~ General Quotes
~ Rubicon - The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic
~ Persian Fire - The First World Empire and the Battle for the West
"They know these things
are important, and they have been denied the opportunity to study them.
People have this sense of terra incognita."
- Tom Holland, explaining the popularity of books on Ancient Rome and Greece, "The Times"
Once, back in the Victorian
schoolroom, the Romans stood for virtue. Young minds, stretched and toughened
by regular grapplings with Latin gerunds, were also moulded by the study
of antique heroes. The annals of Roman patriotism afforded no end of edifying
role-models, whether it was Horatius on the bridge, defying the ranks of
Tuscany, or Mucius Scaevola, choosing to incinerate his own right hand
rather than betray his city to his captors. No wonder that schoolmasters,
conscious that their charges might end up administering an empire even
larger than the Romans’, should have regarded the study of ancient Rome
as perfect for instilling in British youth a properly imperial sense of
Times move on, of course. The centrality of classics to education has long since crumbled away into dust, and the Romans themselves, although they continue to exert a powerful hold over the public imagination, are not, it is fair to say, much associated with self-discipline nowadays. Increasingly, indeed, their appetites have become a shorthand for excess and savagery. Ever since the success of Gladiator, the face of the Roman people has tended to be that of a mob in the Colosseum, baying for thrills and blood. Now, with the imminent arrival on BBC2 of a steamy drama-series portraying the rise of Julius Caesar, the Romans are about to become bywords for sex as well as violence. Rome, which premieres on November 2, pulls no punches in its portrayal of a world given over to fornicatio. So raunchy is it that the entire series has had to be re-edited for sensitive Italian viewers, while at the press screening here in Britain, even hardened hacks were left a trifle stunned by the drama’s relish for brutal thrustings and nudity. Prudish enquiries about the watershed were swatted aside by the producers with a cheerful insistence that the explicit content was essential for authenticity.
Well, yes, up to a point. It is true that accounts of Rome under the emperors, in particular, are ripe with allegations of scandalous misconduct, whether it be Caligula opening a brothel in his palace, or Nero castrating a lover before using him as his bride. Nevertheless, it would be quite mistaken to deduce from anecdotes such as these that the Romans, unburdened by tiresome Judaeo-Christian precepts of morality, felt free to indulge their appetites as and when they pleased. In truth, their relish for lurid fantasy was the mirror-image of the very opposite: a censoriousness quite as rigid and oppressive as anything to be found today in the Bible Belt. If ancient Rome has long served the modern imagination as a playground of sexual abandon, then that is because the Romans themselves were their own sternest and bitterest critics.
- Tom Holland, reviewing the recent BBC\HBO series "Rome"
was not his alone; a great empire was indeed destroyed by his efforts —
but it was his native city of Carthage, not the Rome he detested. The battle
between these two republics for mastery of the western Mediterranean was
the closest that the ancient world came to the total warfare of World Wars
I and II. Lasting, on and off, for more than a century, it finally ended
only when a prostrate Carthage was utterly razed from the face of the earth
by the vengeful Romans.
The Romans called the titanic struggle 'the Punic Wars'. 'Punic', because the Carthaginians had originally been Phoenicians, emigrants from Tyre on the coast of what is now Lebanon. In 814 BC, it was said, Tyrian colonists had sailed wetwards along the coast of North Africa until, arriving opposite Sicily, they founded a 'new city' — 'quat hadasht', or Carthage — destined for centuries to rule the Med. Only in the 3rd century did her status as the greatedt city of the West finally come under serious threat — it was then the Italian peninsula was at last brought under the control of the rising republic of Rome... The Sicilian Greeks embroiled Rome in their squabbles with Carthage and, in 264 BC, Rome transformed a minor dispute into a devastating war of attrition. Rome endured over two decades of appalling casualties to being Carthage to defeat and withdrawal from Sicily.
Displaying a master of strategy and tactics infinitely beyond his opponents, Hannibal brought three Roman armies to sensational defeat. In the battle of Trebia he lured 10,000 Romans into a deadly ambush; in the battle of Lake Trasimene he trapped a Roman army on a lakeside track and drove them into the lake, where many drowned; and in the third and greatest of his victories, Cannae, Hannibal faved 8 legions, the largest single army that Rome had ever fielded. Monstrously outnumbered though he was, Hannibal wiped them out. It has been calculated that not until the Battle of the Somme, in 1916, would more combatants die in a single day of fighting. To this day, Hannibal's tactics at Cannae are taught at Sandhurst. It remains the perfect battle. The Romans now faced their darkest moment. By every convention of contemporary warfare, they should have ackowledged Hannibal's triumph, and sued for peace. Instead they showed only defiance.
Everything we know about Hannibal derives from his enemies. Yet, more than 2000 years after Carthage was destroyed, it is Hannibal, and not any Roman, who is the hero of a TV extravaganza about the Second Punic War. That this should be so is not only a tribute to Hannibal, it is also one final Carthaginian victory over Rome.
- Tom Holland, from an article previewing the BBC's "Hannibal", "The Daily Mail" (06.05.06)
>> More quotes from reviews of the series
January 10th, the seven-hundred-and-fifth year since the foundation of Rome, the forty-ninth before the birth of Christ. The sun had long set behind the Apennine mountains. Lined up in full marching order, soldiers from the 13th Legion stood massed in the dark. Bitter the night may have been, but they were well used to extremes. For eight years they had been following the governor of Gaul on campaign after bloody campaign, through snow, through summer heat, to the margins of the world. Now, returned from the barbarous wilds of the north, they found themselves poised on a very different frontier. Ahead of them flowed a narrow stream. On the legionaries' side was the province of Gaul; on the far side Italy, and the road that led to Rome. Take that road, however, and the soldiers of the 13th Legion would be committing a deadly offence, breaking not only the limits of their province, but also the sternest laws of the Roman people. They would, in effect, be declaring civil war. As they stamped their feet against the cold, they waited for the trumpeters to summon them to action. To shoulder arms, to advance - to cross the Rubicon.
The Rubicon would prove
to be a dividing line. By crossing it, Caesar did indeed engulf the world
war, but he also helped to bring about the ruin of Rome's ancient freedoms,
and the establishment, upon their wreckage, of a monarchy - events of primal
significance for the history of the West. Long after the Roman Empire itself
had collapsed, the opposites delineated by the Rubicon - liberty and despotism,
anarchy and order, republic and autocracy - would continue to haunt the
imaginings of Rome's successors. Narrow and obscure the stream may have
been, so insignificant that its very location was ultimately forgotten,
yet its name is remembered still. No wonder. So fateful was Caesar's crossing
of the Rubicon that it has come to stand for every fateful step taken ever
With it, an era passed into history. Once, there had been free cities dotted throughout the Mediterranean. In the Greek world, and in Italy too, these cities had been inhabited by men who identified themselves not as the subjects of a pharaoh or a king of kings, but as citizens, and who proudly boasted of the values that distinguished them from slaves - free speech, private property, rights before the law. Gradually, however, with the rise of new empires, first those of Alexander the Great and his successors, and then of Rome, the independence of such citizens everywhere had been stifled. By the first century BC, there was only one free city left, and that was Rome herself. And then Caesar crossed the Rubicon, the Republic imploded, and none was left at all. As a result, a thousand years of civic self-government were brought to an end, and not for another thousand, and more, would it become a living reality again.
