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Greek Foundation of Western Culture
Parthenon from south.jpg
Period Classical Antiquity
Dates 539-371 BC
Chronology
Preceded by
Cradles of Civilisation
Followed by
Age of Alexander
The unexamined life is not worth living.

–Socrates

The Greek Foundation of Western Culture lasted from about 539 BC until 371 BC. It began with the rise of the greatest of all the ancient empires of the Near East, that of Achaemenid Persia, whose struggle with Ancient Greek has been seen by some as the first of many confrontations between Europe and Asia, East and West. It then ended with the disastrous Peloponnesian War, paving the way for the rise of Macedonia and Alexander the Great's short but extraordinary life.

The role of the Greeks was pre-eminent in making the "Classical" world, and with them its story must begin. Around 800 BC, the Aegean had begun to settle into a new social and political structure; a loose collection of city-states united only by a shared language and culture. By the standards of its contemporaries, early Greece was a rapidly changing society: population pressure spurred a great age of Greek colonization; growing prosperity prompted a new style of warfare, Hoplite citizen-soldiers, who were to be for centuries the backbone of Greek armies; and class struggles transformed hereditary kings supported by aristocracies into various forms of collective rule, including nascent democracies. Athens and Sparta were to quarrel fatally in the fifth-century, and this has led them to be seen as the poles of the political world of Ancient Greece. They were not, of course, the only models available. Herein lies one of the secrets of the Greek achievement. It could draw upon a rich variety of political experience, providing the data for the first systematic reflections upon the great problems of government, law, duty, and obligation, which have exercised men’s minds ever since.

The Greek struggle with Persia was the climax of the early history of Greece, and the inauguration of its Classical Age. Because later Greeks made so much of this long conflict, it is easy to lose sight of the many thing they had once found to admire. Cyrus the Great founded the largest empire the world had seen until that time, spanning three continents; Europe, Asia and Africa. It is best known for merging Persian, Iranian, Lydian, Babylonian, Israelite, Egyptian, Indian, and Greek cultures relatively harmoniously; for freeing the Jews from their "Babylonian captivity"; for its successful model of a centralized administration; for building infrastructure such as roads and postal systems; and for developing one of the first large, professional standing armies. Because of its long endurance, Persia influenced the language, religion, architecture, philosophy, law, and government structure of all future Near Eastern empires.

The passage from the Greek glorious days of victory over Persia, to the Persians' almost effortless recouping of their losses thanks to Greek division in the Peloponnesian Wars, is a historical drama which grips the imagination; was a real opportunity to unite Greece squandered after Marathon, Thermopylae, and Salamis? But the fundamental reason why such intense interest has been given to these few centuries lies in the extraordinary cultural legacy of Classical Greece; it is an achievement of the mind that constitutes their major claim on our attention. Every schoolboy used to know the names of Homer, Pythagoras, Euclid, Archimedes, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. In the end, the Greeks are remembered as poets and philosophers, and their views - on politics, sculpture, architecture, philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, history, and literature - were to dominate both Europe and the Islamic world until the sixteenth century.

History[]

Emergence of Greek City-States[]

Ancient Greece 800 BC.jpg

In the eighth century BC, the dark age which had clouded Greece and the Aegean Sea since the end of the Bronze Age began to ease a little. Processes and events become more discernible. There is even a date or two, one of which was important in a new civilization's self-consciousness; Ancient Greek Civilization (776-362 BC). In 776 BC, according to tradition, the first Olympian Games to honour the god Zeus were held. After a few centuries, the Greeks would count from that year as we now count from the birth of Christ. The people who gathered for that first festival games recognized by doing so that they shared a common culture, while cherishing the traditional distinctions of Mycenaean, or Dorian, or Ionian. Three hundred years earlier, the old Mycenaean cities had buckled in the face of overrunning Dorians, but survived in the area of central Greece known as Attica. Other Mycenaeans, driven from their homeland, had sailed across the Aegean over to the coast Anatolia (the major part of modern Turkey), where the mixture of Greek and Near Eastern ways resulted in a distinctive culture which we now call Ionian. Meanwhile, the Dorians had established their own strongholds down on the Peloponnesian Peninsula, as well as on Crete and other islands as far east as Rhodes. As the Dorian disruption receded into distant memory, all three groups entered a period of relative peace, in which they were more likely to act as allies than enemies. Then, sometime before 700 BC, this growing sense of a single culture led to the weaving together of different historical traditions - mainly Mycenaean - into two related epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, which were soon claimed as the shared heritage of every Greek-speaking city. Later Greeks attributed them to a single poet, Homer, though much ink has been spent on arguments about who, how, and when they were composed. For our purpose, the essential point is that the epics soon acquired the stability which comes from being written down (in an adaptation of Phoenician script), and offered the Mycenaeans, Dorians, and Ionians a mythical shared past. Meanwhile, Homer did as much as anyone to order the Greek pantheon, an amalgam of a mass of myths from many communities, including a few imported from Egypt and the Near East. He presents the gods and goddesses, for all their supernatural standing, with remarkably human personalities, virtuous or disgraceful, and a world away from the monsters of Assyria and Babylonia. They take sides in the Trojan War in postures all too human, and competing with one another; Poseidon harries Odyssey on his way home, whereas Athena takes his part. Human though Homer’s gods might be, the Greek world had a deep respect for the occult, particularly omens and oracles. The shrines of the oracles of Apollo at Delphi, or at Didyma on the coast of Ionia, were places of pilgrimage and the sources of respected if enigmatic advice. In the Iliad, for the first time, we come across a word for those who lived outside the Greek-speaking world, barbaro-phonoi (“strange speakers”) or barbarians; though its usage was less dismissive than in modern times. It was a crude division of the world into two; those who spoke a dialect of Greek and those who didn’t. It was also the conscious expressed a growing identity, which would twine, more and more tightly, around the minds of the Greeks. The Olympian Games every four years, when people from many cities came together, were occasions to which only Greek-speakers were admitted. The strength of this identity had its roots, paradoxically, in the separateness of the Greek world. They had different cities, different landscapes, no common aim. and not much of a common way of life. But the resemblance of their common language, and an imagined shared past, together with a shared pantheon, were the threads that bound them as a civilisation.

Greek Colonization Archaic Period.jpg

Who were the Greeks? At the outset we should recall that they did not call themselves Greeks; that is a Latin term given them by the Romans. The word they would have used has passed into English as "Hellenes"; from the mythical patriarch Hellen, by whose three son the Mycenaeans, Dorians, and Ionians supposedly descend. Nor was the geographical theatre of Greek history what we now call Greece, but, rather, the whole Aegean. It was a setting that made possible a scattering of economically viable state, most of them tiny, containing no more than 20,000 souls; the biggest might have had 300,000. Only in very small patches did the land and climate combine to offer the chance of agricultural plenty. For the most part, cultivation was confined to narrow strips of alluvial plain, framed by rocky or wooded hills; mineral resources were rare, with no tin, no copper, no iron. All this inclined the inhabitants of the Aegean to look outwards to the sea, on the surface of which movement was much easier than on land. This predisposition was intensified in the eighth century BC by population growth, which brought greater pressure on available land. The ultimate result was a great age of Greek colonization, Syracuse on Sicily was one of several colonies founded by Corinth in the eighth century BC. In the following century, Corinth's neighbour, Megara, founded the most historic of all Greek colonies, Byzantium. But the most energetic Greek colonists were the people of Chalcis and Eretria, who founded numerous cities on the southern coast of Italy; the region eventually became known as Magna Graecia. The settlers who ventured out to these new Greek cities were forced to give up citizenship in their home city, the “mother city” from which they came. Their entire identity as Greeks lay in their ability to establish Greek culture in a new land: they took Greek grain to plant, ate Greek food, built Greek temples, told Greek tales, and sent their delegations to the Greek games. Thus a Greek world was weaved that, by the sixth century, stretched from the Black Sea in the east, to the coast of France in the west, and Libya in the south. Yet the Greeks were never to produce an enduring empire, for that could only have rested on some measure of cooperative action; a few shadowy leagues and confederations don't count for much. For all their Hellenic self-consciousness, the Greeks could not even unite their homeland into one state. Nor were colonization the only agents diffusing Greek ways and teaching Greece about the outside world. In the sixth-century BC, we hear of Greek craftsmen settled in Babylon, and many examples of Greek mercenaries serving foreign kings; when the Persians took Egypt in 525 BC, Greeks fought on both side. These men must have returned home bringing with them new ideas, while there was all the time commercial and diplomatic intercourse between the Greek colonies and their neighbours; to be Greek came to have Near Eastern, Phoenician, and Egyptian elements as well. One example is art; the animal motifs which decorate Greek bronze-work recall the style of the Near East; the early monumental architecture of Greece imitated Egypt’s. But it is clear that the mature art of Classical Greece was unique, and, by the sixth century BC, the interplay was working both ways; by then, Greece was by then both pupil and teacher. The Lydians of western Anatolia, kingdom of the legendary Croesus (d. 546 BC), richest man in the world, was Hellenized by the Ionian Greek cities; they took Greek art, and, probably more important, the Greek alphabet. Thus the Near East received again what the Near East had given.

Reconstruction of a Hoplite Phalanx formation, the core of ancient Greek militaries. The Hoplite was a well-armed and armored citizen-soldier primarily drawn from the middle classes. In a Phalanx, rows of shoulder-to-shoulder hoplites would lock their shields together, so they were relatively safe as long as the formation didn't break. The first few ranks would project their spears over the shield wall, presenting a mass of spear points to the enemy. The battle would then rely on the valour of the front rank, while those in the rear maintained forward pressure trying to break the enemy formation. When two phalanx formations engaged, as a rule, the deeper phalanx would almost always win.

All these developments were to have important social and political repercussions on the Greek homeland. By the standards of its contemporaries, early Greece was a rapidly changing society. Well before 500 BC, an upsurge of trade with the non-Greek world is evidenced by an increased circulation of coins. Lydia had been the first kingdom to strike true coinage - silver tokens of standard weight and imprint - and, by then, money was widely used in Greece for both foreign and internal trade. Commerce meant not only that land was no longer the only source of wealth, but that more men could buy the land which was so important in establishing social status. This began a military and political revolution. The old Greek idea of warfare had been a small warrior-aristocracy confronting their equals on horseback, while ill-equipped inferiors brawled about them. The new rich could now afford the weapon and armour which allowed a better military approach, "Hoplites", regiment of heavy infantry who were to be for centuries the backbone of Greek armies. The Hoplite wore helmet and body-armour, and carried a shield, the hoplon; from which they take their name. His main weapon was a spear, which he did not throw, but thrust and stabbed in the mêlée. Such tactics could only work on relatively level ground, but it was on such ground that Greek wars were usually contested; seizing a little agricultural plain could devastate an enemy city. On such terrain, Hoplites would prevail by disciplined cohesion, rather than individual derring-do, because each man relied for protection on his right-hand neighbour. The Spartans were particularly admired for their expertise in performing the preliminary charge, and for retaining cohesion as a disciplined unit once the scrimmage had begun. The ability to act collectively and tactical skill began to matter more than numbers, as three centuries of Greek success against Near Eastern armies were to prove. As more and more men came to share in the power which comes from exercising military force, their impatience grew with the old political order. The tradition from which Classical Greece develops is the Homeric one of a feudal society, with each city-state ruled by a king backed up by an aristocracy behaving with a remarkable degree of independence; Achilles, as Homer depicts him, was as prickly and touchy a fellow as any medieval baron. By the seventh century BC, new wealth meant new men, who battered away at the existing élites to get admission to government. The result was an age of rulers the Greeks called "tyrants", though the later sinister connotations of the word did not then exist. They were strong men, often moneyed, but their justification for seizing of power was their popularity; many tyrants must have seemed benevolent despots. They brought peace after intense class struggles, and peace favoured economic growth. The seventh century BC was their golden age, but it did not last. Few tyrannies lasted two generations. In the sixth century BC, the current turned almost everywhere towards collective government; oligarchies, constitutional governments, even nascent democracies began to emerge. It was in these years that the Greeks invented politics; the notion of discussing collective concerns in a public setting. The word "politics" derives from polis, a Greek word with several meanings; the city as a place; the city and its supporting countryside as a political unit; and the city as a body of citizens. This was the framework of Greek political life. From the beginning of historical times, the city-state had generated intense feelings of community, looking outwards defensively and distrustfully. Gradually, each acquired its own protecting god, its festivals, and its liturgical dramas that connected the living men with the past. Within the city, the involvement of citizen bodies in day-to-day government was close; we might find it excessive. But because of its scale, the citizens, always much smaller than the whole population, could easily assemble at one meeting place. As for the constitution arrangements, it is risky to generalize. There were more than 150 city-states, and about many of them we know nothing; of most of the rest we know only a little. We can only judge by the evidence of the two city-states about which we know most about, Athens and Sparta.

