September 9, 490BC Marathon

It has been said that western culture stands with one foot in Athens and the other, in Jerusalem. The stakes of what was about to happen on the beaches at Marathon, are difficult to overstate.  Arguably, the future of western civilization hung in the balance.

King Darius I, third King of the Achaemenid Empire of Persia ruled over an area stretching from North Africa to the Indian sub-continent, from Kazakhstan to the Arabian Peninsula.   200 years before the classical age of Greece, several Anatolian coastal polities rebelled, with support and encouragement from the mainland city states of Athens and Eritrea.

Achaemenid_Empire
Achaemenid Empire

The year was 499BC and this “Ionian Revolt” lasted, until 493BC.  Though ultimately unsuccessful, the Greeks had exposed themselves to the wrath of Darius.  Every night before dinner according to Herodotus, Darius required one of his servants three times, to say to him “Master, remember the Athenians“.

Darius
Darius I

The Persian “King of Kings” sent emissaries to the Greek city states demanding gifts of earth and water, signifying Darius’ dominion over all the land and sea. Most capitulated, but Athens put Darius’ emissaries on trial and executed them.  Sparta didn’t bother with a trial.  They threw the ambassadors down a well. “There is your earth”, they called down. “There is your water”.

Athens and Sparta were now effectively at war with the Persian Empire.

25 centuries ago, Darius sent an amphibious expedition to the Aegean, attacking Naxos and sacking Eritrea.   A force of some 600 triremes commanded by the Persian General Datis and Darius’ brother Artaphernes then sailed for Attica, fetching up in a small bay near the town of Marathon, about 25 miles from Athens.

Pheidippides

An army of 9,000-10,000 hoplites (armored infantry) marched out of Athens under the leadership of ten Athenian Strategoi (Generals), to face the 25,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry of the Persians.  The Athenian force was soon joined by a full muster of 1,000 Plataean hoplites, while Athens’ swiftest runner Pheidippides was dispatched to Lacedaemon, for help.

The festival of Carneia was underway at this time, a sacrosanct religious occasion during which the Lacedaemonian (Spartan) army would not fight, under any circumstance.   Sparta would be unavailable until the next full moon, on September 9.  With 136 miles to Marathon, Spartan reinforcement was unlikely to arrive for a week or more.

The Athenian force arrived at the Plain of Marathon around September 7, blocking the Persian route into the interior.

Facing a force more than twice as large their own, ten Greek Generals split 5 to 5 whether to risk battle.

Greco Persian

A “Polemarch” is an Athenian civil dignitary, with full voting rights in military matters.  General Miltiades, who enjoyed a degree of deference due to his experience fighting Persians, went to the Polemarch Callimachus, for the deciding vote.

The stakes of what was about to come are difficult to overstate.  Arguably, the future of western civilization hung in the balance.

Athens itself stood defenseless, with every warrior here on the plain of Marathon. Miltiades spoke.  ‘With you it rests, Callimachus, either to bring Athens to slavery, or, by securing her freedom, to be remembered by all future generations…We generals are ten in number, and our votes are divided.  Half of us wish to engage, half to avoid a combat. Now, if we do not fight, I look to see a great disturbance at Athens which will shake men’s resolutions, and then I fear they will submit themselves. But, if we fight the battle…we are well able to overcome the enemy.’

With less than a mile between them, the two armies had faced one another for five days and five nights.  On September 12, 490BC, the order went down the Athenian line.  “At them!”

Marathon Charge

Weighed down with 70lbs per man of bronze and leather armor, the Greek line likely marched out to 200 yards, the effective range of Persian archers.  Greek heavy infantry closed the last 200 meters at a dead run, the first time a Greek army had fought that way.

Persian shafts flew by the thousands, yet the heavy armor and wooden shields of the hoplite formation, held.  Bristling with arrows yet seemingly unhurt, the Greek phalanx smashed into the Persian adversary, like an NFL front line into an “Antifa” mob.

Tom Holland, author of Persian Fire, describes the impact.  “The enemy directly in their path … realized to their horror that [the Athenians], far from providing the easy pickings for their bowmen, as they had first imagined, were not going to be halted … The impact was devastating. The Athenians had honed their style of fighting in combat with other phalanxes, wooden shields smashing against wooden shields, iron spear tips clattering against breastplates of bronze … in those first terrible seconds of collision, there was nothing but a pulverizing crash of metal into flesh and bone; then the rolling of the Athenian tide over men wearing, at most, quilted jerkins for protection, and armed, perhaps, with nothing more than bows or slings. The hoplites’ ash spears, rather than shivering … could instead stab and stab again, and those of the enemy who avoided their fearful jabbing might easily be crushed to death beneath the sheer weight of the advancing men of bronze“.

Darius’ force was routed, driven across the beach and onto waiting boats.  6,400 Persians lay dead in the sand. An unknown number were chased into coastal swamps, and drowned.  Athens lost 192 men that day, Plataea, 11.

Marathon Battle

In the popular telling of this story, Pheidippides ran the 25 miles to Athens and announced the victory with the single word “Nenikēkamen!” (We’ve won!”), and dropped dead.

That version first appeared in the writings of Plutarch, some 500 years later.  It made for a good story for the first Olympic promoters too, back in 1896, but that’s not the way it happened.

Herodotus of Halicarnassus, described by no less a figure than Cicero as the “Father of History”, tells us that Pheidippides was already spent.  No wonder.  The man had run 140 miles from Athens to Lacedaemon, to ask for Spartan assistance.

Despite the exhaustion of battle and the weight of all that armor, the Athenian host marched the 25 miles back home, arriving in time to head off the Persian fleet.  The Spartans arrived at Marathon the following day, having covered 136 miles in three days.

Though a great victory for the Greeks, Darius’ loss at Marathon barely put a dent in the vast resources of the Achaemenid Empire.  The Persian King, would return.

September 8, (est) 480BC The Battle of Thermopylae

Simonides’ famous encomium to the dead was inscribed on a commemorative stone at Thermopylae, atop a hill where the Greeks made their final stand.  The original stone is gone now, but the epitaph was engraved on a new stone in 1955.

In 490BC, the Persian King Darius I sent an amphibious expedition into the Aegean, only to be defeated by a far smaller force of Athenians at the Bay of Marathon.

As Achaemenid Emperor, leader of the most powerful state of his time, King Darius I was sovereign over 21 million square miles and more.  He had more to deal with than a handful of malcontents in the Peloponnese.  At the moment, Darius had an Egyptian revolt to put down, but the “King of Kings’” would be back.  He had a score to settle with the Greeks.   King Darius died before he was through, so it was that the Persian King Xerxes would return to finish what his father had begun, ten years before.

In 480BC, news of a massive Persian army on the move reached Lacedaemonia, principal region of the Spartan state.  De facto military leaders of the Greek alliance, the Spartans were then celebrating the religious festival of Carneia.  Lacedaemonian law forbade military activity at this time, the same reason the Spartans had shown up late at Marathon, ten years earlier.  

