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Category Archives: Politics

The History of Thebes
By Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom Having been inhabited for roughly 5,000 years, Thebes possesses a wealth of history
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The rise and fall of the Delian League
By Mónica Correa, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom The Delian League, or Confederacy of Delos, was the name used for the
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The Luck of the Athenians
By Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom When we think of Athens, we typically think “powerhouse.” The bustling Agora, the
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Pick your Poison
The AK-47 of the Ancient Near East By Cam Rea The Scythian bow was the AK-47 of the Ancient Near
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The Helots: Slave Warriors of Ancient Sparta
By Ḏḥwty, Contributing Writer, Ancient Origins The ancient Greek city-state of Sparta had a social hierarchy that was different from
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After 300: The Posthumous Vengeance of King Leonidas of Sparta
By Riley Winters, Contributing Writer, Ancient Origins Mythologically descended from the hero Herakles, the Agiad dynasty of ancient Sparta reigned
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The Peloponnesian War Summary of Battles and Betrayals: Athens’ Last Stand
The Peloponnesian War Summary of Battles and Betrayals: The Sicilian Expedition can be found HERE. The year is 413 BC
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The Peloponnesian War – The Sicilian Expedition
The Sicilian Expedition To read the previous segment on the Peloponnesian War, Click HERE. When we left off last week,
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The Peloponnesian War Summary of Battles and Betrayals – Part Two
To Read Part One, Click here: https://classicalwisdom.com/the-peloponnesian-war-summary-part-one/ The entirety of the Peloponnesian war is broken into two parts, punctuated by
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The Peloponnesian War Summary of Battles and Betrayals – Part One
You couldn’t imagine two cities less alike. Athens was a powerful democracy where citizens spent their days reclining and discussing
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The History of Thebes

by November 20, 2018

By Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Having been inhabited for roughly 5,000 years, Thebes possesses a wealth of history and culture. Thebes is located in central Greece and garnered military might and political power, not least of which resulted from their leadership in the Boeotian League and the Sacred Band of soldiers in the 4th century.
Theban Map

Plan of Thebes

Archaeological excavations have revealed fortified buildings with rock-cut foundations as well as courtyards (stone-paved) and mud brick walls dating back to the 3rd millennium BC. Around 2500 BC, we see evidence for food and wool production and trade, thanks to recovered grinding stones and terracotta loom weights and spools.
Jumping ahead to the Mycenaean period, Thebes boasted a Mycenaean palace called Kadmeion, located in the center of the acropolis. It was a large independent structure comprised of corridors, rooms for work and storage, as well as workshops that were vital to the existence of Thebes. Also found were Linear B tablets and seal stones, along with Cretan stirrup jars, that demonstrate that Thebes had widespread contacts in the Aegean. While the trade alone is not surprising for this time period, it does help us understand the role and significance Thebes played early on.
Archeological site of ancient thebes

The Mycenaean Palace, or Kadmeion, dates from the 13th century BC and is located almost centrally on the acropolis.

Around 1200 BC the Mediterranean was swallowed up in a relatively indecipherable fog… however, Thebes emerged again in the Archaic period with infrastructure and power. Soon, they forged an antagonistic relationship against Athens and Sparta, fighting almost constantly for regional dominance. It didn’t help Thebes’ image throughout Greece either that they sided with Persia and Xerxes in 480 BC during the Persian War.
After the Persian War, there was relative quiet, save for the rising tensions among the Greek powers themselves. Thebes needed to be punished for their alliance with the Persians, and so was stripped of the head seat at the Boeotian league.
Map of the Greco-Persian War

Historical Atlas of the Mediterranean
Persian Wars

However, not soon after, Sparta needed support against Athens in central Greece and enlisted Thebes to take up the position. By 431 BC, there was an all out war (the Archidamian War) between allies Sparta, Corinth, and Thebes against Athens which lasted until 421 BC. After the Archidamian War, there was the Decelean War (415 BC -404 BC) and the Corinthian War (395 BC – 387 BC, Thebes Corinth, Argos, and Athens against Sparta).
Turmoil abounded (with Thebes often highly involved) until the invasion of Philip of Macedonia. In 338 BC, Thebes joined Athens and Corinth, setting aside a rivalry going back hundreds of years in order to stand against the Macedonians. We all know the result; eventually Thebes was destroyed by Alexander the Great and the population was sold into slavery.
The subsequent years saw Roman visits and rebuilding, population depletion, and finally becoming a provincial town in the Roman Empire. The zenith of Thebes had come to an end long before, though its mythology still lives on.
Mythology in Thebes
The Seven against Thebes