Since the Renaissance there have been many attempts to ford back across the Rubicon, to return to its far bank, to leave autocracy behind. The English, American and French revolutions were all consciously inspired by the example of the Roman Republic.
In 1922 Mussoloni deliberately propagated the myth of a heroic, Caesar-like march on Rome. With fascism, a long tradition in Western politics reached a hideous climax, and then expired. Mussoloni was the last world leader to be inspired by the example of ancient Rome. The fascists, of course, had thrilled to its cruelty, its swagger, its steel, but nowadays even its noblest ideals, the ideals of active citizenship that once so moved Thomas Jefferson, have passed out of fashion. Hero-worshipping the Romans is just so 19th century. No longer, as they were for centuries, are they regarded as a mainspring of our modern civic rights. Few pause to wonder why, in a continent unimagined by the ancients, a second Senate should sit upon a second Capitol Hill.
And yet, we flatter ourselves, in the democracies of the West, if we trace our roots back to Athens alone. We are also, for good as well as ill, the heirs of the Roman Republic. Had the title not been already taken, I would have called this book 'Citizens' - for they are its protagonists, and the tragedy of the Republic's collapse is theirs. The Roman people too, in the end, grew tired of antique virtues, preferring the comforts of easy slavery and peace. Rather bread and circuses than endless internecine wars. As the Romans themselves recognised, their freedom had contained the seeds of its on ruin.
To insist that Roman liberty had once been something more than a high-sounding sham is not to claim that the Republic was ever a paradise of social democracy. It was not. Freedom and egalitarianism, to the Romans, were very different things. Only slaves on the chain gang were truly equal. For a citizen, the essence of life was competition; wealth and votes were the accepted measures of success.
The last 20 years of the Republic are the best documented in Roman history, with what is, for the classicist, a wealth of evidence - speeches, memoirs, even private correspondance. Yet even these only gleam as riches for being set against such darkness. One day perhaps, when the records of the 20th century AD have grown as fragmentary as those of ancient Rome, a history of the Second World War will be written which relies solely upon the broadcasts of Hitler and the memoirs of Churchill. It will be one cut off from whole dimensions of experience.
More than two millennia after the Republic's collapse, the extraordinary character of the men, and women, who starred in its drama still astonishes. But so too - less well known perhps than a Caesar, or a Cicero, or a Cleopatra, but remarkable than any of them - does the Roman Republic itself. If there is much about it we can never know, then there is still much that can be brought back to life, its citizens half emerging from antique marble, their faces illuminated by a background of gold and fire, the glare of an alien yet sometimes eerily familiar world.
THE PARADOXICAL REPUBLIC
"Only a few prefer
liberty, the majority seek nothing more than fair masters."
- Sallust, "Histories"
Kings had been ruling in Rome for more than 200 years, ever since the city's foundation, but Tarquin, the seventh in line, would also be the last. With his expulsion, the monarchy itself was overthrown, and, in its place, a free republic proclaimed. Liberty had been the watchword of the coup against Tarquin, and liberty, the liberty of a city that had no master, was now consecrated as the birthright and measure of every citizen. To preserve it from the ambitions of future would-be tyrants, the founders of the Republic settled upon a remarkable formula. Carefully, they divided the powers of the exiled king between two magistrates, both elected, neither permitted to serve for longer than a year. These were the consuls, and their presence at the head of their fellow citizens, the one guarding against the ambitions of the other, was a stirring expression of the Republic's guarding principle - that never again should one man be permitted to rule supreme in Rome.
The good citizen, in the Republic, was the citizen acknowledged to be good. The Romans recognised no difference between moral excellence and reuptation, having the same word, 'honestas', for both. The approval of the entire city was the ultimate, the only, test of worth. Praise was what every citizen most desired - just as public shame was his ultimate dread. Not laws but the consciousness of always being watched was what prevented a Roman's sense of competition from degenerating into selfish ambition. In their relations with their fellows, then, the citizens of the Republic were schooled to temper their competitive instincts for the common good. In their relations with other states, however, no such inhibitions cramped them.
The legions' combination of efficiency and ruthlessness was something for which few opponents found themselves prepared.
The Romans never forgot
that in Hannibal, in the scale of his exertions, in the scope of his ambition,
they had met the enemy who was most like themselves. Centuries later statues
of him were still to be found standing in Rome. And even after they had
reduced Carthage to an impotent rump, confiscating her provinces, her fleet,
her celebrated war-elephants, the Romans continued to dread a Carthaginian
recovery. Such hatred was the greatest compliment they could pay a foreign
state. Carthage could not be trusted in her submission. The Romans looked
into their own souls and attributed the implacability they found there
to their greatest foe.
Never again would they tolerate the existence of a power capable of threatening their own survival. Rather than risk that, they felt themselves perfectly justified in launching a pre-emptive strike against any opponent who appeared to be growing too uppity. Such opponents were easy - all too easy - to find.
In Rome memories were guarded closely. The present was engaged in a perpetual compromise with the past, restless motion with a reverence for tradition, hard-headedness with a devotion to myth. The more crowded and corrupted their city grew, the more the Romans longed for reassurance that Rome remained Rome still.
Even citizens found their city confusing. The only way to negotiate it was to memorise notable landmarks: a fig-tree, perhaps, or a market's colonnade, or, best of all, a temple large enough to loom above the maze of narrow streets. Fortunately, Rome was a devout city, and temples abounded.
On all sides, amid
a din of hammering, rumbling wagon wheels and crashing rubble, the city
was endlessly being rebuilt, torn down and rebuilt again. Developers were
always looking for ways to squeeze in extra space, and squeeze out extra
profit. In a city long constricted by her ancient walls, developers had
begin to aim for the sky. Apartment blocks were springing up everywhere.
Over six storeys or more, tenants could be crammed into tiny, thin-walled
rooms, until invariably the building would collapse, only to be flung up
again even higher than before. Tenements were notoriously jerry-built and
rickety. In Latin these apartment blocks were known as 'insulae' or islands
- a suggestive word, reflecting the way in which they stood apart from
the sea of life down on the streets.
Even on the ground floor the insulae usually lacked drains or fresh water. Yet sewers and aqueducts were precisely what the Romans would boast about when they wanted to laud their city, comparing the practical value of their public works with the useless extravagances of the Greeks. In truth, nothing better illustrated the ambiguities of Rome than the fact that she was at once both the cleanest and filthiest of cities.
