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.
The idea of citizenship emerged from the city-states of ancient Greece where the obligations of the citizen were very much part of everyday life.
It was thought that to be truly human, one had to be an active citizen to the community. As Aristotle once noted: “To take no part in the running of the community’s affairs is to be either a beast or a god!”
But being a citizen was not just being part and parcel of society, it was also an opportunity to prove one’s value. It was a chance to be virtuous, to gain honor and respect.
The concept of citizenship that was born out of the Archaic period of Greek history persisted (though with decreasing influence) well into Roman times.
The equivalent Latin word was civitas, also meaning “citizenhood,” and it was expanded from small-scale communities to the entirety of the empire. The Romans came to the realization that granting citizenship to people from all over the empire legitimized Roman rule over conquered areas.
But perhaps ancient Greece and Rome are more the exception than the rule… because for the majority of human history, the stories are of peasants, subjects, and tribes. Indeed, the concept of the “citizen” is historically rare… but it was among America’s most valued ideals for over two centuries.
In America, just as in Greece and Rome, the concept of “citizenship” was more than just “rights,” it was a virtuous act and way to bring people together into a multicultural melting pot.
But is this still the case? It may be that American citizenship as we have known it may soon vanish.
The Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow of Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution, Victor Davis Hanson, outlines the historical forces that led to this crisis in his new book, The Dying Citizen, coming out this October. The evisceration of the middle class over the last fifty years has made many Americans dependent on the federal government, argues Hanson, and identity politics have eradicated our collective civic sense of self. Moreover, a top-heavy administrative state has endangered personal liberty, along with formal efforts to weaken the Constitution.
Is the idea of America dying? Can the concept of Citizenship—once so essential in the ancient world—hold its importance in our modern era?
You can also watch Victor Davis Hanson, author of many books including: Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom; The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern; as well as Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise to Western Power, speak LIVE this Saturday at 1pm EST.
Hanson will ask why a system of over 1,500 autonomous city-states that had resisted a massive invasion descending into Greece in 480 BC, lost their independent statuses to Macedon150 years later… even when they were far richer and more powerful…
Founder of the Persian Empire: Brute or chosen by God?
Cyrus the Great was one of the most influential figures in history. A mid-life revolutionary, in the sixth century BC Cyrus founded the Persian Empire, the largest empire known to man at the time.
But wait a second… I hear you cry… I thought Classical Wisdom was about Ancient Greece and Rome? So why are we talking about Persia?
Excellent inquiry my astute reader! While our main focus is indeed the Greco-Roman world, we are also fully aware that they did not exist in isolation.
Just as today, ancient cultures and societies interacted, clashed, combined, or reacted against each other. The melding and separation between peoples is a fascinating tale in and of itself… but we also learn tremendously about the Greeks and Romans by studying their enemies, their friends, their contemporaries as well as their predecessors.
It’s sort of like learning US history and never studying Russia or the UK. It would be impossible to understand the Cold War or the Revolution without those essential insights!
Moreover, the impact and influence from other superpowers in the region are sometimes so immense that it can be tricky to distinguish what comes from whom. Some of the Persian stories and myths are so… familiar. It makes you wonder where it all began.
And so we must look to the massively influential power to the east: A land, a peoples, a culture steeped in fascinating history… the very cradle of civilization itself… Persia.
And what better way to understand this historic location – and its impressive rise and collapse – than with one of the most influential figures in history, the founder of the Persian Empire, Cyrus the Great.
Cyrus is shown as both a ruthless conqueror and enlightened progressive; famous for liberating the Jews held by the Babylonians, he has even been credited with a human rights creed that influenced Thomas Jefferson and his contribution to the United States Bill of Rights.
Many other politicians, including Italy’s 15th century Niccolò Machiavelli, drew inspiration from Cyrus, while in the 20th century the Shah of Iran and the Islamic State that overthrew the Shah both honored Cyrus.
In the 21st century, not only has an Israeli Prime Minister praised Cyrus, onetime overlord of the Jews, Christian evangelicals have favorably compared US President Donald Trump to Cyrus, calling both of them “brutes” chosen to fulfill the will of God.
So where does the truth lie?
A brilliant brute? A fearsome conqueror? A ruler unequalled in history for his wisdom, magnanimity and appreciation of human rights? A heathen chosen by God?
