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From agora to throne room
Interstate relations between Persia, Athens and Sparta before and during
the Persian Wars in Herodotus’ Histories
Emma Groeneveld
Preface ................................................................................................................. 3
Introduction .......................................................................................................... 4
1. The methods and aims of diplomacy .................................................................... 7
2. - Envoys and policy ..........................................................................................13
3. – The role of deserters ......................................................................................33
Conclusion ...........................................................................................................41
The Persian Wars have always stood out to me as intriguing; something I wanted to
know more about, and when I began reading up on this subject my enthusiasm was
further sparked. When deciding upon a topic for my BA thesis I decided to follow my
heart and dive into the politics of this conflict between east and west, Greeks and
‘barbarians’. Soon I arrived at the interesting complexity of the contact between the
three major players in this game: Athens, Sparta and the Persian Empire. Choosing the
diplomatic side of things as a way to analyse the interstate relations means staying very
true to my great interest in this ‘juicy’ side of politics, embodied by diplomats showing
extraordinary acumen in achieving their goals, perhaps even resorting to blackmail or
bribery in the process. These sorts of elements are certainly found in Herodotus’
Histories; my prime focus in this study and a book I have greatly enjoyed reading as well
as researching. The translation I have used for this purpose and have quoted from in this
work is a rather dated one, by George Rawlinson, who also provides useful notes on the
text. It is edited and introduced by Tom Griffith for the Wordsworth Classics of World
Literature series, 1996.
Regardless of my efforts in researching this topic, I could not have completed this
study (as) successfully without the help of certain people I would hereby like to thank.
Firstly, my teacher and BA thesis-tutor Floris van den Eijnde has aided me in deciding on
an exact approach and method of investigation, as well as giving valuable criticism on
the work in progress. Secondly, Mathieu de Bakker’s expertise regarding Herodotus has
made me mindful of certain pitfalls. He has shared some of his insights and besides
sending me part of his dissertation as literature, also alerted me to a lot of useful works
with regard to my subject. Thirdly, my thanks go to my father, Rob Groeneveld, an
English teacher who has cast his critical eye on my use of English and has helped me
improve my style in this thesis for the better. Last but not least, my dear fellow-student
Mounir Lahcen has proof-read this work with great care and supplied it with useful
criticism, thus aiding me in improving the attention to detail as well as the overall quality
of it.
These are the researches of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, which he publishes, in the hope of
thereby preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done, and of preventing the
great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the Barbarians from losing their due need of glory;
and withal to put on record what were their grounds of feud.
Hdt. I.0.
By these words, Herodotus commences his Histories, our most important source on the
Persian Wars (499-479 B.C.). The Greek victory is most graphically illustrated by the
great battles, often the topic of films or books. But behind the scenes, policy had to be
determined and put into practice, not only between poleis within Greece itself but also
with the Persian Empire. It thus formed a part of these grounds of feud he speaks of.
Naturally, interstate relations between Greece and Persia were present before the onset
of the war as well as during it and constitute an essential dimension of the conflict. The
workings of such diplomatic conduct are far from self-explanatory, however. In order to
investigate them thoroughly and reveal the hinges that were crucial in determining
policy, the interstate relations between Athens and the Persian Empire will be compared
to those between Sparta and the Persian Empire, before and during the Persian Wars, as
described in Herodotus’ Histories. The nature of these relations and their potential
development which comes to the fore in the case of Athens and Sparta with regard to
Persia- forming a possible contrast or agreement – will both be explained in their own
right, and help explain the functioning of diplomacy in this context. These three powers
were the major players in the game, and Herodotus extensively deals with how they sent
envoys to each other. Often entire speeches are reproduced; their substance and tone
can convey clues on how these states viewed one another, which could have an effect on
the making of policy. All of this will be taken into account; and so, interstate relations will
be applied to mean (diplomatic) contact via envoys and messengers; constructed
alliances or policy directly influencing the other, be it negatively or positively; the
underlying reasons for these attitudes; as well as how the states perceived each other.
Policy comes into this to guide the course of diplomatic negotiations, which fall within
interstate relations.
The reason I will focus on the depiction of interstate relations within the Histories,
rather than in ‘historical reality’, lies in the problems one encounters when using
Herodotus as a source. Herodotus, being born in 484 B.C., does not qualify as an eyewitness himself since he was around the age of four during Xerxes’ invasion.
Consequently, all his information, though being fairly contemporary at least during the
later stages of the war, has had to be relayed to him by, for instance, eye-witnesses or
their descendants, or people who had come into contact with them, such as friends or
trading partners. On less recent matters, such as on the Persian Empire under Cyrus, the
time gap between the events and Herodotus’ research itself is already quite a bit larger
and thus more problematic. Despite his goal of historical accuracy and often critical eye –
he will strive to give both versions if on one topic he has heard two conflicting stories and
cannot determine which is correct – he sometimes records utter nonsense as well:
despite his claims to the contrary, camels do not actually have four thigh-bones and four
knee-joints. (Hdt. III.103). The Histories is designed to cover events beginning with
Cyrus harrying Croesus of Lydia all the way until the end of Xerxes’ invasion in 479 B.C.
However, since he cannot possibly have had accurate information on everything relevant,
literary freedom comes into the equation to fill in the blanks. It thus becomes a highly
complex matter to distinguish truth from fiction in his account; something there is no
space for in this paper. This does not imply I will refrain at all times from judging the
authenticity of certain passages, though. Regardless of the problems that arise from the
use of Herodotus as a source, it must be stressed that his work is highly valuable
nonetheless – it constitutes the only main source on the Persian Wars and was written
with the purpose of recording history and not fiction.
What must also be noted is that Herodotus originated from Halicarnassus, a city
and originally Greek colony on the west coast of Asia Minor in what is now Turkey, which
fell under Persian rule before the Persian Wars. He lived in Athens for some time and was
thus firmly on the Greek side, despising the form of imperialism and tyranny represented
by the Persian Empire. The Histories very much demonstrate the contrast between the
freedom of the Greeks and the slavery of people serving the Great King. While
Herodotus’ approach is very much a Greek one, he still tries to depict the Persian Empire
and her king faithfully (meaning, this will naturally be coloured by his perceptions, but he
at least attempts to remain unbiased). What complicates this part of his account is the
scarceness of sources dealing with the Persian side of things; especially when it
concerned events happening at the court, in for example the throne room. How he
acquired the information in these cases is a question that is hard to answer, and the
events and anecdotes may indeed have emerged from his imagination, by lack of
anything more ‘historical’. Of course, his work was also intended to entertain and,
importantly, to eternalise the glory the Greeks deserved for defeating the barbarians, as
he stated in his opening words.
Taking all of this into account, I have allowed the source itself to lead me to a
better understanding of the relations between the three powers. First off, an introduction
on the diplomatic- and also more general context of the time, which had an effect on the
aims of policy and the conduct of interstate relations, will provide the necessary
background to understand the main body of this work. The second chapter thoroughly
investigates the sending of envoys and their connected policy between Athens and Persia
and Sparta and Persia respectively, concluding with an investigation of the third side of
the diplomatic triangle and its effects: relations between Athens and Sparta. In this
section I have attempted to incorporate nearly all passages directly connected to this
particular topic, thus not leaving out much evidence. It should, then, provide a good
image of the use of envoys as described by Herodotus, through the eyes of which the
actual policies can be discerned. Lastly, chapter three highlights the role of defectors,
who, obviously falling outside of ‘official’ diplomacy, could have an interesting effect on
the relations between powers, altering perceptions and sharing their inside information.
Hopefully by the end, a clear understanding will have been reached on the workings of
these interstate relations.
1. The methods and aims of diplomacy
Diplomatic relations do not exist in an empty space; rather, they are the product of the
circumstances – be they political, economic, or otherwise - prevalent at a certain point in
time. The policy coinciding with these relations can stem from tradition or be a complete
break with it, guided by, for instance, ideological or pragmatic impulses. Moreover, it can
hope to achieve long- or short-term, immediate aims, the determining of which also
coincides with the economic resources available: launching a grand-scale war on some
obscure neighbour might not be the most logical course of action when you have no
resources for it whatsoever. All this must be kept in mind when investigating interstate
relations between three substantially different parties like Athens, Sparta and the Persian
Empire, the latter obviously being the most odd one out. Since one cannot accurately
estimate the importance of certain pawns being moved across the Aegean chess-board
without knowing the rules and regulations, it is appropriate they be looked into further.
The broader historical context of diplomacy is naturally important to be aware of when
investigating a source such as the Histories, which aimed at, though did not achieve,
historical accuracy.
Ancient Greece had no permanent institution which focused entirely on foreign policy;
rather, the public assembly normally took care of it. Without an official field dedicated to
it, the discussion of policy took place openly, for instance at the agora. The terminology
that was in use illustrates that diplomacy was very much a part of politics and conduct in
general and not a specialized field yet. The Greek words – kerykes (heralds); presbeis
(envoys); and angeloi (messengers) - describing those on diplomatic missions, do not
initially originate from this field; presbeis meaning ‘elders’ but thus also in use to indicate
envoys.1 The nearest the Greeks came to having official diplomatic representation was
the institution known as proxenia. Proxenoi were citizens appointed by the state they
represented rather than their native polis, such as Cimon, who was an Athenian citizen
appointed by Sparta, but resided in Athens to represent their interests there. The main
duty of such a diplomat was through ‘skilful negotiations to isolate and remove the
causes of tension and hostility by persuasion.’2 In order to achieve this, common ground
had to be found that could be appealed to and used in the arguments. This was usually
F. Adcock and D.J. Mosley, Diplomacy in Ancient Greece (London 1975) 12, 152, 165.
Ibid., 12.
religion, since it pervaded all of Greece and rose above regional differences.3 Also,
considering the distances, diplomatic intermediaries spoke directly for their states,
having to make decisions there and then without checking with the home-front first.4
This could be a sensitive matter, since for highly important and not so straight-forward
cases envoys could end up on the chopping block for deciding upon a matter their state
felt they should not have taken without their explicit backing. A vivid example of this will
be discussed in further detail in chapter three, when Athenian envoys consent to giving
Darius earth and water, for which they are disgraced upon their return by Athens herself.
This huge responsibility resting on the diplomats’ shoulders was somewhat alleviated by
their inviolable status,5 casting a protective bubble over them as it were. Custom also
dictated envoys should always be received and heard, it being considered an insult to
send them off abruptly.6
The policy these diplomats tried to realise could be a bit of a rubik’s cube, being
determined by many different factors such as tradition, a state’s current circumstances,
the nature of the threat that was being responded to, and the broader (political) climate.
Despite the patchwork quilt that was Greece, accommodating diverse states, there are
general Greek tendencies to be found which apply to both Athens and Sparta. Precisely
because Greece was far from a uniform whole, the policy of the various states grossly
remained local and individualistic as opposed to having Panhellenic considerations in
mind.7 Immediate neighbours tended to soak up both Athens’ and Sparta’s attention,
mostly concerning quarrels over territorial ownership and access rights. It would not be
until after the Persian Wars that the priorities would shift away from states’ immediate
vicinity to areas beyond that. Besides reacting to local circumstances, policies were
usually formulated for immediate reasons rather than long-term visualisations, and thus
ended swiftly again as well. In this highly pragmatic context, ideological considerations
largely served to legitimize the pretexts and provide material for propaganda, but could
not override the bare necessities of befriending even politically contrasting players.
Nevertheless, however gluttonously the area surrounding a state gobbled up its time, the
search for allies to aid a state in conflicts often lead it further from home. 8 In the
exceptional case, apparent in Herodotus, that Athens clashed with Sparta – positioned
outside of the usual comfort zone - it also led Athens exceptionally far from home, when
they tried to conduct an alliance with the Persian Empire.
