Thermopylae – The Hellenic Alliance – Extra History – #1


Corinth 480 BCE Representatives from 70 Greek city-states, have gathered to discuss a common threat. Persia, the greatest empire the world has ever seen, is invading Greece. These Greek city states are discordant and distrustful. Some of them are technically at war with each other. But, they’ve come together for the first time in history to face a common enemy. Yet, even under the threat of annihilation. They can’t agree, by the time they adjourn, only thirty states remain, in this new Hellenic alliance. Of the seven hundred city-states in Greece, most have opted to either stay neutral, or capitulate to Emperor Xerxes. The Greeks, those who are left, choose the place that they will take their stand. A lonely pass, between a mountain and a sea. Thermopylae. This videos is brought to you by total war arena, where you could write your own history in Thermopylae. Download the game with the link below and use the code HOPLITE for extra goodies. The Battle of Thermopylae, is one of the most significant events in the ancient world, and also one of the least understood. Because, while most accounts of Thermopylae talk about the fighting and the tactics. The actual battle made little strategic difference. Despite the Greek allies brave defense, Xerxes would break through and burn Athens. Persian armies would harry Greece for another year, but as we will see over these two episodes. Thermopylae was important for a different reason. It came to shape how Greece thought of itself, and how the Intellectual descendants of Greece still think about the world. Because Greece wasn’t Greece yet. There was no Greek identity. It wasn’t a monolithic culture. Rather, it was a handful of city-states that spoke vaguely the same language and worshiped some of the same gods. Many of these presumed Greek states thought that they had more in common with the Persians, than their so-called kin. So before we get to the great battles and the heroic events. Let’s talk about the three players on the board. Sparta, Athens and Persia and any discussion of Thermopylae has to start with Sparta. Sparta was without doubt, one of the most extreme societies in human history. A sort of eugenic warrior state. when each new citizen was born, elders would inspect the baby, killing it if it had physical imperfections. At the age of seven, every Spartan boy entered a state education system that drilled him in the arts of war. Brutalizing him both physically and mentally sometimes to the point of death. All in order to create an effective and unquestioning soldier. Men lived permanently in a barracks with Spartan society even Mandating romance within the bounds of the military. But the result of this oppressively brutal system, was that Sparta had by far, the best heavy infantry in the ancient world. Spartan War consisted entirely of the phalanx, each man guarding the others moving and fighting in a group. And Spartan society was the same, duty to the state And self-sacrifice were paramount, And individualism was discouraged. But you can’t talk about spartan culture, without talking about the helots. The massive caste of enslaved people, that spartan society was built upon. Sparta had enslaved its Greek neighbors, forcing them to do back-breaking work. The reason that Spartans could devote their whole culture toward producing soldiers Was that none of them had to do labor, any labor. It was all handled by the people they’d enslaved. In fact, by the time the Hellenic Allies gathered at Corinth, there were about seven helots for every Spartan And this imbalance, left the Spartans in a perpetual fear of slave revolts. They were a warrior society. Not to fight wars abroad, but to prevent a helot uprising at home. To ensure this, they kept the helots in a perpetual state of terror. Spartan death squads, regularly stormed helot dwellings at night, torturing and murdering anybody who breathed resistance. This paranoia was so acute, that Sparta often avoided deploying their troops abroad. Preferring to guard against the danger within. But this fear also led Sparta to become the diplomatic juggernaut of ancient Greece. Constantly worried about its own security, the city formed a mutual defense pact with neighboring states. Each pledging to come to each other’s aid in case of invasion or revolt. And this coalition would form the backbone of Greek Resistance against Persia. Of the thirty Hellenic allies, fourteen of them joined because of their pact with Sparta. But you know who wasn’t part of that pact? Athens and there was some seriously bad blood between the two. Sparta considered the newly democratic Athens, an existential threat And had even mounted a military intervention to stop its political revolution. After all, Athenian democracy had a tendency to spread And what would happen if the helots got wind of this new system of mob rule? This was likely on the mind of the Spartan representative, King Leonidas As he spoke to the Congress, where he found himself suddenly on the same side as his Athenian rivals. Athens was the opposite of Sparta in almost every way. Athenians valued individualism Disdaining anyone who couldn’t