Saturday, 29 April 2017

After Thermopylae

I have often thought that wargamers are something of a race apart, a bit different from the rest of humanity. I have a suspicion that this can be proved in a fairly simple way. In his book ‘After Thermopylae’ (Oxford:  OUP, 2013) Paul Cartledge suggests that most of the population have never heard of Plataea. Most people, he thinks, have heard of Marathon, Thermopylae, and Salamis, but the fourth battle is a Cinderella.

Even as I read that comment, I had a mental reservation. I reckon, with a reasonable degree of certainty that most wargamers will have heard of Plataea. After all, as I recall, it is a battle discussed in Charles Grant’s The Ancient Wargame, and I recall some rather nice pictures of hoplites in the book. Cartledge also commends the Osprey on Plataea as been a good, popular, military history book, based on decent scholarship. Again, if I am any sort of judge, quite a lot of wargamers will be aware of that item.

So what is the point of Cartledge’s book? It is subtitled ‘The Oath of Plataea and the End of the Persian Wars’. The Oath of Plataea, for those of you who, like me, had not encountered it before, is found as an inscription on an ancient Greek monument dug up in the 1930’s. It purports to be an oath, sworn by the Hellene alliance before the battle of Plataea, that they will live in peace and harmony together afterwards and not go to war with each other. This, of course, refers specifically to Athens and Sparta, but includes other states, and specifically excludes Greek cities like Thebes which Medeized.

Now, of course, most of you will have spotted the mealy mouthed word ‘purports’ in the paragraph above. The question has to be asked about the authenticity of the item. That it is old, ancient Greek and of interest is not in dispute. What is in dispute is its relation to the battle of Plataea. That is, there is no account of an oath taken before Plataea in the written records. While there are two references to such an oath, they date from the 330’s BC, not from 480 / 479 BC. The question is, therefore, around the context of the writing of such an oath.

Hence we land up with a bit of an excursion into Greek history. What had happened between the defeat of the Persian army in 479 BC and the 330’s? Quite a lot, of course. The Athenian-Spartan war, known as the Peloponnesian war, was fought in the end of the fifth century, for one thing, leading to the defeat of Athens and the dismantling of the Delian league. Further wars occurred in the early part of the next century, with Athens, Sparta and Thebes disputing hegemony over the Greek world. There was, of course, always Persian money at the disposal of one side of another. In fact, the victor of the war was usually the one subsidised by the Persians. In this sense we can argue that, military results to the contrary, the Persians won the Greek and Persian Wars.

So, what happened in the immediate context of the stone with the oath inscribed? At Chaeronea in 338 BC the forces of Phillip of Macedon defeated the Greek alliance. Athens was among the defeated, although Phillip did not, at least immediately and in principle, dismantle the Athenian democracy.  The oath, viewed in this context, is a hearkening back to the glory days of Hellenism (itself an invented concept; Greeks did not usually view themselves as Hellenes but as Athenians, Spartans, Thebans and so on) when everyone was united against a common foe. We all do it – the Battle of Britain, Waterloo, and so on are pointed to as important parts of who a nation ‘is’.

Further to that context, there is another one, which Cartledge suggests is the reason that Plataea is less well known than the other battles. Plataea was, on the whole, a Spartan victory. The overall commander of the alliance was Spartan, and the biggest number of hoplites at the battle were Spartans. Thermopylae was, of course, a glorious defeat of the Spartans, and that could be accepted within Athenians historiography, such as it was at the time. Salamis and Marathon were, of course, Athenian victories. At Marathon the Spartans, as is well known, turned up late. Salamis was the vindication of the new Athenian policy of creating a trireme navy. The Athenians were less keen on Plataea because the Spartans won it, although to be fair to Herodotus, he did admit the fact.

The point, of course, should be becoming fairly familiar to regular readers of this blog. History is what we make of it, and what we want to make of it. The Athenians used the history of the Greek and Persian Wars to make a point around 150 years later. That point was that the Athenians and Spartans, if they had remained united, would have seen off the Macedonians. Further points are also made, about the Spartan destruction of Plataea the city, which went against a treaty, and the Thebans relationship with Sparta, Plataea (which they persuaded the Spartans to destroy) and the Persians. The fact that the Macedonians also destroyed Thebes is part of this narrative as well.

There is a further point, of course, in that the Plataeans provided around 1000 hoplites to the Athenians at Marathon. Once Plataea was destroyed, the Athenians in fact created a special class of citizen for them. Again, this is a reference point within the inscription on the oath of Plataea. Again it is something to do with rubbing everyone else’s nose in breaking oaths.

As a final point, we should not ignore the religious aspects. This was an oath, and it was sworn on the gods. Oath breakers would be punished by the gods. That punishment would be destructive; Greek gods were not, so far as I can tell, particularly subtle creatures, and oath breakers who had sworn that if they broke the oath they would be smitten were, usually, smitten. The oath, at the end of the day, was a religious document. The modern idea of separating the realm of the gods and the realm of men and nature would have been incomprehensible to the Greeks.

I hope that I have done a degree of justice to Cartledge’s book, which I enjoyed and found most interesting. But I think the point to take from it is two-fold. Firstly, historical documents need to be read in context, and it takes some detective work to find that context. Secondly, as I have just mentioned, and as I have been banging on about here a bit, even though our culture would discount the religious aspects (as I nearly did above – did you notice?) such an approach simply would not have made sense in the historical context. In short, if we disregard religion in history we will never make sense of it.


  1. Of course men often have beliefs deeper and more important than what we think of as religion though these are often sheltered behind religion resulting in a conviction that "the gods are on our side"and to honour them we must kill or enslave these people, take their land and derive great profit from doing so.

    Of course its even more righteous if after finding a violated Sacred Cow to avenge one can get someone else to bear the cost in blood and money, including one's own middle and lower classes but especially allies, then arrange to earn ongoing commercial gain from an extended rebuilding and occupation paid for by the victim and tge state with profits coming back to individuals. Rome was quite good at such things as are some more modern countries.

    1. I cannot possibly imagine who you are talking about Ross.

    2. Oh I think one could spread a net wide over the centuries and find more than a few countries whose belief systems at times led them to take righteous action which just coincidentally resulted in some members of society becoming even richer. No need to seek out possible recent examples :)

    3. I think people also have authentic religious beliefs as well, and do act in accord with them. Granted the motives are often (or usually) mixed, but I don't think we should dismiss religions as motives for action out of hand, and I'm not sure that a modern scepticism about ancient religious oaths should necessarily be the last word on the subject.

      It turns rather, I suspect, on the modern view of religion as opposed to an ancient view. Modern religion (in the west, at least) is more individual - my belief in my god - whereas ancient belief tended to be more communal - our gods. It is, after all, what seems to have got Socrates executed.

      Still, that is not to say that the gods were not manipulated. You just need a sufficient number of goats to ensure that the auguries are favourable.

    4. I have no doubt that the religious beliefs were often real then as they often real are now. Real belief does not stop subconscious alignment of religious and non-religious interests. Similarly those who profess to not believe in any gods often seem to raise various principles or ideas to equivalent status and believe in and act on them with equal faith and fervour. Consciously cynical exploitation is, I think, rarer and less dangerous.

    5. Agreed, and I also think that the differences in world-view between now (in the post-Enlightenment liberal west) and the past is substantial, particularly in terms of religion, but also in other things (technology and politics are also clear), and we ignore this at our historical peril.

      On the other hand we do have to translate the past to the present. That just add complexities...