Ibid., 11, 160.
M.P. de Bakker, Speech and authority in Herodotus’ Histories. (Amsterdam 2007) 54.
Ibid., 57.
Adcock and Mosley, Diplomacy, 164.
Ibid., 147.
Ibid., 128-129, 132-139, 143.
Special attention must be devoted to the impact of religion - and specifically that
of the Delphic Oracle - on Greek politics and decision-making. As the sanctuary of Apollo
at Delphi – thought to be the centre of the earth - was situated outside direct control of
powerful centres, it was essentially neutral, which facilitated it becoming an important
inter-urban sanctuary, just like Olympia.9 On many different matters, both public and
private, and by groups and individuals, the oracle could be consulted. The responses of
the Delphic oracle, which had a very good reputation, were taken quite seriously, as to
the people the gods were, of course, real; it would have been logical to follow their
guidance. City-states consulted oracles on issues they could not themselves solve by
debate, or on weighty matters that could have serious consequences and thus should be
‘double-checked’. The generally unambiguous answers were typically followed as advice.
The oracles thus played a role in shaping social relations within the society and in settling
conflicts. They could sanction decisions taken by leaders and be seen as a tool to lay
down a consensus of opinion.10 During the Persian Wars this trend continues and the
oracle is frequently consulted; it could have a tangible influence on policy. Other aspects,
such as obtaining favourable omens in sacrifice before battle appear in the story both on
the Greek and the Persian side, and could delay battle for days. These were important
elements of Greek society as a whole.
Of course, the personal character of each state means they behaved differently
within this broader, shared context. Before the Persian Wars, Athens was still under
Pisistratid tyranny, which ended in 510 with the Alcmaeonid Cleisthenes overthrowing it
while aided by Cleomenes of Sparta. The reforms he instituted around 509-507 set the
democratic ball rolling in Athens, creating isonomia - equal rights for citizens of the state
before the law – and organising them in ten tribes. The council of five-hundred, made up
of representatives chosen from the people’s assembly and representing each tribe, had a
share in the conduct of diplomacy. It received visiting envoys and led them before the
assembly. It became customary to leave many matters for the council to take care of. 11
Sparta, however, entertained dual kingship, which during the second half of the sixth
century was limited to the two kings leading the army, while the five ephors became the
political leaders. The kings did try to use the ephors, but this was a difficult matter
seeing as they changed regularly and were not generally united in their point of view.
The council of elders, the gerousia, also played an important role. Though Sparta did
have a people’s assembly, which declared war, it was no democracy like Athens and the
common people’s interests were not implemented to the same extent. More importantly,
Sparta had been the leader and military hegemon of the Peloponnesian League since
John Pedley, Sanctuaries and the Sacred in the Ancient Greek World (Cambridge 2006) 135.
H. Bowden, Classical Athens and the Delphic oracle. Divination and Democracy. (Cambridge 2005) 3, 6.
Adcock and Mosley, Diplomacy, 170.
550, enforcing military service upon the Peloponnesian states while leaving their
autonomy intact. This obviously added tremendous weight for Sparta to throw around,
and it explains why during the Persian Wars it would have had such a large impact if
Sparta had refused to fight. It would have been a disaster if Sparta had left Athens to her
own devices, because the entire Peloponnesian clique would have withdrawn as well. In
the military sphere, Athens was thus more reliant on the goodwill of her allies, whereas
Sparta was in a more stable position. This directly affected policy.
Luckily for Athens, the discovery of the silver mines at Laurium in circa 484 at
least meant her economic situation vastly improved, just in time for Xerxes’ major
invasion. The revenue from these mines enabled Athens to build her fleet and thus had a
direct effect on her political possibilities. It is clear that the economy stood at the
forefront in determining what kinds of campaigns were actually sustainable and which
goals one’s policy could realistically achieve. Nuances apparent in the trouble these two
poleis had with their neighbours laid a respectively larger or smaller claim on their
economic resources. Because Sparta itself constituted a minority of the population of
whole Lacedaemon, her internal needs were often red-hot and crying for attention. This
meant she was reluctant to fight far away from home and rather tried to resolve conflicts
by pushing two states into quarrelling with each other, like she did with Athens and
While troubles close to home would appear a largely distracting factor for
Sparta even during the Persian Wars, Athens, who traditionally also stuck to neighbourrows, faced more of a no-brainer regarding choice seeing as Persia was directly focusing
on Attica to obtain her revenge. This highly visible danger left Athens with a much more
clear-cut policy. Here, location definitely has an impact on policy; also for the much more
southerly situated Sparta, which had a bit more breathing-space than Athens.13
Unless one counts the king hearing audiences, the Persian Empire matches the Greeks in
their absence of a formal diplomatic institution. With the king deciding everything,
including policy, it was simply not needed. This would seem to be a fairly straightforward system. However, considering the vastness of the empire and the fact the
Persian king could not in all likeliness split himself into whatever numbers needed, there
had to be quite some order in place to get anything done at all. Thus the whole empire
was linked together by intermediaries and messengers racing back and forth between
people and cities, regions and satraps. Whether they were sent directly by the king or by
his lackeys or satraps, when they were employed further from home the same principles
Ibid., 14-18, 135.
Adcock and Mosley, Diplomacy, 21.
must have applied as to Greek envoys, a certain degree of autonomy shining through as
an intrinsic result of the distance. It might also be so, though, that these intermediaries
were given such strict instructions that they were literally nothing but messengers, not
negotiating anything apart from their rigid brief. This would rhyme well with the political
constellation of the Empire: the King’s messengers were his subordinates and had to
directly convey his will. It is certainly clear the Persian way of conducting diplomacy was
very closed, which is illustrated by Herodotus when he marvels at their messenger
system: messengers literally hand over information to each other ‘like the light in a
torch-race’. (VIII.98). Whether this also implies envoys had little personal input is less
easy to distinguish; here the use of Herodotus to uncover historical tendencies poses
rather complex problems. As usual, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.
To shed a bit more light on the workings of the Persian king’s spider web of
contact and diplomacy, the proceedings of the royal audience will be investigated. Upon
reaching Susa, petitioners would have come through the Gate of Darius, and entered his
(or later his son’s) palace, which contained three halls. The Great Hall was lined with
stone benches, which was probably the waiting area for those coming to see the king.
Audience reliefs show the king on his throne, being bowed to by an official wearing
clothes in the style of the Medes; this person could be the chiliarch (Iranian:
hazarapatiš), or Commander of a Thousand. Petitioners or envoys would have met with
this man and handed him their messages, after which he would present them to the king
himself in his throne room if deemed important enough. However, if entrance was
declined the chiliarch still passed on the message to the king.14 All of this has more of a
‘ritual’ feel to it, as if these customs were an important part of society and tradition. They
could also serve to enhance the King’s elevated position by not allowing just anyone into
his exalted presence. Herodotus does not make any mention of such features, partially
due to the fact that he does not care to describe proceedings like this in much detail;
rather he tells of such things as the Athenians heading to Sardis and receiving an
audience with Artaphernes, brother of Darius and satrap of Sardis.
Herodotus does
colourfully describe the Persian King’s superior attitude, in which the practice of
proskynesis (obeisance), which the Classical authors highlight as an absolute necessity,
can easily be seen to fit. The exact meaning of this act is not clear – it could be falling
down onto the floor, or bowing and blowing kisses, for instance – but it was seemingly
sufficient to do this outside the king’s actual presence as well.15 Perhaps in the cases
where envoys or petitioners were not admitted personally they performed the
proskynesis in front of the chiliarch. With everything arranged via intermediaries and
P. Briant, transl. by P. T. Daniels, From Cyrus to Alexander. A History of the Persian Empire (United States of
America 2002) 222, 260.
Ibid., 222-223.
with the king delegating to keep from drowning in work, politics in the Persian Empire
must have been a whole lot more concealed than in Greece.
As for Persian policy in general, it must have revolved around the advantages and
difficulties arising from the mere size of the empire - not to mention the regional
varieties or outside threats. The feudal makeup made it at once centralised and
decentralised, with satraps in many cases acting as direct governors but also receiving a
strict brief, and with lines of communication spreading outward from the king’s central
place in every direction. As for international relations; it is clear there were Greek
representatives at the Persian court, to facilitate Persia’s relations with the Greek cities 16,
making it conceivable that other cities from beyond the realm also maintained contact
like this. Despite the already enormous size the empire had grown to at the time
Herodotus started his account, the glutton had far from had its fill. The Persians’ strategy
when dealing with conquered peoples was aimed at accomplishing as much continuation
as possible, thus keeping the situation stable, by attempting to ally themselves with the
local ruling classes.17
The Persian colossus, which could boast an amazing abundance of economic
resources, entertained a more closed system of policy enveloped in customs than their
Greek neighbours. In a contrast to Athens and Sparta, who were used to dealing with
matters in their immediate vicinity, the Persians had political experience in dealing with
and conquering states located further away. One would thus expect the Persians to act
more confidently and feel more at ease than Athens and Sparta during the diplomatic
negotiations described in Herodotus’ Histories.
Ibid., 348.
Ibid., 79.
2. - Envoys and policy
Without our modern methods of communication, states in Archaic Greece had to rely on
envoys and heralds to represent their interests. Unavoidably in an account on the Persian
Wars, with an Empire poised against and dealing with various different Greek and nonGreek states, the use of official envoys constitutes an important part. The herald’s
sacrosanct status made good sense considering how, especially in wartime, they
represented the only means of interacting with one’s enemies. 18 The content of these
envoys represents the majority of information that can be deducted regarding the
interstate relations and policies between Athens, Sparta and Persia as described by
Herodotus, and thus requires abundant attention.
This is not their sole purpose, though. Herodotus often has multiple uses in mind
for certain elements- the result of his combination of historical and literary aims – and in
this case he may also have used these interactions to further define people. For example,
at the Persian court, whenever intermediaries are in place, the King seems to be
represented from a superior position and is thus depicted as elevated and isolated. 19
Among the Greeks themselves this is, not surprisingly, no feature, as naturally their
society is a wholly different one. The Persian king, as head of a feudal system, surely
need not lower himself to the level of the Greek city-states, who can quarrel away among
themselves without any overarching power to rule them. Envoys can thus illustrate not
only direct relations but also the overarching perceptions that prevailed.
Athens’ relations with Persia
It is not until book 5 that Herodotus mentions the first direct contact between Athens and
the Persian Empire, via intermediaries. Athens, rife with internal struggle between,
among others, the Alcmaeonid faction and the Pisistratid faction, saw its relations with
Sparta run awry after the Spartan king Cleomenes had interfered on Isagoras’ behalf and
ousted Cleisthenes, an Alcmaeonid. Ironically, after being more or less ‘forced’ by the
Delphic oracle, which was bribed by Athens to tell Sparta nothing but that they should
free Athens, Cleomenes was forced to retire from Athens and Cleisthenes was recalled.
Athens, realising this would not go down well in Sparta, envisioned war was imminent
and decided to send an envoy to a power they felt could stand up to the Spartan’s might.
Ambassadors were thus sent to Sardis to humbly request an alliance:
De Bakker, Speech and authority, 57.
De Bakker, Speech and authority, 54.
When the ambassadors reached Sardis and delivered their message, Artaphernes, son
of Hystaspes, who was at the time governor of the place, inquired of them ‘who they
were, and in what part of the world they dwelt, that they wanted to become allies of
the Persians?’ The messengers told him; upon which he answered them shortly – that
‘if the Athenians chose to give earth and water to King Darius, he would conclude an
alliance with them; but if not, they might go home again.’ After consulting together,
the envoys, anxious to form the alliance, accepted the terms; but on their return to
Athens, they fell into deep disgrace on account of their compliance.
