the Helots were the descendants of the Messenians who were enslaved by the Spartans during the First Messenian War in the 8th century BC. Another account of the origins of the Helots can be found in Strabo’s Geography. According to this writer, the peoples who were subjected to Spartan rule were initially accorded equal rights. During the reign of Agis I, however, these rights were revoked, and the subjects forced to pay a tribute. All complied, except the people of Helos, who revolted. They were crushed in a war and reduced to slavery.
Whilst they are considered as slaves, it has been pointed out that they were somewhat different from other slaves in the neighboring Greek city-states. It is claimed that in Athens, for instance, slaves did not have families and communities of their own. The Helots, by contrast, had their own families and communities. Additionally, the Helots were not privately owned, but belonged to the state. According to Strabo, “the Lacedaemonians held the Helots as state-slave in a way, having assigned to them certain settlements to live in and special services to perform.”
As the male citizens of Sparta devoted their lives to athletic and military training, war, politics, and hunting, they could not afford to spend time on agricultural activities. The task of producing food was left to the Helots. Although the Helots were, generally speaking, peasants, they may be employed for other jobs, such as servants or grooms, as well. Additionally, the Helots could be conscripted into military duties at times of war. For instance, the Greek historian Herodotus records that each of the 5000 Spartiate at the Battle of Plataea in 479 BC was protected by seven light-armed Helots. Thus, there was a total of 35,000 Helots at that battle.
Although the Helots were crucial for the functioning of Spartan society, the other classes had an uneasy relationship with them. Given that the Helots greatly outnumbered their Spartan masters, the possibility of them revolting against their repressive rulers was ever present. The first major Helot revolt took place around 665 BC, and is known as the Second Messenian War (The First Messenian War had ended around 40 years prior to this conflict). The Helots seized on the occasion of Sparta’s defeat by Argos at the Battle of Hysiae to launch a revolt. It took the Spartans nearly 20 years to put down the rebellion.
Given the precarious state of things, the Spartans took precautions to prevent the Helots from revolting. During the Persian Wars, for instance, the Spartans were not too eager to send their hoplites abroad to fight for the freedom of Greece. This was due to the fear that the Helots would revolt when the Spartan army was fighting away from home. Despite these and other precautions, several revolts by the Helots took place over the centuries. When an earthquake struck the Eurotas Valley in 464 BC, the Helots seized this opportunity to revolt. This was the largest revolt recorded. The Helots fortified Mount Ithome, which was besieged by Sparta. The siege only ended five years later when both sides agreed to a truce. The surviving Helots were taken by Athens and settled on Naupactus on the Corinthian Gulf.
Spartan treatment of Helots improved overtime, perhaps as a means of appeasing them. For instance, Helots could hope to be emancipated, and it is known that groups of Helots were sometimes liberated. Nevertheless, the system collapsed in the 4 th century BC. In 371 BC, the Spartans suffered a humiliating defeat at the Battle of Leuctra. The victorious Thebans then invaded the Peloponnese, and the Helots of Messenia were liberated. The last Helots (the Helots of Laconia) were emancipated at the end of the 3rd century BC by the reformer kings Cleomenes III and Nabis.
By Van Bryan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Sparta, also known by its ancient name Lacedaemon in honor of their legendary founder, is often considered to have been the most dominant military presence in ancient Greece. Their infantry soldiers were said to have been among the most skilled and fearsome warriors of the ancient world. Dedicating the majority of their lives to perfecting the art of warfare, the ferocity of the Spartan hoplite would grant the city-state several military victories and lead to the defeat of Athens during the Peloponnesian War.
This obsession with fighting was supported by their culture. The Spartan lifestyle, especially that of the Spartan men, was dedicated to learning the art of fighting and the craft of war. At birth, Spartan babies were examined for weaknesses. If they were deemed frail or deformed, they were tossed into a chasm on Mount Taygetos. At a young age the boys would be taken away from their homes and participate in an education system known as Agoge. In this state mandated training curriculum, young male citizens would be taught how to be a warrior. They were educated in the ways of warfare, fighting as well as reading and writing. They would endure physical hardships and often be submitted to harsh, violent punishments.
