The Greeks defend themselves, 499–479 BC
In the early years of the Fifth century BC, the Greeks found themselves under attack from their eastern neighbours, the Persians. The Persian Empire had expanded greatly during the previous century, and the next natural step for the Persians was to move into Europe.
Much of our knowledge of this period comes from the historian and researcher Herodotus. He researched and recorded the growth of the Persian Empire, and his account – some nine books in length – comes to a grand finale with the various battles between the Greeks and the Persians. In the first century BC, the Roman Statesman and Orator Cicero called him the ‘Father of History’. Although he was not the first person to write History, he is the first known historian to look at a more than local history. His achievement was considerable, and his work stands at the beginning of the subject which we call History today.
It is important to remember when studying this period that the Greeks were not a single people: they loved their independence, and lived in relatively small city-states or poleis which were politically separate. The geography of Greece with its mountains separating the plains in which people lived encouraged different peoples to live independently. No Greek would have wanted his neighbour to tell him what to do. Equally, to spend time fighting for a neighbour city, with whom a city might have had a border dispute only months before would be surprising. Without an external threat, the Greeks lived independently in their seperate states. When, however, the organised machine of the Persian Empire threatened them, they had to think again, and consider the things which they held in common. They had to find a way of working together, which would enable them to maintain their unique way of life.
The Persians, on the other hand, had a highly organised empire. As it grew, they developed a high level of political and cultural organisation. Their roads, for example, linked distant parts of the empire in a way which would have seemed impossible to their Greek neighbours. It is difficult to assess the Persian empire, because much of the information which we possess comes from Greek sources who are often biased against the Persians or have only a partial understanding of their culture. For example, a Persian word meaning ‘subject’ (i.e. subject of a king) was translated into Greek as doulos or slave. This reflected a Greek view that the Persians were all slaves of their king. This was almost certainly not so, as the Persians had considerable respect for the customs of the countries which became part of their empire.
For the Greeks, the conflict with the Persians was a successful attempt to maintain their freedom. To what extent they would really have lost it had they been conquered must remain a mystery. It was also a defining moment in the development of Greek history. The Greek and Persian cultures went on diverging routes, and, as a result of the bravery of the Greeks in the fifth century, European history moved in a different direction, with a flourishing of culture in fifth century Athens which might otherwise have been very different.
Context: Greek relations with the Persians under Darius and Xerxes
1.1 The Expansion of the Persian Empire into Ionia
Kings of Persia
Cyrus the Great 559-530BC
Cambyses II 530-522BC
Darius I 522-486BC
Xerxes I 486-465BC
Just before 546BC Croesus, the King of Lydia, made a fateful decision. He decided to attack his neighbours, the Persians. He had consulted one of the great oracles in the Greek world – that of Delphi. The Delphic oracle, greatly respected in the ancient world as a source of wisdom, responded by telling him that if he crossed the river Halys, a great empire would fall. Croesus attacked, and lost his own empire. In a battle at Sardis he was soundly defeated.
On the throne of Persia at the time was Cyrus (559-530BC), later known as Cyrus the Great for his conquests. In 550 BC he had defeated the Median ruler Astyages, and added the Median Empire to his own Persian Kingdom, creating one empire that is also refered to as the Achaemenid Empire. This was a fateful moment: the expansion of the Persian Empire had begun in earnest.
The Greeks of this area had been under Lydian rule, but the defeat of Croesus changed all that. The Persians, under the command of Mazares and Harpagus, took under their control the Greek peoples who lived on the west coast of Asia Minor, today part of modern Turkey.
One of the common questions in the area was ‘Do you remember the day the Persians came?’ At that time they appear to have been so desperate to escape that Bias of Priene proposed at the league of Ionian states that they all move and re-found their cities in southern Italy. This did not happen, but it gives a sense of how the Greeks must have felt about losing their independence to the Persians.
Cyrus’ conquests did not end with Lydia and the Greeks of Ionia: he also conquered Babylon and Egypt. He left his successors a mighty empire.
1.2 Power within the Persian Empire
The Persian Empire seems to have had a very organised and centrally controlled system. The King himself was regarded as being almost divine in status.
Darius was the Persian king from 522-486BC. He crossed the Bosphorus twice: once to invade Scythia, now in Southern Russia, and then the second time to attack Greece. Many of his exploits are described in the Bisitun Inscription, which was written in Elamite, Babylonian and Old Persian. It was cut into the cliff face of Mount Bisitun in northwest Iran. It lists the countries he ruled as Persia, Elam, Babylonia, Assyria, Arabia, Egypt, Ionia, Lydia, Media, Armenia, Cappadocia, Parthia, Drangiana, Aria, Chorasmia, Bactria, Sogdiana, Gandara, Scythia, Sattagydia, Arachosia and Maka.
Under King Darius (522-486BC), the Persian Empire became far more organised. Herodotus tells us that he set up twenty provincial governorships or satrapies; governors were appointed, and then each nation within the empire assessed for taxes. The King also seems to have had a system to ensure that he knew what was going on throughout the empire: a number of Greek authors (Herodotus and Aristophanes) mention the ‘King’s Eye’: which seems to have been the name for senior officials. The Greeks thought the these officials would report whatever happened back to the king, and anything out of line would be punished.
Herodotus (I.131-140) gives us some information about Persian customs. He notes that the Persians are particularly willing to adopt customs from other cultures. Other details include the following: boys’ education lasts from 5 until 20, and they were taught three things: to ride, to use a bow and to speak the truth; they regard telling lies as more disgraceful than anything else, and next to that owing money; even the king is not allowed to put a man to death for a single offence.
Herodotus describes the nature of Persian society and the power and position of the king.
When they meet one another in the streets, one would recognise whether these people were of the same rank as they met one another in the following way. For, before speaking they kiss each other on the lips if neither is inferior; they kiss on the cheeks, if there is a small difference, and, if one is much less noble than the other, he falls to the ground and prostrates himself before the other. Of all people, they honour those who are closest to them after their own people, then second in line they honour those who are next furthest away…
Read Herodotus 1.134.
(a) What does Herodotus 1.134 tell us about Persian Society and its values?
(b) What do you think a Greek would have thought of this custom? Explain your answer.
The inscriptional evidence gives us a sense of the official view of the Persian king: he was appointed by the single god Ahura Mazda, and ruled with his authority. A key inscription comes from Naqs-e Rustam, where four Persian kings were buried some 6 km from Persepolis. It reads as follows:
Darius the king says: ‘When Ahura Mazda saw this earth in commotion, he thereafter bestowed it upon me, he made me king. I am king. By the favour of Ahura Mazda I subdued it; they did what I said, as was my desire. If now you should think “How many are the countries which Darius the king held?”, look at the sculptures of those who bear the throne, then you will know. Then it will become known to you: the spear of a Persian man has gone far. Then shall it become known to you: a Persian man has given battle far indeed from Persia.’
Darius the king says: ‘That which has been done, all that I did by the will of Ahura Mazda. Ahura Mazda brought me aid, until I had done the work. May Ahura Mazda protect me from harm, and my royal house, and this land. This I pray of Ahura Mazda, this may Ahura Mazda give me.
‘O man, that which is the command of Ahura Mazda, let it not seem repugnant to you. Do not leave the right path, do not rise in rebellion!’
(First insciption from Naqs-e Rustam, Lactor 16, p.42-3)
1. What does this tell us about the position of the King in the Persian Empire? Refer to at least two details and explain what you think they tell us.
2. Do you think that this is a reliable source on how the Persian King was seen by his people? Think about the official view and the view of ordinary people.
3. Given what you know about the Greeks, in what ways do you think this helps to explain why the Greeks were so keen to fight against the Persians and avoid becoming part of their empire?
1.3 The Ionian Revolt
The Greek world was not limited to the area which we call Greece today. Many Greek people lived on the east coast of Asia Minor – what is today Turkey. These people were known as the Ionians: they had ethnic and cultural links with the Athenians, who were regarded as their mother city. In the Seventh and Sixth Centuries BC, many larger states had sent out small groups of leading citizens to found new cities and create colonies around the Mediterranean. Some of the cities in Ionia claimed that they were related to the Athenians in this way, whilst others appear to have been from a different cultural background. Nevertheless, these cities had a fairly close connection with the Athenians and other mainland Greeks – they were very much part of the Greek world.
They were also very significant in the development of Greek thought. Many leading intellectuals of the day lived in this area, and propounded their theories about the nature of the universe. One such man was Herodotus, the historian, on whom we rely for much of our information about this period. He came from Halicarnassus (modern Bodrum) and appears to have had both Greek and non-Greek blood flowing in his veins.
In 508 BC the Athenians, under the guidance of Cleisthenes, made changes to their system of government which would ultimately see their state become one of the most extreme forms of democracy that the world has seen, where every male citizen had a vote on each matter of policy. The Athenians had begun to move away from living under a tyrant, and the individual citizens were beginning to take power for themselves.
The development of democracy in Athens may have had an effect on the peoples of Ionia, who were racially related to them, and may have been in touch with them. This may have given the Ionians the idea that the time for tyranny was over, and it was now right that they should rule themselves.
There were, however, other factors at play. The Persians levied considerable taxes on the states in Ionia, which probably had a crippling effect on their economy. Equally important were the military levies from the Persian central government, which required the Ionians to produce soldiers to fight in Darius’ army. After the revolt, many were required to fight against their fellow Greeks when Darius launched the Marathon campaign. The requirement to fight for an alien king may have proved too much for them.
Whilst the people themselves may have wished to rebel for the reasons outlined above, Herodotus himself places considerable emphasis on key individuals, such as Aristagoras and Histiaeus. He describes how their personal ambition led to the rebellion.
Three Forms of Government
In Greece there were three main forms of government. These were used in different states at different times.
In the Sixth Century, many states in Greece were governed by a single ruler or tyrant. Although some tyrants were extremely harsh rulers, not all were. Polycrates of Samos, for example, and Peisistratus of Athens both greatly improved their cities. The idea of a tyrant always being evil is a more modern idea.
Democracy literally means ‘people’s power’ (demos – people; kratos – power). The people have the power. In Athens this meant that the Assembly of all male citizens over 18 had the ultimate power: they approved all decisions, and officials were either elected or chosen by lot.
A small group of usually wealthy people take political power. The mass of the people is not in power.
Herodotus 3.80-83 recounts a debate in Persia which discusses these three forms of government. This is well worth reading for a fuller understanding of these concepts.
1. Explain what is meant by each of the following:
2. Describe two possible causes of the Ionian Revolt.
Outline of the Revolt
In 499BC the inhabitants of Ionia decided to rebel; whether of their own accord or due to their leaders’ ambitions. The rebellion began on the island of Naxos, where the inhabitants decided to rise up against their oligarchic masters. The oligarchs went to the tyrant of Miletus, Aristagoras, to ask for help. Aristagoras, who saw this as an opportunity to gain power for himself, recognised the need for Persian military assistance. He asked Artaphernes, the local ruler in Sardis, for help. With the agreement of king Darius, Artaphernes sent an expedition under Megabates with 200 ships to crush Naxos. However, Megabates and Aristagoras quarrelled, and the Persian admiral warned the Naxians of the impending attack. They were therefore able to make the necessary preparations and withstand the siege for four months. This completely destroyed any prospect of Aristagoras bringing all the cities of Ionia under Persian control. His reputation with the Persian hierarchy was ruined. Caught in this difficult situation, he decided to incite a rebellion amongst the Asiatic Greeks against Persian rule. He would bring democracy to the peoples of Ionia.
Since the aim of the rebellion was apparently to establish democracies, Aristagoras began by resigning his position as tyrant of Miletus. At the same time many of the tyrants in the area took the same action. The Ionians then planned to gain help from mainland Greece, and so Aristagoras went to Sparta to seek their support, but was unsuccessful there.
He then visited Athens, and the Athenians agreed to send twenty ships. Herodotus describes these ships as the ‘beginning of troubles between Greeks and barbarians’: in his account the Athenian decision to help in this way brought Athens into conflict with Persia for the first time, and led to Darius’ desire to take vengeance on them.
Aristagoras with his own forces and those from Athens and Eretria who had agreed to help marched up to Sardis and occupied the city. Whilst they were there, a fire broke out which destroyed much of the town. The Athenians returned home at this point, but their involvement in the destruction of Sardis brought them to the attention of the king himself. Darius was not amused.
The revolt continued with further action in the south, and many of the cities threw off their Persian masters. However, when the Persians began to regain control, Aristagoras fled to Thrace. The rebellion came to an end shortly afterwards when in 494BC, the Persians laid siege to Miletus. The Greek fleet, which included some 353 ships, was nearby at Lade. A battle between the Greeks and the Persians followed, in which many of the ill-disciplined Greek states simply fled. Miletus was taken by storm, and Caria was recaptured. The rebellion was over. The Persians were back in control. They made one concession, however: they established democracies in Ionia.
1. Look at a map of Greece and the Ionian coast and identify: Athens, Eretria, Miletus, Thrace and Sardis. State briefly what happened in each place.
2. Briefly outline the Ionian revolt.
3. Explain two reasons why the Ionians rebelled.
508/7BC Cleisthenes and the Establishment of Democracy in Athens
499BC The Outbreak of the Ionian Revolt
498BC The Burning of Sardis
494BC Siege of Miletus and the Battle of Lade
490BC Battle of Marathon
484BC Birth of Herodotus
480BC Battles of Thermopylae, Artemisium and Salamis
479BC Battles of Plataea and Mycale
449BC Peace between Greece and Persia
444/3BC Herodotus moves to Thurii
Theme: The Battle of Marathon
The battle of Marathon was one of the most significant moments in Greek history. It was the first time that the full might of the Persian Empire was brought to bear on the mainland Greeks. The Athenians with some help from the Plataeans managed to force the Persians to abandon their efforts to conquer the Greeks in Europe. Prior to this, Darius had sent messengers to various Greek cities to see whether they would accept his authority. The Persians used the term ‘to give earth and water’ to mean this, so the heralds went to each city asking for earth and water. A number of Greek cities, including the island of Aegina near Athens, offered the necessary earth and water to Darius. Darius was clearly interested in extending his territory into the Greek mainland, but he was not fully prepared for the response of the Athenians.
Some Greek states decided that the option of coming under Persian rule was more sensible than trying to oppose it. Submission to Persia was known by the Greeks as medising. This was because the Persians were known as Medes. Many states, most notably Thebes, medised. They probably preferred a quiet life paying taxes rather than the threat of military action.
2.1 Connections between the Ionian Revolt and the campaign at Marathon
Herodotus makes a close connection between the Ionian revolt and Darius’ attempts to invade Greece. He called the twenty ships which the Athenians sent in support of Aristagoras’ request the beginning of trouble between the Greeks and non-Greeks.
When Darius heard that Sardis had been taken and burned by the Athenians and Ionians, he asked who the Athenians were. When told, he took a bow and fired an arrow into the air, calling upon God to grant him vengeance on the Athenians. He then ordered one of his slaves to remind him daily of the Athenians, telling him to repeat to him three times the words, ‘Master, remember the Athenians’ (Herodotus, 5.105-6).
Caution is needed, however, in considering Herodotus’ account at this point. It is clear that Darius’ already had plans to expand his empire: he had made successful moves against Scythia in the north, and Greece was the next natural step, not least because the Ionians whom he already controlled were racially related to the Athenians. He had already sent envoys to discover whether Greek states would submit – and many did. It was not just the Athenians and Eretrians whom he wanted to crush. Herodotus may well have given Athens centre stage to make her seem greater and more important than she actually was.
1. Explain the connection between the Ionian Revolt and the Battle of Marathon.
2. Explain one reason why Herodotus may have given the Ionian Revolt too much emphasis.
2.2 Persian preparations for an expedition against Greece in 492 and 490
Demaratus was King of Sparta from 515BC until 491BC. He lost his position on the throne when his fellow king, Cleomenes, manipulated the Delphic oracle to claim that he was illegitimate. He then went to the Persian court, and helped both Darius and Xerxes.
Darius had clearly been interested in attacking Greece for some time, and he had close connections with mainland Greece. Hippias, the ex-tyrant of Athens, had come to his court. After the failure of the Marathon expedition, Demaratus, ex-king of Sparta, would also come to join him, and give both Darius and his son valuable advice and information on the Greeks. In the 490s, he had also sent a Greek doctor who was resident at the Persian court and some officials to mainland Greece and south Italy (also part of the Greek world at this time) to gain further information.
Darius appointed Datis as his commander in the field and Artaphernes, his nephew, as his personal representative. According to Herodotus (Herodotus, 6.95.2) he assembled a force of some 600 triremes, a considerable force. His decision to attack Greece by sea was a bold one: the Ionians may have been used to his sailing up the coast and attacking them, but to send such a large force across the Aegean was another matter. He also brought with him horses and cavalrymen, in addition some 25,000 infantry in his force. According to Simonides, a contemporary poet, there were 90,000 people taken on this expedition.
On the way towards mainland Greece, Datis and Artaphernes landed at Naxos, and destroyed the temples and town there, before moving on to Delos, where Datis sacrificed to the god Apollo, in an attempt to gain the trust of the Greeks.
2.3 The Battle of Marathon: the role of Hippias, the role of the Plataeans and the Spartans, the progress of the battle, reasons for the Persian defeat, the roles of Miltiades and Callimachus.
Once the Persians had crossed the sea, they faced the challenge of landing their forces on Greek soil. In September 490BC the Persians found themselves off the coast of Attica, and ready to make their final move against the Athenians.
The Persians needed a place where their cavalry could be most effective. Hippias, the former tyrant of Athens, directed them to Marathon, some 26 miles from Athens. It provided a relatively flat plan, on which the cavalry could be easily disembarked and used to the Persians’ advantage.
Doubtless Hippias was hoping that he might regain a position of power within Athens, perhaps as a tyrant entrusted to rule by Darius. Herodotus tells us that the night before they landed Hippias dreamt that he was sleeping with his mother, and he thought that his dream meant that he would return to Athens and take power. However, as he was directing the troops ashore, he began to cough violently, and coughed one of his teeth out. It fell in the sand, but he could not find it. He turned to his companions and commented that they would never conquer this land, and that the only part of it which he would possess was the part which his tooth now held.
Spartans and Plataeans
Pheidippides’ Run to Sparta
When the Athenians sent Pheidippides from Athens to Sparta to ask for help, Herodotus tells us that he met the god Pan on the way. Pan was disappointed that the Athenians had not been honouring him, and made this clear to Pheidippides. The runner reported this to the Athenians on his return, and when they were victorious at the battle, the Athenians set up a shrine to the god.
Once the Athenians heard that they were being attacked, they drew up their forces ready to meet the Persians. They were commanded by ten generals: Miltiades amongst them. Before they left Athens the Athenians sent a message to Sparta. A long-distance runner named Pheidippides ran the 150 miles (240 km) to Sparta to ask the Spartans for help, and not to stand by whilst the most ancient city of Greece was crushed and enslaved by a foreign force. The Spartan response was rather unhelpful: it was the ninth day of the month, and they were engaged in a religious festival, so they could not come until the full moon. Pheidippides returned to Athens with the news that the Athenians would have to face the Persians without Spartan help.
However, the neighbours of the Athenians, the Plataeans, had decided that they would help with every available man. The Athenians had previously helped the Plataeans in a dispute with their neighbours the Thebans, and so the Plataeans were now obliged to help the Athenians. As a result when the battle began the Plataeans fought on the left wing, and were the only support that the Athenians had.
1. Explain why the Spartans refused to help that the battle of Marathon.
2. Explain why the Plataeans decided to help.
The Progress of the Battle
Our only nearly contemporary account for the battle of Marathon comes from Herodotus. He describes how the Athenian commanders were divided in their opinion: a number thought that their forces were too small to offer any hope of success. However, Miltiades was determined that they should fight. Because opinion was equally divided he had to pursue the eleventh person who was allowed to vote, the polemarch, or War Archon. At this point, Callimachus held this office, and it was to Callimachus that Miltiades turned to and spoke forcibly in favour of fighting. Miltiades persuaded Callimachus that it was indeed the right time to fight, and so the decision was taken that the Athenians should face the Persians in battle.
Under the Athenian democratic system, each general took the presiding position in turn, each for a day. Those who had voted with Miltiades offered that he should take their position on the days when they were in turn to be in charge. Whilst Miltiades accepted their offer, he refused to fight until it was his own day. When this day came, he moved the Athenian army into position ready for the fight: Callimachus commanded the right wing, and the Plataeans were on the left wing. Because the Persian forces were so wide, the Athenians were very spread out, and the centre, between the two wings, was very shallow, whilst the two wings were strong.