Spartan leaders went to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, for advice.

The-Oracle-of-Delphi-Apollo-Talks-2
The Temple of Apollo, at Delphi

The Oracle at Delphi was a seer, usually selected from among epileptics, as the Greeks believed seizures were evidence that the sufferer was in touch with the Gods. A careful ritual was observed, before the Priestess would speak.  First she would bathe in the Castalian Spring, before drinking from another stream. A priest would then pour ice water over a goat, to determine the presence of Apollo. The goat’s shivering was understood to indicate that the God was present, and that he had invested his powers in the Oracle. If the signs were fortuitous, the Oracle would then inhale the gas emitted from a chasm near the temple.  With volcanic gasses rising from the ground beneath her, the “Pythia” would then mount to the Tripod.  Only then would she speak.

Priestess of Delphi
Oracle at the Temple of Apollo, at Delphi

“Hear your fate”, said the oracle, “O dwellers in Sparta of the wide spaces.  Either your famed, great town must be sacked by Perseus’ sons, or, if that be not, the whole land of Lacedaemon shall mourn the death of a king of the house of Heracles. For not the strength of lions or of bulls shall hold him, strength against strength; for he has the power of Zeus, and will not be checked until one of these two he has consumed.”

For King Leonidas of Sparta, the meaning was clear.  He himself would have to die to fulfill the Oracle’s prophesy.

Leonidas gathered a small blocking force of 300 Spartan Peers, all of them “Sires”. This was understood to be a suicide mission. Leonidas wanted only those warriors who would leave behind, a son.

Several Greek city states were technically at war with one another in 480BC, but that was dropped, as preparations were made for a two-pronged defense. An allied Greek navy would meet the Persian triremes at the straits of Artemisium while an army of Hoplites, Greek heavy infantry, would meet the Persian army at the narrow pass known as the “Hot Gates”.  Thermopylae.

Thermopylae topo

The 300 marched out at the head of an allied army of 7,000, to meet a Persian horde modern estimates put at 100,000 to 150,000. A native of Trachis told the Spartan General Dienekes, that Persian archers were so numerous their arrows would block out the sun. “Good”, replied the general. “Then we shall fight in the shade”.

When the overwhelming Persian army demanded the Spartans lay down their arms, Leonidas’ response was short and sweet.  “Molon Labe”, he said.  Come and get them.

The two armies collided on or about the 8th of September, 480BC.  Thermopylae, a mountain pass delineated by the Phocian Wall on one side and the Aegean Sea on the other, measured the width of two carts abreast, negating the Persian numerical advantage. Great piles of Persian dead choked the pass by the end of the 9th. Nothing that Xerxes could throw at the Greek heavy infantry could break their phalanx.

A traitor to his people then rose among the local population, Ephialtes of Trachis, who led the Persians through a narrow path to come around behind the Greek line.

Thermopylae

Knowing he was betrayed and would soon be surrounded, Leonidas sent most of the allied soldiers away.  They would be needed for the battle yet to come.

On day three, King Leonidas was left with his 300 Spartans, 700 Thespian allies and an unreliable contingent of 400 Thebans.  True to form, the Theban band defected en masse to the Persian side, at the earliest opportunity.  Still, the hordes of Xerxes were unable to break through the Greek line, even on two fronts.  They backed off and rained down arrows from a distance, until no Greek was left standing.

Artemisium devolved into a meaningless stalemate, and yet the Greek alliance had demonstrated itself more than capable of standing up to the mightiest empire of its time.   Athens, lacking the manpower to fight simultaneously on land and at sea, abandoned their city to be burned to the ground.  The regrouped Greek Navy crushed the Persians at Salamis.  The last Persian invader was driven off the Greek mainland the following August, following Greek victory at a place called Plataea.

Simonides’ famous encomium to the dead was inscribed on a commemorative stone at Thermopylae, atop a hill where the Greeks made their final stand.  The original stone is gone now, but the epitaph was engraved on a new stone in 1955.

“Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here, obedient to Spartan law, we lie.”

battlefield-of-thermopylae

September 7, 70 The Jewish-Roman Wars

Built under the reign of King Solomon in the 10th century BC, Solomon’s Temple was the first holy temple in ancient Jerusalem. According to Rabbinic sources the temple stood on part of the Temple Mount, also known as Mount Zion, for 410 years, before being sacked and burned to the ground by Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II, in 587 BC.


Built under the reign of King Solomon in the 10th century BC, Solomon’s Temple was the first holy temple in ancient Jerusalem.  According to Rabbinic sources the temple stood on part of the Temple Mount, also known as Mount Zion, for 410 years, before being sacked and burned to the ground by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II, in 587 BC.Solomons TempleSo important is this event to the Jewish people that it is commemorated still as the saddest day of the Jewish calendar.  A day of fasting and mourning known as Tisha B’Av.

A second temple was built on the site in 516BC, and expanded during the reign of Herod the Great. This second temple stood until the Roman sack of Jerusalem in 70AD, falling according to Jewish tradition, on the same day as the first temple.

The first Roman involvement with the Kingdom of Judea came in 67BC.  The client Kingdom of the Herodian Dynasty became a Roman Province in the year 6AD.

Long standing religious disputes erupted into a full scale Jewish revolt in 66. Thousands of Jews were executed in Jerusalem and the second temple plundered, resulting in the Battle of Beth Horon in which a Syrian Legion was destroyed by Jewish rebels. The future emperor Vespasian appointed his son Titus as second in command, entering Judea in 67 at the head of four legions of Roman troops.

Arch_of_Titus_Menorah
“Depiction of the Roman triumph celebrating the Sack of Jerusalem on the Arch of Titus in Rome. The procession features the Menorah and other vessels taken from the Second Temple”. H/T Wikipedia

A three year off and on siege followed, with Vespasian being recalled to Rome in 69 to become Emperor. The Great Jewish Revolt was now Titus’ war.

The Jewish historian Josephus acted as intermediary throughout much of the siege, though his impartiality has been questioned since he was both friend and adviser to Titus. At one point Josephus entered the city to negotiate but later fled, wounded by an arrow in a surprise attack which almost caught Titus himself.

Roberts_Siege_and_Destruction_of_Jerusalem
The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans Under the Command of Titus, A.D. 70, Oil on canvas by David Roberts, 1850

A brutal siege of Jerusalem followed through most of the year 70, in which Jewish Zealots burned their own food supply, forcing defenders to “Fight to the End”. During the final stages, Zealots following John of Giscala still held the Temple, while a splinter group called the Sicarii (literally, “Dagger Men”), led by Simon Bar Giora, held the upper part of the city. The Second Temple, one of the last fortified bastions of the rebellion, was destroyed on Tisha B’Av, July 29 or 30, 70AD. By September 7 the Roman army under Titus had fully occupied and plundered all of Jerusalem.

Masada
Mountain fortress of Masada. Note the siege ramp to the right, by which the besieging force gained access to the top. The Romans built that.