This militaristic state was only possible because of the complex societal structure of Sparta. While native born Spartans enjoyed full rights and freedoms, there were others who were not so fortunate. The Perioikoi were a secondary type of Spartan citizen who, although not full citizens and therefore unable to participate in the Agoge training, still enjoyed freedom in the Spartan community. They acted as skilled craftsmen and reserve warriors when needed.
The Helots were state owned serfs who bordered narrowly on being classified as slaves. The Helots were lower class citizens who were responsible for the agricultural stability of Sparta. It was only through the farming work of the Helots that the other Spartans were able to free up their time to participate fully in military training. Even though the Helots were essential to Spartan society, they were also prone to uprisings and would be a constant source of trouble for the Spartan city.
An interesting note about Spartan society was that women enjoyed a level of freedom that was unheard of in the ancient world. Spartan girls were fed the same food as their brothers, and they were not restricted to their homes as was common in Athens. The daughters and sisters of Sparta were allowed to play outdoors and even compete in sports. While it was common in other city-states to marry off girls at the age of 12 or 13, Spartan women tied the knot in their late teens or early twenties. This was done as an effort to spare women the health dangers of pregnancies in adolescents. As a result of their superior diet and bountiful exercise, Spartan women often lived into old age more frequently than in any other part of the ancient world.
The military contributions of Sparta can not be overemphasized. During the Classical age of Greece, they were unmatched as a land military force, playing decisive roles in several battles during the second Persian invasion of Greece in 480 BCE. Sparta is perhaps best remembered for it’s heroic stand at the battle of Thermopylae, where King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans (along with roughly 6000 other Greek hoplites) fended off the massive Persian army before being outflanked and eventually massacred on the third day of battle. Thermopylae remains one of the most famous last stands of military history and continues to be a topic of fascination for modern classical enthusiasts.
It was said in the early years of Athens, the city-state was governed by a series of kings. In mythology it is said that the hero Theseus was one of the early kings of Athens and began his reign shortly after slaying the ferocious Minotaur. Athenian politics would evolve into a early form of democracy in 550 BCE. The Athenian system of democracy was set up as a direct democratic process in which the population was able to vote directly on legislation. However, only men who had completed their military service were actually allowed to vote or participate, which would constitute about 20% of the total population. Despite restrictions such as these, Athenian democracy was remarkable y successful and well maintained. It is for this reason that Athens is often considered the birthplace of democracy.
Athens is also considered the cradle of western civilization; this is due to their progress in the fields of philosophy, literature and even architecture. Athens was the heart of ancient philosophy. It was the location of Plato’s Academy as well as Aristotle’s Lyceum. Athens was also the home of the famous Socrates as well as other influential philosophers such as Diogenes and Epicurus. Philosophy took great strides in Athens.
Whether it was Socrates’s dramatic lectures on the examined life, Plato’s abstract theory of forms, or even Diogenes wandering the streets with a lantern because he was looking for an honest man; there was always something going on. In addition to philosophical progress, Athens was home to some of the most beautiful structures of ancient times. The Acropolis and the famous temple known as The Parthenon are brilliant examples of ancient structures that exemplified the skill and precision of Athenian architecture. In addition to the temple of Athena, the Acropolis was also home to the theater of Dionysus where famous playwrights such as Sophocles and Aeschylus regularly presented some of their most notable tragedies.
While Athens is often remembered for their advances in the realm of philosophy and literature, they were by no means unable to participate in warfare. While the city-state of Sparta was known for their ability to wage war on the ground, it was the superior navy of Athens that would contribute to several key victories during the fist and second Persian invasion as well as the bloody Peloponnesian war. Perhaps the most important victory by the Athenian navy was the battle of Salamis where the Athenian commander Themistocles defeated the Persian naval fleet, turning the tides of war in the Greeks favor.