After making the appropriate sacrifices, the Athenians entered the battle at a run once they had been given orders to do so. The battle was a long one, and the Persians broke the Greek centre without great hardship. On the two wings, however, the Persians found themselves in difficulties, and were defeated by the Plataeans and Athenians. Once these Persian forces began to flee, the Athenians turned their attention to the Persians who had broken through the centre: they united with the Plataeans, and formed a single unit which followed the Persians down to the sea, where they defeated them.
At the end of the battle, Herodotus tells us that 6400 Persians had been killed, as opposed to 192 Athenians. The number of Athenian dead is likely to be accurate, as the Athenians recorded the names of each man on a grave marker on the mound where they were buried. That of the Persians is less likely: it is thought that it was calculated by assuming that every three Athenians who died killed 100 Persians.
The Persians must have thought that their large force would be sufficient to conquer the Athenians. Why then did they fail? One important aspect of the battle is the absence of the Persian cavalry. In Herodotus’ account there is no mention of them being used during the battle. If the Persians had been unable to deploy their cavalry, and were forced to fight the more heavily armed Athenians in hand to hand combat, it is easy to see how they might have been defeated.
Another aspect of the Athenian victory was their strategy: whether by design or accident their weak centre caused a large number of the Persians to pass through their ranks and then find themselves trapped between the Athenians and the sea with no means of escape.
1. Write a brief account of the battle of Marathon.
2. Explain two reasons why you think the Athenians were victorious at this battle.
3. Explain two reasons why you think the Persians lost this battle.
4. What do you think of the Spartan response to the Athenian request for help? Explain your answer.
TASK 2D: Source-based Exercise
Read Herodotus’ account of the Battle of Marathon, Herodotus, 6.102-117.
1. Write a brief summary of the account.
2. Describe two features of this account which you think are distinctive.
3. What do you think the strengths and weaknesses are of Herodotus’ account? Explain your answer.
2.4 The significance of the battle of Marathon for the Athenians and the other Greeks
The battle of Marathon was a major turning point for the Athenians. In the late Sixth Century, some twenty years before this battle, the Athenians had begun to develop a democratic system of government in which each man had the right to speak about and vote on state policy. Each citizen was given some measure of power and responsibility for what happened in his state. Nevertheless, the system was a new one, and this must have been an uncertain time, as no other state had yet developed such a system.
With the benefit of hindsight, we know that Athens went on to become a highly successful state: by just over sixty years after the battle of Marathon, her leader, Pericles, was claiming that the city was an education to the rest of Greece. Indeed, she had become something of a cultural centre with philosophers, historians, playwrights, architects and artists from all over the Greek world coming to the city. Athens became a leading state, with numerous political allies, and even turned her alliances into an empire, so that much of the Greek world was subject to her power. Marathon may have given the Athenians the confidence to move forward and take a more prominent role in Greece.
To what extent Marathon is responsible for the development of Athens it is impossible to say, but it is clear that had the Athenians lost the battle, they might well have become subjects of the Persians and become part of the Persian Empire. Given the Spartans somewhat laid back attitude before Marathon, it seems unlikely that they would have come to the aid of the Athenians had this happened.
Herodotus does not speak much about the consequences of the battle. However, something of his view may be implied by the speech which he puts into the mouth of Miltiades, as he was attempting to persuade Callimachus that it was time to fight.
‘It is down to you, Kallimachos, either to enslave Athens or to make her free and to leave a memorial of yourself for the whole span of human history greater than even Harmodios and Aristogeiton. For now the Athenians have come to the greatest crisis they have ever faced, and if they submit in slavery to the Persians, it is clear what they will suffer when handed over to Hippias; but if this city survives, it will be able to become the most powerful of all the Greek cities. … If you accept my opinion about what to do, our fatherland will be free and will be the first city in Greece. But if you choose to vote with those who do not wish to fight, you will achieve the opposite of what I have just said.
This speech is, of course, written after the event by Herodotus, at a time when Athens had become one of the greatest states in the Greek world. It does show, however, that Herodotus at least saw Marathon as a key moment in the development of the city.
One important aspect of the Athenian victory was the absence of the Spartans: the Athenians had become a military force to be reckoned with. Until that time, everyone turned to Sparta for military help – the Ionians, for example, had done this when they wished to start their revolt. Now, however, the Athenians had been successful, and all the Spartans could do was to congratulate them. This must have strengthened Athens’ position both for the coming battles against Xerxes and, subsequently, in the development of her defensive league against Persia, the Delian League, which later became the Athenian Empire.
The Delian League
After the defeat of the Persians in 479BC, the Greeks were faced with the question of how to protect themselves against the continuing threat posed by the Persians. The Spartans were not willing to take on the burden of leadership, so the Athenians began a defensive league called the Delian League. It was so called because its treasury was at Delos, an island sacred to Apollo. Members of the league paid either tribute money or ships to the Athenians, who, in return, guaranteed their safety from Persian attack. During the course of the fifth century, this League changed into an Empire for the Athenians, who came to have ever increasingly power over their allies.
The Athenians themselves held the victors of Marathon in great esteem. Some forty years later, their leader Pericles persuaded the Athenians to build the Parthenon, a great temple on the Acropolis in the centre of Athens. Around the centre of this temple runs a sculptural frieze which depicts a religious procession in Athens, the Panatheaic procession. There are 192 men in this procession, and some believe that these were the victors of Marathon. There is no written evidence to this effect, but the fact that there are 192 men is suggestive. If this is this case, it would reflect the highest possible honour for those who died: to be shown on a temple, the house of the goddess Athena, at a time when the Greeks were only just beginning to show humans on their temples.
In the second century AD, a Greek doctor named Pausanias travelled around Greece, and wrote an extensive guidebook. He visited Marathon over half a millennium after the battle, and described the place as follows:
There is an area called Marathon… At this point in Attica, the barbarians landed and were overpowered in battled and they lost some of their ships which they were putting off from the land. There is a tomb of these Athenians in the plain, and on it grave-markers giving the names of each of those who died by their tribe, and another for the Plataeans from Boeotia and another for slaves. For slaves also fought then for the first time. And there is a separate monument for Miltiades, son of Cimon, alone, although he died later… There through the whole night it is possible to hear the horses neighing and men fighting… The Marathonians worship those who died in this battle, calling them heroes… The Athenians say that they buried the Persians, as the divine law always requires a corpse to be hidden in earth, but I was not able to find a tomb. I could not seen a mound nor anything other indication, as they took them to a trench and throw them in haphazardly.
Herodotus also tells us that before the Battle at Marathon, no Greek could hear the name ‘Persian’ without terror. Perhaps the events of this day gave the Athenians and other Greeks to face the Persian threat when it reappeared in 480BC. Darius returned to Persia, and never again fought against the Greeks. It was left to his son, Xerxes, to launch the next expedition.
1. Describe two ways in which the victors at Marathon were honoured by the Athenians.
2. Explain two reasons why the victory at Marathon was significant for the Athenians.
3. Describe how you think the battle of Marathon might have affected how the Athenians were seen by the rest of the Greeks.
TASK 2F: Source-Based Exercise
1. Read the section from the speech of Miltiades given above, Herodotus, 6.109.
(a) Summarise Miltiades’ seech.
(b) Explain whether you think this is what Miltiades actually said.
(c) Explain why you think Herodotus included this account at this point in his narrative.
2. Read the excerpt from Pausanias, and note that he was writing in the second century AD.
(a) What does this passage tell us about how the Athenians honoured those who fought at Marathon?
(b) What does this passage tell us about how the Persian corpses were treated?
(c) What information is given in this passage which is not in Herodotus? Why do you think Herodotus did not include it?
(d) How reliable do you think Pausanias is as a historical source? Explain your answer.
Theme: The Battles of Artemisium, Thermopylae, Salamis, Plataea and Mycale
After Darius’ failed attempts to take Greece, he returned to Persia. He was greatly angered by news of what had happened at Marathon. He continued preparations for another attack on Greece, summoning soldiers from throughout Asia. However, in the third year after Marathon he faced a rebellion in Egypt. He therefore resolved to go to war against both Greece and Egypt.
Before he set out on these expeditions, a quarrel broke out between his sons about the succession. In Persian law, the successor to a king had to be decided before an expedition could leave. Finally, Xerxes won the argument, and was proclaimed the heir. Only Darius’ death stopped him from undertaking these two expeditions.
3.1 Reasons for Xerxes’ expedition against the Greeks
After the failure of the campaign which ended in the battle of Marathon, Darius returned to Persia to plan his next attempt. Although he made preparations to return to Greece, and attempt to subdue the Greek cities, it was left to his son Xerxes to make the next moves.
To some extent Xerxes must have felt compelled to continue the work of his father: Darius wanted to avenge the wrong done by the Athenians and others against Persia, particularly with the burning of Sardis and the defeat at Marathon. When Darius died in 485BC, Xerxes may have felt duty-bound to complete the job left unfinished by his father.
Another factor which may have motivated Xerxes was the simple desire to expand the empire. The kings before him, including Darius, increased the size of the Persian Empire. Conquering Greece would help to establish his status as King. In addition, fighting away from home was always a good way to avoid rebellion in the empire. Herodotus reports that his army was drawn from many places throughout the empire: soldiers who were fighting for their king were far less likely to fight against him.
Herodotus gives us an account of Xerxes’ motivations which requires careful consideration. He tells us that at first Xerxes was not at all interested in invading Greece. He was more interested in dealing with the Egyptians, who had rebelled in the final year of Darius’ reign.
Mardonius, Xerxes’ cousin, kept on talking to him, reminding him of the injuries which the Athenians had done to the Persians. He suggested to him, that if he led an army against Athens, his name would be honoured throughout the world, and it would deter others from attacking Persia (Herodotus, 7.5). Herodotus also states that Mardonius added to these points that Europe (i.e. Greece in Europe) was a beautiful place, and only the Persian king should really be ruling there. Herodotus notes that Mardonius was really motivated by the desire to become governor of Greece himself.
In addition to Persian court politics, Greek politics determined that the Persians were almost invited to attack. The ruling family in Thessaly offered assistance to Xerxes. The Pisistratidae, the former tyrants of Athens, were keen that he should attack, just as Hippias had supported Darius. They kept trying to persuade Xerxes to act. Part of their strategy was to use Onomacritus, a collector of oracles, who gave Xerxes prophecies which suggested that he would be successful in any attempt against Greece – those which suggested otherwise were carefully omitted. Herodotus describes how ‘Xerxes gave in and allowed himself to be persuaded to undertake the invasion of Greece’ (Herodotus, 7.6).
Once he had decided to act, Xerxes was not going to allow anything to stand in his way. He had clearly decided to leave nothing to chance, and aimed to conquer Greece. They were far larger in scale than those before: great numbers of troops from all over the empire, required to march over the newly constructed bridge over the Hellespont. These had to be given provisions, as well as co-operate with the naval forces. Xerxes had all this in mind, and must surely only have had the conquest of the whole of Greece in mind: he would not be content with merely subduing Athens, Greece as a whole must have been his idea. Herodotus agrees with this assessment stating that the purpose of Xerxes’ expedition was the conquest of the whole of Greek (Herodotus, 7.138).
1. When did King Darius die?
2. Which two countries was Xerxes considering attacking when he became king?
3. Give details of three factors which suggested to Xerxes that he should attack Greece.
4. Explain two reasons why Xerxes wanted to attack Greece in 480BC.
5. Look at the description of Xerxes’ forces given in the paragraph above. What does this tell us about the nature of his expedition and his aims?
6. Do you think Herodotus is right to suggest that Xerxes had to be persuaded to attack Greece?
Explain your answer.
TASK 3B Source-based Task: Xerxes’ Route to Greece
Read Herodotus 7.23-24.
1. Describe Xerxes’ actions in this passage.
2. Explain why you think Xerxes took this course of action.
3. What does this episode show about Xerxes’ determination in attacking Greece?
4. How reliable do you think this account by Herodotus is? Explain your reasons for your
3.2 The Hellenic League
After the battle of Salamis, the Spartans were approached by Alexander of Macedon, who brought a peace proposal from Xerxes. They rejected this, but were concerned that the Athenians might not. However, when they visited Athens, the Athenians also rejected the proposal, stating that they would not desert the Greek community: the community of blood and language, temples and ritual, and common customs. (Herodotus, 8.143). The Greeks were not politically united, but they held these things in common.
During the fifth century BC the Greeks coined the term Barbarian to describe foreigners. Literally it referred to those who did not speak Greek, because the Greeks thought that all other languages sounded like the bar-bar sound of sheep.
One of the main effects of the Persian attacks on Greece was to focus the Greeks’ minds on what they had in common, and draw out a sense of common identity which had not yet been developed in the Greek mind. This would develop further during the fifth century, with the Greeks calling non-Greek speaking people barbarians, and themselves Hellenes.
However, at the time of the Persian invasions, their sense of identity as a group was weak. They were very willing to fight one another and some states even felt that medising or joining the Persians was the best course of action. Often opinion was split even within a state – so some Thebans, for example, medised, whilst others fought at the battle of Thermopylae.
Once news of Xerxes’ expedition reached them, the Greeks or Hellenes decided to come together to discuss what action should be taken. At this stage, Sparta was still viewed as the natural leader of the Greek states, whilst Athens had also come into a position of authority because of her relatively recently success at Marathon.
The Athenians and Spartans jointly called a meeting of the Hellenic League at the Isthmus of Corinth to consult on what measures should be taken to stop the threatened invasion. The Isthmus was chosen because of its central location. Sparta took the presidency of the meeting.
Thirty one states sent representatives. They bound themselves together with a simple oath that once things were back in order, they would punish those Greeks who had given themselves to Persia, without being compelled, by giving a tenth of their wealth to the god at Delphi (Herodotus, 7.132). At the first meeting power over all the forces was granted to Spartans. They also resolved to end all wars between member states.
At a second meeting, the members considered their strategy for the war. There were to be two aspects to their strategy: land and sea. On land they would make a stand at Thermopylae. By sea they would send a fleet to Artemisium. They also felt that because these two places were close together, communication would be easy.
1. What decisions were made at the meetings at the Isthmus?
2. Look at the map of Greece given in the link above. Explain why the Athenians and Spartans might have had very different views about where to face the Persians in battle.
3. Why do you think the Greeks decided to fight together against the Persians at this point?
3.3 The Battle of Artemisium
The battle at Artemisium, all be it relatively small, was a significant moment in the fight against Xerxes. The poet Pindar, writing in the fifth century BC, said that the battle of Artemisium was where ‘the sons of the Athenians set down the shining corner-stone of freedom.’
Herodotus worked out the details of the Persian navy as follows: 1207 ships, with 241,400 men. Each ship also had thirty fighting men on board. He also claimed that there were 3000 penteconters, with 80 men on each. He therefore calculated that the total Persian naval force was in the region of 517610 men! A large number of these were lost in various storms on the way to Greece, with the result that by the time of the first sea battle (that at Artemisium) there were probably substantially fewer ships. Nevertheless, it was a large force.
The action in this battle was the first between the Greeks and the Persians in this phase of the conflict. The first engagement was a Greek success: fifteen Persian ships had fallen behind the others, and when they saw the Greeks at Artemisium, they thought that they were Persians, and innocently made towards them. The Greeks lost no time in capturing them.
After this, Herodotus describes how the Greek commanders met and decided to test the Persian seamanship and tactics. They sent out a few ships, which led the Persians to believe that they would have an easy victory over their enemy.
3.4 The Battle of Thermopylae
How the Spartans saw themselves:
‘A woman, after sending off her five sons to war, stood on the outskirts of the city to watch anxiously what the outcome of the battle might be. When someone appeared and she questioned him, he reported that all her sons had perished. She said: ‘Yet this isn’t what I asked you, vile slave, but rather how our country was doing.’ When he said that it was winning, she remarked: ‘Then I gladly accept the death of my sons too.’
(Plutarch, Plutarch On Sparta, p.160, n.7, trans. R. J. A. Talbert, Penguin, 1988)
Demaratus to Xerxes on the Spartans:
‘In this way the Spartans, fighting as individuals, are no worse than any others, but when fighting side by side they are the best of all men. Although they are free, they are not free in every respect: they have as a master the law, which they fear much more than your subjects fear you. They do whatever it orders, and it always orders the same thing – it does not allow them to flee from battle whatever the size of the opposing forces, but commands them to stay in formation and either conquer or be killed.’
In August 480BC whilst the Greek naval forces were attempting to stop the Persians by sea at Artemisium, the Greek land forces had to stand firm to stop the Persians entering Greece.
The spot which they had chosen was a narrow pass at Thermopylae, where it seemed that if they held the ground the Persians would be unable to make use of their superior numbers, and therefore unable to withstand the power of the Greek soldiers.
At the start of the confrontation, Leonidas, the Spartan king, had a force of some 6000-7000 Greeks. The army was small, either because many Greeks were attempting to religious observances or because the Peloponnesians did not wish to fight so far away from home.
Herodotus recounts how Xerxes sent spies to watch the Spartans. He was thoroughly convinced that they would make good their escape, but rather than seeing fleeing soldiers, the spies found themselves looking at men who had stripped for exercise, and were then combing their hair. Xerxes was baffled, but the former Spartan king, Demaratus, who was now advising Xerxes, explained that this was what the Spartans did when they were about to sacrifice their lives. Demaratus concluded his speech, saying: ‘But understand this: if you can overcome these men and those who are still in Sparta, there is no other race of men that will withstand you or raise a hand against you. You are facing the noblest kingdom in Greece and the bravest fighting men.’ (Herodotus, 7.209)
After this, Xerxes waited for four days, thinking that the Greeks would retreat. Nothing happened, and so on the fifth day, infuriated, he began the battle. The Spartans fought well on the first day, and drove back the opposition. The following day was similar. They would have been able to hold the pass, but a local Greek, Epialtes, showed the Persians an alternative route. The Persians marched through the night, following the newly suggested route. The Phocians, who had been guarding this route, tried to resist, but then withdrew. When the rest of the Greeks learned that the Persians had come through in this way, they held a council: some wanted to stay with Leonidas, others to depart. In the end, Leonidas dismissed them, and remained with the Spartans, Thespias, Thebans and some Mycenaeans.
That morning Xerxes poured a libation to the rising sun, and then began the attack. The remaining Greeks fought hard: first with their spears, then swords and then even their bare hands. Finally, though, they were overcome. Herodotus tells how there was a bitter struggle over the body of Leonidas. Finally, the Persians got the better of the Greeks, and took his body. Xerxes is then said to have beheaded him, and placed his head on a pole, such was his rage at the battle.
Numerous stories are told of the battle, which seem to characterise the Spartans. One such comes from Herodotus. Before the battle, a fellow Greek soldier told a Spartan, Dieneces, that when the Persians fired arrows, they sent so many that the sun was blocked out. Dieneces response was simple: they would be able to fight in the shade.
The Spartans greatly honoured those who died at Thermopylae. The dead were buried where they fell, and an inscription set up which read:
Stranger, tell the Spartans that here
We lie, obedient to their commands.
The battle of Thermopylae was a defeat for the Greeks. It bought the remainder of the Greeks valuable time, and the Spartans and their allies who remained to the end showed true heroism.
Read Herodotus’ account of the battle of Thermopylae, Herodotus, 7.206-228.
1. Explain why it was important for the Greeks to hold the Persians at Thermopylae.
2. How did the Greek forces differ from the Persians?
3. Outline the course of the battle.
4. Explain how treachery led to the Greek defeat.
5. What aspects of Herodotus’ account do you think are most likely to be reliable? Explain your answer.
6. Debate or Essay: ‘A glorious, but futile defeat.’ How far do you think Herodotus’ account supports this assessment of the battle of Thermopylae?
TASK 3E: The film 300
Choose a section of the film 300, and watch at least 20 minutes. When you have finished, consider which parts are historically accurate and which not. Each aspect should be explained with reference to Herodotus (or Plutarch, if appropriate).
3.5 The Battle of Salamis
After their victory at Thermopylae, the Persians advanced into mainland Greece, burning villages as they went. Thebes was spared because the Thebans had shown sympathy to the Persians. In Athens, however, the mood was very different: the Athenians abandoned the city and all the surrounding land of Attica was evacuated. Those who remained in the city found themselves under a siege, which they eventually lost. The Persians destroyed the temples on the Acropolis, and ravished the city.