The first Jewish-Roman war would last another three years culminating in the Roman siege of the mountain fortress of Masada, in which defenders committed mass suicide in April 73 rather than being conquered by the Romans.

There would be two more Jewish-Roman wars:  Kitos War (115–117), sometimes called the “Rebellion of the Exile”, and the Bar Kokhba Revolt of 132 through 135. The wars had a cataclysmic impact on the Jewish people, the resulting diaspora changing a major Eastern Mediterranean population into a scattered and persecuted minority. The Jewish people would not reestablish a major presence in the Levant until the constitution of the State of Israel, in 1948.

Emperor Justinian built a Christian church in the 530s on the ruins of the Second Temple, which was burned to the ground by Sassanid Emperor Khosrau II early in the 7th century. The Umayyad Caliphate built the “Farthest”, or “al-Aqsa” mosque and the Dome of the Rock on the site, following the Islamic conquest of Jerusalem in 637.  Islamic authorities have ruled over the city ever since, with the exception of an 88-year period following the First Crusade, 1099-1187.

old-city

The Jerusalem Islamic “Waqf”, a religious trust acting as civil administrators for the “Haram esh-Sharif” ( “The Noble Sanctuary”), or “Temple Mount” to Christians and Jews.  Currently supported by the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, the Waqf has held administrative authority over the holy sites of Jerusalem since the Muslim reconquest of the city in 1187.  Israel recaptured the old city after the 6-day war in 1967, when they informed Waqf authorities that it would be allowed ongoing control over the old parts of the city.

An uneasy status quo remains to this day, with Israel maintaining “overall sovereignty” and the Muslim authorities maintaining “religious sovereignty”, over the Old City of Jerusalem.  .9 square kilometers walled up within the modern city, the Old City is home to some of the most religiously significant sites on the planet: the Temple Mount and Western Wall for Jews, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for Christians and the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque, for Muslims.

August 2, 216BC An Uneven Fight

The Battle of Cannae is studied by historians and military tacticians to this day. A Roman army, estimated at 86,000 Roman and allied troops, was drawn in and enveloped by Hannibal’s far smaller force. Squeezed into a pocket so tightly they could barely raise their weapons, the Legions were attacked from all sides.

There were two great powers in the Mediterranean region of 264BC:  the Romans on the Italian peninsula and Carthage, a North African maritime power settled by Phoenician travelers some 800 years earlier, in modern day Tunisia.

A dispute in Sicily that year led to war between the two powers, ending in Roman victory in 241BC and a vanquished Carthage being stripped of her Navy.

Hamilcar Barca was a great general of this, the first “Punic” war, the name deriving from the Latin word for Phoenician. Barca made his then 12-year-old son Hannibal swear undying hatred for the Romans.

Hannibal crossing the Alps 4

At the age of 20, Hannibal Barca set out on what would become the second Punic war.  It was late Spring, 218BC, when Hannibal left the Iberian outpost of “New Carthage”, now the Spanish city of Cartagena. Crossing into hostile Gaul (France) at the head of 38,000 infantry, 8,000 cavalry and 37 war elephants, Hannibal arrived at the Rhône River in September.

Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps that winter is one of the great feats of military history, costing almost half his force before entering Italy that December.

Hannibal crossing the Alps

What followed was a series of crushing defeats for Rome. First at the Battle of Trebia, then Lake Trasimene, Hannibal’s army laid waste to the Italian peninsula.

There was almost no family in all of Rome that didn’t lose one or more members in the swath of destruction brought down by Hannibal and his Carthaginian army.

At this point, Rome took the extreme step of appointing one man, absolute dictator of the Roman Republic.  His name was Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus.  Rather than joining the Carthaginians in pitched battle, Fabius sought to wear them down in a series of “hit & run” and “scorched earth” tactics.

Fabius was right.  His tactics were a military success and bought the Republic time in which to rebuild its military, but they were a political flop.  The Roman psyche would accept nothing short of pitched battle.  In six months, Fabius “Cunctator” (“the Delayer”) was replaced by the co-consuls Gaius Terentius Varro, and Lucius Aemilius Paullus.

cannae_battle_formation

In the co-consul system, Varro would be supreme commander of the army on one day, and Paullus the next.  Knowing full well how this system worked and wanting to draw the more aggressive Varro into pitched battle, Hannibal sprung his trap on a day when Varro was in command.

The Battle of Cannae, fought this day in 216 BC, is studied by historians and military tacticians to this day. A Roman army, estimated at 86,000 Roman and allied troops, was drawn in and enveloped by Hannibal’s far smaller force. Squeezed into a pocket so tightly they could barely raise their weapons, the Legions were attacked from all sides.

Unable to function as a disciplined unit, as many as 75,000 Romans were hacked to death, equivalent to the seating capacity of the New York Mets’ Citi Field and Harvard Stadium, combined.

Another 10,000, were captured.  Among the dead was a current Consul, the most powerful elected official in the Roman Republic as well as both consuls, from the previous year.

80 senators, nearly a third of the entire Roman Senate, were wiped out in single day.

There was now no military force left between Hannibal and Rome itself.  Most powers would have admitted defeat, and sued for peace.  Not Rome.  Unable to defeat the Carthaginians in open battle, Rome returned to Fabian tactics, harassing the foe and wearing them down in an endless series of scorched earth and guerrilla tactics.

For 16 years, Hannibal remained undefeated on Italian soil while his political adversaries at home, never once sent him reinforcement. He was finally recalled to Carthage to defend his homeland against Roman attacks in North Africa and Spain.  Hannibal was defeated by his own tactics at the Battle of Zama, the second Punic War ending in 201BC.

Hannibal_Louvre
Hannibal, Louvre Museum.

Carthage was a thoroughly defeated power as Hannibal grew into his old age, but some in Rome wouldn’t let it go. Misbehaving Italian children were threatened that Hannibal would come and get them if they weren’t good.  Roman politician Marcus Porcius Cato, “Cato the Elder”, ended his every speech, “Carthago delenda est”, “Carthage must be destroyed“.

The third Punic War saw the Romans attack Carthage itself. After three years of siege, the city fell in 146BC. Thousands were slaughtered, as many as 70,000 sold into slavery. Though the salting of fields is probably a later embellishment to the story, the city was sacked, then burned to the ground. Utterly destroyed.

Hannibal himself had grown elderly by 181-183BC, fleeing from one town to the next to escape his Roman pursuers.  Unwilling to be paraded through Rome in a cage, Hannibal committed suicide by poison sometime that same year. In a letter found after his death, Hannibal had written “Let us relieve the great anxiety of the Romans, who have found it too weighty a task, to wait for the death of a hated old man”.

July 15, 1799 Rosetta Stone

Two centuries after its discovery, the term Rosetta Stone is still used to describe that first clue, leading to new levels of human understanding.

In geologic time, the Holocene epoch refers roughly to the last 11,700 years, a time delineated by the retreat of massive formations which, together, constitute the last of eight glacial periods to occur over the last 740,000 years.

