Persian War and Athenian Golden Age (Sept. 16)

4. Sept. 16, 18 Persian Wars and Alexander the Great

Tuesday: Herodotus (web) (topics: hoplite vs. Persian warfare; Greek relativism)

Thursday: Arrian (web) (topics: Alexander's motives for conquest; Macedonian warfare)

Bulliet, Ch. 5


I. PERSIAN WAR (CA. 490-479 BC)

We spoke briefly about the Persians before (one of Indo-European speaking people who migrated into what is now Iran)

This Indo-European people had taken over what is modern-day Iran in the 6th century, and conquered Mesopotamia.

The Persians would expand into an enormous empire - from northern India, to Egypt, to Asia Minor.

Unlike the Greeks, they were politically unified under kings (Darius etc.)

Borrowed much in their administrative techniques from the Assyrians (for example, division of empire into "satrapies" - provinces - each with own civilian and military governors)

They had armies of hundreds of thousands of soldiers, drawn largely from conquered peoples.

The Greeks, from any objective observers’ point of view, would have been no competition - disunited, constantly warring, with a small population, and not much wealth.

Nevertheless, the Greeks would win the Persian war.


Why Persians attacked

The background to the Persian War is the Persian conquest of the Ionian Greeks in Asia Minor (MAP)

In 499 BC - the Ionians revolted from the Persians: Ionian revolt

They called on the city-states of mainland Greece to help them; only Athens did (Athenians were ethnically related to the Ionians)

The Ionian revolt did not succeed; the Persians put it down, and decided to punish Athens.



In 490 BC, a relatively small Persian army invaded mainland Greece, heading for Athens (they didn't think the mainland Greeks would any harder to defeat than the Ionian Greeks had been - they were poor, fighting among each other)

The first battle was fought between Persians and the Athenians. 

The Spartans had not sent their troops in time to help (they were holding a religious festival), so the Athenians, grossly outnumbered, met the Persians alone.

The Athenian hoplites - the Greek infantry - ran at the Persian army, and defeated them. - 6400 dead Persians; 192 Athenians.

The Persians had not expected the impact of the Greek infantry, and withdrew.

Marathon demonstrated the effectiveness of Greek hoplite warfare over Persian projectile warfare (whether from cavalry or foot soldiers).

But this was still a relatively minor skirmish with a small Persian army; the next Persian invasion was bigger.


2nd Persian invasion under their king Xerxes

10 year later the Persians came back, this time with an enormous army led by the Persian king, Xerxes.

The best known incident was a Greek defeat at Thermopylae, a mountain pass.

The Spartan king and a small Greek army were trying to hold the pass against the Persian army, so that the Greek fleet could get away.

The ancient historians say 3000 Greeks vs. 3 million Perisans; this is probably an exaggeration.

A Greek traitor showed the Persians a way through the pass - allowing them to attack he Greek army from the rear.

The Spartan king ordered most of the Greek troops to leave, but not the three hundred Spartans; - the Spartan moral code did not allow retreat.

These 300 Spartans held up hundreds of thousands of Persians for most of a day; and died down to the last man.

The Greek fleet had time to retreat, and would subsequently defeat the Persians at Salamis, a naval battle.


Two major Greek victories followed:

Sea victory at Salamis, won by the Athenians.

The Persians made the mistake of attacking the Greeks in narrow waters - where lighter more manueverable Greek ships (triremes) had an advantage (IMAGE)

Xerxes lost 200 ships and then executed the captains who survived (the only ship captain he was pleased with was Artemisia (queen of Halicarnassus) - who continued to fight after many of the other Persian captains retreated.

His comment "My women have become men, and my men women"

He executed his other captains (mainly Phoenicians) for this defeat.


Land victory at Plataea 479

Spartans also did their part to defeat the Persians.

They led a Greek army to a hard fought victory at Plataea


Why did Athenians and Spartans succeed?

Persia was far bigger, richer, and had already fought and conquered Greeks before this (the Ionians)

The Greeks had fundamentally two advantages over Persian


1. Military techniques:

The Greeks, a trading people, were better sailors (as shown at battle of Salamis)

Hoplite warfare -  heavy armor; hand-to hand infantry combat - proved superior to Persian. 

Persians liked to fight at a distance or on horseback with bows and arrows; Greek hoplites fought hand to hand, on foot, with heavy armor

The Greek style was more costly in terms of casualties, and also required greater loyalty of the men (to keep their place in the phalanx) 

(somewhat disturbing today that we're a lot like the Persians - we’d like to have war from a distance without casualties)


2. Greater motivation - the Greeks' homeland was being invaded; the Persians were fighting far from their homes, to conquer a territory that wasn't even particularly desirable to them.