The Seven Against Thebes

Like most Greek cities, Thebes has a foundation myth that connects its people to the gods. In the case of Thebes, it was founded by Kadmos (or Cadmus), son of Egenor and brother of Europa. While specifics change depending on who is reporting the story, the basics remain that Kadmos was to sow the teeth of a giant serpent (that he had previously slain) into the ground. From this spot a group of warriors sprang from the earth, and they fought and battled to found the city of Kadmea.
Another prominent myth, that again has to do with a psuedo-foundation, is Seven Against Thebes. In this story, Oedipus’ two sons, Polyneikes and Eteokles, embroiled themselves in a war. After Eteokles exiled Polyneikes, he enlisted the help of the Achaeans to take back the city of Thebes. Seven warriors, including Polyneikes, started their assault on the city and began scaling the walls. Even though six out of the seven were killed, the attack was successful and Polyneikes (though dead) took back the city from his brother.
Famous People from Thebes
Bust of Pindar

Pindar, Roman copy of Greek 5th century BC bust (Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples

Perhaps three of the most notorious people from Thebes are Epaminondas, Pelopidas, and Pindar.
Epaminondas (born around 418 BC and died 362 BC) was a military general and student of philosophy. He commanded the Theban forces at pivotal battles such as Leuctra, where the Thebans delivered such a decisive blow to the Spartans that a monument was erected, as well as the Battle of Mantinea where he died in battle.
At the same time as Epaminondas, Pelopidas campaigned in Central and Northern Greece, and died in the Battle of Cynoscephalae in 364 BC. He was successful in the battle though and overthrew the Thessalian troops of Alexander of Pherae.
However, the most recognizable celebrity to come from Thebes may certainly be Pindar, the poet of paeans, songs, and hymns. Though fragmentary, we do have 45 of his lyric odes, or epinicia, to honor notable people. Pindar authored a style that was mirrored by Latin poets, like Horace, and was popular material for Byzantine literature. In 1896, a “Pindaric Ode” was created for the Olympic Games in Athens, similarly copied as recently as 2012.

The rise and fall of the Delian League

by September 19, 2018

By Mónica Correa, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The Delian League, or Confederacy of Delos, was the name used for the confederation of Greek states under the ‘leadership’ of Athens. According to some records, it lasted from the end of the Persian War, circa 478 BC, until the end of the Peloponnesian War in the year 404 BC.
As described in the statutes, power was originally distributed equally. Indeed, according to Thucydides, each state in the league had an equal vote . However from the beginning, the ‘unofficial’ leader of the Delian League was Athens.
Decree of tribute

Fragment of the Athenian Decree concerning the issue of tribute

The original headquarters were at Delos, but they were later moved to Athens…a transition that meant more than just a change of location.
Purpose and splendor
The Delian League started as a military alliance against Persia. Around 200 city-states, including Eretria, Mykonos, Athos and Byzantium, joined the alliance by the mid-fifth century BC for the same reason. They wanted protection by the Athenians, who controlled the naval yards, thus turning them into the only ones who could fight against Persia.
Some say that the Athenian politician and military man, Themistocles, is the real father of the Delian League, because it was under his reign that the development of the Athenian navy made the League possible.
Themistocles

Themistocles

Historians such as the aforementioned Thucydides kept record of the actions taken by the Delian League; some of them are expressed in their constitution:

• It was decided which cities were to provide money and which were to provide ships
• The first payment (tribute) was 460 talents (today 57 lb.)
• Delos was to serve as treasury
• The assembly of the League met in the Temple at Delos

Over time some of these constitutional provisions changed and, perhaps not surprisingly, this led to other problems.
For instance, the League survived financially by tributes or taxes… and yet not all of this money stayed within the League. A considerable amount of the taxes paid by the members eventually flowed to Athens alone. Indeed, this ‘income’ allowed Pericles, a Greek statesman, orator and general of Athens, to start building the Parthenon on the Acropolis… and other major ‘public’ works.
It is at this time that we can see that the League was turning from an alliance to an empire.
Parthenon-greece-acropolis

Famous ancient Greek structure, the Parthenon at night. Andreas Kontokanis/ Flickr

Internal wars
Unlike the Peloponnesian League, within the Delian League, wars between members were prohibited. In fact, the Athenians later kicked out some of their allies on the pretext that they carried on wars against each other.
Naxos, the first member who tried to leave the League, stopped paying tribute so they were considered as enemies to Athens and the alliance. They were subsequently attacked by Athens and forced to remain as members.