Spartan helmet on display at the British Museum. The helmet has been damaged with the top having sustained a blow, presumably from battle.

Sparta was one of the more fortunate Greek city-states, laying in the broad valley of the Eurotas River, unusually fertile for Greece. The river was useful as a water-source, but too shallow and rocky to be unnavigable, so Sparta had no ships. While other Greek cities were sending out boatloads of colonists, the Spartans took a different approach to the problem of population pressure. They armed themselves, crossed west over the Taygetus Mountains, and subjugated the city of Messene in another rich plain. Thus, they met the demand for land at others’ expense. One early consequence was the crystallizing of a social structure: the conquered Messenians become a whole class of slaves, the Helots, who produced all the food for the community. The Spartans themselves become the landed aristocracy, a military ideal of warrior men and mothers of warriors. Since citizens were full-time soldiers, no commercial class was allowed to appear; when the rest of Greece took up the use of coinage in the sixth-century BC, Sparta stood-apart, and permitted only an iron currency for internal use. Sparta had no tyrants. But it did have one peculiarity not found anywhere else in the ancient world, two kings; descended from legendary twin brothers who had ruled generations earlier. The Spartans preferred two kings at odds with each other, rather than one with unchallenged power. Even with two king, constitutional constraints were placed on royal power. Any ancient monarchy had three primary powers: the military power to declare war; the judicial power to make laws; and the religious power to maintain good relationships with the gods. In Sparta, all three powers had significant limitations. One king was required to lead the Spartan army in battle, to be first into the charge and last to retreat, which, no doubt, kept them from declaring needless wars. They were high priests of Zeus and maintained communication with the Oracle at Delphi, but four other priests also had to hear her pronouncements; evil omens exercised great authority in Sparta. And finally, almost all lawmaking fell to a council of twenty-eight elders (the Ephors). An assembly of all Spartans citizens (the Ekklesia) elected officials for life, and had other limited powers, but debate was not permitted; the airing of ideas was not considered useful. But the real power was neither king, nor priests, nor Ephors, nor even the Ekklesia. Sparta was ruled by a strict law-code that regulated every aspect of public life; attributed to a semi-mythical lawgiver, Lycurgus (c. 820 BC). Our knowledge of them comes mostly from Plutarch (d. 119 BC), writing centuries later, but, even allowing for distortion, the laws of Sparta would long bemuse and fascinate. Children did not belong to their families, but to the state; the Ephors had the right to inspected each baby, giving it permission to live, or else die on the “place of exposure”, a wasteland in the Taygetus Mountains. At the age of sever, boys were assigned to the Agoge system, learning to fight and forage for food, and cultivating ready obedience. Girls, who were the future Spartan mothers, seem to have gone through a fairly rigorous training too, with more emphasis on music, dancing, singing and poetry. In this respect, Sparta was unique; in no other city-state did girls receive any formal education. Adult Spartan men did not live with their wives, but continued to live in the male dormitory and eat their meals in common "messes". In order to prevent greed and envy, they were not supposed to own silver or gold. By law, house-doors could be shaped only by axe or saw, since fine furniture would look ridiculous next to rough-hewn wood. These laws were forbidden to be written down; "Rules only work if they are written on the character and hearts of the citizens". Instead, they were driven home in youth, and the Spartans continually watched each other for transgressions. A Spartan king once tried to explain to Persian king Xerxes how this affected the Spartan character; "Although they’re free, they’re not entirely free. Their master is the law, and they’re far more afraid of that than your men are of you". But Spartan political ambitions often seems muted, by its gravest problem; a Helot population that vastly outnumbered its citizens. As a result, a cloud hung over the Spartan state, the fear of a Helot revolt, and increasingly they feared to have their army far from home. Sparta was always on the alert and the enemy was at home.

The Acropolis of Athens by Leo von Klenze (1846). The leading position of Athens may well have resulted from its secure stronghold on the Acropolis, its central location in the Greek world, and its access to the sea.

To the north, across the land-bridge that connected the Peloponnese to the rest of Greece, Athens had had gone one further than Sparta by getting rid of its king altogether. Athens was one of the unluckier city-states; ringed by mountains to the east, west, and south, the soil of Attica, the little jut of land south of the city, was poor As a result, the Athenians turned to trade for their livelihood, producing consumer goods such as pottery, cloth, wine and metalwork. Fragmentary accounts show a gradual and crooked path away from monarchy. In the first stage, the role of king was renamed; power still passed from father to son, but the ruler was called an Archon ("chief justice"), while another official was given control of the army, and a third carried out priestly functions. Thirteen archons later, the office was transformed again to give Archons a ten-year terms. By 683 BC, Athens was ruled by a council of nine Archons, elected by landowners for a one-year term, while ex-Archons became members of an advisory body called the Areopagus. There was an assembly of all citizens, the Ekklesia, but it had little power. This was more complex than the Spartan system. By the late seventh-century, Athens had passed through a stage of social development common to most of Greece. Aristocratic families now held nearly all the land, and political power. Small freeholders had been increasingly falling into debt, and mortgaging their land; if a farmer defaulted on his payments, he could be enslaved. In 632, there was an attempt by a would-be tyrant named Cylon to seize power in Athens. The coup was opposed by the Archons. Cylon and his brother managed to escape, but his followers were cornered in Athena's temple on the Acropolis. According to ancient sources, the Archons persuaded them to surrender and stand trial, after assurances that their lives would be spared. But, when Cylon's followers left the temple, they were simply killed. The Archons who had ordered the massacre were exiled for this dreadful sacrilege, but the unrest that followed showed that Athens was not at peace under its semi-democratic system. In response, the Athenians did what the Spartans had refused to do: to set-down the laws of Athens in writing. The man who took on the job was an elected Archon named Solon (d. 560 BC). Solon's law code was remarkable not for what it outlawed (murder, theft, adultery), but for tackling the touchy issue of inequality: annulling mortgage debt, prohibiting debt-slavery, and redistributing some land (the tenant-farmers who had cultivated it for generations now owned it). At the same time he enlarged the role of the Ecclesia, to which every Athenian citizen belonged; this was not as democratic as it sounds, since, to be a citizen, you had to own property. This didn’t please the Athenian aristocracy. Nor did it please the poorest, who had hoped for a good deal more land redistributed.

Modern bust of Cleisthenes, known as "the father of Athenian democracy". The likeness was created by sculptor, Anna Christoforidis, for the Ohio House and Senate Chambers.

After Solon's resignation from public life, the Athenians divided into three squabbling factions over his reforms, each with its own nickname; the Men of the Coast, tenant farmers who supported them; the Men of the Plain, the aristocratic families who wanted all power to their own hands; and the Men of the Hills, the landless poor who wanted the same privileges as everyone else. This third faction was the wildest, and their leader, Peisistratus (d. 527 BC), was the ultimate victor. He had been wounded fighting against enemies of Athens, which was always an advantage for a man who wanted popular. He was also exceedingly clever. Peisistratus constantly complaining that he was in danger of assassination, in order to gather collect an increasingly powerful bodyguard around him. In 560 BC, his club-wielding bodyguards seized the Acropolis, and announced that he was taking control of the city. Peisistratus lost and regained control more than once, but, from 546, he ruled as a tyrant. In his own eyes, he was dominating the Athenians for their own good; and in fact he remained quite popular. Athens enjoyed an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity: taxes were reduced; trade flourished; and building and artistic projects were undertaken. On his death, Peisistratus was even peacefully succeeded by his son, Hippias, in quite kinglike fashion. This didn’t cause any heartburning until a family drama ensued; Hippias' brother was murdered by a former lover. Hippias thereafter became a paranoid and cruel ruler. The Athenians were delivered from this reign of terror by an unlikely saviour; Sparta. The Spartan king, Cleomenes (d. 590 BC) marched on Athens not out of love, but out of fear of the advancing Persian juggernaut; Athens was the biggest barrier left between Sparta and Persia, so could not be allowed to fall apart completely. The intervention of the Spartans only serves to hasten the progress of Athens towards democracy. When the dust settled on another Athenian power-struggle, the statesman Cleisthenes (d. 508 BC) set about reforming the constitution of Athens. The Ecclesia became the de jure mechanism of government; all adult male citizens were entitled to take part, and had equal privileges. The old Areopagus was only a law-court with jurisdiction over certain offences. Meanwhile, ingenious arrangements organized the citizens into tribes (Demos), which cut-across class, as a means of preventing the aristocracy regaining power. It would also prevent the emergence of sectional factions; city-dwellers against country-folk, farmers against merchants. Cleisthenes is also credited with introducing a new custom; ostracism. Any Athenian citizen could be exiled from the city, should six thousand of his compatriots write his name on pieces of pottery (Ostraka) which were used as ballots. It was intended as a safeguard against tyranny, but didn’t work particularly well. Thus at last began to operate the paradoxical institutions of the most democratic government in Greece, in the city-state which held more slaves than any other.

Sparta and Athens were to quarrel fatally in the fifth century BC, and this has led them to be seen as the poles of the political world of Classical Greece. They were not, of course, the only models available, and herein lies one of the secrets of Greek achievement. It could draw upon a far greater variety of political experience than anywhere else in the world. This provided the data for the first systematic reflections upon the great problems of government, law, duty, and obligation, which have exercised men’s minds ever since. The Greeks also knew of other types of political organization through contacts made in the course of trade and colonization. The Greek world had frontiers where conflict was likely. In the Western Mediterranean, they once seemed to be pushing ahead in an almost limitless expansion, but this came to an end around 550 BC, when Carthage prescribed that limit. Eventually the Carthaginians were able to close down Greek trade in Spain, and seize footholds in western Sicily, though they could not turn the Greek settlers out of Syracuse. Meanwhile the Ionian Greek cities of Anatolia had often been at loggerheads with their neighbours, the powerful Lydians, until an agreements was reached with the Lydian king, Croesus of legendary wealth, in which they paid him tribute. Yet an even more formidable opponent loomed further east; Persia.

Rise of Persia[]

