Abstract: The Greek city-states each have their own individual characteristics, which distinguish them from one another. The Spartans tend to be strong, athletic, and militant. They are controlled by their laws and do not wish to leave their homeland. The Athenians are cunning and perceptive. They are the first to come up with ideas and military plans. Herodotus gives an account of the Persian war. Through his words, the people of today can look back into history to see these different attributes in the Spartans and Athenians and how they affected the outcome of the Persian War. The Spartans were good militarily on land and the Athenians were good on water. Together, the Spartans and the Athenians created a well rounded and well equipped army and navy, resulting in the defeat of the Persians. Although these individualities caused some issues, they are the main reason for the success of the Greeks.
October 31, 2017
Personalities of the Poleis
There is a common saying in today’s world that opposites attract. In Herodotus’ account of the histories of the ancient Greeks, he describes the people and cities that are connected with the Persian War. In this narrative, Herodotus describes each city-state, separating the different civilizations, which existed so long ago. To the Spartans he gave bravery, loyalty, and resolve. He depicts the Athenians as being cunning and methodical. Each Polis is given their own set of characteristics that individualize them and set them apart from the other city-states. These characteristics become important in shaping the course of the Persian war and the amount of time the war went on. The city-states in the ancient world of Greece each had their own personalities and characteristics, which both helped and hurt the allies during the Persian War.
The main two military powers of the ancient Greek world during the Persian War were Sparta and Athens. Herodotus portrays Sparta as being the epitome of the hoplite. They were strong and had the utmost loyalty to their brothers in arms. But, according to Herodotus through the viewpoint of Demaratos, the Spartans are no stronger than any other Greek when they are by themselves, but together, they are undefeatable because they are ruled by their laws and their laws do not accept cowardice. A true Spartan can win or they can die (Herodotus 7.104.4-5). Herodotus does not give the Athenians the title of strongest but he does often dote on them for their superiority in forethought and wittiness. Knowing that the armies of Xerxes had a vast number of men, Themistokles, an Athenian, comes up with a plan to cause distrust between Xerxes and his army. Themistokles decides to leave messages for the Ionians who are aligned with Xerxes. The messages admonish the Ionians for fighting their relatives, since the Ionians and the Athenians are related, and invite the Ionians to join the Hellenes. Herodotus says that there are two reasons Themistokles could have done this, the first being it could actually cause the Ionians to join the Hellenes or it would be reported to Xerxes who would then be reluctant to use the Ionians (Hdt. 8.22.1-3). This clearly stands out as an extremely strategic and wily plan and perfectly describes the way that the Athenians fought the Persian War with their brains.
The other side to these characteristics is that some of the Hellenes have negative attributes. The Spartans are always hesitant to leave their homeland and are constantly concerned for the safety of their birthplace. This can be used against them such as when Demaratos advises Xerxes to attack the Spartans at their home causing the Spartans to leave the Hellenes and greatly weaken the Greeks (Hdt. 7.235.3). Fortunately for the Greeks, the Persian King does not want to split up his army and decides not to do this (Hdt. 7.237.2), but had Xerxes listened to Demaratos, the Hellenes could easily have lost the war. Another attribute that seems to define the Hellenes negatively is that many of the city-states seem to be greedy for power. When the Hellenes are looking for allies they ask Gelon of Sicily to help them and he agrees to send troops on the condition that he is able to command the Hellenes (Hdt. 7.158-162). The Greeks tend to think only of their individual states and this is a problem because to defeat the Persians, all the city-states must come together and use their individual skills to beat Xerxes.
The Greeks are strong when they combine their forces. Herodotus notes the agility of the Spartans on the land calling them, through Demaratos, “the most noble kingdom of all the Hellenes and the best of men” (Hdt. 7.209.4). Herodotus also praises the Athenians for their prowess on the water and the number of boats they bring to the Hellenes and when talking about a sea battle Herodotus states “as for the Hellenes, the Athenians performed the best on this day and of them the best was Kleinias…who was serving in their forces at his own private expense, providing 200 men and his own ship” (Hdt. 8.17.1). Combined, the Spartans and the Athenians create a military unit that seems unstoppable with a joined force of land and sea. The Athenians were always using their wit to outplay the Persians. When Themistokles saw that the Hellenes were going to leave Salamis he knew that the Greek ships would not be able to defeat the Persian ships out in open combat. When he could not get the Greeks to agree to stay, he instead wrote to Xerxes and advised him to attack the Greeks (Hdt. 8.76.2-3). This risky and wily plan saved the Hellenes from disaster and the Spartans rewarded him for his efforts throughout the war by giving an “olive wreath to Themistokles as the prize for wisdom and shrewdness” (Hdt. 8.124.2).
