Texts in Context:
The Triumph of Hellas

By Gabriel Blanchard

The preposterous victory of the Greeks over the Persians is, in a sense, the beginning of a self-consciously Western civilization.

To see our post about the beginning of the Græco-Persian War, go here.

The Three Battles

After Darius I’s disastrous defeat at Marathon, there were three more major confrontations between the Persians and the forces of the Hellenes. But, before any of them, Greece had a respite: a rebellion in Egypt forced Darius to turn his attention elsewhere; then, in 486 BC, he died. His son Xerxes took the throne,* and in 480 he resumed the invasion that his father had been compelled to interrupt. Of the many battles the Persians fought on Greek soil, there are three that are especially worthy of note.

The first is the famous Battle of Thermopylæ. Around the end of August, the invading force of the Achæmenids was moving south into the Greek peninsula, but, thanks to the irregularly-placed mountains that cover the countryside, they were squeezed into a minuscule pass that the Greeks could hold almost indefinitely. For two days, the Persians could make no headway. Then a local, Ephialtes by name,** tipped the Persians off that there was another pass which circumvented the choke point, and would in fact let them trap the Greeks between the hammer and the anvil. However, King Leonidas I—the half-brother and successor of Cleomenes I, the Agiad King of Sparta who had liberated Athens from Hippias—realized what was happening, and promptly dismissed all but a skeletal force, under his command, to cover the Greek retreat. Besides the three hundred Spartans, seven hundred soldiers from the nearby city of Thespiæ were present. According to Herodotus, these thousand soldiers were killed, to a man, some of them continuing to fight with their hands and teeth after their swords had broken; casualties on the Achæmenid Persian side were about twenty thousand.

Thermopylæ, then, was a defeat—albeit one of the most impressive defeats ever fought. The Persians moved further south, overrunning Boeotia and Attica. The Hellene navy, under the command of the Athenian admiral Themistocles, now had its turn. The Persian fleet had been supplying the massive invading force. The Greek navy had confronted the Achæmenid at a place called Artemision, about simultaneously with Thermopylæ; they had then retreated to a gulf of the Ægean southwest of Attica, and ensconced themselves between the mainland and the isle of Salamis.

One of the seven surviving plays of Æschylus, The Persians, commemorates the Battle of Salamis. Xerxes had a throne erected for himself on an Attic mountain that oversaw the gulf, then known as the Painted Peak. This, ironically, made him the only person with a complete knowledge of the battle—other accounts, made by witnesses at sea level, are confused and contradictory. Yet whatever the exact details, what Xerxes beheld over the course of a single day was the ruinous defeat of the sacred might of Persia. His fleet of more than twelve hundred ships lost to a Greek force of less than four hundred. Before the day had quite ended, some of the Phoenicians in Xerxes’ navy tried to accuse the Ionians of cowardice; Xerxes, who had seen everything from his mountain throne, had these Phoenicians executed in a fury for slandering their betters.

We did not flinch, but gave our lives to save Greece when her fate hung on a razor's edge.

The third of these key battles was the Battle of Platæa, fought the following year (479 BC). After Salamis, Xerxes withdrew, leaving the invasion under the command of Mardonius, a relative of his by marriage. Like the unlikely victory at Marathon, at which little Platæa sent aid to Athens, now at Platæa the Athenians were able to repay their old allies. The Persians were routed, and Mardonius himself was killed. Formal peace terms between Hellas and the King of Kings would not be signed for another thirty years, but after Platæa, all serious effort on the Achæmenids’ part to conquer Greece was over.

The Three Writers

These are the events that shaped three of the names on our Author Bank: two have been mentioned in the description of the war, namely Æschylus (a veteran of Marathon, Salamis, and Platæa) and Herodotus, while the third, Sophocles, was chosen in his teens to lead a sacred hymn of thanksgiving to the gods for the victory at Salamis.

The bulk of the Histories—or, to give Historiai (Ἱστορίαι) a more modern rendering, “Inquiries”—deals with the Græco-Persian War itself. A native of Halicarnassus, a city in the south of Ionia subject to the Persians, Herodotus was an admirer of Athenian culture, and emigrated to Athens in the early 440s, living there as a metic† during its illustrious Periclean period. Aspasia, Pericles’ mistress, is thought by some scholars to have run an intellectual salon which Herodotus frequented for a time; within a few years, though, he had left, settling in the Athenian colony of Thurii in southern Italy, where he is also supposed to have made contact with the young Thucydides.

Æschylus and Sophocles themselves, on the other hand, were Athenians by birth. The former was one of the most important figures in the entire history of drama (as we have touched on elsewhere). Plays were typically written in sets of four, three tragedies and a satyr play.‡ Æschylus stands out as the only ancient tragedian who habitually composed his sets of three tragedies as trilogies. Just seven of his plays survive: the aforementioned play The Persians (the only known ancient tragedy about a real historical event); The Danaids; Prometheus Bound; The Seven Against Thebes; and the Oresteia trilogy, consisting in Agamemnon, The Suppliants, and The Mercies—which was an ancient euphemism for the Furies.

Sophocles also has seven extant plays to his name. They are: Oedipus the King, the most famous (singled out by Aristotle as the archetypally best tragedy); Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus, part of the same mythic cycle, dating to the beginning and end of Sophocles’ career; Ajax; Philoctetes; The Trachinian Women; and Electra. With this last, we come to a unique point of comparison among the three great tragedians of Athens, for we have said nothing of—but first we must catch up a little further with history.

*This Xerxes may be the same person as the “Ahasuerus” of the Book of Esther, and indeed, some modern versions simply use “Xerxes” as their translation; however, the identity remains debated.
**There is no basis for the fanciful detail in the film 300 that Ephialtes was a deformed Spartan child. However, his name did become the basis of the Greek word for “nightmare.”
†I.e., resident alien (as discussed in this post).
Satyr plays were a specialized type of comedy, one of whose salient conventions was that the chorus was always composed of satyrs. Though unrelated in the modern sense of the term, satyr plays are the origin of the word satire.

Gabriel Blanchard is CLT’s editor at large. He lives in Baltimore, MD.

If you enjoyed this piece, be sure to check out our podcast, Anchored, hosted by CLT founder Jeremy Tate.

Published on 24th June, 2024. Page image of the Parthenon, the temple to Athena on the Acropolis of Athens.

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