Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Degree of Themistocles and Military Probability

Degree of Themistocles

One of the most significant events in history was the successful Greek defence against Persia in 480-479 B. C.E. The decisive event was the naval battle of Salamis just off the coast of Attica near Athens, where the Greeks defeated the Persian navy.

The most important Greek naval contingent was that of Athens and the most influential Greek Naval leader was the Athenian statesman Themistocles, who engineered the Greek victory at Salamis.

The Greeks had tried to stop the Persians at the pass of Thermopylae, with naval forces stationed at nearby Artemisium. The plan failed when the Persians broke through by outflanking the pass. The Persians advanced and ravaged Athens and Attica. The Chief account of this is that of Herodotus who describes panic and what amounts to hysteria in Athens. The Athenians evacuate their women and children to the island of Salamis and parts of the Peloponnesus and man their fleet with the men. The Greek fleet assembles at Salamis to cover the evacuation. The Persian fleet bottles up the Greek Fleet at Salamis and in the panic some of the Greek leaders contemplate withdrawal. By a judicious combination of diplomacy and blackmail Themistocles keeps the fleet together and eggs on the Persians to attack. The result is the battle of Salamis. Afterwards the Persians withdraw part of their forces and fleet withdraws also to Asia Minor. The next year the Greeks defeat the Persians at Plataea ending the Persian threat.1

Map of Greece

Such is the story as usually told.

In 1959 at Troezen in the part of Greece called the Peloponnesus was found an inscription that was supposed to be a 3rd century B.C.E., copy of a 5th century B.C.E., degree of the Athenian Assembly dated 480 B.C.E.2 It dealt with plans for the defence of Greece from the Persian Invasion and goes has follows:

(1) [Gods]. It was resol[ved] by the boule and the people: Themis[tokl]es son of Neokles of Phrearrhioi proposed the motion: [to en]tr[u]st th[e] ci[ty] to Athena [who protlects, Athens (5) a[nd to all the other gods to guard an[d] ke[ep off the ba]rbar[i]an in defence of the country; and that [a]l[l] Athenian[s and the foreig]ners living in Athens should place [their chil]dre[n and wives i[n] Troizen [ .... ? in the protection of Theseus] the founder of the land; and that they should pla[ce] (10) t[he old people and the] moveable possessions on Salamis[; and that the treasurers and the priestesses should remain on the acropolis guarding the belongings of th]e gods; and that all the other Athenians and the foreigners who have reached adulthood should embark o[n the prepared 200 ships and (15) resi[st] t[he barbarian on behalf of freedom, both their own [and that of the other Greeks], along with the Spartans and Corin[thians and Aeginetans] and the others who wish] to sh[are in the danger; and that the gene[r]al[s] should appoint [200] trierar[chs, one for] each ship, (20) [beginning tomorrow, from those who o[w]n both la[nd a]nd [hom]e in Ath[e]ns and who have legit[imate] childr[en and are not more th]an fifty years of age, an[d] should [a]ss[ign t]he ships t[o t]hem by lot; vv they should also choose [t]en ma[r]ines [for each ship from those between twenty [and (25) thirty years of age and four archers; they should [a]lso ap[point by lot] the officers for the ships when they al[so] appoint [the trierar]chs by lot; the generals should als[o] list [the others ship] by ship on notice4boards, the Athenians according to the deme (lexiarchic) registers (30) and the] foreigners from those registered wi[t]h the [pole]m[archj they should list them, assigning them [t]o 200 divisions of [u]p to 100 men each and inscribe for each [divis]ion the name of the trireme and the trierarch and the offi[ce]rs so that they may know on which trireme (35) e[a]ch [d]ivision should e[m]bark; and when al[1] the divisions have been assigned and allocated to the triremes, the boule and t[h]e general[s] are to man a[l]l the 200 ships after [sa]crificing to propitiate Zeus the Almighty (Pankrates) and Athena and Victory (Nike) and Poseidon (40) the Preser[v]er (Asphaleios); and when the ships are manned, with 100 of th[e]m they are to assist Artemis[i]on in Euboea, and with the other 100 around Salamis and the rest of Attica they are to lie in wait and guard the country. So that all Athenians may be united (45) in resisting the barbarian, those who have changed their residence for [ten] years are to go to Salamis and stay there until the people should decide about them; and those [deprived of civic rights ....]3

Not surprisingly the document has been controversial. It for example clearly contradicts Herodotus’ account on a number of points. The most important being as follows:

1. That the Athenian assembly voted to evacuate non-combatants before the battles of Thermopylae and Artemisium and in fact the evacuation began then.