In death, the poor would be subsumed into waste. Not for them the dignity of a tomb on the Appian Way. Instead, their carcasses would be tossed with all the other refuse into giant pits beyond the easternmost city gate, the Esquiline. Degradation on such a scale was something new in the world. The suffering of the urban poor was all the more terrible because, by depriving them of the solaces of community, it denied them everything that made a Roman what he was. To its own citizens, as to its enemies, the Republic was unyeilding. It gave up on those who gave up on it. And after abandoning them, in the end, it had them swept out with the trash. It was no wonder that life in Rome should have been a desperate struggle to avoid such a fate. Community was cherished wherever it was found.
Just as a valley stretched wide between the hills of Romulus and Remus, the Palatine and Aventine, so too did the social chasm between the senator in his villa and the cobbler in his shack. There were no subtle gradations of wealth in Rome, nothing that could approximate to a modern middle class.
The people had their votes, but only the rich had any hope of winning office, and not even wealth on its own was necessarily sufficient to obtain success for a candidate. A Roman did not have to be a member of the ruling class to share their prejudices. The aim of even the most poverty-stricken citizens was not to change society, but to do better out of it. Inequality was the price that citizens of the Republic willingly paid for their sense of community. The class-based agitiation that had brought the plebians their equality with the patricians was a thing of the long-vanished past - not merely impossible, but almost impossible to conceive.
It had always been Roman practice to flatter and bribe the ruling classes of their allies - it was the success of this policy that had done more than anything else to ensure the Italians' loyalty in the past. Increasingly, however, those with the crucial power to influence their communities - the wealthy, the landed, the literate - had begun to find themselves increasingly alienated from Rome. Their resentments were many. The burden of military service in Rome's wars fell disproportionately on their shoulders. They held an inferior status in Roman law. Perhaps most unsettlingly of all, their eyes had been opened to a world of opportunity and power undreamed of by their ancestors. The Italians had not only helped Rome to conquer her empire, but had contributed enthusiastically to exploiting it. Wherever Roman arms had led, there Italian businessmen had been sure to follow. In the provinces the Italian allies were guaranteed privileges virtually indistinguishable from those of full Roman citizens, and the wretched provincials certainly found it hard to tell the two classes apart, loathing them equally as 'Romaioi'. Far from mollifying the Italians, the experience of living abroad as a master race seems only to have encouraged them in their determination to share in a similar status back in their native land.
For the vast majority of Italian leaders, rebellion against Rome had been a gesture less of defiance than of frustrated admiration.
There had never been a city so generous with her citizenship as Rome. Men of diverse backgrounds and origins had always been permitted to become Roman, and to share in Roman values and beliefs. In turn, of course, it was an irony, if not quite a paradox, that chief among these was an attitude towards non-Romans of invincible contempt.
To many Romans, there had seemed a world of difference between granting citizenship to the occasional individual or community and enfranchising the whole of Italy. Roman politicians had not needed to be motivated entirely by chauvinism or arrogance - although plenty were - to fear that their city was in danger of being swamped. How were Rome's ancient institutions to cope with the sudden enrolment of millions of new citizens, dotted throughout the length and breadth of Italy?
RETURN OF THE NATIVE
A Roman army was not the private militia of the general who commanded it, but the embodiment of the Republic at war. Its loyalty was owed to whomever was appointed to its command by the due process of the constitution. This was how it had always been, for as long as the Republic's citizens had been going to war.
No citizen had ever led legions against their own city. To be the first to take such a step, and to outrage such a tradition, should have been a responsibility far beyond a Roman's enduring. Yet it seems that Sulla, far frm havering, betrayed not the slightest hint of hesitation. Sulla had his reasons: his hatred of his rival consul Marius, his fury at the frustration of his ambitions and his utter belief in the justice of his case all helped him to contemplate a unqiuely audacious and dreadful possibility.
When an Athenian peace delegation did what Athenian peace delegations had always done and began to discourse wildly on the glories of its city's past, Sulla dismissed the talk with a gesture of his hand. "Rome did not send me here to be lectured on ancient history". When at length the city was stormed, and Sulla gave his troops licence to plunder and kill, many of the victims were suicides. The destruction was terrible but the city itself was not burned to the ground. Sulla, who had expressed such contempt for history, announced with a grand rhetorical flourish that he spared the living out of respect for the dead.
Sulla's task as a dictator was to ensure that in the future no one would ever again do as he had done and lead an army on Rome. Sulla was too much of a Roman to imagine that a desire to be the best might ever in itself be a crime. He certainly had no intention of suppressing his countrymen's inveterate thirsting after glory. Instead, he aimed to channel it, so that once again, rather than tearing the state to shreds, it might serve the greater glory of Rome.
Sulla had given the Romans their first glimpse of what it might mean to be the subjects of an autocrat, and it had proved a frightening and salutary one. This was a discovery that could never be unmade. After the proscriptions, no one could doubt what the extreme consequence of the Roman appetite for competition and glory might be, not only for Rome's enemies, but for her citizens themselves. What had once been unthinkable, now lurked at the back of every Roman's mind: "Sulla could do it. Why can't I?"
Had Sulla been the saviour or destroyer of the constitution? Terrible though he had proved himself to be, the dictator had also laboured hard to restore the Republic, to ensure that he would have no successor. Historians of future generations, inured to perpetual autocracy, found fantastical the idea that anyone should voluntarily have laid down supreme power. Yet Sulla had done it.
FAME IS THE SPUR
Until Sulla's legions had broken the taboo in 88 BC the only men in arms ever to have entered the city had been citizens marching in triumphal parades. Otherwise, Rome had always been off limits to the military. Since as far back as the time of kings civilians had first to gather on the Campus Martinus - the Plain of Mars - before taking the oath that transformed them into soldiers. Here they had been ranked according to their wealth and status, for in war, as in peace, every citizen had to know his place. At the summit of the hierarchy there had been those rich enough to afford their own horses the 'equites'; below the equestrian class were five further classes of infantry; at the bottom of the heap were citizens too poor even to buy even a sling and a few slingstones, the 'proletarii'. These seven classes had in turn been divided into further units, known as centuries. Long after classes and centuries had ceased to provide the basis of their army the Romans could not bring themselves to abandon so eminently satisfying a system. Instead, it remained at the heart of their political life.
Since votes had to be delivered in person the practical effect was to ensure that only the wealthiest out-of-towner could afford to travel to Rome to exercise his right. Inevitably, this served to skew the voting in favour of the rich. To most Romans, this seemed only fair. After all, the rich were the ones who contributed most to the Republic, and so it was generally conceded that their opinions should carry the greatest weight. Disproportionate voting power was yet another perk of rank.