Hdt. V.73.
Clearly Athens’ policy here is an acutely pragmatic one. With the Spartan danger in mind
they hesitate not to contact the greatest Empire in their vicinity. To seek aid far beyond
her usual comfort zone within Greece itself is something which presented Athens with
difficulties she had not thought of beforehand – because the ambassadors were unsure
whether they should accept the terms posed by Artaphernes and what exactly they
entailed. For the Persians, these unknown people represented a new sphere of influence
to be added to their growing realm, and were only too happy to see the Athenians
subject themselves to them.
The earth and water-terms the anxious envoys complied to would have farreaching consequences, namely when Athens later decided to support the Ionian Revolt,
which for the Persians indicated a direct ‘breach of contract’. The discrepancy between
the ambassadors not realising the full impact of the terms, while Athens herself did seem
to since she chastised the envoys, needs some looking into. Mathieu de Bakker has
offered that it is possible that Athens at a later stage, in trying to cover up her poor
vision in this episode, simply pretended that the fault lay entirely with the ambassadors,
and that this is the version of events Herodotus came into contact with. Thus the
disgrace of the envoys upon their return to Athens could be something that was later
added to the story to restore some credit to the city. It is also possible a
misunderstanding in the status of the envoys led to this sequence of events. Envoys were
given an autocrator status by the assembly, enabling them to make decisions
independently – something the great distances required to make diplomatic conduct
possible. However, some decisions would have called for further discussion back at the
polis, and it is possible the ambassadors were not convinced this was such a matter,
while Athens was. In any case, in Herodotus’ version of events the envoys here have a
direct and ultimately negative impact on the interstate relations between Athens and
Thus Athens finds itself in a rather unwanted direct connection with the Persian
Empire. Artaphernes, in this first contact, unambiguously underestimates the Athenians,
allowing the fact that they knew who he is, while they were utterly unknown to him, to
lead him to assume Athens was simply another weak state to exploit. Not long after,
Hippias, a Pisistratid exiled when overthrown by Cleisthenes, defected to Asia after being
recalled from his exile by the Spartans, and there tried to confirm the governor’s
preconceptions. It was common practice for Greek exiles to join their polis’ direct
enemy;20 while in this case Persia was not Athens’ enemy yet, Hippias was determined to
make it so, moving ‘heaven and earth to set Artaphernes against the Athenians, and [he]
did all that lay in his power to bring Athens into subjection to himself and Darius.’
(V.96). Importantly, Hippias does not directly influence Darius himself yet, at this point.
One might marvel at the speed of reaction when the same passage describes how Athens
immediately sends envoys to Sardis, trying to convince the Persians not to listen to
Hippias. Herodotus accredits Hippias with convincing Artaphernes to such a point that he
told the Athenian envoy ‘that if they wished to remain safe, they must receive back
Hippias.’ The envoys - not in such a hurry to comply this time – do not consent to this;
Herodotus concludes that with this decision Athens now chose the path of open enmity
with the Persian Empire.
In deciding to play the game rather than accepting back their former tyrant
Athens’ ideological position is instantly sketched vividly. It was firmly on the democratic
path by now; tyrannies were ‘out’ and the Athenians would under no conditions turn back
time on their polis. It seems that after a pragmatic detour to request Persia’s aid against
Sparta the priorities had shifted. When Aristagoras the Milesian, after failing to attract
the king of Sparta’s support for the Ionian Revolt, appealed to the Athenians, he found
fertile soil in which to sow the seeds of anti-Persian propaganda. Herodotus proclaims it
‘seems indeed to be easier to deceive a multitude than one man,’ and thus, with the
sending of twenty ships to Ionia it was ‘the beginning of mischief both to the Greeks and
to the barbarians.’ (V.97). The crucial points here, stated in the same passage, are the
factors that won over Athens: firstly, they were already on the wrong foot with Persia;
secondly, Miletus, Aristagoras’ city, was an Athenian colony; and thirdly, the Persians
were depicted as wealthy, but weak and easy to conquer. Another element which
connects well to the ideological path Athens was now trudging down is that in freeing the
Ionian cities from Persian domination, the existing tyrannies would be abolished in the
process.21 If they were interfering, they might as well do it properly.
That Athens was serious became apparent to Darius soon enough, when not long
after the Athenian ships joined with an Ionian force, he was handed a greeting card in
the shape of Sardis burning. Along with it went a temple of its native goddess Cybele,
which would later be the reason the Persians set fire to the temples of the Greeks
(V.102) – the motive of reciprocity never shy to appear in wartime, as well as featuring
A.R. Burn, Persia and the Greeks. The Defence of the West, c. 546-478 B.C. (London 1970) 351.
Briant, From Cyrus to Alexander, 150-1.
as a general factor during this period.22 According to Herodotus, in what must be literary
freedom, Darius was furious. Up to this point, Artaphernes had not informed Darius of
the Athenians – clearly the average content of envoys was not relayed to the king
himself unless deemed important enough. What is interesting is that Herodotus thus does
not picture Darius having a direct connection to Artaphernes’ threat to the Athenians
regarding their refusal to recall Hippias. Now, the Athenians had personally put
themselves on Darius’ map. He is said to have asked:
“Who the Athenians were?” and, being informed, called for his bow, and placing an
arrow on the string, shot upward into the sky, saying, as he let fly the shaft – “Grant
me, Zeus, to revenge myself on the Athenians!” After this speech, he bade on of his
servants every day, when his dinner was spread, three times repeat these words to
him – “Master, remember the Athenians.”
Hdt. V.105.
From this moment on revenge would come into play; and it was not designed to be
merciful. That a small state such as Athens dared leave a thorn in Darius’ royal side
speaks for both the Athenians’ self-confidence and guts as well as the Great King’s
arrogance at esteeming his lofty position more or less inviolable.
Darius now had a very viable excuse to send some of his troops on a mission to
the west. That the Persian Empire desired expansion in general, anyway, should not need
further clarification. The goal of beating Greece into submission is further shown in a
passage where Darius sends ‘out heralds in divers directions round about Greece, with
orders to demand everywhere earth and water for the king.’ (VI.48). He is here testing to
what extent he can count on armed resistance and how large a part of Greece he can
scare into immediate subordination. Apart from that it is implied all the Greek cities
would recognize the implications of giving earth and water, it also refutes any other
statements that the Persians’ only target in Greece was Athens. It is simply clever policy
to state sacking Athens as punishment for Sardis as a main goal; if Darius then did not
succeed in advancing further into Greece, he could conveniently say he had already
fulfilled his direct objective. However, one must also take into account the fact that
Persia did not manage to sack Athens nullified Darius’ ulterior motives. Later on in his
account Herodotus mentions the treatment the Athenians gave Darius’ heralds: they
were thrown into the pit of punishment. This was, quite frankly, openly flinging dirt in the
king’s face. (VII.133).
P. Low, Interstate Relations in Classical Greece (Cambridge 2007) 253.
The battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. saw the army of Athens clash directly with a Persian
force led by Datis and Artaphernes. In the years following Persia’s defeat, Darius died; he
was succeeded by Xerxes, who had yet to prove himself. He took it upon him to continue
his father’s imperial venture; what better way to consolidate his power than to reaffirm
command and his dominion over people on his way to Greece? His responsibilities were
clear to him and he immediately prepared an army – the only reason it took so many
years to set off is because those forces were expanded in the intervening Egyptian
campaign. He was determined to surpass his father and punish not just Athens but
conquer Greece.23
The role envoys have in illustrating the Persian King’s superior position, which was
mentioned earlier, again becomes evident when it is narrated how Xerxes sent off
heralds into Greece to all cities except Athens and Sparta – because of their utterly
honourless treatment of his heralds, who should have been inviolable. These states had
already refused his father when he had sent heralds around Greece years before, but
according to Herodotus Xerxes thought ‘they would now be too frightened to venture to
say him nay.’ (VII.32). The envoys here directly convey the Great King’s intimidation.
This could be interpreted as bold confidence, but could also be presented as such while in
fact being the opposite. For Xerxes’ prestige it was paramount his venture into Greece be
a successful one, and in this way he might be checking whether he could attract more
allies than he currently had, to enhance his chance of succeeding. It is most likely to
have been calculated, rather than bold, confidence, then.
After Xerxes had received his answers and had given his army the signal to sally
forth to Greece, all was quiet on the envoy front for quite some time, at least regarding
diplomatic traffic between Athens and Persia. Xerxes’ trek through Northern Greece,
preceded by spies and fifth-column agents,24 and the battles of Artemisium and
Thermopylae seem to have left room for nothing but brutal combat and surreptitious
spying.25 Negotiations must have been unnecessary since each party’s goals were quite
clear. Even so, a different element had affected Athens’ policy before Xerxes actually
reached Greece. The Athenians, anxious for advice from the gods on how to repel the
invaders, sent messengers to Delphi to consult the pythia, who initially told them to ‘fly,
fly to the ends of creation’. Crucially, the messengers realised they could not come home
with advice like that, and asked for a more comforting answer. The prophecy they
received now told them that ‘safe shall the wooden wall continue for thee and thy
children,’ which led to the construction of their fleet. (VII.140-143), for which the
Briant, From Cyrus to Alexander, 525-526.
P. Green, The Greco-Persian Wars (London 1996) 86.
After Thermopylae the land army of the Medes, as Herodotus frequently refers to the Persians, settle the
score by plundering and burning an already evacuated Athens. Xerxes, now master of Athens, lets Artabanus at
Susa know of his successful retribution by sending messengers. (Hdt. VIII.54).
discovery of the silver mines at Laurium came in handy. Thus both the envoys, in their
determination; the oracle; as well as the economic situation, had an impact on Athens’
strategy versus the Persians.
Even after Thermopylae and Artemisium, the expedition was far from over,
though. With the Greek fleet parked at Salamis, the situation appeared dire enough for
Themistocles, an Athenian and first commander of the Greek fleet in all but name,26 to
resort to more conniving methods of interstate contact. As the Greeks were quarrelling
amongst themselves about the location of the next battle – Salamis or the Isthmus –
Themistocles feared internal discord would obliterate any chance they might have. Also,
because of the outcome of Thermopylae, Sparta’s isolationism was likely to run riot; and
where she went, the Peloponnesian bloc would follow suit, meaning a huge decrease in
forces. Thus Themistocles seems to have quite early on become determined Salamis
should be the last stand.27 He sent his trusted household slave, Sicinnus, to the Persian
army in secret, conveying that Themistocles was actually a well-wisher to the king and
was set on betraying his fellows. He told the Persians that the Greeks were considering a
hasty flight and informing them of the potential death-trap Salamis could be for the
Greeks if the Persians blocked off the exits. (VIII.75, 80).
Regarding the nature of this envoy; it was a personal envoy only Themistocles
was privy to, not the rest of the Greeks, according to Herodotus. Sicinnus seems to have
been more of a delivery boy, handing over a carefully fabricated letter or message, and
probably receiving no personal audience by the king but rather the attention of some
officer. He may not even have left his boat, which was obviously safer, as well, as ‘his
message [was] delivered… [he] lost no time in getting away.’ But why should Xerxes
believe this alluring proposal? Probably because it was precisely that. The Great King had
been delayed and frustrated time and again and on top of that now saw unrest brewing
in Ionia as well; he must have been impatient for this venture into Greece to come to a
conclusion. Moreover, in Northern Greece many people had defected to the Persians and
betrayed their own cities; this episode fitted the pattern well. But Themistocles was
playing with fire – well, water, in this case – as his plan’s success depended on whether
the Persians would enter the narrow straits at Salamis and divide his forces, which would
be very fortunate for the Greeks. This, however, he did not relay in his message since
obviously such precise instructions would arouse suspicion. As for the historical
dimension, it seems logical enough the division within the allies was real indeed, but that
does not exclude careful planning by the commanders and Themistocles 28 – whether it
was solely his plan and execution cannot be traced, though. Either way, a council of war
Green, The Greco-Persian Wars, 110-111.