The prospects for a Greece free of Persian domination had never looked bleaker: only the Peloponnese now remained free, and with Athens taken, one of the great leaders of the Greek world had been destroyed – or had she?
The Effect of Events in Athens
The Greeks in Salamis, when the course of events at the Athenian acropolis was announced to them, were so disturbed that some of the generals did not wait for a decision on the matter being discussed, but hurried on board their ships and hoisted their sails to run away. Those who remained decided to fight a sea-battle at the Isthmus.
The Athenians had taken a decision to abandon the city, under the advice of Themistocles. They had been advised by the Delphic oracle to put their ‘trust in the wooden wall’: debate had raged about what this meant, some thinking that it meant to stay behind the wooden wall on the Acropolis, whilst Themistocles argued the opposite. For him, it meant that they must leave the city, and take to their ships. This they did, evacuating the women and children to Troezen, Aegina and Salamis.
Herodotus tells of two oracles from Delphi, neither of which seemed very encouraging. Part of the second – the one which Themistocles interpreted - was as follows:
‘Though all else shall be taken within the bound of Cecrops
And the fastness of the holy mountain of Cithaeron,
Yet Zeus the all-seeing grants to Athene’s prayer
That the wooden wall only shall not fall, but help you and your children.
But await not the host of the horse and foot coming from Asia,
Nor be still, but turn your back and withdraw from the foe.
Truly a day will come when you will meet him face to face.
Divine Salamis, you will bring death to women’s sons
When the corn is scattered, or the harvest gathered in.’
(Herodotus, 7.141, p.462 trans. A. de Selincourt rev. Marincola, Penguin, 2003)
Delphi was famous throughout the Greek world as a sanctuary to Apollo. It had an oracle, to which both Greeks and non-Greeks would go when they were looking for answers to important questions. The oracle was a priestess, or Pythia, who would commune with the god, and then speak in a strange language. This would be translated by the priests into Greek verse, like that given before Salamis. The oracles were usually in a riddle-like form, leaving the questioner to interpret what they really meant.
In command was the Spartan Eurybiades, since the Hellenic League had agreed that the Spartans would take command. This was despite the fact that almost half the fleet was Athenian. Themistocles, the Athenian commander, agreed to the Spartan taking control, although there were moments when Eurybiades appeared to be a disastrous choice for commander.
Herodotus’ Figures for the Greek Fleet
After the commanders had agreed to fight at the Isthmus, an Athenian named Mnesiphilus came to Themistocles and pointed out that if the fleet left Salamis where it was now stationed, the consensus which they had gained would be lost. Each state would go in their own direction, and Greece would be lost for ever. He urged Themistocles to find a way to ensure that the battle was fought at Salamis.
Themistocles went to see Eurybiades, and Herodotus describes how he gave an impassioned speech in an attempt to persuade him. His arguments were clear:
(i) Narrow Space benefits the Greeks: at Salamis the Greeks had the advantage of fighting in a narrow space.
(ii) Women and Children: by fighting at Salamis they would be able to protect their women and children who were on the island and on Aegina.
(iii) Defence of the Peloponnese: fighting at Salamis would enable them to defend the Peloponnese just as much as fighting at the Isthmus.
(iv) Naval Victory a Turning Point: if the Greeks are victorious at sea, the Persians will retreat in disarray.
The Corinthian, Adeimantus, who had previously attacked Themistocles’ arguments, did so again, accusing him of not having a country – because Athens was no in Persian hands. Themistocles, however, persuaded Eurybiades. He probably forced Eurybiades’ hand by threatening to withdraw his ships.
When the Persian fleet came near to Salamis, Xerxes was uncertain about the course of action: would he fight a naval battle or not? All his commanders voted for the battle, but queen Artemisia of Halicarnassus advised against it. She, alone of the commanders, seems to have had the courage to speak her mind. The others thought that Xerxes would be furious, but he was impressed with her words. Nevertheless, he decided that they should fight. This account from Herodotus (Herodotus, 8.67-8) seems a little strange: would this tyrannical ruler really have asked his commanders in this way? Perhaps, but it is worth thinking carefully about this.
The ships set sail, and proceeded towards Salamis. Meanwhile, on land, the Greeks were working hard to stop the Persian land-forces from taking the Isthmus.
At this point Themistocles decided to force the issue, and employed a tactic which would forever leave question marks over his name. He sent a man, Sicinnus, in a boat over to the Persian fleet. He had instructed Sicinnus to tell the Persians that Themistocles wished the Persian king well, and that the Greeks were afraid and planning to escape. If they were to attack now, the Persians stood a good chance of defeating the Greeks. The Persians believed Sicinnus, and prepared to fight the following day.
Whether Themistocles was really intending to help Xerxes or force a victory for the Greeks will always be a matter for debate. However, it is clear from Herodotus’ account that Sicinnus’ words (Herodotus, 8.75) highlighted one very important danger for the Greeks: they would break up, and their unity as a fighting force would be destroyed. This was already beginning to happen, and Themistocles may have realised that it was ‘now or never’.
Herodotus gives a detailed account of how the Persians prepared in silence for an attack the following morning. They had taken up stations which blocked the Greeks from both ends.
The playwright Aeschylus was an eye-witness at the battle. He tells us that Persians ships were drawn up in three lines outside the entrance to the sound. On the left were the Ionians, on the right the Phoenician sailors, who were the most experienced.
Aeschylus (525-456BC) was a fifth century playwright who wrote some of the greatest tragedies produced in this period. He is most famous for his trilogy called the Oresteia which begins with the Agamemnon, a play describing the murder of Agamemnon by his wife Clytemnestra. The other two plays look at the effects of this murder and the search for justice. Despite his great career as a playwright, Aeschylus’ epitaph on his tomb recalled his fighting at Marathon. It stated: ‘Beneath this stone lies Aeschylus, son of Euphorion, the Athenian, who died in wheat-bearing Gela; the grove of Marathon can tell of his noble bravery, or the long-haired Persian who knows it well.’ This shows how greatly those who fought in these battles were honoured.
At day-break, the Persians began to advance. Because the space was so narrow, the Persians were crowded together. The Phoenicians led the way, and were immediately attacked by the Athenians, who cut them off from the rest of the fleet. The men from Aegina fought particularly bravely: they helped the Athenians to defeat the Phoenicians and forced the Ionians to turn tail.
An important aspect of the battle was the lack of space: this gave the smaller Greek fleet a relative advantage. Only relatively few Persian ships could face their enemy at any one time. The crowded space also made it difficult for the combatants to make much use of their naval skills. Also the Persians did not know the waters as well as the Greeks.
Once Xerxes saw the extent of the defeat, he was afraid that the Greeks might consider making a dash for the Hellespont. Here they could have cut the bridge which he had built, and stopped his land forces from returning to Asia. He made plans for his escape, including the development of a causeway across the water towards Salamis. This was intended to fool the Greeks, so that they thought he intended to remain continue the fight.
Salamis brought an end to Xerxes’ stay in Greece. Mardonius was appointed to continue the action by land, whilst the Great King himself returned to his own land.
Read Herodotus’ account of the battle of Salamis, Herodotus, 8.78-112.
1. Briefly describe the battle of Salamis.
2. Outline the role of Themistocles in the battle.
3. What picture emerges of Themistocles’ character from Herodotus’ account?
4. Do you think Themistocles should be seen as a hero or a potential traitor? Explain your answer with reference to Herodotus’ account.
5. Xerxes wanted to watch the battle. Explain why you think this was.
6. How far do you think Herodotus’ account of the battle of Salamis is reliable?
3.6 The Battle of Plataea
Themistocles spent the winter of 480/79BC at the Congress in Sparta, discussing the future strategy against the Persians. The Athenians, however, clearly felt displeased with his efforts, and elected Xanthippus and Aristides as generals in his place.
The following summer, 479BC, Attica was again evacuated, as the Persians attacked again. The people withdrew to Salamis, and the Persians again destroyed Athens. The Athenians appealed to Sparta.
After the death of Leonidas at Thermopylae, his young son had become king. However, he was too young to rule, so Pausanias, his guardian, became regent. Pausanias, therefore, led a Spartan force to the Isthmus. He was joined by forces from Athens, Plataea, Megara, Aegina and Corinth. In total a force of some 30,000 men was assembled.
Meanwhile, after the defeat at Salamis, Xerxes retreated home. He left Mardonius, his general, in command. Mardonius first attempted to make a truce with the Athenians, but they refused these advances. When Mardonius saw Pausanias had his forces approaching, he retreated from Athens to Boeotia, where he prepared his 40,000-50,000 men for a battle at Plataea.
The battle which followed took an unusual course. It would appear that Pausanias had little control over the different contingents. At first Pausanias gave an order to retreat, intending to defend a particular pass, but Aristides, the Athenian commander, refused to obey. He advanced further north.
The Importance of the Persians at Plataea
It is clear to me that the whole barbarian operation depended upon the Persians: because when they saw the Persians retreat, even before they had even come to grips with the enemy, they fled.
When the Persians attacked, they were met by a strong Spartan phalanx. The Athenians, on the other hand, found themselves fighting other Greeks. The Thebans had joined the enemy. Eventually, they were beaten. After the battle, Pausanias decided that those Thebans who had medised should be taken to the Isthmus and executed.
During the battle, Mardonius was killed, and so the Persians were defeated. The Athenians set up an altar to Zeus on the battle field. They also established a four-yearly festival in celebration of Salvation, which took place on the site of the battle.
Herodotus describes how when he returned to Persia, Xerxes had left his tent for Mardonius. It was full of all kinds of luxury: embroidery, gold and silver. When the battle was over Pausanias came to this tent, and gave orders that the king’s former servants prepare a meal as they would have for him. The elaborate preparations led to the display of a magnificent feast. Pausanias then gave orders that a Spartan meal be prepared. This was an infamous black-broth, which had little to recommend it.
When the two meals were set side by side, the difference was striking. Pausanias then commented: ‘Men of Greece, I brought you together to see this, wishing to show you the folly of the Persian leader, who, having this life-style, has come to seize us when we live in such poverty.’
3.7 The Battle of Mycale
Meanwhile, the Spartan king Leotychidas was leading a naval expedition to Ionia. He came across a Persian naval encampment at Mycale. He stormed this, and the Persian ships went up in flames. The Ionians also fought hard against the Persians, and killed many of their men.
This action led to a wider revolt from Persia in Ionia, and everywhere the tyrants and Persian garrisons were driven out. At this point, the Ionians asked the Spartans to protect them by allowing them to join the Hellenic Alliance. The Spartans refused, advising them to move to mainland Greece.
TASK 3G: ESSAY QUESTION
‘The Battle of Plataea, more than any other battle, ensured that the Persians would not make another attempt on Greece.’ Do you agree?
3.8 The relative roles of Athens and Sparta in defending the Greeks against the Persians
Both Athens and Sparta took leading roles in the defeat of the Persian attempts on Greece. Traditionally, Sparta had been the dominant military power in Greece. This can be seen at the time of the battle of Marathon: the Athenians’ first thought is to turn to Sparta for help. When that help was not forthcoming, they decided to act on their own with just the small contingent of Plataeans as support. This showed that they could take the military initiative, and be successful.
Later, it would appear to be a combination of Spartan leadership and Athenian intelligence which won the day. There can be little doubt about the power of Leonidas’ leadership at Thermopylae: he and those with him fought bravely to the last, and held up the Persian advance. However, like the battle at Atremisium in which the Athenians played a leading role, these battles did little because of delaying the enemy and causing them to think about the opposition.
A key element in the Greek success was the foresight of Themistocles in encouraging the Athenians to develop a fleet. According to Plutarch, he saw that the Persian conflict was not over with Marathon, and it was for this reason that he encouraged the Athenians to develop their fleet. Without this fleet, the Greeks would have failed at Salamis.
One criticism can be clearly levelled against the Spartans: they seemed slow to act, and unwilling to get involved beyond the Peloponnese. Initially at Marathon they were unconcerned, but later at the Isthmus and again at Salamis they seemed slow to act. If Herodotus’ account is accurate, it was only the trickery of Themistocles which forced Eurybiades to act. Had they not acted at this time, the story of the battle of Salamis might have been very different.
It is important to remember, however, that Herodotus was reliant on the sources available to him. Sparta was a notoriously closed society, and it was very difficult to discover much about it. On the other hand, Herodotus had spent considerable amounts of time in Athens, and so may well have heard an Athenian version of events, which increased the importance of his hosts’ city.
The Athenians had to abandon their city, and it was sacked by the Persians. This affected the Athenians so greatly that they decided not to rebuild the temples on the acropolis for thirty years after the conflict: and even then Pericles had to persuade them to move ahead with his plans to create the Parthenon and other now famous temples. The Athenians had lost a lot. The Corinthian commander Adeimantus was right on one level: at Salamis Themistocles was the only commander without a city. Perhaps that situation spurred the Athenians on to act in a way beyond what everyone expected.
1. Make a list of what the Spartans and Athenians respectively did in the fight against the Persians. Complete this as a table.
2. Which state was more important in the defence of Greece against Persia – Athens or Sparta? Explain your answer.
3.9 Military tactics, armour and weaponry used by the Persians and Greeks
A key element of the Greek strength in land-battles was the phalanx: ordered rows of soldiers, with their shields on their left arm, and their spears in the right. Because the shield only covered the left side of a soldier’s body, he was reliant on his neighbour’s shield for the safety of the right side.
There were two main types of soldier: the heavily armed hoplites and the more lightly armed peltasts. It is important to remember that many of the Persian troops would have been Greeks from Ionia or other hired hands, so the differences between the two sides are probably less than we might expect.
The mainstay of the Greek fighting force was the Hoplite, a heavily armed soldier. His main weapon was a long iron-tipped spear, which was between 3-4m in length. A hoplite would also have a short sword, some 60cm in length. The sword was used for both a cutting and thrusting motion. He also carried a round shield, made of wood covered with bronze and an inner leather lining. His upper body was covered with a breastplate below which a linen cuirass was worn. On his shins there were moulded bronze greaves, and simple leather sandals on his feet. The soldier’s head was protected by a helmet, and, in the case of the Corinthians, this was topped with a plume of dyed horse-hair.
A peltast was a more lightly armed Greek soldier. He carried a crescent-shaped wicker shield, covered with goat or sheepskin. Most also carried a one or two handled scythe or falx - a traditional Balkan weapon. Some of Darius’ force in 490 BC were Thracian peltasts.
Archers and Spearmen
The Persian force included archers from Scythia. These archers were able to fire very large numbers of arrows in a short space of time. However, they would have been lightly armed, and, once over run by hoplites, would not have survived long.
Herodotus gives the following description of the Persian soldiers:
‘First the Persians themselves: the dress of these troops consisted of the tiara, or soft felt cap, embroidered tunic with sleeves, a coat of mail looking like the scales of a fish, and trousers; for arms they carried large wicker shields, quivers slung below them, short spears, powerful bows with cane arrows, and daggers swinging from belts beside the right thigh.’
(Herodotus, 7.61, p.439 trans. A. de Selincourt rev. Marincola, Penguin, 2003)
Herodotus goes on to describe the other forces within the Persian expedition: Herodotus 7.61-80. His description gives a sense of the range of different nations involved. The idea of simply co-ordinating such a range of people is difficult, if one considers the different fighting methods and the challenges of numerous different languages. The very range of forces must have put Xerxes’ force at something of a disadvantage.
1. Describe a Greek hoplite: their weapons, clothing and armour.
2. Describe a Persian soldier: their weapons, clothing and armour.
3. In an engagement between a Greek and a Persian soldier, which would have the advantage? Explain your answer.
TASK 3J: SOURCE-BASED
A. Read Herodotus’ account of the Battle of Marathon, Herodotus, 6.98-118.
1. Describe the Athenian tactics in the battle.
2. To what extent do you think these tactics were responsible for the Athenian victory?
B. Read Herodotus’ account of battle of Thermopylae, Herodotus, 7.206-228.
3. What were the Spartan tactics at this battle?
4. How did these tactics differ from those of the Athenians?
C. Compare and contrast the techniques used by the Athenians and the Spartans at Marathon and
3.10 The ships of the Greeks and Persians
Although the Greeks and the Persians may originally have had very different ships, the Persian forces included a large number of Greek ships from Ionia. The design of the ships, in particular the trireme, was an essential element in the sea battles at Artemesium and Salamis.
The Persians had an extremely strong naval presence in the Eastern Mediterranean because of the peoples they had conquered. The Phoenicians, Ionians and even Egyptians all added to their naval arsenal. The forces at the battle of Artemisium give a sense of the make-up of the Persian forces.
Persian Ships at Artemisium
Herodotus tells us that the ships of the Phoenicians were the fastest. He says that there were native crews of 200 on each of their ships, but these were joined by an additional 30 Persians, Medes and Sacae, who served as archers. The military crew of each ships would have stood at around 44. This, combined with additional troops, would have brought the weight of Persians ships to about 4 tonnes, which is 8% heavier than the Greek ships.
Herodotus also states that the Persians included in their fleet 3000 small oared ships, loosely referred to as pentecontors. These had crews of 80 each.
The key ship in the Greek fleet was the trireme. The word trireme literary means ‘three oared’: the trireme had three banks of oars on either side. Each ship had 170 rowers, and was about 120 feet in length.
The crew of a trireme usually consisted of 213 men: 14 spearmen, 4 archers, 25 officers and sailors and a further 170 rowers. The ships were propelled both by oarsmen and sails. The oarsman would have rowed in time with a flute. They could reach speeds of almost 6 knots, although only for short periods of time.
The trireme was built from pine. At the front there was a large ram also made from timber. It came to a point two metres in front of the stem. The front of this was covered with a bronze sheath. It has been calculated that the force generated by the ram would be of the order of 66 tonnes. Such a force was employed by skilled helmsmen as they directed their crew to ram opposing ships side on.
Think about the description of the trireme. What do you think were the difficulties and challenges facing the ship commanders at the battle of Salamis.
3.11 Reasons for the failure of Xerxes’ Expeditions
Why, then, did Xerxes’ expedition fail? Clearly there are individual reasons at each battle why the Persians lost: the cunning of Themistocles and skill of the Greek navy at Salamis, the surprise at Mycale, perhaps even the absence of their commander at Plataea left the Persians without a will to fight. There are, however, a few over-arching reasons which are worth considering.
First, the Greeks were fighting for their homeland. This, for Herodotus, would probably have been the most important idea. They loved the ideal of freedom, and the thought of losing their homes, as indeed the Athenians did in 480/79BC, drove them to fight all the harder.
Secondly, the Persian forces did not have this spirit. They were fighting, as the Greeks saw it, as slaves to their master. They were not there of their own free will, but merely hired hands, and members of a vast empire, in which they had little belief. If Herodotus is right about the effects of the departure of Xerxes from Salamis, this may well be true. It is also shown in Artemisia’s actions at Salamis: she wanted to win for herself, and she had no loyalty to other members of her side.
Thirdly, for all the careful planning and organisation of provisions, the size of Xerxes’ expedition was such that it must have required enormous amounts of food and other materials. The further they were removed from Persia, the more difficult it would have been to maintain such supplies.
Fourthly, how important was Greece to Xerxes? Although Herodotus was keen to emphasise the importance of the conflict from the Greek side, was it that significant for Xerxes? He had a large empire, and, as Pausanias’ demonstration of the meals after Plataea showed, what were the Persians going to gain by continuing to attack Greece? He may well have decided after Salamis to cut his losses, and withdraw.
TASK 3L: SOURCE-BASED
Re-read Herodotus Book 7, sections 5-7, 23-24, 32-41, 101-104, 138, 206-228 and, Book 8, sections 78-112.
To what extent do you think Xerxes was to blame for the failure of his expedition against Greece?
Theme: The importance and contribution of key individuals in this period
Throughout Herodotus’ account of the conflict with Persia, a number of individuals stand out. They took leading roles on either the Greek or Persian side. The aim of this part of the course is to consider their contribution to the course of events and their characters.
Miltiades played a key role in the Athenian victory at Marathon. It was he who showed them that they must fight, and persuaded Callimachus to vote with him, so that the Athenians were committed to fighting when they did. However, his career did not begin and end with Marathon.