The north of Africa was once wetter than it is now, a vast, green savannah of grasses, lakes and trees with abundant herds of ungulates. The geologic record reflects some of the earliest attempts at agriculture and animal husbandry in this region sometime around the sixth millennium, BC.

The gradual end of this “African humid period” led great numbers of small nomadic and tribal cultures to settle in the fertile Nile River valley where predictable, seasonal flooding supported a cessation of hunter/gatherer sustenance and increased reliance on the growing of food and the raising of domesticated livestock.

This inevitably led to trade among and competition between the various tribes and the growth of some, often at the expense of others. And then at last, there were two.

In the third century BC the Egyptian priest Manetho grouped a long succession of Kings over a period of thirty dynasties, beginning with the mythical King Menes. It is he who united what was then the two kingdoms of upper and lower Egypt.

This early dynastic period gave way to the first of three relatively stable periods in ancient Egypt, separated by long intermediate periods of chaos. These were the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms.

Taken as a whole, ancient Egypt created a system of mathematics, the earliest known peace treaty and a lasting legacy of art, and literature. Innovations in quarrying and construction led to monumental temples, pyramids and statuary inspiring scientific and archeological investigation which lasts, to this day.

It is often forgotten or overlooked in the modern era that, since the time of Alexander, the Ptolemaic rulers of ancient Egypt, were Greek. Ptolemy V rose to power at the age of six (r. 205-180BC) on the death of his father, Ptolemy IV.

The most successful of several violent uprisings against this foreign rule began in upper Egypt in 206BC and lasted for 20 years under the leadership of the last of the Egyptian Pharoahs, Hyrgonaphor (Haronnophris) and Chaonnophris.

Full restoration of the Ptolomaic dynasty occurred around 196BC, when Ptolomy V was only fourteen. A royal decree was issued by the high priests of Memphis, proclaiming the glorious victory of the young ruler and proclaiming the royal cult of King Ptolomy V Epiphanes. This Memphis Decree was inscribed on a black stone slab believed to measure some 4-feet 11-inches in length, one of several such carved stone stelas erected throughout the region, of the late revolt. Three renditions of the proclamation were carved into the granodiorite stela, the same text rendered in Hieroglyphic, Greek and Demotic script, the ‘language of the people’ itself derived from the much older, Hieratic script.

The Ptolomaic dynasty came to an end with the death of Cleopatra, the Macedonian queen who spoke Egyptian, along with several other languages. There followed in Egypt nearly 700 years of Roman and later Byzantine rule, ending with the Arab Conquests of 639 – 646.

Within three hundred years or so the old language, was dead. These were the Heiratic cursive script most often drawn out with brush and ink on papyrus and the Hieroglyphic system comprising some 900 symbols representing words and sentences most often used for permanent inscription, on stone. The scholar viewing the ancient texts throughout much of the first 2,000 years of the modern era, had no idea what he was looking at.

Rosetta stone superimposed on an artist’s conception of what the original, may have looked like.

French forces led by Napoleon Bonaparte invaded the Ottoman territories of Egypt and Syria in 1798, with an ultimate intention of joining forces with the Indian ruler Tipu Sultan to drive the British from the Indian subcontinent. It was the French Captain Pierre-François Bouchard who discovered this first among a handful of bilingual Hieroglyphic scripts on July 15, 1799 near the ancient city of Rashid (Rosetta) from which the stele derives its name.

The long work of translation began with that of Antoine Isaac Silvestre de Sacy who first deciphered the 32 lines of Demotic script, in the middle.

The work was performed thanks to a knowledge of the Coptic language derived from the ancient Egyptian tongue, and fortified by reference to readily identifiable aspects of the ancient Greek text.

In the ancient city of Thmuis, at Tell Timai in the Nile Delta of northern Egypt, archaeologists have encountered the first tangible evidence corresponding to the time and events of the Great Revolt alluded to on the Rosetta Stone. There, in a layer characterized by broad devastation, a number of pottery kilns (left) were systematically destroyed and later built over. This unburied male human skeleton (right) was discovered lying amid the rubble. It bears unmistakable signs of a violent death“. – Hat tip archaeology.org

On September 27, 1822, French scholar Jean-François Champollion announced the successful translation, of the Rosetta Stone.

Today, large pieces of the original stele are broken away. Much of the original text is lost. Other bilingual and even trilingual inscriptions have since been discovered but this was the first time western scholars were able to peep through that small keyhole into one of the great civilizations, of antiquity.

The Rosetta Stone by The British Museum on Sketchfab – H/T Archaeology.org

Two centuries later the term “Rosetta Stone“ still describes that first clue, leading to new levels of human understanding.

April 7, 451 Attila the Hun

The Roman alliance had stopped the Hunnic invasion in Gaul, but it was a Pyrrhic victory. The military might of Roman and Visigoth alike, was no more.

In the 5th century, the migration of warlike Germanic tribes across northern Europe culminated in the destruction of the Roman Empire in the west.  That much is relatively well known, but the “why”, is not.  What would a people so fearsome as to bring down an empire, have been trying to get away from?

The Roman Empire was split in two in the 5th century and ruled by two separate governments.  Ravenna, in northern Italy, became capital to the Western Roman Empire in 402 and would remain so until the final collapse, in 476.  In the east was Constantinople, seat of the Byzantine empire and destined to go on another thousand years. That would come to an end in 1453 at the hands of the 21-year-old Mehmed “The Conqueror’, 7th sultan of the ottoman Empire. Today we know this crossroads between east and west as Istanbul, but that must be a story, for another day.

Attila Bronze

Back to the 5th century vast populations moved westward from Germania, into Roman territories in the west and south. They were Alans and Vandals, Suebi, Goths and Burgundians. There were others as well, crossing the Rhine and the Danube and entering Roman Gaul. They came not in conquest:  that would come later. These tribes were fleeing a people so terrifying that whole tribes agreed to be disarmed, in exchange for the protection of Rome.

The Huns.

Rome itself had mostly friendly relations with the Hunnic Empire, which stretched from modern day Germany in the west to Turkey and most of Ukraine, in the east. They were a nomadic people, mounted warriors all but born to the saddle whose main weapons were the bow, and the javelin. Often, Huns acted as mercenary soldiers, paid to fight on behalf of Rome.

Atilla_fléau_de_dieu

Rome looked at such payments as just compensation for services rendered.  To the Huns this was tribute. Tokens of Roman submission to the Hunnic Empire.

Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople, described Rome’s problems with the Hun, succinctly.  “They have become both masters and slaves of the Romans”.

Relations became strained between the two powers during the time of the Hunnic King Rugila, as his nephew the future King Attila, came of age.

Attila

Rugila’s death in 434 left the sons of his brother Mundzuk, Attila and Bleda, in control of the united Hunnic tribes. The following year, the brothers negotiated a treaty with Emperor Theodosius of Constantinople, giving the Byzantines time to strengthen the city’s defenses. This included the first sea wall, a structure the city would be forced to defend a thousand years later when even the Theodosian Wall could not stem the Islamic conquest of 1453.