argue political opinions, their society turned out philosophers, Mariners and playwrights. Citizens first and soldiers second, and in this new democratic society, the elites were politicians Guiding the ship of state by persuading the populace to vote for ballot measures And one of its greatest political Minds, was Themistocles. When the city had discovered a new silver vein, he had persuaded the voters to use that money to found a navy Rather than just, sharing the money out amongst the populace. And it was Themistocles, master of this shiny new fleet, who represented Athens at Corinth. Putting aside his reservations about Sparta, much like Leonidas was putting aside his queasiness about working with Athens. Given the Spartans warrior culture and diplomatic prowess. He even supported Leonidas as overall leader of the coalition. Where Sparta brought diplomatic and military might, Athens brought its Navy and it’s creative streak. Because while Athenian democracy was more chaotic than Sparta’s dual monarchy. It also gave them room for a more flexible type of strategic and political thinking. But it is important that we don’t confuse Athens with a modern democracy. At most, only about 30 percent of the male population voted. Athenian women couldn’t hold property, or run households like their Spartan cousins. And foreign slaves, while not treated quite as badly as the helots. Did make up about half the population, of this great city-state of equals. In fact, while both Athens and Sparta Insisted that they fought for freedom and against Persian slavery. They didn’t mean freedom, in the way that we understand it. They fought for the freedom of self-determination To involve their city-states in to democracies or rigid warrior cultures as they saw fit. Because they were right, that kind of experimentation would not be tolerated under Persia. Yet the Persians ironically, would tolerate a lot, because funny thing about those slavers of Persia. They didn’t own slaves. The workers that built the great monuments of Persepolis. Carving the Empire’s massive canals, and engineering its underground irrigation tunnels. Those people got paid wages, according to their level of skill. In addition to that, the Persian Emperor’s tended not to force their culture and the religion on the people they conquered. Sure, if people wanted to convert to Zoroastrianism, great! and if they wanted to adopt Persian culture, well good on them. But, it wasn’t a requirement. In fact, the Persians often behaved more like liberators, than conquerors. Restoring people to their homelands, if the previous ruler had uprooted or oppressed them. The Empire’s founder, Cyrus the Great, famously freed the Jews from captivity in Babylon. Everybody won, the Jewish elites got to go home and Cyrus got a loyal buffer state, between Persia and Egypt. And this tolerance, was even more impressive, considering the size of the Empire. By the time the Persian Emperor Xerxes clashed with Leonidas at Thermopylae. His state stretched from northern India to Egypt to Ethiopia. And the Persian bureaucracy, ran that territory with unprecedented efficiency. It was so impressive, that Alexander the Great, just copied it, when he conquered Persia, 150 years later. As long as territories paid their taxes and didn’t revolt, Persia, basically left them alone. If they did rise and revolt though, the punishment was merciless. And that’s where this whole business got started. In 499, Greek cities in Ionia rose against Persian rule, declaring themselves democracies. Seeing an opportunity to spread its governmental system. Athens aided its new sister cities and made themselves a permanent enemy. In Response to this slight, the Persian Emperor, Darius had invaded Greece. Swearing to raze Athens to the ground. And he would have too, if a small Athenian army hadn’t met him on the plain of Marathon. There, the Athenians won an improbable victory and drove the Persians into the sea. Which would have been slightly less improbable, if Sparta had helped out. But the Spartans had been in the midst of a religious festival, and refused to anger the gods by marching to war. But that wasn’t the end of the Persian zyre. Oh no, for the armies of Darius’s son, Xerxes were marching into Greece. Crossing the Hellespont, on a kilometer long pontoon bridge, built by Egyptian and Phoenician engineers. Accompanied by the largest invasion ever assembled. Where his father had failed, Xerxes aimed to succeed, so Athens and Sparta. These once and future enemies got to work, after days of strategizing. Themistocles proposed a two-front defense. First, the Athenian Navy would stop the Persian fleet from landing troops behind the Greek Army. Second, Leonidas and his Spartans would hold the Persian army at bay on land. In a lonely pass, named after the geothermal springs nearby, this pass was known as the hot gates. Thanks again to the folks at total war arena for sponsoring this episode. You want to rewrite your own history in Thermopylae? Download the game with the link below this video and use the code HOPLITE for extra goodies. Be sure to tell them extra credits sent you.

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