Friday, June 27, 2008

The History of Civilization

Chapter Thirteen: The Struggle for Freedom

As the Greeks spread, they were bound sooner or later to come into conflict with a major power. Using water as their highway, the Greeks had opened up trade routes from the coast of Spain to the farthest ports of the Black Sea. This competed with the Oriental route connecting Phoenicia with India, and thereby arose a lasting and bitter rivalry in which war was inevitable."In the reigns of Darius, Xerxes, and Artaxerxes, Greece suffered more sorrows than in twenty generations before," says the historian Herodotus. In the year 512 BC, Darius I of Persia crossed the Bosphorus (near modern Istanbul, Turkey) to invade the Balkans and Macedonia.

The Greek colonies of Asia Minor were conquered by 500 BC. The independent Greek city-states each raised their own armies which followed their own commanders. This failure to achieve political unification caused many heavy losses early in the war with Persia.

Darius died in 485, and was succeeded by his son, Xerxes I. Xerxes prepared leisurely but thoroughly for the second Persian invasion of Greece. When he finally set forth in 481 BC, his army was probably the largest ever assembled before modern times. Herodotus claimed it was composed of 2,641,000 fighting men, with an equal number of slaves, engineers, merchants, provisioners, and prostitutes. It was said that when Xerxes' army drank, whole rivers went dry.

For once, Athens and Sparta worked with a single mind. Delegates were sent to every city in Greece to beg for troops or supplies, most city-states cooperated. It was during this wave of invasions that King Leonidas of Sparta led 300 soldiers to the most heroic resistance in history. The Persians allegedly lost 20,000 to the Spartan 300. Their sacrifice allowed reinforcements time to mount a more powerful defense of their homeland.

Soon afterward the Persian fleet, composed of 1200 ships, entered the Bay of Salamis. Against it were ranged 300 Greek triremes, still under divided command. Themistocles, a Greek admiral, sent a slave to spread a rumor among the Persians that the Greeks ships were planning to flee, which could be prevented only by surrounding them. Xerxes followed this advice, and when his fleet was spread too thin from maneuvering, the Greeks counter-attacked. The invaders lost 200 vessels, the defenders only 40.

The Greco-Persian conflict was one of the most important in European history, because it defined Europe. It won for Western civilization the opportunity to develop its own economic and political institutions, free from foreign oppression or taxation. This freedom would blossom into the Golden Age of Socrates and Plato.

Persia was only stunned, not defeated, and would continue to threaten Europeans in the centuries to come. The borders between the two mighty empires would remain sources of tension and instability through antiquity and into modern times.

For my previous posts on civilization, click here.

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