Map of Athenian Empire

To turn away from the Delian League meant to turn towards the side of the Persians. Nethertheless, some city-states allied with the Persians in the early fifth century BC, during the Persian Invasion.
The way Athens handled the revolts led to the independence of city-states who stopped sending their men, money and ships to Athens.
The beginning of the end
After 30 years of reign, the main accomplishment of the Delian League was the Peace of Callias, named after Callias II, an ancient Greek politician. It was a treaty established around 449 BC between the Delian League and Persia that ended the Greco-Persian Wars.
After this, one may be forgiven in thinking that the League should disolve… however, this did not happen. Instead, the Athenian Empire (454-404 BC) started its reign by moving the treasury of the Delian League from Delos to Athens.
For the Second Athenian Confederacy (378-7 BC), a revival of the Delian League, the enemy was Sparta. It was created as a protection against Spartan aggression. It was a maritime self-defense league led by Athens. The Delian League was finally broken up by the capture of Athens by Sparta in 404 BC.
Even today for some historians, it is not clear if becoming an empire was the original intention of Athens, or if it was an idea that developed as they gained the power and confidence of their allies. However, there’s no doubt that this empire led to many conquests for the occidental world.

The Luck of the Athenians

by September 12, 2018

By Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
When we think of Athens, we typically think “powerhouse.” The bustling Agora, the high functioning politics, the exhaustive building programs – all point to a city that exists not just high up on the social scale, but one of military power. And while Athens did become a militarized state, she was certainly not one originally.
Before the Persian War, Athens had already incurred displeasure by Persia. Athens had sided with the Ionians in the Ionian Revolt and sent help to Asiatic Greeks seeking to free themselves from Persian control. While they were not the strongest military power in Greece, they certainly were not shy about defending Greece from attack. They were indeed a player on the Mediterranean and exercised their influence and support when needed.
However, at the outbreak of the Persian War, Sparta still dominated in military power. And while Athens was beginning to validate herself, in the minds of enemies, she was not much of a rival.
Until Marathon, that is.
Artists depiction of the Battle of Marathon

Battle of Marathon

In 491 BC, Darius I, king of Persia, invaded Greece and sent envoys to ascertain the Greeks’ submission. When the envoys arrived, Athens and Sparta formed an alliance against the threat, vowing to protect Greece from the imminent invasion. What resulted was a decades long conflict between powers of Greece and Persia.
The Battle of Marathon was the first major battle of the Persian War and served many purposes. The Greek success in the battle delayed the Persians another 10 years, giving Greece time to amp up her army and navy – things that needed to be brought up to speed if they were expected to face mighty Persia.
The Battle of Marathon also served as a defining moment in the history of Athens. After her success at Marathon, Athens became more of a revered military power and eventually entered into a golden age. But was the Athenian success at Marathon sheer luck, or was it fine-tuned skill?
Turns out, a little bit of both.
King of Persia

Darius 1

The first stroke of luck that the Athenians had at Marathon was the very location of the battle. The Persians set up camp and docked their fleets at a sandy plain surrounded by mountains and valleys, surely with the intention of invading Athens itself soon (only a short ~25 miles from the city).
This gave the Athenians two major advantages: where they positioned themselves for battle, and their line of supplies. Since the Persian camp was so close to Athens, the Athenians who went to meet them were able to stay well supplied and equipped, even during an 8-day stalemate. Things like water and food were available to the Athenian troops, a luxury which the Persians did not enjoy. Camping with somewhere between 15,000 and 90,000 men, the Persians struggled to keep mouths fed and water available. They were cut off from the Greek mainland and could not receive any reinforcements.
The low-lying plain that the Persians set up camp on was fine as a temporary base, but when battle was imminent, the location proved perilous to their troops. Athenians were able to march quickly to Marathon and set up camp and stations on the plain’s flanks, surrounding the Persians below. The only escape they had was by sea, which would have been time-consuming and slow going with so many men.
Map of the battle

