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Give Me My Eagles Back, Give Me My Regiments Back Again!

by July 12, 2019

By Benjamin Welton, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Painting of the battle of Teutoburg

Varusschlacht by Otto Albert Koch

The great British novelist, poet, and World War I veteran Robert Graves created one of the most agonizing scenes in fiction when, in his 1934 novel I, Claudius, he portrays a grieving Emperor Augustus crying to the ghost of his general Publius Quinctilius Varus:
“Varus, Varus / Give me my three Eagles back! / Lord Augustus tore his bedclothes, / Blankets , sheet and counterpane. / “Varus, Varus, General Varus, / Give my Regiments back again!”
In the ballad that Emperor Claudius recalls so well, Augustus mourns the loss of the Nineteenth, Twenty-Fifth, and Twenty-Sixth Regiments and their battle standards. These fine soldiers, who were some of the best representatives of Rome’s martial spirit and ironclad discipline, were the victims of an incredibly successful German ambush that occurred in A.D. 9. The leader of the German tribesmen, Arminius, became a hero, while the Roman war machine became suddenly vulnerable.
Finally, after years of unchecked conquest, the mighty Roman Empire met an enemy (the ancient Germanic tribesman) and a field of battle (the Teutoburg Forest) that it could not vanquish without great loss.
Over a thousand years later, the German victory at Teutoburg Forest was resurrected as a rallying cry for German nationalists during the age when the fragmented German states were under threat from a new foreign emperor. Instead of Augustus and his legions, the new Pan-German warriors invoked Teutoburg Forest in order to battle Napoleon and his Grande Armée.
Teutoburg Forest, Germany

The Hermann Monument in the Teutoburg Forest

The seeds of the battle began well before the creation of the Roman Empire. During his conquest of nearby Gaul, which was inhabited by warlike Celts, Julius Caesar undertook an ethnographic study that doubled as a political justification of his personal military adventures entitled The Gallic War (Commentarii de Bello Gallico, or Commentaries on the Gallic War). In that chronicle, Caesar takes time to study the Germanic tribes, such as the Suebi, who lived across the Rhine River in what Caesar’s Latin troops knew as Germania.
It is said that they have a hundred cantons, from each of which they draw one thousand armed men yearly for the purpose of war outside their borders. The remainder, who have stayed at home, support themselves and the absent warriors; and again, in turn, are under arms the following year, while the others remain at home. By this means neither husbandry nor the theory and practice of war is interrupted.
The Germans, according to Caesar, were efficient in war and were far braver than their Celtic neighbors. They were also nomadic hunters who lived in independent tribes headed by chieftains. They loved freedom and cherished strength. They were also wild, uncouth, and utterly barbaric. Reading The Gallic War, one gets the idea that Caesar believed that he could conquer Germania, but was in no hurry to do so. After all, Caesar’s conquest of Gaul and incursion into Britannia (which was undertaken in order to suppress a pan-Celtic revolt led by politically powerful druids) got him what he wanted–land, a thoroughly loyal army, and a chance to claim Rome as his own.
By A.D. 9, the Roman Republic was no more. Thanks to Caesar’s popular dictatorship, the Roman Empire replaced the oligarchic power of the Senate after Caesar’s murder near the Theatre of Pompey. Under Augustus, the first emperor, Roman power was consolidated in Gaul, Spain, and Pannonia, while Egypt was brought under the Roman yoke. First century Romans also believed that Germania was all but conquered. The Rhine was relatively peaceful and some Germanic tribes were trading with Rome and even sending their sons to the Emperor Augustus as soldiers and mercenaries.
There was, however, one major problem. The Romans knew very little about the interior of Germania. Germanic rebels, like the Cherusci prince Arminius, who had spent many years in the Roman military, knew they could exploit this ignorance given the right circumstances.