Green, The Greco-Persian Wars, 159.
Ibid., 177-178.
on this matter would have been strictly private, since the Greek camp cannot not have
been permeated with spies.29
Athens, with Themistocles rushing ahead, is here following a distinct development
in its practice of interstate relations with Persia as shown in the Histories. She now seems
happy to meet Persia head-on in psychological warfare and play it dirty. Where at their
first contact the Athenians had humbly requested the magnificent Great King’s aid,
necessity had now led them to toughen up. Themistocles, in deciding to try and force a
battle, shows tremendous foresight and strategy, as well as acumen in realising the only
road to victory against such a formidable foe lies beyond mere battle itself, and into the
realm of audacious manipulation.
This was a road the Athenians would continue down upon, it soon became
apparent. Themistocles, however, after the victory at Salamis, initially got carried away
and spoke in favour of pursuit and of breaking up the Hellespont bridge. Luckily he came
round after Eurybiades, the Spartan commander, argued that if the Hellespont were cut
off and the Persians trapped, they would be pushed to renew the fight with more vigour
than before – with a possibly disastrous outcome for the overambitious Greeks. Burn
puts it strikingly, that ‘it was in the regular Spartan tradition, not to pursue a retreating
foe à outrance, but to “thank God they were rid of a knave.”’ 30 Thus here Themistocles
became convinced the Greeks should be under no illusions regarding the danger they
were in; they should rather be safe than sorry. He thus sent another personal envoy to
the Persians. Herodotus has it that he sent Sicinnus, again, with a similarly odd message.
He conveys to the Persians that Themistocles has managed to restrain the Greeks from
pursuing Xerxes or destroying the Hellespont bridge, and urges them they can now
return home at their leisure. (VIII.109-110). Thus, besides presenting Eurybiades’ insight
as his own, he here pretends to ‘allow’ the Persians to go home, while in reality hoping
they will do just that.
It would appear highly unlikely that Xerxes would believe this same Sicinnus after
the stunt he had pulled at Salamis. That would imply the Persians falling for a second
trap, by the same people, in merely two weeks. They may have been ‘barbarians’, but
they cannot have been that blockheaded. What is more, it seems logical that Xerxes
would have wanted to hurry, anyway. He was leaving Mardonius to cover his retreat and
finish the affair and would have wanted to safely cross the Hellespont as soon as
possible.31 It therefore cannot be ruled out that this passage was invented later by
Themistocles to raise his prestige.
Burn, Persia and the Greeks, 441.
Ibid., 468.
Green, The Greco-Persian Wars, 207.
Meanwhile, with the main army of the barbarians on the retreat, mainland Greece
seemed to become a safer place. However, Greek islands in the East Aegean such as
Chios were worried the Persians would wreak havoc on them during their return journey.
Upon asking the mainland Greeks for aid the Chians could not persuade them to go
further east than Delos, since ‘all beyond that seemed to the Greeks full of danger; the
places were quite unknown to them, and to their fancy swarmed with Persian troops (…)
Terror guarded the mid region.’ (VIII.132). This illustrates another general element of
Athenian or even Greek policy in general, stemming from a long tradition of fighting their
neighbouring states and not venturing too far out of established comfort zones. Distance
was often crucial in determining foreign policy. For Athens, the whole conflict with the
Persians was already a far cry from their usual local meddling within Attica itself, and
here it clearly shows they would feel uncomfortable fighting in unknown lands. Sparta felt
the same way. From this it can be deducted how individualistic Greek policy in general
must have been; once the Persians were tangibly within a threatening distance of their
own poleis, the Greeks would put up a fierce fight, but once the threat moved on to
Greek cities beyond their direct reach, obviously the personal threat for them was over
and they suddenly became a lot more careful and hesitant. Evidently the differing
locations within Greece of Athens and Sparta constituted a difference in the direct
necessity of resistance and can help explain Athens’ careful and highly determined stance
during the war, since Athens was up on the chopping block relatively early on and for a
long time altogether. Sparta, with its more southern position, faced no immediate danger
to her own polis quite as soon as Athens, and could thus adopt a divergent position,
which will be explored in more detail later.
However, mainland Greece was not out of danger just yet. Xerxes had needed a
force to stay in Greece to cover his retreat, as stated above, and Mardonius was more
than happy to fulfill that role. Herodotus argues Mardonius’ personal reasons for wanting
to continue the war were that he was the one who had pushed Xerxes to undertake this
war in the first place, but since it had now ended not quite as expected, he was afraid it
would cost him dearly. Thus staying in Greece and continuing the war could, if brought to
a successful end, redeem him – and otherwise at least lead him to an honourable death.
(VIII.100). But how could he overthrow the alliance of Greeks? In 479 Mardonius
received a letter from Xerxes (VIII.140), telling him to restore her territory to Athens and
let her choose lands. The purpose of this, as he understood it, was to divide the Greeks
as much as possible; and especially to sow discord between Athens and Sparta and thus
prevent proper military cooperation between them. This implies that the Persians must
have thought there were pro-Persian elements present within the Athenians, as before,
which would make it more plausible that they would actually change sides.32 Mardonius
felt that
…if he could form an alliance with them [the Athenians], he would easily get the
mastery of the sea (as indeed he would have done, beyond a doubt), while by land he
believed that he was already greatly superior; and so he thought by this alliance to
make sure of overcoming the Greeks.
Hdt. VIII.136.
To achieve this goal Mardonius sent an envoy to Athens: Alexander, son of king Amyntas
of Macedon. He was connected to the Persians by family ties and to the Athenians ‘both
by services which he had rendered, and by formal compact of friendship…’ (VIII.136).
This is the first time the importance of an envoy being connected to both parties is
brought up, which may well be particular to these sorts of situations, where one party
was trying to court the other. What better way to earn their trust than to send an envoy
the Athenians themselves had a bond of friendship with? Of course, however nicely
Alexander coats it, Athens refuses this tantalizing offer, stating they are aware the
‘power of the Mede is many times greater than our own’ but that they are determined to
cling to their freedom and offer what resistance they may. (VIII.143). But Mardonius
does not want to take no for an answer, and, in what seems to be growing despair and
insecurity over the prevailing odds, decides to send a second diplomatic effort. This time,
the envoy stands closer yet to the mainland Greeks: Murychides, a Hellespontine Greek,
is dispatched to Salamis. The Athenians, having fully made up their mind, do not wish to
receive the envoy at all – which is a grave breach of the honour present within interstate
relations – and even stone to death one of the councilors, Lycidas, who argued
Murychides should at least be given an audience. It is possible Mardonius had already
anticipated the Athenians would not want to listen to the envoy, and thus bribed Lycidas
to speak in favour of admitting Murychides to an audience; to no avail, because
Murychides was sent away without one. (IX.4-5). This effort by Mardonius cannot,
however, simply be taken to represent him as being uncertain of his odds of securing
victory. In realizing the tensions within the Greek party, a second attempt could well
have had the intention of putting additional pressure on these already strained relations,
and maybe lead to Athens defecting. Sadly for Mardonius, he judged them wrongly.
All in all, Athens’ conduct of diplomacy had come a long way from where it started,
humbly requesting aid from the Great King’s governor at Sardis. Upon obstinately
refusing to be toyed with when deciding not to recall Hippias – an ideological notion - and
Briant, From Cyrus to Alexander, 531-532.
thus risk the wrath of the barbarians, necessity transformed the lamb into a wolf. The
Athenians first showed their teeth at Marathon in 490 and proved to the Persians their
bite was worse than their bark – a trend that was to be continued in their diplomacy.
Athens had showed Persia they would not be talked down on by their envoys, and the
direct threat – naturally – made for highly pragmatic, bold strategies of diplomacy,
personified by Themistocles’ schemes. The game was to be played roughly. Meanwhile
Persia, while starting off with a lofty feeling of superiority, and not letting her defeat at
Marathon get her down, had at least learned a small lesson in humility. Xerxes, after his
beard was singed, left Mardonius with commands to, astonishingly, divide the Greeks in
order to win the day, rather than more honourably defeating their full force. It seems the
Persians were learning to be more pragmatic in order to win this war, too. The image of a
great ruler, sitting on a golden throne on top of a cliff face, however impressive, could
not automatically guarantee success.
Sparta’s relations with Persia
But what of Sparta’s interstate relations with Persia? Sparta’s ‘introduction’ occurs a good
deal sooner than that of Athens – a contrast with the otherwise far fewer passages
describing direct diplomatic relations between Persia and Sparta than Persia and Athens.
This can be explained by the fact that Persia’s direct objective was sacking Athens as
retribution for their burning of Sardis, and more generally standing up to the king whilst
they had given him earth and water. Thus Persia had immediate business with Athens
and less so with Sparta, who was involved in the defence of Greece in general, but stood
out from the rest of the Greeks by earning a special place on the Great King’s revenge
list for throwing Darius’ heralds into the well. Already in book 1 the initial contact
between Sparta and the Persian Empire occurs. It is preceded by a passage regarding
contacts between Croesus of Lydia and Sparta, which is interesting to touch upon with
regard to the subsequent events. At a point in time before Lydia had been conquered by
Cyrus, Croesus sent heralds to Sparta to form an alliance. The messengers received strict
orders on what they should say, directly conveying Croesus’ words to the Spartans:
“O Lacedaemonians, the god has bidden me to make the Greek my friend; I therefore
apply to you, in conformity with the oracle, knowing that you hold the first rank in
Greece, and desire to become your friend and ally in all true faith and honesty.” (…)
The Lacedaemonians, who were aware beforehand of the reply given him by the
oracle, were full of joy at the coming of the messengers, and at once took the oaths of
friendship and alliance (…).
Hdt. I.69.
Herodotus states that the Spartans accepted readily for two reasons: firstly, the Spartans
had ‘previously contracted certain obligations towards him [Croesus]’ – namely the
following. Upon going to Sardis to purchase gold for a statue of Apollo, Croesus had just
given them the gold. Secondly, they accepted because ‘Croesus had chosen them for his
friends in preference to all the other Greeks.’ Sparta even sent a present to Croesus after
conducting this alliance, but through some unclear misfortune it never arrived. (I.69-70).
Also, not unimportantly, they had heard of the Delphic Oracle’s famous prediction to
Croesus, telling him that by attacking the Persians he would destroy a mighty empire.
(I.53). From this fragment it would appear that grounds for accepting alliances are
reciprocity and honour, preferably honour being done to you (in this case Croesus
properly courts the Spartans. At this moment Persia is not a big threat yet, and obviously
the Spartans have no idea Lydia will soon fall to the Persians’ might, but in fact have
reasons to believe the opposite will happen thanks to the oracle’s prophecy.