Nevertheless, if the Persians had thrown the entire weight of their empire at Greece; if they had kept coming back, they almost certainly have conquered the city-states of the Greek mainland in the end.

They chose not to; conquerng Greece was just not important enough to them to outweight the costs.

And the Persian War, the Greeks raised the costs even higher by forming a defensive alliance against the Persians.


Defensive alliance against Persians - Delian League

(478 BC on)

By expelling the Persians in 479, the Greeks had managed both to preserve their own freedom and free the Ionian city-states (Asia Minor).

But they knew the Persians would be back, so they formed a defensive alliance called the Delian League.

At first Spartans were in charge - but they offended the other Greeks so much, that Athens took over


At the beginning, all the city-states in the league were independent; they joined of own free will;

each contributed certain number of men and ships to League military.

- But gradually Athens turns league into empire

Men and ships commuted into money payments - a lot like taxes

            Treasury of league moved to Athens (tribute lists put on acoprolis)

When states try to withdraw from League, Athens forces them back in


More and more Greek city-states turn to Sparta to defend them not from Persia - but from Athens.

Sparta forms its own league of allied Greek city-states - the Spartan League   (MAP)

A "Cold War" starts up between Athens and Sparta - each of them getting own spheres of influence and allies.

Ideological component to this cold war - Athens promotes democracy, Sparta oligarchy

Eventually the two alliances will go to war - the Peloponnesian War in 431 BC - a war so destructive that it cost Athens its empire and  permanently weakened the Greek city-states

But this period between the Persian War and the Peloponnesian War (479 - 431 BCE) was a Golden Age - for Athenians at least.


II. Intellectual developments during 5th century BCE: Athenian Golden Age

Classical Age of Greek culture (5th - early 4th centuries BCE)

After defeating the Persians - the greatest empire of the time (the empire that had conquered the Egyptians), the Greeks developed a great optimism about humans' ability to control and understand the world around them.


A. This is evident in Greek sculpture: where the portrayal of the ideal human form (young, athletic, male) is perfected  (examples: Myron "discus thrower";


      Parthenon, temple to Athena, sponsored by Pericles (447-438): Parthenon decorations glorified deeds of the Athenians (human focus of art on temple)


Greek sculpture shifts from orientalizing styles of Archaic period to more fluid forms of classical (images)



B. Athenian literature of fifth century BCE

Greek literature moves from the mostly mythological themes of epic poetry and early tragedy, to the more "human" genres of comedy (Aristophanes), history, and dialogues



Herodotus: first historian:

5th century BCE; from Halicarnassus – Asia Minor, but wrote in Athens

            Wrote history of Persian Wars – tried to show perspective of both Greeks and Persians

            Also the first ethnographer – much of the histories is descriptions of foreign cultures (Egyptians, etc.)

How does his sort of history differ from Old Testament?

- attempts to tell both sides of story

- human, rather than divine agency decides outcome of events

(see Bulliet also)


Dialogues: sophists

The 5th century was the age of the sophists (literally - the wise men)

The sophists were school-teachers - who taught small classes of rich students (teenaged men) for a fee.

Main purpose of sophistic education was to teach men (and it was always men) to win arguments - whether their position was the "right" one or not (how to make the weaker position the stronger) (esp. important in Athens, where political assemblies, juries, swayed by speeches)

Would argue both sides of a question.

Underlying belief that there was no absolute right or wrong:

Traditional beliefs and practices were the result of culture, not abstract, unchanging principles of right and wrong, or injunctions from the gods.

 nomos  (custom) was central feature of civilization.

            (Herodotus example of Greeks horrified the suggestion that they would eat their dead fathers; Indians horrified at the idea that they would cremate them").


More radical of the sophists - Protagoras - who taught at Athens from middle of 5th century BC

            Saying: "Each individual person is the measure of all things - of things that are, that they are, and of things that are not, that they are not" (promotion of individual reason - instead of inherited beliefs)

            "It is impossible to know whether the gods exist, or how they might look if they do."


Extremely optimistic view of human reasons - that humans can determine the best political system and ethical values - and indeed that all humans (or at least all men) have this ability


Now, a conservative opposition existed to the new thinkers, in Athens and elsewhere - an opposition that emphasized traditional Greek religion and values, and that occasionally had enough power to expel philosophers 


This opposition would gain power when the Golden Age collapsed, due to the Peloponnesian War


C. Greek philosophy: two types

      Plato: more mystical

   Near Eastern and Pythagorean influences

  Divided existence into two realms, an “intelligible realm” of perfect and eternal Ideas and a “perceptible realm” of concrete objects

  knowledge through revelation





   world could be understood through observation and reason (logic)

   systematized Greek systems of classification, inductive reasoning, and logic

   wrote treatises on rhetoric, ethics, politics, physics, mathematics, anatomy, logic, etc.




Discussion of Herodotus