The culture of ancient Athens was almost a mirror opposite of the Spartan civilization. They found themselves content enough to enjoy life and discuss the intellectual benefits of philosophy and politics. And while the Spartans insisted on perfecting the art of war, the Athenians exerted their energy on developing a foundation for what would become known as western culture. However, that is not to say that Athenian civilization was perfect.
When compared to the treatment of their citizens, it could be argued that Athens loses out to Sparta. While Spartan women were allowed to walk the city freely and participate in sports, the sisters and daughters of Athens had severe restrictions on their rights. Athenian women were often confined to their homes and not allowed to leave without permission. The women of Athens were often segregated from much of the population and young girls were only allowed to eat certain foods.
And while Athens is remembered for their development of democracy, it was far from perfect. Only about 20% of the population was allowed to vote or participate in politics. Individuals who had property close to the walls of Athens were excluded from war legislation, because invaders would certainly destroy their property first and the owners would therefore have a conflict of interest. Another criticism of the Athenian civilization was that they had an affinity for carelessly executing people.
During the Peloponnesian war, the ten treasurers of the Delian League were accused of embezzling funds from the Athenian treasury. These men were tried and executed one after the other until only one remained. It was only after nine men had been executed that a simple accounting error was discovered and the remaining treasurer was released.
After the naval victory at Arginusae, several Athenian commanders were accused of failing to collect survivors after the battle. Six commanders were executed for failing to perform their duties. The city would later repent for the executions and attempted to make up for it. However they made up for it by executing the original men who accused the generals.
The city of Athens even went so far as to execute the famous philosopher Socrates for ‘corrupting the young and believing in strange gods’. Socrates would later willingly drink poison, even when he was prompted with a chance to escape. In The Gorgias, written by Plato years later, the trial of Socrates is compared a doctor being prosecuted by a pastry chef and judged by a jury of children.
Whoever you side with there is no doubt that both Athens and Sparta were flourishing civilizations in their own rights. It could be argued that these two city-states were two of the most dominant super powers of the ancient world. We may consider ourselves lucky that their history and rich legacy has survived thousands of years; so that we might peer through the looking glass and witness the glory of our ancestors from a time long past.
By Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The Egyptian city of Alexandria was established in 331 BCE by its Eponymous founder, Alexander the Great. Despite its humble beginnings as a port city, Alexandria developed into one of the most prosperous metropolitan areas in the ancient world. It grew to boast such wonders like the library of Alexandria, the Temple of Serapis, and the Pharos of Alexandria (the lighthouse).
Foundation of Ancient Alexandria
In his “Life of Alexander,” Plutarch describes the foundation of the city Alexandria. After Alexander the Great’s conquest of Egypt, which was part of his campaigns all over the eastern Mediterranean, he planned to settle a large Greek city, “which would bear his name.” Alexander had imagined a city that would be home to men of all nations, and one that would abound in resources. Cleomenes, Alexander’s commander, was left in charge of the construction and expansion of the city. Following in Cleomenes’ footsteps, Ptolemy further built up the city and subsequently his own familial dynasty ruled Egypt from 332-30 BCE.
Alexandria’s Rise to Prominence
Since Alexandria came to replace the previous Egyptian capital of Memphis, and Tyre, a significant port city, was destroyed by Alexander, the new capital filled a vacuum of both political and commercial means. Alexandria became a lucrative node in the trade network of the Mediterranean, and attracted commerce from the east, north, and west. This allowed for the local economy to prosper, which in turn led to investments in institutions like the Library of Alexandria. The city was known for attracting scientists, philosophers, artists, and mathematicians (like Euclid!)
Institutions of Alexandria
Of course, one of the most famous products of Alexandria is the library. It was one of the most ambitious projects not only of the ancient world, but even by today’s standards. The Library of Alexandria aimed to collect all the knowledge of the world and house it in a single place. Ptolemy I began work on the library and located it in the royal district of the city. No doubt modeled in grand fashion, we have no surviving accounts of the architecture and can only speculate as to its appearance. With the intent of the library being to collect a copy of every book in the world, it is no surprise that Ptolemy II instituted a practice that required every ship docking at the port to hand over any books on board to be copied out for the collection.
