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The Period of Greek-Persian Wars

1. Class struggle during the classic period

1. In the period of Homer, we have autonomous household economy, as exemplified by the household of Odysseus. The man is at the plough, his wife is in charge of domestic slaves. In the period of Solon, we have autonomous city states. During the classical period, we have two principal kinds of city states. One is the agrarian polis, exemplified by Sparta. The other is trade and crafts polis, exemplified by Athens.

2. "In Sparta all the best lands were divided up according to the number of citizens into 9000 lots and distributed for temporary use among the Spartans. This land could not be broken up, or sold, or given as a gift, but after the death of its user returned to the state. Sparta is characterized by striving for complete equality, contempt for luxury, strict system of education; the citizens were forbidden to get involved in agriculture, crafts and trade, to use gold or silver, contacts with the external world were limited. All this was fixed in the laws of Lycurgus, IX century B.C. Collectively, Spartans exploited the enslaved population - the helots. For each lot of land, there were several families of helots, who had to pay annually a tax in kind, equal to approximately 1/6 to 1/7 of their harvest" (from "Economic history").

3. There were two principal oppressed classes: the helots and perioki. Helots were the country-side population of Laconia which was conquered as result of invasion of Dorians. Helot was like a serf who had to pay a tax in kind: barely, butter, wine. From time to time young Spartans would conducts massacres of helots. Perioki lived in towns and were occupied with crafts. "Perioki were the part of the population which surrendered to the conquerors; helots were the part of the population which offered resistance". Perioki had to pay modest taxes.

4. Sparta was like a military camp. One reason for this is the constant threat of uprising of the native population of Laconia, i.e. class struggle between the slaves and the free. Laconism is the military form of speech, when all the important information has to be conveyed directly and in a short, concise form. For example, we all remember the message of a mother, who was handing her son the shield, and said: "With it, or on it", meaning that the young man should not throw away the shield to run away from the site of the battle; he should come back either with it, or on top of it, as the dead people were carried in Sparta. Spartans not only spoke laconically, but also preferred from foreigners addressed them in the same way. 

5. The Navy of Spartans was worse than that of Athenians; they don't have public funds for any social activity, even for war. Their architecture and art was way below the Athenian.

6. Spartans lead a communist way of life. "Each Spartan lived not in his family, but together with other citizens, ate at public eateries. They would come home in secret. Part of the tax in kind which they obtained from helots they would devote to public dinners". Children were formed into formations which were led by older children. The children were taught endurance and agility. For example, they were encouraged to steal from the elders at dinners, but in such a way that they would not get caught. For example, once a boy stole a pet animal and when he saw adults he hid the animal in his shirt. The animal had sharp teeth and gnawed on the stomach of the boy. The boy didn't make a sound and later died of the wound.

Young Spartans Exercising, Degas, 1860-2

7. Politically, Sparta was governed by two kings, as the state was formed through unification of two communities. The first king was from the Achaean dynasty, the second from Dorian. We can suppose that these two tribes have formed Sparta.

In addition, there were 5 euphors. These were representatives of the town population. They were the chief controllers in the State, even the kings had to come to their calling. The origin of euphors is from the time of Messinian wars, which were conducted by Sparta to increase its control of land. During these wars, within Sparta "there was a struggle between demos and aristocracy ... and demos comes out victorious. The demos used the already existing judicial office of euphors, who were chosen from among the people, and attributed to the office political weight, so that euphors became like Roman people's tribunes".

8. By the end of VI century B.C. Peloponnesian union forms around Sparta. Its goal is mutual defense. As opposed to the Delos union formed around Sparta, there was no money tribute in the union: "if a war was supposed to take place on the territory of the union, all the troops were to be fielded; if outside the union, 2/3 of the troops". Sparta was in charge of the unified army.

9. Meanwhile in Athens the primitive communist way of life almost disappeared. The laws of Draco (621 B.C.) have affirmed the rights of private property.

2. Comparison of three principal historians

Among the three principal Greek historians there is a certain continuity. Herodotus is an ancient "Trotskyist": "he lived between 485 and 425 B.C. Halicarnassus was torn by the class, and hence party strife. As in other Greek city-states, there was a struggle between democratic and aristocratic parties. In the epoch of Herodotus, a tyranny was founded, and he participated in the struggle against it, and thus he had to withdraw to the island of Samos. Hence, he had antipathy towards tyrants and sympathy towards democracy. Later, Herodotus returns to his motherland, participates in overthrow of tyranny, after which he goes traveling".