Could Cyrus have been all these things? Was he any of them?
Essentially, was Cyrus the Great truly great?
In this first ever modern biography of Cyrus, noted historical biographer and author of 45 books, Stephen Dando-Collins, delves into the real story behind one of history’s most famous founders.
The recent receipt of the Silver Award for Biography in the 2020 Indie Awards in the US, Stephen’s Cyrus the Great, the biography of the founder of the Persian Empire describes Cyrus’ fraught youth, his rise to power via rebellion, his dashing military campaigns that destroyed the Median, Lydian and Babylonian empires, and his uniquely magnanimous reign.
With his usual depth of research and highly readable narrative, Dando-Collins cuts through myth and folklore to deliver a fascinating account of a fascinating life.
Make sure to Get Your Copy of Cyrus the Great Here:
Listen to Stephen Dando-Collins THIS Sunday explore this towering figure and his role in the rise and fall of empires in a presentation that is certainly not to be missed!
Remember: You can ‘swing by’ for an hour, a day or the entire event… it’s up to you! As long as you register in advance, you can come and go as you like… and you’ll also receive all the recordings afterwards, so you won’t miss a thing!
This will truly be a once in a lifetime opportunity…
We owe a great deal to the world of Ancient Greece and Rome.
The philosophy, the mythology, not to mention the myriad artworks inspired by it through the centuries.
Much of what we love about that era may have been lost if not for another great epoch… that great period of rebirth: the Renaissance.
A time of radical rethinking about the shared infrastructure of humanity, the nature of government and the role of the individual. But what did the people of the Renaissance truly believe? Have they been misunderstood?
Luckily, we have Dr. James Hankins – a Professor of History at Harvard University, a leading expert on the Renaissance and one of the worlds’ foremost historians – to enlighten us.
He is the author of many books including Plato in the Italian Renaissance, The Recovery of Ancient Philosophy in the Renaissance with Ada Palmer, and he is also the editor of The Cambridge Companion to RenaissancePhilosophy.
These days, it’s easy to be cynical. We all know the cliché of the money grabbing politician just out for themselves. It’s so ingrained, that maybe we’ve just become resigned to it.
Yet Dr. Hankins looks at how some of the most famous Renaissance figures, from Petrarch to Machiavelli, believed that shaping individual morality – soulcraft – was essential for government and statecraft to function correctly.
Dr. Hankins explores the questions that drove this world-changing era. Should a good man serve a corrupt regime? What virtues are necessary in a leader? What is the source of political legitimacy?
Don’t miss your chance to see Dr. James Hankins LIVE at our Symposium this weekend. He will be appearing on a panel alongside historian Niall Ferguson and philosopher Angie Hobbs, where they will be discussing the end of empires and fall of nations; do empires and states die differently? And what can their deaths teach us today? Find out this Saturday at 6pm EST.
Remember if you register in advance, you’ll get access to all the recordings.
You can watch for an hour… or the entire two day event… it’s up to you!
If you haven’t already secured your spot, then make sure to do so before Friday!
By Ed Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
In the contemporary world, republics are the most common form of government, yet few of us take the time to consider what a republic actually is. If we want to more deeply understand the nature of republics, we need to look back to the ancient examples of Rome, Athens, Sparta, Carthage and others. These were the forerunners of modern democratic republics, but they were also very different to what we consider to be a republic today.
No Kings or Queens
In the ancient world, the term ‘Republic’ was commonly used to describe any non-monarchical form of government. The sovereignty of the state did not reside in any monarch, but rather was invested in the citizen body. They alone had the right to make laws and rule the state. For example, in Athens, only the citizen body could make laws in the Assembly. There were, however, some Royal-Republics. These were states with a royal head of state, rather like a constitutional monarchy today. The best-known example of this is Sparta, which was technically ruled by two kings, but was in reality ruled by a group of citizens. However, most republics were violently opposed to kingship in all its forms (this was especially true of Rome).
Were Republics democratic?
Nearly all of the republics in the Classical Age had some form of popular assembly. However, many were not truly democratic even though they had popular voting, elections and even parties. Rather they were oligarchies ruled by small groups of wealthy men (such as in Carthage), or even by aristocratic individuals (as in Thebes). There were a few exceptions to this rule, such as Athens during the time of Pericles (485-429 BC) where the citizens decided on everything irrespective of class or background. The vast majority of republics were oligarchic until recent times, and many would argue that they are still dominated by the rich and unelected.