Ancient iran.jpg

Once again, the starting-point is a great migration. On the high plateau that is the heart of modern Iran there were agricultural villages before 5000 BC. But the word "Iran" derives from "land of the Aryans", At about the time when other Aryans were moving south into India, somewhere about 1750 BC, another wave of these pastoral tribes was drifting into this region. In Iran, as in India, their impact was to prove ineffaceable and founded a long-enduring tradition. The Aryan-Iranians brought with them a polytheistic religion, closely related to Hinduism, characterized by animal sacrifice and veneration of fire as an embodiment of the divine. Under the influence of priest-turned-prophet Zoroaster (c. 10th-century BC), about whom we know very little, this religion evolved into what has been called monotheism. Claiming divine revelation from Ahura Mazda - supreme god of the pantheon - Zoroaster accounted for the problem of evil in the world in terms of an eternal struggle between divine opposites, Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu; good god and bad, light and darkness, truth and deceit. He taught his disciples to uphold the cause of the god-of-light with ritual and moral behaviour; ahead lay a messianic deliverance, the resurrection of the dead, and life everlasting after judgement. Zoroastrianism would spread rapidly through the Near East with Persian rule, and influence Judaism and Christianity; the notion of angels and hellfire both came from Zoroaster. Like all nomadic peoples, the Aryan-Iranians were made up of diverse tribes, of whom two have been remembered further west by their Biblical names as the Medes and the Persians. The Medes moved west, occupying the mountainous region on the edge of the Tigris Valley (the old kingdom of the Elamites). The Persians went south towards the Persian Gulf, establishing themselves in Fars (or Persis), which would give the tribe the name they are known by. It was at first the Medes (678-549 BC) who play the dominant role. They managed to unite under a single chief named Deioces (d. 675 BC), with a capital at Ecbatana, one of the most startling sights of ancient times. Built six-thousand feet above sea level on the eastern slopes of Mount Orontes, the city was surrounded by seven concentric walls of different colours. Deioces' son, Phraortes (d. 653 BC), conquered the nearby Persians, and made them a subject state. Together, the Medes and Persians set their sights on conquering the ailing Neo-Assyrian Empire, which had dominated the Near East for so long. This proved a miscalculation. The Assyrians managed to make an alliance with the wild Scythians, who poured down into Iran from the Caucasus. These were light cavalrymen, fighting with the bow from horseback, and the first eruption of a new force in world history; nomads straight out of Central Asia. Not only were the Medes driven back from Nineveh’s walls, but Phraortes himself was killed, and a Scythian warlord claimed his place as king of the Medes and Persians. For twenty-eight years, the Medes chafed under Scythian rule, until the son of dead Phraortes, Cyarxes (d. 585 BC), made his move. According to Herodotus, he invited the Scythian court to a banquet, got them thoroughly drunk, and had them all killed. Cyarxes thus became king of the Medes and Persians, while around him lay nothing but chaos; to the north, disorganized and leaderless Scythian tribes, and to the west, a dying Neo-Assyrian Empire. Cyarxes knew an opportunity when he saw one, and offered his friendship to Neo-Babylonian king Nabopolassar, agreeing to push Assyria over the edge; sealed by a diplomatic marriage. with Cyarxes' daughter marrying the eldest son of Nabopolassar, Nebuchadnezzar II. The end result of this newfound alliance was the sack of Nineveh in 612 BC. The Medes spoils were the old eastern provinces, while Babylon took over the rest; the pair would remain close allies for another few decades. While Nebuchadnezzar began conquering the Western Semitic lands, his father-in-law Cyarxes steadily fought his way north towards Anatolia. By the time Jerusalem fell in 587 BC, the Medes had reached the border of Lydia. For two years, the two armies faced each other across the Halys River, neither able to gain an advantage. But Cyarxes had now been king of the Medes and Persians for forty years; he was old, ill, and ready to stop fighting. In 585 BC, he agreed to a peace, which was sealed by the marriage of a Lydyan princess to Cyarxes’ eldest son, Astyages (d. 585 BC); Cyarxes died not long after. The ancient sources report almost nothing about Astyages' reign, except that he apparently had no son. His grandson might well be his heir, so a husband for his daughter, Mandane, had to be chosen with great care. Not any of the ambitious Median noblemen who surrounded him at Ecbatana, who might not be willing to be passed over in the succession; a more subordinate man. Astyages decided to marry his daughter to his Persian vassal-king, Cambyses (d. 559 BC). The couple soon had a son, Cyrus, known to history as Cyrus the Great.

An artistic portrait of Cyrus the Great, based on a relief found on a doorway pillar at Pasargadae, on top of which was inscribed in three languages the sentence, "I am Cyrus the king, an Achaemenian". British historian Charles Freeman suggests that "In scope and extent his achievements, Cyrus ranked far above that of the Macedonian king, Alexander, who was to demolish the his empire in the 320s BC, but fail to provide any stable alternative".

Not much is known about the early life of Cyrus the Great (559–530 BC). Oral tradition preserves contradictory accounts more important for the light they throws on the uneasy political relationship between the Medes and Persians, than as history. According to Herodotus, Astyages, king of the Medes and the Persians, was having bad dreams; a vine grew out of his daughter and curled itself all around his territory. His wise men told him that his grandson would not simply succeed him, but rule in his place. So Astyages invited his daughter to Ecbatana for a visit, where he planned to do away with her child. Wanting to preserve deniability, the king order a Median nobleman named Harpagus to do the dreadful deed. But Harpagus, not unlike Astyages, did not want to do something that might come back on his head, so hand the job off to a herdsman, who promptly raised the boy as his own. Years later, the inevitable happened; ten-year old Cyrus was discovered by his grandfather, playing in the village where he ruled over the other boys. It was now too late to kill him, so Astyages sent Cyrus back to his parents, and severely reprimanded Harpagus by having his son killed. This story is clearly a reprisal of the standard Sargon-Moses divine providence; a baby in peril, miraculously preserved, grows to be a great leader. Reading between the lines, we might see a more complicated picture: a Median king, sinking deeper and deeper into paranoia and misrule; a Median nobleman publicly humiliated; and a Persian vassal king that had to be treated with some care, lest he rise up. Cyrus grew-up with his father's Persian family, the Achaemenids, mothered by a woman who now hated her Median father. Upon inheriting the Persian throne in 559 BC, Cyrus set out to convince the clans, one by one, to join his rebellion against the Medes. When all was in readiness, he began to march towards Ecbatana. Astyages responded by appointing the same Harpagus to lead his army against Cyrus. He now took his revenge for the death of his son; when the Median and Persian armies met, Harpagus defected over to Cyrus' side, along with most of his officers. Astyages’ handful of loyal soldiers then fled, and Cyrus took Ecbatana. All the ancient sources agree that Cyrus spared Astyages' life, against all precedent. Instead, he married his daughter, and presented himself as his rightful successor as king of the Medes and Persians. He now had ambitions to rule an empire. Cyrus' first great achievement was his conquest of Lydia, domain of the famously wealthy Croesus. Herodotus claimed that it was Croesus who provoked the war by an incautious interpretation of an utterance from the Oracle of Delphi, which told him that if he went to war with Persia he would "destroy a great empire", but not which one. The two side met at the Halys River, and fought to a stalemate. Croesus drew back, intending to appeal to Babylon for help, but Cyrus moved too quickly, scattering the Lydian army in front of Sardis itself. Cyrus was able to bring down its walls after just fourteen days, and thought that his men deserved a reward, so let them plunder the city of its fabled wealth; a captive Croesus is said to have quipped, "It's not my wealth, it’s yours that they’re stealing". But Cyrus was the ultimate pragmatist, rewarding others with great generosity as long as it furthered his own greater gain. Even Greek writers, such as the mercenary-general Xenophon (d. 355 BC), idealized Cyrus, for his restraint, fairness, wisdom, and “benevolent soul”. For all Cyrus’ benevolence, he surpassed all other kings primarily in conquest. One powerful rival remained: the Neo-Babylonian Empire. Yet Babylon had been weakened by six-years of infighting after Nebuchadnezzar's death. An influential courtier, Nabonidus (556-539 BC), took power, and restored order, but it did not last. Nabonidus was not from the Babylonian aristocracy, but the Assyrian city of Harran, the main cult centre of the god Sin (associated with the moon); his own mother was a priestess. The new king faced such opposition from the priests of Babylon's national god, Marduk, that he left Babylon, and ruled the empire from the southern city of Tema; governance of his capital was turned over to his eldest son. This further weakened Babylon, and gave Cyrus his chance. In 540 BC, he began to send troops into skirmishes all along the eastern Babylonian border. The situation became serious enough that Nabonidus returned back north. By the time he arrived, Cyrus was already marching on Babylon itself. The two sides met at the Battle of Opis (September 539 BC), a decisive Persian victory, and Nabonidus immediately began preparing for a siege. Cyrus, realizing that it would take months if not years to starve the defenders into submission, formed another plan. Xenophon explains it. The Tigris flowed right through Babylon. Cyrus had canals dug upstream. Then, one dark night, the canals were opened simultaneously, allowing a group of Persian soldiers to march through the mud of the riverbed, under the city-walls, and opened the gates from the inside. The rest of the Persians flooded-in, and the city fell; the date was 14 October 539 BC. Cyrus apparently had little trouble pacifying all the territories that had belonged to the Babylonians. He claimed to be the avenger of Marduk sent to punish Nabonidus' impiety. He was also Nebuchadnezzar's great-nephew, and ancient thrones had been claimed on lessor blood relationships. Cyrus' victory was complete. He took over Nebuchadnezzar's great palace as his winter residence, and kept Ecbatana as his summer palace; high in the mountains, it was snow-bound for much of the winter. The old Persian capital at Anshan remained another of his homes. But for the administrative capital of his new empire, he built himself a new city, Pasargadae (near modern Shiraz). From there, the boundaries of empire rolled outwards; Anatolia was swallowed to the Mediterranean coast, and the Scythians were finally driven completely from Iran. Cyrus the Great died fighting his way north across the Oxus river, and up into the wilds of Central Asia, east of the Caspian Sea.

Achaemenid empire under different kings.jpg

The Achaemenid Persian Empire (550–330 BC) was the largest empire the world had seen until that time. Its style was different from its predecessors; the newness of Cyrus’ empire lay in his ability to think of it, not as a Persian nation in which the peoples must be made more Persian, but rather as a patchwork of nations under Persian rule. He was careful to respect the institutions and ways of his new subjects. The exiled Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem, and given money towards the building of the "Second" Temple. The Book of Isaiah saw in Cyrus' victories God’s hand, named him the Lord's anointed, and gloated gloated over the fate of the old enemy, Babylon; "Let now the astrologers and stargazers stand up, and save thee from these things that shall come upon thee". The result was a diverse empire, but a powerful one, commanding loyalties of a kind lacking to the Assyrians or Babylonians. Cyrus required from his subjects little beyond tribute, and obedience to their benevolent "father". The use of “father” becomes creepier when Xenophon points out that “Father Cyrus” used gifts to convince people all over his empire to become his so-called “Eyes and Ears”, a vast spy network reporting anything that might threaten or benefit him; "people are everywhere afraid to say what is not advantageous to the king, just as if he were listening, and afraid to do what is not advantageous, just as if he were present". Thus began the empire which, though with setbacks aplenty, made an enduring imperial peace a real possibility, and defined the way later empires sought to achieve stable rule. It was in many ways a beautiful and gentle civilization; Herodotus tells us that there are many things the Persians could do without more easily than the tulip, which we owe to them. Cyrus' son and successor, Cambyses II (d. 522), seems to have suffered from an impulse common to many other sons of great men: a need to outdo his father. And he set his eye on Egypt. The great Pharaoh Amasis II had died in 526 BC, and been succeeded by his son, Psammetichus III (d. 525 BC). This was a bit of good luck for Cambyses, since Psammetichus was not a gifted general. The two sides met at the Battle of Pelusium (May 525 BC), but, as soon as the battle began to turn against the Egyptians, he pulled back all the way to Memphis. This gave the Persians almost free reign in the waterways of the Delta, and allowed them to besiege Memphis by land and by sea. We had no detail of the siege, but soon all of Egypt was under Persian suzerainty. Cambyses now styled himself Pharaoh of Egypt, and told the people that he had come to liberate them: a now familiar strategy. But his tenure was a short one. Three years after the conquest of Egypt, Cambyses died suddenly, mysteriously, and without heirs.

Darius the Great, from the central relief of the northern stairs in the great hall at Persepolis.

The events surrounding the rise of Darius the Great (522-486 BC) to the Persian throne are greatly debated as there are many contradictory accounts. Herodotus reports a convoluted sequence of events in which Cambyses died of an infected leg wound, Cambyses' younger brother Bardiya was assassinated in secret, and a usurper named Gaumata took the throne by pretending to be Bardiya. Soon more than one Persian nobleman suspected the charade. Among them was Darius, and together with six other noblemen mounted a coup against Gaumata. Then these seven men had a reasonable (and very unlikely) discussion about which of them should be king, and concluded that Darius was the natural choice. He was young and energetic; had been Cambyses’ trusted aide; was of the Achaemenid family; and his father already commanded a large portion of the Persian army. There are a lot of question marks in this story, and, any answers to the mystery make Darius the villain. However Darius achieved the throne, the achievements rivalled those of Cyrus; even if he did not achieve all he wished. The new king immediately faced rebellions all across the empire; the Babylonians and others saw a chance for independence. But Darius manage to quell them with remarkable speed. Darius had a new vision for the Persian army. His predecessors had relied on unwieldy masses of conscript soldiers sent as tribute. Darius developed an elite corps, one that was smaller, but more professional, better trained, faster moving, and more loyal. It was a standing army of ten-thousand soldiers, all of them Persians, bound together so strong that they jealously guarded entrance into their own ranks. Herodotus calls them “the Immortals" because there was always precisely ten-thousand; if one died in battle, they were immediately replace. Darius' huge rock-relief at Mount Behistun celebrates his victories over the rebels: "I am Darius the Great King, King of Kings, King in Persia". Darius was as remarkable an administrator as a general; a rare combination. Decentralization was institutionalized with the division of the empire into a more orderly set of twenty provinces (Satrapies), which were each assigned a trustworthy governor (Satraps), and a fixed tribute to be sent to the king each year. Satraps who did not send the proper amount, or who did not keep their satrapies in order, were liable to be executed. We get a glimpse of this in the Book of Ezra, where the governor of Jerusalem, a man named Tattenai, noticed that the Jews were building high walls around the Second Temple, which gave it the suspicious look of a defensive citadel. He ordered the work to stop until he could report to Darius. He did give the Satrap permission to let the building go ahead, but the Biblical account was not sympathetic to Tattenai; a man who simply feared losing his head, should he miss the seeds of rebellion. Meanwhile, royal inspectors, who were Darius' "Eyes and Ears", performed checks on each Satrap, with their work made easier by better communications than any yet seen. Much of the tribute was invested in the network of roads and way stations, that could convey messages at 200-miles a day. A monument to this imperial achievement was a new ceremonial capital at Persepolis. Intended as a colossal glorification of Darius, it remains impressive even when it seems pompous. The city was in the end a collective creation, with later kings making their own additions, and embodying it with the cosmopolitanism of empire. Assyrian colossi (human-headed bulls and lions) guarded the Gate of All Nations, as they had done in Nineveh. Up the Persepolitan Stairway marched stone warriors bearing tribute, created by Ionian stone-cutters and sculptors. The many decorative columns, and rock-cut tombs at Naghsh-e Rostam recall Egypt. These monuments fittingly express the continuing diversity and tolerance of Persian culture. With the existing empire secure, Darius could turn his eyes to new frontiers. In the east, he crossed through the Hindu Kush into India, and set up some sort of supremacy over the lands surrounding the Punjab. He hoped to go further, and sent a small expedition to explore the region; it is said to have sailed down the Indus to the sea, and then back along the coast, round the Arabian Peninsula, and up the Red Sea. Little came of this, though Babylonian scribes were later able to produce the earliest surviving map of the world. In the west, Darius crossed into Europe, and brought Thrace and Macedonia under Persian rule, ultimately sparking the Greco-Persian War.