Sadly for Croesus, ambiguity appeared a deceitful mistress; his own empire was
destroyed by Cyrus. Taking an oracle the wrong way could thus have devastating
consequences. The Ionians and Aeolians, fearing they were next on Cyrus’ imperial
shopping list as they were refused an alliance with the Persians, sent ambassadors to
Sparta, which indeed has quite a reputation even across the Aegean, to request their
competent aid. After a long discourse Sparta refused to send help, but dispatched a
penteconter nonetheless, with the purpose, Herodotus thinks, of watching Cyrus and
Ionia. At the ship’s arrival at Phocaea, the most distinguished of their number, Lacrines,
was sent to Sardis to prohibit Cyrus, in the name of the Lacedaemonians, from ‘offering
molestation to any city of Greece, since they would not allow it.’ (I.152). In what forms
quite a contrast from Athens’ modest initial contact with Persia, as described earlier,
Sparta instantly appears fiery and temperamental; the Lacedaemonians, the strongest in
all of Greece, with a military name to hold high, warn Cyrus not to get any ideas. Humble
Athens could not at this point boast any such status of military hegemony; Sparta could,
and she had to live up to it. Such a bold attitude can have different origins: it could imply
the Spartans were on their guard and were curious to see how the situation would
develop. In this case they would not be as certain of themselves as they projected, but
were hoping to deter Cyrus from wanting to continue his winning streak in mainland
Greece’s direction. However, it could also be a proud confidence, thinking that simply
stating such a warning would put Persia off. As Peter Green puts it: ‘Isolationism, then as
now, formed an excellent breeding ground for megalomania.’ 33 This isolationism would be
a recurrent theme for Sparta during the war to come and will become more apparent
later. Of course, what also might have played a part is that Croesus, with whom the
Green, The Greco-Persian Wars, 11. This isolationism refers to Sparta’s tendency retreat into her shell like a
turtle, while focusing on the ‘entertainment’ provided by neighbouring states only. This will become more
apparent at a later stage, when war with Persia had fully broken loose.
Spartans had concluded an oath of friendship and alliance, had been violently trampled
on. This could help explain their instantly aggressive stance towards Persia, as well as
why the Spartans were reluctant to help the Ionians and Aeolians – if Croesus could not
defeat Cyrus, it appears he was a more formidable enemy than they had reckoned with.
Cyrus, however, was not impressed. His first reaction, rather than cowering in
fear at the mere mention of the formidable Spartans, was to ask ‘Who these
Lacedaemonians were, and what was their number, that they dared to send him such a
notice?’ (I.153). Here as ever, when the person one is trying to threaten has to ask who
you are, it tends to nullify the effect of the threat. One might wonder if the Spartans’
taunting him might have made him curious to see it for himself. But, it is also possible
this passage is nothing more than an a-historical, literary invention to introduce the
antithesis of proud Sparta and arrogant Persia.34 As if his questioning response was not
humiliating enough, Cyrus went further yet, illustrating that very arrogance:
“I have never yet been afraid of any men, who have a set place in the middle of their
city, where they come together to cheat each other and forswear themselves. If I live,
the Spartans shall have troubles enough of their own to talk of, without concerning
themselves about the Ionians.” Cyrus intended these words as a reproach against all
the Greeks, because of their having market-places where they buy and sell, which is a
custom unknown to the Persians, who never make purchases in open marts, and
indeed have not in their whole country a single market-place.
Hdt. I.153.
This statement refers to the deep socio-economic cleavage between Greece and Persia,
embodied by feudal Persia versus Greece with her agoras and independent city-states.35
Whether or not Cyrus actually said it, Herodotus neatly describes the essential point: the
economic basis of the ‘temperamental incompatibility’ between the Persian and the Greek
social system. The Persian society was, in the social sphere, aristocratic, in the political
sphere feudal, and had an economy based on a food-producing peasantry, whereas the
Greeks were wholly dependent on trade for their character.36 This complicated matters
seeing as it is always more difficult to conduct level interstate relations with a society far
removed from one’s own.
However menacingly Cyrus appeared, Sparta would not be so easily deterred from
her preferred course. Though Aristagoras the Milesian managed to convince the
Athenians to help his cause, Sparta, always busy enough with her direct neighbours
anyway, would not be deceived. The crucial obstacle was a rock large enough to detract
This is a possibility kindly pointed out to me by my dear fellow-student Mounir Lahcen.
Green, The Greco-Persian Wars, 11.
Burn, Persia and the Greeks, 44.
from the flattering courting done by Aristagoras; ‘O Spartans, beyond the rest of the
Greeks, inasmuch as the pre-eminence over all Greece appertains to you.’ (V.49). Not
even the description of how easy these Persians were to vanquish could be of any aid
once it became clear to Cleomenes that the Great King’s residence was a three-month
journey away. Besides that, since Cleomenes showed a certain degree of surprise on
hearing this, this implies the Spartans had no true notion of how large the Persian Empire
really was, it shows that distance prevails here as being crucial in determining policy.
Sparta here shows herself to be pragmatic and clinging to their traditions; the Greek
colonies under threat are not directly theirs, there was as of yet no threat to mainland
Greece and thus to themselves, and close to the home-front states such as Argus were
causing enough trouble already. Sparta’s attitude here forms an interesting contrast to
her earlier showing off of her military confidence to Cyrus. Thus, where Athens was more
easily drawn into the war because of rapidly deteriorating relations with Persia, due to
her role in the Ionic Revolt and the burning of Sardis, Sparta could adopt a more
independent and proud posture, seeing as the Persians as of yet did not have to
remember any Spartans like they had to ‘remember the Athenians.’
However, the threat emitted by the barbarian horde would not stay across the
Aegean forever. First off, as described above, Darius sent heralds around Greece to
request earth and water. Even though heralds are only messengers and hold a
sacrosanct status, Sparta was intent to make a point, and, in showing they would bow to
no one, threw the messengers into a well, bidding them ‘to take therefrom earth and
water for themselves, and carry it to their king.’ (VII.133). They had now personally
made themselves a direct enemy of Persia, casting Sparta in a similar boat as Athens.
When Darius then sent a force intent on disciplining Athens, Sparta, immersed in a
religious festival, saw herself forced to delay sending reinforcements to Marathon in
Attica. The result was that the troops did not arrive until a few days after the battle’s
conclusion in Athens’ favour. It must be stated that such religious festivals were to be
taken very seriously and the Spartan’s devoutness should not be thoughtlessly
questioned. But the timing can easily conjure up the image of an individualistic Sparta,
rather than portraying Greece’s first and foremost protector as her military hegemon.
That would be too black-and-white a distinction. What is rarely touched upon is the
influence of Sparta’s decision to send forces, even if they would not set off until after the
conclusion of the festival. This added time pressure and forced the Persians and their
friends to rush ahead, and thus probably exerted an important influence on the Marathon
campaign.37 The fact that Sparta openly defied the Persian King’s imperialistic advances
also speaks in her favour. However, an episode that would gnaw away at the stability of
Sparta’s bold claim to prevent molestation to any Greek city occured when Xerxes took
Ibid., 253.
over the kingship after his father’s death, in the interwar period. As has been discussed
above, Xerxes sent ambassadors around Greece to request earth and water, even though
they had refused his father. (VII.32). Problematically for Sparta, who had already
retreated to a more passive stance in the meantime since her initial audacious threat, the
Greek cities she had proclaimed to protect did not all refuse the Great King’s offer.
Herodotus states that ‘among the number of those from whom earth and water were
brought, were the Thessalians, Dolopians, Enianians, Perrhaebians, Locrians, Magnetians,
Malians, Achaeans of Phthiotis, Thebans, and Boeotians generally, except those of
Plataea and Thespiae.’ (VII.132). These people were thus indeed scared into submission,
just as Xerxes had hoped, shattering the image of a united Greece standing against the
Persian invaders and not conveying a whole lot of confidence in Sparta’s alleged power to
stand up to them. These cities either did not want or did not trust Sparta’s protection –
at least not enough.
In the meantime, the Spartans had stumbled upon a long spell of bad tokens
emerging from their sacrifices, and reckoned they were being punished for their misdeed
versus Darius’ heralds. They thus decided to try and wipe the slate clean by sending two
Spartan heralds in Xerxes’ direction, to atone for the death of his. It is also possible
Sparta was trying to erase herself from Xerxes’ revenge list before the war would erupt
in full force. Herodotus names the heralds’ exceptional courage in offering themselves,
and narrates how at Susa Hydarnes, a Persian commander, tempts the Spartans to
submit themselves to the king. In this fragment he juxtaposes the glorious freedom of
the Spartans and the slavery of any who submit to be friends to the king, which those
who have tasted liberty could never willingly choose. (VII.135). This is, of course, a
faintly disguised recurrent theme in Herodotus’ work. The heralds were soon brought
before Xerxes:
Then Xerxes answered with true greatness of soul “that he would not act like the
Lacedaemonians, who, by killing the heralds, had broken the laws which all men hold
in common. As he had blamed such conduct in them, he would never be guilty of it
himself. And besides, he did not wish, by putting the two men to death, to free the
Lacedaemonians from the stain of their former outrage.”
Hdt. VII.136.
Clearly, Xerxes is content to have the Spartans as enemies and treats them as such, not
wishing to contribute to any amelioration of their current status quo. Also, he shows
himself the better man, rising above the Spartan’s petty, almost childish law-breaking act
towards his father’s heralds. The kind of honour Xerxes portrays here exemplifies that
the principle of ‘an eye for an eye’ is too simplistic, and that common law should first and
foremost be adhered to. This is depicted as the correct embodiment of honour, unlike
what the Spartans showed. Sparta’s rash and unthinking emotional reaction all those
years ago should and would have consequences. The Great King had now chosen his
enemies and instantly showed he would not shrink from waging psychological warfare.
When, while the Spartan heralds were on their way to Susa, Greek spies were caught at
the army’s camp at Sardis, Xerxes sent them home rather than executing them,
reckoning the moral effect of them conveying a full report on his army would be in his
Once the Persian army was advancing further south, it was decided the pass of
Thermopylae had to be held. Since Sparta was again caught up in a religious festival they
did not send their full force right away; the contingent they did send was an advance
guard intended to prevent the hesitant states of central Greece from medising. This force
was supposed to hold Thermopylae until the main Peloponnesian army arrived to
reinforce them.39 Xerxes, throwing his weight around to once again try and intimidate his
foes, sent heralds to try and bribe the Greeks into surrendering by promising them
preferential treatment: ‘King Xerxes orders all to give up their arms, to depart unharmed
to their native lands, and to be allies of the Persians; and to all Greeks who do this he
will give more and better lands than they now possess.’ This promise of sweets made
quite a few Greeks’ mouths water and caused a split among the allies, but Leonidas’
resolve won the day,40 and the Spartan contingent thus fulfilled precisely that function for
which they had been chosen. Despite courageous fighting, after Ephialtes’ betrayal of the
mountain path things went downhill fast for the allies. Leonidas sent messengers south to
bid the promised reinforcements to hurry, but none arrived. For this, the Spartan
government cannot escape blame; their leisurely attitude and error of judgment resulted
in the advance guard being completely overrun. Sparta had never expected the fighting
at Thermopylae to come to a conclusion so soon. The polis’ religious excuse, though
certainly valid, might also have been employed to delay doing something they were
never very enthusiastic about; true to their hesitation regarding fighting at a great
distance from their home, the Spartans had never liked the northern strategy to begin
with. Perhaps they reckoned they could ‘hedgehog their way out of it’, with their own
forces defending Sparta.41 However, it is also possible the Spartans really had resolved to
send the rest of the army, but since Thermopylae fell faster than expected, there was
hardly a point in sending reinforcements to troops already perished. In this case it is easy
to accuse them of never wanting to send troops in the first place 42 – which is perhaps
Ibid., 322.
Green, The Greco-Persian Wars, 111.
Ibid., 126-127.
Burn, Persia and the Greeks, 406.
Green, The Greco-Persian Wars, 112.