Unfortunately, this gold mine of science, history, math, and literature was destroyed. As the city of Alexandria changes rule several times throughout its history, the new governing body viewed the Library of Alexandria as a threat to their control rather than a fountain of information. The use of the library waned over the years and its reported that several periods of fire took place, destroying scrolls and manuscripts.
Another prominent installation of Alexandria at her height of power was the Serapeum. The temple, which was constructed under Ptolemy III in the 3rd century BCE, was dedicated to the protector of Alexandria, Serapis. Strabo tells us that the temple was housed in the western portion of the city. Like the Library of Alexandria, the Serapeum does not survive and we can only assume what it looked like.
However, an article discussing Alexandria would be remiss if it did not include a discussion of the lighthouse of Alexandria. Considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, it became the model of lighthouses then and now. The lighthouse, or Pharos, served as a practical component of Alexandria, helping guide ships into her harbors; but it also was a feat of technology, reaching a staggering height and becoming a symbol of the city, as we can see on coin depictions.
With the Roman victories in the Punic Wars, Rome reigned supreme in the Mediterranean and Alexandria came under her rule. For roughly two centuries, this didn’t impact the prosperity of Alexandria too terribly much. She still continued to be a prominent port city with a bustling social sphere. It was during the breakdown of the First Triumvirate, though, that we see direct negative sanctions being placed on Alexandria. Pompey’s loss to Caesar in the Battle of Pharsalus led to his flight to Alexandria, seeking sanctuary. However, he was killed by Ptolemy XIII and Caesar arrived, declaring martial law of the land. In the following years of civil war between Cleopatra and Ptolemy, the city of Alexandria suffered destruction and fires.
After the death of Cleopatra and Marc Antony, and the consolidation of power by Augustus, Alexandria became a province of the Roman Empire, lacking any real political autonomy. The city was rebuilt after the fires and recovered from the internal turmoil of the 1st century BCE, but never quite to the level of pre-Roman occupation.
Decline of Alexandria
Having been such a hot bed for knowledge, learning, and advancements for centuries, Alexandria’s involvement in the Christianity vs. paganism schism does not come as a surprise. Still under Roman rule, Theodosius I outlawed paganism, promoting instead the conversion to Christianity. As Alexandria had been a prosperous and robust city for centuries, temples, sanctuaries, and monuments reflecting the newly outlawed religion abounded. Christians of the city clashed with pagans in Alexandria and the city plunged into religious and ideological distress. Scholars that had once felt safe, encouraged, and supported now fled the city in search of calmer surroundings. The draw of Alexandria as a cultural, political, and commercial center no longer persisted due to the constant religious tension and the city fell by the wayside.
The city of Alexandria certainly had an active history, serving as the stage for political rivalries, scholastic breakthroughs, and religious wars. The longevity of the city’s occupation allowed her to be involved in several events of the wider Mediterranean. Of course, we all dream about what could have been if only the Library of Alexandria were still around today.
To understand the political, social, economic and military developments that happened in Rome in the middle and late republican periods, it is important to understand the manner in which early republican society functioned and was organized. The relative positions of Roman citizens in the political, religious, legislative, social, economic and military bodies of the early Roman state was ordered by the sharp distinctions between the Patrician and Plebeian classes.
Gens – clans
The primary unit of early Roman society was the family household (familia). Numbers of related households of families (familiae) constituted a clan. These clan units, gentes (clans), made up of families who were descended from a common ancestor, these clans also had certain religious rites in common.
The basic political organisation of the republic.
With the deposition of the last of Rome’s kings c.509, Rome replaced the monarchy with a form of republican government. The government was structured like so: the consuls – two patrician magistrates, the senate – council of the nobility, and the comitia curiata – the people’s assembly.