The priest of the Greek church Callinicus wrote what happened next, in his “Life of Saint Hypatius”. “The barbarian nation of the Huns, which was in Thrace, became so great that more than a hundred cities were captured and Constantinople almost came into danger and most men fled from it. … And there were so many murders and blood-lettings that the dead could not be numbered. Ay, for they took captive the churches and monasteries and slew the monks and maidens in great numbers“.

Bleda died sometime in 445 leaving Attila the sole King of the Huns.  Relations with the Western Roman Empire had been relatively friendly, for a time.  That changed in 450 when Justa Grata Honoria, sister of Emperor Valentinian, sought to escape a forced marriage to the former consul Herculanus.  Honoria sent the eunuch Hyacinthus with a note to Attila, asking the king to intervene on her behalf.  She enclosed her ring in token of the message’s authenticity. Attila took this to be an offer of marriage.

Attila_in_Gaul_451

Valentinian was furious with his sister.  Only the influence of their mother Galla Placidia convinced him to exile rather than have her put to death while he frantically wrote to Attila saying it was all, nothing more than a misunderstanding.

The King of the Huns wasn’t buying it and sent an emissary to Ravenna, to claim what was his.  Attila demanded delivery of his “bride” along with a modest half of the empire, as dowry.

In 451, Attila gathered his vassals and began a march to the west. The Hunnic force was estimated to be half a million strong though that number is almost certainly exaggerated. The Romans hurriedly gathered an army to oppose them while the Huns sacked the cities of Mainz, Worms, Strasbourg and Trier.

Some 1,500 years later the headlines announced the impregnable city of Metz, had fallen to US 95th Infantry.

On April 7, 451 the streets of Metz ran red with the blood of the slain followed in quick succession by those of Cologne, Cambrai, and Orleans.

The Roman army, allied with the Visigothic King Theodoric I, finally stopped the army of Attila at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, near Chalons.   Some sources date the Battle of Chalons at June 20, 451, others at September 20.  Even the outcome of the battle is open to interpretation.  Sources may be found to support the conclusion that the battle was a Roman, a Gothic or a Hunnic victory.

Be that as it may it was a Pyrrhic victory in the end. Chalons was one of the last major military operations of the Roman Empire in the west. The Roman alliance had stopped the Hunnic invasion in Gaul, but the military might of Roman and Visigoth alike, was no more.

Attila would return to sack much of Italy in 452, this time razing Aquileia so completely that no trace of it was left behind. Legend has it that Venice was founded at this time when local residents fled the Huns, taking refuge in the marshes and islands of the Venetian Lagoon.

800px-De_Neuville_-_The_Huns_at_the_Battle_of_Chalons
“The Huns at the Battle of Chalons” from page 135 of A Popular History of France From The Earliest Times Volume I of VI (en:Project Gutenberg e-text). Illustration by A. De Neuville (1836-1885). img url: http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/1/1/9/5/11951/11951-h/images/135.jpg

Attila himself died the following year at a wedding feast, celebrating his marriage to the beautiful young Ostrogoth, Ildico.  She may have been yet another alliance bride weeping in her innocence, at the death of her newly wed husband. Or perhaps she was the assassin, come to settle some ancient blood feud between the Germanic peoples, and the Hun. The King of the Huns died in a drunken stupor as the result of a massive nosebleed, or possibly esophageal bleeding.  This was not the first such event.

The last of the Hunnic Empire died with King Attila as he choked to death on his own blood. In 454 the Hunnic Empire was dismantled by a coalition of Germanic vassals following the Battle of Nedau.

January 18, 532 A Day at the Races

Modern sport has seen its share of fan passion rising to violence, but the worst “futbol hooligan” pales into docility, compared with the crowd come to watch the chariot races.

Chariots go back to the earliest days of the Roman Republic, coming down from the ancient Greeks by way of the Etruscan empire. The mythical abduction of the Sabine women was carried out, while the Sabine men watched a chariot race. While Romans never used them as weapons of war, chariots were used in triumphal processions, pulled by teams of horses, tigers or dogs, even ostriches.

What the Greeks regarded as an opportunity for talented amateurs to rise within their chosen sport, the Romans saw as entertainment. A class of professional drivers rose to meet the demand.

Look up the Highest Paid Athlete of All Time and you’ll be rewarded with the knowledge that Michael Jordan amassed career earnings of $1.85 Billion, according to Forbes Magazine. 

Mr. Forbes and Mr. Jordan alike may be surprised to know.  Spanish driver Gaius Appuleius Diocles once amassed an astonishing 35,863,120 sesterces, equivalent to FIFTEEN Billion dollars, today.  Not bad for a guy whose name suggests he probably started out, as a slave.

The Hippodrome of the Byzantine era (from the Greek Hippos: Horse and Dromos: Path, or Way) was already the center of sports and social activity in 324.  That was the year Emperor Constantine moved the seat of the Roman Empire east to Byzantium, calling the place, Nova Roma. New Rome.  The name failed to catch on and the city came to be known as, Constantinople.

f285a884c132221b7abbb5958de2452dThe age of Constantine saw enormous expansion of the city which bore his name, including enlargement of the Hippodrome to an impressive 1,476-feet long by 427-feet wide with a seating capacity of 100,000.  By way of comparison, the Empire State Building is 1,454-feet from sidewalk to the very tip of the spire.  Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta, home of Super Bowl LIII, has a rated capacity of 71,000 spectators.

There were four chariot teams or “factions” (factiones), distinguished by the color of their uniform: Red, Blue, Green and White, and echoed by the colors worn by their fans.  Twelve chariots would enter each race, three from each faction. Golden-tipped dolphins were tipped over, to count the laps. Each race ran seven.f9fb0a187c6e429d1e9b2c84e723043bA raised median called a spina ran down the center, adorned with stone statuary and obelisks. Ganging up to drive opposing handlers into the stone median or the stands, whipping opponents and even hauling them out of their chariots was not only permitted, but encouraged.

It was the racetrack, or circus and the sport of chariot racing, that truly put the Fanatic in Fans. There are tales of poisoned horses and drivers. Lead tablets and amulets inscribed with curses, spiked through with nails and thrown from the stands. One such curse read:

I call upon you, oh demon, whoever you are, to ask that from this hour, from this day, from this moment, you torture and kill the horses of the green and white factions and that you kill and crush completely the drivers Calrice, Felix, Primulus, and Romanus, and that you leave not a breath in their bodies.

Racing chariots were as light as possible and extremely flimsy, to increase speed. With no suspension, even a bump could throw a driver into the path of oncoming teams. Clogs were built into lattice floors, to hold the driver’s feet. Teams of two (biga), three (triga) and four (quadriga) horses were common, but teams as large as six were not unheard of.

Though rare, ten-horse teams were known to take the field.

While Greek drivers held the reins in their hands, Roman charioteers wrapped them around the waist. Unsurprisingly, any driver thrown out would be dragged to death or trampled, unless able to cut himself free.

