The Ancient Greeks: Reflections on a Course-week 4

by Paul Mathers

ImageWe are past the halfway point and it is beginning to sink in how much I am going to miss this course when it is over. So, Coursera and other online courses may become “a thing I do.”

Wrapping up an end from last week, Aristotle had to create a special category for Peisistratos. He said that tyranny was bad, but he had to say that Peisistratos was half-bad on account of how good he was. The good made him only half-bad.

In 528 BCE, rule passed to his sons Hippias and Hipparchus. They supported the arts and poetry. It is thought that Homer took on its (his?) canonical form in this period. Hipparchus was assassinated by Harmodius and Aristogeiton. They claimed they did it to “free Athens” but the true motivations seem to be a tad more personal. Apparently Hipparchus hit on Harmodius and was rebuffed. Hipparchus then forbade Harmodius’ sister from being a part of the Pan-Athenic celebration. The insult may not immediately translate well. This implied that Harmodius’ sister was not a virgin. In other words, it was like Hipparchus went on national television and said, “Your sister is a whore.”


Harmodius and Aristogeiton

So they stabbed him to death at the Pan-Athenic festivities in 540 BCE. Of course, this did not put an end to the tyranny. Hippias became a harsh, paranoid, and suspicious man after this, as one might imagine.

Then came the Athenian Revolution in which Hippias’ rule sort of imploded (which the professor likened to The Arab Spring in our own time as a spontaneous popular uprising). Isagoras, an Athenian, and Cleomenes, a Spartan, sought to dissolve the Boulê. More on what that was later. The Boulê resisted and Cleomenes and Isagoras occupied the Acropolis. The rest of the Athenians unite (Aristotle said, “The crowd gathered itself together”). They besiege the Spartan occupiers. Cleomenes surrenders on the third day and the Spartans withdraw under truce. Cleisthenes, a leader made popular in the revolt, was called back to the city. He would change the direction of Athens and, arguably, the course of human politics forever.

Cleisthenes was a member of the Alcmaeonidae, a ruling clan cursed due to Megacles a century prior (remember him?). He furnished a new temple in Delphi and bribed the oracle to say “free Athens” whenever a Spartan came to ask her what to do. He divided Attika into 3 regions, the city, the coast, and inland. Each were divided into 10 artificial “trittyes” (3rds). So there were 30 in all. Each trittys includes a variable number of “demes.” A deme was a preexisting neighborhood. There were some 170 in all. Your deme became part of your identity and citizenship, so much so that it became part of your name. So, 10 new tribes, each consisting of 3 trittyes, one from each region. This was the death blow to the old clan power. He also dramatically reformed the Boulê, which was previously a more exclusive and shadowy governmental office from the time of Solon. It consisted of 500 men who served for one year, 50 from each tribe, selected by lot.

The Boulê served as sort of a political education center. There was even a process in which a citizen could oversee the entire process for 24 hours, but they could only do this once in their lifetime (sort of like “President for a day”). The Boulê framed legislation, they sent ambassadors to places where they felt they needed to send ambassadors, they scrutinized magistrates. This was all a massive undertaking!

One major shift was that political power could be achieved by great public speaking. There was an assembly, called the Ekklêsia, which included all citizens and guaranteed freedom of speech. All of this went down around 508-7 BCE. As you can see, we are moving rapidly towards something resembling democracy, a democracy which would last for 200 years.

We took a break from strict Athenian history at this point to examine another important figure, the historian Herodotus. His work was, in fact, the first known use of the word “historía” which meant “making inquiries.” He was from what would be modern day Turkey, born 484 BCE. He lived among survivors of the war with Persia and traveled widely. Some of his influences included Xenophanes, who was a ferocious religious skeptic who stated that the gods were made in our image, Hecateaeus, who, one generation before Herodotus, wrote about a trip “around the world” and the customs of the people observed, and, of course, Homer.