The assembly of the people
What was known as the comitia curiata, the curiate assembly, came from the regal period of Roman history. Divided into four ‘parishes’ (curiae) with the people of each voting according to their curia, they elected the consuls, and they voted for or against any proposals the consuls proposed to the curiae. The power to instigate reforms sought by the assembly was limited by the fact that it could not raise or discuss any issues related to proposal of a consul.
To begin with, the senate was limited to 100 members, this eventually increased to 300. These were drawn solely from the patrician clans. If found guilty of serious misconduct, a senator could be expelled from the senate, otherwise a senatorial seat was for life. The senate’s main function was to be an advisory body to consuls. Should the senate not approve of a resolution made by the assembly it reserved the power of veto, so that the assembly might pay attention to the advice of the senate.
The senate’s primary role was to advise the consuls and the assembly, yet, from the third century its power and influence had considerably grown, it became, in effect, the prime-mover in republican politics in the second and first centuries.
Powers: Imperium, auspicium, the right of veto.
The symbol of consular power and executive authority were the fasces, these represented the consul’s imperium. The fasces, a double-headed axe bound in a bundle of rods (and the origin of the word ‘fascism’), was used by the attendants of the consul, the lictor. This potent symbol of unity under a central authority and threat of violence showed the populace the consuls’ power to administer justice and punishment; through his power to flog. Consular imperium gave them total executive authority over the military, civil and judicial matters, and the power to command an army. They could be recognised by their toga praetexta, with purple border, which suggested powers similar to the kings of old, a colour associated with royal authority and deity.
Important to consular imperium was the right of auspicium, the right to take the auspices so as to interpret divine will and approval for prominent public acts.
To avoid tyranny, the were two consuls with equal powers, each had the power of veto (to halt or prevent the actions of their opposite).
Collegiality and annuality were important checks on consular power. The collegiate nature of the position of consul (shared powers) permitted that consuls could act as check on each other. The occupation of consul being prescribed to a one-year term was a real attempt at the limitation to consular power hording. These checks and balances were meant to reflect a desire to move distinctly away from the autocratic power of monarchy.
Consular power in the early republican era was potent and apparent, however Rome’s expansion meant that over time the ability of two individuals to administer the apparatus of state power became increasingly untenable. This meant that many the original functions of the consuls were devolved to a greater number of magistrates. The close of the fourth century saw the Roman magistracy inherit the form it would maintain until the end of the republic.
Bradley, P. (2003) Ancient Rome; Using Evidence, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, pp.35-43.
by Lydia Serrant, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Miletus, once one of the greatest cities the world had ever seen, now lies as a ruin on the East Coast of Turkey.
The scale of the remains of Miletus is impressive. and sits as a testament to the power and glory of the ancient Greeks who built this wondrous city.
The Amphitheater is the main attraction of the site, bringing in thousands of visitors per year. It houses around 5300 spectators at a time, and was once the home of legendary Greek plays and concerts.
Behind the Amphitheater is where the city lies. The foundations of the Baths of Faustina, the Mausoleum of Heron III, the storehouse, and the agora can all still be seen among other impressive buildings that are still being excavated.
Home to the famous mathematician Thales of Miletus, the city still shines as a jewel of Western Anatolia.
A Brief History of Miletus
The area which Miletus now stands has been inhabited by humans since the Neolithic period. The first settlements in the province are now inaccessible due to a rise in sea level, and the Meander River, next to which the city stands.
The region came under Minoan rule sometime before 1400 BC. These Cretan migrants pushed out the native population who were known only as the Leleges, a pre-literate people of which not much is known. All that is known about the mysterious Leleges people is handed to us via Greek sources that cannot be verified.
It is believed that the Minoans gave Miletus its name. The first written reference to Miletus is a Hittite source who referred to the city as Millawanda or Milawata. After the fall of the Hittite Empire, the Ionian Greeks resettled Miletus in 1000 BC, allegedly by a founder named Neleus of Peloponnesus.