Citizens assembled to vote for the consuls in the same way that their earliest ancestors had massed to go to war. The citizens would line up as though for battle, with the richest at the front and the poorest at the rear. So heavily weighted were the votes of the senior classes that they usually served to decide an election. As a result, there was often little point in the other classes even turning out. Their votes were worth a fraction of those of the equestrians and would only rarely be called on to register them anyway.
not merely to test themselves, in the approved Roman manner, against the
savagery of the enemy and the fear of a violent death, but to reclaim a
status that poverty had caused them to lose. The armies of the Republic
had not always been filled with penniless volunteers. When the citizens
assembled for elections on the Campus Marties, ranked strictly according
to their wealth, they were preserving the memory of a time when men of
every class had been drafted, when a legion had indeed embodied the Republic
at war. For centuries the all-conquering Roman infantry had consisted of
yeoman-farmers, their swords cleaned of chaff, their ploughs left behind,
following their magistrates obediently to war. For as long as Rome's power
had been confined to Italy, campaigns had been of manageably short duration.
But with the expansion of the Republic's interests overseas, they had lengthened,
often into years. During a soldier's absence, his property might become
easy prey. Small farms had increasingly been swallowed up by the rich.
In the place of a tapestry of fields and vineyards worked by free men,
great stretches of Italy had been given over to vast estates, filled with
chain-gangs, lacking free-born citizens.
Tiberius Gracchus had warned his fellow citizens that the foundations of their military greatness was being eroded. Every peasant who lost his farm had meant a soldier lost to Rome. The crisis in Italian agriculture was so overwhelming as to prove virtually intractable, but the crisis in military recruitment, at least, had begged an obvious reform. In 107 Marius had bowed to the inevitable: the army was opened to every citizen, regardless of whether he owned property or not. Weapons and armour had begin to be supplied by the state. The legions had turned professional. From that moment on, possession of a farm was no longer the qualification for military service, but the reward.
Marriage in Rome was a typically unsentimental business. Love was irrelevent, politics all. Upper-class women, especially if they proved fertile, were prized stakes in the dice game of advancement. Because girls were far more likely to be exposed at birth than boys, there was a permanent lack of eligible fiancees. So keen were fathers to cash in on their daughters' marriageability that girls would typically come of age some three or four years before their brothers. The moment a girl had celebrated her twelfth birthday she could expect to be veiled behind the traditional saffron of a bride. If a wife remained her father's ward, and most wealthy women did, than her loyalty to her husband might at best prove shallow. Marriages could be formed and broken with dizzying speed, for a sudden reveral of alliances might require an equally sudden divorce. A man did not need to love his wife to prize her all the same.
Rather than have Julius Caesar killed, Sulla contented himself with depriving the young priest of Jupiter of his office, and demanding that he divorce Cornelia. Caesar, astonishingly, refused. It was this near-suicidal act of defiance that led to him fleeing Rome with a price on his head.
In childhood, boys would train their minds for the practice of law with the same single-minded intensity they brought to their training of their bodies for warfare. In adulthood, legal practice was the one civilian profession that a senator regarded as worthy of his dignity. This was because law was not something distinct from political life but an often lethal extension of it. There was no state-run prosecution service. Instead, all cases had to be brought privately. Officially, the penalty for a defendant found guilty of a serious crime was death. In practice, because the Republic had no police force or prison system, a condemned man would be permitted to slip away into exile. His political career, however, would be over. Not only were criminals stripped of their citizenship, but they could be killed with impunity if they ever set foot back in Italy. A prosecutor even had the right to claim the rank of any criminal he successfully brought to justice.
Even more than an election, a trial was a fight to the death. To the Romans, this made the law a thrilling spectator sport, and courts were open to the general public.
To the Romans the whiff of the foreign that clung to gladiatorial combat was always a crucial part of its appeal. As the Republic's wars became ever more distant from Italy, so it was feared that the martial character of the people might start to fade. In 105 Bc the consuls who laid on Rome's first publicly sponsored games did so with the specific aim of giving the mob a taste of barbarian combat. This was why gladiators were never armed like legionaries, but always in the grotesque manner of the Republic's enemies - if not Samnites, then Thracians or Gauls.
Not for nothing did Crassus operate as the Senate's banker. He had deeper funds than anyone else in Rome. Slaves, mines and real estate remained his principal investments, but he regarded no scam as too low if it would add to his coffers. Whenever a house went up in flames, Crassus would have his private fire-brigade rush to the scene, then refuse to extinguish the fire until the owner sold him the property cheap. Money was easily Crassus' favourite instrument of power. The thread of gold he spun entangled the whole Republic.
The exploitation of
slaves was what underpinned everything that was noblest about the Republic
- its culture of citizenship, its passion for freedom, its dread of disgrace
and shame. It was not merely that the lesiure which enabled a citizen to
devote himself to the Republic was dependant on the forced labour of others.
Slaves also satisfied a subtler, more baneful need. All status was relative
- what value would freedom have in a world where everyone was free? Even
the poorest citizen could know himself to be immeasurably the superior
of even the best-treated slave. Death was preferable to a life without
liberty. If a man permitted himself to be enslaved, then he thoroughly
deserved his fate.
It was a logic that the slaves accepted too. No one ever objected to the hierarchy of free and unfree, merely his own position within in. What the rebels of Spartacus' revolt wanted was not to destroy slavery as an institution, but to win the privileges if their former masters. Only Spartacus himself appears to have fought for a genuine ideal. Uniquely among the leaders of slave revolts in the ancient world, he attempted to impose a form of egalitarianism on his followers. If this was an attempt at Utopia, however, it failed. The opportunity for violent freebooting were simply too tempting for most of the rebels to resist. Here, the Romans believed, was another explanation for the slaves' failure to escape while they had the chance. What were the bogs and forests of their homelands compared to the temptations of Italy? The rebels' dreams of freedom came a poor second to their greed for plunder.
At last, the rebels
were cornerned by Crassus' legions, and Spartacus turned and prepared to
fight. Ahead of his marshalled men, he stabbed his horse, spurning the
possibility of further retreat, pledging himself to victory or death. Then
the slaves advanced into battle. Spartacus himself led a desperate charge
against Crassus' headquarters, but was killed before he could reach it.
The vast bulk of the rebels' army perished alongside their general. The
great slave uprising was over. Crassus had saved the Republic.
Except that, at the very last minute, his glory was snatched from him. As Pompey headed south with his legions towards Rome he met with 5000 of the rebels, fugitives from Spartacus' final defeat. With brisk efficiency, he slaughtered every last one, then wrote to the Senate, boasting of his achievement in finishing off the revolt. Crassus' feelings can only be imagined. In an attempt to counteract Pompey's glory-hogging he ordered all the prisoners he had captured to be crucified along the Appian War. For over a 100 miles, along Italy's busiest road, a cross with a body of a slave nailed to it stood every 40 yards, gruesome billboards advertising Crassus' victory.
A new empire was rising.
Rather than the Senate's traditional isolationism, Pompey embodied a new
doctrine. Wherever Roman business interests were threatened, the Republic
would intervene - and, if need be, impose direct rule. What had once been
toehold in the East was now to be a great tract of provinces. Pompey, who had won his proconsulship with the backing of the financial lobby, was happy to identify himself with its interests, but he was also careful not to appear its tool.
