Saturday, January 08, 2011

Persia, Greece & the Delian League

Greek Trip, Day 11, Tuesday 28 September 2010, Delos

This post continues the story of Delos from my last post, Introducing Delos.

Words are fractious things. They carry changing meanings that are often unseen. Take, as an example, the changing use of the words "near east", "middle east" and "far east".

All three are geographic descriptors, defining territory in terms of relative location to Europe. This type of geographically bound thinking is quite common, but it can also mislead. The current use of the term "middle east", for example, is quite new.

I mention this because understanding the next part of the story of Delos requires a shift in thought. Put aside, for a moment, all current geographic descriptors. Think, instead, of a stretch of territory from Egypt in the west to the Indus Valley in the east. This is imperial territory, home to empire after empire in unending succession over millennia. Boundaries and capital cities may have varied, but the boundaries of those empires always fluctuated between the Mediterranean to the Indus.

When I first studied ancient history, I could never understand why the short lived history of Alexander the Great and his empire should have had such a long influence. Geographic myopia, I fear. I thought of Alexander in Greek or European terms, moving from Macedonia into new and apparently unknown territory. In fact, he was asserting personal control over a vast territory already linked together in different ways by history.   

T he great river valleys were central to those various empires . They provided the irrigation based agricultural wealth, the peasant populations, that helped support the rulers, the aristocracy, the priests, the bureaucrats, the military.

The problem with empires is that, once built, they have to be maintained. All empires struggle with the dual problem of protecting their borders, while maintaining internal security in the face of sometimes fractious and often ethnically different subject peoples. All empires have also struggled over time with questions of succession of power.     

In 552 BC, the biggest powers in the geographic area that we are talking about were the Lydians in the west, the much bigger Median Empire in the east. The Lydians survive today in the phrase as rich as Croesus, a term derived from the fabled wealth of the last Lydian king.   

In 553 BC, the Persian prince Cyrus led a rebellion against the last Median king Astyages. While Persian, Cyrus was a grandson of Astyages and was supported by part of the Median aristocracy.  By 550 BC Cyrus had emerged victorious; the Persian or Achaemenid Empire replaced the Median kingdom. 800px-Persian_Empire,_490_BC

As you can see from the  map, this was a seriously big Empire. You can also see how it covers the territory I have just been talking about.

To the Persians, the Greeks were something of a problem, a problem that would lead to major war.

In an earlier post, I spoke of the Dorians and Ionians as two of the major Greek tribes.

King Croesus had incorporated the Ionian cities of Asia Minor into Lydia. Sensing an opportunity in the troubles created by Cyrus's rebellion, Croesus invaded Media. The famous story goes that before doing so, he sought the advice of the oracle at Delphi on what is now the Greek mainland on the likelihood of success. The response was that if he did, a great empire would be destroyed. It was. Croesus lost, and Lydia was incorporated into the Persian Empire!

During the fighting, Cyrus asked the Ionian cities to join him. They refused. When, following his victory, they offered to submit on the same terms and conditions as had governed their relationships with Croesus, Cyrus refused. The Ionian cities were then forcibly incorporated into Persia. However, this left Cyrus with a problem. How should those cities be governed?

As I indicated earlier, these type of problems are common to all empires. The empire cannot survive for long if all authority has to be enforced by purely military means. A way has to be found of governing that extends beyond the purely military.

Lacking local elites or power structures, the Persians chose to install tyrants.

The idea of tyrants, local rulers wielding single power, had been popular among Greek city states as a way of overcoming the division created by factional fights within small communities. However, that idea had now been superceded by newer forms of governance. The tyrants appointed were unpopular. Worse, they drew Persia into the complicated world of Greek city states politics.

In 499 BC, Ionian city states revolted, a rebellion supported by city states outside Ionia. It took the Persians six years to crush the rebellion. Persian Emperor Darius decided to get rid of those pesky Greeks once and for all. The result  was warfare on a mass scale.

The following map shows the war theatre.  


      The war began with Persian successes. In 492, Darius's son-in-law invaded, forcing Thrace back into the empire, while making Macedon a client kingdom. 

The following year, Darius sent ambassadors to the Greek cities demanding submission. Many cities complied, but both Athens and Sparta responded by murdering the envoys. In 490, the Persians sent a major amphibious force to invade. The Athenians managed to defeat this at the battle of Marathon.

Darius was now determined to mount a full scale invasion. Preparations began, but were delayed by a major rebellion against Persian rule in Egypt. Darius died and was succeeded by his son Xerxes. Having crushed the Egyptian revolt, Xerxes prepared a huge military force.

The size of the Persian forces has been subject to debate. The suggestion in Herodotus of an army of 2.5 million seems to have been rejected by modern scholars. Even so, the consensus estimate of a force of 200,000 men drawn from across the Empire, a naval force of more than 1,000 ships, is a major invasion.

Planning appears to have been meticulous, with Persian engineers building a pontoon bride across the Hellespont to allow the huge force easier access. In 481, the army finally crossed into what is now Greece. In the end, and despite military successes on land, the Persians lost the war because they could not control the sea. As it had been before and would be later, naval power was critical.

In the last stages of the Greek city state forces turned to the offensive. This included the capture of the city that would become Byzantium, later Constantinople and now Istanbul.

Sparta now wished to withdraw from the war. The loose alliance of city states which had fought against the Persians had been dominated by Sparta and the Peloponnesian league. Now leadership shifted to Athens, the dominant naval power.

In 477 BC, a congress was called on Delos to institute a new alliance to continue the fight against the Persians. According to Thucydides, the official aim of the Delian League was to "avenge the wrongs they suffered by ravaging the territory of the king". This goal was divided into three main efforts; to prepare for future invasion; to seek revenge against Persia; and to organize a means of dividing spoils of war. Members could either offer armed forces or pay a tax to the joint treasury on Delos, with most opting for a tax.