In 524/3 BC he was an archon (leading official) in Athens. At this point he was sent by the then tyrant Hippias – the same man who led the Persians to Marathon – to go to the Chersonese to subdue it. This he did, and he ruled there. During this time he submitted to the authority of king Darius, and even took part in Darius’ expedition against the Scythians. Herodotus says that he, along with other Ionian tyrants, proposed destroying the bridge which Darius had built from mainland Persia over the Hellespont to Scythia. This would have left Darius stranded in Europe, and ruined his expedition. However, even if the Ionians ever had such a plan, it was never carried out.
Shortly after this, Miltiades was driven out of the Chersonese by a Scythian invasion, and he joined the Ionian Revolt. He gained control of Lemnos, but when the revolt was crushed he fled back to Athens. At first he was tried for being a tyrant in the Chersonese, but the Athenians acquitted him, and then elected him as one of the ten generals shortly afterwards. It was in this capacity that he served at Marathon.
His main contribution at Marathon was to persuade Callimachus to fight, when the other generals were doubting this course. Some have suggested that Herodotus exaggerates his importance in the battle, and that it was Callimachus who is really the hero of the day. However, it may be that Miltiades was responsible for persuading the generals to fight before the Persians could organise their cavalry. This would have been a key element in the victory, as the cavalry were the enemy’s great strength, and would have been a real challenge for the Athenian and Plataean foot soldiers.
Miltiades was acknowledged by the Athenians afterwards with a separate grave marker to indicate his pivotal role in the battle. A later Roman Biographer, Cornelius Nepos, writing in the first century BC, tells us that the sole honour that Miltiades received from the Athenians was a picture of the Battle of Marathon painted in a building in central Athens called the Poikile Stoa or Painted Colonnade. He says, ‘his portrait was given the leading place among the ten generals and he was represented in the act of haranguing the troops and giving the signal for battle’.
(Nepos, Miltiades, 6).
However, after his victory he led an Athenian fleet against the island of Paros, and failed to take the town. He was severely wounded in the action, and came home to anything but a hero’s welcome: he was brought to trial for his failure, and fined 50 talents – a very large amount of money. He died shortly afterwards from gangrene, and his son, Cimon, paid the fine.
1. Outline Miltiades’ career
2. Read Herodotus’ account of the Battle of Marathon, Herodotus, 6.98.118. Explain in what ways Miltiades was essential to the Greek victory.
3. Do you think the Athenians adequately rewarded Miltiades for his role at Marathon? Explain your answer.
Leonidas was the hero of the Battle of Thermopylae. He refused to retreat and fought with his fellow Spartans to the death.
Leonidas was one of the kings of Sparta. His reign began around 490BC, and ended with his death at Thermopylae ten years later. In 480BC, whilst the rest of the Spartans were delayed by the festival of Carnea, he marched to Thermopylae with his elite force of 300.
Leonidas is most known for his determination in facing the Persian threat. In Herodotus’ account, he is the central figure, sending away men from the other states, and then ordering his own men to stand firm and fight (see Herodotus 7.206-228).
The later biographer Plutarch also collected various sayings which are attributed to Leonidas. These give a sense of his character:
When the ephors (Spartan officials) said: ‘Haven’t you decided to take any action beyond blocking the passes against the Persians?’, ‘In theory, no’, he said, ‘but in fact I plan to die for the Greeks.’
When Xerxes wrote to him: ‘It is possible for you not to fight the gods but to side with me and be monarch of Greece,’ he wrote back: If you understood what is honourable in life, you would avoid lusting after what belongs to others. For me, it is better to die for Greece than to be monarch for the people of my race.’
He passed word to his soldiers to eat breakfast in expectation that they would be having dinner in Hades (the underworld).
(From Plutarch on Sparta, Penguin, p.146-7)
Read the selections from Plutarch given above, and Herodotus’ account of Leonidas’ involvement in the Battle of Thermopylae (Herodotus 8.206-228).
(a) Summarise Leonidas’ role in the battle of Thermopylae.
(b) Give two qualities of Leonidas as a leader and explain them with reference to the sources.
(c) How reliable do you think Herodotus and Plutarch are as sources for Leonidas’ character?
Themistocles was one of the most significant individuals in this period. He persuaded the Athenians to invest in the navy, at a time when they would have preferred to do otherwise, and he also engineered the circumstances for a Greek victory at Salamis.
Themistocles is the subject of later biographies by Cornelius Nepos (99BC-24BC) by Plutarch (AD50-AD120), as well as being the central figure of much of Herodotus’ narrative. Because he is so central to the battle of Salamis, this aspect of his life should be considered within the narrative of that battle, other aspects will be considered here. Both Nepos and Plutarch were keen to show their subject’s character, rather than his involvement in specific historical events. They were also writing a long time after the events, so they have to be used with caution.
Themistocles was the son of Neocles, who was of high birth. He quickly became famous because of his energetic interest in political affairs. His first major achievement was the development of the harbour at Piraeus for Athens. In 483/2BC, the Athenians found a large deposit of silver at mines in Laurium, in Attica. At the time Athens was in a dispute with the neighbouring island of Aegina. Themistocles persuaded the people to use the money to increase the size of the Athenian fleet from 70 to 200 ships. These ships were used in the battles at Artemisium and Salamis, and ultimately saved the Greek world from Xerxes’ invasion plans.
The Athenians developed a method of banishing any citizen they thought was becoming too powerful within the state. Each year, the Assembly would decide whether to hold an ostracism. This word comes from ostracon, a Greek word meaning a piece of pottery. The Athenians would choose who might be appropriate for banishment, and then the people would write the name of their chosen person on an ostracon. The man with the highest number of votes was ostracised: banished from the city for ten years.
After Themistocles’ pivotal role in the battle of Salamis (as described above), he was greatly honoured in Sparta. At the end of the 470s Themistocles was ostracised from Athens, and went to live in Argos in the Peloponnese. He visited other cities in the Peloponnese, where an anti-Spartan feeling was growing. Because of the threat from the Spartans he fled, ultimately to Persia. At some point after 465BC, King Artaxerxes I of Persia made him governor of Magnsesia, where he lived until he died a natural death. Meanwhile, the Athenians had condemned him to death in his absence.
In the ancient biographical tradition, Themistocles is often contrasted with Aristides. Aristides was known for his up-rightness and sense of justice, whilst Themistocles was seen as a trickster, always out to get what he could. Plutarch (Themistocles, 3-5) gives various clues to Themistocles’ character: he was keen to make money, may have been generous, very ambitious, well-loved by the people, a reliable arbitrator in disputes and keen to be in a leading position in the state.
To what extent this is true is impossible to judge: it is evident, however, that he had a powerful, positive influence on the Athenian navy, and must take at least some of the credit for the victory at Salamis.
1. Outline Themistocles’ career.
2. Do you think Herodotus gives a fair treatment of Themistocles?
3. Was Themistocles the hero of Salamis or a trickster out to gain all he could? Explain your answer.
In October 485BC Xerxes, son of Darius, became King of the Persian Empire. His father, Darius, died, leaving him with some small problems: a rebellion in Egypt and the question of the Greeks.
Xerxes was the son of Darius and Atossa, the daughter of Cyrus the Great. Our main evidence for his actions is in Herodotus, where he appears to be a tyrannical and determined ruler. It is important to remember, however, that Herodotus was keen to characterise him as the ruler whose pride in the strength of his forces led to his failure and the collapse of his expedition. We have seen his part in the various battles which his forces fought. It may now be helpful to look at three different views of Xerxes: inscriptions from Persia, Herodotus himself and the Athenian playwright Aeschylus’ view.
These show how Xerxes himself wanted to be seen within the empire. Many of the inscriptions which have been found state that Xerxes is the King, King of Kings, appointed by the will of Ahura Mazda, the great Persian god. (For further details, see Lactor 16, p.50-53).
Herodotus includes numerous stories about Xerxes. Here are a few in outline.
(a) When his engineers had built a bridge across the Hellespont, a storm destroyed the bridge. Xerxes had the engineers beheaded, and the Hellespont whipped. He then ordered that fetters be thrown into the sea.
(b) A Lydian subject, Pythius, asked Xerxes to allow one of his five sons not to march on the expedition to Greece. Xerxes was so enraged, that he ordered that Pythius’ eldest son be found, cut in half and that the two halves of his body be placed on either side of the road. The army would then march through the middle!
(c) Xerxes was so angered by Leonidas that he had his head cut off and stuck on a stake.
(d) At the battle of Salamis, Xerxes watched the course of the battle from nearby. Whenever he saw one of his officers act in a distinguished way, he had his secretaries write down his name, together with his city and parentage.
In 472BC the Athenian playwright Aeschylus put on a play called Persians which showed the moment Xerxes returned to Persia after the defeat in Greece. It focussed on the grief and suffering of the Persian women, and glorified the Athenian achievement by showing the suffering which they caused to their enemy. Xerxes appears late on in the play, dressed in rags with a quiver but not a bow. Aeschylus is uncompromising in his characterisation. Xerxes opens his mouth for the first time with these words:
Wretched me, I have suffered a loathsome
and totally unexpected fate!
How cruelly god has come down on the Persian race!
Miserable me, what is to become of me?
The vigour has gone from my limbs
as I contemplate the advanced age of these citizens.
O Zeus, I which that fate had shrouded me
with death as well,
along with the men who died…
Later he continues:
I left them behind, destroyed,
Disappearing from Phoenician ships
onto the strands
of Salamis, striking
Against the harsh coast.
…It is a miserable
blow for me to have lost so great an army.
(Aeschylus, The Persians, l.908-917, 962-966, 1014-15 trans E. Hall, Aris & Phillips, 1997)
Three very different images of the King: the King of Kings, the cruel tyrant and the wretched, defeated king.
Read Herodotus 7.32-41
1. Describe Xerxes’ actions in this passage.
2. What does this tell us about his ambitions and character?
3. Explain whether you think Herodotus’ narrative is accurate at this point. Give reasons for
Consider the three different accounts of Xerxes given above: the inscriptions, details from Herodotus and the Aeschylus. Assess how reliable you think each is: consider what motivated each writer, and explain whether you think their picture is reliable.
Sources: Herodotus’ qualities as a historian and factors which affect how he writes history
Throughout the study of the conflict between Greek and Persia, any historian is dependent on the work of Herodotus. He was a highly intelligent and inquisitive student of humanity. He took great interest in different cultures, and was very open-minded in his approach to different peoples. This sense of inquiry into things, and the causes of events lies at the heart of history.
He opens his work by stating that it is the presentation of his researches, historie. This is the origin of the word, History: it is a form of research. His research is the first of its kind to have survived, and makes his work unique: it stands at the beginning of the study of history as a subject.
5.1 Herodotus’ aims and interests as a historian
The Ionian coast of Asia Minor was one of the most exciting places to be in the early fifth century BC. It was full of highly intelligent, enquiring people. Hecataeus wrote the first geography book, whilst Heraclitus, a philosopher, is most famous for his saying that you cannot step twice into the same river. Herodotus was not the only intellectual from this area.
The Ionians were related to the Athenians. This may be why Athens later developed as such a cultural centre later in the fifth century BC.
Herodotus was called the Father of History by the Roman orator Cicero. He was a researcher: the opening to his work states that this is the ‘presentation of the researches of Halicarnassus’. He came from the city of Halicarnassus, a city on the West coast of Asia Minor (now known as Bodrum in Turkey), and seems to have travelled extensively during his life: he probably visited Egypt, Athens, and lived in his later days in Thurii in southern Italy.
The fact that he moved around the Greek world so much is significant: he may have spent time in Athens, and may well have received much of his information from the Athenians, but he had a wider view of the Greek world.
He was interested in all manner of things, so his history is not exactly how we might define history. His books include information on Egyptian and Persian customs and geographical descriptions, as well as the accounts of the battles which we have been studying. He states in his own aims the beginning of his work: that human achievements may not be forgotten in time, and that the great and marvellous actions, of both Greeks and non-Greeks, may not be without glory. He then says that he is particularly interested in showing why the Greeks and non-Greeks came into conflict.
The table summarising the contents of Herodotus’ work gives a sense of his interests. It is possible to see that it follows the expansion of the Persian Empire, coming to a crescendo with the failed attack on Greece by Xerxes. One important aspect of his work, though, is not always that apparent: his interest in different cultures. Consider, for example, his description of the mummification process in Egypt. He goes through a range of options, and then concludes: ‘This is the third method of embalming which is used for the poor. Having cleared the intestines with a purge, they pickle the body for 70 days and then they give it back to the family to take away.’ (Herodotus, 2.88). This is a good example of his interest not only in the direct theme of the expansion of the Persian Empire, but also in the people and their customs.
Herodotus makes an important observation about customs. He reflects that the custom (nomos in Greek) is the king of all: it controls all. He tells how Darius wanted to test peoples customs: he asked some Greeks to eat their dead relative: they were horrified, because they always burned their dead. Meanwhile, he also asked some Indians, a tribe known as the Callatiae, if they would burn their dead. They were equally horrified: they always ate their death, and regarded burning them as sacrilege, because it would profane the fire. Herodotus here (Herodotus, 3.38) again shows his interest in a wider form of research: he is interested in the people and their customs, as well as the narrower focus of the conflict between Greeks and Barbarians.
Summary of Herodotus’ Work
Book 1 Expansion of the Persian Empire: Croesus of Lydia and Cyrus the Great
Book 2 Egypt: Geography and History
Book 3 Rise and Fall of Samos; Death of Cambyses and the Rise of Darius
Book 4 Scythia: Persian Exploration in Europe: Ethnography of the Scythians
Book 5 The Ionian Revolt
Book 6 King Cleomenes of Sparta and Marathon; Xerxes’ decision to invade Greece
Book 7 Xerxes’ Expedition: Preparations, crossing the Hellespont; Thermopylae
Book 8 Artemisium and Salamis
Book 9 Plataea, Mycale and the Epilogue to the History
1. Outline Herodotus’ interests.
2. How do you think these interests are reflected in his account of the battles against the Persians?
TASK 5B: SOURCE-BASED
Read Herodotus, 1.1-5
1. What are Herodotus’ aims in his work?
2. Summarise the stories of women-snatching between Europe and Asia.
3. Why do you think Herodotus includes the details of the mythological conflict between Europe and Asia? Explain your answer.
5.2 The nature of Herodotus’ sources and his use of them
The first key aspect of Herodotus’ sources is that they were human. He was keen to investigate the events and phenomena brought about by human activity. Unlike the poets before him, he was not going to ascribe a role to the gods in the course of a battle. He reported oracles: humans, such as Themistocles, were influenced by them. But, at the end of the day, generals, leaders and others determined the course of action, not the slight of hand of a god.
As a result of this, Herodotus rejects myths: in his opening chapters he outlines the mythical origins of the conflict between Europe and Asia. He gives different versions: that from the Persians is contrasted with a Phoenician version, and mention is made of a Greek version. He connects this with the story of the Trojan war: in essence there are a series of incidents in which women are snatched by each side. This culminates in the Trojan War, in which the Greeks destroyed Troy, because of the taking of Helen. He concludes, ‘From this point on it was considered that the Greek world was always in conflict with them (the Persians). For the Persians claimed as their homeland Asia and the barbarian races living there, whilst they considered Europe and the Greek world to be separate.’ (Herodotus 1.4)
He then outlines a key aspect of his historical method:
That then is what the Persians and the Phoenicians say. About these matters I am not going to say whether this or that version is true, but I will show you who I know to have been the first to harm the Greeks and then I will go on with my story, telling the stories of both small and great cities of men. For the majority of those cities which once were great have become less important, and those cities which were great in my time previously were small. As I realise that human happiness does not stay in the same place for long, I will recall both great and small equally.
This is a highly significant passage. It shows Herodotus’ interest in having direct knowledge of what he is describing: he will not just accept any story. Also, it shows that he is keen to look beneath the surface: a city today may be great, but was it great at the time of the Persian Wars? Herodotus, then, is an intelligent, critical historian.
Herodotus gives a similar message when describing events in Egypt. Again, this gives a very clear indication of his method:
Until this point my observation, opinion and research have guided what I have said. From here on, I will give arguments which are based on what the Egyptians have said, and I will record them as I heard them. In addition to this, there will be some things from my own observation.
Here Herodotus again emphasises the importance of his own observation. Although he is clearly stating that he will have to rely on what he has been told by the Egyptians, he seems to have preferred using his own observation.
Herodotus seems to have made thorough use of other writers at the time, as well as using the information which he was able to gain from speaking to people who were present at the events which he describes.
A good example of the particular sources which Herodotus had guiding his narrative is the incident of Artemisia at the Battle of Salamis. He gives great detail about her ramming a fellow ‘Persian’ ship in an attempt to avoid an attack from a Greek ship. In the end, the plan worked, the Greeks assumed that she was a friendly vessel, and let her escape. In the process, she not only sank a ship on her own side, but also gained the respect of Xerxes. He is alleged to have made the comment, ‘My men have become women, my women men.’
Here it is important to note first that Herodotus was from Halicarnassus, and Artemisia was queen of that city. Did he include this detail because he was interested in his own city or because he had a source from within the city who told him the story? Secondly, how accurate is Xerxes’ response likely to be? In the first place, there is a theme both in his narrative and that of Aeschylus in Persians of showing Persians to be effeminate: this fits rather well into this pattern, so perhaps Herodotus added it, simply to add colour. Secondly, how could Herodotus have known Xerxes’ response? What was his source?
1. Outline Herodotus’ historical method as described above.
2. What makes Herodotus a historian?
TASK 5D: SOURCE BASED
Read Herodotus 8.87-88.
1. Explain what is happening at this point in the battle.
2. Why do you think Herodotus includes this incident?
3. How accurate do you think this account is likely to be? Explain reasons for your answer.
4. What does this passage tell us about Herodotus’ use of sources and how they may have shaped
5.3 The role Herodotus ascribes to individuals
One distinguishing feature of Herodotus’ history is that he places considerable emphasis on the actions of individuals. In his account of the Ionian revolt, figures such as Aristagoras and Histiaeus loom large, whilst it is Darius’ almost personal grudge against the Athenians which leads him to launch the expedition against Athens. Equally, figures such as Themistocles or Xerxes play a key role in his narrative. He does not always give much weight to wider questions such as economic hardship in Ionia or the desire of the Persians to expand their Empire.
However, Herodotus often uses individuals to deal with wider questions. A good example of this is the discussion between Xerxes and Demaratus, the former king of Sparta, before the battle of Salamis (Herodotus, 7.101-104). The passage shows the differences between the Greeks and the Persians, and goes some way to explaining how the Greeks will stand and fight against a foreign force which is vastly superior in numbers.
Read Herodotus 7.101-104.
1. What aspects of Greek, and especially Spartan, character are shown in this passage?
2. What aspects of Persian character are shown in this passage?
3. How far do you think these character traits explain the Greek victories against Xerxes?
4. Why do you think Herodotus has included this dialogue?
TASK 5F: Essay
Consider the sections of Herodotus which you have read: Marathon, Thermopylae and Salamis. Does Herodotus give too much emphasis on the individuals in these episodes? Explain your answer.
Option 2: Alexander the Great, 356–323 BC
Introduction: the sources for Alexander
There are a number of surviving sources for Alexander from the ancient world, though there are only a few fragmentary contemporary references. In this course, there are three specified sources: Plutarch, Life of Alexander; Diodorus Siculus, Library of History; Arrian Anabasis of Alexander. There is also an extended account by Curtius Rufus (History of Alexander) and considerable material elsewhere. However, because these accounts were written long after Alexander’s death, there are some question marks about their reliability. There are also different presentations of Alexander, which seem to go back to sources writing about him during his life or soon after his death but which are now lost: for example, Callisthenes (see Plutarch Alexander 33; Arrian 4.10-12) was the official court historian and biased towards Alexander (he is the only source we know who actually wrote during the campaigns); Ptolemy (Arrian 1.14; 7.4, 26) and Aristobulus (Arrian 2.3; 4.8; 7.4, 24, 26, 28-9; Plutarch Alexander 75) both exaggerated their roles in events. In addition, there are references to the court journals (Ephemerides) which claim to be a record of what happened in the king’s court but may not be authentic. Not all contemporaries wrote favourably about Alexander; for example, Cleitarchus was probably the source of some of the negative material developed by later writers such as Curtius Rufus.