The second historian is Thucydides. He was of aristocratic origin, owned mines, a supported of moderate census democracy. If we're to use the terms of the French revolution, he belonged to the "Girondin" party.

The third historian is Xenophon. He is simply a lover of Laconia, and even fought among the Spartans against the army of Athenians, for which he was later ostracized. This historian understands history in a very narrow sense, i.e. as histories of military battles. His narrative is brief and doesn't contain those causal descriptions which Thucydides offers us.

Of course, Herodotus has the most universal mind. To explain the origin of Greek-Persian wars, he narrates the picture of the entire known world. This takes about half of his massive work. Thucydides is the second in importance. Class struggle is at the heart of the war which he describes. The third in importance is Xenophon. To understand his intellectual poverty, compare his reminiscences of Socrates with those written by Plato.

World view of Herodotus is similar to that of Cromwell: "he can be called a providence man... the fate of man is governed by providence or gods... Gods interfere in human affairs and change the course of individual lives and of the whole nations". In Herodotus we can see greater influence of divine forces on human affairs than we see in Thucydides; the later explains an earthquake not as a sign from gods, but simply as a natural phenomenon. In this sense Herodotus is closer to Homer in whose epic gods interfere in the course of fighting before the walls of Troy.

The greatest value for Herodotus is equality. For example, when talking about causes for victories of Athenians after the reforms of Clisthenes, Herodotus says: "Not only this, but all cases show how valuable is equality. Really, when they were under the oppression of tyranny, Athenians could not overcome anyone of their neighbors, but when they freed themselves of tyranny, took the first place. This shows that when they were oppressed by tyrants, there were not industrious, as though they were working for a master; but when they achieved freedom, each one began to work for his own good".

3. Short course of the Greek-Persian war

500 B.C. - Ionian Greek cities, headed by Miletus, rise up against Persian rule. Athenians send ships to help the Greeks city states, but the uprising is suppressed.

492 B.C. - Persian army, headed by Mardonius, crosses the Hellespont (today called the straits of Dardanelles), but the fleet meets disaster in the Gulf of Aphon. Cut off from connections with Asia, the army makes a return.

490 B.C. - the movement of the Persian army through Greek mainland is accompanied by an interesting phenomenon: "backward aristocratic-agricultural communes do not offer any resistance to the Persians, and even take up their side, while trade communes struggle much more actively".

In the same year, the Persians land their army near the village of Marathon. In order to protect the Greek phalanx from the Persian cavalry, Greek general Miltiades takes a position in the Marathon valley, the length of which is no more than 1000 meters. At both ends of the valley there are mountains. In addition, the Greeks build barricades on the flanks to prevent an attack by cavalry. Miltiades makes the center of the Greek phalanx weaker than the flanks. Thus, when the Persians attack, the center falls back somewhat, while the flanks hold steady, and eventually encircle the Persians. Persians barely save themselves by running to the ships in the harbor.

490-480 B.C. - Athenians create a powerful navy. The buildup is supervised by Themistocles. The necessity for the navy comes from the need to protect commercial ships.

480 B.C. - 300 Spartans headed by king Leonid attempt to stop the advance of Persians at the pass of Thermopylae. A path around the positions of the Spartans is shown by a Greek traitor and so the Persians attack Leonid from the rear. Antagonism between Sparta and Athens is already made visible, as the Athenian fleet is not far from the pass, but does not come to rescue of Leonid.

In the same year there is a sea battle near Artemisia. The main stock of the Persian fleet were Phoenicians and Ionian Greeks; both were excellent sailors, capable of sailing the ships which they build themselves... Herodotus talks about technical superiority of the enemy and Themistocles says that Greek ships were less maneuverable". However, the sea battle takes place in the narrow gulf, which doesn't allow the Phoenicians to show their skill. This sea battle was fought more like a land battle, and here Greeks have superiority through better weapons and moral.

In the same year there is a sea battle near Salamis. Themistocles uses a military trick: he sends a message to Persian king Xerxes about internal conflict among the Greeks (which in general was true!). Xerxes attacks immediately. This forces the Greeks to fight, and stop arguing among themselves about the better place for the battle. After defeat of his army, Xerxes leaves the army and goes back to Persia.