Battlefield of Arminius and Varus, 9 AD

Near the end of the summer fighting season in September A.D. 9, Varus, whom history has remembered as a better civil servant than a general, led approximately 15,000 veteran legionnaires from their summer camps along the Weser River back to their permanent barracks on the Rhine in order to be closer to a reported tribal uprising. For Varus, a veteran administrator who formerly oversaw the Roman province of Syria (which included modern day Lebanon), Germania probably did not seem as difficult to master as the frequently rebellious Middle East.
On the first day, Varus’s legions were being guided through the German wilderness by several Germanic tribal fighters loyal to Arminius. A mercenary who spoke Latin and who had previously been awarded by the Roman military for his valor on the battlefield, Arminius was a member of Rome’s knight class and was even a Roman citizen. In short, he did not look like a potential traitor to Roman eyes.
Unbeknownst to Varus and his men, Arminius sought to become the chief of his tribe. To do so, Arminius designed a way to defeat the Romans and gain the respect of his fellow Cherusci warriors. Using a false rebellion as his cover, Arminius talked Varus into leading his army into unfamiliar territory, where an ambush would be waiting. Despite warnings from a rival Germanic chief, Varus pressed on under the belief that he and his men were indestructible.
As the march progressed, Arminius intentionally extended the Roman line by leading them through treacherous country that required bridge and road building. At some point, the Roman-German group had to fight Mother Nature as heavy storms created oceans of mud that slowed the meandering train down even further. Making matters worse was the fact that German warriors were sporadically attacking the legionnaires with spears and arrows. Whether or not these skirmishes caused heavy casualties is unknown, but it’s certain that they caused anxiety among the already exhausted Romans.
Photo of Forest

A road in the Teutoburg Forest

On the second day, Varus made the decision to head for the Roman base at Haltern. The very next day, Varus’s men entered into an area known as the Great Bog, a wide, deep marsh that was buttressed by Kalkriese Hill to the south. In such a position, the weary and frightened Romans were unable to successfully move to the open ground that they favored. With the Romans pinned down, somewhere around 18,000 Germanic warriors began attacking from all sides, leaving the Romans with no room to escape.
Realizing just how dire the situation really was, Varus decided to fall upon his sword. His fellow officers followed suit. The now leaderless Romans were slaughtered. Only a few survivors managed to flee into the woods and later to the Roman camps along the Rhine. What they told their brethren was so shocking, that, according to Smithsonian magazine writer Fergus M. Bordewich, many believed that the defeat was due to “supernatural causes” brought about by a statute of the goddess Victory who “had ominously reversed direction.”
In the aftermath, Arminius was given power over a Germanic coalition that continued to harass the Roman camps in Germania until the general Germanicus Julius Caesar, after several punitive expeditions, managed to defeat Arminius’s army in several battles near the Weser River. Under Germanicus, the Romans recaptured two of the eagles lost at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest.
Germanicus

The Roman commander Germanicus was the opponent of Arminius in 14–16 CE

Later, during the reign Emperor Claudius, the third eagle standard was recovered from the Chauci tribe by Publius Gabinius in A.D. 42. As for Arminius, after containing the Roman threat and defeating a rival chief named Maroboduus, he became the most powerful chieftain in all of Germania. Many believed that he was too powerful, and his death in A.D. 21 was possibly the result of a poisoning.
The Roman defeat at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest essentially established the Rhine as Rome’s furthest boundary in the West. Later politicians and generals would claim that Germania was not worth Rome’s time. It was too sparsely populated and too wild, they claimed. They were right, but unlike Rome, the Germanic tribes never promised to stop assaulting the empire.
Eventually, in the fifth century A.D., the Western Roman Empire fell due to a relentless wave of Germanic invasions. By that point, the Battle of Teutoburg Forest had become legendary among the Germanic soldiers.
A much later generation of German nationalists would call upon the battle again during the Napoleonic Wars and the various struggles to unify Germany during the 19th century, and as a result statutes dedicated to Arminius (also known as Hermann) were erected, while Arminius/Hermann fraternities sprang up in Germany and among German immigrants living in the U.S.
For Romans like the historian Suetonius, the battle “nearly wrecked the empire” and caused a crisis of confidence. Doubt seeped into every part of the imperial government. None felt the pain of anxiety quite like Emperor Augustus, who, according to Suetonius’s Lives of the Twelve Caesars (which would be later echoed by Graves’s I, Claudius), would bang his head against the palace walls and cry Quintili Vare, legions redde! (“Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!”).