Crashes were frequent and spectacular, often killing or maiming driver and horse alike. Such wrecks were called naufragia, a Latin word translating as ”shipwreck”.  As many as forty chariots crashed in one catastrophic pile-up, near Delphi.ba90ba114005e082444846ca7ff751f7Modern sport has seen its share of fan passion rising to violence, but the worst “futbol hooligan” pales to docility, compared with the crowd come to watch the chariot races. Imagine the worst fan violence of the modern era combined with aspects of street gangs and political organizations, each faction holding forth on the issues of the day and attempting to sway public policy by shouting slogans, between races.

Distinctions between politics and sport, all but disappeared.  Emperor Vitellius, a fan of the Blue faction, had citizens put to death in the year 69 for talking trash about his team. Ten years later, one fan threw himself on the funeral pyre of his favorite driver.

Roman chariot race

In 531, riots broke out during a chariot race. Fans of the Blues and Greens were arrested for murder. The killers were sentenced to death and most were executed but two, escaped. On January 10, 532, the two men one Blue and one Green took refuge in a church, surrounded by an angry mob.

Emperor Justinian, a supporter of the Blues, was beset with problems. The war in the east was not going well with the Persians. At home, there was rampant corruption and public fury over confiscatory tax policy.  Now this.  Justinian resorted to that time honored technique to pacify the turbulent masses.  Bread and Circuses.  He announced a chariot race.

Bad idea.

It was a tense and angry crowd that arrived at the Hippodrome on January 13.  By race #22 chants of “Blue” and “Green” were changed to angry shouts, directed at the Emperor.  “Nίκα! Nίκα! Nίκα! (“Nika” translating as “Win!” “Victory!” or “Conquer!”).

Fury boiled over and anarchy turned to Riot.  The Royal Palace was laid siege over the next five days and the city, laid waste.  Even the magnificent Hagia Sofia, the foremost church in Constantinople, was destroyed.

Now a mosque in Istanbul, the beautiful Hagia Sofia was burned to the ground during the Nika riots of 532 and later rebuilt, by Emperor Justinian.

Rioters proclaimed the Senator Flavius Hypatios as their new Emperor and demanded the dismissal of key advisers.  Soon Justinian himself prepared to flee for his life.  He surely would have done so if not for his wife, the formidable Empress Theodora.

I do not care whether or not it is proper for a woman to give brave counsel to frightened men; but in moments of extreme danger”, she began, “conscience is the only guide. Every man who is born into the light of day must sooner or later die; and how can an Emperor ever allow himself to become a fugitive? If you, my Lord, wish to save your skin, you will have no difficulty in doing so. We are rich, there is the sea, there too are our ships. But consider first whether, when you reach safety, you will not regret that you did not choose death in preference. As for me, I stand by the ancient saying: royalty makes the best shroud”. 

The avenue of escape lay open to the Emperor but Theodora’s words, cut deep.  Not to be deterred, the Empress closed the door on escape.  “Royalty is a fine burial shroud” she said.  “The Royal color Purple makes a fine winding sheet.”

Dwzr7yJUUAEA9MYWith spine thus restored, Justinian formulated a plan.  The popular eunuch Narses was sent out with a bag of gold, into the lion’s den.  Small and slight of build, unarmed but for those coins, Narses entered the Hippodrome and went directly to the Blue section.  On this day in 532 Hypatios was in the very act of coronation when the eunuch spoke.  Narses reminded the Blues that Hypatios was a Green while Justinian himself, supported their team.

Gold was distributed among the Blues and the trap was sprung.  As Blue team supporters streamed out of the Hippodrome, Imperial troops led by the Generals Belisarius and Mundus fell upon the crowd, killing some 30,000 Blue and Green alike.jerusalem-distrThus ends one of the great “backfires” in political history.  Senator Hypatius was put to the sword and those who had supported the pretender, sent into exile.  Justinian I would rule another 33 years, rebuilding Constantinople, muzzling the Senatorial Class which had caused him such grief and reconquering lost territories, in Italy.

Wealthy estates were confiscated outright and races were suspended for a period of five years.  None were left to stand against this Emperor for a long and fruitful reign.

September 27, 1822 The Rosetta Stone

Other bilingual and even trilingual inscriptions have since been found but this was the first time western scholars were able to peep through that small keyhole into one of the great civilizations, of antiquity.

In geologic time, the Holocene epoch refers roughly to the last 11,700 years, a time delineated by the retreat of massive formations which, together, constitute the last of eight glacial periods to occur over the last 740,000 years.

The north of Africa was once wetter than it is now, a vast, green savannah of grasses, lakes and trees with abundant herds of ungulates. The geologic record reflects some of the earliest attempts at agriculture and animal husbandry in this region sometime around the sixth millennium, BC.

The gradual end of this “African humid period” led great numbers of small nomadic and tribal cultures to settle in the fertile Nile River valley where predictable, seasonal flooding supported a cessation of hunter/gatherer sustenance and an increased reliance on the growing of food products and the raising of domesticated livestock.

This inevitably led to trade among and competition between the various tribes and the growth of some, often at the expense, of others. And then at last, there were two.

In the third century BC the Egyptian priest Manetho grouped a long succession of Kings over a period of thirty dynasties, beginning with the mythical King Menes. It is he who united what was then the two kingdoms of upper and lower Egypt.

This early dynastic period gave way to the first of three relatively stable periods in ancient Egypt, separated by long intermediate periods of chaos. These were the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms. Taken together ancient Egypt created a system of mathematics, the earliest known peace treaty and a lasting legacy of art, and literature. Innovations in quarrying and construction led to monumental temples, pyramids and statuary inspiring scientific and archeological investigation which lasts, to this day.

The Greco-Roman period initiated a 300-year political cross pollination with the new-comers of the era. It all came to an end in the age of Cleopatra, and Roman conquest. A system of writing some three thousand years old began to die out. These were the Heiratic cursive script most often drawn out with brush and ink on papyrus and the Hieroglyphic system comprising some 900 symbols representing words and sentences most often used for permanent inscription, on stone. Within three hundred years or so the old language, was dead. The scholar viewing the ancient texts throughout much of the first 2,000 years of the modern era, had no idea of what he was looking at.

Sometime around 196BC, a black stone slab believed to be about 4-feet 11-inches in length was inscribed with a royal decree in three languages on behalf of King Ptolemy V Epiphanes. It was three renditions of the same text written out in Hieroglyphic, Greek and Demotic script, the ‘language of the people’ itself derived from the much older, Hieratic.

French Captain Pierre-François Bouchard discovered this first among a handful of bilingual Hieroglyphic scripts in 1799 during the Napoleonic invasion, of Egypt. It was near the ancient city of Rashid (Rosetta) from which the stele derives its name.

Rosetta stone superimposed on an artist’s conception of what the original, may have looked like.

The long work of translation began with that of Antoine Isaac Silvestre de Sacy who first deciphered the 32 lines of Demotic script, in the middle.