The great achievement of Pompey's proconsulship was to demonstrate that the concerns of business could truly be squared with the ideals of the senatorial elite. It established a blueprint for Roman rule that was to endure for centuries. It also, not coincidentally, raised Pompey himself to a pinnacle of glory and wealth. The client rulers who swelled the train of Rome also swelled his own. Yet as the great man prepared to head for home at last, the East finally pacified, his immense task done, there were few of his fellow citizens who did not find themselves unsettled by the prospect of his return. His wealth was beyond the dreams of avarice, even of Crassus himself. His glory was so dazzling as to blot out every rival. Could a Roman become the new Alexander while also remaining a citizen?
Caesar may have been the first to lead the legions beyond the frontier, but there had been Italians roaming through the wilds of Gaul for decades. In the second century BC, with the establishment of permanent Roman garrisons in the south of the country, the natives of the province had begun to develop a taste for their conqueror's vices. One, in particular, had done straight to their heads: wine. The Gauls, who had never come across the drink before, had not the slightest idea how to handle it. Rather than diluting it with water, as the Romans did, they preferred to down it neat, wallowing in drunken binges. Merchants, who found this style of consumption highly lucrative, had begun to foster it as widely as they could, travelling far beyond the limits of the Roman province, until soon enough the whole of Gaul had grown sodden with liquor. Naturally, the merchants had begun to inflate their prices. Since their ability to do this depended on the natives not culvivating their own vineyards, the Senate, ever savvy when it came to fleecing foreigners, had made it illegal to sell vines to "the tribes beyond the Alps". By Caesar's time the exchange rate had stabilised at a jar of wine for one slave, which, at least as far as the Italians were concerned, made for a fabulously profitable import-export business. The slaves could be sold on for a huge mark-up, and the extra manpower available to Roman viticulturists enabled ever more gallons of wine to be produced. It was a virtuous circle that kept everyone, apart from slaves of course, happy.
Wine was more precious to Gallic chieftains than gold. Tribes were endlessly raiding each other for slaves, depopulating the countryside, breeding dehibilitating rivalries - all of which made them easy prey for a man such as Caesar.
It appeared self-evident to Cato that the rule of an upstanding Roman administration was vastly preferable to the squalid anarchy that had prevailed in Cyprus before his arrival. Here was a portentous development: the Senate's most unbending traditionalist squaring Rome's ancient virtues with her new world role. It was Posidonius, every Roman's favourite guru, who had argued that subject peoples should welcome their conquest by the Republic, since it would contribute towards the building of a commonwealth of man. Enthusiasts for empire argued that Rome had a civilising mission: that because her values and institutions were self-evidently superior to thise of barbarians, she had a duty to propagate them; that only once the whole globe had been subjected to her rule could there be universal peace. Morality had not merely caught up with the brute fact of imperial expansion, but wanted more.
It helped, of course, that the empire brought colour and clamour to Rome, the news of conquests from strange, far-distant lands, the flooding of gold through her streets. Throughout the sixties BC the Romans had associated such pleasures with the name of Pompey. Now, in the fifties, they could enjoy them again, courtesy of Caesar... his dispatched were masterpieces of war reporting. No Roman could read them without feeling a rush of excitement and pride. Caesar knew how to make his fellow citizens feel good about themselves. As so often before, he was putting on a show - and as an arena he had the entire, spectacular expanse of Gaul.
Caesar was marching his men northwards, towards the Channel coast and the encircling Ocean. Set within its icy waters waited the fabulous island of Britain. It was as drenched in mystery as in rain and fog. Back in Rome people doubted whether it existed at all. In his report to the Senate he sought to justify his attack on Britain by claiming that natives had come to the help of the rebellious Venetians, and that, anyway, the country was rich in silver and tin. This was not entirely convincing, for if either motive had really been uppermost in Caesar's mind, then he would have given himself an entire season's campaigning in the island... it for the Roman fleet it was indeed to prove a journey back in time. Waiting for the invaders on the Kentish cliffs was a scene straight out of legend: warriors careering up and down in chariots, just as Hector and Achilles had done on the plain of Troy. To add to the exotic nature of it all, the Britons wore peculiar facial hair and were painted blue.
Nothing remotely concrete had been achieved by Caesar, but in Rome the news that an army of the Republic had crossed both the Rhine and the Ocean caused a sensation.
In Caesar's energy there was something demonic and sublime. Touched by boldness, perseverance and a yearning to be the best, it was the spirit of the Republic at its most inspiring and lethal. No wonder that his men worshipped him, for they too were Roman, and felt privileged to be sharing in their general's great adventure.
At Alesia, outnumbered by the army he was besieging, and vastly outnumbered by the army that had been besieging him in turn, Caesar had defeated both. It was the greatest, the most astonishing, victory of his career.
Courage came easily to Lucius Domitus Ahenobarbus. In his case it was indistinguishable from an arrogance so pronounced as to verge on stupidity.
THE DEATH OF THE REPUBLIC
To Cicero, personal catastrophe was always a crisis for the whole of Rome. On other occasions, however, he would have acknowledged that the savagery of political life was the index of its liberty. Fortunes rose, fortunes fell; alliances were forged, alliances fell apart. These were the rhythms of a free republic. Achievement in Rome was valued, but excessive greatness was feared. Many could share in power, but no one men could rule supreme. Only Sulla had done that - and he had soon retired. What reason was there to think that this would ever change?
Pompey and Caesar, Rome's greatest conquerors, had won resources for themselves beyond all the imaginings of previous generations. Now the consequences of such obscene power were becoming grimly apparent. Either man had the capability to destroy the Republic. Neither wished to do so, but deterrence, if it were to have any value, obliged both to prepare for the worst.
In Gaul, against the
barbarians, Caesar had preferred to stab hard and fast wherever he was
least expected, no matter what the risks. Now, having taken the supreme
gamble of his life (by crossing the Rubicon), he aimed to unleash the same
strategy against his fellow citizens. Rather than wait for his full complement
of legions to arrive from Gaul, as Pompey had expected him to do, Caesar
instead decided to rely upon the effects of terror and surprise. Beyond
the Rubicon there was no one to oppose him. His agents had been busy softening
up Italy with bribes. Now, the moment he appeared before them, the frontier
towns opened their gates. The great trunk roads to Rome were easily secured.
Still no one advanced from the capital. Still Caesar struck on south.
But Pompey had already given up on Rome. The Senate was issued with an evacuation order. Anyone staying behind, Pompey warned, would be regarded as a traitor. With that, he headed south, leaving the capital to its fate.
Pompey could argue that there were sound military reasons for the surrender of the capital - and so there were. Nevertheless, it was a tragic and fatal mistake. The Republic could not endure as an abstraction. Its vitality was nourished by the streets and public places of Rome, by the smoke rising from the age-blackened temples, by the rhythms of elections, year on year on year. By fleeing the city the Senate had cut itself off from all those - the vast majority - who could not afford to pack up and leave their homes.