Context: Macedon and the Greeks
1.1 The Macedonian Background
The Kingdom of Macedonia played a minor role in the great events of the fifth century in Greece. Many Greeks regarded the Macedonians as barbarians, not part of the Greek world at all. This had begun to change in the fifth century BC, as Macedonian kings such as Perdiccas II and Archelaus played a more significant role in Greek affairs. However the turbulent relations between the Macedonian kings and their nearest neighbours to the north, and even the outlying areas of the kingdom, restricted what could be achieved. Even a successful king like Amyntas III was driven out of Macedon for a period of time. In addition, interest in the coastal areas of the Aegean Sea by states such as Athens restricted Macedonian influence over areas they considered rightfully theirs.
As the list of kings (above) shows, violence was seldom far away for members of the royal dynasty. This history of assassination and warfare formed an essential backdrop to Alexander’s childhood. His father, Philip II, spent a good deal of time on campaign, both strengthening his own position at home and establishing Macedon as a central force in the Greek world, partly through diplomacy and partly through the use of force.
This is clearly illustrated by events after the accession of Alexander II in 370/69 BC. He was the son of the successful Amyntas III and the older brother of Philip (later Philip II, father of Alexander the Great). He succeeded his father without dispute, but the Illyrians then chose to invade; while he was campaigning against them, a relative, Pausanias, mounted an invasion from the east. The king’s mother Eurydice was forced to call on the Athenians for help, which secured his position. Alexander II then sought to establish his wider influence to the south, helping the Thessalians against the tyrant of Pherae; he gained control of some significant strongholds, which he then tried to keep under his authority. The Thessalians called on Pelopidas of Thebes to assist them; Alexander was forced to surrender the territory he had gained, and some 30 hostages from leading Macedonian families were taken back to Thebes, including Alexander’s younger brother, Philip.
Philip’s chance came when Perdiccas III was killed fighting against the Illyrians in 359 BC. There were a number of other potential claimants to the throne, so his reign was challenging from the start.
1.2 The Persian Background
Interaction between the Greeks and the rulers of Asia Minor and beyond had a long history. Homer’s poems the Iliad and the Odyssey deal with a Greek expedition to Asia Minor against the city of Troy; these works were very important to Alexander (see the section 2.3 on the Mythological and Religious Background), as can be seen by his visit to the site of Troy in May 334 BC.
The Persian Empire was established by Cyrus the Great; he came into closer contact with the Greek world when he conquered the Lydian king, Croesus (c 547 BC). His successors continued the development of the Achaemenid Empire, which stretched from the coast of Asia Minor south to Egypt, north to shores of the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, and east as far as the Hindu Kush.
The encroachment of the Persians into the Greek-speaking areas was well advanced by 500 BC, and in the early years of the fifth century BC there were a number of conflicts. First there was an attempt by states on the coast of Asia Minor and the islands of the Aegean Sea to escape Persian control (the Ionian Revolt, 499-493 BC). As a result of this, Darius I turned his attention to Greece, which resulted in the campaign leading to the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. In this battle, against the odds, the Athenians (with a little help from Plataea) were able to defeat the Persian land forces and force them to withdraw. Darius is said to have become more determined than ever to conquer Greece, but his death forestalled any immediate plans for invasion.
His successor, Xerxes I, took some time establishing his control over the Achaemenid Empire. Egypt had seized the opportunity offered by Darius’ death to revolt, and had to be brought back under Persian dominance, so it was only towards the end of the 480s BC that preparation could begin for a major expedition against the Greeks. The resulting campaign is recorded by the earliest Greek historian, Herodotus, in considerable detail. The two most important Greek city-states of the period, Athens and Sparta, both played very important roles in the battles of this war (Thermopylae, Artemisium and Salamis (480 BC) and Plataea and Mycale (479 BC). The majority of Greek states were involved, though some fought on the Persian side, either because they were already in the Persian sphere of influence (island and coastal states) or because they ‘medized’ (literally joined the Medes), in effect surrendering in advance to the advancing Persian juggernaut. Macedonia (under King Alexander I) was forced to support Persia.
The Greeks achieved their freedom, though it was by no means clear that the Persians would not attempt a further invasion in 479 BC. The scale of the expedition made a lasting impression, as did the fabulous wealth and resources that the Great King (of Persia) could call upon.
Persia continued to pose a threat in the fifth century BC. The Battle of Eurymedon (469 BC) between the Persian fleet and the Delian League, led by Athens, prevented a further expedition, though the Persians controlled Asia Minor apart from the coastal area. It is possible that a formal peace was made in the early 440s (the so-called ‘Peace of Callias’), at least between the Athenians and the Persians, but the local Persian satraps (governors) continued to be interested in exploiting any opportunities they found to gain influence in the Greek world, especially when there was conflict. During the later stages of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) between Athens and Sparta (and their respective allies), both sides looked to the Persians to provide resources to break the deadlock between them. In the end, the Persians offered sufficient financial support for Sparta to man a navy strong enough to challenge and then defeat Athens at sea. This victory left Sparta as the dominant state within the Greek world.
Sparta was not able to exploit its success in the Peloponnesian War, and other states in Greece challenged her. The Corinthian War (495-387 BC) involved Sparta fighting against four states in coalition (Thebes, Athens, Corinth and Argos). Persia supported the Athenians at one point, but later decided that Sparta suited her interests more. In the King’s Peace (or Peace of Antalcidas) in 387 BC, the Greek states committed to abide by a peace treaty guaranteed by the Persian King, who agreed to make war on those who broke the terms of the peace. Persia retained control of the coastal areas of Asia Minor, Clazomenae and Cyprus, while the Greek states were independent.
The most significant outcome of this was that the Ionian cities returned to the control of the Persian King; this lasted until the time of Alexander the Great. In this way, the great achievement of the Persian Wars of the fifth century BC was overturned. Greece was now independent, but the continuing squabbles between states further weakened the old-established states. Sparta managed for a time to use the terms of the peace treaty to her own advantage, but her own power was broken in a conflict with Thebes that resulted in the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC. This defeat undermined the basis of Sparta’s power at home by breaking her hold over Messenia. For a short time, Thebes was able to exercise considerable authority, but she was to be challenged by other Greek states. This weakness to the south provided opportunities for Macedon to emerge as a significant, and before long a dominant, power under Amyntas III and Philip II.
1.3 The growth of Macedon as a political and military power
Amyntas III, once he had established control of his kingdom, made a series of alliances with significant Greek states to help ensure the stability of his regime and strengthen his interests in areas close to Macedon. He gained control of Olynthus with Sparta’s help, and also agreed to assist Athens regain control of Amphipolis. Athens was particularly interested in good relations with Macedon at this time as the kingdom provided a significant supply of timber for shipbuilding.
After the death of Amyntas, there was considerable turbulence in Macedon for a number of years, and the succeeding rulers were forced to concentrate more on shoring up their own position at home than extending their influence beyond the boundaries of the kingdom. During the reign of Alexander II, Philip spent some years in Thebes as a hostage to secure Macedonian good behaviour. This provided him with an opportunity to study at first hand the Theban army whose success at Leuctra had brought to an end the dominance of Sparta, and he lived in the house of a Theban general, Pammenes.
On the death of Perdiccas III, Philip was in a position to become king himself in turn. Once he had secured the throne, he began to look beyond his borders. The most important of the Greek states (Thebes, Athens, Sparta) were now weaker, and, to the north, Thrace had been split into three parts after the murder of Cotys in 360 BC.
Philip dealt with the Illyrians in 358 BC, and again in 356 BC, using his loyal general Parmenio against them. He also dealt with the Paeonians, first by diplomacy, then he subjugated them to Macedonian control by 356 BC. Once this immediate problem had been dealt with, Philip looked to the east: in 357 BC he captured Amphipolis and then moved against Pydna, which was held by the Athenians at this time. He also seized the opportunity to respond to appeals from further along the coast to the east, assisting the state of Crenides against the Thracians; he refounded this city as Philippi, and subjugated the Thracian king who opposed him. In late 355 BC, Philip attacked Athens’ last stronghold on the coast, Methone, and forced it to surrender.
Philip also had the energy to look to the south towards Thessaly, which Macedonian kings had often sought to influence. Interventions in 358 and 355 BC brought some success, but Philip could not make headway further into Greece. He therefore turned his attention back to the north, where he dealt with the Chalcidian League, centred on the state of Olynthus, which was destroyed in 348 BC.
By 346 BC, Philip had further successes to the south. He made an agreement with Phocis and a peace with the Athenians, who gave up all interest in the areas now controlled by Macedon on the Aegean coast. Relations with the Athenians were still problematic, as they still feared Philip’s involvement both in the north and in central Greece. Philip had turned his energies to Thrace which he conquered by 341 BC; his control of this area threatened Athenian interests in the Hellespont, vital to them because of the grain shipments they needed. In 338 BC, Philip’s problems with states in central Greece came to a head at the battle of Chaeronea in August, when Philip’s army secured an emphatic victory over a coalition of states, many of whom had been allied to him at some point. Amongst these were Athens and Thebes, with contributions from others such as Corinth, Megara and Euboea. In the battle, Alexander was placed on the left wing and distinguished himself in the fighting. The Theban army, still one of the most powerful in Greece, was routed. After his overwhelming success, Philip took the opportunity to weaken the other Greek states to make sure his position could not again be challenged. Thebes was forced to accept a Macedonian garrison and its position in central Greece was weakened. The Athenians were treated less harshly. They were forced to give up control of the last remaining part of the northern shore line they controlled, the Thracian Chersonese, though Philip allowed them to maintain control of a number of islands. However, because of their dependence on grain from the Black Sea, the Athenians were now not free to oppose Philip, as he could easily use his control of the Hellespont to threaten vital supplies.
In the winter, Philip marched into the Peloponnese, and then organised the foundation of the League of Corinth. At a meeting held in Corinth, it was agreed that there should be a formal structure; there was to be a synedrion or council of representatives for member states who were guaranteed freedom and independence, and a military hegemon (leader), who was tasked with organising military contributions and ensuring that states maintained the peace. This role was given to Philip, and the council declared war on Persia, so giving Philip the opportunity to stamp Macedonian authority on the old enemy and to unite Greeks under his leadership against a common enemy.
Theme: the upbringing, character, life and death of Alexander
2.1 Olympias: character and influence
Olympias was no doubt a significant figure in Macedonian life and her influence on Alexander considerable. Some of the more lurid stories about her may reflect the negative views of the author towards her son. She was able to survive in the tempestuous world of Macedonian royal politics, which must have taken considerable skill.
What does the following passage tell us about Olympias?
On his father’s side Alexander was descended from Heracles through Caranus. On his mother’s he was a descendent of Aeacus through Neoptolemus. This is beyond doubt. Philip is said to have been initiated into the mysteries at Samothrace with Olympias, when he was still a young man. He fell in love with her when she was an orphan and proposed marriage to her, after persuading her brother, Arymbas, to consent. The bride, on the night before they slept together in their bedroom, thought that there was a peal of thunder and that a thunderbolt fell on her womb. From the blow much fire sprung up, and then it broke into flames that went everywhere, before being extinguished. Philip, at a later time, after his marriage, dreamt that he was putting a seal on his wife’s womb. In his opinion, the carving on the seal had the image of a lion. When the other seers considered the vision, they thought that Philip needed to keep as close an eye as possible on his marriage relations. Aristander of Telmessus said that the woman was pregnant, because a seal is not used on empty things, and that she was carrying a child who was bold in spirit and had a lion-like nature. In addition, a snake was seen stretched out next to Olympias’ body as she slept. And they say that this, more than anything else, reduced Philip’s love and friendliness towards his wife, and that he no longer slept with his wife, either because he feared some spells and enchantments might be used against him by his wife or because he was avoiding association with her, as she was the partner of a superior being.
Plutarch, Life of Alexander 2
Plutarch, Life of Alexander 2 [‘There is another story ... terrify the men.’]
When Alexander left for Asia, he left Olympias behind and placed Antipater in charge of Macedonia and Greece. However they did not agree with each other about what should happen, and both wrote many letters to Alexander, which gave rise to the story reported by Arrian (7.12) that Alexander in exasperation remarked that his mother was charging him a very great deal for his nine months’ stay in her womb.
Plutarch finishes his Alexander (77) with some further stories about her which suggest how important she was in Macedonian affairs. Whether they are true or not, Olympias continued to be a significant figure in the struggles for supremacy after Alexander’s death, until Cassander, who later proclaimed himself King of Macedonia, had her put to death in 316 BC.
2.2 Alexander’s childhood and youth
Alexander was raised within the Macedonian court, with more direct contact with his mother than with his father, who was often away from Macedonia, campaigning to the north or trying to establish Macedon’s position in the Greek world. Although he was a member of the royal family, he was not isolated from others of his own age. One of the ways Philip promoted stability in Macedonia was to bring to the sons of leading families the court for education. This provided the basis for the close relationship Alexander enjoyed with his ‘companions’, the important group on whom he relied particularly both for support in battle and for relaxation.
We have only limited information for Alexander’s youth. The first two books of Curtius Rufus have not been preserved, so we are heavily dependent on Plutarch. As a biographer, Plutarch was very interested in character, and his selection of material reflects his desire to bring out the essential aspects of Alexander’s nature.
Philip made arrangements for Alexander to receive an education that would prepare him for an important role in the wider Greek world; this was all the more important because of Macedon’s cultural isolation, though the royal family had long been accepted as fully Greek. By 343 BC, Aristotle was already a significant figure in the Greek intellectual world, and the impact of his teaching on Alexander was profound (Plutarch Alexander 7-8). This may have contributed to Alexander’s desire for exploration and discovery. Plutarch writes:
He admired Aristotle from the beginning and loved him not less, as he himself said, than his father, as he gained the gift of life from his father, but from Aristotle he had learnt how to live nobly.
Plutarch Alexander 8
There are two important incidents that give a sense of Alexander’s relationship with his father. Read through these sources carefully:
Philoneicus the Thessalian brought Boucephalas to sell to Philip for 13 talents. They all went down to the plain to inspect the horse, and he appeared to be difficult and completely unmanageable, not allowing anyone to ride him or responding to the voice of any of Philip’s men, but rearing at all of them. Philip was annoyed and ordered them to take the horse away as it was completely wild and untrained. Alexander was there and said, “What a horse they are losing when they cannot handle him through lack of skill and patience.” At first Philip kept quiet, but when Alexander said the same thing many times and was in great distress, he said, “Do you find fault with your elders because you know more than they do or are better able to handle a horse?” Alexander replied, “I could certainly manage this horse better than anyone else.” “And if you don't, what penalty should you pay for your recklessness?” Straightaway Alexander said, “By Zeus, I will pay the price of the horse.” This made everybody laugh, and then father and son made an agreement about the penalty. At once Alexander ran up to the horse and, taking the reins, turned him towards the sun, as he had noticed that the horse was disturbed by seeing his own shadow falling in front of him and dancing around. Then he calmed the horse a little by doing this and stroked it, and when he saw that it was full of spirit and energy he took off his cloak quietly, leapt up and seated himself safely. Then gently directing the bit with the reins without striking the horse or tearing his mouth, Alexander held the horse back. When he saw that the horse had stopped misbehaving and was eager for a run, he spoke more boldly, kicked with his heels and gave the horse his head. At first those with Philip were terrified and kept quiet. But when Alexander came back proud and overjoyed, everyone there cried out and his father is said to have cried with joy; when the boy had dismounted he kissed him on his head and said, “My child, you must seek a kingdom equal to yourself; Macedonia is not big enough for you.”
Plutarch Alexander 6
But the disturbances in the Royal household, brought about by his marriages and his love affairs, caused problems in his kingdom very similar to those in the women's quarters of the palace and resulted in great quarrels between Alexander and his father, which the bad temper of Olympias, an envious and sullen woman, made still worse, as she encouraged the young man. The most obvious quarrel was brought about by Attalus at the time of Philip's marriage to Cleopatra; Philip fell in love with a young girl, even though he was too old for her. Attalus was her uncle and when he was drunk at a banquet he called on the Macedonians to ask the gods for a legitimate inheritor of the kingdom from Philip and Cleopatra. Stung by this remark Alexander said, "Do I appear to you to be a bastard, you fool?" And he threw a cup at him. Philip drew his sword and stood up to face Alexander, but fortunately for both of them because of his anger and the wine he tripped and fell over. Alexander insulted him and said, "Look at this man, my friends, who is preparing to cross to Asia from Europe, who comes a cropper crossing from one couch to another." After this drunken brawl he took Olympias and put her in Epirus, while he spent time amongst the Illyrians.
Meanwhile Demaratus the Corinthian, who was a friend of the family and prepared to speak his mind, went to Philip. After they greeted each other, when Philip asked how the Greeks were agreeing with each other, Demaratus replied, "It is certainly very appropriate, Philip, to be worried about Greece, when you have filled your own house with such strife and difficulties." Philip realised he was right, and sent for Alexander and brought him home with Demaratus’ help.
Plutarch Alexander 9
In 340 BC, Alexander was left as regent in Macedonia while Philip was away on campaign, which shows how highly regarded he was by his father. When the Maedi caused trouble to the north, Alexander did not hesitate to lead forces against them, and he set up a military colony there called Alexandropolis.
2.3 The Mythological and Religious Background
Alexander grew up in the tempestuous Macedonian court. His status as a son of the king must have marked him out from an early age, and the claims on both sides of his family to descent from important figures in the distant past must also have given him a sense of his own standing in the world. The kings of Macedonia performed an essential role as leaders of their people in peace and war, but they were also a link to the gods; their religious role was sanctified by tradition, and Alexander certainly seems to have taken it very seriously, even before the issue of divine honours was raised.
It is important to understand the significance of the heroic world described by Homer in his poems and the impact this had on the development of Alexander. This can be seen in his visit to Troy (Arrian 1. 12); Arrian wrote that Alexander ‘had been eager to emulate Achilles ever since boyhood’ (Arrian 7. 14).
The importance of religious ritual to the king can be seen in the accounts of Alexander’s last days (which may go back to the so-called court journals). It is also worth considering his visits to Gordium and to the oracle of Ammon.
2.4 Philip’s final years
Although there were arguably sound dynastic reasons for it, Philip’s decision to take another young wife in 337 BC risked destabilising relationships within his own palace. Cleopatra was the niece of Attalus, a Macedonian of noble birth. According to one source, Satyrus, Philip ‘fell in love with her’. There had been other marriages, three of them before his marriage to Olympias, and two of the later ones served particular political purposes during campaigns.
Although Philip never got the chance to begin his long-planned expedition against the Persians, he had already made extensive preparations for it after the decision was taken at the meeting of the League of Corinth in 338/7 BC. One purpose of the expedition was to cement Philip and Macedon at the centre of the Greek world. There was also the realistic prospect of success.
An advanced force was organised and sent to Asia Minor in the spring of 336 BC, under the command of Parmenio and Attalus. It is likely that Attalus was sent out on the expedition to remove him from the court after the fiasco at Philip’s wedding to his niece Cleopatra, which led to Alexander and his mother leaving the court in 337 BC. Philip’s reconciliation with Alexander meant that, for the moment at least, Alexander was the heir presumptive. However we do not know how Philip planned to organise the Persian expedition; presumably he intended to take Alexander with him. However he had also to ensure that Macedonia was in safe hands while he was away; it is possible he intended to use Antipater in this role, as Alexander later did. Before that, he needed to make the state as stable as possible, so he used a political marriage between his own daughter Cleopatra and Alexander I of Epirus, brother of Olympias. The celebrations for this wedding were to be used by Philip to demonstrate his standing within the wider Greek world, but the assassination of the king changed the course of events. There has been much discussion about the murder of Philip and the extent to which it reflected a wider conspiracy against the king: some have suggested that Olympias or Alexander were behind it, though they are not the only potential suspects.
2.5 Alexander the King
After the death of Philip, Alexander had to move quickly to secure his position as king. The recent history of the Macedonian royal family (see above) must have prepared him for this, and he had supporters ready to act on his behalf. To become king, he had to be accepted by the Macedonian army; but although this was important he had also to deal with potential problems. One of these was Attalus, uncle of Philip’s most recent wife, Cleopatra. Alexander quickly organised men to remove this potential threat and sent them to kill Attalus. As he was in Asia with the Macedonian forces under Parmenio, this must have been done with Parmenio’s agreement. The killing of Cleopatra and her child is attributed in the sources to Olympias.
