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ancient and modern authors wrote their perspectives on the Persian Wars, democracy in Athens, and the establishment of the Athenian Empire. The ancient authors such as Herodotus, Aristotle, and Plutarch gave modern writers, including Buckley and Robinson, an epic story about the defeat of the marauding Persian Empire and the ascendancy of democracy in Athens. But, the history of this struggle cannot be completed because an important perspective is missing and despite ancient Greek efforts, we cannot truly know the Persian side of the conflict with only Greek sources. Therefore, the understanding of the Persian Wars, with its inherently biased name, was more limited than our understanding of the rise of Athens. In regard to the rise of Athenian democracy, recent historians have not resisted the allure of comparing modern to ancient Greek democracy. Some modern authors have implied Athenian democracy more closely resembled modern democracies than the tyrannies and oligarchies of past, despite previous beliefs that presented Sparta as the system most closely resembling modern democracy. Terry Buckley wrote an interesting and understandable account of the Persian Wars and the rise of Athens. For the Persian Wars, he used Herodotus as his main primary source. He verified much of what Herodotus stated about the Persians with a small segment of Darius’ account from 522 BCE, but Buckley warned against trusting Herodotus’ writings on strategy and the upper echelons of power because of the demise of high-level officers and leaders by the time Herodotus commenced his work. Buckley
also commented that Thucydides contributed little to the history of the Persian Wars, except with his defense of Themistocles. He also noted that the only surviving eyewitness account from Salamis was by Aeschylus in his play, Persai. Although Buckley wrote virtually nothing from Persian sources, he at least acknowledged that Persian sources once existed from the court doctor of Artaxerxes, Ctesias. Buckley wisely casted doubt on Diodorus, about whom claimed to have used Persian sources because some stories are too fantastic to be believed. Buckley discredited other ancient sources, too, but even with these sources, there was no significant surviving Persian account of the war available.1 As a result, these absences forced Buckley to speculate and use Herodotus for the motives and actions of the Persians. Buckley, despite the lack of Persian sources, did a remarkable job placing information in narrative form from the Persian perspective. Buckley’s analysis showed that the Persians were brilliant logisticians and that Herodotus’ opinion of Xerxes as being impulsive was incorrect. Buckley was rightfully skeptical of the number of ships and soldiers under Persian control as claimed by Herodotus, but succeeded in showing how Xerxes intended to use the size of his military to intimidate the weaker Greek citystates into becoming his vassals. Also, he questioned Herodotus’ numbers for the Greek fleet. He discounted Herodotus’ number of 378 triremes given the size of the fleet at Artemisium and Aeschylus’ account of only 310 triremes at Salamis. As a result, Buckley’s analysis gave the reader a better understanding of the battle. Despite Buckley’s attempt to write about the Persians from their perspective, any modern writer could only get so far given the limitations and biases of the Greek sources.2 Furthermore, the story
Terry Buckley, Aspects of Greek History 750-323 BC, (New York: Routledge, 1996), 161-162. Buckley, Aspects of Greek History, 162-166.
appealed more from the Greek standpoint given that such a few number of Europeans defeated the largest military in the world. As a result, Buckley wrote most of the analysis from the Greek perspective because it was their strategy that ultimately defeated a military that must have thought itself invincible. Buckley also analyzed the strategies of the opposing sides, which he claimed that Herodotus did not sufficiently understand. Buckley questioned the traditional motives of the Peloponnesians before Thermopylae and brought new evidence into light that contradicted Herodotus. He also refuted some of what the Athenians stated, such as the accusations of cowardice on the parts of the Corinthians. Buckley also aptly summarized the Greek victories at Salamis, Plataea, and Mycale, then discussed the formation of the Delian League along with its structure and financial system. He illustrated the transition of the Delian League effectively by showing how Athens gained more power over the league. Along with how even after the Peace of Callias, Athens maintained a tight grip over the “allies.” Buckley showed the nuances of the opinions about strategy of the various Greek city-states and how these nuances eventually transformed into great rifts that tore the Greeks apart. 3 Despite the otherwise informative summary, we only get a tiny glimpse of Ctesias’ work which was declared unreliable and therefore we cannot know much from the Persian perspective. Eric Robinson quoted Herodotus, Euripides, Thucydides, and others to frame an intellectual discussion on freedom and democracy in ancient Greece so that we may better understand what some of the ancients Greeks thought of democracy. Robinson used a fictitious account by Herodotus of Persian nobles discussing the best political system to illustrate three distinct government types in an effective manner. Robinson
Buckley, Aspects of Greek History, 168-211.
also used sources about Greeks speaking of their values such as Euripides who stressed equality of free men before the law and the reasons against tyranny in his Suppliant Women. Robinson also used Thucydides’ copy of Pericles “Funeral Oration” to show the emotional attachment that the Athenians possessed towards Democracy.4 Robinson cleverly compiled these sources to show the ideas and feelings that ancient Greeks, particularly Athenians, had toward democracy and the extent they were willing to protect it. Robinson defended ancient democracy from the echoes of criticism from the distant past by using ancient sources that spoke well of the democratic system. Robinson included a modern commentary about democratic ideals of ancient Athens in comparison to modern ideas about democracy by Martin Ostwald. The commentary by Ostwald in “Shares and Rights: ‘Citizenship’ Greek Style and American Style,” followed ideas from too many different people and time periods. He included ideas of citizenship from the United States with various documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of Man from France. Perhaps the essay could have been more effective if Ostwald chose a particular time and country in modern history to compare with the ancient Greeks, although he admitted that the comparison was difficult given changing ideas about citizenship in the United States. Ostwald contrasted American individualism and Athenian communalism as social values in citizenship. 5 All that was necessary would have been to explain the status of Athenian citizens, rights, and governments and allowed for the reader to decide how ancient Greek and modern democracy would compare or select a period from American history to compare with the ideas of ancient Athens.