Athens First

by July 1, 2019

By Van Bryan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Reconstruction of Athens

Athens in its Golden Age

Recently, your editor asked a question…
Is nationalism “good”?
How interesting, we thought to ourselves. Immediately, hand went to chin. We furrowed our eyebrows in earnest ponderance.
Some questions stay with you, dear reader. Like a sore on the roof of your mouth that would go away if only you could stop tonguing it, but you can’t.
Today, we pursue the topic…
Classical Nationalism
The ancients had plenty to say on the topic of nationalism. After the Greco-Persian wars of the early fifth century, the unlikely expulsion of the Achaemenid Persian empire must have seemed like a miracle. Here, a plucky band of Hellenic tribes had expelled what was the reigning superpower of the ancient world.
Thermopylae… Leonidas… This is Sparta! All that.
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.

A little chest-pumping was in order. And the idea of Greek superiority was established in the mind of the allies. After all, what could account for such a startling upset? Dumb luck? Superior planning? Arrogance and stupidity on the part of the Persians?
Negative…
As Aeschylus shows in his The Persians, the Greeks believed it was their piety that won the day. Their superior faith in the gods smote the Persians and drove them back across the Aegean.
Warriors on a shield

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

There misery waits to crush them with the load
Of heaviest ills, in vengeance for their proud
And impious daring; for where’er they held
Through Greece their march, they fear’d not to profane
The statues of the gods; their hallow’d shrines
Emblazed, o’erturn’d their altars, and in ruins,
Rent from their firm foundations, to the ground
Levell’d their temples; such their frantic deeds,
Nor less their suff’rings; greater still await them;

Need more evidence?

The term “barbarian” comes from the Greek word “barbaroi.” It literally meant a non-Greek.
Edith Hall writes in Inventing The Barbarian:

Greek writing about barbarians is usually an exercise in self-definition, for the barbarian is often portrayed as the opposite of the ideal Greek. It suggests that the polarization of Hellene and barbarian was invented during the early years of the fifth century BC, partly as a result of the combined Greek military efforts against the Persians.
In other words, the classical Greeks didn’t just believe themselves great. They believed themselves SUPERIOR to the “barbarian” tribes.
The 'Immortals'

Depiction of Persian warriors, most likely the Immortals.

Ah, but now the stage is set. Let’s return to your editor’s question. Is nationalism GOOD?
Athens First
Flash forward a few decades. It’s the late fifth century and the Athenians are engaged in bloody struggle, The Peloponnesian War. The opponent this time is the ignoble Spartans. After years of fighting, the Athenians are weary. Heavy losses have mounted.
Pericles, the foremost statesman of the era, prepares to give his famous funeral oration. The purpose of the oration is to honor the war dead. But it could be considered a eulogy for Athens herself.
Pericles, rather than praise the individual dead outright, heaps glory upon the city for which they died.
Writes Themistocles, quoting Pericles:
For we have compelled every land and every sea to open a path for our valor and have everywhere planted eternal memorials of our friendship and of our enmity. Such is the city for whose sake these men nobly fought and died; they could not bear the thought that she might be taken from them; and every one of us who survive should gladly toil on her behalf.
Translation: sorry about your sons and husbands. But it was all for a good reason. Look at all our stuff! Now get back out there, champ.
Scene from the History of the Peloponnesian War

Pericles’ Funeral Oration was a famous part in “The History of the Peloponnesian War”.
Pericles’ Funeral Oration by Philipp Foltz (1852)

What patriotic hearts must Pericles have stirred to action? How many sons and husbands would take up the just and noble cause of polis. We don’t know precisely. But certainly the goddess Athena smiles up on the city that bears her name. She would see patriotic Athenians to victory. Right?
Not so much…
The Athenians would fall to the Spartans in 404 BC. Their walls would be torn asunder. Democracy, which the Athenians are credited as being the first to give it a go—would be suspended. The Spartans, had they wished, could have razed the city, killed the men, enslaved the women, and nicked all the imperial booty for themselves.
Fortunately, that did not come to pass. Athens would suffer under the tyrannical rule of the “Thirty Tyrants” for a time. But democracy was eventually restored. Life went on.

