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Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Herodotus: The Persian Wars


Blogger SMJ said...

The great war between Persia and Greece began in 499 B.C. with a colonial insurrection in Ionia, and ended in 479 B.C., on the plains of southern Boetia near the settlement of Plataea. With the defeat of Mardonius' army at Plataea, the Persian threat to Greek independence was finished. Herodotus describes it as a major turning point in history, which, despite his admiration for Greek culture, is no exaggeration; for it certainly was a turning point in the fortunes of two great civilizations. The Persian empire, after relentlessly conquering and absorbing the empires of Media, Babylonia, Lydia and Egypt, had set its sights on its next victim. Xerxes, having assembled the largest army that was ever seen, brought it across the Hellespont on the longest bridge that was ever constructed. At the time, anyone predicting that Greece would win this struggle could only be perceived as a bold and foolish dreamer. That the Greeks did so was more a testament to their stubborn belief in autonomy than to any military superiority they possessed. And yet, as we see throughout the ages, the fortunes of war often turn on the vagaries of chance.

If it were not for a storm off the coast of Euboea, the defection of a Persian naval commander, and a strange prophecy by the Delphic oracle, the Greek cause might very well have been doomed. Chance and personality often play a larger role than is realized by military planners. Had Eurybiades persuaded the Greeks to abandon Salamis and retreat to the Isthmus, then the battle of Salamis would never have been fought, and the Persian fleet at full strength would have ensured the destruction of Sparta. Once Sparta and Athens were both forced out of the war, no other Greek city could successfully oppose the Persian onslaught. What Xerxes would have done next is difficult to say. Some of the northern Greek kingdoms, like Macedonia and Thebes, collaborated and were spared. Others resisted, like Athens, and were utterly destroyed. But as Themistocles said, Athens was not just a collection of buildings, but a community of people. As long as the people survived and remained free, the city could be rebuilt. If Xerxes won, at the very least, Greek civilization would have come under Persian domination, and perhaps all of Europe would follow.

Themistocles persuaded the Greek alliance to hold together, and make their stand at Salamis. The victory at Salamis enabled the Greeks to rally and discouraged Xerxes from further adventures away from his throne Having punished Athens for its support of the Greek colonial uprising, Xerxes felt justified in declaring victory and returning home. But had Xerxes earlier taken the advice of Demaratus, he might well have divided the Greek naval forces, and obtained the conquest he sought. One might say that Themistocles' ability to persuade his comrades, combined with Demaratus' inability to persuade Xerxes, ultimately determined the outcome of the war. The Athenians, who always excelled at public speaking (in spite of what Plato regarded as the "lesser art of rhetoric"), guided the strategy in the direction they preferred.

Early Greek history is infused with a combination of myth, drama, and moral instruction. And these elements are still present in Herodotus, who used a variety of sources to enliven his tale. Like Homer, Herodotus believed in the worthiness of his subject—the story of a Greek confederacy prevailing in a desperate struggle. But he was less concerned with the causes of this war than with the manner in which it was conducted. History, being always about the preservation of memory, also carries the burden of interpretation.

Throughout the Persian Wars, Herodotus employs a literary device of imaginative or reconstructed dialogue to convey a sense of how people spoke and behaved in circumstances where scribes were not available. These speeches are based on interviews, documents and conversations that Herodotus held with the authorities of his day. Although products of his imagination, they manage to convey a sense of what Herodotus believed to be true of the people he quoted. Probably, like renaissance painters working for a commission, he made the characters in his book sound nobler in speech than they actually deserved. But the artistry of speech elevates the impression made on the reader. And we accept the convention, just as we accept the biblical speeches of Abraham talking with God.

Today, Herodotus is justly regarded as the father of western history. Like all historians, he gathers his materials and shapes the presentation according to his best judgment in the service of truth. But his many disparaging remarks about Themistocles have been challenged by other classical historians. His anti-Persian bias is prominently on display throughout his work. However, with all its flaws, and there are many in the minds of some historians, Herodotus' Persian Wars succeeds in telling an inspiring story; of how a loose confederacy of quarreling Greek cities temporarily put aside their differences and stood together to meet the threat of a foreign invasion on their land.

Did some Greek cities surrender and even cooperate with the Persian invaders. Yes. Just as the Vichy government of France cooperated with Hitler in order to save its people from destruction, many Greek cities, especially north of the Isthmus, collaborated with Xerxes. But, fortunately for western civilization, many did not. And Greek classical culture was preserved.

Whether or not, in some cases, Themistocles fell short of the virtue of King Leonidas, as Herodotus says, is not the crucial issue. In the midst of a national crisis where the alternative to victory was to be enslaved or to be destroyed, Themistocles held the alliance together and saved his people from ruin. And thanks to Herodotus, this basic truth is now preserved in the memory of Greeks for all time.

As Homer brought immortal fame to Achilles, Odysseus and Agamemnon, Herodotus has given similar tribute to Miltiades, Leonidas, Themistocles and Pausanias, the saviors of Greek independence. From the ashes of the Persian war, Athens will rise again more powerful and more wealthy than ever. To a significant degree, the Greek victory over Persia marks the beginning of a golden age of Athenian progress, whose culture would become the envy of the western world. Yet, within a short 41 years, this fellowship of pan-Hellenic pride and cooperation would disintegrate into a bloody, ruthless civil war which ends in the collapse of Athenian democracy.

4/20/2005 2:55 PM  

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