Eric Robinson, Ancient Greek Democracy, (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007), 152-159. Robinson, Ancient Greek Democracy, 159-167.
Hansen wrote “The Ancient Athenian and Modern Liberal View of Liberty as a Democratic Ideal,” in which he attempted to link ancient ideas of liberty with modern views of it in a thought-provoking manner by listing the meanings of liberty in ancient Greece. He allowed for slightly differing opinions about these concepts in the ancient world and allowed the reader to make his or her own comparison by explaining only the Greek concepts of democracy, liberty, and equality. Although Hansen claimed that equality in a democratic sense, isonomia, was not as commonly used, he strongly supported his claim that the concepts of freedom in modern liberal democracies were very similar to the ancient Athenian view. Hansen implied that the Athenians, although different from American democracy, were more similar to modern systems than the other systems of the day. As a result, he moved away from Benjamin Constants’ respect of the Spartan system and moved closer to George Grote’s respect for the Athenian ideals. 6 The Hansen piece was much more successful in conveying ideas than Ostwald because Hansen remained much more focused, although his idea that Athenian ideals did not directly impact modern democracy sounded impractical. Herodotus wrote much of what we know about the Persians, but even with much of his effort, many of his statements about the Persians must be questioned. Remarkably, Herodotus actually attempted to gain some insight on the perspective of Xerxes and his closest followers, such as Artabanas. Herodotus directly quoted Xerxes in lengthy sentences, particularly when he told Artabanas why the Hellenes must be conquered. This quotation, however, must be questioned for its authenticity because it seems unlikely that anybody would write such a statement down. It seems unlikely that Herodotus somehow obtained either a written copy of the speech by Xerxes or somehow met
Robinson, Ancient Greek Democracy, 171-179.
someone present at the time who recalled the event flawlessly. Furthermore, the veracity of some statements is doubtful. Once such segment was when a storm washed away the Persian bridge of ships crossing into Europe which caused Xerxes to order the sea be subjected to three hundred lashes of a whip. Although the Persians were not known as a seafaring people, this event seems unlikely. 7 Herodotus wrote in great detail, but we cannot truly know how much he wrote actually happened and it surprises me that he wrote so much on the Persians in his histories. Plutarch accounted the lives of Cimon and Themistocles, both of whom were active participants in Greek politics. The nature of these biographies prevented Plutarch from writing about the Persians and that Plutarch tried to use these Greeks as heroes, so it would have been more difficult to make a hero out of any of the Persians. Plutarch proclaimed that both Cimon and Themistocles had won great victories, giving them great honor. Although accusations of treason ended Themistocles’ career in Athens, Plutarch allowed the hero of Salamis to defend his reputation. He left some ambiguity toward the end of Themistocles’ career in Athens and used Thucydides as a source to say that he may have gone to Xerxes’ son for refuge. One story of Themistocles was implausible because Plutarch wrote that a snake bit him and then transformed into an eagle to fly away. Plutarch interestingly not only portrayed Cimon as warrior, but also a peacemaker, who brokered peace between Athens and Sparta.8 Plutarch wrote of Cimon and Themistocles as having been men of great character and courage, but much of the information about them in Persian territory is ambiguous.
Herodotus, Histories (trans. By G. Macaulay), VII 7, 11-16, 34. Plutarch, Cimon, (trans. By John Dryden) http://classics.mit.edu/Plutarch/cimon.html. Plutarch, Themistocles, (trans. By John Dryden) http://classics.mit.edu/Plutarch/themisto.html.
Aristotle’s The Athenian Constitution showed how and why Athenian democracy evolved. He wrote about how important characters such as Ephialtes and Themistocles took power away from the Areopagus, allowing for the radicalization of Athenian politics. He also showed how Pericles, to weaken Cimon, established a pay system for service to the Athenian Empire for its citizens. Aristotle established how there were generally two leaders opposing each other, of which one would usually seek the help of the poorer people and the other would use his fellow wealthy citizens as allies.9 Aristotle’s work showed that comparing periods of Athenian democracy to modern politics is problematic, because the ancient system was in constant flux. Our ancient sources of the Persian Wars and the transition to democracy in Athens tended to rely solely on Greek authors who usually were residents of Athens. We cannot truly understand the perspectives of Xerxes and his subjects because their works are mostly lost. Many modern historians, such as Ostwald and Hansen compared Athenian ideas of democracy and government to modern ideas as being more important than the ideas of other Greek city-states. The attempts to compare ancient and modern democracy produced some good points, but ultimately the essays did not and could not fully compare the ideas about the system given how people have constantly changed over the centuries. The modern authors who made comparisons could not truly place themselves in the mindset of an ancient Greek and a modern democrat. The ancient Greek historians, though they tried, never truly understood the Persians and left modern historians to guess on many things about them and the period they live in.
Aristotle, The Constitution of Athens, (translated by J. Moore) (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1983), 168-172.
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