Even as Pompey retreated south through Italy his pursuer was gathering pace. Only a complete evacuation could spare them such a calamity. The Senate began to contemplate the unthinkable: that it should reconvene abroad. Provinces had already been allocated to its key leaders: Sicily to Cato, Syria to Scipio, Spain to Pompey himself. Henceforward, it appeared, the arbiters of the Republic's fate were to rule not in the city that had bestowed their rank upon them, but as warlords amid distant and sinister barbarians. Their power would be sanctioned by force, and force alone. How, then, were they different to Caesar? How, whichever side won, was the Republic to be restored?
Every civil war cuts through families and friendships, but Roman society had always been especially subtle in its loyalties, and contemptuous of brute brute divisions. For many citizens, a choice between Caesar and Pompey remained as impossible as ever. Neutrals, of course, lacked even the consolation of knowing that the Republic was being destroyed in a good cause.
There was nothing more upsetting to a Roman than to feel deprived of fellowship, of a sense of community, and rather than endure it he would go to any extreme. But in a civil war to what could a citizen pledge his loyalty? Not his city, not the altars of his ancestors, not the Republic itself, for these were claimed as the inheritance of both sides. But he could attach himself to the fortunes of a general, and be certain of finding comradeship in the ranks of that general's army, and identify in the reflected glory of the general's name. This was why the legions of Gaul had been willing to cross the Rubicon. What, after nine years' campaigning, were the traditions of the distant Forum to them, compared to the comradeship of the army camp? And what was the Republic, compared to their general? There was no one capable of inspiring a more passionate devotion in his troops than Caesar. Amid all the confusion of war it had become perhaps the surest measure of his greatness.
# PERSIAN FIRE
"All things are constituted
from fire, and all things will melt back into fire."
"They were the fathers
not merely of children, of mortal flesh and blood, but of their children's
freedom, and of the freedom of every person who dwells in the continent
of the West."
- Plato, "Menexenus", on the Athenians at Marathon
It was 2500 years ago that East and West first went to war. Early in the 5th century BC, a global superpower was determined to bring truth and order to what it regarded as two terrorist states. The superpower was Persia, whose kings had founded the first world empire, incomparably rich in ambition, gold and men. The terrorist states were Athens and Sparta, eccentric cities in a poor and mountainous backwater: Greece. The story of how their citizens took on the most powerful man on the planet and defeated him is as heart-stopping as any episode in history.
Once, the Persians
had been nothing, just an obscure mountain tribe confined to the plains
and mountains of what is now southern Iran. Then, in the space of a single
generation, they had swept across the Middle East, shattering ancient kingdoms,
storming famous cities, amassing an empire which stretched from India to
the shores of the Aegean. As a result of those conquests, Xerxes, the King
of Kings, had ruled as the most powerful man on the planet. The resources
available to him were so stupefying as to appear virtually limitless. Europe
was not to witness another invasion force to rival his until 1944, and
the summer of D-Day.
Set against this unprecedented juggernaut, the Greeks had appeared few in numbers and hopelessly divided. Greece itself was little more than a geographical expression: not a country but a patch-work of quarrelsome and often violently chauvinistic city-states. True, the Greeks regarded themselves as a single people, united by language, religion and custom; but what the various cities often seemed to have most in a common was an addiction to fighting one another. The Persians, during the early years of their rise to power, had found it a simple matter to subdue the Greeks who lived in what is now western Turkey and absorb them into their empire. Even the two principal powers of mainland Greece, the nascent democracy of Athens and the sternly militarised state of Sparta, had seemed ill equipped to put up a more effective fight. With the Persian king resolved to pacify once and for all the fractious and peculiar people on the western fringe of his great empire, the result had looked to be a foregone conclusion.
There was much more at stake during the course of the Persian attempts to subdue the Greek mainland than the independence of what Xerxes had regarded as a ragbag of terrorist states. As subjects of a foreign king, the Athenians would never have had the opportunity to develop their unique democratic culture. Much that made Greek civilization distinctive would have been aborted. The legacy inherited by Rome and passed on to modern Europe would have been immeasurably impoverished. Not only would the West have lost its first struggle for independence and survival, but it is unlikely, had the Greeks succumbed to Xerxes' invasion, that there would ever have been such an entity as 'the West' at all.
No wonder, then, that the story of the Persian Wars should serve as the founding myth of European civilization; as the archetype of the triumph of freedom over slavery, and of rugged civic virtue over enervated despotism.
By guaranteeing peace and order to the dutifully submissive, and by giving a masterly demonstration of how best to divide and rule, a succession of Persian kings had won for themselves and their people the largest empire ever seen. Indeed, it was their epohcal achievement to demonstrate to future ages the very possibility of a milti-ethnic, multi-cultural, world-spanning state.
For all its momentousness, its sweep and its drama, the story of the Persian Wars is not an easy one to piece together. The indisputable truth that they were the first conflict in history that we can reconstruct in detail does not mean that Herodotus tells is everything about them; far from it, regrettably. Many sources derive from centuries, even milennia, after the events that they are purporting to describe. Iris Murdoch, in her novel, "The Nice and the Good", observed of early Greek history that it 'sets a special challenge to the disciplined mind. It is a game with very few pieces, where the skill of the player lies in complicating the rules'. Historians of archaic Greece, who rarely feature in novels, love to quote this passage.
At least the sources for Greek history, no matter how patchy, derive from the Greeks themselves. The Persians, with one key exception, did not write anything at all that we can identify as an account of real events.
Three obvious responses to the challenge present themselves. The first is to accept Greek prejudices at face value, and portray the Persians as effete cowards who somehow, inexplicably, conquered the world. The second is to condemn everything that the Greeks wrote about Persia as an expression of racism, Eurocentrism, and a whole host of other thought-crimes to boot. The third, and most productive, is to explore the degree to which Greek misinterpretations of their great enemy reflected the truth, however distorted, of how the Persians lived and saw their world.
[Ch1: The Khorasan
When the Persians finally met the Egyptians in battle, it is said that they did so with cats pinned to their shields, reducing their opponents' archers, for whom the animals were sacred, to a state of outraged paralysis. Victory was duly won.
Having won Babylon, Darius was alert to all the city could teach. For a man of his penetrating intelligence, the city must have appeared as an immense illustration of what kingship might truly be, enshrined within ritual, and luxury and stone.
When the Assyrian kings had portrayed themselves trampling their foes, they had done so in the most extravagant and blood-spattered detail, amid the advance of siege engines, the flight of the defeated, the piles of loot and severed heads. But what mattered to Darius was not the battle, but that the battle had been won; not the bloodshed but that the blood had dried, and an age of peace had dawned.
Should an infant be judged too sickly or deformed to make a future contribution to the city, then the elders would order its immediate termination. Since the investment required from the city to raise a citizen was considerable, this was regarded by most Spartans as only proper. Indeed, a mother might well play the eugenicist herself.
Those Spartan children permitted to live could not help but grow up proudly conscious of themselves as an elite, chosen as such at birth; and yet the state, in return for its patronage, imposed stern and fearsome obligations. Babies, soft and helpless, had to be toighened and fashioned into Spartans. Such a process of social engineering was only practicable, of course, if begun in the cradle. The Spartans, in their concern to mould the perfect citizen, had developed a truly bizarre and radical notion: the world's first universal, state-run education system. Why, it even provided for girls. Just as boys were trained for warfare, so girls had to be reared for their future as breeders.