The next episode of direct diplomatic contact between Sparta and Persia occurs
after the Spartans receive a message from the Delphic oracle, telling them to seek
satisfaction at Xerxes’ hands for the death of Leonidas and to take whatever he chose to
give them. They send a herald to the Persian camp to convey this prophecy, to which
Xerxes replies by pointing to Mardonius and saying that he will give them the satisfaction
they deserve. (VIII.114). This prophecy reeks of post-eventum construction,43 but at
least makes for an entertaining passage to read. Either way, Persia, even after the defeat
at Salamis, still presents itself quite arrogantly. The Persians’ own arrogance does not
prevent them from playing on that of others, though. In the build-up towards the final
battle at Plataea, when the allied forces are lined up opposite the Persian army, the
Spartans switch position with the Athenians in order to end up against foes they have
fought before (in this case, Sparta versus the Boeotians and Athens versus the Persian
contingent). When Mardonius perceives this obviously less fortunate change of
circumstances, he sends a herald to the Spartans to dare them, calling them cowards for
not having the guts to fight the Persian part of the forces. (IX.48). Mardonius is here
playing upon Sparta’s military ego, which first emerged all those years ago during the
very first contact between Sparta and the Persians. The usually fiery Spartans did not
even bother to reply, refusing to be provoked.
Interestingly, this more ‘mature’ attitude is also personified by the Spartan
commander Pausanias a little later on. As the last stand of the barbarians crumbled at
Plataea, Mardonius fell and his body was retrieved by the allies. Lampon, a for the rest
insignificant Spartan, argues Mardonius’ body should be beheaded and crucified, since
that was what the Persians did to Leonidas’ body at Thermopylae, but Pausanias warns
him that ‘such doings befit barbarians rather than Greeks; and even in barbarians we
detest them.’ (IX.79). He is basically stating they should not lower themselves to the
Persians’ level – a nice reversal from Xerxes’ statement upon receiving the two Spartan
heralds earlier. In this instant, Herodotus shows Sparta as having the correct sense of
honour. Perhaps this episode is a direct wink by him to his former passage.
Sparta started off on an entirely different note than the Athenians in their relations with
Persia: having a reputation to defend, they took on a bold attitude and tried to intimidate
Cyrus. However, with the commencement of Darius’ Greek venture, distance and local
matters began snaring Sparta. Though she resolved to send forces to aid the Athenians
at Marathon and her vanguard courageously stood at Thermopylae when Xerxes brought
his forces to the fields of Greece, in the latter case the main army never arrived in time,
and in the former the entire army did not make it until after the battle had ended.
Thermopylae at once portrays the Spartan’s valour and combativeness as well as their
H.W. Parke, Greek Oracles (London 1967) 105.
reticence in fighting so far from home. This tug-of-war of policy, between on the one
hand defending Greece as its military hegemon against the invading hordes, and on the
other hand her isolationist tendencies, was not so easy to resolve. However, by the last
stretch of the war, Sparta took on a more mature attitude and threw her full force at the
barbarians. Of course, they also had a king to avenge now. Meanwhile, the Persians’ way
of undertaking relations with Sparta maintained a similar tone throughout the Histories;
namely arrogant and condescending. If anything, the surprise at the Spartan strength at
Thermopylae gave the Persians a tool for provoking them, as attempted unsuccessfully
by Mardonius.
Athens and Sparta; the impact of their mutual relations
The diplomatic dimensions need a third side of the triangle in order to not only compare
but also explain the differences in Athens’ and Sparta’s interstate relations with Persia.
To ignore the relations between Athens and Sparta themselves would be to view the
image in two dimensions only. Exploring the third dimension should further crystallize the
characterisation and development of interstate relations between Athens and Persia as
well as Sparta and Persia.
The first instance which springs to mind is Sparta’s interference in Athens’ internal
strife after the bribed Delphic Oracle (by the Alcmaeonids) kept urging them to free
Athens. The consequently ousted Pisistratids ended up in Persia after having been
recalled by Sparta from their exile, poisoning the Great King’s mind against the Greeks
and the Athenians in particular. Thus in this instance Sparta’s relations with Athens
effectively result in more sour relations between Persia and Athens. Note the role of the
oracle in this matter, which here, too, plays a part in influencing interstate relations. Its
good status is illustrated by how readily the Spartans follow such unusual advice.
Through bribing it, with Hippias consequently ending up in Persia, the Alcmaeonids
themselves are also indirectly to blame. However, the negative impact Hippias exerted
on the Persian king may have been the lesser of two evils. It is possible Cleomenes
reckoned that, since Hippias’ diplomatic conduct with Persia at this time was at least
ambiguous, a restored Athenian republic would be more dependable. 44 But Green argues
that such foresight was beyond Cleomenes, Spartan policy being typically deficient of it.
He reasons that Cleomenes wanted the Pisistratids out of the way because a strong
Athens could become a military and commercial threat to the entire Peloponnese, not
because of any purported ideological opposition to tyranny in general, or the revealed
connections between the Pisistratids and Persia.45 Either way, the result is clear.
Burn, Persia and the Greeks, 175.
Green, The Greco-Persian Wars, 16.
Later, when Xerxes had commenced his invasion of Greece, it comes as no
surprise to see tension within the Greek party. They were not used to acting in unison,
but rather to sticking up for themselves. It did not take long for the Spartans’ hard-won
first-rank military position to cause trouble. With the fleet stationed at Artemisium, a
discussion over its leadership broke loose, the allies proclaiming they would never serve
under Athenian command and would accept only Sparta’s leadership. (VIII.2). Athens is
here depicted as the paragon of reason in letting Sparta have the command. Athens,
unlike the allies – and Sparta among them, sees the greater goal:
… for there is nothing they had so much at heart as the salvation of Greece, and they
knew that, if they quarrelled among themselves about the command, Greece would be
brought to ruin. Herein they judged rightly; for internal strife is a thing as much worse
than war carried on by a united people, as war itself is worse than peace. The
Athenians therefore, being so persuaded, did not push their claims, but waived them,
so long as they were in such great need of aid.
Hdt. VIII.4.
Herodotus here depicts Athens as the glue holding the allied forces together – and it
would not be the last time this appeared so.
As mentioned previously, Athens held firm when Mardonius attempted to bribe
them into joining their side by sending Alexander of Macedon as ambassador. But Sparta
was also involved in this episode. At this point she had retreated into her safe shell deep
within the Peloponnesus, seemingly leaving the rest of the Greeks to sort out the
remainder of the war for themselves. The Spartans were constructing a wall across the
Isthmus, but only after that would be complete would their shell truly be safe, in their
perception. That they had but partially withdrawn becomes clear when Athens cleverly
decides to use the leverage kindly provided for by the Persians against them in the
following manner. The Athenians had delayed hearing Alexander, spinning out the
preliminary discussions held behind closed doors that were part of normal diplomatic
procedure,46 realising that they might now frighten Sparta into re-joining the war by
threatening that if the Spartans did not help, they would accept Mardonius’ offer of
allegiance. In delaying the broadcast of Alexander’s message, it seems Athens could
predict Sparta’s moves, who indeed came rushing to their location as soon as possible,
and got there in time to hear Alexander speak. Athens must have realised Sparta also
knew she could not defeat the Persians all by herself – especially without a completed
Isthmus-wall. Here Athens must have felt the true centre of attention; it was she who
pulled the strings, seeing Mardonius compelled to ask her for aid and being able to use
that move to draw the Spartans back into the conflict. Thus Athens even resorts to
Ibid., 222.
blackmail; anything for the greater good, it seems. Athens really did play it seriously,
first with Themistocles’ schemes and now by badgering Sparta. Sparta, however, did not
seem to realise the importance of unity like Athens did, and left her no other option.
Even though at this moment Athens clearly stated she could never be corrupted to such
an extent as to change sides, both Mardonius and Sparta must have considered it a very
real possibility. Sadly, Sparta only promised economic support, and not the massive
military aid Athens really wanted,47 but from now on every time Sparta wavered Athens
would be on her doorstep like a Jehova’s witness, reminding her that she would side with
Persia if Sparta would not cooperate. Thus Mardonius’ plan to divide the Greeks
completely backfired and in fact handed them a uniting tool. The general principle one
would expect to find in diplomatic triangles – relations between two parties having a
direct effect on their relations with the third – is vividly illustrated here.
Later on, however, when Athens came knocking on Sparta’s closed door (they
were once again in the middle of a religious festival – a recurrent theme for them, it
seems), they were not so easy to distress as before. The Athenian envoys, accompanied
by ambassadors from Megara and Plataea, spoke before the Ephors and conveyed their
usual threatening, but the Ephors kept delaying their answer to ‘the next morning’ until
ten days had passed. Herodotus states he thinks Sparta acted so relaxed this time
because now their wall across the Isthmus was completed and imagined they had no
further need of the Athenians. (IX.8). This attitude represents a striking divergence from
the initial name they made for themselves in their first contact with the Persians, before
the war, where they proclaimed they would protect the Greek cities. It seems war had
stifled their boldness and, rather than pulling out all the stops like Athens was doing,
Sparta instead steadily pursued a more isolationist and individualist course. Once again,
this can be explained as confidence or arrogance, but it does seem Sparta eventually saw
the use of uniting with the rest of the Greeks again, despite their Isthmus-wall, so a
certain realism was also to be found.
A rather odd sequence of events follows in which the interstate relations between
the three entities seem to become a tad tangled. Without giving the Athenian
ambassadors an answer or informing them, Sparta sends an army towards the wall,
whereupon once Athens hears of this she now says she will definitely make terms with
Persia. The Argives inform Mardonius of it, who abruptly decides he no longer wants to
remain in Attica and concludes Athens was not seriously considering his offer, since they
had run off to talk to Sparta. He wishes to retreat, but still desires to burn Athens. To try
and clarify this confusing situation: it seems Persia realised Athens was merely using
their offer as leverage; Athens was still hell-bent on not losing Sparta and with her the
whole Peloponnesian bloc; and astonishingly Sparta seemed to have finally come around,
Burn, Persia and the Greeks, 493.
since her troops would go beyond the wall and further north to join with the other allies.
(IX.6-13). There must have been people present at Sparta who were in favour of a landcampaign, anyway. Thus relations between Athens and Sparta highly complicate relations
in all corners of the diplomatic triangle.
As for Sparta’s thick-skulled isolationism that proved a tough nut to crack, Burn
offers an explanation. Sparta was in an acute situation with its neighbours; they had a
major Argive and Arcadian war, as well as a rebellion in Messenia on their hands within
ten years. With Sparta’s limited man-power she rather wished not to commit them to a
severe and bloody campaign and risk being left very vulnerable to these other tensions. 48
Thus the reasons for Sparta’s individualist policy appear highly pragmatic as well as,
however excusable it may have been, selfish. Athens, the focus of Persia’s wrath, was
wholly involved in the matter of defeating the barbarians, seeing as Attica was crawling
with barbarians and her city had been once taken. For the Athenians, the danger was
much more acute and visual than for the Spartans, who, with their polis quite some way
removed from the battle fields further north, could themselves adopt a more removed
position. Their hesitation at committing fully to a threat not directly within their own
neighbourhood might also serve to illustrate the traditionally local nature of politics up
until now; the Persian Wars formed a total divergence from this pattern. Regardless of
the way Athens embodied being the glue holding the allies together, thankfully being
tossed a prime blackmailing tool by the Persians themselves in the form of their
allegiance offer, their vehemence, forming a direct contrast with more individually
oriented Sparta, did get the job done in the end. Sparta could thank the gods for the
Athenians’ resolve.
So it has become apparent that Sparta directly influenced relations between Athens and
Persia, by ousting Hippias from Athens, having an effect before the war had even
commenced. During the war itself, the pressure of imminent danger radiating from the
Persians helped lead to quarrels within the Greek force over command and strategy, with
Athens emerging as adhesive. The most tangible illustration of the flow of relations within
the diplomatic triangle comes when Mardonius, in attempting to coerce Athens to join the
Persians, ends up handing her a blackmailing tool to use on Sparta, eventually re-uniting
the allies. Thus the Persians spelt their own doom.
Ibid., 504.