Vase depicting tyrannicide

But had the city been burned, the Athenians would have had only their vain nationalistic pride to blame…
Lies and Myths
To your editor’s question. Nationalism. Good? Bad?
Neither.

The nationalism of the ancient world was a convenient myth. Like the Olympians themselves, it could be neither proven nor disproven. The inherent greatness of Athens was neither true nor untrue. But it was useful. It was useful to Athenian generals and politicians who had a vested interest in expanding their fledgling empire into the Aegean immediately following the conclusion of the Greco-Persian war.
The imperial swag flooded the city from conquered nations. The status of well-placed Athenian elite was elevated with each conquest. And why not? The gods are with us!

Poseidon and Athena

Poseidon and Athena battle for control of Athens – Benvenuto Tisi da Garofalo (1512). ( Public Domain )

It’s not a new idea to say that a society tells itself myths. Plato was well aware of it.
Writes Plato in The Republic:
Thus it is that the stories we tell our children must be morally uplifting, and some of the myths are not. Therefore we must winnow the myths, editing them, and, in some cases, censoring aspects of them.
This idea is not even an ancient one.
Writes Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens:
Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths. Any large-scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination.
The inherent greatness of the classical Greeks was a myth. It was an apparition that existed collectively in the minds of a people. Once you understand cultural mythmaking, you can’t not see it.
“Making the world safe for democracy” was a myth. So is “Workers of the world, unite!” So is MAGA.

The nationalistic myths of the Greeks allowed them to rally behind a cause and expel a foreign empire. But it also drug the Athenians and Spartans into an intractable war. A society’s ability for nationalistic mythmaking inspired the erection of the Parthenon. It also gave rise to Auschwitz.
Let us then return to your editor’s question.

Is nationalism “good”? No.
But it’s not “bad” either. It’s useful.
To whom? That’s for you to answer…

Pompey Needs a Buddy

by March 20, 2019

by Cam Rea, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Rome was expecting the Parthian invasion, but it never came. Instead, in the west, the Great Roman Civil War exploded, in the years 49 – 45 BC. It was a politico-military conflict which pitted Pompey against Caesar, each vying for leadership of the Roman state. It was during this time, that Pompey may have sought Parthian assistance, though one would think that Pompey would have wanted to avoid any type of assistance from Rome’s nemesis in the east, which recently had decimated Crassus’ army.
However, Pompey had no choice in the matter for he didn’t have the armies he once possessed. Instead, Pompey had the “senatorial and the equestrian order and from the regularly enrolled troops, and had gathered vast numbers from the subject and allied peoples and kings.” Essentially, Pompey had a quagmire of experienced and inexperienced forces all of which swayed in loyalty. Caesar, on the other hand, had the legions of the state, a battle harden and well armed professional fighting force of uniformity.
The odds were very much against Pompey.
Pompey face

ca. 1st century B.C. Bust of Pompey

Pompey’s military handicap and lack of wealth forced him to look for financial aid elsewhere in order to acquire additional forces. In the words of Plutarch, “Pompey had now to plan and act on the basis of existing circumstances. He sent messengers to the various cities, and sailed to some of them himself, asking for money and for men to serve in his ships” (Plutarch, Pompey, 76).
Of the many messengers Pompey sent, one of them visited Parthia. Pompey’s interest in seeking Parthian help was due to the fact that they were the, “most capable of both receiving and protecting [Pompey] them in their present weakness and later of helping them to build up their strength and sending them out to fight again with a large force.”
Map of Parthia

The region of Parthia within the empire of Medes, c. 600 BC; from a historical atlas illustrated by William Robert Shepherd

Pompey’s advisor Theophanes, however, suggested that Egypt was a safer bet, because the Ptolemies were indebted to Pompey for his kindness. If Pompey chose Parthia over Egypt, he would be playing second fiddle and at their mercy. Pompey likely had already made up his mind that Egypt was a safer bet, but decided to send an envoy to Parthia just to see. This visit to the court of Arsaces caused Julius Caesar to become suspicious, so much so that he mentions that, “it was hotly argued in their discussions whether Lucilius Hirrus, who had been sent by Pompeius to the Parthians”
(Caesar, Civil Wars, 3.82).