The requirements of Sparta's eugenic programme were paramount.
Spartans girls exercised in public: running, throwing the javelin, even wrestling. It was the habit of Spartan girls, as they trained to sport only the skimpiest of tunics, slit revealingly up the thighs. Sometimes they might even disport themselves in the nude. The Spartans themselves, sensitive to the mockery that labelled their daughters 'thigh-flashers', would retort sternly that it 'encouraged a sense of sobreity, and a passion for physical fitness'.
Egalitarian though the ideal was, it did not foster any notions of equality. The sense of frantic competition that made women wish to outshine their peers in beauty gnawed at everyone in the city. The education system, in a seeming paradox, worked both to stamp a single mould on those who passed through it, and yet to identify and fast-track an elite.
Even as a young Spartan submitted to the ferocious and uniform disciplines, he was continuously being studied, compared and ranked: 'As the boys exercised, they would always be spurred on to wrestle and contend with one another, so that the elders could then better judge their characters, their courage, and how well they were likely to perform when the time came for them, finally, to take their place in the line of battle'. Even girls might get in on the act: the boys would routinely be ordered to strip before them, to be subjected to either praise or mocking giggles. A true Spartan never had anything to hide.
In other states, the poor were skin and bones, and the rich might be nicknamed 'the stout' - but not in Sparta. In other states, it was the elite who would indulge themselves with wine and drunken dancing - but not in Sparta. With some justice, it could be said of Lacedaemon that 'the quintessence both of freedom and slavery are to be found there'. One, after all, was the mirror-image of the other. The Spartans, who were the masters of their own bodies and appetites as well as of a vast population of slaves, were the freest men of all precisely because they were the subjects of the harshest and most unyielding code.
In Greece, a city was hardly a city without a bizarre foundation myth. The Spartans were far from alone in obsessing about their roots. With the anxiety of people who were always looking over their shoulders at rivals, concerned to pull rank, to put down others, to claim preeminence, Greeks in cities everywhere told tall stories about their past.
Logic was rarely a feature of the Greeks' foundation myths. The ultimate, of course, was for an entire regioin to claim never to have been conquered, but always to have preserved its customs, and its liberty, from invaders. The Athenians, throughout their history, never tired of this talk. No folk-tales of migration, of the melting-pot, for them.
It was notable that the Spartans, raised as they were to subordinate their individuality to a collective, were the only people in Greece to play team games; notable also that they displayed a marked ambivalence towards their Olympic athletes. Since Spartan prestige was at stake, their athletes were expected to compete and win at Olympia, but memorials to their victories, back at Sparta, were conspicuous by their absence.
Athens had became a city in which any citizen, no matter how poor or uneducated, was guaranteed freedom of speech, in which policy was no longer debated in the closed and gilded salons of the aristocracy, but openly, in the Assembly; in which no measure could be adopted, no law passed, save by the votes of all the Athenian people. It was a great and noble experiment, a state in which, for the first time, a citizen could feel himself both engaged or in control. Nothing in Athens, or indeed Greece, would ever be quite the same again.
Cleisthenes understood his countrymen well; he knew that the Athenian people, revolutionaries though they had rather startingly proved themselves to be, remained, in their souls, traditionalists still. Far from glorying in the novel character of the democracy, they craved reassurance that it was rooted in their past. Even the democrcy itself, so its founders implied, far from being something new, was in fact the primordial birthright of all the people of Attica, having originally been bequeathed to them back in the days of legend by the celebrated hero Thesues, slayer of the minotaur. In founding democracy, Cleisthenes had invented his city's future, but he had also, just as crucially, fabricated its past.
[Ch5: Singeing The
King of Persia's Beard]
The true scale of the Persian king's empire and the demands upon his attention were utterly beyond the comprehension of most Greeks. Cleomenes, informed during the course of an abortive interview that Susa lay more than three months' march beyond the seam had leapt up in startled disbelief; and yet, east of Susa, the Great King's dominions took a further three months to cross in turn. It would have been small comfort for the Athenians, as they awaited their hour of doom, but teaching them a lesson was not the only, not even the more pressing, of Darius' concerns.
Staggering as the distances
within his dominion were, so was the ingenuity with which his servants
worked to shrink them. No could could fail to be dazzled by the speed of
the Persians' communications. Fire beacons, flaring from lookout to lookout,
might keep the Great King abreast of an incident almost as it brewed. In
the more mountainous regions of the empire, where the valleys offered excellent
acoustics, more detailed information might be brought by aural relay. The
Persians, schooled 'in the arts of breath control, and the effective use
of their lungs', were well known to have the loudest voices in the world;
many a message, echoing from cliffs and ravines, had been brought within
the day over terrain that a man on foot would have struggled to cover in
a month. As the Persians understood to a degree never before rivalled,
information was dominance.
The ultimate basis of Persian greatness, then, was not its bureacracy, or even its armies, but its roads. The distances which had so appalled Cleomenes were routinely annihilated by royal couriers. Access to it was ferociously restricted. No one could set foot upon the king's roads without a pass, a 'viyataka'. Indeed, it was in the 'viyataka' that those twin manias of Persian imperialism, for shuffling forms and for rigid social stratification, most perfectly met and fused. There was no better way for an official to discover his precise place in the imperial pecking order than to arrive at a posting station for the night, hand over his 'viyataka' to the manager and count out the rations that it brought him in return.
[Ch6: The Gathering
Sheated in brightly coloured patterns his legs might be, but a Persian prince was still raised to be very tough indeed. From the age of five, he would find himself subject to a curriculum quite as exacting as the Spartan: woken before dawn, a young prince would start his day with a brisk five-mile run, before embarking on a gruelling round of lessons, voice-training, weapons practice, and immersions in icy rapids. To teach him the arts of leadership, he would be given command of a company of fifty other boys. To teach him a properly regal facility with the lance and the bow, he would go hunting with his father. Born into the lap of luxury he might have been - but luxury existed to dazzle the gaze of inferiors, not to soften the steel of the elite.
To have shrunk from
risk, for Xerxes to have confessed that Persian power might be susceptible
to overstretch, to have abandoned Athens and the continent beyond her for
ever would have been an abject betrayal of Darius. The invasion was ripe
with hazard, but then again, it if had not been, it would hardly have been
a challenge worthy of the attention of the King of Kings. How best to meet
it? What kind of task froce should be marshalled for the invasion and conquest
It seems that Mardonius urged that only elite fighters - Persians themselves, Medes, Saka and East Iranians - be conscripted. Such a strike force, he argued, would be able to move like lightning, outpace any foe, descend upon lumbering infantrymen of the enemy with the same murderous speed that had always proved so lethal to the Greeks of Ionia. Yet times had changed, how could an army drawn from a few satrapies be considered sufficient for the dignity of the man who was to command it? What might have served Cyrus in the days of his mountain banditry was hardly adequate for his grandson, who ruled the world. Xerxes, when he conquered the West, would do so not merely as the King of Persia, but as king of all the dominions that lay beyond it too. The people of even the obscurest frontier had a sacred duty to pay him the tribute of their sons. Indians, Ethiopians, Moschicans, Thracians, Cissians, Assyrians - nothing less than a panorama of his world-spanning dominions; all would assemble before their master and march with him against the West.
