Back To CourseHistory 101: Western Civilization I
16 chapters | 173 lessons | 8 flashcard sets
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The Persian War is the first war for which we have a complete contemporary history. Certainly, many cultures left us records of their wars. Earlier kings, emperors and pharaohs decorated their temples, tombs and palaces with depictions of their victories. They might erect a stele listing the peoples they had subjugated. They might even compose an epic poem to commemorate their battles. Yet though these things are all of interest to a historian, they are not, as it were, histories. They are propaganda, and often they're as vague as they are biased. They attributed success to divine favor. They rarely mentioned failures, and when they did, they attributed it to evil spirits or bad council.
Then came Herodotus. Herodotus was a very well-traveled fellow. He traveled extensively and wrote about the places he visited as well as places he'd heard of. Some of the things Herodotus recorded were inaccurate, but his inaccuracies derive from misinformation and a desire to sensationalize. Despite these failings, Herodotus endeavored to record and explain the history of his day in natural, rational terms. For the cosmopolitan Herodotus, successes and failures were not the work of the gods but the results of men's decisions and actions.
Herodotus' record of the Persian War is a gem for historians. Herodotus does more than provide an unbroken account of the actions of the various Greek states and the Persians. He examines their motives, their strategies, their deceptions and their counter-deceptions. The picture Herodotus paints is of former rival Greek city-states forming an uneasy alliance against a common threat. Let's see how these city-states fared.
The year was 490 BCE. Darius the Great, Emperor of the Persians, conqueror of the world, had grown tired of Greeks trying to colonize his empire. He'd subjugated the Cyclades and much of Macedon and Thrace, yet these incursions persisted. Finally, he thought he'd found the source of the problem - the city-state of Athens. He launched a two-pronged attack. He landed an army to the north to march on Athens, then sent his navy to attack the city itself.
Word reached the Athenians of this invasion. They appealed to the Spartans and other city-states for reinforcements, but none would come to their aid. Alone, the Athenians marched north to meet the Persians at Marathon.
In our lecture on phalanx warfare, we saw how the feuding Greek city-states had invented the most vicious, effective and decisive form of combat ever seen. At Marathon, the Greeks turned this awful form of warfare from one another onto the Persian invaders. The Persians were, at first, amused to see the vastly outnumbered Athenian phalanx suicidally charge across the field. Then they were shocked when this disciplined fighting force failed to break beneath a shower of arrows. Then they were absolutely terrified as the phalanx rolled through their undisciplined ranks like an unstoppable boulder and drove them into the sea.
The Athenians then ran 26 miles to deny the Persians a landing at Athens. Defeated, the Persians retreated. At the final count, the Persians lost 6,400 men in their invasion of Athens, while the Athenians lost less than 200 men turning them back.
How did this happen? To answer that question, we must compare the Greek phalanx to the Persian horde.
Where the Persians were lightly armored to maximize mobility, the phalanx formation focused not on individual mobility but on group discipline and thus could afford to be much more heavily armored. Where the Persians avoided risking hand-to-hand combat, the hoplite is designed for it. A hoplite doesn't hit-and-run or skirmish; he brings pitched, decisive battle to his foes. The individualistic Persian warrior has nothing worth dying for, whereas the group mentality of the hoplites allowed them to face death and fight on.
And a final point, one that the Greeks thought most important: the Persian horde was composed of slaves, or at least subjects, whereas the Greeks were all free men. Slaves make terrible soldiers. The warriors of the Persian horde lacked any motivation to fight beyond fear of pain or death. In the end, they feared the flails of their masters less than hellish nightmare of hand-to-hand combat with Greeks who were fighting resolutely for their freedom. Their masters might beat them; the Greeks certainly would.
Yet geography played as much of a roll as tactics. Had the battle of Marathon taken place in a more open country (instead of a level few acres surrounded by mountains and the sea), things might have turned out differently. The Persians could have simply outmaneuvered the Athenians (or overwhelmed them), but the mountains of Greece penned the Persian horsemen in. With the sea behind them and all exits blocked by hoplites, the Persians were forced to bring the fight to the Athenians.
With such a foe in such tight quarters, hit-and-run tactics were meaningless. The phalanx formation made it incredibly difficult to hit the Greeks from afar. The mountainous terrain made running all but impossible. The only other tactic available was to simply spill the horde unto the Athenians. Yet the undisciplined and individualistic slaves broke before the tightly bunched phalanx, while the mountainous terrain kept the Greeks from being surrounded and overwhelmed.
When the Athenians finally charged the Persian ranks, it became clear that the Persians weren't better at fighting, just better at fleeing. The Athenian hoplites held steady against twice their number, while the Persian horde did what it was best at: it fled. Darius' foray into Europe was brought to an abrupt end.
Ten years later, Darius' successor, Xerxes, tried a different approach. He would march his entire army (a massive force of at least 200,000 men) around the Mediterranean. He'd use his huge navy of 1,200 ships to pen the Greeks in and keep his army supplied. After the success of the Athenians in the previous invasion, the Greeks believed they had some chance of victory and joined together to repel the Persians.
At Thermopylae, the same combination of phalanx tactics, fierce discipline and restrictive terrain allowed 300 Spartans to hold back the entire Persian host for weeks, giving the rest of the Greeks long enough to prepare their defenses. When the Persians finally broke through, they marched towards Athens.
Frantic, the Athenians appealed to the Oracle at Delphi for advice. The Oracle told them to seek refuge behind a wall of wood. Most of the Athenians took this to mean that they should hide behind their wooden ships. The Athenians evacuated the populace into their navy and fled to the island of Salamis.
The Persians took their revenge for Marathon. They sacked undefended Athens and burned its temples to the ground. But the people of Athens survived in their ships, and they wrought a terrible vengeance on the Persians.
The Athenians lured the Persian navy to the Straits of Salamis, where their superior numbers only hampered their maneuverability. The Greeks then used their specialized ships, called triremes, to sink the Persian fleet one ship at a time. Persian naval warfare was much like Persian land warfare - based on attacking with projectiles from afar. Greek naval warfare was much more personal and decisive. Persian ships were little more than platforms for firing flaming arrows. By contrast, Greek triremes were floating battering rams. The Greek oarsmen would simply ram their bronze-capped triremes into the large, floundering Persian ships. Persian archers could do no damage with no ship to stand on.
The battle at Salamis crippled the Persian navy, yet the land army remained undefeated until the following year, when a Pan-Hellenic alliance defeated the Persians at Plataea. Of the 200,000 Persians who invaded, less than 40,000 escaped with their lives.
This resounding victory was a huge blow to the Persian Empire. Over the next decade, the Greeks would take vengeance on the Persians, sinking their navies and driving them from the Mediterranean. Persia never really recovered.
Greece, on the other hand, was now profoundly proud of itself. It had defeated an empire that had conquered everything in its path. Even the fearsome Assyrians and ancient Egyptians had fallen to the Persians, but Greece had not. Buoyed by this victory, Greece blossomed into a culture that soon became the model of Western civilization.
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Back To CourseHistory 101: Western Civilization I
16 chapters | 173 lessons | 8 flashcard sets