Another quality that helps the Greeks is that they are very loyal to their countries and to the Hellas. They love whatever form of government they have and mainly view themselves as free, at least compared to the Persians. Herodotus even notes that the Greeks who had medized did not act bravely and fought badly so the Hellenes could win (Hdt. 9.67.1). Herodotus also notes that the Thessalians did not want to medize but had no choice because after meeting with the Greeks and asking if they would come to their aid, the Greeks did not come to help the Thessalians and they were forced to join in an alliance with Xerxes (Hdt. 7.172-174) and a similar story happens with Thrace except the King of Thrace had decided to remain neutral in the war but as soon as he had retreated to the mountains, his sons medized. The king was so upset by this that when he returned he gouged out all of their eyes (Hdt. 8.116.1). This goes to show that even some of the Greeks who medized did not want to and their loyalty came through to help the Greeks or to punish those who had betrayed the Hellenes.
The Greeks each had their own attributes and personalities that made a big difference in helping the war effort, but unfortunately these attributes could also hinder their alliances that would threaten Greek success. If an argument breaks out in the middle of a war then it could disrupt everything that has been accomplished. It has always been the case in ancient Greece that the city-states would fight for timē. The Spartans were known for having much timē and for being the best warriors. Sadly, the very thing that gave the Spartans their great name is also something that could hurt them in battles. The Spartans are known for never leaving a battle, the idea that a warrior should come back home having won the battle or not come back at all was a predominant factor for the Spartan nation. The allies of the ancient Greek world were in the middle of a battle they were losing and everyone decided to leave during the night. However, Amompharetos decided that he was not going to shame Sparta by leaving a battle and some Greeks, Pausanias and the Athenians, stayed behind to ensure that the Spartans would not be set upon alone which later causes trouble for all the allies of Hellas (Hdt. 9.53-61). Acts such as this put more people in danger and while the individual is winning timē for themselves and their brothers they are causing more men to risk their lives and giving the Persians a chance to attack.
The Spartans also demand that everyone around them be as loyal to the cause as they are which is detrimental. At the battle at Thermopylae King Leonidas forces the Thebans to prove they have not medized by joining the Greeks (Hdt. 7.206.3). The Thebans come to Thermopylae but they are the first to kneel and beg for mercy when the Persians find the alternative trail to get to the Hellenes (Hdt. 7.233.1). Forcing people to join their side and to be a part of a battle they do not want to be in could only hurt the Hellenes. By forcing the Thebans to stay they only weakened their position and gave people who were not loyal to their cause access to important information. That kind of behavior could only damage Greek chances of success.
The biggest characteristic that individualizes the Spartans is their love of their homeland. If possible, they would never leave Sparta and rarely do they fight a battle too far from home. This is a major factor in slowing down the Persian War and it could have been the end of the Greek alliance between the Spartans and the Athenians. Herodotus points out a specific moment where the Persians offer deals to the Athenians but the Athenians do not take the deal because they believe in freedom and do not want to see Greece ruled by the Persians and afterwards ask the Spartans to come and aid them in their fight against Xerxes. To this the Spartans reply that they will come but they do not pick up to leave in fact they delay for some time (Hdt. 9.7a-9.8). The Athenians become so angry that they send word to the Spartans saying “the Athenians, since they are wronged by you and are destitute of allies, will give up and make peace with the Persian in whatever way they can. And once we have done that, it is quite clear that we shall become the King’s allies, and we shall join him in marching against any land to which the Persians direct us. From that point on you will learn the results of your policy” (Hdt. 9.11.2). These are the consequences of remaining a homebody. Fortunately, the Spartans had already left to fight when the messenger arrived in Sparta, but had they still been in Sparta, the Athenians may have left the Spartans and taken up position with the Persians.
The Greeks of the ancient world all had their own characteristics, which affected the outcome of the Persian War in both a positive and negative ways. The Spartans were strong on the land while the Athenians were strong on the water. Because of this the two created a strong military that could rival the army of Xerxes. The Greek pride for their country as well as for the freedoms that were offered throughout the Hellas gave the Greeks the drive they needed which the Persians lacked in order to stand their ground and fight for timē. This also made it more difficult for the Greeks because they bickered with one another and they made critical moves that could have been detrimental to the Greek cause. The Spartans had so much bravery but their fear of leaving home almost caused the Athenians to align themselves with the Persians. Their specific attitudes helped the Hellenes in some ways but in others it only threatened Greek victory.
The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories, edited by Robert B. Strassler, n.a. ed., New York, Anchor Books, 2009, pp. 493-722.