Battle of Marathon map

The second piece of luck the Athenians enjoyed was word that the Persian cavalry was away from camp. The Athenian commanders knew that they would not stand a chance against the highly feared and trained cavalry forces of the Persians, even if the Greeks had them surrounded. The horses and their warriors were fast, precise, and soldiers on foot would have been easily out maneuvered. After 8 days of holding off the Persians’ attack in hopes that the Spartans would arrive in time for battle, news of the horse-less camp proved too good an opportunity to pass up. The Athenians attacked the plain, knowing full well that if the cavalry forces were there, the day would have turned out very different.
The third prong to this lucky battle some may view as a disadvantage, but when discussing the success of the Athenians and their resulting power, it certainly ends up being a lucky advantage.
This would be the fact that the Spartans never showed up to battle. The Athenians and her few allies tackled the Persians alone. The Spartan troops had been sent for and they agreed to come, but only after their festival concluded. The Athenians were then able to prove their military prowess and potential without it being shaded by the Spartan showmanship. The Spartan absence made the narrative of the Athenian underdog possible, catapulting the Battle of Marathon to near epic standards. Had the Spartans arrived in time for battle, we can assume that the Athenians would not have received the confidence boost and military trust they did when they fought it alone.
Of course, the Athenian success at Marathon was not just luck, but skill. The Athenians simply outmaneuvered the Persians and their tactics decisively won them the day.
Thanks to the low-lying plain and the vantage points the Athenians took surrounding the Persian camp, when it came time for battle, the Athenians attacked from the flanks, with weaker concentration in the center. This allowed the Athenians to constantly push the Persians back on all sides, their only avenue for retreat being the sea. So, even though the Persians greatly outnumbered the Athenians, it didn’t matter thanks to the limiting geography of the battlefield and the superior tactics employed by the Athenian army.
Either way you look at it, be it luck or skill, the Battle of Marathon truly transformed the Athenian psyche and perception in the Mediterranean. They became a military power and there was no doubt about it.

Pick your Poison

by June 29, 2018

The AK-47 of the Ancient Near East
By Cam Rea
The Scythian bow was the AK-47 of the Ancient Near East and the weapon of choice to dominate the battlefield. Even though the bow was uniquely designed to deliver the utmost damage, the arrow itself was even nastier! Scythians created their arrowheads for maximum penetration of the opponent’s armor. Beyond that, Scythian arrowheads were extremely poisonous.
But before we pick our poison, we must pick our point.
a selection of arrowheads

The Scythian arrowhead

The Scythian arrowhead, also known as a “Scythian point,” was a trilobate shape, designed like a rocket or bullet with three blades extending from the body. Some of the arrowheads had protruding barbs, while others lacked this painful extra. The trilobate was usually made of bronze, while the shaft used to deliver the arrowhead was made of reed or wood and was roughly 30 inches long. The design and craftsmanship employed was brilliant, for its aerodynamic body made it extremely practical to use against the finest and toughest of armor.
The Scythian point originated around the 7th century BCE, suggesting that Scythians developed the weapon in order to pierce Assyrian armor, as Scythians and Cimmerians were indeed at war with Assyria on and off during that time period. Now, this was not the only arrowhead style or material used by the Scythians, for some arrowheads were made of bone, stone, iron, or bronze. As for shape, some looked like small spearheads, while others were leaf-shaped, which may have been used for hunting. The discussed trilobite shape, however, was most likely used for combat purposes.
Besides the lethal design of the Scythian trilobite point, another nasty feature was the poison. Not only were these ancient fighters experts at archery, but also in biological warfare. Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on how you see it, the Scythians had a wide variety of deadly poisons to choose from. The not so friendly reptiles inhabiting the area included the steppe viper, Caucasus viper, European adder, and the long-nose/sand viper.
Map of Scythia

