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.
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“.
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!”
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.
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.
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.