  A new building program began on Delos. This photo shows the remains of the treasury.

We now enter a new phase in the turbulent world of Greek politics, for Athen's power and political ruthlessness turned the Delian League into an Athenian Empire. In turn, this lead to the Peloponnesian War.   

In symbolic terms, the transfer of the treasury from Delos to Athens in 454 BC marks the final transition point.

What had begun as a cooperative league among a reported 173 city states, was now subject to the needs of Athens and empire. Delos was now, once again, just a religious centre.        


Anonymous said...


I never understood why the Greeks were a)part of the empire and/or b) considered as a problem - given that the geography suggests this is the only part of the Persian empire separated by sea.

Why did the Persians bother? The Greeks seem like the snake you wished you hadn't picked up by the neck - what do you then do with it?

ps used to think penicillin was the most significant advance of the 20th century. Am now leaning more towards the hyperlink.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi KVD. I should have spelled out the geography a little more.

If you look at the map of Persian territory in the war zone, you will see Ionia is part of what is now Turkey. Lydia was a Greek controlled state, hence C's desire to consult the Dephic oracle. The problem is that the Athens and the Ionians had previously established colonies all along the coast of Asia Minor. Cyrus had to deal with them.

His mistake lay in his desire to punish them for not supporting him. Had he accepted their submission and continued previous arrangements, then the Persians would have had time to deal with them piece by piece later.

The whole thing is one of those world history turning moments.

Anonymous said...

Ah! All those Ionian Revolt red stars scattered down the coast of Asia Minor. The map is too small for tired eyes, but I now see why the Persians had to deal with them.

And you are right - Cyrus should have accepted short term agreement, for later "amendment", one by one.

Fascinating stuff Jim. Thanks!


Jim Belshaw said...

Next step on the war front, KVD, is Athens vs Sparta in more detail. But that will have to wait until we get to Athens. Many more nights (and knights!) to go.

Once i have finished the whole saga, it is taking me much longer to do this than the trip itself, I will do a consolidation post so that any who are interested can start at the beginning and then follow through the complete meander!

Anonymous said...

Actually, I'd like to retract that comment. It may be that Cyrus needed to give his armies something to do, to possibly give them a target, to divert them from other things happening in his large and loose empire? Who knows? But that's why it's fascinating.


Anonymous said...


Off topic I suppose, but I did seriously think about nominating your journey for the Best Blog Awards. But it needed some sort of consolidation, as you cross-posted just now.

Personally, I have taken great pleasure, and not a little knowledge, from your journey.


Jim Belshaw said...

It is, KVD!

Anonymous said...

"It is"

Trying to find the reference, because it would give me great pleasure to support that. I'll keep looking.

Very well done!


Jim Belshaw said...

Our comments cross each other, KVD.

I have mixed feelings on the best blog stuff. Four years ago one of my posts was nominated. I felt quite chuffed because some one else had nominated me. I actually hadn't heard the process until I received an email.

The following year I was concerned that the field they were drawing from was too narrow, so consciously nominated posts that I was sure the normal nominating audience would not see. Two were selected.

In 2009 it all happened very late. They needed nominations, so I ended up putting forward a couple of my own posts but without success.

They obviously had a very poor field overall.The number of posts finally published was very small. I then made a number of suggestions as to what I thought might be done. These centred on promotion much further in advance using a much wider variety of promotion mechanisms. I would have been happy myself to participate.

In 2010 I heard nothing until very late in the piece when they did just what had been done in 2009.

On 17 December Ken Parish on Club Troppo said that it was all on and called for nominations. On-line opinion would run the best 40 over January. They didn't get 40 suitable in 2009, nor will they this year. As of today, they have run just one, that by LE.

The Australian blogosphere is very fragmented.

The majority of Australian independent bloggers do not read Club Troppo nor, for that matter, on-line opinion. I am not being critical when I say that; both have far greater audiences than I do. Further, most independent active bloggers are not going to take the time to go back through all their posts on the off-chance that they might be selected.

I follow more than 100 Australian blogs. I have seen some very good material and have referred to it from time to time. Indeed, I try to promote it. Further, because my own interests are a little outside the mainstream, I see stuff that will normally not register in the sometimes hermetically sealed world of the major Australian group blogs. However, my incentive to go and chase it out is not high when the whole thing is left to the last moment.

This must sound like a gripe, and indeed it is. Certainly it will be an unexpected dump from your perspective. However, I actually feel quite strongly.

There is another problem. Like most bloggers, I use an increasing proportion of visual material. On-line opinion does not.

I think that we need a blogging eqivalent of the walkely awards. We don't have it at present.

Anonymous said...

Well you are right Jim - that is a disappointment. I follow very few Aus blogs because most seem committed to party lines no matter what the issue, but a very few, a golden few, remain intrigued by the world and what it can teach them. This applies to commenters as well - they mostly seem content with point scoring rather than adding to a conversation.

I long ago lost any need for pretense about what I did or didn't know on any subject. I'm these days happy to look listen and prompt for further learning. In this your writings suit my interests very well.

Anyway - stuff it and good luck


Jim Belshaw said...

Re-reading my comment, KVD, it could seem quite ungracious because it does not properly recognise the work that Ken in particular has done over a number of years in promoting independent blogging. I do recognise and value that work.

It's just that I really was disappointed with 2009 when, in the end, they only published twelve and then with a bit of an apparent scrabble. You can find the list here - This compares with some 39 for 06, 40 for 07 and then 34 for 08.

The logistic difficulties involved with something like best blog posts are considerable. It's quite a complicated exercise and is never going to be totally right.