Map of Scythia and the Persian Empire

Truly, the Scythians had a vast arsenal of snake venoms of all degrees at their disposal. The book titled, “On Marvelous Things Heard,” by Pseudo-Aristotle, which was a work written by his followers, if not written in part by Aristotle himself, mentions the Scythian handling of snakes and how to extract their poison:
“They say that the Scythian poison, in which that people dips its arrows, is procured from the viper. The Scythians, it would appear, watch those that are just bringing forth young, and take them, and allow them to putrefy for some days.”
After several days passed, the Scythian shaman would then take the venom and mix it with other ingredients. One of these concoctions required human blood:
“But when the whole mass appears to them to have become sufficiently rotten, they pour human blood into a little pot, and, after covering it with a lid, bury it in a dung-hill. And when this likewise has putrefied, they mix that which settles on the top, which is of a watery nature, with the corrupted blood of the viper, and thus make it a deadly poison.”
The Roman author Aelian also mentions this process, saying, “The Scythians are even said to mix serum from the human body with the poison that they smear upon their arrows.” Both accounts show that the Scythians were able to excite the blood in order to separate it from the yellow watery plasma. Once the mixture of blood and dung had putrefied, the shaman would take the serum and excrement and mix it in with the next ingredient, venom, along with the decomposed viper. Once the process was complete, the Scythians would place their arrowheads into this deadly mixture ready for use.
The historian Strabo mentions a second use of this deadly poison:
“The Soanes use poison of an extraordinary kind for the points of their weapons; even the odour of this poison is a cause of suffering to those who are wounded by arrows thus prepared.”
So the arrowhead was poisonous, but why stop there? Sometimes they ensured that the barbs on the arrowhead were also coated with the deadly concoction. The Roman poet Ovid, who was exiled to the Black Sea, got a good look at these poisonous plus arrows and reported them as “native arrow-points have their steel barbs smeared with poison, carry a double hazard of death.” He also described the poisonous ingredient as “yellow with vipers gall.”
To get a better understanding of this “double death,” Renate Rolle elaborates further on the barbed arrowheads: “These arrowheads, fitted with hooks and soaked in poison, were particularly feared, since they were very difficult to remove from the wound and caused the victim great pain during the process.” A very grim picture, without question. To be struck by an arrowhead with barbs or hooks, poisoned with putrefied remains, would indeed be horrific.
Sythian Warriors

Scythian–ancient nomadic Iranian–warriors on the steppe

With all these different poisons used by the Scythians, they had to know how to tell what was what in their gorytus, or case for holding the bow and quiver of arrows. The length of the gorytas was relatively shorter than the bow itself, leaving the weapon partially exposed. It also had a metal covering for the arrows, most likely to protect the archer from scraping his skin across the poisonous arrowheads.
The Scythians would paint their arrow shafts in the color of red or black, while others had zigzag and diamond patterns decorating them. Not so coincidentally, these various patterns painted upon the arrow shafts were the same patterns found upon the various vipers used by the Scythians as their agents of death. Vipers with a zigzag or diamond pattern upon their backs were the most poisonous of all.
Clearly, the painted design was a way for the archer to tell which poison he was using. Additionally, the decorated arrow shafts, when fired at the enemy, likely had a psychological effect, for they must have looked like snakes flying through the air, while the barbs protruding from the point appeared like fangs to the enemy.
So now that the Scythians had their gorytus, stacked with a fierce weapon and deadly arrows, it was just a matter of choosing which chemical killer to use on the enemy.

The Helots: Slave Warriors of Ancient Sparta

by May 18, 2018

By Ḏḥwty, Contributing Writer, Ancient Origins
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 Helus, who revolted. They were crushed in a war and reduced to slavery.

Map of Sparta

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.
Painting of Leonidas

“Leonidas at Thermopylae” by Jacques Louis David. All 300 Spartans along with the Helot slave warriors fought to their deaths. Persia won the battle, but lost the war.

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.
Photo of the location of Ancient Sparta

The Site where Ancient Sparta used to Stand. Situated on the banks of the Eurotas River in Laconia, in south-eastern Peloponnese, Greece. Photo by Ronny Siegel, 2013.

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 3 rd century BC by the reformer kings Cleomenes III and Nabis.

After 300: The Posthumous Vengeance of King Leonidas of Sparta

by April 3, 2018

By Riley Winters, Contributing Writer, Ancient Origins
Mythologically descended from the hero Herakles, the Agiad dynasty of ancient Sparta reigned alongside the Eurypontids almost since the beginning of the city-state.
When war was on the borders of their land, and that of their neighboring city-states, it was to the current Heraklean descendent that those city-states turned. Even the Athenians, who were long-time rivals of the Spartan warriors, looked to the current Agiad king for guidance in the darkest time of the war.
That king, unsurprisingly, was King Leonidas I.
A King Amongst Kings
The better remembered of the two warrior-kings of the ancient Greek city-state Sparta, King Leonidas I lived and ruled between the 6th and 5th centuries BC. His time on the throne was short-lived, but his legacy has lasted lifetimes.
Leonidas is the king who many other kings aspire to emulate; King Leonidas gave everything to defend and protect his homeland. Called upon to lead the allied forces of the Greek city-states based on his military record alone, it is said that King Leonidas tried to protect his soldiers, ordering them to leave the battlefield to fight another day.
They did not, as one might guess, as they were Spartans; one way or another, Spartans return from battle—either with their sheilds, or on them, as the saying goes. Leonidas’ words of protection at the battle of Thermopylae fell on deaf ears, and the Greeks were slaughtered that fateful day in 480 BC.
Leonidas at Thermopylae

