We hear about classical Greece all the time. So who were these Greeks?
Short answer: No one. They were not a united civilization but just a bunch of city-states all loosely connected by ethnicity and culture.
Greek civilization was dominated by the environment. They settled on a rocky and mountainous landscape that made unity beyond city-states very difficult. But because they were basically surrounded by water, when they ran out of room on the mainland they would set up colonies all around the Mediterranean. And it was these colonies that got them in trouble with the Persians.
The Greco-persian wars
So when the Persians set their sights on conquering all of Greece, it really was a David and Goliath situation. No one would have believed that the decentralized Greek city-states could beat the Persians and their army that had earned the nickname the 10,000 Immortals because they never seemed to die.
The Persian Wars were actually a series of three conflicts over a period of 50 years. It started when the Ionian Greeks revolted and were supported by a fleet of ships from Athens. But then Persia invaded Greece twice and were, amazingly, held off.
The most famous example of this is the Battle of Marathon. The Persians had invaded the Greek mainland and the Athenian army met them at a field near a town called Marathon. The story goes that the Greeks needed reinforcements and so they sent their fastest runner, Phidippides (dibs baby name! Phidippides – eat your green beans!). Anyway, they asked him to run to Sparta and ask for reinforcement. According to Herodotus (the “Father of History”), the Spartans claimed to be in the middle of a religious festival so they couldn’t make it – damn Sparta, that’s cold. The distance between Marathon and Sparta? You guessed it. 26.2 miles. Except that actually it’s not.
Not to ruin this story, but allow me to ruin this story. Phidippides ran from Athens to Sparta – which was 140 miles – way more impressive, but not a marathon. Then after the battle, the Athenian army marched back from Marathon to Athens (which was around 25 miles) really fast so that they could cut off the Persian navy’s attempt to beat them there. These two stories get mixed up and we eventually decide to call a 26.2 mile race a marathon. Oh well, we were close.
But still, this battle ended the first Persian invasion of Greece.
The Greco-Persian Wars:
The Hollywood version
What I really want to talk about though is the movie 300. I think it’s one of the most interesting and useful Hollywood depictions of history ever – if you know what you’re watching. First, 300 tells the mythical story of the 300 Spartans, under King Leonidas, who held off the terrifying Persians at the Battle of Thermopylae. OK, for starters, there were 300 Spartans but like, 1,000 other Greeks too. But let’s pretend we don’t know that because the 300 version of the story is way better.
The movie 300 is a Hollywood version of Greek accounts of the battle. So, you’re basically watching a more entertaining version of a primary source. Yeah there are tons of liberties taken but you can do that when you’re talking about something so old that there aren’t a ton of sources to prove you wrong. The main issue is that you’re watching “history” from the Greek perspective – if you are aware of this, then it’s pretty cool. But if you aren’t and you just think this is what happened, then the Persians come out looking pretty… how should I say this? Terrifyingly creepy.
In the movie Xerxes is an insanely tall Mr. Clean with eyeliner who makes slaves carry him wherever he goes. The creepiest thing about him for me are his hands. In the scene where he talks with Leonidas he’s keeps putting his long, spidery fingers on Gerard Butler’s shoulders in a way that makes me feel like I’m watching something I shouldn’t be.
Either way, it’s obviously an unfair portrayal of Persia – especially now that you know what an impressive civilization they were. Sure, Xerxes wasn’t “great” like his grandfather Cyrus, and yeah, maybe he did try to seduce his brother’s wife for the hell of it.3 But he also built up the empire, including the capital city of Persepolis. Anyway, long story short, Iran was irate when the movie was released and claimed that Hollywood “had opened a new front in the war against Iran.”
Impact of the Persian Wars on Greece
Back to history, beating the Persians ushered in the height of the Golden Age of Greece. This is what you’re probably picturing in your head any time you hear the word Greece – togas, columns, Socrates…
During the Persian Wars the city-states had created the Delian League – basically a Greek NATO to unite and defend against the invasions. The center of this league and its treasury was supposed to be a city called Delos but a guy named Pericles had different plans.
After the Persian Wars were over, Pericles moved the treasury to Athens where he essentially stole the money to beautify his own city. In Athens, this is known as the Age of Pericles and is great. In every other city-state, I don’t know what this is called but I’m sure I wouldn’t be able to say it out loud without losing my “clean” rating from iTunes. The rise of a powerful Athens sparks tensions with its main rival – Sparta. More on that in a second.
Thanks to all that money from the Delian League, Athens becomes the center of Greek culture – they invent drama (comedy, tragedy, and satire). There was a guy named Aristophanes who was essentially the John Oliver of his day – he mocked Athenian politicians and earned himself the nickname “the Father of Comedy.”
The Athenian marketplace, or agora, also becomes the center for what must have been an incredibly annoying group of philosophers. Socrates is the most famous – he would sit on the steps of a building and ask questions to anyone who would walk by, hoping to engage them in a never-ending discussion where he just asked questions until the other guy probably wanted to smother him with his toga. Socrates was eventually tried and convicted of corrupting the youth because he was teaching them to question Greek tradition, especially religion, and focus more time studying the natural world instead of honoring the gods. This was not OK and so he was forced to drink poison, you know, pretty standard stuff.
The Peloponnesian War
This Golden Age comes crashing down with the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. The Spartans, obviously, win. They’re society was built to win wars – young children who were considered weak were left on a mountain to die, kids started training in military boarding schools at age 7 and they conquered other groups and forced them to do all the agricultural work so that their men could be full-time soldiers even during peacetime.
Side note: Sparta was way more equal in terms of gender roles. Since the men were constantly away fighting, the women were trusted to run the homes and, sometimes, the government. This is very different from Athens where women were not allowed to leave the house without a male guardian – and even then they usually only could leave for religious ceremonies and funerals. Athens gets a glowing reputation later mostly thanks to Renaissance artists and thinkers who loved their emphasis on art, culture, and philosophy.
But the main reason why the Peloponnesian War is important is because of what happens afterward. The war weakens all of Greece and leaves them completely vulnerable. Enter a guy named Alexander…