Republics and the law
Republican government was characterised by the rule of law, where every citizen was ostensibly equal before the law. In a republic, these laws can only be made by the people, and they must, theoretically at least, promote and protect their interests. Indeed, many Classical Republics had written sets of laws and even constitutions (Aristotle discussed many of these Greek city-states’ constitutions in his Politics).
Yet in most republics, the majority were not equal. In Athens, only male citizens were equal before the law. Women, slaves, immigrants, the poor and others could not be citizens and therefore had fewer rights, meaning republics were great so long as you were an affluent male.
Republics and city-states
It was once accepted that only city-states could be republics. This was because it was believed that only those who lived in urban centres had the wealth and virtue to make a republic work. However, larger republics, based on a confederation of tribes or localities were common in Ancient India. By the Middle Ages, the Swiss formed a confederation that was republican, which was an outlier in Europe for centuries. After the American and French Revolutions many large territories became republics and today most nation-states have republican governments, while city-states virtually disappeared.
Freedom and Republics
Republics are theoretically characterized by the concept of freedom. That is, citizens and even non-citizens are entitled to do what they want as long as it conforms to the law. Classical Republics and later the Republican governments of Europe all enshrined the concept of liberty. This was in contrast to earlier monarchies and Empires that ruled much of the world. However, freedom in ancient republics was very limited. Many basic liberties were denied to the poor, women, and other groups of non-citizens. Even citizens had a had their freedom circumscribed in certain ways. For example, in Athens, the citizens had to serve in the army, navy, serve in political offices and pay contributions known as liturgies. They had to serve their city and often to put its interests before their own.
Republics are much more varied than is often assumed, especially in the ancient world, and they have evolved greatly over the centuries. Once Republics were only city-states but today they are mainly nation-states. Yet, they have some basic characteristics that they share. They are ostensibly ruled by and for the people, and they have rules and laws where equality before the law is central. Yet despite these high ideals, they often fail to measure up in substance to these principles.
Nippel, Wilfried (1994) ‘Ancient and Modern Republicanism’ in The Invention of the Modern Republic ed. Biancamaria Fontana. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
When you think of Sparta, what’s the first thing that jumps to mind? I’m willing to wager that you’re picturing immoveable, impenetrable warriors, the infamous black broth, or perhaps the often-brutal agoge. These things are certainly what first come to mind for me. After all, modern day depictions of Spartan culture portray a hard people who pride martial prowess above all else. Just look to the impossibly chiselled abs in the heavily stylised cinematic retelling of the battle of Thermopylae, ‘300’.
This isn’t just a modern view either. Even at the height of their power the Spartans were seen more as miserable brutes than philosophical thinkers. However, while this reputation isn’t totally unearned, I’m not so sure it’s perfectly accurate. I think the Spartans were less grim realists, and more sarcastic humourists. I should know, I’m Scottish. Let me explain.
We in Scotland have for a long time suffered under a similar reputation of being grumpy, miserable, hard-heads, much like the Spartans. I think this is, in part, due to each nation sharing a neighbour typified by a more refined and well-to-do reputation. Scotland has England, Sparta had Athens. The contrast, and the cultural exports of our neighbours, has painted both Scotland and Sparta with a mischaracterisation that doesn’t necessarily represent our true nature.
If you’ll indulge me, I will recount two quotes on the Spartans and the Scots that demonstrate this similarity even further. Socrates, in Plato’s dialogue Protagoras, describes the hidden cunning of the Spartans: “…they conceal their wisdom, and pretend to be blockheads, so that they may seem to be superior only because of their prowess in battle…This is how you may know that I am speaking the truth and that the Spartans are the best educated in philosophy and speaking: if you talk to any ordinary Spartan, he seems to be stupid, but eventually, like an expert marksman, he shoots in some brief remark that proves you to be only a child.”