Leonidas at Thermopylae by Jacques-Louis David (Public Domain)

What happened after the massacre, however? What happened after the death of the one of the greatest military leaders? Without Leonidas, Sparta was down one king; it had been tradition for two kings to rule the city-state, one from each of the two primary families, the Agiads and the Eurypontids. With his death at the hands of the army of Xerxes, king of Persia, and his head paraded around on a spike, Sparta was left short-handed. What was the next step?
Revenge.
Image of Leonidas

Leonidas I of Sparta (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Wrath of the Gods
If one believes in the ancient Greek gods—as the city-states clearly did—it is impossible not to see the vengeance those gods encouraged through their mortal soldiers following the death of Herakles’ descendent. With the death of King Leonidas and the insult to his person, the Persians had essentially painted a bright red, divinely taunting target on their backs.
Over the next year, the Persians and Greeks engaged in their final land and sea battles, of which the Persians suffered as often as not. Salamis and Plataea, two of the most decisive Greek victories, officially turned the tide in favor of the Greeks.
In fact, a better vengeance could not have been written for King Leonidas. The Greeks, who had not forgotten the slaughter of Thermopylae, returned the favor in spades at the Battle of Plataea.
The Battle of Salamis painting

A romantic version painting of the Battle of Salamis by artist Wilhelm von Kaulbach. (Public Domain)

The ancient historian Herodotus (5th century BC) is one of the primary sources of this battle. Following a stalemate around the Persian camp constructed in Plataea, the Persians were unintentionally (though it was lucky for the Greeks) lulled into a sense of victory.
Having cut off the Greeks from their supply lines, the Persians believed the few Greeks who retreated to regain those connections represented the whole army; the subsequent Persian attack quickly proved them wrong. The Greek allies literally had the high ground, and a defeat of those Persian forces, led by Mardonius, was relatively swift. The Greek forces then, loosely interpreted from ancient texts, exacted their revenge for the slaughter of Leonidas and his men by massacring the Persian camp at Plataea. Later that afternoon, the Greeks finished the job at the final battle of Mycale.
Exacting Revenge
One could attribute this “retribution” as constructed by King Leonidas’ son Pleistarchus, intended to take the throne upon Leonidas’ death. Yet in an interesting turn of events, Pleistarchus was too young to rule at his father’s death, and the boy’s guardian Pausanias, was actually on the second Spartan throne.
Thus the decisive, somewhat brutal, actions against the Persians at Plataea and Mycale may or may not have been an act of vengeance in the name of the father Leonidas, but were almost certainly for the Herculean general who sacrificed everything for his home, and the homes of those allied with him.
(One should remember that Sparta and Athens were only on good terms when they were teamed up against Persia. They placed their animosities aside during the Persian War, Athenians willingly following Spartans, and Spartans trusting to delegate to Athenians. This alliance would crumble soon after the war, but Leonidas’ actions are even more inspiring for the prejudices put aside.)
Warriors on a shield

Greek and Persian warriors depicted fighting on an ancient kylix. 5th century BC. (Public Domain)

United States of Leonidas
King Leonidas’ sacrifice might not have resulted in the battle to end all Persian-Greek battles, however it did inspire a great deal of “nationality”, a concept not yet fully formed in the ancient world. Yet the Greek city-states saw a common enemy, and shared a common goal, and for a brief period of time, respected and valued the same man—homeland and culture aside.
The increased sense of unity Leonidas inadvertently forged between the Spartans, Thebans, Athenians, etc. led to an increased determination; the Greeks left no man standing at Plataea and Mycale if they could find one. The victory of the Greeks over the Persians resonated for centuries, and Leonidas’ name is remembered far better than those of the men who returned home with their shields rather than on them.
Because of this (and the later cockiness of the Athenians), the Spartans and their allies successfully defeated the Athenians in the Peloponnesian War, the next great battle on their horizon.