Greco-Persian Wars[]

The Greco-Persian Wars (499-479 BC) is the climax of the early history of Ancient Greece, and the inauguration of its Classical Age. Because the Greeks made so much of this long conflict with the Persians, it is easy to lose sight of the many ties that linked the two belligerents. The Persian fleet - and to a lessor extent the Persian army - launched against Greece contained thousands of Greeks, for mercenary service abroad was a well-established custom. Cyrus had employed Greek stone-cutters and sculptors; Darius had a Greek physician. The antagonism was mostly a product of by the war, however much the Greeks proclaimed their revulsion at Persian absolute monarchy. It does not help that all our sources are Greek; there are no written records by the Persians, From their perspective, this was a peripheral conflict, that went badly, and best forgotten; the lose didn’t make much of a dent on the Persian psyche, for their Empire continued to flourish for another century or so. For the Greeks, it was a great moment in their history, perhaps the greatest.

Depiction of Persian soldierss from the Palace of Susa. Their garments match the description by ancient authors of the standing army known as the Immortals. This elite corp of 10,000 was precisely decimal: ten battalions of 1000 were divided into companies of 100, and squads of 10. The armies' tactics emphasised maintaining their distance from the enemy in order to defeat them with their chief weapon; the bow. Along with the elite corp, there were conscript soldiers from allies in the tens of thousands.

The origins of the war lay in the great expansion of the Persians under the Achaemenids. After Cyrus finished the conquest of Lydia in 547 BC, the Ionian Greek cities were conquered, each in turn, and became Persian subjects. Next, the Persians took Egypt in 525 BC, which damaged Greek trading interests there. Then in 513 BC, Darius crossed the Bosphorus Straits into Europe using a bridge of boats roped together; this was not a particularly impressive expanse of water, but no Near Eastern army had yet crossed it. His objective was not in fact Greece, but the old enemy, the Scythians, who lived north of the Black Sea. Darius crossed the Danube into Scythian territory, but found no enemies. Instead, the steppe nomads retreated constantly in front of the Persians, spoiling wells and springs, and laying waste to the countryside. The Persians found themselves drawn deeper and deeper into rugged country, men and horses growing ever hungrier. After chasing the Scythians for a month, never able to fight a pitched battle, Darius halted the march at the Volga River, and then headed back. He had done enough to teach the Scythians to respect Persian power. But Darius would not leave without spoils. He himself headed home, but the army was left with his most trusted general, Megabazus, with orders to subjugate Thrace. The Thracian Greek colonies, which had at first welcomed the Persians - they feared the Scythians too - now found themselves falling, one by one, under Persian dominance. Megabazus' task was made easier by the fractured nature of Thrace; each city had its own ruler and its own army. After turning Thrace into a new Persian Satrapy, Megabazus set his eyes on Macedonia, a single kingdom, ruled by a single king, which stood between Thrace and the city-states of Greece proper. In the year that the Persians appeared on the horizon with a well-conquered Thrace behind them, its king was Amyntas (d. 498 BC). He decided at once that resistance was futile, and agreed to the Persian demand for "Earth and Water", symbolizing dominance over the land and sea of a vassal state. With Megabazus storming around to the north, and little barrier now to Persian ambitions, the Greeks to the south were rapidly approaching a state of panic.

Ionian Revolt Campaign Map.jpg

At this point, there was something of a pause, until the Ionian Revolt (499-493 BC) provoked a direct conflict. The Persians found the Ionian cities difficult to control, because there was no aristocracy to help them rule, only a fractious elite. They thus settled on sponsoring a "tyrant" in each Ionian city. One such tyrant, Aristagorus (d. 496 BC), who had dominated the city of Miletus for years, fancied casting his net wider. He went to Sardis, seat of the local Persian governor, and offered to conquer the nearby islands, on behalf of Persia, if the Persians would fund the campaign. The plan agreed, Aristagorus put together an invasion force, and set sail for his first target, the Greek island of Naxos. Unfortunately for Aristagorus, Naxos proved impregnable. The inhabitants, rather than fight, simply hauled their provisions inside the city, and waited it out. until Aristagorus ran out of Persian money, Aristagorus now found himself in dire straits; unable to repay the Persian, and fully expecting to be stripped of his position. In a desperate attempt to save himself, he decided to lead the Ionian cities in a revolt against their Persian overlords. A few delicate inquiries showed that other Ionian tyrants were willing, but Aristagorus had learned from his Naxos disaster that wars were expensive; evidently he needed more allies. He first sailed to Sparta, but the Spartan king, Cleomenes (d. 490 BC), not only refused to poke the Persian beast, but pitched him out the city. At Athens, Aristagorus found more receptive ears; Hippias, the recently expelled tyrant, was seeking Persian help to recover the city. And so, with Athenian money and ships, the war began; Eretria was also persuaded to send assistance. Aristagorus' revolt began on a high note by commandeering three-hundred Persian ships. Darius immediately dispatched his fast and well-trained army to put down the revolt, but, before it could arrive, the Greeks surprised Sardis. The governor and his men shut themselves safely into the citadel, but the lower city was looted and razed, apparently by accident. But when the two armies met at the Battle of Ephesus (498 BC), the Greeks were soundly thrashed. At this point, the Athenians, seeing no good coming from the conflict, decided to go home But the Ionian had no choice but to keep on fighting; burning Sardis had been a point of no return. They did enjoy some success off-shore, sailing up and down the coast, collecting allies, and widening the revolt further. This stymied the Persians for a few years, but, in 494 BC, the Persian navy finally caught the Ionian fleet off the coast near Miletus. The Persians had prepared themselves for a huge encounter, but Ionian ships began deserting as soon as the battle turned against them. The admiral fled to Sicily and turned pirate; Aristagorus himself fled to Thrace, where he was killed hostile locals. The victorious Persians took their revenge on the troublemaker's city; Miletus was besieged, captured, and its population enslaved. By 493 BC, the Persians had reduced the cities that still held out. Worse was to come. Darius had not forgotten the early Athenian and Eretrian participation in the revolt.

Nineteenth century depiction of the Battle of Marathon. The battle was a watershed in the war, showing the Greeks that the Persians could be beaten. It also a defining moment for the young Athenian democracy, showing what might be achieved through unity and self-belief.

In 492 BC, Darius put his general and son-in-law Mardonius (d. 479 BC) in charge of a two-pronged invasion; a land force would march down from Thrace and Macedonia, while a fleet would sail across the Aegean to join them for the attack on Athens and Eretria. This first Persian foray into Greece was cut short, when the fleet was wrecked in a storm off Mount Athos. It took two years to build a new fleet, but, by 490 BC, Mardonius was back on the job. Herodotus claims that the Persians had six-hundred ships; even if that is an exaggeration, the fleet was so big that Mardonius did not bother to march land forces down to reinforce it. The Persian fleet proceeded to island-hop across the Aegean, subduing city after city; Naxos fell in a matter of days, making Aristagorus look like an incompetent general. Arriving at Eretria, the city was besieged, captured, and razed. The Athenians, braced to face the Persian cataclysm, sent a messenger south to beg for Spartan help. This runner, Pheidippides, is said to have covered the 140 miles in between Athens and Sparta in an extraordinary two days (and then ran back); Herodotus probably exaggerated the time, but there is no doubting the distance. But Sparta were celebrating a religious festival, and could not begin a march until the full moon. The Spartans were a deeply religious people (not to say superstitious), but it seems very likely they were attempting to avoid outright war with Persia; the Persians had come to punish Athens for joining the Ionian Revolt, and Sparta had declined. The Athenians thus had no choice but to face the Persians alone. Herodotus credits Miltiades (d. 489 BC), an experience Athenian generals, with devising the tactics that defeated the Persians at the Battle of Marathon (September 490 BC). He was firm in insisting that the Persian landing must be resisted, as Athens would not withstand a Persian siege. He also arranged the Hoplites in a somewhat unorthodox formation, with a thin centre and massed ranks on both wings. In fact, the Athenian centre broke almost at once, but both wings quickly routed their Persian counterparts, and then turned inwards enveloping the Persian centre, until the invaders began to retreat out of the kill zone. As they fled backwards towards their ships, the Athenians pursued and captured seven ships, though the majority were able to escape. Herodotus’ number of 6,400 Persian dead, as opposed to 192 Athenian casualties, is likely a patriotic exaggeration, but, even so, Marathon was a staggering Athenian victory. The Spartans arrived in time to help count the dead.

A bronze statue of the Spartan king Leonidas, erected at Thermopylae in 1955. An inscription reads simply "Come and take them", which was Leonidas' laconic reply when Xerxes offered to spare the lives of the Spartans if they gave up their arms. Even during its decline, Sparta never forgot its laconic wit. An anecdote has it that when Philip II of Macedonia sent an ultimatum saying "If I invade Sparta, you will be destroyed, never to rise again", the Spartans responded with a single word: "if". This is why the English word "laconic" derives from the old Greek name for the Spartans; the Lyconians.