By the Byzantine period, Miletus was raised to an archbishopric, and the Castle Palaton was built on a hillside close to the city.
During the reign of Justinian I (527-565 AD), Miletus was treated to a full-scale renovation. The baths were restored, drainage to the harbor was installed, and old Hellenistic buildings were used in the new construction, making Miletus a puzzle of a site with buildings built from stones across a variety of different periods.
When the Ottomans arrived in the 15th Century, they used Miletus’ harbor to trade with Venice. Venice was one of Turkey’s most important trade partners, and many Ottoman traders settled there permanently, leading to the construction of the Ilyas Bey complex in 1403. The Ilyas Bey Mosque, known as Europe Nostra still stands and has been officially recognized as an important cultural site with special protection.
Miletus was finally abandoned at the end of the 15th Century when the harbor began to silt up and trading overseas was no longer possible. Now, only the ghostly remains of a once-great city still stand, which sits silently with open arms to welcome visitors from all over the world.
The Importance of Miletus
In its prime, Miletus was one of the most important centers of the Greek-speaking world. At the time, Greece was divided into city-states rather than the nation of Greece as we know it today.
Although the Greeks that resided in Miletus were of Ionian descent, Homer refers to the Greeks of Miletus as Carians, described by Herodotus as a population that retained its original Minoan identity, and were akin to the ancient Lydians who had settled the area hundreds of years before.
In 499 BC, Miletus instigated the Ionian Revolt, and played a key defensive role in the Greco-Persian Wars. Despite being attacked by the Persians in 494 BC, the city survived the ransacking, and achieved a place and status within the Athenian Delian League for its contributions to the Greek victory over the Persians.
It was at this point where Miletus really became Greek, as we understand the ancient Greeks today. It retained a special status within the Greek-speaking world that continued into the Roman period.
Miletus had an impressive harbor that made it a commercial center of trade and a great maritime power, placing the city second only to Ephesus as the most important and influential city in Asia Minor.
The Milesian school attracted great thinkers from all over the world. Thales of Miletus is perhaps the most notable figure, considered as one of the legendary Seven Wise Men. Thales is responsible for the acknowledgment of water as a basic element for life, and the famous saying ‘Know Thyself’.
He was most known at the time for his deep knowledge of cosmology, and he advised Milesian seafarers how to navigate the sea using the stars – knowledge that is still used to this day.
He is also said to have been the first to measure the Pyramids at Giza, and predict eclipses – however, these last two references most likely illustrate Thales’ reputation as a wise man rather than historical fact.
As well as the aforementioned Thales of Miletus, Anaximander, and Anaximenes, the grandfathers of natural philosophy and science were said to have attended the School of Miletus.
To contemporary citizens during the height of its power, Miletus was perhaps best known as a center of worship.
The starting point of the Sacred Way, Miletus was home to the Sacred Gate. Sacred Gates were common across ancient Greece, all named after the famous Sacred Gate that lead from Athens to Eleusis.
Miletus’ Sacred Gate opened the way to the Sacred Road that ran southwards to Panormos Harbor (Now modern-day Akkoy) and turned southeast towards the city of Didyma and the Didymaion, known also as the Temple of Apollo.
The road was lined with statues of the Branchids (priests and priestesses associated with the temple). Lions and sphinxes that also once adorned the sacred way were excavated and on display at the Miletus Museum.
The road was approximately 16.6kn long, and 5 – 7 m wide. The Sacred Way was built for the worshippers of the cult of Artemis and Apollo, who would walk the Sacred Way in honor of the gods and goddesses, and partake in annual celebrations and festivals.
Host only to a smattering tourists and a handful of tea and trinket sellers, Miletus is among many of the lost gems of the Aegean. This underrated site has many stories to tell, and archaeologists continue to uncover its secrets.