Alexander also moved quickly to secure his own status in the wider Greek world, as there was some unrest after Philip’s death. He made an expedition through central Greece, securing his position in the Amphictyonic League and also election as hegemon (leader) of the League of Corinth; he took his father’s place as leader of the proposed expedition against Persia.
However a new Macedonian king had also to establish his position at home, and so Alexander was forced to campaign in 335 BC against the tribes to the north in Illyria and Thrace. This also helped reinforce Alexander’s position within the army, and demonstrated that he understood the potential of the army inherited from his father and had the ability to employ it effectively in combat.
There were further problems in Greece, in which Athens and Thebes played an important role. The Athenian politician and orator Demosthenes tried to build a coalition against Alexander, and the Thebans were confident enough to turn on the Macedonian garrison established there in 338 BC after Chaeronea, perhaps expecting Alexander to be distracted by campaigns in the north for some time. However Alexander turned the tables effectively on the Thebans and took the city very quickly: he ordered the city to be razed to the ground, though he is reported to have preserved the house of the poet Pindar. This act of destruction undermined any chance of unity amongst the Greeks, who swiftly returned to obedience. (Further details can be found in Plutarch Alexander 11-14.)
2.6 Alexander’s relationships with members of his court
From his childhood, Alexander was surrounded by important members of the Macedonian aristocracy. Those who were important under Philip and continued to play significant roles during the reign of Alexander include Parmenio and Antipater.
Antipater (c397-319 BC) was appointed by Philip in 342 BC to oversee Macedon while he campaigned in the north and he also represented the king at the meeting that year of the Amphictyonic League at Delphi. After Chaeronea in 338 BC he was entrusted with negotiations in Athens. Even more importantly, he had a good relationship with Olympias, and so was well-placed to offer Alexander effective support after the assassination of Philip. When Alexander departed for Asia, he was left as regent in his place, and continued in this role until Alexander’s death in 323 BC. During this time he had to deal with the threat posed by Memnon’s Persian fleet in the Aegean, though that came to nothing after the death of Memnon at Mytilene in 333 BC. The Thracians caused problems in 332 BC, and, a little later, Agis III of Sparta, with the help of Persian money, tried to break Macedonian control of the Peloponnese that had left the Spartans effectively sidelined. Together with the Achaeans, Arcadians and the state of Elis, the Spartans put the city of Megalopolis under siege in 331 BC, and Antipater was forced to make a treaty with the Thracians so he could deal with the problems in the Peloponnese. In the spring of 330 BC, a decisive battle resulted in the death of Agis and the restoration of Macedonian control, though not without serious Macedonian losses. The relationship between Antipater and Olympias deteriorated over time, and in 324 BC Antipater was summoned to bring fresh troops to join Alexander, while Craterus was appointed regent in his place; however Alexander’s death allowed Antipater to stay in charge in Macedon, and in a strong position in the crisis that followed.
Parmenio (c400 - 330 BC) was a successful general under Philip, defeating the Illyrians in 356 BC and closely involved in the development of the Macedonian army which enabled Macedon to emerge as the dominant power in Greece during Philip’s reign. In 336 BC, he was sent ahead to Asia with Amyntas and Attalus to prepare for Philip’s expedition against the Persians, leading a force of 10,000 men. On Alexander’s succession, he did not attempt to save Attalus from the anger of the young king, and remained a powerful force, becoming Alexander’s second in command, in command of the important left wing of the Macedonian forces in battle. In the sources he is often represented as the more cautious and traditional tactician; Alexander is recorded as rejecting his advice about the time to attack at the Battle of the Granicus, but accepting his advice at the Battle of Gaugamela. However his son Philotas, one of the younger group of Alexander’s companions, was caught up in the so-called ‘conspiracy of Philotas’ in 330 BC, and was condemned to death by the army. Alexander then dispatched trusted men to kill Parmenio, in case he retaliated to the death of his son.
Alexander was brought up at court with Macedonians closer to his own age, many of whom became the companions on whom he relied for leadership in the army and for friendship. These were the sons of leading figures, such as Philotas, son of Parmenio. This childhood intimacy and the strong tradition of Macedonian free speech brought about some difficulties in the relationship between Alexander and his companions, especially as he began to adopt more openly foreign customs, such as wearing Persian clothes and introducing the obeisance. Two prominent figures in this group were Cleitus and Hephaestion.
Cleitus (known as Cleitus the Black) (c375 – 328 BC) was some 20 years older than Alexander; his sister Lanike was Alexander’s nurse. He was commander of the Royal Squadron in battle, and dramatically saved Alexander’s life in the Battle of the Granicus, when Alexander was leading the charge against the Persian forces. Spithridates was about to strike Alexander who was fighting another Persian, Rhoesaces, but Cleitus cut off his arm. This incident was brought up by Cleitus during the drunken party which led to his death. Reorganisation of commands may have led him to feel he was being demoted within the companions at this point. Alexander’s extreme reaction to his own behaviour shows his close, if tempestuous, relationship with his companions, and the narrative provided in our sources suggests a close friendship.
Hephaestion (c356-324 BC) was about the same age as Alexander and had an extremely close relationship with him. There is limited evidence for Hephaestion’s early years, though he may well have been at Mieza with Alexander, studying under Aristotle. There is even limited evidence for his involvement in the early stages of Alexander’s campaigns, though at Gaugamela he was ‘commander of the bodyguards’, according to Diodorus, which indicates he fought in battle beside Alexander, and Arrian tells us he received a wound. After the so-called ‘conspiracy of Philotas’ in 330 BC, he was made joint commander of the companion cavalry with Cleitus. Hephaestion was significantly involved in the rest of Alexander’s campaigns, and was eventually appointed Chiliarch, which shows the extent to which Alexander trusted and relied on him. His relationships with Craterus and Eumenes, Alexander’s secretaries, were more difficult (there are quarrels recorded in the sources), but the lack of information may reflect his early death. In the mass marriage ceremony at Susa in 324 BC, Hephaestion was married to Drypetis, daughter of Darius, whose sister, Stateira, married Alexander. This again underlines the close connection between the two men. Alexander’s extreme reaction to Hephaestion’s sudden death from a fever is discussed at length by our sources, and there is also considerable information about how he intended to enshrine Hephaestion’s memory. However after Alexander’s own death, these plans were set aside as the surviving companions tried to take control of all or part of Alexander’s conquests.
2.7 The character of Alexander
It is difficult to make a final assessment of the character of Alexander. Although we have a considerable amount of material about the Macedonian king, we have little contemporary evidence. It is probable that the herm of Alexander originally found at Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli and now in the Louvre Museum can give us an idea of what he looked like. It is based on an original by the Greek sculptor Lysippus who ‘was the only sculptor Alexander judged worthy of portraying himself’ (Arrian 1.16). The accounts of his campaigns also enable us to understand his energy, particularly in warfare: his resilience, determination and courage are well documented. His judgment is more questionable: he was certainly decisive and intuitive in battle, but many historians have criticised the risks he took not only with the lives of his men but with his own. This was particularly important because he did not make provision for his own death: there was no clear succession and he had not followed Parmenio’s advice before the campaign began to father a successor. Events after his death showed how significant a problem this would prove to be.
Picture source: Herm of Alexander from Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli
We can certainly form a judgment of the impact he had on his men. The aftermath of the mutiny at Opis shows the very strong feelings between the army and their king (Arrian 7.11). His relationship with his companions was more complex. He was very close to Hephaestion, and to many of the others; the Macedonian tradition of free speech in the presence of the king made relations with some companions more difficult, as shown by the events leading to the death of Cleitus (Arrian 4.8).
Modern historians have emphasised certain aspects of his behaviour, arguing that he was some or all of the following:
• an alcoholic
• a megalomaniac
• convinced of his own divinity.
Many of the ancient writers emphasise the negative or positive sides of the picture. Arrian (7.30), for example, is largely positive, and is critical of those who focused only on Alexander’s faults: he thinks that someone who draws attention to these should remember that he ‘is himself a meaner person who has pursued trivial goals and not even achieved these.’
On the other hand, Cleitarchus was responsible for some of the negative stories to be found in the surviving sources about Alexander. He had access to eye witness accounts for some at least of what he wrote, and he preserves important details; however his interpretation of Alexander’s actions is equally open to question.
It may be helpful to make a list of significant events from Alexander’s life and contrast the different interpretations that can be made of it. There may be a variety of possible interpretations possible.
Event Positive Interpretation Negative interpretation
Alexander’s adoption of Persian dress To demonstrate to the conquered peoples that he was the rightful heir of Darius III Shows Alexander’s desire to be treated as a Persian king rather than a Macedonian
2.8 The death of Alexander
We have two accounts of the death of Alexander to consider in detail.
There has been considerable speculation over the years about the cause of Alexander’s death. Years of campaigning must have taken its toll, together with the hardships of the journeys he undertook, such as the disastrous march through the Gedrosian Desert on his return from India: he had also received near fatal wounds on several occasions, as he himself told the troops at the time of the mutiny at Opis (Arrian 7.10). There are also references in the sources to prolonged drinking bouts, which certainly played a part in the death of Cleitus, though Arrian (7.29) considers Alexander’s drinking not to be significant:
As Aristobulus says, his drinking bouts were not long because of the wine, as Alexander drank little wine, but because of his friendship with his companions.
Plutarch (Alexander 77) discusses the idea that the king was poisoned, which he says the majority of historians dismiss. Neither Arrian nor Diodorus support the case for poisoning, and the historian Robin Lane Fox argues that the length of time Alexander was ill is a strong argument against the use of poison.
2.9 The Successors of Alexander: Alexander’s body
The death of Alexander precipitated a crisis within the Macedonian elite. His only gesture towards appointing a successor as he lay ill was the handing of his signet ring to Perdiccas. As his body ‘lay unattended in a stifling hot place’ (Plutarch, Alexander 77), some of his companions began to manoeuvre themselves into positions to secure some or all of Alexander’s conquests for themselves. In the immediate aftermath, there were a number of principal contenders and there was the threat of a split between the members of the elite officer class and the infantry, who remained loyal to the royal house of Macedon and demanded that Arrhidaeus, an older half-brother of Alexander, be named as king, despite his apparent mental weakness. A compromise was reached whereby Arrhidaeus was renamed Philip and accepted by the army as king (jointly with the as yet unborn child of Roxane, Alexander’s wife), with Perdiccas as regent. Antipater and Craterus were also prominent in the new arrangements. This agreement was reached in the presence of Alexander’s dead body.
The army were given the opportunity to hear and reject Alexander’s plans for further expansion of the empire and major building projects in honour of the gods, his father Philip and Hephaestion (Diodorus 18.4). It is very possible that these so-called plans were exaggerated by Perdiccas or others to ensure that they would be rejected by the rank and file of the army.
Although Perdiccas emerged as the most powerful figure in Babylon, there were other important figures whose views about the future would be important. Antipater remained in Macedonia with a powerful army; Craterus had been sent to replace with him by Alexander but was in Cilicia with some 10000 veterans; there was also Antigonus One-Eye at Celaenae. Within a few months, Roxane gave birth to a strong male child, who was acclaimed by the army as Alexander IV.
In a relatively short time, the empire created by the will of one man began to fragment. One question that had to be settled was what to do with the body of Alexander. It was agreed by the Macdonian leadership at Babylon that he should be embalmed and then taken to Ammon’s sanctuary at Siwah to be buried. However by the time the arrangements for transporting the dead king in due pomp were completed two years later, Perdiccas tried to get the body transported to Macedonia so that Alexander could be buried in the traditional resting place of Macedonian kings at Aegae. However Ptolemy managed to intercept the funeral cortege at Damascus, and took the king’s body back to Egypt. He first buried him at Memphis and then installed him in a magnificent tomb in Alexandria.
The importance of Alexander to his successors is clear from the way their service with him is regularly used to strengthen their claim to authority. Coins continued to be issued with Alexander’s name on them after his death; Ptolemy was the first to introduce new coins, showing Alexander wearing an elephant scalp headdress together with the ram’s horns of Ammon; much later, he issued coins as king with his own portrait on one side and Alexander on a chariot drawn by elephants on the other. Seleucus followed very much the same pattern in Babylon. Lysimachus, originally awarded the satrapy of Thrace, managed to profit from the fighting in the years after Alexander’s death, and gained control of Asia Minor; he too struck coins with Alexander’s image.
Ptolemy’s coinage Picture Source:
Lysimachus’ coinage Picture Source:
2.10 The deification of Alexander
Alexander was brought up to believe himself descended from Heracles, and so a descendant of Zeus. However his attitude towards deification is more problematic. Plutarch (28) believes he used divine status as a political tool to ensure control of his new territories, though it is clear from the sources that this resulted in some tensions within the Macedonian leadership, as shown by Cleitus, Callisthenes and the so-called ‘Pages’ Conspiracy’. The attempt to introduce the obeisance can be interpreted as a desire for recognition of his divine status, though it may also reflect the desire to integrate Persians and Macedonians within the court. In the final years of his life, it is recorded that Alexander asked for divine honours from the Greeks, together with a hero-cult for Hephaestion. There is also evidence going back to Ephippus, who wrote a pamphlet on the death of Alexander, that Alexander would dress up as Ammon and other gods such as Artemis and Hermes; this may be mere play-acting at parties. There were some cults established in Asia Minor, and some lasted a long time; one was in the city of Alexandria, where Alexander’s body was finally conveyed by Ptolemy; another at Ephesus. Greece was less enthusiastic, though there are references to discussions in both Sparta and Athens about divine honours for the ‘son of Ammon’; this suggests that Alexander was indeed seeking some recognition of his ‘divine status’.
Further discussion of this question can be found at:
Theme: Alexander’s Campaigns
3.1 The Persian Empire at the time of Alexander’s accession
The Achaemenid Empire was still very powerful when Alexander came to the throne, though in recent years there had been turmoil after a long period of stability. Towards the end of the fifth century BC, Artaxerxes II (404-358 BC) came to the throne at a difficult time; Egypt was no longer part of the empire and an attempt to recover it in 373 BC failed. However he engaged in a range of building projects and moved the capital of the empire back to Persepolis. In the Peace of Antalcidas (also known as the King’s Peace) in 387 BC, Artaxerxes regained control of the coastal cities of the Aegean coast.
On the death of the king, his son Artaxerxes III (358-338 BC) took over control of the empire, eliminating competition by assassinating a number of his close relatives. One significant achievement was the re-establishment of Persian control of Egypt, which once again became a Persian satrapy in 343 BC. The Persians offered significant aid to opponents of Philip: in 340 BC forces were sent to support Cersobleptes, a Thracian ruler, and, more successfully, the city of Perinthus which was able to withstand a siege by Philip’s forces.
Artaxerxes III died in 338 BC, either of natural causes (cuneiform tablet in the British Museum BM 71537) or, according to Diodorus Siculus, poisoned by the successful eunuch Bagoas. He was succeeded by the young Artaxerxes IV (338-336 BC), who almost at once had to face two revolts in Egypt and Babylon, as well as the threat posed by the advance guard of Philip’s forces under Parmenio. Internal disagreements within the leading Persian families led to pressure on Bagoas’ position, who responded by killing the king. In his place Darius III was appointed king; he ordered the execution of Bagoas.
3.2 The Persian Army
The resources of the Achaemenid Empire were vast, as Plutarch records before Gaugamela:
Alexander knew that Darius would not stop fighting through lack of weapons or men since he had so great an army and so vast an empire, but only when he gave up any hope of success and was convinced by clear-cut and utter defeat.
Plutarch, Alexander 31
The Persian king could draw on his own trained Persian troops, including those who served in his personal guard, the so-called Immortals, distinguished by the golden apples on the pommels of their spears: evidence for these can be found at Susa on reliefs in glazed brick or in stone at Persepolis. In addition to the professional Persian forces, there were conscript forces whose abilities were less well developed and there were also Greek mercenaries deployed against Alexander, such as those under the leadership of Memnon at the Battle of the River Granicus. The army as a whole was commanded by the king himself, his family or by close companions. However there were significant difficulties drawing on the full range of forces available to be called up. At the first encounter at the river Granicus, the local satraps and commanders drew on forces close at hand, and did not wait for the further troops to arrive. In later battles, Darius was able to choose the ground and so could make sure he had appropriate forces ready. Alexander’s judgment that he needed a clear-cut defeat of Darius in open battle is probably correct, though he received a number of peace offers before the final battle. Even though the empire was weaker than it had been, under a strong leader it remained very powerful and there is no evidence that the western satrapies were acting independently of the centre at this time, though it is clear that Egypt at least was keen to throw off the Persian yoke, to judge by their enthusiastic response to Alexander’s arrival.
To get a sense of the strength of the Persian army for each battle, it is important to examine the sources, though there is a tendency to exaggerate the numbers. However the main types of troops available to the king were chariots, cavalry and infantry, together with a powerful navy. The cavalry were a very important element, regularly armed with bows and javelins; the horses could have some protective armour. Persian infantry was often deployed in mixed units of archers and shieldbearers armed with spears. Chariots were also employed, including the visually impressive scythe-bearing chariots used at Gaugamela, which also had a spear projecting forward from the end of the chariot pole (Curtius IV.9.5): the driver sat in a high armoured box. However their effectiveness was limited by the need to choose appropriate terrain for the battle, and they appeared to present little threat to well trained troops such as those of Alexander:
The barbarians sent into battle their scythe-bearing chariots towards Alexander himself, in an attempt to disrupt his phalanx. They had no success in this, for as soon as they began to get close, the Agrianians and the javelin throwers led by Balacrus, who were drawn up in front of the cavalry of the companions, hurled their weapons; they grabbed hold of the reins, dragged the men out of the chariots and stood around the horses and struck them. There were a few that got through the Greek battle line, for, as they had been ordered to, the Greeks moved apart at those points where the chariots attacked; this was the reason some got through safely and passed through those they were attacking without doing any damage. The grooms of Alexander’s army and the royal guards finished them off.
3.3 Alexander’s campaign against Darius
It is worth getting a good understanding of the ground covered by Alexander during his campaigns. Below is an exercise using Google Earth, which makes it easy to switch between ancient and modern views of the territory he conquered. The scale of Alexander’s conquests is still breathtaking today, even if his early death meant that his empire was soon broken up between competing factions. Although strictly beyond the demands of this specification, it is worth noting the impact that Alexander’s conquests had on the subsequent history of the region; the kingdoms that resulted, ruled by the descendants of Alexander’s companions, competed largely with each other and allowed time for Rome to grow beyond its boundaries to become a Mediterranean superpower. Although the Achaemenid Empire had been weakened in the 4th century by internal disputes, a strong king, such as Darius III might have become, could once again have turned his attention to the Greek world and beyond.
3.4 The beginning of Alexander’s campaign
Alexander crossed over into Asia in 334 BC with an army of some 35000 men (there are disagreements in the sources about the exact numbers), consisting of 30000 heavy infantry and light infantry and 5000 cavalry. The majority of these were Macedonian, though the Greeks contributed 7000 infantry and a small cavalry force, together with a navy of some 160 ships.
Plutarch (Alexander 15) records that he first went to Troy to show his respect for the earlier achievements of the Greeks, before joining Parmenio and the advanced force, which made up about a quarter of the final total.
He then went on to Ilium and sacrificed to Trojan Athena, and dedicated his full suit of armour in the temple, and took down in their place some of the sacred weapons that were preserved from the Trojan war. They say that the royal guards carried these before him into battle. He then sacrificed to Priam as well on the altar of Zeus of Enclosures (as the story goes), asking that the anger of Priam should not be visited on the race of Neoptolemus, as Alexander himself was descended from him.
Arrian 1. 11
It is worth considering what Alexander was intent on doing at this point in the campaign. He had crossed over to Asia with a relatively small force: he had left a considerable body of men in Greece under Antipater, who had been put in charge of Macedonia in his absence; this was to guard against further problems to the north and also to discourage any trouble in Greece itself. According to Plutarch, he had only 70 talents in cash for the expedition and provisions for thirty days. Some modern historians have argued that this suggests Alexander initially intended only to conquer Asia Minor, while others suggest that his aims were always on a greater scale.