Most historians, forced to make an estimate, would put the army under Xerxes' command at around 250,000. At its heart the Great King himself and his crack corps of bodyguards: the thousand who attended him personally and bore golden apples on their spear-butts and then a further nine thousand, also hand-picked, with silver apples on their spears, a shock force known collectively as the 'Immortals' - for 'if one of them were killed or fell sick, a replacement would immediately step forward to fill the gap in the ranks'.
The sun, touching the ranks of the Immortals as they advanced onto the creaking bridge, caught the gold and silver apples on their spears, so that they semmed, as they advanced, to be moving points of light - no detail better proves the authenticity of Herodotus' sources for Xerxes' crossing of the Hellespont than this: that the Immortals marched to war with their spears held upside down. Assyrian frescoes, which no Greek could possible have seen, show exactly the same scene.
Themistocles of Athens could see that the Greeks had only one hope of survival: 'to put an end to their feuding, to reconcile the various cities with one another, and to persuade them to join together in the cause of defeating Persia'. Recognising the danger that no city's fleet would ever tolerate accepting orders from the admiral of another, he made the masterly suggestion that leadership of the allied fleet be given to a people without a drop of sea-blood in their veins. So it was that the Spartans, who had already laid claim to the land command by right, won command of the sea aswell.
It was as the citizens of a democracy that the Athenian people were facing their supreme test; and it was as the citizens of a democracy that they would decide how best to meet it. A date was set in early June for the formal debate on the oracle, which would also, of coursem serve to determine once and for all how they were to fight the looming war... yet abondonment of the city, on that fateful day of the most decisive debate in Greek - and perhaps all European - history, was precisely what Themistocles was indeed proposing.
Themistocles could certainly offer blood, toil, tears and sweat to his fellow citizens. What he would not give them was any promise to fight the invaders on the beaches. Surrender Athens but pledge themselves never to surrender: such was the policy, bold and paradoxical, that Themistocles urged on the Athenians.
Themistocles, to a degree that none of his opposite numbers could remotely rival, had made a career out of persuasion. Democracy, in its first decades, had proved an exacting school. No one in the world was now better practised at getting his own way that a succesful Athenian politician.
Themistocles' audacious proposals, when put to the vote, was ratified. The Athenian people, facing the greatest moment of peril in their history, committed themselves once and for all to the alien element of the sea. Under normal circumstances, the democracy had little tolerance of genius. The circumstances of that summer, however, were decidely not normal; and so the Athenians, rather than punish Themistocles for having been right all along about the Persian threat, decided instead to give him his head.
Themistocles had already identified the perfect spot for an attempt to keep the Persian fleet at bay. Between the northern tip of Euboea and the mainland there was a narrow strait barely six miles across, ideally suited to being plugged; furthermore, it was only some 40 miles east of the even narrower pass of Thermopylae. A fleet and army, operating in tandem, might well hope to hold both the straits and the pass - even in the face of monstrous odds.
Leonidas, king of Sparta, dismissed the Hippeis, the crack squad of 300 young men who customarily served in battle as the bodyguard of the king, and replaced them with older veterans - 'all men with living sons'. A ringing statement of intent. Whatever might happen at the pass - whether glorious victory or total defeat - Leonidas would stay true to his fateful mission. One way or another, he would secure the redemption of his city. There was to be no retreat from Thermopylae.
In the lull before the storm, there was nothing to do but wait for the barbarian.
[Ch7: At Bay]
All day the battle continued to rage at Thermopylae, until the Greeks, having seen off the Medes, and then reinforcements from Susa, found themselves, as the shadows lengthened, facing a moment of crisis. A glittering of jewelled weaponry, a shimmering of exquisite colours, and the Immortals, the most proficient and dreaded of all the Great King's regiments, as supreme among the Persians as the Spartans were among the Greeks, advanced into the pass. To meet them, Leonidas ordered all his bodyguard back to the front line - 'and there the Lacedaemonians fought in a manner never to be forgotten'. Courage, strength, and resolution they displayed, as was only to be expected; but also a murderous talent for the tactical manoeuvre. At a signal, they would turn, stumble, appear to flee in panic; and then, as the enemy surged forward in triumph, their discipline momentarily forgotten, the Spartans would wheel round, reform their line with a fearsome clattering of shields, and hack down their pursuers. Reluctant to squander his best troops fruitlessly, the Great King at length ordered their withdrawal, and the Immortals retreated back through the West Gate. The pass was left to the evening shadows, the carnage and the Greeks.
True glory in Sparta went who fought not in the cause of their own selfish honour but as links in a single machine — the phalanx. Descending the arrow-darkened slope of no man's land, smashing into the enemy's front line, the Spartans faced a test for which their whole lives had been a preparation.
In 431 BC, the growing tension between Athens and Sparta finally erupted into open hostilities. The ensuing struggle, which the Athenians called 'the Peloponnesian War', lasted on and off for 27 years. It ended in 404 BC with the total defeat of Athens. Her empire was dismantled, her fleet destroyed and her democracy suspended. Although in the following century she would stage a spectacular recovery, Athens would never again be the predominant power in Greece. Nor, after 371 BC, would Sparta. One hundred and eight years after Pausanias had won his great victory over Mardonius, the Spartan army was brought to a sensation defeat by the Thebans at the village of Leuctra, barely five miles from Plataea. The Thebans, pressing home their advantage, then invaded Lacedaemonon. The Peloponnesian League was abolished, Messenia was freed. Sparta, deprived of her helots, was reduced overnight from being the hegemon in Greece to a middle-ranking power.
Over the following decades, the Greek cities would continue to tear themselves apart. Meanwhile, to the north, a new predator was readying itself for the murderous struggle to be the greatest power in Greece. In 338 BC, King Phillip II of Macedon, following in the footsteps of Xerxes, swept southwards into Boetia. An army of Athenians and Thebans, attempting to bar his way, was cut to pieces. The grim reality was that Greek independence had effectively been brought to an end. Four years later and Phillip's son, Alexander, crossed the Hellespont to assault the Persian empire. Now it was the turh of the Greak King to have his power humbled into dust. Three great battles in succession were lost to the invader. Babylon fell. Persepolis was burned. The last King of Kings suffered a squalid and thirst-racked death. Alexander laid claim to the 'kidaris' of Cyrus, and to an empire that stretched from the Adriatic to the Indus. For the first time, Greece and Persia acknowledged the rule of a single master. Even Nemesis, perhaps, might have permitted himself a smile.
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