When Things Got Tough

Peter Green

  • Athens Burning: The Persian Invasion of Greece and the Evacuation of Attica by Robert Garland
    Johns Hopkins, 170 pp, £15.00, February 2017, ISBN 978 1 4214 2196 4

In 413 bce, outside Syracuse, the Athenian general Nicias, old and mortally ill, tried to rally the spirits of his defeated troops before their final retreat. A city, he told them, consists of its men, not of its walls or its empty ships. He had in mind their own city of Athens. In 480-79 bce, about a decade before Nicias was born, Athens had been systematically sacked and burned, not once but twice, by Xerxes’ invading Persian army; yet its citizens survived, against apparently insurmountable odds, to inflict crushing defeats on the invaders, first by sea off Salamis, and the following year by land at Plataea in Boeotia. There have been many occasions in recent months, watching grim scenes of other cities being reduced to rubble, to reflect on Nicias’ words. Coventry, Dresden, Warsaw and Hiroshima rose again, phoenix-like, from their ashes; might Aleppo and Mosul, despite all the suffering and destruction, one day recapture some of their former splendour? Such thoughts were very much in my mind while reading Robert Garland’s retelling of Athens’s tribulations during those two fraught years of Persian invasion. It is a story that has been told countless times, but never before has the narrative concentrated primarily on the Athenians’ wholesale evacuation of Attica, considered as a historical and social phenomenon.

The Achaemenid empire of Persia (named after a probably mythic ancestor) was no negligible power. Its founder, in the mid-6th century, was Cyrus II (c.559-30), known, with reason, as Cyrus the Great. Originally a lord of Anshan (a hitherto insignificant piece of cattle country in southwestern Iran) he conquered in quick succession a group of once-dominant powers: first and foremost Media, in what today is northwestern Iran, but also the Neo-Babylonians and the Lydian kingdom at that time ruled by Croesus, which encompassed the Asiatic Greeks. In 521-19 these conquests were extended by Darius I, a warlord and very probably a usurper who – after fighting 19 battles in a single year to consolidate his position – was responsible for the effective organisation of these vast new territories, perhaps over a million square miles in all. By the end of the 6th century the empire consisted of 23 provinces, each under a satrap (a ‘protector of the kingdom’) directly answerable to the Great King in Susa, and connected by a road system that was the envy of all.

Under Croesus and Cyrus the Ionians, on the western maritime fringe of the empire, enjoyed a very easy-going relationship with their Lydian and Persian overlords. As long as they paid their taxes and avoided any kind of anti-governmental activity they were, by and large, left alone. Cyrus very sensibly had a policy of letting his far-flung subjects maintain their own culture, language, religion and laws. Ionians in particular were encouraged to seek advancement in the provincial administration: as local city governors, or tyrannoi, they could keep a watchful eye on the satrap, who watched over them in turn. Both would report to the Great King, who was thus kept unusually well informed.

The arrival of Darius marked a much stricter relationship with the tyrannoi, who found themselves obliged to attend to the demands of their new master regarding tribute, land ownership and military service, rather than, as before, being left to deal with the needs and ambitions of their own citizens. Darius was no fool politically, but his attempts to assert his authority caused considerable resentment among his Greek subjects, to the point where some began seriously to consider the possibility of breaking away from Persian control. They were encouraged in this by the extraordinary example of Athens, which by 508 had not only got rid of its tyrannoi but had enfranchised the common people and brought in a new democratic system of government based on the will of the majority. There were quite a few tyrannoi among the Greeks who thought it might be time to reinvent themselves as popular, if not populist, leaders – revolutionaries by default. Of these the two most notable were Histiaios, the governor of Mîlêtos (a wealthy city on the western coast of Asia Minor), and his cousin and son-in-law Aristagoras.

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