In the aftermath, Darius vowed to raise an even larger army, this time leading it personally, against the Greek city-states, but he had no time. He fell ill in the fall of 486 BC, and died before winter came. His oldest son, Xerxes (486-519 BC), took his place. Xerxes had been taking notes on his father’s career. Like Darius, he first faced the opportunistic rebellions that always accompanied a change in the royal house. In Babylon, he dealt with the unrest by dividing the large province into smaller sub-units, short-circuiting some of its factionalism. Egypt, he crushed the unrest by sheer force of arms, and then dropped "Pharaoh" from his titulature; instead “King of the Persians and the Medes” was carved into inscriptions all across the country. These revolts expanded the army that had already been rebuilt by Darius over the previous four years. With relative peace established in his empire, Xerxes turned his attention to Greece and conquest. By 484 BC, ports all over the empire set to building ships for a second invasion. Though Marathon had been an Athenian victory, the leader in this phase of the war was Sparta, the pre-eminent Greek state in matters of war. In 481 BC, a confederate alliance was formed, the Hellenic League, specifically for the defence of Greece against the Persians. Almost all the Greek city-states accepted this de facto Spartan national leadership – even the Athenians, whose strengthening of her fleet had made her the preponderant power at sea. The Greeks said, and no doubt believed, that the Persians came in millions; if, as now seems more likely, there were well under a hundred-thousand, this was still an overwhelming enough number for the defenders of Greece. In April 480 BC, the Persian army began its slow march along the coast, accompanied by a huge fleet which hung on its flanks. The Greeks established their defensive line just below the Malian Gulf, with the army massed at Thermopylae, where the mountains divided to allow pnly a narrow passage. This was the only decent way for Xerxes to reach the southern part of the peninsula; though there was a hidden mountain track, which he was unlikely to discover. The navy was drawn up at the north end of Euboea, to prevent the Persians bypassing Thermopylae by sea. There they waited, while, behind them, Greece was in full preparation for disaster. The Athenians evacuated all women, children, and old men, and their moveable possessions, to safety of Salamis Island. Finally, in mid-August, the Persian army approached Thermopylae. A troop of Phocians had been given the job of keeping an eye on the hidden mountain track, just in case. But the all-important pass was entrusted to the Spartan troops, seven thousand men under the Spartan king Leonidas (d. 480 BC). This might well have been sufficient for the narrow ground on which the Persians and Greeks fought, had not a Greek traitor defected to Xerxes and drawn him a map of the mountain track. On the third day, the Phocians guarding the track above Thermopylae became aware of the outflanking Persians. Leonidas, realizing that the battle had already been lost, ordered all of his men but the royal bodyguard to retreat back down to the south. With these last three hundred, along with a few troops from Thebes and Thespia who refused to leave, he fought a delaying action against Xerxes. Athens was doomed, but if his retreating Spartans could reach the Gulf of Corinth, they might still be able to hold the Peloponnese, along with Sparta, Troezen, and Salamis; all that would remain of Greece. The Spartans fought until they were wiped out; Immortals fell as well, along with two of Xerxes’s own brothers. Later, a well-known epitaph was engraved on a commemorative stone placed on top of the burial mound of the Spartans who fell at Thermopylae; “Stranger, go tell the Spartans that here we lie, obedient to our laws”; it would become one of the most famous acts of heroism in history. But, at the time, Xerxes was unimpressed; he ordered Leonidas’ body to be beheaded, and nailed to a cross, like an common criminal. Plutarch tells us that the retreating Greeks had a brief and quarrelsome council-of-war. The Athenians begged the rest to make a stand in Attica, to protect their great city. But the others, recognising that such a broad northern front could never be held, refused. The entire army, thus, retreated back to a new defensive line across the narrow land bridge - the Isthmus of Corinth - that linked the Peloponnese to Attica. The navy was massed in the waters around the island of Salamis. At the head of his soldiers, Xerxes marched in triumph into Athens, and ordered the city to be razed, destroying the Old Temple of Athena and the Older Parthenon on the Acropolis. From the other side of the water, the Athenians on Salamis were forced to watch their city burn; “Angry at this betrayal,” Plutarch writes, “and dismayed at being deserted by their allies”.

The next events are chronicled by the playwright Aeschylus, who was there. The best possible strategy for Xerxes was now a slow and damaging war of attrition; to pen-up the Greeks in the Peloponnese without allies, and use his fleet to prevent aid from the outlying islands. Themistocles (d. 460 BC), an Athenian statesman, knew this. So he sent a message to the Persian king, pretending to change sides, and claiming that if he attacked at once, the weary and dispirited Greeks would scatter. This was exactly the kind of news that Xerxes wanted to hear, and he took the bait, ordering his fleet into the narrows to directly engage the Greek ships there. This was exactly what Themistocles wanted. At the Battle of Salamis (September, 480 BC), the Greek triremes, fast and manoeuvrable, could fight effectively in the cramped narrows, while the more powerful Persian ships were unable to get out of the way of their bronze rams. The Persian fleet was shattered. This defeat need not have been the end for Xerxes, but his rage ruined him. He ordered the captains of his navy - all Phoenician, for the Persians raised inland were not sailors - put to death for cowardice. This turned every single Phoenician sailor against him. With the Persians' naval capability removed, Xerxes now feared that the Greek might sail to the Hellespont and destroy the pontoon bridges. He decided to go home, marching back up through Macedonia and Thrace with the bulk of his army, but leaving behind a force of soldiers under his son-in-law Mardonius. In effect, Xerxes leaving Mardonius to die, to save himself the embarrassment of out-and-out retreat. The Spartan general Pausanias (d. 477 BC), regent for the heroic Leonidas' young son (now king of Sparta) led the Greeks across the Isthmus of Corinth, and defeated this pitiful force at Battle of Pausanias (August 479 BC). This was a two-pronged attack. The Greek navy had simultaneously pursued the remaints of the Persian fleet across the Aegean, all the way to the coast of Anatolia. The Persians, seeing Greek ships behind them, decided not to risk another sea battle; they beached their ships on the shores, and lined up to fight on land. At the Battle of Mycale (August 479 BC), the Persians relied on Ionian soldiers within their ranks to back them up. But, as the Greeks approached, the Ionians melted away. The Persians stood their ground for a while, but eventually broke and fled. The Greeks chased them all the way back to Sardis, killing as they went. Only a handful ever reached the safety of Sardis’ walls. Tradition held that both battles, Plataea and Mycale, took place on the same day. This was the end of the Greco-Persian War. For Xerxes, the sack of Athens was probably enough to allow him to present himself as a returning hero. For Greece, however, the victory not only guaranteed her freedom from foreign rule, but opened an age of huge self-confidence. Perhaps, too, it was something more, for in the repulse of a Near Eastern despot by Greek free-men lay the seed of a contrast often to be drawn. Centuries later, men would look back anachronistically to Marathon and Salamis, seeing them as the first of many times that Europe confronted Asia and won.

Classical Greece[]

Victory over the Persians launched the greatest age in Greek history. Some have spoken of a "Greek Miracle", so high do the achievements of Classical Greece (510-323 BC) appear. Yet those achievements had as their background a political history so embittered and poisonous that it ended in the demise of the very institution which had sheltered it; the city-state.

Bust of the Athenian statesman Pericles; a Roman copy of a Greek original from 430 BC. After the Persian war, Pericles came to dominate Athenian politics, and pushed his own plans for Athenian security; these involved maintaining a common Greek fleet, and sailing around to shake money out of the smaller Greek cities.

The entire Greek had joined together in a voluntary alliance to defeat a common enemy, and Sparta and Athens had covered themselves with glory. The sense of Greek identity was at its height, and men looking back at these heroic days were to wonder if some great chance to unite Greece as a nation had not then been missed for ever. After Mycale and Plataea, the Greeks had to decide what to do about the Ionian cities, for, by siding with the Greeks at the end, they had publicly declared their defiance of Persian rule. The Persian menace was battered, but far from dead, and stood just outside their city walls. The Spartans suggested that the Ionian cities simply be evacuated and abandoned to the Perians, since they could not “stand guard over Ionia forever.” But the Athenians objected forcefully that the Spartans sought to blithely abandon the Ionians, much as they had abandoned Athens itself during the invasion. They won the day. The Spartans, grudgingly, agreed to stay on; they didn’t want to continue the war with Persia, but nor did they want Athens assuming leadership of the Hellenic League. And so, the Spartan general Pausanias, hero of Plataea and still supreme commander of Greek forces, set sail to liberate Byzantium on the Hellespont, as part of a Spartan strategy of cutting-off Persian access to Europe. The siege was successful, but this proved the last time that Sparta and Athens would act as allies. An Athenian general named Xanthippus (d. 475 BC) accused Pausanias of conspiring with the Persians; one allegation was that he had released some prisoners who were friends and relations of Xerses. The unproven accusation could hardly be ignored, so Pausanias was recalled home to stand trial, and Xanthippus assumed supreme command in his place. Down in Sparta, Pausanias was acquitted, but the whiff of scandal blighted his career; he died a few years later, starved to death by his fellow citizens. In the meantime, the Spartans appointed a replacement supreme commander, but Xanthippus refused to surrender his psition. The Spartans, piqued, packed-up and went home; so did other soldiers from the Peloponnesian cities. This was the death knell for the Hellenic League. The Athenians simply declared the formation of a new confederation, the Delian League, with Athens at its head. The Spartans responded by forming their own confederation, the Peloponnesian League, whose stated purpose was purely defensive. For thirty years after Plataea and Mycale, the war with Persia dragged on. The Delian League, under undisputed Athenian leadership, supported a common fleet that press ahead with liberating various islands and cities. Throughout the 470s, the remaining Persian garrisons were driven from Macedonia, Thrace and the Aegean. A double victory at the Battle of the Eurymedon (466 BC) finally secured freedom for the cities of Ionia. The Persians fought back, but without much conviction, for their empire had begun to grow unwell from internal rancour. Meanwhile, as time passed, the members of the League contributed not ships but money. Some cities did not wish to pay up as the Persian menace dwindled, and the Athenians found themselves, perhaps without realizing it, using more and more force against their own allies. In 460, the island of Naxos tried to leave the alliance, and was besieged back into it. Thucydides writes. “This was the first instance of the confederation being forced to subjugate an allied city”; It was not, however, the last. The Delian League had gradually turned into an Athenian "empire". Other signs were the moving of its headquarters from Delos to Athens, the transfer of important legal cases to Athenian courts, and, above all, the use of tribute money for Athenian purposes. Thus were built the temples whose ruins still crown the Acropolis, the grandest being the Parthenon, dedicated to the city's patron deity Athena. On a more practical level, the Athenians built walls out from the main city down to its port at Pireus, a distance of eight miles, providing a secure connection to the sea even during times of war. All this was in large measure the work of the long-lasting statesman Pericles (d. 429 BC), one of history's first great politicians, in the sense of a man who gained power through the swaying his fellow citizens by the power of his oratory. But there was a shadowy side to Athenian democracy; the Greek were not kind to their great men. Plataea had saved Pausanias, and Marathon did nothing for the Athenian general Miltiades; after a later botched expedition, he was sentenced to death for treason. Nor did Salamis save Themistocles; he was later ostracized from Athens, and ended his days as an advisor on Greek affairs at the Persian court. Ostracism had become, not a means of punishing would-be tyrants, but a way of assuaging envy; an emotion that found its pleasure in humbling outstanding men. Herodotus eventually voluntarily left Athens, having found the constant frenzy of politics intolerable. The most famous example was Socrates, who was convicted of vague anti-Athenian wrongdoings, and, scorning ostracism, drank down hemlock instead; the circumstances of his death were recorded by his young pupil, Plato.

Homer's Achilles tending Patroclus wounded. There was a blatant competitiveness in Greek life. They admired men who won, regardless of how they won. Homer’s heroes frequently behave like rogues, but are brave, clever, and succeed. Greek culture taught men not to avoid guilt, only to fear public shame since image was very important. This perhaps explains the bitterness in Greek politics; each faction was striving to win.

The materials accumulated for a coalition against the Athenians, and the Spartans eventually took the lead; the First Peloponnesian War (460–445 BC). Sparta, like other city-states, only gradually became aware of the changing situation; that the Athens had become the bully of the Aegean. When they did, it had much to do with the fact that Athenian hegemony interfered in the internal politics of Greek cities. They were often divided about the Delian League; the richer, tax-paying citizens resented the tribute, while the poorer did not. When Athenian interventions occurred they tended to be followed by internal revolution, the result of which was imitation of Athenian democracy. So irritation over her diplomatic behaviour soon came to have an ideological flavour. Commercial factors seem to have added to the irritation. Athens was a great maritime power, as was Corinth, a member of the Peloponnesian League, who felt her interests directly threatened by Athenian navel supremacy. The more immediate events that led to war involved these two commercial rivals. In 459 BC, Athens took advantage of a border dispute between Corinth and Megara (another Peloponnesian city), to not only welcomed Megara into the Delian League, but help the city build new defences, and even send (unasked) an Athenian garrison. Two years later, Spartan and Athenian armies clashed directly in the Boeotia, the belt of land separating Athens from the rest of mainland Greece. When the dust settled, the Spartans claimed victory, but, after returning home, the Athenians took control of the whole region, except for the city of Thebes. There followed another eleven years of not very determined fighting, and then a doubtful peace. The treaty itself has not survived, but remarks in various sources suggests that: the Athenians gave up ground on the Peloponnese and the Boeotia for an end to fighting; both sides agreed not to interfere with the other’s allies. The arrangement was supposed to hold for thirty years, so is known as the Thirty Years’ Peace; it lasted fifteen.

The city walls of Athens, connecting the city to its port of Piraeus.