3. – The role of deserters
Not all aspects of interstate relations between Athens, Persia and Sparta can be
explained and covered by merely investigating policy, in which envoys play an important
role. The influence of a whole variety of deserters or betrayers, skulking from one camp
to the other to spew poison about their former allies, is a very concrete one, capable of
altering relations. The reasons for defection could be a consequence of exile from the
home town, as well as a lack of faith in that their present side would actually win. For
some, being on the winning side must have appealed greatly, for fear of being led like
lambs to the slaughter if one’s countrymen would lose. In this case, the Persian’s
intimidating stance, intended to achieve just that, is seen to bear fruit. The Persian lion
certainly roared menacingly. Since it was general practice for Greek exiles to desert to
their polis’ direct enemy,49 one can imagine the stream of information arriving this way
having an impact on Persian policy. If one is exiled by his own city, he will naturally be
angry with them, possibly even angry enough to want to bring that city to its knees.
Moreover, with an ally as strong as Persia one could hope to be put in charge of one’s
native city once it was conquered; the ultimate sweet revenge. This also stroked quite
well with Persia’s strategy of continuity, wherein she tried to keep local ruling classes in
their place, although in this case it would be people who had previously ruled. The
nuance apparent is that these deserters would already know the ropes, with the
backdrop of possible resentment among the people themselves at such a person being
reinstated. Nevertheless, there is evidence that for some, the idea of Persian rule was
quite a pleasant one, seeing as they had actively supported the tyrants of the Greek
cities on the east coast of Asia Minor.50
Although the underlying reasons for desertion are intriguing, the main focus will
lie on the impact these deserters had on interstate relations. It is not hard to visualise
how harmful they could be, possessing inside information on their former allies and being
more than willing to share it with their new host, as well as agitating against their former
homes and trying to convince their host to attack them, thus coming back with a
vengeance. It will be interesting to discern whether there were any significant differences
in Athenian and Spartan deserters, represented by Hippias and Demaratus respectively.
Ibid., 351.
P. Cartledge, Thermopylae. The Battle that Changed the World. (London 2007) 88.
Hippias’ case has been touched upon briefly already, when it was explained how he was
exiled and deserted to Persia after being recalled by Sparta. There he tried to set the
Persian King against Athens, which, after refusing to receive Hippias back, initiated
hostile relations with Persia. The Pisistratid’s influence does not end here, though. While
Darius ordered Datis and Artaphernes to carry Athens and Eretria away captive, and war
was thus on its way, Hippias - presented by Herodotus as accompanied by more of his
clan - did not slack in verbally burning the Athenians to a cinder:
Meantime the Persian pursued his own design, from day to day exhorted by his
servant to “remember the Athenians”, and likewise urged continually by the
Pisistratidae, who were ever accusing their countrymen. Moreover, it pleased him well
to have a pretext for carrying war into Greece, that so he might reduce all those who
had refused to give him earth and water.
Hdt. VI.94.
Athens was really up against it; first, ideologically refusing to recall a tyrant, and then
having that same tyrant and his clique present as her enemies at the Persians’ camp.
Furthermore, Hippias was the one who recommended Marathon as battlefield to
the Persians, and he seemed to still have friends within Athens itself whom he tried to
incorporate in his schemes. Hippias had undoubtedly convinced Darius that if they
conquered the city, he could install a pro-Persian government there.51 He had even
arranged that his allies within the city would flash a shield to indicate when the Persians
should strike the Athenians. So at Marathon the Persians were waiting for this sign, and
the Athenians were trying to delay attacking until the Spartan forces would arrive,
resulting in a standoff.52 In breaking the deadlock Ionian scouts serving Artaphernes
played a crucial role, since when they noticed that Datis’s task force was absent, they
slipped across to the Athenian camp to inform them that ‘the cavalry are away’. Upon
hearing this Athens saw her chance clear and decided to risk engagement. 53 Only after
the battle was concluded a battle shield was flashed, which Datis took as a signal to
quickly sail to Athens to try and take the city. However, the Greeks ran back to Athens at
the speed of light – or at least, very swiftly indeed – and prevented him from entering.
(VI.116). But who were these allies of Hippias who were so ready to betray Athens?
Herodotus mentions the name-calling would later point to the Alcmaeonids, but that he
does not himself believe it was them. In an almost Socratic dialogue with himself he
comes to the conclusion that a shield was shown, but that it is not certain who did it. (VI.
Briant, From Cyrus to Alexander, 159.
Burn, Persia and the Greeks, 246.
Green, The Greco-Persian Wars, 35.
121-124). For our purpose it is enough to conclude that these sorts of divisions within
the Greek party itself were crucial in the war, with defected knaves such as Hippias
staying in touch with them. Hippias not only lay at the root of the open enmity between
undermining her stability.
Later on, in book 7, Herodotus mentions another instance in which Hippias and his
Pisistratid clique try to underline their arguments in favour of conquering the Greeks, this
time after Marathon. Clearly fearful that the new king, Xerxes, would not deem the
Greeks worthy of his time, they decided to bring bigger guns to convince him. An oraclemonger named Onomacritus of Athens who had been banished and travelled to Susa with
the Pisistratids was to convey oracles prophesying the barbarians’ victory over the
Now, however, he [Onomacritus] went up to Susa with the sons of Pisistratus, and
they talked very grandly of him to the king; while he, for his part, whenever he was in
the king’s company, repeated to him certain of the oracles; and while he took care to
pass over all that spoke of disaster to the barbarians, brought forward the passages
which promised them the greatest success.
Hdt. VII.6.
Coupled with the toxic influence of the Pisistratids - aided by the Aleuadae - who ‘did not
cease to press on him their advice’, this was, according to Herodotus, sufficient to make
the king yield, and he ‘agreed to lead forth an expedition.’ (VII.6). In reality, it seems
unlikely he would be persuaded solely by them. As mentioned previously Xerxes hardly
hesitated to continue his father’s work. The objectives of power, consolidating and
enlarging his empire, and vengeance seem good enough reasons. Also, the fact that the
above cited passage speaks of the oracle prophesying any form of disaster to the
barbarians set off the alarm and would logically be explained as later additions, however
directly influential Herodotus here presents it. Despite the Marathon debacle, It is
doubtful anyone expected Greece to withstand the Persians’ full, undiluted might. To
push this argument further: even though Herodotus presents Hippias as a very real
influence on the king’s decision, this could well be the product of the bad odour he had
brought upon themselves. That Hippias accompanied the Persians to Marathon is a fact.
Hippias - tyrant, traitor and instigator of hostilities between Athens and Persia - would
obviously invoke the Greeks’ deep hatred, which could have led to the invention of
envisioning him and his clique as working ceaselessly to convince the Great King.
Whether the impact was real or not, it certainly makes for good reading.
Demaratus also fulfils a similarly entertaining role, but a rather more odd one than
Hippias’s. Strangely enough - and, one would think, completely incompatible with general
human nature - Cleomenes’ abhorring scheming which forced him to flee across the sea
did not result in Demaratus bad-mouthing the Spartans at Persia, but rather the exact
opposite. Here we have a deposed king who actually spoke positively of his countrymen,
even though he had every reason to behave as nastily as Hippias. Cleomenes and
Demaratus, both king of Sparta at that time, were on bad enough terms for Cleomenes
to bribe the pythia into proclaiming that Demaratus was not Ariston’s son, and thus not
rightfully king. This resulted in Demaratus having to flee from a mob of angry Spartans,
who were sent to pursue him. (VI.65-70). Once again, the Delphic Oracle has a share in
making a Greek defect. Thus Demaratus arrives in Asia and presents himself to Darius,
who, in full recognition of the value of defectors, ‘received him generously, and gave him
both lands and cities.’ (VI.70).
Once there, he could not form a greater contrast with Hippias. Rather than
attempting to wave a red cloth in front of the bull, Demaratus is cast in an advisory role.
For example, when Darius is debating who should succeed him, he offers him the logical
train of thought that Xerxes was his first-born son while he was already king (as opposed
to the eldest son from a marriage, born before Darius ascended the throne), urging that
this custom prevails at Sparta. Darius is quite taken with this counsel and considers it
just enough to follow. (VII.3). Xerxes seems to have realised Demaratus would be a good
counsellor to keep close and questions him on the nature of his adversaries; if they were
likely to put up a fight, stating that his ‘own judgment is, that even if all the Greeks and
all the barbarians of the West were gathered together in one place, they would not be
able to abide my onset, not being really of one mind.’ (VII.101). Demaratus then tells
him of the military prowess and exceptional courage and valour of the Spartans, rising
high above the much weaker other Greek undergrowth, warning him they should not be
underestimated. He here states the reason why he spoke so positively of the Spartans
comes ‘not from any love that I bear them – for none knows better than thou what my
love towards them is likely to be at the present time’ (VI.104). Later, at Thermopylae, a
similar episode is narrated, with Demaratus telling of the Spartans’ bravery. It would
seem Herodotus employs Demaratus as a literary tool, following a tradition of glorifying
the military ethics of the Spartans.54 In the Histories Demaratus therefore seems to
represent a mediating role at least in the way the Persians perceived the Spartans, and
aid in decelerating Xerxes’ hubris in taking his own superiority for granted. Paul
Cartledge, however, has argued that Demaratus can be compared to Cassandra,
Cartledge, Thermopylae, 220.
daughter of Priam, who knew the future but was not believed by anyone.55 Thus, despite
warning Xerxes, the Persians would not have found out the ‘truth’ about the prowess of
the Spartans until they met them on the battlefield. However, it can be argued that,
regardless of whether Xerxes believed Demaratus or not, any such comments about
one’s enemy would make one be more on one’s guard. In any case, the Persians found
out about the Spartans soon enough.
From here on, the way Herodotus characterizes Demaratus becomes more
complicated yet. Despite the fact that he is now a bond-friend of the King of Persia and
has every reason to hate his countrymen, it is possible he wanted to keep a foot in each
camp. Like all Greek exiles he must have hoped to earn a leading position at Sparta once
it was conquered, and perhaps thought he could spare his people the worst possible
outcome.56 First off, Herodotus narrates in the final passage of book 7 how earlier on,
back at Susa, Demaratus had sent news of the king’s plans to Sparta, by scraping all the
wax off a wax tablet, then recording his message on the wood, and pouring fresh wax
over the text. Secondly, prior to the battle of Salamis, Demaratus met with Dicaeus, an
Athenian exile in the Persian army, in the Thriasian plain. Here they began to hear
mysterious voices, which Dicaeus translated into a prophecy foretelling the king’s doom
at Salamis. At once Demaratus insisted they speak to no one about it; ‘the gods will see
to the king’s army.’ (VIII.65). One wonders if this is confidence in the gods and the
workings of fate, or whether Demaratus was simply quite happy to see such a prophecy
fulfilled, the destruction of his own homeland too much to bear. One can imagine the
effect it would have had on policy had Demaratus informed Xerxes of this. Thus, in
hushing this up, he plays a key role. Also, it is reminiscent of the visit of Onomacritus
alongside the Pisistratids to Xerxes, where all passages of the oracle speaking of disaster
to the barbarians are held back. These sorts of prophecies might well have been added
later with the benefit of hindsight, yet they nevertheless contribute to the effect defectors
are seen to have on policy. Anyhow, here we have two clear instances in which
Demaratus either does or witnesses something behind the Great King’s back. His
presence on the Persian side is fact; the precise role he fulfilled there, apart from
informant, remains ambiguous. It is certainly clear, however, that while the Pisistratids
had a largely enticing role, provoking the Persian king and contributing to his decision to
bring war to Greece, Demaratus had a much more informing role, as well as glorifying
Sparta as Herodotus’ literary tool.
Ibid., 220.
Burn, Persia and the Greeks, 394.