Herodotus said, “I know who first injured the Greeks.” He was speaking of Croesus. But then he jumps back five generations to the bizarre story of Candaules. Candaules tells his servant Gyges, “You’ve gotta see my wife naked.” Gyges declines, but Candaules persists. Finally, they set up a place for Gyges to hide and watch her get ready for bed. She sees him and does nothing to protest. The next day, she goes to Gyges and tells him that he can either kill Candaules and marry her, or he can die. Astute observers of human nature might suspect which he chooses and there is a prophecy that vengeance will come in the fifth generation, which turns out to be Croesus. Herodotus always portrayed cosmic justice which probably ensured his popularity, but may also have something to do with his reputation as “The Father of Lies” (or so posits this cynic and skeptic. That’s not from my class notes).

We revisit Solon’s visit to Croesus. Croesus, who is richer than any further comparison, asks Solon who is happiest in the world, expecting the answer to be “You!” Solon thinks for a minute and says, “Tellus, for he died fighting for his country.”

Croesus says, “Okay, then who is the second happiest?”

“Well, this one’s a tie between Kleobis and Biton, two brothers who drew their mother to a temple by oxcart. When they got there, she went in and prayed for their happiness and they died peacefully in their sleep.”

Croesus’ consternation is answered with the famous line, “Call no man happy until he’s dead.” Which is to say that the seemingly happiest of people can have extreme turns of fortune, an vice versa.


Kleobis and Biton

Croesus, as a karmic (yeah, wrong ancient civilization. I know) punishment for calling himself happiest, watches his son die. Croesus gets a bee in his bonnet to attack Persia. He goes and asks the Oracle at Delphi what will happen if he does. She says, “You will destroy a great empire.” Again, hubris gets in the way of him asking which empire he’ll destroy. Cyrus drives him back. The story goes that Croesus was captured and put in a pyre to be burned alive. Cyrus repents mid-fire, but it’s too late to save Croesus. Croesus prays and rain comes and quenches the fire. Cyrus then makes Croesus an advisor.

We see a recurring pattern in Herodotus: a Ruler in a good position wants more, seeks it foolishly, suffers the consquences, repeat.

Cyrus is killed in battle. The Magi took over for a time, but were kicked out. From 522-486 reigned Darius (right after Cyrus. The ears of students of the book of Daniel might be perking up here.) Today we still have the Behistun inscription in Iran with text underneath about Darius’ conquests:


He had a massive empire spanning from Europe to India as well as massive wealth. In 508 BCE, Cleomenes of Sparta decided that he wanted to reassert himself. Other countries simultaneously had designs on Athens. Sparta turned back from a campaign on Athens due to internal strife and the Athenians were successful in fending off the invaders from points elsewhere. They became proud of their military prowess.

During the threat from outside, ambassadors were sent to Persia for aid. Persia agrees in exchange for “Earth and Water.” Here is where cultural misunderstandings take a major role. The Athenians accepted, assuming that this meant some token or ceremony. To the Persians, “Earth and Water” meant that you essentially become their servants.

Aristagoras was the leader of Miletus in 499 BCE. He went to Sparta for help with the Ionian revolt (a revolt against Persian rule). Sparta refused. He went to Athens. They agreed to help. Hippias was still alive and well in Persia and planning a return. Athens lent a fleet of 24 ships. They went to Sardis and burned it (Croesus’ home was in Sardis.) Naturally, this didn’t sit well with the Persians who had been promised “Earth and Water.” So much so that Darius gave one of his servants the job of saying to him, “Master, remember the Athenians” in order to keep his rage stoked.

In 494 BCE, Miletus was sacked and burned. The Ionian revolt was squelched. Darius then went after the Athenians demanding Earth and Water. Envoys were sent to Sparta and a great sacrilege was committed. Envoys were supposed to be protected, but the Spartans threw them in a well and said, “Get your own earth and water.”

Because they were Spartans.

This broke the code of ambassadors and you can bet Herodotus is going to make a cosmic justice example out of this. In 491 BCE, the Persians invade Eretria and destroy it… I’m going to give you the option here over how closely you want to follow these battles by throwing a map below and then just running ahead with the narrative like a bull:


Click to enlarge

The Greeks are in a stunned panic by the news of this. Hippias is with the invaders and has a dream about making love with his mother. He interprets this to mean that he is going to regain power (clearly because this is about 2200 years before Freud might have suggested a more accurate way to interpret such a dream). Hippias is quite old at this point and, when he lands, he coughs out one of his teeth. He tries to find it, but cannot. He realizes that the only portion he is going to receive of Greece is that which is tooth now possesses.