Caesar knew that Pompey sent an envoy, but speculated as to who Pompey sent. Cassius Dio provides more detail into the matter:
“I have heard, indeed, that Pompey even thought of fleeing to the Parthians, but I cannot credit the report. For that race so hated the Romans as a people ever since Crassus had made his expedition against them, and Pompey especially, because he was related to Crassus, that they had even imprisoned his envoy who came with a request for aid, though he was a senator.” (Dio, 42,2)
Julius Caesar

Bust of Caesar

What Cassius Dio did not credit is whether or not Pompey considered political asylum if the situation turned bleak. However, even though that can’t be verified, it still does not negate the possibility. Moreover, Cassius was wrong about the Parthians hating the Romans. It is mentioned that King Orodes made it quite clear to Crassus that if this army was sent by the Roman people, it shall be a war to the bitter end. However, the ambassadors were smarter than that. They understood the difference between a nation declaring war and one man’s ambition.
As quoted above, Cassius Dio did mention that Pompey’s envoy, who happened to be a senator, was imprisoned. The unknown envoy may have been Lucilius Hirrus, something that was speculated by Caesar himself. According to Cicero, Hirrus was a lousy politician who spoke with a lisp and was the butt of Cicero’s jokes. He was described by the great man as a “would-be-noble.” Clearly, Cicero didn’t think highly of Hirrus.
Pompey's flight

The Flight of Pompey after Pharsalus, by Jean Fouquet

Additionally, Cassius Dio reports that the Parthians hated Pompey because he was related to Crassus. The fact that Hirrus happened to be a cousin of Pompey, may have been the reason for his imprisonment, but this seems unlikely.
What may have gotten Hirrus imprisoned (and into trouble with Orodes) was his “fatuous conceit.” In other words, once Hirrus arrived at the court of King Orodes, he quickly fell into disfavour. First, he laid out Pompey’s terms. Orodes evidently agreed with the terms and was willing to forgive and “promised to be his ally”… but on one condition. Pompey must hand over Syria.
This did not go over well with Hirrus, who spoke on Pompey’s behalf. Knowing full well that Pompey was not about to let go of his prosperous and strategic province, Hirrus likely insulted Orodes, which, in turn, led to his imprisonment.
Coin depicting king

King Orodes on a coin

However, this is mere speculation as there is no concrete proof Hirrus ever visited the court of Orodes. But one thing is certain; an envoy was imprisoned, not for his relation to Pompey, but likely for his demeanor during negotiations.
The news of the imprisoned envoy probably caused a stir among Pompey’s advisors and it may have prompted Pompey to unanimously choose Egypt as his place of operation. It is also understandable that he would choose Egypt over Parthia due to cultural similarities. Whatever the case may be, Pompey’s refusal was a potential game changer that could have saved his life and secured his place of power in Rome… for once Pompey stepped foot in Egypt, his life ended.
On the other hand, it is possible that had Pompey went to Parthia seeking financial and military assistance, he may very well have gotten what he needed to battle Caesar… or ended up being displayed as a trophy in the court of Orodes. However, Pompey went to Egypt where he was assassinated and Caesar rose to a higher, previously unseen level of power in the Roman Empire. Pompey’s alternative course in history, perhaps with the Parthians, was never realised.
Death of Pompey

Septimius (in armour) strikes Pompey from behind. 1880 illustration

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.

The Peloponnesian War Summary of Battles and Betrayals: Athens’ Last Stand

by October 22, 2017

The Peloponnesian War Summary of Battles and Betrayals: The Sicilian Expedition can be found HERE.
Peloponnesian key points