479 B.C. - a land battle near Plataea. The role of religion in military affairs and in government is well shown by Hans Delbruck. He says: "Pausanias (the Greek general at the head of the united Greek armies) knew well how to use the prophets and priests. Until the vanguard of the Persians were shooting at the Greeks in order to provoke them, Pausanias was holding up his people. Only when the masses of Persians have approached the spot which he has chosen for himself as the site of battle, Pausanias has raised his hands up in prayer to the goddess; the priest immediately declared that the omens were good, and Pausanias has given the signal for attack... Pausanias was able to give the battle in the place where the Persian cavalry was not able to attack the Greek phalanx in the rear". Among the Persians there was a split: "Part of the Persian army, headed by Artabaz, did not take part in the fighting". Thus, the story we first saw at the walls of Troy repeats itself, and the Greeks emerge victorious.

459 B.C. - Greek send a help to Egyptians who have risen against Persian king Artaxerxers. In essence, this was a civil war, as some Egyptians fought on the side of the Persians. In 454 B.C. the Greek fleet is blocked in the estuary of Niles and completely destroyed. The Greeks negotiate with Persians so-called Cymon's peace.

4. Military art of the epoch

The basis of Greek army consisted of heavily armed infantry, the "hoplite". The basis of the Persian army consisted of archers and cavalry. For defense the Persian infantry have had a wicker shield. The Persian cavalry had almost no protection, except leather armor.

Hoplite armour exhibit from the Archaeological Museum of Corfu. Note the gold inserts around the chest area of the bronze breastplate at the centre of the exhibit. The helmet on the upper left is a restored version of the oxidised helmet on the right.

There is a difference in military formation between the Greeks and the Persians. For Greeks this was a phalanx, which was strong as a unit. Delbruck writes: "Victory is derived not through the strength of arms, but from moral and physical pressure of the columns of the phalanx. The Persians did not have such a tactical unit: the archers do not fight together, but strive to split apart... (for the Persian army) it is individual skill and agility that is most important". Herodotus says: "In courage and strength the Persians are not inferior to the Hellenes, but they are not armed and can not compete in military art". This points to a lower material culture of the Persians.

The Persian army, as the Persian state, consisted of many nationalities. They were united by a common religion of Zoroaster. The more settled tribes pay a tribute to the Persian king; the more nomad tribes deliver soldiers for war. Persians used whips to keep their soldiers going to battle.

Greeks have long ago left nomad way of life and started on agriculture. They were at the forefront of the Iron Age. They had better weapons and they formed their army from among their citizens, which contributed to a higher moral. For these two reasons, numerically superior Persians were defeated.

5. Consciousness of the epoch

1. During the battle of Salamis we can observe remnants of the ancient form of religion among the Greeks: "the holy city snake has not eaten its monthly sacrificial pie". This is a remnant of the cult of the animals and forces of nature. "In Hellenistic city-states, as with most primitive people, the first objects of worship were animals, specifically birds, and later gods in the forms of people... the cult of the eagle preceded the cult of Zeus, the cult of owl preceded the cult of Athena". That's why Homer calls Athena "owl-eyed".

The object of worship gradually becomes more human: from elements of nature to certain animals, then to plurality of gods in human form, then to monotheism. Gods absorb elements of preceding religions, as for example Zeus throws the thunder and lightening

2. Religion is the early form of understanding the world: "Poseidon has had human appearance, thoughts and feelings; from now on, the sailors who were feeling the rage of the god could guess at its causes and find means of pacifying him" (A. Bonnar). The Greeks attempted to understand the unknown forces of nature through bringing them closer, first in the form of a monster, then in the form of a human being. This is anthropomorphism, i.e. attributing human qualities to forces of nature, which makes it the first stage in understanding nature.

3. Greek-Persian wars served as an impetus for the creativity of Aeschylus, who personally participated in the battles of Marathon and Salamis. He wrote tragedy called "The Persians".

Aeschylus perceives the world as an ever changing order. One order is transformed into another order, and the laws governing each constantly change. In perception of Aeschylus, "one of the most constant laws of life is that none of us alone in this world; no one is responsible only for himself; there are crimes which all people who belong to a certain tribe or a nation are responsible".

"Prometheus bound" written by Aeschylus has revolutionary significance, as it speaks about the overthrow of the gods.

4. One of the first who correctly understood the origin of the gods was poet by the name of Xenophanes. He wrote:

The Ethiopians say that their gods are snub-nosed and black, the Thracians that theirs have light blue eyes and red hair.

5. Pericles was given a very good education. His teacher was Damon. He understood the interconnection of all the arts: "One can not touch the musical rules without at the same time overthrowing the rules governing the state... Music should be made into a fortress of a state".

6. Pericles formulates the meaning of life before the Athenians in following words: "Being convinced that happiness is in freedom, and freedom in courage, bravely face the dangers of war".

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