Miltiades the Younger was a famous general. He mounted a hoplite campaign at Marathon in which he placed his best troops on the sides to attack the flanks of the opposing troops. It worked! 200 some Athenians were killed versus over 6,000 Persians dead. Then came the famous story of the runner who ran to tell the news and dropped dead upon arrival, which, for some reason, is why we choose to call a Marathon a Marathon. For me, that would seem like the last thing you would want to call an event like that if you wanted anyone to participate.


The photo above is of Miletus’ helmet from Marathon which he dedicated to the temple of Zeus at Olympia. As you can see, it still exists and if you look at the upper chin/jawline, you can see some characters which are Miletus’ inscription of his name in his own hand.

Of course, this wasn’t the end of the war.

Miletus took a campaign against Peros and failed. He was charged by one Xanthippus with treason for misleading the people. He received an enormous fine (about as much as a prosperous city would make in a year.) In 488 BCE, the first ostracism took place. You will remember the process in which people could be exiled by popular vote. It now became a way for powerful people to put away their enemies. Their property would be conserved in their absence and returned to them upon restoration. Many powerful men would end up ostracized by their enemies influence. In 486, Xanthippus was even ostracized (cosmic justice again).


We actually still have one of the potsherds used to vote in ostracisms with the name of Xanthippus written on it.

In 487 BCE, Archon selection process was changed from a vote to “by lot.” Their waning political power marked a rise in the political power of generals.

Themistocles was a tricky figure, sort of reminiscent of Odysseus. He was a general at Marathon. Afterwards he struck a major silver lode in mines in the South-East. He convinced the assembly not to use the wealth produced from this lode to build a wall, but rather to build a fleet of ships with three tiers of rowers.


Behold, a modern reproduction of one of the major contributors to the Greek victory in the Persian War!

The three tiers of rowers produced great speed. The “beak” in front of the ship could be used to ram into enemies ships and puncture them. Also, soldiers would be in a compartment in the prow from which they could spring and attack a ship if the ramming didn’t do the trick. The new positions produced by the new Athenian naval power was a boon to the urban poor. This was a “job creating” move as well.

Darius died in the mid-480s BCE. Xerxes succeeded and did not stop the war. He rather escalated it and saw it to its conclusion.

Xerxes asks his advisers what he should do. His uncle says that too much could go wrong and that he should consolidate power in Persia. Xerxes is enraged and his uncle recants. Xerxes has a dream in which a mystical figure tells him “Attack the Greeks.” His uncle doubts it and goes and sleeps in the same bed. He has a dream where the same terrible figure comes and threatens him. Xerxes goes to war with the Greeks.

Xerxes is another figure who exemplifies hubris. He builds a bridge at Hellespont. A storm breaks it. Xerxes gets so mad that he has the water whipped and burnt with hot irons. The bridge is built. They work their way to attack the Greeks across land and sea. Many Persian ships (and lives) are lost in a storm around Euboea.

The Spartans send a force of 300 (I am given to understand that there is a recent film called 300 about this battle. I have not viewed it yet.) Xerxes sends a spy who sees the Spartans playing games and combing out their long hair. He comes back and they laugh about this. Again, this is an instance of cultural misunderstanding. This is what Spartans did when they were preparing to die in battle. At the site of the battle of Thermopylae is a sign:

“Traveller, you who pass by,

Go tell the Spartans that faithful to the end here we lie.”

This battle bought time for the rest of the Greeks. They evacuated Attika. The oracle at Delphi told them “Trust your wooden walls.” Themistocles said, “That means our ships!”

The Persians sack and burn the evacuated Athens (which Herodotus views as cosmic justice for the mistreatment of the envoys from earlier in our story). In 480 BCE, the two fleets confront one another. Themistocles sends a message to Xerxes that the Greeks are going to escape and that he should cut them off at this particular point, which happen to be compact straits. In the Battle of Salamis, the swift, small Greek ships demolished the larger Persian fleet. Xerxes fled over land and Themistocles sends him another message: “Remember, I let you live.”

In 479 BCE was the last battle of the war, led by the Spartans. The Greek victory was total. Sparta and Athens were now equal as the first among polities.