Key Points in the Peloponnesian War

The year is 413 BC and the battle between Sparta and Athens continues to rage. The war, which saw a brief 6 year peace, is now back on after Athens’ bitter defeat in Sicily. The Spartans had sent aid to their allies on the island, but that did not fully satiate their desire for domination.
Sparta wanted to do more … they wanted to destroy Athens.
This brings us to the second segment of the Peloponnesian war. The Spartans still had their secret weapon, Alcibiades, the former Athenian General who was charged with religious crimes. Alcibiades, knowing Athens’ weakest points, convinced Sparta to build a fortification in Decelea, a strategic post right outside of Athens. This would prevent all overland shipment to the Athens, forcing the city to get their supplies by boat, which was much more costly.
This additional expense was then combined with the nearby disrupted silver mines and the 20,000 freed Athenian slaves, resulting in a serious economic crisis for Athens. Their treasury and emergency reserve fund of 1,000 talents was swiftly dwindling away. Their only remaining course of action was to raise taxes or tributes from their allies, which wasn’t a popular decision.
At this point, both parties pumped more troops and ships into Sicily. The Corinthians, the Spartans, and others in the Peloponnesian League all sent reinforcements to Syracuse. The Athenians, however, did not withdrawal. Instead, they brought their own additional men, around 5,000 troops and another hundred ships. It didn’t do the Athenians any good.
The Spartan hero, Gylippus, won all the land wars in Sicily and smartly advised the Syracusans to build a navy, in case the Athenians wanted to escape. Sure enough the Athenians tried and were defeated. Eventually the entire Athenian fleet was destroyed and virtually the whole army sold into slavery.
This was Athens’ lowest moment. Everyone believed her empire was over. Her best men had already died or defected and she was without money, strength or moral. Clearly the Athenians had overestimated their own abilities and were now about to face the truth of their limits.
But Athens didn’t die. Even though her allies revolted against her, the treasuries were empty, and the Syracuences were on the offense with a ship to attack, aided by support in Persia… Athens still had a few things working on her side.
Replica of Athenian ships

Replica of Athenian Ships

For instance, the other side was slow in bringing their ships to the Aegean. Some of their allies returned with hopes of protection and the Persians were slow in furnishing the promised funds. In addition, Athens had a backup plan. In a prudent moment, she had saved some money and 100 ships for a rainy day.
These were immediately released.
With these ships out warring, the Athenian government was taken up by an oligarchical revolution, run by 400 men. Peace was finally possible. The fighting fleets now based on the island of Samos, however, did not recognise the new rulers and the possibility of a ceasefire. In fact, in 411 BC they engaged the Spartans at the famous Battle of Syme. The runaway fleet then appointed Alcibiades as their leader and continued the war until the Athenian democratic government was reinstituted.
Even though Alcibiades was condemned as traitor, he was still influential in Athens. He wanted to restore democracy in a diplomatic manner. So he managed to persuade the renegade ships to not attack Athens, but instead turn their weapons on the Spartans in the battle of Cyzicus. Finally the Athenians had a turning point, they obliterated the Spartan fleet. This helped to re-establish the financial basis of the Athenian Empire.
Between 410 and 406 BC, Athens managed to actually win battles, recover territory and resurrect their fiscal stability. Almost all thanks to Alcibiades.
This happy Athenian moment did not last long.
Though it would not at first appear to be the case, things went back to bad at the naval battle of Arginusae. The Athenians actually won, losing only 25 ships compared to Sparta’s 70. Unfortunately the weather was so bad that the Athenians did not finish off the Spartan fleet, nor rescue their stranded crew. This lead to a very controversial trial which ended with the execution of the Athens’ six top naval commanders. This action depleted the navy’s intelligence, experience and moral.
Lysander of Sparta

Lysander

Then the Spartans promoted a new general, Lysander. He was navy-savvy and a diplomat who cultivated fresh relations with the Persians. In 405 BC, Lysander initiated a cunning attack on Hellespont, the Athenian bread basket, which if destroyed, would threatened widespread starvation.
The Athenian fleet had no choice but to engage in battle and they were crushed.
Eventually, after facing starvation and disease from the never ending siege, Athens surrendered in 404 BC. The defeat was immense. The city was stripped of its walls, its fleet, and all of its overseas possessions. In addition to this, Corinth and Thebes required retribution, demanding that the city be destroyed and all the people enslaved.
Sparta, Athens’ arch-enemy, then did something very remarkable.
Instead of continuing with their warlike ways, Sparta announced their refusal to destroy a city that had previously done so much good. They would take Athens into their own system and ultimately save it from the other city-states, revealing the clemency of the Spartans once and for all.
 