The work was done with reference to the Coptic language derived from the ancient Egyptian tongue and fortified by reference to readily identifiable aspects of the ancient Greek text.

On this day in 1822 the French scholar Jean-François Champollion announced the successful translation, of the Rosetta Stone.

Today, large pieces of the original stele are broken away. Much of the original text is lost. Other bilingual and even trilingual inscriptions have since been found but this was the first time western scholars were able to peep through that small keyhole into one of the great civilizations, of antiquity.

Two centuries later the term “Rosetta Stone“ yet describes that first clue, which leads to new levels of human understanding.

September 12, 490BC At Them

The stakes are difficult to overstate.  Arguably, the future of Western Civilization hung in the balance.

200 years before the classical age of Greece, King Darius I, third King of the Persian Achaemenid Empire, ruled over an area stretching from North Africa to the Indian sub-continent, from Kazakhstan to the Arabian Peninsula.   Several Anatolian coastal polities rebelled in 499BC, with support and encouragement from the mainland city states of Athens and Eritrea.

Achaemenid_Empire
Achaemenid Empire

This “Ionian Revolt” lasted until 493BC.  Though ultimately unsuccessful, the Greeks had exposed themselves to the wrath of Darius.  Herodotus records that, every night before dinner, Darius required one of his servants three times, to say to him “Master, remember the Athenians“.

Darius
Darius I

The Persian “King of Kings” sent emissaries to the Greek city states, demanding gifts of earth and water, signifying Darius’ dominion over all the land and sea. Most capitulated, but Athens put Darius’ emissaries on trial and executed them.  Sparta didn’t bother with a trial.  They threw Darius’ ambassadors down a well. “There is your earth”, they said. “There is your water”.

Athens and Sparta were now effectively at war with the Persian Empire.

2511 years ago, Darius sent an amphibious expedition to the Aegean, attacking Naxos and sacking Eritrea. A force of some 600 triremes commanded by the Persian General Datis and Darius’ own brother Artaphernes then sailed for Attica, fetching up in a small bay near the town of Marathon, about 25 miles from Athens.

Pheidippides

An army of 9,000-10,000 hoplites (armored infantry) marched out of Athens under the leadership of ten Athenian Strategoi (Generals), to face the 25,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry of the Persians.  The Athenian force was soon joined by a full muster of 1,000 Plataean hoplites, while Athens’ swiftest runner Pheidippides was dispatched to Lacedaemon, for help.

The festival of Carneia was underway at this time, a sacrosanct religious occasion during which the Lacedaemonian (Spartan) army would not fight, under any circumstance.   Sparta would be unavailable until the next full moon, on September 9.  With 136 miles to Marathon, Spartan reinforcement was unlikely to arrive for the next week or more.

The Athenian force arrived at the Plain of Marathon around September 7, blocking the Persian route into the interior.

Facing a force more than twice as large their own, Greek Generals split 5 to 5 whether to risk battle.

Greco Persian

A “Polemarch” is an Athenian civil dignitary, with full voting rights in military matters.  General Miltiades, who enjoyed a degree of deference due to his experience fighting Persians, went to the Polemarch Callimachus, for the deciding vote.

The stakes are difficult to overstate. Arguably, the future of Western Civilization hung in the balance.

With Athens behind them now defenseless, its every warrior here on the plain of Marathon, Miltiades spoke. ‘With you it rests, Callimachus, either to bring Athens to slavery, or, by securing her freedom, to be remembered by all future generations…We generals are ten in number, and our votes are divided. Half of us wish to engage, half to avoid a combat. Now, if we do not fight, I look to see a great disturbance at Athens which will shake men’s resolutions, and then I fear they will submit themselves. But, if we fight the battle…we are well able to overcome the enemy.’

With less than a mile between them, the two armies had faced one another for five days and five nights.  On September 12, 490BC, the order went down the Athenian line.  “At them!”

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Marathon Charge

Weighed down with 70lbs per man of bronze and leather armor, the Greek line likely marched out to 200 yards, the effective range of Persian archers.  Greek heavy infantry closed the last 200 meters at a dead run, the first time a Greek army had fought that way.

Persian shafts flew by the thousands, yet the heavy armor and wooden shields of the hoplite formation, held.  Bristling with arrows yet seemingly unhurt, the Greek phalanx smashed into the Persian adversary, like an NFL front line into an ‘Antifa” demonstration.

Tom Holland, author of Persian Fire, describes the impact.  “The enemy directly in their path … realized to their horror that [the Athenians], far from providing the easy pickings for their bowmen, as they had first imagined, were not going to be halted … The impact was devastating. The Athenians had honed their style of fighting in combat with other phalanxes, wooden shields smashing against wooden shields, iron spear tips clattering against breastplates of bronze … in those first terrible seconds of collision, there was nothing but a pulverizing crash of metal into flesh and bone; then the rolling of the Athenian tide over men wearing, at most, quilted jerkins for protection, and armed, perhaps, with nothing more than bows or slings. The hoplites’ ash spears, rather than shivering … could instead stab and stab again, and those of the enemy who avoided their fearful jabbing might easily be crushed to death beneath the sheer weight of the advancing men of bronze“.

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Darius’ force was routed, driven across the beach and onto waiting boats.  6,400 Persians lay dead in the sand, an unknown number were chased into coastal swamps, and drowned.  Athens lost 192 men that day, Plataea, 11.

Marathon Battle

In the popular telling of this story, Pheidippides ran the 25 miles to Athens and announced the victory with the single word “Nenikēkamen!” (We’ve won!”), and dropped dead.

That version first appeared in the writings of Plutarch, some 500 years later.  It made for a good story for the first Olympic promoters, too, back in 1896, but that’s not the way it happened.

Herodotus of Halicarnassus, described by no less a figure than Cicero as the “Father of History”, tells us that Pheidippides was already spent.  No wonder.  The man had run 140 miles from Athens to Lacedaemon, to ask for Spartan assistance.

Despite the exhaustion of battle and the weight of all that armor, the Athenian host marched the 25 miles back home, arriving in time to head off the Persian fleet.  The Spartans arrived at Marathon the following day, having covered 136 miles in three days.

Though a great victory for the Greeks, Darius’ loss at Marathon barely put a dent in the vast resources of the Achaemenid Empire. The Persian King, would return.

August 27, 479BC Remember the Athenians

We’re two and one-half millennia down the road and we can still see who these people were, in our every-day lives.

Whether we think about it or not, western culture has one foot in religion and the other in the world of secular democratic thought. Athens, and Jerusalem.

Born in 150AD, the lawyer and philosopher Tertullian of Carthage converted to Christianity at age forty and spent the remainder of his life, defending the Christian faith.

What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”

Tertullian of Carthage

The answer would shape the next 2,000 years of Judeo-Christian culture.

Six hundred years before his time that secular part, hung in the balance. It is hardly an exaggeration to say. The course of western thought and culture was set on this day, in 479BC.

A century before the age of classical Greece King Darius I, third King of the Persian Achaemenid Empire, ruled over an area stretching from North Africa to the Indian sub-continent, from Kazakhstan to the Arabian Peninsula.   