Alexander appears to have regarded the campaign as part of his inheritance from his father, who had persuaded the League of Corinth to send him to gain revenge for the Xerxes’ destruction of Greek cities and to free the cities on the coast of Asia Minor. Philip could satisfy this mandate with a relatively brief campaign to free Asia Minor from Persian control. However, not all historians agree with this view of Philip’s intentions: some suggest that it is likely that he intended to place himself on the Persian throne, and that he was actively trying to promote himself as an equal to the gods at the marriage ceremony of Cleopatra at which he was killed:
In addition to magnificent displays of all kinds, the king set in the procession statues of the twelve gods crafted with extraordinary skill and wonderfully decorated with a dazzling display of wealth; there was in the procession a thirteenth statue, worthy of a god, but of Philip himself, who was revealed enthroned amongst the twelve gods.
Diodorus Siculus 16.92.5
This could suggest that at the outset of the campaign, Alexander already had his eyes on the greater prize of the Persian throne, and that his thoughts could already have turned towards higher things. It is difficult to come to firm conclusions as we do not have any direct evidence for Alexander’s intentions (or for Philip’s).
Another possibility is more easily grounded in the evidence of contemporary historians. That Alexander only had 70 talents in cash when he crossed to Asia comes from Aristobulus, while Onesicritus, another historian who accompanied Alexander, claimed that he also owed 200 talents. This could suggest that Alexander needed continuous campaigning to maintain the army he had inherited from his father.
Map of Alexander’s Empire
Picture source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:MacedonEmpire.jpg
3.5 Battle of the River Granicus
Once Alexander had combined his forces with the advanced guard, he began to move forwards. The local Persian leaders, according to Arrian, held some discussion about the best way to deal with Alexander, receiving advice from Memnon, a Greek mercenary leader from Rhodes who was the son-in-law of Artabazus; he suggested they should draw Alexander further away from the coast and instigate a scorched earth policy to undermine his advance. This was, however, rejected (Arrian 1. 12), so they had drawn up their forces to block his way, selecting ground that would favour them. According to Arrian, Parmenio was concerned at the difficulty presented by the situation:
In my opinion, O king, it would be good in this situation to set up camp on the riverbank just as we are. I do not believe that the enemy will dare bivouac near us as we outnumber them in infantry, and by doing this we will ensure that the army can easily cross the river at dawn; for we will be able to do this before they can get ready for battle. But as things are, I think it would be dangerous to make the attempt, because it is not possible to lead the army through the river in a broad line of battle. You see how there are many deep stretches in the river, and the banks are very high and extremely steep in places; the enemy cavalry drawn up in battle order will be upon us as we come out of the river in marching formation and in no proper order, which puts us in a very weak position. The first defeat would be difficult in the present situation and damaging for the outcome of the whole campaign.
Alexander was determined to fight, and drew up his forces accordingly.
Once he had done this, Alexander sent Parmenio to take control of the left wing, while he went along with his forces to the right. He had already put in position a number of commanders. On the right there was Philotas, son of Parmenio, in charge of the companion cavalry, the archers and the Agrianian javelin men; next to him was Amyntas, son of Arrabaeus, who was in charge of the lancers, and the Paeonians and the squadron of Socrates; next were the royal guards, under the leadership of Nicanor, son of Parmenio; then the phalanx of Perdiccas, the son of Orontes, and next to that, the troops led by Coenus, son of Polemocrates, then those led by Amyntas, son of Andromenes, and finally on the right wing the phalanx led by Philip, son of Amyntas. On the left wing, the Thessalian cavalry were positioned first, under the leadership of Calas, son of Harpalus, and next to them the allied cavalry, commanded by Philip, the son of Menelaus; then Agatho led the Thracian contingent; beyond them were infantry battalions, the phalanx of Craterus, then those of Meleager and Philip, right up to the middle of the whole battle line.
The accounts of the battle show it to have been hard fought and in places desperate. Arrian sums up the problems the Macedonians faced:
Where those with Amyntas and Socrates first reached the bank, the Persians assailed them with missiles from above; some threw javelins from their high position on the bank into the river, while others, where the ground was more level, went down to meet them as far as the water. There was a great thrusting of cavalry, some trying to get out of the river, while others tried to prevent them; there was a great shower of javelins from the Persians, while the Macedonians were fighting with their spears. But the Macedonians, as they were greatly outnumbered, began to struggle in the first assault, since they were defending themselves from the river on ground that was not firm and from a lower position, as the Persians held the high bank.
(You may find it helpful to search the internet for better quality versions of the original painting.)
Picture Source: Bronze sculpture of Alexander on horseback from Herculaneum
After the battle Alexander proceeded more cautiously and fulfilled an important element in the campaign agreed by the League of Corinth, as he set about freeing the Greek cities of Asia Minor. He was generous towards those who came over to him: the Persian ruler of Sardis, Mithrenes, surrendered his city to Alexander (and was later rewarded with control of Armenia in 331 BC). He dealt more harshly with those who put up some resistance, notably the cities of Miletus and Halicarnassus, where Memnon, in charge of the Persian navy, was active. At this point Alexander disbanded his fleet, a decision which seemed surprising to some; Alexander presumably felt it was unlikely to be successful against the Persian navy, and the loyalty of its Greek crews was open to question; in addition, maintaining a fleet at sea was expensive. He therefore set about depriving the Persians of any friendly ports along the coast. During this winter, he continued his campaign in Lycia and Pamphylia.
In the spring of 333 BC, Alexander made his way to Gordium, where he ‘solved’ the problem of untying the Gordian knot: ‘whoever undid the knot of the yoke of the wagon was destined to rule Asia’ (Arrian 2.3). This visit suggests that whatever Alexander’s intentions were at the outset, his ambitions was already leading him on to greater expectations. His careful approach to the coastal areas laid the foundations of a lengthy campaign and challenged the Persian king to defend his territory. This suggests that Alexander was already interested in achieving more than the freedom of the Greek cities in the area.
3.6 Battle of the Issus
Darius III had by now collected his forces and now chose to force the issue with Alexander. There are various accounts of the battle: Plutarch Alexander 19-20, Arrian 2. 7-11, Curtius 3. 8-11. This proved to be another decisive victory for Alexander, as Darius had allowed himself to be drawn into terrain that was more suitable for the smaller Macedonian army. The decisive moment came when Alexander led a charge directly at the king, who turned and fled. There was considerable slaughter after the battle, and the Macedonians made themselves masters of a considerable quantity of Persian equipment, though much had previously been sent on to Damascus. This too was soon captured by Parmenio, thereby completing a significant victory, though Darius had made good his escape and could assemble another army in the heartland of his empire.
After the battle, Alexander found himself in control of Darius’ camp. Darius’ mother, wife and several other family members were captured. Alexander treated them as royalty and looked after them well.
Picture source: Mosaic from the house of the Faun in Pompeii depicting Darius and Alexander at Issus
Picture source: The Alexander sarcophagus, showing Alxander at the battle of Issus
3.7 The Siege of Tyre
After the initial pursuit of Darius, Alexander returned to his previous plan of occupying the coastal cities to deprive the Persian fleet of any base in the region. Most proved easy to convince, though the siege of Tyre was long and difficult. It is arguable that there was no need for the siege, as the people of Tyre were prepared to submit to Alexander, but did not want to allow him to enter the city to sacrifice at the Temple of Heracles there. This made Alexander very angry (Arrian 2. 16). Although the siege took seven months, it left no doubt of Alexander’s seriousness and the siege convinced the Cypriot kings and the Phoenicians to bring their fleets over to Alexander. This helped bring the siege to a successful conclusion.
Alexander himself took great interest in the preparations for the attack on the city, which was extraordinarily well defended:
The eagerness of the Macedonians for the task was great, and Alexander was there directing each step of the work, sometimes inspiring them with his words, at other times encouraging those who worked exceptionally hard with gifts.
Arrian 2. 18
After this, Alexander moved on to Gaza, which was captured after a siege of two months. According to Curtius (4.6.29), the Persian garrison commander Batis (or Betis) was dragged round the walls of the city by Alexander, imitating the way Achilles treated Hector. This is not supported by Plutarch or Arrian.
3.8 Alexander in Egypt
Alexander’s progress in Egypt was swift, as he was welcomed by the people eager to throw off Persian control, only recently reasserted over them. He was accepted as the rightful pharaoh and was recognised as the son of Ammon; he made a journey to the oracle of Ammon at Siwah to be recognised by the god.
The adoption of Egyptian custom was acceptable to the Egyptian people and in line with what the Persian kings had done to legitimise their rule. However it is likely that this behaviour by Alexander caused more difficulty for his loyal Macedonian troops, who felt by acknowledging publically that he was the son of Ammon, he was denying the paternity of Philip. This is the first occasion when dissatisfaction emerged amongst his own forces. There is increasingly in the sources a tension between Alexander’s apparent desire to be recognised as a god and his troops’ view of him as a Macedonian king. Alexander could well be displaying political skill in choosing the best way to present himself to those he had conquered; however as he tried to integrate these newcomers with his Macedonian forces, this became increasingly difficult.
In 331 BC, Alexander founded the city of Alexandria on the site of a small Egyptian town of Rhakotis. Although Alexander never returned to the city after he left to continue his pursuit of Darius, the city thrived under the new administration, as it gained a great deal from the destruction of Tyre. After Alexander’s death, Egypt came under the control of Ptolemy, one of his generals, and the city steadily increased in size and importance.
3.9 Battle of Gaugamela
By 331 BC, Darius had called up further conscripts and was ready to take to the field against Alexander. He set out from Babylon, placed his baggage at Arbela and set up camp near Gaugamela; this time he chose a battle field more appropriate to his mix of troops, and he spent some time ensuring that he would be able to deploy his scythe-bearing chariots and his elephants.
Alexander was under pressure at this time as he had received news that the Spartans in Greece were agitating against the established peace. His choice of commander in Greece proved sound however, as Antipater proved more than equal to the task, defeating the Spartans at Megalopolis, reducing Spartan numbers considerably and killing King Agis III.
Alexander was eager for a decisive confrontation, even though he was considerably outnumbered. Once the two armies were close, he
‘summoned his companions, generals, squadron leaders and the commanders of allied and mercenary forces and held a council of war to discuss whether he should press on towards the enemy from where they were straightaway, or follow Parmenio’s advice to set up a camp where they were and reconnoitre the whole area, in case there was something suspicious or a serious obstacle, or ditches anywhere, or stakes concealed in the ground; the organisation of the enemy forces could also be checked more carefully. It was decided to follow Parmenio’s advice, and they set up camp where they were, organised ready for the coming battle.’
Arrian 3. 9
3.10 After Gaugamela
After the victory at Gaugamela and Darius’ headlong flight, the centre of Persian power was open to Alexander. One of Darius’ commanders, Mazaeus, fled to Babylon, but then surrendered the city to Alexander. In due course, Alexander appointed him satrap, though he also installed a Macedonian garrison in the city; he did the same at Susa, where Abulites was in turn rewarded for recognising the inevitable and surrendering the city and its treasures. His usual practice was to employ local figureheads but ensure that the real power lay in the hands of loyal Macedonians. These native satraps proved less than successful; of the eighteen appointed, ten were removed for murder, treason or incompetence.
As he moved on, there was limited opposition, which he easily bypassed. Soon Persepolis was taken, surrendered by Tiridates; here Alexander allowed some freedom to his army after the long campaigns, and there was considerable pillaging and the destruction of the palace.
In the autumn of 330 BC, the so-called ‘conspiracy of Philotas’ came to light and revealed further the tensions within the Macedonian high command. Whatever the truth behind the charges laid against Philotas, Alexander moved decisively and presented his case to the army, who sided with the king. Philotas may have been guilty of no more than ignoring mutterings against Alexander and speaking his mind freely and critically about the king in Macedonian style. The execution of Philotas led to the killing of his father, Parmenio, who was in Ecbatana. As a result of this, there was some reorganisation of the army commands; Alexander promoted Hephaestion though this proved not to be successful.
In 330 BC, news finally came that all was well in Greece after Antipater had dealt with the Spartans at Megalopolis, so Alexander could continue his pursuit of the Persian king. As Darius fled towards Central Asia, his army and advisors began to desert him. In the end, two of his commanders Bessus and Nabarzanes acted against their king, placing him in golden chains, and finally in July they killed him. Alexander was now accepted as the legitimate heir to Darius’ kingdom, which placed on him a duty to avenge his predecessor.
Bessus declared himself king (as Artaxerxes V) and retreated to his satrapy of Bactria and Sogdiana in the north. Alexander may have chosen to adopt Persian dress to a greater extent at this point to emphasise visually his claim to be the rightful king; his Macedonian troops did not find this easy to accept.
Diodorus (17.77) describes the changes made by Alexander at this point:
• court chamberlains of Asian race
• a bodyguard of Persian noblemen
• he wore some elements of Persian dress – the diadem, white tunic, Persian sash
• scarlet cloaks for his companions
• he took over Darius’ retinue of 360 concubines
As Alexander pursued the murderer across the Hindu Kush into Bactria, founding several cities called Alexandria along the way, Bessus’ fellow leaders turned on their new king and allowed him to be captured and brought to Alexander. Bessus was sent back to Ecbatana to be punished in Persian fashion, while Alexander tried to bring the frontier tribes under control. The foundation of new cities, such as Alexandria Eschate, threatened the way of life in the region, and local leaders, perhaps concerned that they would suffer the same fate as Bessus, proved difficult to subdue. It took two years of campaigning (329-327 BC) before it was possible to use an arranged marriage with Roxane, daughter of Oxyartes, to bring the fighting to an end.
It was during this period that the death of Cleitus (known as ‘Cleitus the Black’) occurred, during a drinking bout in Maracanda (modern Samarkand) in which tempers became roused.
Another significant development that raised tensions within the Macedonian leadership was Alexander’s interest in obeisance (proskynesis). This behaviour had been introduced by Cyrus the Great. In the hierarchical Persian court, it allowed individuals to show that they understood their position in the hierarchy; low-ranking individuals or petitioners might prostrate themselves, but that would not be required of those of higher rank. In return, the Persian king recognised his subjects’ behaviour, and might kiss those closest to him, his kinsmen. The Persians did not regard their king as a god, but behaviour such as this was reserved for the gods in Greek custom. At this time the attempt to introduce such behaviour almost certainly reflects Alexander’s desire to integrate all those now under his rule, rather than an attempt to claim divine honours for himself, though some sources did not take that view.
Soon after this the so-called ‘Pages’ Conspiracy’ occurred; this may have begun for personal reasons when one of the King’s pages was flogged after an incident while hunting. However it again reflects the tensions within the Macedonian elite (the pages were the sons of leading companions of the king) about Alexander’s plans for the future. Callisthenes, who was tutor to the king’s pages, was caught up in this and was either put to death on Alexander’s orders (Arrian 4. 14.3) or died in custody awaiting trial (Plutarch Alexander 55).
3.11 The final campaign in the Indus valley
Alexander turned his attention to the furthest reaches of the Persian empire to the east in 327 BC. His progress was not without incident, but he was, as always, successful. This led to the confrontation with Porus at the Hydaspes in July 326 BC, which was, after a fierce battle, another success for Alexander. However in the aftermath he confirmed Porus in his position and tried to create some stability amongst the peoples of the area, as needed to secure the eastern frontier of his empire. He established the cities of Bucephala and Nicaea, but there is some doubt about his intentions; Plutarch records (Alexander 62) that the army refused to cross the Ganges and that Alexander retired to his tent in anger; however the river was certainly the Hyphasis, and it is not clear he planned to go further. He began to prepare a fleet which would sail down the Hydaspes to the coast. The campaign through this area almost cost Alexander his life during one attack, but his forces successfully brought in line the various territories they passed through. He sent Nearchus on with the fleet, while he led the army by a difficult route through the Gedrosian desert, which again gave Alexander the opportunity to share the privations of his troops (Plutarch Alexander 66). It could be argued that this was a self-inflicted disaster that cost the Macedonian army a great deal.
3.12 The return to Babylon
As Alexander began his journey back towards the centre of the empire, he found that there had been considerable disruption during his absence, as many had not expected him to return. Harpalus, who had been left as treasurer in Ecbatana on Alexander’s departure, had made free use of the king’s treasure for his own enjoyment (including a succession of Greek courtesans), and in 325 BC fled when news of Alexander’s return reached him. Alexander instigated a thorough review of the behaviour of those he had left in control of the various regions of the empire, and there were significant changes made. Arrian records (7.4):
[Alexander] arrested and killed Abulites and his son Ozathres, because they had administered the Susians badly. Many offences had been committed by those who were in charge of the countries which Alexander had conquered. These related to temples, graves and the subjects themselves, because the king had been undertaking the expedition to India, and it did not seem credible that he would return from such a great number of nations and elephants! They thought that he would be killed beyond the Indus, Hydaspes, Acesines and Hyphasis. The disasters which happened to him in Gadrosia did yet more to encourage the satraps to despise any idea of his return home. Not only this, but Alexander is said to have become quicker in giving credence to accusations at this time, as if they were to be believed all the time, and to give great punishments even to those who were convicted of small offences, because he thought they might carry out great offences based on the same thoughts.
What does this passage tell us about Alexander’s behaviour on his return from India?
On his journey, Alexander visited Persepolis and then went to Susa. Arrian (7.4) and Plutarch (Alexander 70) provide accounts of the marriage ceremonies he arranged there for himself and his companions.
He himself married Barsine, the eldest of the daughters of Darius, and another woman in addition to her, Parysatis, the youngest of the daughters of Ochus, according to Aristobulus. He was already married to Roxanne, the daughter of Oxyartes from Bactria. To Hephaestion he gave Drypetis, another daughter of Darius and the sister of his own wife. For he wanted Hephaestion’s children to be cousins to his own. To Craterus he gave Amastrine the daugher of Oxyartes, Darius’ brother; to Perdiccas, a daughter of Atropates, satrap of Media. Ptolemy, his bodyguard, and Eumenes, the royal secretary, married the daughters of Artabazus, Artacama and Artonis respectively. Nearchus married the daughter of Barsine and Mentor; Seleucus the daughter of Spitamenes from Bactria, and likewise the other Companions – about eighty in all - married the most noble daughters of the Persians and the Medes.
This suggests a determined attempt by Alexander to make strong links between the conquered elite and their conquerors. It is worth noting that no Macedonian or Greek women were married to Persian nobles, so this should not be seen as an attempt to join the two peoples. At about the same time, Alexander took steps to send home those amongst his veterans who were unfit to continue fighting, and brought in to his army the thirty thousand so-called ‘successors’ he had left behind for Greek training in 327 BC. This produced a strong reaction from his Macedonian soldiers, who felt they were being supplanted by the foreigners; Alexander’s reorganisation of his army may have been prompted as much by a shortage of manpower as anything else. There was a brief mutiny and confrontation with the king at Opis, which was over very quickly. The strong and deep connection between the king and his army was re-established, though the ringleaders were condemned to death. Arrian records (7.12) that Alexander declared that he recognised all his Macedonian troops as ‘kinsmen’, the term used by Persian kings for their most distinguished courtiers.
He held a great banquet of reconciliation at Opis: according to Arrian (7.12), there were 9000 guests present. The king sat at the centre with his companions, then next to them were the Persian notables, and the other guests beyond. During the banquet, Alexander is supposed to have made a prayer for agreement and friendship between the Macedonians and the Persians. After this, he arranged for all those who were no longer fit for service to return to Greece.
Alexander appointed Craterus to replace Antipater in Greece, and sent him to convey the veterans returning home back to Greece. In the summer of 324 BC, Nicanor of Stageira was sent to the Olympic games to announce the Exiles’ Decree, which ordered the Greek cities to receive back all exiles, apart from those who were robbers of temples or murderers. This caused considerable problems for some states such as Athens and was not within the terms of the League of Corinth. Another controversial issue amongst historians concerns deification; there is no clear evidence that Alexander put forward a decree asking to be awarded divine honours by the Greek states, though many believe that he did. The subject was certainly discussed in Athens and Sparta. Perhaps Plutarch (Alexander 28) is correct about this:
From these accounts it is clear that Alexander was not affected by, nor did he become conceited through, a belief in his own divinity, but rather used it to overcome others.
From Susa, he went to Ecbatana, where personal misfortune struck: Hephaestion became ill after drinking and died. Alexander’s reaction was extreme:
Writers have given very different accounts of Alexander’s grieving; they all agreed that his grief was very great, but there are different versions of what he actually did, dependent on the goodwill or envy each felt towards Hephaestion or Alexander himself. For those who recorded his reckless excesses seem to me to consider that whatever Alexander did or said in his great grief for the friend closest to him of all men either adds to his glory or bring shame upon him, on the grounds that such behaviour was not fitting for a king or for Alexander. Some say that for the greater part of that day he flung himself down beside the body of his friend groaning and did not wish to be separated from him, until he was forcibly removed by his companions; in other accounts, he lay beside the body all day and all night; other writers say he strung up the doctor Glaucias, either because of the wrong drug being given or because he saw Hephaestion drinking heavily and allowed him to continue. I think it is likely that Alexander cut his hair over the body, especially because he had been eager to emulate Achilles ever since boyhood.
