Stronger Together: the Hellenes in the Persian Wars (Morgan Alexander, 2017)

Abstract: The Ancient Greeks considered the creation and existence of the politeia, a type of local government, to be of utmost importance to the survival of the Hellene way of life. Each polis, or city-state, was founded with a distinct politeia; the most popular being an oligarchy, a monarchy, or a democracy. This politeia was sacred enough that disagreements about the nature of local governments caused wars and vendettas across the Hellene world. However, all of this animosity was put aside when an outside threat in the form of the Persians threatened to overthrow everything most Hellenes held dear. During the Persian Wars, Athens, Sparta, and other politeia joined together to stop the Persians from destroying Ancient Greece.


Morgan Alexander

CL 385-001: History of Ancient Greece

31 October, 2017

Stronger Together: the Hellenes in the Persian Wars

The time of Classical Greece was marked by the time of the polis, the individual city-state with its own distinct politeia, culture, and way of life. This time was also marked by numerous battles between the city-states over matters of honor and greatness. However, with the threat of Persian invasion by Xerxes X, Herodotus tells us that the Hellenes put aside their differences and quarrels to face a common enemy and save each other and themselves from slavery. In their time of greatest need, the Hellenes proved that the bond they shared through their profound belief in freedom was ultimately stronger than the differences that threatened to pull them apart.

When it became clear that the Persian threat was very real, Athens took the lead of the poleis who refused to medize and declared that the Hellenes would remain free. Herodotus even states that, “…anyone who said that the Athenians proved to be the saviors of Hellas would not have strayed from the truth. For whichever course they chose to follow was certain to tip the scales of war. They chose that Hellas should survive in freedom…” (Hdt. 7.139) The Athenians chose this course despite two negative oracles predicting that the Hellenes would lose everything if they fought the Persians (Hdt. 7.140,141). Prior to the Athenians’ decision to take a stand against the Persians, Themistokles insisted upon using the silver found in a new vein to build ships instead of distribute the wealth amongst the Athenian citizens (Hdt. 7.144). When the second oracle mentioned a wooden wall, Themistokles took this to mean the ships the Athenians built, culminating in the birth of the Athenian navy (Hdt. 7.143). Over the course of the war, the Athenians continued to prove their combat abilities and in the process became a warlike people (Hdt. 8.17,136). Herodotus states of the naval battle at Artemision that, “As for the Hellenes, the Athenians performed the best on this day…” (Hdt. 8.17) The Athenians gained timē for their victories in battle, causing them to view themselves as a truly valiant polis as evidenced by the speech the Athenians gave in response to the Tegeans (Hdt. 9.27) As a result of their rise in status, the Athenians came to believe that they should be granted the authority to lead the military. Herodotus records a speech given by the Athenians that states, “our accomplishment at Marathon certainly makes us worthy to hold this privilege [of leading the army] and others besides: there we alone of the Hellenes fought the Persian all by ourselves and not only survived such a remarkable endeavor, but won a victory over forty-six nations” (Hdt. 9.27).  However, Athenians were willing to concede control to the Lacedaemonians if they felt that the Athenians were incapable of leading well (Hdt. 9.27). In the end, the military overwhelming voted for Athens to lead them into battle (Hdt. 9.28). These events culminated in the Athenians leading the Hellenes to victory against the Persians (Hdt. 9.28).

When asked about the Spartans, Demaratos explained to Xerxes that, “… what I shall tell next to you applies not to all of [the Hellenes], but only to the Lacedaemonians. First of all, there is no way they will accept your stated intention to enslave Hellas; next even if all the other Hellenes come to see things your way, the Spartans will certainly oppose you in battle” (Hdt. 7.102). Herodotus also records Demaratos telling Xerxes that, “…when [the Lacedaemonians] fight and unite together, they are the best warriors of all” (Hdt. 7.104) Later, Herodotus claimed that if the Spartans were defeated that there would be no one left to fight the Persians (7.209). The Spartans had incredible hoplite strength, even though they were small in numbers. At the Battle of Thermopylae, even though they only had 300 Spartan hoplites, they slew thousands of Medes and Persians at the cost of their entire force. (7.211). Herodotus writes that, “The Hellenes knew they were about to face death at the hands of the men who had come around the mountain, and so they exerted their utmost strength against the barbarians, with reckless desperation and no regard for their own lives” (Hdt. 7.224). Survivors of war in Sparta were dishonored, even when given the task of carrying back the news of who won the battle (7.232). Herodotus records the tale of man named Pantites who, upon returning to Sparta alive, hanged himself out of shame (Hdt. 7.232). An unspecified amount of time later, the Spartans, led by Pausanias, wavered when faced by the Persians. They insisted on exchanging fighting positions with the Athenians in order to avoid the Persians, ensuring that the Athenians would have to fight the Persians instead of the Lacedaemonians (9.46) Eventually, the Persians and the Lacedaemonians meet on the battlefield after much shame, with the Spartans victorious over Mardonios (Hdt. 9.64). In the end, the Spartans separated their dead according to the status they held: a grave for the priests, a grave for the Spartans, and a grave for the helots (9.85).