Miscellaneous deserters
But how do these above mentioned defectors fit in with the non-specifically Athenian or
Spartan deserters? In investigating the role of Hippias and Demaratus specifically, they
should be compared to other deserters in order to highlight possible differences or
similarities. What quickly becomes obvious is that, when one takes the role of the Hippias
and Demaratus along with the influence of others, betrayal was certainly an often crucial
factor in the Persian Wars. A distinction can be made between the first two highlighting
the pre-war context, while miscellaneous (often more minor people) deserters stirred
things up in the midst of the war itself.
At the account of the naval battle of Artemisium Herodotus drops a clue regarding
just how common deserters were, when he speaks of how ‘in this battle only one of the
Greeks who fought on the side of the king deserted and joined his countrymen. This was
Antidorus of Lemnos, whom the Athenians rewarded for his desertion by the present of a
piece of land in Salamis.’ (VIII.11). Also, as mentioned previously, Ionian scouts were
crucial in 490 at Marathon. However, evidently not all deserters played an extraordinarily
crucial role. The fact that lots of Greeks seemingly eloped back to their countrymen does
nonetheless indicate how volatile the army of the Great King must have been, with
countless divisions from many different regions ranging from the middle east to northern
Greece. This must have, to some extent, gone up for the Greek army as well; a
hotchpotch to begin with. Apart from Hippias and Demaratus, there are no ‘important’
accounts of Greeks on the allied side joining the Persians. That is, not counting Ephialtes,
who was an inhabitant of the immediate surroundings of Thermopylae rather than part of
the Greek allies. The gravity of his betrayal of the mountain path to Xerxes accredits it a
further look, though. (Apparently the makers of the film ‘300’ considered it such a horrid
offense they portrayed him as completely deformed). There is nevertheless nothing
shockingly coincidental about this episode. Upon arrival at the pass, Persian intelligence
must have instantly begun trying to snare natives by offering them rewards in exchange
for vital information. The existence of the mountain pass may have become known to
Xerxes nearly as easily as it did to Leonidas.57 The fact remains that because of this
betrayal, the main army, which was intended to back up the present force at
Thermopylae, never arrived before it was too late; and so, the consequences were huge.
It seems logical that the luring and trapping of deserters in times of war was highly
commonplace; episodes like Thermopylae merely underline the advantages it could bring.
Luckily for the Greeks, the gravitational pull of home led a few Greeks in the Persian
army to escape and warn Leonidas of the path debacle.
Yet, in the whole Histories only one Persian is seen to desert. This man, Scyllias,
defected to the Greeks while the Persians were busy readying their fleet for Artemisium,
Ibid., 413.
having already formulated their plan of sending a contingent of ships to make the circuit
of Euboea, blocking up the only way by which the Greeks could retreat. Herodotus
marvels much at the commonly told tale of how Scyllias dived into the sea at Aphetae
and did not come up for air until Artemisium, and reckons he actually did it by boat.
However, such a distance was swimmable, though unless he miraculously grew gills he
would have had to come up for air plenty of times. Once he arrived, by whatever means,
the significant point is that Scyllias gave the Greeks a full account of the damage done by
the violent storm, as well as telling them of the Persians’ plan to send ships around the
island and enclose the Greeks. (VIII.8). One wonders what reasons a Persian serving
directly under the King had to defect, not belonging to any of the other states that
together made up the simmering stew that was the Persian army, which boiled over often
enough with regard to non-Persians deserting. Though it was an unusual occurrence, it
was certainly very helpful information Scyllias transmitted.
Another such a weighty betrayal is found in the closing scenes of the war, with
Mardonius having failed to lure the Athenians over to his side. The envoy he had used to
hand them the bait at that time was a man specifically chosen for his ties both to the
Persian camp and the Greek camp, in order to boost trust. Sadly for Mardonius, it was
precisely this double connection that would lead Alexander of Macedon to entertain a
double allegiance. Before the onset of the final battle, approaching Plataea, both camps
became toys of the gods, as the omens needed for good battle failed to come. In an
ironic coincidence both the Greeks and the Persians were told they would win if they
stayed on the defensive. After a while, once the Persians had decided they would attack
the next morning, Alexander snuck out of the Persian camp under the cover of darkness,
and, once at the Greek camp, wished to speak to the generals. Herodotus states that as
he is a Greek by descent he roots for them in this war; such ties are obviously stronger
than the familiar bonds that connected him to the Persians, and cause him to inform the
Greeks that Mardonius intends to attack the following morning. (IX.44-45). This is,
however, no general defection: Alexander’s betrayal remains a secret to the Persians,
since he manages to return to their camp unnoticed, before dawn. It thus seems
Alexander was trying to have his cake and eat it, probably anticipating a Greek victory,
but not being sure enough to commit openly to their cause just yet. Yet, on another note,
Green suggests he could have been acting as a Persian ‘agent provocateur’, since he
insisted the Greeks should stick to the Asopus ridge even if Mardonius moved. This would
have spelt disaster, seeing as Mardonius was planning to cut off their retreat from that
ridge and trap them there. But even if Alexander was firmly on the Persian side, the fact
that the Greeks now appeared ready for battle in the morning led the whole Persian
battle plan to be scrapped and renewed, meaning he most likely still contributed to the
ultimately Greek triumph.58 Defection, be it fake or not, tended to make war volatile and
To sum it up, during the war itself the Persians thus formed a strong, stable core, which
is mirrored by Athens and Sparta, though at differing moments: Sparta mostly around
Thermopylae, with Athens coming to the fore as strong cohesive from then on. Where
Hippias and Demaratus were most prominently influential in fanning the flame and
providing information, both before and during the war, the other various defectors had a
much more direct role within the war itself and thus form a contrast with them.
Deserters, betrayers, and defectors; these men had a poisoning effect on the interstate
relations between Athens, Sparta and the Persian Empire and had a visible impact on the
war itself – be it as the whisper in the King’s ear in Hippias’ and Demaratus’ case, or as
instantly viable information.
Green, The Greco-Persian Wars, 259-260.
In the end, which sorts of elements influenced the development of the interstate relations
between the three powers the most? For one, location comes to the fore as an
explanation why Athens, who initially negotiated modestly with the Persians, grew ever
rougher and more pragmatic as the war progressed. Contrary to the general trend,
ideological considerations overtook pragmatic needs at one crucial point, when Athens
refused to take back Hippias, thus choosing to become enemies of Persia. With her
bearing the brunt of the King’s anger, with burning Athens being the direct objective,
Attica came to be under increasing pressure throughout the Persian Wars. Sparta forms
an instant contrast. With its reputation of military hegemon of Greece to defend, she
started out barking loudly, but in the war itself she was ever torn between valour and
individualistic roads. What is interesting to establish, is that Sparta, unlike Athens,
seemed less moved by the immediate threat emanating from the Persians bringing war
upon Greece. This is in part explainable by her more southern position and the fact that
she did not have to fight in her own homelands, as well as Athens’ position as the
Persians’ prime target. However, the longer term expectancies of trouble with her direct
neighbours Sparta reacted to showed that not all Greek states around this time were
characterized by policy dominated by immediate needs. Sparta’s isolationism affected
Athens’ position in the war as well as her diplomatic attitude: it must have made the
situation look all the more dire to the Athenians, who accordingly progressed upon their
path of resorting to whatever was necessary to win. With Greece being made up of
independent city-states, Athens could not make decisions by herself regarding the entire
allied side; thus, methods such as Themistocles’s came to the fore. Near the end, Sparta
must have finally realised that if they did not aid the other Greeks in ousting the
barbarians, there would be no long-term policy at all, returning her to the reality of
instant danger. Any possible pride in reckoning the Spartans could sort it themselves
from behind their Isthmus wall had to be let go of.
From this, it appears that contrasting lines of development are to be found. Where
Athens started off with due modesty, her stubbornness of refusing Hippias, as well as her
role in the Ionic Revolt, made her the focus of the Great King’s anger, forcing her to
develop and toughen up exponentially during the course of the war. Diplomacy became a
means to an end, all honourable conduct left aside as Athens deceived and blackmailed
to achieve the desired outcome, reacting to immediate circumstances. She would not
even hear Mardonius’ second envoy, Murychides, sent to convince her. Sparta, on the
other hand, initially came across as proud and confident, but, while she did contribute
greatly to the allied forces, could not commit fully, with local, longer-term troubles
occupying her mind as well. Their comparatively small own military force would be not be
ready for these dangers if decimated by the Persians. Luckily at the end Sparta matured
and saw reason. This growth of Athens depicted against a declining Sparta could also be
partly due to a literary motif, as it totally fitted the time in which Herodotus was writing,
with Athens building up a repressive empire.59
throughout most of the Histories, only changing its arrogance and hubris near the end to
a more realistic approach. In her nearly desperate attempt to divide the Greeks, she
handed Athens the tools to drag Sparta back into the game and thus directly influenced
the relations between those two. Immediate needs here overtook the Persians’ general
agenda and taught them a lesson in humility. Persia’s relations with Sparta remained
more or less steady, with the Great King arrogantly and condescendingly playing upon
their military ego, as well as letting fighting replace most of the talking. It is a pity there
is no Persian source on these wars, as from Herodotus we know so much more about
Athens and Sparta than Persia. The explanation, then, for Persia’s principally haughty
attitude, cannot easily outgrow the general facts: Persian rule spanned huge distances
and they had booked great success in enlarging and enriching their empire. The Greeks
merely enlightened them that conquering Greece was going one step too far, and that
Greece constituted that one small corner of the map the Persians could and would not
To zoom in one some of the workings; envoys themselves, for example, not only
had the responsibility of conveying and realising their state’s intended policy, but were
also personally important through their autocrator status. The decision of the Athenian
envoys to make a second enquiry at the Delphic Oracle before Xerxes arrived, rather
than bring home a discouraging message, gave the Athenians the impetus to build their
fleet. In delicate matters the Persians chose to employ messengers with ties to both
themselves and the Greeks, hoping they would appear more reliable – but, to no avail.
Deserters, conveying crucial information as well as, in Hippias’ case, poisoning relations
between Persia and Athens, should not be forgotten. The Athenian and Spartan poleis’
internal troubles – in Athens springing from the strife between the Pisistratids and
Alcmaeonids; in Sparta between her dual kings – came to bite her in the back. Neither
must one forget the role Sparta played in ousting Hippias and thus indirectly affecting
relations between Athens and Persia. Demaratus, though serving to glorify Sparta’s
strength, proved a great source of information to the Great King, according to Herodotus.
The oracles and omens – the religious side of things – were ever-present and everimportant; the Histories formed no exception and at many times this element proved to
be of weight.
This possible explanation has been pointed out to me by my dear fellow-student Mounir Lahcen.
Through factors like location, urgency of immediate threat, pragmatism, ideology
and realism, interstate relations between Athens, Persia and Sparta tensed and came to
a crescendo with Mardonius’ sending of Alexander of Macedon to convince the Athenians
to join their side. This is when influences, and tools such as blackmail and bluff, were
moving in all directions of the diplomatic triangle, and, thankfully for the Greeks,
eventually led to Athens and Sparta standing determinedly side by side on the fields of
Plataea, where they defeated the barbarians.
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(London 1996).
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Bakker, M.P. de, Speech and authority in Herodotus’ Histories. (Amsterdam 2007).
Bowden, H., Classical Athens and the Delphic oracle. Divination and Democracy.
(Cambridge 2005).
Briant, P., transl. by P. T. Daniels, From Cyrus to Alexander. A History of the Persian
Empire (United States of America 2002).
Burn, A.R., Persia and the Greeks. The Defence of the West, c. 546-478 B.C. (London
Cartledge, P., Thermopylae. The Battle that Changed the World. (London 2007).
Green, P., The Greco-Persian Wars (London 1996).
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