The great internal struggle which was to break Classical Greece, the Second Peloponnesian War (433-404 BC), began over Corcyra on the island of Corfu. Corcyra, a Corinthian colony, tried to break away from her mother-city, and asked Athens for help. Technically, Corcyra itself did not belong to either the Peloponnesian or Delian League, so Athens could answer the call without breaking the peace. On the other hand, Corinth would undoubtedly take offence, and her ally Sparta would join the fight. After two full days of public debate, the Athenians were unable to resist this chance to weaken their commercial rival. The war was back on again, and would last, with interruptions, for twenty-seven years. Essentially it was a struggle of a predominantly land-based army, against a great maritime power. On one side was the Peloponnesian League, with Corinth, Thebes, and Macedonia (an unreliable supporter) as Sparta's most important allies; they held most of mainland Greece. Athens’ allies were scattered around the Aegean shore, in the Ionian cities and the islands, the area it had dominated since the days of the Delian League. Strategy was dictated by the means available. The Spartan army would invade the land around Athens each year, devastating the farmland, and trying to exact submission. The Athenians, under Pericles' guidance, declined to engage their enemy, and instead ordered the country-folk inside the city-walls, to sit out the annual invasion, safe from bombardment or assault, which were beyond the capacity of Greek armies. Their fleet, still controlling the sea, would assure the city was fed on imported grain. Things did not work as well as this, because a devastating plague struck Athens in 430 BC. Thucydides, himself living in the city, describes the epidemic. He writes of a disease coming from Egypt and Libya ("the body was…reddish, livid, and breaking out into small pustules"); of the loss of able-bodied fighting men (“They died like sheep”); of overcrowded Athens ("stifling cabins where the mortality raged without restraint"); and of bodies burned in huge heaps at all hours of the day and night. Among the victims was Pericles himself, upon whose leadership the city had been depending. But the basic sterility of the first ten years of the war rests on the same strategic deadlock. It brought peace for a time in 421 BC, but not a lasting one.

Peloponnesian-war.jpg

The peace lasted for six years, until Athenian frustrations found an outlet in a far field scheme to replay the war and perhaps triumph. A Greek settlement on Sicily, called Segesta, asked for Athenian help against its neighbour, Syracuse. Syracuse was the wealthiest Greek city west of the Adriatic, and the most important colony of Corinth. To seize Syracuse would bring Athens immense booty, and deeply wound her commercial rival. The Athenians held visions, rallied by Alcibiades (who planned to lead the expedition), of using this wealth to build an even bigger fleet, and thus achieve a final and unquestioned supremacy over the Greek world. The result was the disastrous Sicilian Expedition (415–413 BC). In the final preparations, a drunken prank almost kept the fleet on the shores; someone defaced a series of sacred images, which many Athenians saw as a bad omen. Alcibiades himself was implicated, and stripped of his command; unwilling to face trial, he fled to Sparta. But the fleet did finally set-sail under Nikias, a good statesman but an indecisive general; over 130 ships, 25,000 infantry, and just 30 cavalry (which proved to be no match for the large and highly trained Syracusan cavalry). Arriving in Sicily, Nikias delayed and procrastinated until the Syracusans had been reinforced from Sparta. Nicias then wrote back to Athens, begging to be allowed to withdraw; claiming only a force twice as large could win. Undeterred, the Athenians promptly sent another fleet to Sicily. Nicias, aghast at being reinforced, prepared to sail this whole force home, but the Syracusans got wind of this plan. They blockaded the harbour, trapping the Athenians inside. Unable to manoeuvre in the cramped space, forty thousand Athenians then attempted to escape inland on foot, but were ridden down mercilessly by the Syracusan cavalry; Nikias himself surrendered, and was executed; some 7,000 captive Athenians were enslaved, all that was left of the mighty Athenian fleet. The Sicilian Expedition was decisive, but as a death-blow to the ambitions of Athens. It once more crystallized the alliance of her enemies, but the Spartans still could not force an Athenian surrender, and, after eight years, the war still dragged on. Most of Greeks were by now tired of fighting. In these years, the playwright Aristophanes wrote a comedy in which the women of Athens announce that they would all refrain from sex until their husbands brought the war to an end. But no such solution presented itself. Instead, the Spartans sought and obtained Persian help; the agreement, negotiated by none other than Alcibiades, provided Persian ships and money, on condition that, once Athens fell, the Ionian Greek cities would once again become Persian vassals. With a new navy, and a brilliant new admiral, Lysander (d. 395 BC), the Spartans sunk or captured Athenian ships in a series of engagements between 407 and 405 BC, culminating in the devastating Battle of Aegospotami (August 405 BC); Athens lost 171 ships in this one engagement. Lysander followed up by sailing for Athens, and blockading it. This time starvation was decisive. In 404 BC, Athens surrendered, and was stripped of her city-walls, her fleet, and all influence over the cities which had once belonged to the Delian League. This was not nearly as harsh as it could have been: Athens had not been sacked; and still had the freedom to re-establish her own government. Unfortunately,, Athens was at once convulsed by a huge internal quarrel about how to do this. Lysander was soon forced to return, and impose a junta of thirty aristocrats, known simply as The Thirty. They became infamous for cruel and oppressive rule, executing anyone suspected of wanting a restoration of Athenian democracy. After eight months, the oligarchy was overthrown, and democracy restored. This could have restarted the war all over again, but the Spartan king, seeing the mess, turned a blind eye.

Sculpture of a dying warrior from a pediment of the temple to the goddess Aphaia on the island of Aigina.

Formally the story ends here, for what followed was implicit in the material and psychological damage the Greeks had done to one another in these bitter years. Athens was desolate, broke, bitter, and filled with widows; as many as seventy-thousand people were dead through plague, war, or political purge. Sparta, the nominal victor, was little better off. Planting and harvesting had been thrown entirely off schedule, and more and more Spartans, despairing of feeding themselves, became foreign mercenaries instead. One of them is commemorated by a famous book, The Ten Thousand by Xenophon (d. 354 BC), the fascinating story of the long march homeward of an army of Greek mercenaries, after an unsuccessful attempt on the Persian throne by a brother of the king. Meanwhile, Sparta had taken over the Athenian empire, and a brief Spartan hegemony followed. Ironically, they soon became as hated as the Athenians had been. Sparta had rethought her deal with Persia, and attempted to renege on the promise to give up the Ionian cities. Instead, they sent Spartan officials and garrisons to run the cities. This was blatant empire-building, and the rest of Greece was not in the mood to tolerate it. Thirty years of war had barely ended, when Corinth, Thebes, Athens, and Argos banded together, with what was left of their armies, to force Sparta to give up her Ionian claims; the Corinthian War (395–387 BC). At first, the Spartans enjoyed a series of successes, but lost their advantage when their fleet was destroyed in 394 BC. As a result, Athens was able to enjoy a modest recovery as a power in the Greek world. With their fleet and Long Walls restored, they regained at least parts of what they had lost in the defeat of 404 BC. Alarmed by these Athenian successes, the Spartans backed-down; not to the Greeks, but to the Persians. They agreed to give up the Ionian cities after all, in return for Persian ships and money; Sparta and Persia had common interest in preventing an Athenian renaissance. Finally in 387 BC, the Persian king bought the war to an end, by issuing an ultimatum that, unless the Greeks agreed to a peace, the Persians would step in; the so-called King’s Peace, In the years that followed, Sparta took full advantage of her newly formalized hegemony, to punish disloyal allies, and break-up any coalition that it perceived as a threat. Thebes was the main victim, as the Boeotian League was disbanded, and their cities were garrisoned by Sparta. Three years later, the Spartans were expelled, and a democratic constitution established by popular revolution. In the resulting war, the Theban army, trained and led by Epaminondas (d. 362 BC), proved itself formidable. At the Battle of Leuctra (371 BC), to the astonishment of Greece, the Spartan army was defeated. It marked something of a watershed in Greek history. Spartan hegemony was not replaced by Theban, but a patchwork of new confederations; one was even set-up on the Peloponnese as a counterweight to Sparta. This was a fresh sign that the day of the city-state was passing. The history of Greece becomes less interesting after 371 BC; and also less important. What remains important is Greek civilization, and the shape of it, ironically, was to be determined by a northern Greek state that some said was not Greek at all: Macedonia.

Greek Achievement[]

Such events would be tragic in the history of any country. The passage from the glorious days of the struggle against Persia, to Persians' almost effortless recouping of their losses, thanks to Greek division, is a historical drama which grips the imagination; was a real opportunity to unite Greece squandered after Plataea and Mycale? But the fundamental reason why these few years should fascinate us is that, during them, there came to fruition the greatest achievement in civilisation the world had yet seen. in the end the Greeks are remembered as poets and philosophers; it is an achievement of the mind that constitutes their major claim on our attention.

The idea of Classical Greece is a creation of later ages. Certainly some Greeks of the fifth and fourth centuries BC saw themselves as the bearers of a culture that was superior to any other available, but the force of the Classical ideal lies in its being a view from a later age, one which looked back to Greece and found there standards by which to assess itself.

Nineteenth-century painting depicting the Athenian politician Pericles delivering one of his famous funeral oration in front of the Ekklesia ("Assembly"), which any citizen of Athens could attend, and it was his duty to do so.

We have already touched upon Athenian democracy. Attacks on it began in early times, and have continued ever since, embodying as much historical misrepresentation as have over-zealous idealizations of that same institutions. With the benefit of hindsight, Athenian democracy looks disastrously unsuccessful. If the fact that only a small élite took part in civic life is placed in the scale, then case against it seems heavy; women, landless poor, and slaves were excluded from citizenship. Anachronistic and invalid comparisons are too easy; Athens is not to be compared with democratic ideals still imperfectly realized in modern times, but with her contemporaries. More Athenians were engaged in self-government than was the case in any other state. Men of modest means, who could not have contemplated office elsewhere, listened to thoughtful arguments, weighed them seriously, and took responsible decisions. Athenian democracy, more than any other institution, brought about the liberation of men from the world of god-given rulers. Like any political system, Athenian politics may not be judged by its errors, vanities, and misjudgements, but by its working at its best; under the leadership of Pericles, it was outstanding. Athens left to posterity the myth of individual responsibility for one's own political fate. We need myths in politics, and have yet to find a better one. When all is said, Athenian democracy must be respected above all for what it cradled. The art of Classical Greece set the canons of beauty in many of the arts for two-thousand years. Though many of the greatest Greeks were not Athenians, and many Greeks rejected the Athenians’ claims to cultural superiority, in the arts, Athens' primacy was recognised at the time. In the West, the architecture and sculpture of the Romans was largely derived from Greek models. In the East, Alexander the Great's conquests initiated several centuries of exchange between Greek, Near Eastern, and Indian cultures; one movements, Greco-Buddhist art, had ramifications as far as Japan. During the Renaissance, the Classical tradition derived from Greece inspired generations of European artists.

The Greek theory of the four basic elements - air, water, earth, fire - which combined in different proportions in all matter. It illustrates the deductive bias of Greek thought and its characteristic weakness; the urge to set out a plausible theory without submitting it to experimental test.

The achievements of Greek thought are too immense and varied a subject to summarize in a few paragraphs. But the central theme is a growing confidence in rational inquiry; that a coherent and logical explanation of things could be found, that the world did not ultimately rest upon the arbitrary fiat of gods. This was not, of course, an attitude grasped by all Greeks, or even by most. It was an attitude that had to make its way in a world permeated with popular superstition and orthodox piety. Nevertheless, it was a revolutionary idea. According to the Greeks themselves, the process of replacing supernatural notions of the world, with one governed by laws of nature began in Ionia; no doubt a Near Eastern background was important in getting things started. Thales of Miletus (d. 548), regarded by Aristotle as the first great Greek thinker, was able build on Babylonian and Egyptian astronomical knowledge, allowing him to predict solar eclipse of 28 May 585 BC. Thales' pupil, Anaximander (d. 546 BC), went on to argue that, since human babies are helpless at birth, if the first human somehow appeared on earth as an infant, it would not have survived; an early step towards the concept of evolution. Xenophanes (d. 470 BC), another Ionian, perceptively said, "If the ox could paint a picture of god, it would look like an ox". But, in the end, the achievements of Greek thought involved scores of thinkers from across the whole Mediterranean settled by Greeks.

Raphael's masterpiece The School of Athens, depicting Aristotle and Plato as the central figures, with nearly every Greek philosopher found somewhere in the painting. Aristotle, like Plato, is one of the most influential people who ever lived.