“The Peloponnesian War Summary of Battles and Betrayals: Athens’ Last Stand” was written by Anya Leonard

The Peloponnesian War – The Sicilian Expedition

by September 28, 2017

The Sicilian Expedition
To read the previous segment on the Peloponnesian War, Click HERE.
When we left off last week, the Peloponnesian war had been raging for 16 odd years, with the latter six under a suspicious title of ‘peace’. The dominance of the Athenians had been questioned and the first set of battles ended inconclusively. It’s no wonder then the war began again, this time with the aim of deciding, once and for all, who ruled the Grecian world.
Expedition to Sicily

The Sicilian Expedition

And so, the second part of the Peloponnesian War began after what was euphemistically termed the ‘Sicilian Expedition’. The Sicilians were in fact allies of the Athenians, though very distant. Under normal circumstances, they would probably go unnoticed. And perhaps they would have…except for the fact that these islanders were Ionian, just like the Athenians…and they were under attack by the people of Syracuse, who happened to be ethnic Dorians, just like Athens’ great enemy, Sparta. As a cunning way to get back at their real foe, therefore, the Athenians saw an opportunity to get involved.
Power can be a dangerous thing. Those who hold it, don’t like losing it, and so make decisions that affect the lives of countless others. Seated in their comfortable havens, they command young men to death in the name of gods, kings and country. Along with the fallen soldiers are those whose lands are destroyed, whose sons are subjected to famine, whose wives and daughters are slain. These are the innocents caught in between, the residents of random places, where the strongest states battle for power, seemingly without end…
It is not so different from the United States and Russia battling it out in far flung locations like Vietnam and Korea. These current countries clashed outside their own boundaries, in search for more power without the destruction on their own soil.
Ethnic alliance and wars of opportunity were not the only reasons for the Athenians to sail to Sicily. Another plan was afoot. They wanted to conquer Sicily…to use as a starting point for conquest in Italy and Carthage.
Bust of Alcibiades

Alcibiades

Alcibiades was the Athenian in charge of the expedition and a crucial character from here on out in the Peloponnesian War. Unfortunately, right before the renowned general and his army headed off, some religious statues were damaged, nay mutalitated. Alcibiades was accused. He tried to resolve the issue before leaving for Sicily, knowing that it could take an unfortunate turn if he was not there to defend himself.
But the powers that be forcibly bid him farewell and he took his crew on the perilous journey. Unfortunately, Alcibiades was commanded back for the trial promptly upon arriving on foreign coast. Fearing he would be condemned unjustly, he decided not to return to Athens. Instead Alcibiades defected and went to the Spartan side…taking with him the Athenian designs to take over Sicily.
The Athenians just lost their main player. The trouble, however, did not stop there. Upon landing on the island, the Athenian army made a classic mistake. They weren’t prepared for the winter and, unlike the Spartans, they were unaccustomed to feeling uncomfortable. So they took a break from the weather and tried to conserve their resources.
This gave the Syracusans just enough time to call their Dorian brothers, the Spartans, for help. Sparta was more than happy to lend a hand to spite their former foe… especially knowing from Alcibiades how important the island was in the grand Athenian war strategy. So Sparta sent General Gylippus to Sicily with reinforcements. They swiftly defeated the shivering Athenian forces.
Syracuse coin

Syracusan coin, showing a chariot with maritime symbols, commemorating the naval victory (Bode-Museum, Berlin)

The Athenians did not tuck in their tail and turn. Nicias, our previous Athenian peacemaker, called for reinforcements. These additional armies arrived and vicious battles ensued. Eventually, however, the Athenians realised they had to retreat. They prepared to do so at once, but were stopped in their tracks. A bad omen, a lunar eclipse, took place, and so the Athenians delayed their withdrawal. This moment’s hesitance cost them greatly. The Spartans met their fleeing fleet before they could escape. A huge sea battle raged, and the Athenians were defeated once more. This time all survivors were killed or enslaved.
The war was back on.
 
 

To Read the finale of the Peloponnesian War, Click HERE for “Athens’ Last Stand”.

“The Peloponnesian War – The Sicilian Expedition” was written by Anya Leonard