Thursday, March 27, 2014

"The History" [Book IX: Caliope]: The Persians Defeated

The final book in Herodotus' History, Calliope, is about Persia's final defeat in the Second Persian War. The Persian army, now under the command of Mardonius, are defeated during the battle of Plataea and, with that, the Persian invasion is repelled and Greece remained free. There are events before and after Plataea, of course, but I'm going to keep this post brief. I've talked about Herodotus in four previous posts and Book 9 didn't really give me anything to add to what I've already said.

My reading through the Great Books has slowed almost to a grinding halt due to the demands of school. I fully expect things to pick back up once the semester is over and I have more free time and mental energy.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

"The History" [Book VIII: Urania]: The Battle of Salamis

My reading of Book VIII of Herodotus' History coincided conveniently with the release of 300: Rise of an Empire. Both are about the Battle of Salamis and the events preceding and following it. Though I likely won't be seeing the movie in theatres, I thought it was an interesting coincidence.

The collective Greek fleet was led by Eurybiades, a Spartan, thought Herodotus devotes more of his writing to Themistocles, the Greek captain. Themistocles is an interesting figure. While he did the Greeks, and by extension Western civilization, a great service by his actions during the Persian Wars, his actions were often done under the table, unbeknownst to his allies. Themistocles took me back to Machiavelli's The Prince - whether the ends justify the means - and Plato's Republic - whether society should be led by enlightened individuals rather than the voice of the people.

I learned about Themistocles and the Battle of Salamis at school, but what I didn't learn was that, after Persia's defeat at Salamis and Xerxes' retreat, Mardonius remained with a force of 300,000 soldiers in a last ditch effort to conquer Greece. Mardonius' fate will presumably be dealt with in Book IX.

Book VIII ended with a Persian envoy trying to entice the Athenians to join in an alliance with Persia and a Spartan envoy trying to keep the Athenians from joining the Persians. The Athenians said to the Persians, "So long as the sun keeps his present course, we will never join alliance with Xerxes. Nay, we shall oppose him unceasingly, trusting in the aid of those gods and heroes whom he has lightly esteemed, whose houses and images he has burnt with fire", and assured the Spartans the needn't have even bothered coming to convince them not to join the Persians.

Ah, I love the Athenians.

Monday, March 3, 2014

"The History" [Book VII: Polymnia]: Xerxes Invades Greece

The seventh book of The History dealt with Xerxes' accession to the Persian throne and his invasion of Greece, culminating in the Battle of Thermopylae. I remember loving learning about the Persian Wars in history class and have been meaning to delve deeper into them for a while now. What's not to love? Greece was the perfect underdog: a relatively small, but free country versus the massive Persian Empire. The vastly outnumbered Greeks withstood the Persian invasion with their minds, through clever battle tactics.

The reading selection (Books 7-9) picks up after Xerxes' father, Darius's invasion of Greece and the famous Battle of Marathon. I'll have to read The History in its entirety some day, because I love Herodotus.

One thing that surprised me was the diversity in Persia's army. Xerxes enlisted soldiers from across his empire, including Assyrians, Indians, Arabians, Ethiopians, Lydians, Egyptians etc. It makes sense, but I guess I never thought about it. It's a pretty cool image and makes the Persian Wars seem even more like they were Greece vs. The World.

Much of the narrative follows Xerxes and his army on their journey to Greece, including an odd but amusing incident along the way. After Xerxes' army built a bridge across the Hellespont, connecting Asia with Europe, the tides rolled in and swept away the bridge. A new bridge was soon built, but not before Xerxes "punished" the Hellespont by whipping it's waters.

When Xerxes approaches Thessaly, Thessaly chooses to side with Xerxes because of insufficient military aid from the southern city-states. Xerxes, then passes through Thessaly, but before his army can reach southern Greece they most pass through Thermopylae, a narrow pass with water on one side and cliffs on the other. Famously King Leonidas led 300 Spartans (plus a few thousand other Greeks) to delay the Persian army at Thermopylae. They were eventually slaughtered of course, but they will live forever in legend. Even though I'm not generally a fan of war-obsessed Sparta (go Athens go!), I have to salute Sparta's inspiring example at Thermopylae.