2. The Athenians held back part of their fleet at Salamis. Sending only 100 to Artemisium and keeping 100 at Salamis.

3. The Athenians in fact only intended Artemisium and Thermopylae has temporary holding actions and were preparing for a decisive action at Salamis.

Now one of the problems is that in the 4th and 3rd century B.C.E., there were a number of faked Athenian degrees allegedly from earlier times. Further the language and form of the lettering is in some respects early 3rd century B.C.E. Given that at the very least this degree if its based on an authentic degree of 480 B.C.E., the document has been modified / edited.4

As mentioned above this scenario contradicts Herodotus’ account which is over all quite believable if problematic on details. It is hard to believe that Herodotus could have missed this if it was true. Of course this is not decisive it is simply a problem.5

However the chief problems with the degree are simple military ones. If this was the Athenian plan, or more precisely Themistocles’, then it was an unbelievably stupid plan. And on top of it is very hard to believe that the Athenian assembly would have agreed to such a plan to say nothing of Athens’s allies.

Some of Athens’s allies lived in the area just south of the pass of Thermopylae, just what would they have thought about Athenian commitment to defence against Persia knowing that Athens was already planning to evacuate its non-combatants and abandon Attica and Athens to Persia and keeping ships behind at Salamis. One wonders just what the Spartans would have thought of such plan. Almost certainly it would have infuriated them.

Regarding the Athenian Assembly. Is it remotely serious as even a flight of fancy that even before Artemisium and Thermopylae had been breached that the Assembly would have agreed to open up their city, farms etc., to be looted and devastated by Persian troops has part of some hair-brained scheme of defence? It would be clear that acting out of simple self interest that the Assembly would want the Persians halted as far away from Athens as reasonably possible.

From a psychological point of view it is hard to think up a strategy more effective in demoralizing a population before hand and infuriating your allies.

It is generally recognized that the Greek land and naval forces at Artemisium and Thermopylae were intended to halt the Persian forces permanently. Certainly Herodotus’ account would seem to indicate this.6 Attempt to find a trace of a version of events similar to the degree in Herodotus center on the second oracle of Delphi prophecy given to Athenian emissaries before the battle of Salamis. Part of it goes has follows:

Yet Zeus the all-seeing grants to Athene’s prayer
That the wooden wall only shall not fail, but help you and your children
But await not the host of horse and foot coming from Asia,
Nor be still, but turn your back and withdraw from the foe.
Truly come when you will meet him face to face.
Divine Salamis, you will bring death to women’s sons
When the corn is scattered, or the harvest gathered in.7

Aside from the question of whether or not this prophecy was ever uttered for real or if it is a post-hoc creation; it is a rather slender reed to build on and it still faces the problem that the plan for defence as outlined in the degree is military idiocy.

To illustrate some of the problems with this document look at this photo of the island of Salamis.

Arial Photo of Salamis and surrounding area

The fact is the bay of Salamis is a trap. You can see in the left center the narrow strait between the island of Salamis and the mainland. In antiquity it was even narrower and shallower. It is unlikely that the Greek fleet could have escaped through it or even navigate it!8 All the Persians had to do was block the main strait and blockade the Greek fleet in its trap and sooner or latter the Greeks would have been forced to capitulate or come out and fight in far more open waters were the greater numbers and speed of the Persian fleet would have given the Persians the advantage.

Any plan to set up Salamis has an ultimate defensive position is simply moronic. In fact it appears that the plan was simply for the Greek fleet to cover the evacuation of the population of Athens and Attica to the island of Salamis and the Peloponnesus. I have little doubt that the Persian Admirals were simply ecstatic to find the Greek fleet at Salamis, where it could be blockaded and the transports of the fleet had used to transport part of the army directly to the Peloponnesus out flanking the wall, manned by the Spartans and others across the Isthmus of Corinth.

Now an argument can be made that ignoring the Greek fleet at Salamis was not an option, possible flank attacks, and that the lateness of the campaign season would have forced the Persians to retire to winter quarters.9

I rather doubt that all the Persian fleet would have been required to keep the Greeks bottled up. Only a portion of the fleet was necessary and of course with the Greek fleet at Salamis it would have been easy for Persian transports carrying troops to invade the island of Aegina , (second greatest Greek sea power) and the Peloponnesus. Further the Athenians had abandoned Attica just before harvest. Some food would have been available for Persian troops. Also the Persians had the alliance of Thebes which gave them a substantial Greek ally in central Greece. It is debatable whether or not the Persians were under any real military pressure to attack.