Now consider this extract from Chapter One of André Mourois’ biography; The Life of Sir Alexander Fleming: Discoverer of Penicillin. “The English laughed, too, at the absence of humour with which (so they said) these northern immigrants were afflicted. It took hours of hard work, they maintained, to drive a joke into a Scotsman’s head…This picture was very inaccurate. The Scots have their own sense of humour, which is utterly unlike that of the English, who love long stories full of mockery and sentiment. The Scots, on the other hand, delight in a humour which is laconic, dry, vigorous and expressed with a perfectly straight face.”
These two extracts, from two authors over two thousand years distant, perfectly encapsulate the hidden wit of these two cultures which were (and are) so often painted as boorish and ignorant. I consider the Spartans great humourists because I recognise in Spartan discourse this same sense of humour that pervades Scottish culture.
You see, the Spartans were known for what we now call ‘Laconic wit’, a manner of conveying ideas characterised by short, sharp, pithy aphorisms that deliver truth in a satisfyingly minimalistic way. Those of you familiar with the regions of ancient Greece will be one step ahead of me. Laconic wit is named for Laconia, the home of the Spartans. They didn’t just adopt the idea, they pioneered it.
However, where most consider the terseness of the Spartans an extension of their hard, hand-to-mouth style existence, I believe it displays a silly, care free sense of humour. After all, Shakespeare teaches us that ‘Brevity is the soul of wit.’.
One of the most famous examples of this Laconic wit is found in the Spartan response to Philip II of Macedon (the father of Alexander the Great). Philip, after invading Southern Greece and forcing the submission of some of the other prominent City States, wrote to the Spartans asking whether he should come to them as friend or foe. The Spartans reply? “Neither”. This incensed Philip who then wrote, “If I invade Laconia, I shall turn you out.”. Again, the Spartans reply with one word. “If”. In the end, Philip never did conquer the Spartans.
Spartan history is dotted with examples of this sort of sharp, direct, retort but I feel these come across more as ironic, self-aware jibes than true, grim, arrogance. When I think of the Spartan exchange with Philip the first thing that comes to mind is the Scots phrase “Did ye, aye?” an extremely sarcastic way of saying you don’t believe someone, but easy for non-Scots to miss. In the same way, I think the humour of the Spartans has been missed here.
In Book 3 of his Histories, Herodotus recounts another quintessential example of Laconic wit at play. Herodotus describes how a group of Samians, unseated from their homes, petitioned the Spartans for their aid. The Samians, in audience of the Spartans, spoke at length of their troubles to ensure that the greatness of their need was well understood. To this the Spartans replied that the speech had been so long that they had forgotten the beginning and thus could make no sense of the end! The next day the Samians returned to the audience of the Spartans once more with nothing but an empty sack. Holding it out before them the Samians said simply; “The sack wants flour.”. The Spartan response? “You didn’t have to say ‘the sack’”. I find it impossible to picture that final line without imagining its speaker with a well-deserved smirk. This isn’t hard headedness, it’s tongue-in-cheek. In fact, I’d go as far as to say it’s almost silly.
Let’s compare with a Scottish example. Robert Burns, the most famous of all Scottish poets, and figure of the ‘Scottish enlightenment’ of the 18th century, was once at the Greenock quay when a wealthy merchant fell into the harbour. The merchant couldn’t swim and floundered in the water as a crowd gathered. Before long, a sailor dove in, risking his own life, to pull the merchant out and save him from drowning. By way of thanks, the merchant reached into his pocket and produced a single shilling (a meagre sum) much to the dismay of the crowd who found such a small reward to be contemptible. Burns stepped forward to calm the tensions and with a broad smile shouted over the clamour “Please, the gentleman is of course the best judge of the value of his own life!”.
This is what I mean when I say I recognise this same humour in these Spartan stories. Burns’ response couches truth in humour in a way that cuts to the core of the issue. The sarcastic humour of the Scots might be a little more direct, a little more obvious, but to an accustomed ear, one can find the same elements with the Spartans.
So far, history has been kinder to the wit and humour of the Scots than of the Spartans, but in our modern age, full of resurgence of interest in the ancient world, now is the perfect time to deepen our appreciation of Spartan culture for more than just their warrior mentality and stoic resolve. When an Argonian visitor remarked to the Spartan King Eudamidas I that foreign travel risked corrupting Spartan citizens, Eudamidas replied simply; But you, when you come to Sparta, do not become worse, but better.
Perhaps we all can become better if we were to open our mind to new perspectives a little more often.