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.
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.