Perhaps the single greatest triumph of Greek thought was in the field of mathematics, establishing most of the arithmetic and geometry which served western civilization down to the seventeenth century AD. Every schoolboy still knows the names of Pythagoras (d. 495 BC), Euclid (d. 250 BC), and Archimedes (d. 212 BC). In astronomy, the Greeks often pushed up to the limits of existing technical skills, and could not be expected to go beyond them; further progress had to await better instrumentation. Eratosthenes of Cyrene (d. 195 BC) was the first man to calculate the circumference of the Earth; Heraclides Ponticus (d. 310 BC) proposed that the Earth rotates on its axis; and Aristarchus of Samos (d. 230 BC) got so far as to propose that the Earth revolved around the Sun (though his views were set aside by contemporaries and posterity for the geocentric theory of Aristotle and Ptolemy). In medicine, Hippocrates (d. 370 BC) is traditionally regarded as the "father of medicine", while the later Galen (d. 216 AD) summarized and synthesized the work of his predecessors; his view remained largely unchallenged until the sixteenth century. Greek philosophy is strongly associated with Athens, because philosophical discussion has been shaped more by Plato (d. 348 BC) and his pupil Aristotle (d. 322 BC) than by any other two men. Disillusioned by the death of Socrates, Plato turned away from the world of practical politics, towards an idealist approach to ethical questions. The Good, he thought, was discoverable by enquiry; Truth, Beauty, Justice were other "changeless realities" which were hidden from us by the senses, but accessible to the soul by the use of reason. This idea had a significance going far beyond technical philosophy. In it can be traced a familiar later idea, that man is irreconcilably divided between the soul, of divine origin, and the body which imprisons it; an idea which was to pass into Christianity with enormous effect. In his most ambitious work, The Republic, Plato begins by asking "What is Justice?", and goes on to imagine a utopian state ruled by the wise in which justice prevails. His arguments were to provoke centuries of discussion; as one twentieth-century philosopher put it, "All Western philosophy is but a series of footnotes to Plato". The Academy of Athens, founded by Plato, has a good to be the world's first university. From it emerged Aristotle, a thinker more comprehensive and balanced, if less adventurous, than he. Aristotle was so rich a thinker, and interested in so many fields, that his historical influence is hard to delimit. What he wrote provided a framework for the discussion of philosophy, biology, physics, mathematics, logic, literary criticism, aesthetics, psychology, ethics and politics for two-thousand years. It was a vast achievement, different in kind but no less important than that of Plato. Aristotle was also a great collector and classifier of facts, anticipating another Greek invention, that of history. Herodotus (d. 425 BC) has reasonably been called the "father of history". His motivation was a wish to understand a near-contemporary event, the great struggle between Greece and Persia. The result was his Histories, a remarkable work based on a mass of eye-witness accounts and available chronicles. Herodotus' great successor, Thucydides (d. 400 BC), took a more rigorous approach, less credulous of witnesses, and more striking in his historical analysis, His subject was even more contemporary, the Peloponnesian War, which reflected his own desire to explain the causes which had brought his city of Athens, and Greece, to their dreadful plight. History was itself evidence of a whole range of literature created by the Greeks. As Homer shows, the earliest Greek literature was lyrical poetry, performed at religious festivals, and closely linked with moral teaching; if the works were written down, this was merely to preserve them, and perform them in a consistent manner. The origins of Greek theatre lie in the revels of the devotees of Dionysus, god of fertility and wine. In keeping with the god's special interests, his festivals were exciting occasions, with poetry accompanies by choral singing, dance, and mimes. In 535 BC, we are told, a priest named Thespis introduced a new element; he performed the individual characters in the story, distinguishing between them with the aid of masks. In effect, Thespis was the first actor, from which we get the word "thespian". Further innovation and more actors followed, and, within a century, we have reached the full, mature theatre of the three great tragic playwrights; Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. In the early fifth century BC, the scope of theatre was broadening; drama and comedy developed as forms in their own right. Western theatre comes, in large measure, from the three genres of Greek theatre.

Greek culture still had a long life ahead at the end of Classical Greece, for Greek was to become the lingua franca of all the Near East, as well as much of the Mediterranean, thanks to Alexander the Great Then in the second century BC, Roman expansion made Greece teacher of Europe. It has been said that Greek thought actually came in the end to stand in the way of scientific progress. since their ideas were turned into dogmas, and, such was the reputation of Plato and Aristotle, that nobody could challenge them. The classical four elements of matter (water, fire, earth, air), the four humors of the body (blood, yellow bile, black bile, phlegm), and the geocentric model of the universe all illustrate the characteristic weakness of Greece science; an over-emphasis on logic and abstract deduction, rather than the observation. Greek thought arose from its own dynamism, and did not always lead to a greater understanding of nature, but sometimes to dead ends, blind alleys, and extravagant fantasies. But it was never monolithic, as it was to become in medieval times. So the ultimate fault is with later men.

Emergence of the Roman Republic[]

All around the Mediterranean shores, and across wide tracts of western Europe, the Balkans, and Anatolia, relics can still be seen of a great achievement, the empire of Rome. In some places – Rome itself, above all – they are very plentiful. To explain why they are there takes up a thousand years of history.

La Lupa Capitolina ("The Capitoline Wolf"), depicting a she-wolf suckling the mythical twin founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus. It was used as the emblem for the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, attesting to the enduring nature of the myth. Even the Roman historian Livy, our most important source for the early history of Rome, acknowledges that the story is a fable.

Rome was believed to have deep roots. According to Roman legend, a king named Numitor was ruling over two Latin towns in central Italy, just south of the Tiber; he claimed to be a descendant of Trojan hero Aeneas, who had made his way west from the shattered city of Troy. The older of the towns was called Lavinium; the second, planted as a colony, was called Alba Longa. In 794 BC, Numitor's wicked younger brother Amulius mounted a coup that seized the throne and forced Numitor to flee alone into exile. To secure power, Amulius killed his brother's sons, and forced his daughter, Rhea Silvia, to become a priestess of the goddess Vesta (a Vestal Virgin), rendering her unable to have children on pain of death. Despite this, she became pregnant with the twins Romulus and Remus; myth recounts her seduction by the god Mars. Once born, Amulius ordered the twin boys drowned in the Tiber. However, as the river was in flood, the servant instead left them on the swollen riverbank to perish. In the most famous episode, the infants were discovered by a she-wolf, who suckled them until a shepherd, Faustulus, found and adopted them. Year later, the adult twins got rid of their wicked great-uncle, and restored Numitor to his throne. They were then seized by an urge to found a new settlement on the spot where they had been discovered as infants. Their grandfather approved; Alba Longa had grown as large as Lavinium, and a third town was needed. However, the sibling rivalry, that had erupted between Numitor and Amulius, was reborn in Romulus and Remus. They quarrelled over who should be the ruler, and asked the gods for a sign; things went downhill from there. Remus, stationed on the Aventine Hill, was the first to see six auspicious birds (vultures); his brother, over on the Aventine, saw twelve. Both claimed to have won divine approval; one based on primacy of arrival, the other on number. Angry words ensued, followed all too soon by blows, and in the course of the affray Remus was killed. The newly founded city was thus named after Romulus, who fortified the Palatine Hill as the centre of Rome. The legendary founding date was 21 April 753 BC. According to Livy, Romulus was also behind one of the most notorious acts in Roman history, commonly known as the Rape of the Sabine Women. To grow his new settlement, Romulus opened the gates to all fugitives, wanderers, and other cast-offs. This filled the city, but he had a problem; Rome's greatness “seemed likely to last only for a single generation”, as there were almost no women. And it was so full of undesirables that all of the neighbouring regions refused to send them wives. Consequentially, Romulus devised a plan; to throw a huge festival for Neptune, and invite the people from all the nearby towns, including the tribal Sabines. At the height of the festivities, Romulus gave a signal at which the Romans distracted the Sabine men, and kidnapped all of the young women. The women, according to the tale, were soon mollified by "honeyed words", and accepted their new husbands. But the outraged Sabines marched on Rome with their army. A massacre seemed likely to ensue, until the Sabine women flooded onto the battlefield, putting themselves between the two armies, and begging them to cease; as either their husbands or their fathers would die. The battle came to an end, and the Sabines agreed to unite in one nation with the Romans; the Sabines of Rome resettled on the Capitoline Hill, which they had captured during the brief war.

We need not take these oft-told legends seriously. Historical writing did not begin in Rome until the third-century BC, and Roman writers were magpies, collecting bits of other peoples’ stories for themselves; the story of the Romulus and his brother is clearly a mishmash of older Greek myths, such as the twins Castor and Pollux, not to mention hints of the Sargon-Moses trope. But that does not mean the story should be discounted altogether. Archaeology tells us that Rome began as two settlements, one perched for safety on the Palatine Hill and the other on the Capitoline, each hill held by a different Latin tribe, that gradually merged into something more like a town. More than that, it point to a melting pot of different cultures right at the very origins of Rome. However, the location of Rome had nothing to do with a fortuitous encounter with a friendly wolf, but rather strategic economics. The Tiber was a natural barrier across the land route which ran up and down the west coast of central Italy. The first place at which it could be bridged was about fifteen miles from the coast, where an island in the river was overlooked by several steep hills. Boats could make it this far up river, but marauding pirates would not risk venturing into such a likely trap. It was an obvious place for a prosperous settlement. But Rome was not the only city growing on the fertile plains of the Italian peninsula. By the time Greek ships arrived to settle colonies in the far south - Magna Graecia (750-272 BC) - Italy was already a confusion of peoples, languages, and customs. It was the Etruscans who developed the first advanced civilisation on the peninsula. Despite much scholarly effort, they remain a mysterious people. Etruria was a loose league of independent city-states, probably ruled by kings, stretching from the Tiber River in the south, to the upper Po Valley in the north; the name of Tuscany still recalls their prominence. An energetic people, the Etruscans brought metallurgy to a high level, and vigorously exploited the iron, copper, and tin deposits of so-called Metal-Bearing Hills (the Tolfa Mountains); as well as on Elba island, off the coast. They grew relatively rich through trade with the Celtic world to the north, and Magna Graecia in the south. They were also quick to learn from others. The Etruscans were literate, using the Greek alphabet to write their own language; despite the recognizable letters, the language itself had not been decoded. Much of their artistic, architectural, and religious traditions were also heavily influenced by the Greeks.

Illustration depicting the early growth of Rome during the kingdom.

In its most ancient incarnation, the city of Rome was a kingdom; the Roman Kingdom (753–509 BC). The traditional account maintains that a succession of “Seven Kings of Rome” ruled the city and its territory; an average reign of 35 years, which most modern historians find unlikely. Since most contemporary records were lost in the Gallic sack of Rome in 390 BC, all accounts of the kings must be carefully questioned. The kingdom was established by unanimous acclaim with Romulus (753–716 BC) at the helm. He is credited with establishing many of Rome's oldest legal, political, military, religious, and social institutions. Even the semi-divine Romulus was no more able to rule autocratically than a Greek king was. The Senate, an advisory council of one hundred of the most noble men in the community, kept tabs on the king's power; these men were called Patres (father or head), and their descendants became the Patricians. Romulus also divided the populace into thirty Curiae, named after thirty of the Sabine women who had intervened to end the war; the Curiae formed the voting units in the popular assembly. Romulus reigned for thirty-seven years, and stamped the Romans early with a martial spirit; in addition to the war with the Sabines, rarely did a year go by without some quarrel with a neighbour. According to the legend, at age fifty-four, Romulus vanished while reviewing his troops. The Senate declared that he had been taken up to Mt. Olympus, and made a god; specifically, Quirinus; one of the three major gods of Rome, in effect a personification of the city itself. After initial public acceptance, suspicions of foul play by the Patricians began to grow. They certainly asserted their power, ruling by committee for one year. Under popular pressure, the Senate finally chose Numa Pompilius (715–672 BC) to succeed Romulus, on account of his reputation for justice and piety. Numa's reign was marked by peace and religious reform. He built a new temple to Janus, and, after establishing peace with Rome's neighbours, closed its double doors for the first time; an enduring symbol of either wartime or peace. He also established the Vestal Virgins at Rome; the priesthoods of Jupiter, Mars and Quirinus; the Roman calendar of holy days and regular days; and the office and duties of Pontifex Maximus (chief high priest of Rome), a title still held today by the Pope. Like Romulus, Numa is probably more legend than historical figure, his reign representing a transition; Rome was moving from a small town established by war, towards a settled, literate, and mature city. If the Romans experienced a period of peace, then it was brief. The next two kings, Tullus Hostilius (672–640 BC) and Ancus Marcius (640–616 BC) were as warlike as Romulus had been. Livy tell the story of war after war. The city of Alba Longa, which together with Romulus had once founded Rome as a colony, was completely destroyed, and its population integrated into Rome. The territory of Rome was doubled in size, and extended all the way to the sea, where the port of Ostia was founded.