The Hellenic poleis were all different, but some of those differences strengthened the Hellenic cause. To begin, the Spartans had the military advantage on land while the Athenians mastered the sea. This division of duties ensured that both sections could be covered adequately. Although they all had different politeia, all but one kicked out their Persian governors. Doriskos was the only exception to this (Hdt. 7.106). Athens was typically the more democratic polis, but both Athens and Sparta came together when they threw the Persian heralds down their respective wells to show Xerxes that the Hellenes held a united front (Hdt. 7.133). In addition to that, the Hellenes all agreed to put aside their differences until the Persians were defeated and driven out (Hdt. 7.145). Later, Mardonios launched an attack against the Hellenes that wound up with the Megarians isolated from the rest of the Hellenic force. The Megarians were outnumbered and underprepared, so they sent a frantic herald to the Athenians to ask for help, which the Athenians granted (Hdt. 9.21). Even when the Spartans kept trying to force the Athenians to fight the Persians instead of facing the enemy themselves, the Athenians still attempted to step up and help their fellow Hellenes when the Lacedaemonians needed assistance (Hdt. 9.60). The Athenians were prevented from helping the Spartans only because enemy Hellenes attacked them first, thereby preventing the Athenians from sending any aid (Hdt. 9.60).

Despite swearing to put aside their differences to fight the Persians, there are several instances where the differences between the Hellenes seemed to almost rip the alliance apart. Early in the conflict, the allied Hellenes went to the leader of Syracuse, Gelon, to ask for assistance. Gelon believed that he was the best, therefore he wanted to be in control of everything. According to Homeric values, his request was not unreasonable if in fact he had the most timē. However, this comes after Gelon rebuked the Hellenes for not coming to his aid in an earlier endeavor, leading the Hellenes to be fairly disinclined to acquiesce to his request. Athens refused to give up its command of the navy to Gelon and this almost broke apart the Hellenic alliance as Gelon could have provided crucial numbers and services. He refused to serve under anyone else, leaving the other Hellenes to fend for themselves (Hdt. 7.161). Later on, the Corcyrians agreed to help the Hellenic League, but when their assistance was required, they never appeared (Hdt. 7.168). The Corinthians and the Athenians engaged in a massive argument that showed the spirit of competition amongst the poleis. Adeimantos of Corinth attacks Themistokles of Athens by saying that he “has no fatherland” and that “when he could demonstrate that he had a city, then he should contribute his opinions” (Hdt. 8.61) This all came about over the decision to make a stand at Salamis or to flee to the isthmus (Hdt. 8.61). If this argument could not have been resolved, the Hellenic alliance could have completely fallen apart. After Salamis and the pursuit of the Persians, Athens returned to Salamis after the Peloponnesians did not back them up against the Persian army. They sent envoys to Sparta to request for aid, but the Spartans were celebrating the festival of Hyakinthia and putting the parapets on the wall they were building (Hdt. 9.7). Despite the Athenians repeated requests for assistance, the Spartans continued with their activities and promised to help when they could. Herodotus records the envoys’ message that, “The Athenians have sent us here to tell you that the King of the Medes is offering to give us back our land and wants to consider us his allies on fair and equal terms… because we think it would be dreadful to betray Hellas, we did not accept his terms” (Hdt. 9.7) This was the Athenian way of informing Sparta that they considered themselves to hold up their side of the alliance, while “You… came to us utterly terrified that we would make an agreement with the Persian, but now, when you are well aware of our determination and have learned that we would never betray Hellas… we find that you pay no attention to the Athenians” (Hdt. 9.7). In a later instance, while Sparta was shifting battle positions to avoid the Persians, the Athenians came to believe that the Spartans were two faced and started not to trust them (Hdt. 9.54). Herodotus records that, “…the Athenians also refused to move, but stayed where they had been originally posted, firmly believing the Lacedaemonians’ disposition was to say one thing while intending to do another” (Hdt. 9.54). The Spartans did eventually face the Persians in battle, but these instances could have broken the Hellenic alliance, causing the Hellenes to lose their freedom to Xerxes and the Persian army.

Although the poleis all held different systems, cultures, and values, they all came together and refused to be divided when faced with the herculean task of protecting their home from invaders. Ultimately, their shared Hellenic heritage proved to be stronger than the differences that ordinarily kept them at war with each other.