What does this passage suggest about the difficulties assessing Alexander’s behaviour?
This event also raises the issue of divine honours:
According to most historians, Alexander ordered that Hephaestion should always receive rites appropriate for a hero, and some say that he sent to the oracle of Ammon to ask the god whether he allowed Hephaestion to receive sacrifices as a god, but that permission was not granted.
In the last months of his life, Alexander seems to have become very sensitive about religious matters. He had always respected the gods of the countries through which he had travelled, and he regularly fulfilled his religious duties as king. Plutarch, himself a religious man, writes:
Alexander, since he had become troubled about divine matters and fearful in his mind, now treated everything unusual or strange, however insignificant, as a portent or omen. The royal palace was full of people sacrificing and purifying and making predictions of the future. It is true that disbelief in divine matters and contempt for them is a terrible thing, but terrible also is superstition, which, just as water always flows down to the lowest point, now filled Alexander’s fearful mind with foolishness.
Plutarch Alexander 75
3.13 Alexander’s intentions
It is impossible to be certain what Alexander’s exact intentions were at each stage of the campaign. At the outset, he may have intended a relatively short campaign to free the Greek cities of Asia Minor and secure Greek lands freedom from Persian control. However there is uncertainty over his father’s plans, and Alexander seems likely to have wanted to outdo his father. His visits to the acropolis at Gordium and the oracle of Ammon may have raised his ambitions further; the prospect of defeating Darius and capturing the most important Persian cities with their fabulous treasure may also have drawn him on. Once he was accepted as the new king of Persia, he took on the task of avenging the murder of his predecessor. Alexander recognised the need to employ local elites to maintain control over the vast territories of Persia, as earlier Persian kings had done, though there were difficulties integrating oriental court practices to the far different expectations of both the Macedonian elite and the Macedonian army. In India he may have reached the limit of his ambitions, though the sources suggest he wanted to press further. The account of his final days suggests that he had no intention of resting on his achievements; he was already planning further travel, and had his officers preparing for a further expedition to Arabia (and perhaps even further).
There were considerable problems facing him: the Exiles’ Decree had caused considerable concern in Greece, and some states were trying to stir things up, particularly the Athenians. Although he had already decided to replace Antipater with Craterus, it was not clear that this would make the situation in Greece any better, and there was the difficult issue of divine honours. The relationship between Macedonians and Persians had still to settle down, and his proposed absence would allow tensions to surface.
3.14 Alexander’s Legacy
Alexander’s achievements had a considerable impact on his own times, and after his death, the break-up of his empire drew a new map for the future development of the areas he had conquered. The ruling families founded by his companions, such as Ptolemy in Egypt or Seleucus in Babylonia, had a lasting impact on the ruling elites in those areas. Arguably just as important for the spread of Greek influence through the vast areas conquered were the various cities he founded (or refounded): Plutarch (On the Fortune of Alexander 1.5) claims he established ‘more than seventy’, but this is clearly an exaggeration; there may have been as few as eight cities called Alexandria in various parts of the empire, and a larger number of other towns transformed in some way by Alexander’s passing (and in later years at least eager to claim an association with the great man).
Many of these cities were set in strategically important sites: Alexandria on the coast in Egypt at one end of the empire; Alexandria Eschate to the north in Sogdiana; Alexandria on the Hyphasis in the east. The cities were founded for mixed populations: Alexander left behind those of his forces who were not fit to fight any further or whom he no longer trusted, but there were also natives of the region. The effect of the dispersion of Greek culture through the empire helped hold it together over time.
Not all the Greeks and Macedonians settled in this way were happy to be so far from their homeland. There were attempts by the mercenaries settled in Alexandria Eschate to return to Greece, but these were bloodily suppressed.
The most famous of these cities was Alexandria in Egypt, where Ptolemy transformed his satrapy into an empire. Although he originally buried Alexander’s body at Memphis, he later brought it to Alexandria which developed into a major centre of Greek culture over the next few centuries. It was developed by the Ptolemaic dynasty as the capital of Egypt and a major port. The Tomb of Alexander was a major attraction, as was the famous library.
Theme: Developments in the Macedonian Army
4.1 The Macedonian Army under Philip II and Alexander
The victory at Chaeronea in 338 BC was in large part due to the development of the Macedonian army under Philip and the experience of lengthy campaigns over a long period of time. By tradition there was a very strong link between the army and the king from his accession; one significant limitation on the powers of a Macedonian king was that the army had to decide on matters of treason.
Even at the beginning of his reign, Philip was able to muster a significant body of infantry, though the cavalry remained the most important element in the Macedonian army. As his control over his kingdom became more assured, and his success in expanding his influence increased his wealth, he was able to draw on a greater number of men and introduce some important refinements in equipment and tactics. However the limitations of the sources are such that we cannot be sure of the exact sequence of development.
The cavalry were the traditional core of the Macedonian army, and they remained significant under Philip. The ‘companion cavalry’ consisted of Macedonians close to the king, and they played a very significant role in Macedonian success. Philip probably combined together during his reign what had been separate cavalry units from Upper and Lower Macedonia. The Macedonian cavalry wore protective armour (corselet, helmet), may have carried a shield and the main offensive weapon was a strong cornel wood spear, together with a sword. They trained hard to ride in a wedge formation, which allowed them to change direction in response to the leader and to manoeuvre very quickly wherever gaps appeared in the enemy line. It was the speed of deployment in battle that made them such a formidable force against both Greek and Persian armies.
The Macedonian infantry in the fifth century BC was little better than a mob (Thucydides 4, 125), but later kings had tried to improve it by establishing ‘Foot-Companions’ (Pezhetairoi), who were more organised and better trained. Philip continued this development and increased the numbers, as well as improving the training and taking a greater interest in the leadership and equipping of this element in the army. Much of this development is unclear, but Philip had, during his time as a hostage in Thebes, been in a position to observe the organisation and effectiveness of the Sacred Band of Thebes, the strongest fighting force in Greece at the time. They used the sarissa, a pike of about 15-18 feet in length, metal helmet, greaves and a circular shield, together with a dagger. Units fought together in a phalanx, 8 men deep, and were trained to change formation in response to command and conditions. Their training meant that they were an effective force even on uneven and difficult terrain. The main weakness of the phalanx was exposed by an attack at the sides or rear, especially once engaged with the enemy; however Philip’s highly trained cavalry could manoeuvre quickly to reduce or eliminate this risk.
There were also light-armed troops, both mounted and on foot. These allowed for a great deal of flexibility in the way the army was deployed in battle, and contributed to the effectiveness in the field against less well-organised or well-trained opponents. It is difficult to be sure to what extent Philip used these, as the evidence we have is insufficiently detailed. We do have more evidence from the time of Alexander, but it is impossible to decide whether these developments were down to Alexander or were part of his father’s legacy.
Both infantry and cavalry units were commanded by individuals close to the king, and there was a much greater emphasis on training, so much so that by the time of Chaeronea the Macedonian army was significantly better prepared for battle than other Greek armies.
Philip did not rely only on his own forces, but could also draw increasingly on contributions from his allies. Once his influence on Thessaly was assured he could draw on the traditionally strong Thessalian cavalry to support his own. He could also draw on a range of mercenaries, the more so as his successes brought him control of important resources.
It is likely that Philip was responsible for significant tactical developments that contributed to his success. He certainly improved the training of the Macedonian forces and improved the organisation of his forces.
Alexander’s success undoubtedly depended on the army developed by his father, though we lack the evidence now to decide the precise contribution of each. Because of his training, Alexander had a quick understanding of how best to use his troops in particular circumstances, as Arrian records (7. 28):
He was very quick to see what needed to be done in situations that were still uncertain, and he was very successful in judging what was likely to happen from the facts available to him.
He was very experienced in organising, arming and equipping his troops, and he was outstanding in raising the spirits of his troops, and filling them with confident expectation, and dispelling their terror in dangerous circumstances through his own lack of fear. When it was clear what needed to be done, he did it with the greatest boldness, and whenever he had to secure an objective before any of the enemy even suspected what would happen, he was very skilful at taking the initiative and acting first.
This is amply demonstrated by the accounts of the main battles, and by his organisation of the siege of Tyre, as described above.
The two main sources we use in this course are Arrian and Plutarch. Both are considerably later than Alexander, and they approach their material in different ways.
Plutarch (c AD50 – c AD120) came from Chaeronea where his family had lived for a long time. He spent some time in Athens studying philosophy, and also visited Rome where he spent some time teaching. In his later years, he was a priest at Delphi, and he had a deep interest in traditional Greek religion. He probably was known to the Roman emperors Trajan and Hadrian, and he may have held an official post as procurator of Achaea. In his writing he actively promoted the close ties between Greece and Rome, as can be seen in the planning of his greatest work, the ‘Parallel Lives’. In these he selected two figures from Greek and Roman history that he saw as in some way comparable; he wrote separate lives with a short linking section which explained the reason for linking them together. He was more interested in character than history as such, and he tended to choose incidents that revealed the character of the individuals he selected.
Plutarch paired Alexander with Julius Caesar, though in this particular case there was no separate section discussing the comparison (it has probably been lost over time). He set out to examine ‘what sort of a man’ each was’; he differed from a modern writer of biography as he generally assumed that the nature of his subject stayed the same, rather than developing over time. He also concentrated on vices and virtues, and the reader is asked to make moral judgements on the actions of the individuals. His interest is focused on character as revealed in action and behaviour, and he does not try to set his characters in a historical context; we get little sense of the significance of Alexander for the development of the Greek world after his death. The lives are entertaining and have preserved a good deal of information that might otherwise have been lost.
At the beginning of his Alexander, Plutarch asks the reader to understand if he does not deal with all the famous deeds of his subject (1):
For I am writing not history but a life story, and virtue and vice are not always revealed in the most remarkable actions, but in many cases a small matter, such as a comment or a joke, reveals more than battles in which many thousands die or sieges of cities. So, just as painters produce their portraits from the faces of their subjects and the expression of their eyes, which reveal most about their character, and pay much less attention to the rest of the body, I must be allowed to concentrate on the signs of the soul of my subjects and to use these to sketch out the life of each.
Plutarch is prepared to state his own opinions about his subject. For example, he is clear that in his opinion Alexander did not consider himself divine (28):
From what I have recorded it is clear that Alexander was not maddened by a belief in his own divinity but used it to control others.
However his account does not help us resolve many questions we have about particular incidents such as battles, where the focus on Alexander himself prevents us from getting a sense of what was happening around him.
Arrian (Lucius Flavius Arrianus) (c AD 86 – 160) was born in Bithynia, where he had a political career and studied philosophy with Epictetus. He went on to gain senatorial rank through his association with the emperor Hadrian, and was consul in Rome about AD 129. He then served as an imperial legate in Cappadocia, before he retired to Athens. Most of his considerable writings are lost, but his Anabasis of Alexander survives (together with the Indike which deals with India, and gives an account of Nearchus’ voyage from India to Susa). Arrian was clear about his procedure in writing (Preface to Book 1):
Wherever Ptolemy, the son of Lagus, and Aristobulus, son of Aristobulus have written the same things about Alexander, son of Philip, I have followed their accounts as true in every way; but where they give different accounts, I have chosen what seems to me the more reliable account as well the more worthy of recording in my history. Other writers have given different versions of Alexander’s life, and there is no other figure who has attracted such contradictory accounts. In my opinion Ptolemy and Aristobulus are more reliable; Aristobulus was on the expedition with king Alexander, as was Ptolemy - since he later became a king himself, lying would have been more shameful for him than for any other writer. Both wrote their accounts when Alexander was already dead, so there was no necessity or expectation of reward for them to write down anything except the truth.
Arrian also felt his experience of public life and his own pedigree as a writer fitted him for the task of writing a history of a great man such as Alexander. He records in the Anabasis (1. 12):
No other single individual, either Greek or barbarian, has achieved such incredible success on so many occasions and to such an overwhelming extent. For that reason I have myself started writing this history, as I think I’m up to the task of bringing Alexander’s deeds to a wider audience. Whatever my abilities as a writer may be, I do not need to write my name here, for it is not unknown to my contemporaries, nor is my country nor my family, nor the successes that I’ve had in public life in my own country. But I do state this, that these stories are and have been from my youth my country and my family and my successes. It is for that reason that I consider myself worthy of the finest writers in the Greek language, since my subject, Alexander, was the finest of warriors.
This makes clear his admiration for his subject, as does his conclusion to the Anabasis where he criticised those writers who have concentrated on Alexander’s faults and states his belief in Alexander’s greatness (7. 30):
In my opinion, there was no race of men, no city in those times, not even a single man the name of Alexander had not reached. So I do not believe that a man without equal in all the world would have been born without the involvement of the gods. Oracles are said to have shown this at the time of Alexander’s death, and visions and dreams came to different people; so too the honour paid to Alexander by men up to the present day and the greater than human memory of him; even now after so many years further oracles in his honour have been granted to the Macedonian people. I have myself criticised in this history some of Alexander’s actions, but I’m not ashamed of my admiration of Alexander himself. I have criticised some actions because of the truth in my opinion, and at the same time to emphasise the benefit for men; I started on this history for that reason and I also have been helped by god.
5.3 Plutarch’s sources
Plutarch makes a number of references to named sources, and he concentrates more on the incidents which for him reveal the character of the individual. He preserves a great deal of material, but because he is interested in the ‘inner character’ he focuses more on the story than on authenticity or the quality of the evidence. Because he is interested in both virtue and vice, he draws across the range of sources on Alexander (as the contemporary or near-contemporary sources for Alexander present either a positive or a negative slant of his actions).
There are over 30 references to letters written by Alexander, but unfortunately there is no way to show that any of these are genuine. There are explicit references to Aristobulus, Chares and Onesicritus (6 times each); other sources named include Callisthenes, Cleitarchus, Ptolemy and the so-called Ephemerides (Court Journals). Plutarch selects some incidents from particular named sources, but it is not easy to determine how he used them. He was aware of the different approaches taken by the sources towards Alexander, but the incidents he chooses to concentrate on in his life reflect his own interest in character.
5.4 Arrian’s sources
Arrian makes explicit reference to a number of sources, and preserves some details of these for us. However we should consider his explicit discussion of the sources he trusts (see above), and his own endorsement of Alexander’s positive qualities (7.30), which suggests his approach to the available sources was not even-handed. The reasons he gives for preferring the evidence provided by Ptolemy (Preface to Book 1, above) may strike the modern reader as absurd; we should therefore be cautious about the apparently more historical approach.
Although the statement in the preface (quoted above) seems quite clear, it is not certain that Arrian keeps to this plan. It is likely that he used Ptolemy to a considerable extent, especially for the military details. He may also make use of other sources in places, but this is hard to corroborate. However his narrative is more detailed and structured than what survives in Diodorus or Curtius Rufus. This is probably because he makes extensive use of Ptolemy and Aristobulus, as both seem to deny or omit the less credible stories about Alexander and his campaigns. Unfortunately the best evidence for the qualities of these two sources is the work of Arrian himself.
Events in bold type are referred to (either directly or indirectly) in the specification content and set sources. Those in italics are not.
Timeline of Alexander the Great
356 BC Alexander born in Pella
343 BC Aristotle becomes Alexander’s tutor
340 BC Alexander left as regent in Macedonia while Philip on campaign
Alexander’s raid on the Maedi
Foundation of Alexandropolis
338 BC Battle of Chaeronea
Alexander visits Athens
Olympias and Alexander leave Pella after the marriage of Philip and Cleopatra
337 BC Alexander recalled to Pella
336 BC Cleopatra gives birth to a son for Philip
Murder of Philip
Alexander becomes King of Macedonia
Alexander confirmed as leader of the expedition against Persia at a meeting of the Hellenic League at Corinth
335 BC Alexander deals with Thrace and Illyria
Alexander deals with the revolt of Thebes
334 BC Alexander crosses into Asia Minor
Battle of Granicus
Capture of Miletus
Capture of Halicarnassus
Alexander marches through Lycia and Pamphylia
333 BC Alexander to Gordium
[Memnon’s campaign in the Aegean]
[Death of Memnon]
Darius mobilises Persian forces at Babylon, then moves west
Alexander to Ancyra and Cilician gates
Alexander at Tarsus
Battle of Issus
Alexander marches towards Phoenicia
Darius makes first offer of peace
332 BC Byblos and Sidon submit
Siege of Tyre
Darius makes second offer of peace
Fall of Tyre (July 29th)
Alexander crowned as Pharaoh of Egypt at Memphis
331 BC Alexander visits the oracle of Ammon at Siwah
Foundation of Alexandria in Egypt
Alexander marches to Thapsacus on the River Euphrates
Darius moves his forces from Babylon
Alexander crosses the River Tigris (Sept 18th)
Darius’ final offer of peace rejected
Battle of Gaugamela
Alexander marches from Arbela to Babylon and captures it
[Defeat of King Agis of Sparta by Antipater at Megalopolis]
Alexander occupies Susa
330 BC Sack of Persepolis
Alexander marches to Ecbatana
Darius retreats towards Bactria
Alexander sends Greek allies home from Ecbatana; leaves Parmenio with Harpalus as treasurer
Darius found murdered near Hacatompylus
Bessus sets himself up as the ‘Great King’
The ‘conspiracy of Philotas’
329 BC Alexander crosses the Hindu Kush
Alexander advances towards Bactria; Bessus retreats across the River Oxus
Alexander crosses the River Oxus; he sends home veterans and Thessalians
Surrender of Bessus
Revolt of Spitamenes
Execution of Bessus
328 BC Alexander campaigns against Spitamenes
The death of Cleitus
Defeat and death of Spitamenes
327 BC Capture of the Sogdian Rock
Alexander marries Roxane
30,000 Persian ‘Successors’ recruited
The ‘Pages’ Conspiracy’ and the death of Callisthenes
Invasion of India begins
Alexander reaches Nysa; the ‘Dionysus episode’
326 BC Battle of the Hydaspes against Porus
Death of Bucephalas
Mutiny at the Hyphasis
Campaign against the Brahmin cities; Alexander seriously wounded
325 BC Revolt in Bactria
Alexander reaches Patala
Alexander begins the march through the Gedrosian Desert
Harpalus abandons his post and returns to Greece
Purge of the Satraps
Nearchus and the fleet reach Hamozia and meet with Alexander at Salmous
Arrival of Craterus
324 BC Nearchus and fleet sent to Susa
Alexander at Cyrus’ tomb
Alexander returns to Persepolis
Alexander at Susa
The arrival of the Persian ‘Successors’
The marriages at Susa
The Exiles’ Decree and the Deification Decree
Craterus appointed as successor to Antipater as Regent
Alexander to Ecbatana
Death of Hephaestion
323 BC Harpalus killed in Crete
Campaign against the Cossaeans
Alexander returns to Babylon
Alexander explores the Pallacopas Canal
Arrival of Cassander, Antipater’s son
Death of Alexander
Timeline of Philip II of Macedon
Sent to Thebes as a boy, under the control of Epaminondas the Theban leader
364 BC Returns to Macedonia
359 BC Becomes King of Macedon
358 BC Victories over Illyrians in the Macedonian hinterland
Reorganises Macedonian army
357 BC Marries Olympias of Epirus
355 BC Sacred War with Phocis
352 BC Takes control of Thessaly
349 BC Besieges Olynthus
348 BC Chalcidice seized by Philip; non-Macedonians enslaved
339 BC Siege of Byzantium
338 BC Battle of Chaeronea: decisive victory over the Greek forces
337 BC Forms League of Corinth
Marries Cleopatra, niece of Attalus
336 BC Advanced force for Persian expedition sent to Asia Minor under Attalus and Parmenio
Murdered at the wedding of his daughter Cleopatra to Alexander of Epirus
Please note that I have given here some references to Wikipedia: because of the way the articles on this site are edited, students should exercise due caution when using them.
Alexander the Great
Sources for Alexander:
Curtius Rufus: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/curtius/home.html
Diodorus Siculus: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Diodorus_Siculus/home.html
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