Finally the Greek alliance was fragile, with each city state extremely suspicious of each other and ready at virtually any moment to accuse each other of betrayal. In fact Herodotus’ account of the events in the Greek camp before Salamis indicate an alliance on the point of collapse, with massive mutual recrimination. Herodotus’ account describes in fair detail how the Greeks were ready to flee to their respective homes with their ships and how Themistocles through a combination of trickery and blackmail managed to thwart their efforts.10 It is hard to believe that the Persians were not aware of this from their spies. If anything it was the Greeks who needed a battle soon to save their crumbling alliance.

Herodotus gives to Artemisia, ruler of Halicarnassus, the following words:
Let me tell you how I think things will now go with the enemy; if only you are not in too great a hurry to fight at sea – if you keep the fleet on the coast where it now is – then, whether you stay here or advance into the Peloponnese, you will easily accomplish your purpose. The Greeks will not be able to hold out against you for long; you will soon cause their forces to disperse – they will soon break up and go home. I hear they have no supplies in the island where they now are; and the Peloponnesian contingents, at least are not likely to be very easy in their minds if you march with the army towards their country – they will hardly care to fight in defence of Athens.11
Now it is virtually certain that Artemisia never uttered those words but in my opinion they represent an accurate overview of the situation before the battle of Salamis.

It is interesting that Herodotus says that Themistocles sent a secret message to the Persians telling them that the Greeks were completely disunited and would offer little resistance and that the Persians would have a easy victory if they attacked.12

Strait of Salamis where the battle occurred

The end result of all of this was the Greek victory at Salamis. Even if one doubts certain aspects of the story like Themistocles message to the Persians; the picture it gives of an alliance hanging together by a thread rings true. It also indicates desperation for a battle as soon has possible before the alliance collapses into mutual recriminations.

Themistocles was one of the most astute politicians of his time and it appears he pulled of the equivalent of a military / political miracle. It is rather ironic that he ended up as governor of Magnesia in Asia Minor for the Persian King Artxerxes son of King Xerxes who he had defeated at Salamis!13

It is a common place that in war things hardly ever go according to plan and it is very hard to believe that the apparent plan indicated in the degree would have worked out so well; given its glaring defects and lack of common sense. Further any such degree passed before Artemisium and Thermopylae would have told the Persians well ahead of time Greek, or at least Athenian strategy.

It is virtually certain that at the very least the degree we have is not an exact / accurate copy of the Athenian degree passed at the time and that its more controversial sections that contradict Herodotus should simply not be taken seriously.

1. Sealey, Raphael, A History of the Greek City States: 700 – 338 B.C.E., University of California Press, Los Angles, 1976, pp. 208-228, Buckley, Terry, Aspects of Greek History: 750 – 323 B.C., Routledge, London, 1996, pp. 170-188, Ehrenberg, Victor, From Solon to Socrates, 2nd Edition, Routledge, London, 1973, pp. 152-174, For Herodotus see Herodotus, The Histories, Revd Edition, Penguin Books, London, 2003. For the panic in Athens see Book 8, s. 40-48, See also The Rise and Fall of Athens, Plutarch, Penguin Books, London, 1960, Themistocles, s. 9-10, Fuller, J.F.C., A Military History of the Western World, v. 1, Da Capo Press, New York, 1954, pp. 26-52, Burn, A.R., The Pelican History of Greece, Penguin Books, London, 1965, pp. 177-192.

2. Buckley, p. 174.

3. Dillon, Matthew, & Garland, Lynda, Ancient Greece: Social and Historical Documents from Archaic times to the Death of Socrates, 2nd Edition, Routledge, London, 2000, p. 203. Other translations include, Lewis, Naphtali, Greek Historical Documents, The Fifth Century B.C., A.M. Hakkert Ltd., Toronto, 1971, pp. 4-5, Meiggs, R., & Lewis, D., A Selection of Greek Historical Inscriptions to the End of the Fifth Century B.C., University of Oxford Press, Oxford, 1969, No. 23, Fornara, Charles W., Translated Documents of Greece and Rome 1: Archaic times to the end of the Peloponnesian War, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2nd Edition, 1983, No. 55, pp. 54-55.

4. Buckley, p. 174, Lewis, p. 4, Ehrenburg, pp. 156, 426 n. 59, Sealey, pp. 214-216.

5. See Buckley, pp. 170-175, Sealey, pp. 208-221.

6. IBID. Buckley, and Herodotus, Book 7, s. 196-239.

7. Herodotus, Book 7, s. 141.

8. Sealey, p. 220.

9. Buckley, p. 178.

10. Herodotus, Book 8, s. 50-65.

11. IBID. Book 8, s. 68.

12. IBID. Book 8. s. 75-77.

13. Plutarch, Themistocles, s. 27-32.

Pierre Cloutier

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