Illustration of the Circus Maximus, the first Roman chariot-racing stadium built under Tarquin the Elder. It started out as an underwhelming piece of land surrounded by wooden perimeter seating, but was built into a grand and beautiful stadium. In its fully developed form, over 150,000 spectators could accommodated, and it became the model for circuses throughout the Roman Empire.

Lucius Tarquinius Priscus (616–578 BC), or Tarquin the Elder, was the fifth king of Rome, and the first of Etruscan birth. After migrating to Rome, Tarquin gained the favour of king Ancus Marcius, who adopted him as his son and successor. After a reign of nearly fourty years, he was then succeeded by his son-in-law, Servius Tullius (578–534 BC), another Etruscan. These two kings mask an historical truth; Etruscan hegemony had extended even further south, swallowing not only Rome but all the other Latin cities. Yet Rome did not become part of some "Etruscan empire"; there was none, only a loose confederation of Etruscan cities, that shared a language and culture; sometimes acting as allies, but sometimes enemies; and as spikily independent as any Greek city. Etruscans moved into a city already occupied by several different groups - this one was more influential than all the rest. Both kings were very capable, as administrators and military leaders. They reorganized Rome's army, and waged successful wars against Rome's neighbour, including against other Etruscan kings. During Servius Tullius' reign, the other Latin cities were persuaded to acknowledge the leadership of Rome; the Latin League. All this brought great wealth to the city. which was invested in building projects. Rome got her first bridge across the Tiber, the Pons Sublicius; walls were thrown around the seven nearby hills, one by one; a great public space, later known as the Roman Forum, as the centre of Roman government; the Temple of Jupiter upon the Capitoline Hill; the Circus Maximus, a giant stadium for chariot races; and sewers were dug to drain the city's waste (a less dramatic but infinitely more useful accomplishment). These structures were all built by Etruscans. Romans had little talent for building, but, in Etruria, paved streets of standardized widths were planned out in a grid; like the long-ago cities of Harappan India. Archaeology shows that, during this period, the huts in which most Romans lived began to be knocked down in favour of stone houses. The very material of Rome gained an Etruscan stamp. Tarquin the Elder introduced the Etruscan symbols of kingship: a gold crown and purple robe. He was attended by twelve bodyguards (known as Lictors), each of whom carried an axe bound in wooden rods (the Fasces); an enduring symbol of magisterial power. More superficial but striking examples include the toga (an Etruscan invention), gladiatorial games, taking of auguries (reading omens from the entrails of sacrificial animals, or the behaviour of birds), and, most famously, the Roman Triumph, the highest honour bestowed upon a victorious general.

Sixteenth century depiction of the rape of Lucretia, which the sparked a political revolution in Rome. Modern historians regard these events as quasi-mythological detailing of an aristocratic coup, rather than a popular revolution. They fit a narrative of a personal vengeance against a tyrant leading to his overthrow, which was common among Greek cities.

Not long after the end of Servius Tullius’ forty-four-year reign, a political revolution overthrew the Roman monarchy. Livy provides a suitably dramatic story. Servius was killed in a conspiracy by his own daughter Tullia, and her husband Lucius Tarquinius (534–509 BC). In Livy's account, Tullia becomes the original Lady Macbeth, stoking her husband's wickedness and ambition. As a usurper, Tarquin could rule only through fear; he formed an armed bodyguard to intimidate Rome into obedience; punished by death or exile men whom he happened to suspect or dislike; disrespected Roman custom and the Senate; and consulted neither the Senate nor popular assembly on matters of government. All this was serious offences, but the last straw came when his son raped Lucretia, a noblewoman of impeccable virtue. Lucretia told her relatives, and then committed suicide in shame. Her body lay in a public square while her husband cried shouted out to his countrymen to avenge his wife’s death. It did not take long for indignation at the rape by the son to morph into indignation over the tyranny of the father. The prominent families, led by Lucius Junius Brutus and Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus, roused the people of Rome to insurrection. Tarquin the Proud himself was outside the city at the time. He rushed back to find the city-gates shut against him. When the army enthusiastically joined the insurrection, he was forced to flee north into Etruria. As a result, the Senate abolished the monarchy and instituted a republic. The expulsion of last king of Rome probably does have a historical base, but it is unlikely that the Romans suddenly realized the shortcomings of monarchy. Around 535 BC, the Etruscans had enter a steady decline, over-strained by struggle with the western Greeks and Carthage. So the expulsion of Tarquin represents Rome breaking away from Etruscan dominion, during a wider revolt of the Latin peoples, who thereafter went their own ways. The traditional date was 509 BC, though modern scholars are sceptical of much of the traditional chronology. Many suspect patriotic Roman historians inserted a few fabricated "consular years" into order to predate the founding of Athenian Democracy in 507 BC; the Romans had a hard time believing they weren't first and best at everything.

Nineteenth century fresco depicting a sitting of the Roman Senate. The constitutional theory was concisely expressed in the motto carried by the monuments and standards of Rome until well into imperial times: SPQR, the abbreviation of the Latin words for "the Roman Senate and People". Theoretically, ultimate sovereignty always rested with the people, though the actual working of the Republic was not as democratic as they appeared on the surface.

The Roman Republic (509–27 BC) was to last for almost five-hundred years, and even after that its institutions survived in name. To replace the monarch, Brutus and Collatinus were elected leaders of the city, who together exercised kinglike powers to declare war and make decrees - but with a difference; their power would last only for a single year, and each man could veto the other’s actions. Within a few years, Consuls’ powers were broken down further by adding other magistrates; first the Praetor with judicial authority, and then the Censor with the power to conduct the census. Moreover, Consuls rarely pursued policies without the Senate's deliberative input. According to Livy, Brutus' first act was to bring the people together to swear an oath that they would suffer no man to be king in Rome. But, of course, Tarquin the Proud several attempts to retake the throne, including a conspiracy involving Brutus' own sons, the war with Veii and Tarquinii, and finally the war with Clusium; but none succeeded. The Republic responded to these emergencies by altering its new government, only eight years after it had begun. In 501 BC, for the first time, a Dictator was appointed; one man entrusted with unquestioned authority over civil and military matters within Rome; there was no appeal to the Senate or the popular assembly; no help anywhere but in implicit obedience. However, the office of Dictator was not, as in modern times, license for unlimited power. The Roman Dictators had power for a maximum of six-months. Until Sulla and Caesar in the first century BC, no man appointed to the Dictatorship failed to resolve the military emergency, and then immediately resign. Given that the Etruscans had been dominant for so many decades, their failure to recover Rome marked a shift in the political balance of power. And they were just about to lose their grip on the lands around the Po Valley to marauding Celts from Gaul (present-day France). According to Livy, they invaded in four successive waves, beginning in 505 BC, driven by a population explosion and ceaseless internal strife in Gaul. These Gauls made their way into Italy, drove the Etruscans from their northern cities, and founded their own; Milan, Verona, Trento, and Vicenza among them.

Depiction of the Secession of the Plebs, in which the the Plebeian citizens threatened to abandon Rome en masse, and leave the Patrician order to themselves. This proved an effective strategy in the "Conflict of the Orders" due to strength in numbers; plebs made up the vast majority of the population (all shops, workshops and commerce would largely cease), while the Patricians was the minority aristocratic class. Scholars believed as many as five such secessions occurred.

While the Etruscans were no longer a serious worry, Rome had troubles of her own. Specifically, how to combine people with great power (Patricians, in effect, an aristocracy descended from the Senators who had served the old kings), and those with less power (Plebians, everyone else) into a harmonious whole. The Plebs outnumbered the Patricians, but the Patricians held a disproportionate amount of land and wealth, and, by custom and law, political offices. As in Athens, the problem of debt and debt-slavery had become acute. In 495 BC, Plebian unhappiness was brought to public riot when an old soldier, once famed for his exploits, hobbled into the Roman Forum. He was recognised, and more and more people gathered to hear his story; while away at war, he had to borrow money to feed his family, pledging himself as security; unable to pay back, he and his family became slaves; his back was marked from beatings given by his wealthy Patrician master. Their only strength in Rome was that of numbers, and they used it; the first Secession of the Plebs. The Plebeian populace of Rome took themselves off to Sacred Mountain, over three miles form the city, and began building a new settlement. In Rome, the Patrician were thrown into panic, as the city froze up, vulnerable to attack, its daily work undone. Finally, the Senate and Consuls proposed a solution. From now on, they would be joined in government by special magistrates, called Tribunes, who would always be appointed from the ranks of the Plebians; it was the first office blocked off to Patricians, as so many offices had been to Plebs. Their job would be to protect the Plebs from injustice: they had veto power over the passage of legislation, and were "above the law" (personally sacrosanct, any person, even a Consul, who laid hands on them would be outlawed, and the whole populace entitled to kill such person without fear of penalty). This was the first showdown of the so-called Conflict of the Orders (495-287 BC); a long-running political struggle between Plebeians and Patrician. Over the next half century, the jockeying for power between Consuls, Senators, and Tribunes threw into sharp relief Rome’s need for a written law code; Romans who had visited Athens came back talking of the laws of Solon, which had been written in an attempt to alleviate inequality. So in 451 BC, a board of ten lawmakers, the Decemvirs, was appointed, in place of the regular Consuls. and tasked with codifying the laws that govern Rome. The Laws of the Twelve Tables that resulted were written out on wood and set in the Forum, where all could see them. Although this was a step in the right direction, there was still plenty of injustice in Rome. Most infamously, Table XI decrees, “Marriage between a Patrician and a Plebian is forbidden”; a regulation repealed in 445 BC after a particularly savage debate in the Senate.

Brennus depicted on the figurehead of the nineteenth-century French battleship Brennus.

These reforms did not entirely soothe Rome’s internal aches, but eased them enough to begin expanding over central Italy. In 437 BC, the Roman began a long war with an old enemy, Veii, the richest and most important of the Etruscan cities. The next three decades were filled with minor battles, until the year 405 BC, when Rome mounted a siege against Veii. This proved to be another drawn-out campaign; with no knowledge of siege-craft, the Romans were camped outside the city-walls until 396 BC, when the city finally fell. Livy writes, Veii had “inflicted worse losses than she suffered”, which implies that the siege had significantly weakened the Roman army. The Romans were just taking a breath when a message came from the Etruscan city of Clusium to the north, another old enemy. For a century now, the Gauls had been pushing south, drawing closer and closer to Clusium. The danger must have been extreme for the Etruscans to swallow their pride, and appeal for help from Rome. The overstretched Roman army had no real helpt to give, so, instead, the Senate sent envoys to negotiate a peace. This might have been fruitful, except that the Romans lost their tempers, and made threats. The Gauls, who needed little encouragement, took this as a challenge: “They flamed into the uncontrollable anger which is characteristic of their race," Livy writes, "and set forward, with terrible speed, on the path to Rome”. At the resulting Battle of the Allia (July 387 BC), the Roman army formed up at the Tiber river. At first, the Gauls led by Brennus held back, suspecting a trap, since the Roman soldiers were so few. When they did plunge into the Roman line, it was first a rout, and then a slaughter; fleeing men drowned in the Tiber, while most survivors could only make for Veii. Utterly defenceless, the whole Roman population withdrew to the Capitoline Hill. The Gauls flooded-in, killing any stragglers, and burning indiscriminately. Trapped on the Capitoline, the Romans could hardly believe their eye, but neither could the Gauls get to them. According to legend, the Romans were only saved from a sneak attack by the honking of the sacred geese of the goddess Juno, which woke them. Presumably a long enough siege could have starved them out, but, after seven months, plague broke out in the Gaul's camp. So they were ready to listen when the Romans made a proposition: they would pay the Gauls to go away. According to Livy, the Gauls cheated, using unbalanced scales to weigh the gold. When the Romans protested, Brennus tossed his sword onto the scales (further unbalancing them), and exclaimed, Vae victis! ("Woe to the vanquished!"). The Romans emerged from the Capitoline to rebuild, hastily, in case the enemy should return. “All work was hurried,” Livy writes, “and nobody bothered to see that streets were straight. Buildings went up wherever there was room for them. This explains why the lay-out of Rome is more like a squatters’ settlement than a properly planned city". The first barbarian sack of Rome was not only a humiliation, but left a permanent mark on the city itself. Yet Rome appears to have recovered remarkably quickly, thanks to the inspired leadership of Marcus Furius Camillus (365 BC); he was Triumphed four times, Dictator five times, and honoured with the title of Second Founder of Rome. By the mid-fourth century BC, Rome was tightening Its grip on central Italy once again.

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