Achaemenid_Empire
Achaemenid Empire

Several Anatolian coastal polities rebelled in 499BC, with support and encouragement from the mainland city states of Athens and Eritrea. This “Ionian Revolt” lasted six years.  While unsuccessful, the Greeks had exposed themselves to the wrath of Darius.  Herodotus records that, every night before dinner, Darius required one of his servants three times, to repeat: “Master, remember the Athenians“.

Darius
Persian King Darius I

The Persian Shahanshah (‘King of Kings’) sent emissaries to the Greek city states, demanding gifts of earth and water signifying Darius’ dominion over all the land and sea. Most capitulated, but Athens put Darius’ emissaries on trial and executed them.  Sparta didn’t bother.  They threw Darius’ ambassadors down a well. “There is your earth”, they called down. “There is your water”.

Athens and Sparta were now effectively at war with the Persian Empire. What happened over the next 20 years made us all who we are, today.

Darius sent an amphibious expedition to the Aegean, attacking Naxos and sacking Eritrea.   A massive force of some 600 triremes commanded by the Persian General Datis and Darius’ own brother Artaphernes then sailed for Attica.

Nine thousand hoplites marched out of Athens to meet the threat joined by 1,000 heavily armored infantry, out of Plataea. The two sides met on the beach on a small bay near the town of Marathon, about 25 miles from Athens.

On September 12, 490BC, the order went down the Athenian line.  “At them!”

Battle of Marathon

Easily outnumbering the Greeks two to one the Persian force depended on massive flights of arrows, to decimate the foe. Greek tactics centered around a tight formation some eight men deep called a “phalanx”.

With each man burdened by 70-pounds of bronze and leather armor the hoplites likely marched to within arrow range, about two hundred meters, and then closed the distance at a dead run.

The Persian shafts rained down and yet had little effect, against the heavy armor of the Greeks. The bone crushing collision of bronze against the light quilted jerkins of the Persians, their wicker shields and small swords & axes no match against the wooden hoplon and ash wood shafts of the hoplite spear. The Battle of Marathon was a humiliating defeat for Darius with 6,400 Persians lying dead in the sand.  Athens lost 192 men that day, Plataea, 11.

Fun fact: We all know the legend of Pheidippides, dropping his shield and running the 25 miles to Athens to announce the victory and dropping dead with the word, “Nenikēkamen!” (We have won!) So, why would a trained Hemerodrome (Day Runner) die from a mere 25 miles? Folks do that all the time, I’ve done it twice, myself. The man had just run 150 miles round-trip to Lacedaemon to request Spartan assistance for the battle, before that last run to Athens. So. You ran a Marathon? Ppppppth. Talk to me after you’ve run a 153-mile Spartathlon.

Undeterred, Datis sailed for Athens now undefended with her entire army away, at Marathon. The exhausted Greeks trudged 25 miles back to face down the Persian fleet now anchored at Phaleron. Humiliated but as yet undefeated the Persian triremes, turned for home.

Back in Asia Minor the King of Kings spent three years preparing another invasion. One he would lead himself, and not Datis. It wasn’t meant to be. Darius had an Egyptian revolt to deal with first and died, in 486BC. Ten years after Marathon it was Darius’ son Xerxes who returned, to finish what his father had started.

In 480BC, news of a massive Persian army on the move reached Lacedaemonia, principal region of the Spartan state.  Several Greek city states were technically at war with one another in 480BC but that was dropped, as preparations were made for a two-pronged defense. An allied Greek navy would meet the Persian triremes at the straits of Artemisium while an army of Hoplites, Greek heavy infantry, would meet the Persian army at the narrow pass known as the “Hot Gates”.  

The story is familiar. The last stand at Thermopylae. The famed 300 led by Leonidas blocking the narrow pass at the head of an allied army of some 7,000 hoplites, It was a puny force compared with the 100,000 strong, commanded by Xerxes.

Thermopylae

The standoff lasted for three days until a traitor arose from among the Greeks, Ephialtes of Trachis, who led the Persians through a narrow path to come around behind the Greek line.

Knowing himself betrayed Leonidas dismissed most of his soldiers, knowing they would be needed, for the battle yet to come.  300 Spartans, 700 Thespian allies and an unreliable contingent of 400 Thebans now faced the Persian hordes, in front and to the rear.  True to form, the Theban band defected to the Persian side, at the earliest opportunity. 

The water has receded now from the ancient pass, at Thermopylae

Simonides’ famous encomium to the dead was inscribed on a commemorative stone at Thermopylae, atop a hill on which the Greeks made their final stand.  The original stone is gone now, but the epitaph was engraved on a new stone in 1955 and remains, to this day: “Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here, obedient to Spartan law, we lie.”

As the battle unfolded at Thermopylae the vastly superior Persian fleet met that of the Greek allies, at a place called Artemisium.

The Greek triremes here hopelessly outnumbered with 271 ships manned by 4,065 marines rowed by 46,070 oarsman. The Persian fleet numbered 1,207 much larger vessels with 36,210 marines rowed by 205,190 oarsman. Even so, Artemisium was fought to a meaningless stalemate at a cost of 100 Greek ships and four times that, lost to Xerxes. The Greeks could scarcely afford such losses and retreated to a narrow strait between the mainland and the island of Salamis.

The battered Greek navy was as a cat up a tree while Persians on land went on to conquer Phocis, Boeotia, Attica, and Euboea. Using the cramped straits to his best advantage the General/Statesmen Themistocles persuaded the battered Greeks, to give battle. The vast Persian navy was of no advantage in the crowded straits of Salamis. It was a brilliant Greek victory with the loss of forty ships with Persian losses numbering 200 to 300. Xerxes himself retreated to Asia leaving General Mardonius to finish the Greeks, the following year.

The culminating battle happened on or about August 27-28, 479BC. It was a massive battle for antiquity, more like a Waterloo or a Gettysburg fought out on the slopes of Mount Mycale and the plains near the small town of Plataea.

The Battle of Plataea was a massive victory for the Greeks in this, the last land battle of the second Persian invasion of the Peloponnese. Minor skirmishes would continue for another 30 years but now began a flourishing of art, architecture and philosophy known as the Golden Age, of classical Greece. The future of western secular culture, was now assured.

Doubt me? Consider the idea that the common man has a say in important matters affecting his surroundings. Even the word democracy itself, comes from the Greek words demos meaning people, and kratia meaning power or rule. The student of Art and architecture need look no further than the Parthenon’s resemblance to any number of public buildings in cities from North America to western Europe. To look upon the sculpture of the goddess Aphrodite of Knidos is to see the human form itself and not the stiff, stylized artwork of the ancients. Draconian laws? Granted ancient Greek justice was harsh but the very notion that we’re all equal before the law, of written codes not subject to the whim of an aristocracy…thank the Athenian legislator Draco, for that one.

So…yeah. We’re now two and one-half millennia down the road and we still see who these people were, in our every-day lives.

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