The battle of Marathon has, for millenia now, been firmly planted within the annals of western history. A decisive battle, a clash of cultures, the narrative describes an outnumbered Athenian army staying off the Persian invaders who would see the Greek civilization consumed within their empire. And as we gaze through the looking glass of time, thousands of years into the past, what began as a simple military engagement is now often considered a philosophical war between two cultures. The war for the West, that is what some believe Marathon to be. And if Greece is the cradle of western culture, could Marathon be the stance to defend it?
It would do little good. The rebellion would fail miserably with a decisive naval defeat at the island of Lade, near Miletus. Aristagoras’ city would fall. The women and children of Miletus became slaves and the men that were left alive were expelled from their lands. Early in the campaign, the capital city of western Persia, Sardis, had been burned to the ground. And while the Greeks mourned for the loss of Miletus, the birthplace of the philosopher Thales, King Darius of Persia would not soon forget the destruction of Sardis. It was too late for reconciliation. War was coming.
After a failed invasion through northern Greece in 492 BCE, King Darius made plans to dispatch a large invading force across the Aegean to overthrow Athens and capture mainland Greece. Mindful of the fate of Miletus, many city-states, including Thebes and Argos, submitted to the Persian king. It was only Athens and Sparta who stood firmly in defiance.
When the heralds of King Darius appeared at the gates of Athens and Sparta, the messengers were not only denied, but were promptly killed. Legend has it that soldiers of Sparta threw the emissaries into a deep well when the heralds suggested that the Spartans surrender. Did they scream “this is Sparta!” right before they dropped kicked the men into the abyss? We may never know, but I like to think so.
Meanwhile, Athens had a decision to make. The Athenians would be vastly outnumbered if they decided to face the Persians. We do not know the exact numbers, but we do know that Persia possessed a much larger infantry as well as superior cavalry and archers. It was at this time that the Stratego, Miltiades, would play a critical role in the salvation of Athens. Miltiades, a man who spent much of his life ruling in a remote military outpost in the Chersonese, would return to Athens in 493 BCE. He was promptly accused of having been a tyrant during his days as ruler, and was promptly put on trial .
It is difficult to imagine why Athens would concern themselves with one of their own citizens tyrannizing abroad, especially with a massive Persian army at their doorstep. It is not unreasonable to believe Herodotus when he tells us that the persecution of Miltiades originated from the mans political enemies.
Miltiades was a gifted general and had served in the Persian army while living in Asia Minor under Persian control. He would have been familiar with Persian tactics and was most qualified to lead a defense against the invaders. Perhaps it was the thought of Athens burning to the ground that persuaded the Athenians to acquit Miltiades, it would appear they had bigger fish to fry. Miltiades was allowed to attempt to persuade the Polemarch, Callimachus to allow him to go to war. Herodotus offers a stirring rendition of this speech.
“…It is up to you right now, to enslave Athens or to make her free, and to leave for all future generations of humanity a memorial to yourself such as not even Harmodius and Aristogiton have left. Right now, Athens is in the most perilous moment of her history. Hippias has already shown her what she will suffer if she bows down to the Medes, but if the city survives, she can become the foremost city in all Greece…” -Herodotus (The Histories)
Athens would accept Miltiades into their army and make plans to confront the Persians. Early one morning in late September of 490 BCE, the Athenian army assembled on a hill overlooking where the Persian forces had landed on the beaches of Marathon. Knowing they were severely outnumbered, Miltiades concentrated his forces in a narrow pass that would block the Persian advance to Athens. Layers of bronze shields overlapped among the Greek soldiers and created a phalanx formation that was capable of repelling waves of enemies.
The Persian army advanced and found themselves crushed against the shields of the better equipped, better prepared Athenian army. With the advantage of longer spears, sturdy shields, and superb tactical placement, the Athenians managed to continuously push back the Persian advance.
The Persian army meanwhile was improperly equipped for such warfare. Many infantrymen possessed wooden shields or shields constructed from wicker. With the Athenian army confined in a narrow corridor, the Persian cavalry was ineffective and unable to outflank the Greeks. After several days of battle, the Greeks pushed the invaders back to their ships. The Persian army would suffer heavy casualties and be forced to return home.