Persia and the Greeks

After following the rise of Persia, it's time to go back a bit and find out how and why the Persian empire got involved with the Greeks. Darius' empire now stretched from Pakistan to the Aegean – and the Greek cities (Ionia) that had been there since the time of the Trojan War were part of it. Herodotus' story of how the Ionian Greeks tried to regain their independence centres on Histiaeus. Histiaeus had supported Darius, but Darius (rightly) didn't trust him, and had taken him to Susa. Apparently it was a cunning plan of his to cause the Greeks to rebel against Persian rule, which would make Darius send him home to sort things out! There follow the amazing stories of how Histiaeus got a message to Aristagoras, ruler of Miletus, and how Aristagoras failed to get the Spartans to support him. The revolt was speedily crushed – but Darius' attention was drawn for the first time to the small Greek city of Athens, who had rashly helped the rebel cause, and played some part in the only rebel achievement – the burning of the great city of Sardis. Darius promised revenge, but quite unexpectedly, his punitive expedition was soundly defeated by the Athenians at the battle of Marathon.

Help the students grasp the idea of scale – and see how small Greece is compared with the vast Persian empire – the largest empire in the ancient world (although the Roman empire had a bigger population). For the 'Persian Wars' (or perhaps should be 'Greek wars'?) emphasise the political significance, rather than military tactics.

Ionian Greeks - one of the three linguistic/cultural divisions the Greeks saw as dividing them: the Dorians - leading city Sparta were seen as dour, practical and militaristic; the Aeolians - found in Thessaly in northern Greece were seen as backward socially and politically; the Ionians - leading city Athens saw themselves as enterprising, sophisticated and artistic. Most of our written sources are Athenian or Ionian! Greeks remained in Ionia until modern times - in the 1920s they were expelled from Turkey by Ataturk, and had to go as refugees to a mainland they had never known. The small city of Athens was overwhelmed by its new population - and has never quite recovered.

Sparta was regarded by the rest of Greece as the leading city - it controlled most of the Peloponnese through conquest or alliance.

Trojan Horse Discuss the modern uses of this expression. Find other illustrations. What is improbable about the one in the book?

Virgil's famous account in Aeneid Book 2 (from

Battered by war, and let down by the fates, with now so many years slipping past, the leaders of the Danaans built a mountain-like horse, thanks to the immortal assistance of Pallas, and clad its flanks with beams of silver-fir. They pretended it was an offering for a speedy homecoming: this was the story that was spread. They picked men by lot and, unobserved, hid them in its dark interior, closely packing the vast hollow belly with armed troops.

There is an island, Tenedos , clearly visible from Troy: most celebrated and rich in resources while Priam's kingdom lasted - now there's just the bay with its unreliable anchorage for ships. This was where the Greeks sailed to, and hid on the deserted shore. We assumed they had gone home, making for Mycene with the wind behind them. And so all Troy shook itself free from its long agony. The gates were opened: we were pleased to visit the Dorian camp and the abandoned beach. Here was the Dolopian contingent; here brutal Achilles strutted; here was the place for the fleet, and here they used to compete in line of battle.

Some of us gasped at the deadly gift from the virgin Minerva, and marvelled at the hugeness of the horse. Thymoetes was first to suggest it be brought inside the walls and stationed on the acropolis: was it through treachery, or was Troy's fate already working against us?

But Capys had a better idea: he ordered us to push this example of the Greeks' treachery and their suspect gifts into the sea, or light fires underneath to set it ablaze, or drill into the hollow womb and probe for hiding-places. The people, unsure [what to do], were split into opposing factions.

At the head of a large crowd, in plain view of everyone, Laocoön, in a blazing temper, came rushing down from the acropolis, and from far off started shouting:

"What colossal madness is this, you pitiful people? Do you really believe the enemy have sailed away? Do you think the Greeks make any gifts which are not tricks? Is this the Ulysses you know? Either Greeks are hidden secreted within this wood, or this is a device to attack our walls: it will spy on our homes and roll down upon the city, or it is some other kind of booby trap. Trojans, do not trust the horse. Whatever it is, I fear the Greeks - especially bringing gifts. "

So saying, with tremendous force he launched his massive spear at its flank, aiming at the curving woodwork of the beast's belly. There it stuck, shuddering, and the cavernous hollows reverberated and groaned as it struck the pregnant womb. And, if the will of the gods had not been against us, and our own will had not faltered, he would have thrust the weapon through and disgraced the Greeks cowering in their lair: Troy would now be standing, and the high acropolis of Priam would be there still.

Suddenly some Trojan shepherds with great commotion were dragging a young man with his hands chained behind his back towards the king. He had deliberately given himself up to them as they approached - they didn't know who he was - in order to make this very thing happen, and betray Troy to the Achaeans. Relying on his nerve, he was ready for either outcome; to succeed in his deception, or to face certain death. From all directions the young men of Troy, in their eagerness to see him, rushed up and crowded round to compete in mocking the prisoner. Learn now the two-facedness of the Greeks - from one bad example know them all. For as he stood bewildered and defenceless, the focus of our attention, he stared round at the Trojan ranks and said:

"Is there a place on land or sea which can shelter me? What is in store for a creature like me? There is no place for me anywhere among the Greeks, and now the Trojans hate me too and demand my blood in vengeance."

Our hearts were won over by his misery, and all the aggression was knocked out of us. We encouraged him to say what family he came from, and what his story was: he should tell us why we should trust him now that he had been caught.

"Often the Danaans longed to abandon Troy and put their efforts into getting away, and, exhausted, leave the lengthy war behind. If only they had done so! Often harsh wintry weather kept them off the sea, and Auster deterred them from setting out. Particularly now, when the finished horse with its maple-wood cladding stood ready, did storm-clouds fill the whole sky with noise of thunder. In our anxiety, we sent Eurypylus to consult the oracle of Apollo , and he brought back this doom-laden response from the temple: 'It was with blood, Greeks, when first you set out for the coast of Troy, that you calmed the winds: a young girl was slaughtered . It is with blood that your homecoming must be won: a Greek life must be sacrificed.'

"When this news reached the ears of the ordinary people, our hearts went numb, and an icy shiver ran through the marrow of our bones, [as we wondered] whose fate was sealed, who Apollo would demand.

"At this point, with great fuss,the Ithacan pulled the prophet Calchas into our midst. He demanded the meaning of the gods' revelations. Many were already predicting that the schemer's brutal crime would involve me, and inertly watching to see what the outcome would be. For twice five days he kept silent, and with draped head refused to single out anyone or mark them down for death. Reluctantly, at last, forced by the Ithacan's hectoring demands, he formally spoke out, and sentenced me to the altar. All approved, and accepted the fears each had felt for himself being commuted to the death of a single wretch.

"And now the black day arrived. The sacrificial items were being prepared: the salted grain, and the head-band round my temples. I snatched myself away from death - I admit it - and broke free of my chains. I lay concealed all night in a muddy pool in the dark in the reeds, waiting until they sailed, if sail they were going to. I no longer held any hope of seeing my ancestral homeland, or darling children, or the father I'd missed for so long: probably the Greeks would demand them in punishment for my escape, and purge my guilt with their death, poor wretches.

"I appeal to you by the gods, and by the powers that know the truth, and by any uncorrupted decency which may still exist among mankind: pity my pain, have pity for a soul who suffers things he does not deserve."

Thanks to this ruse, and the skill of the devious Sinon , the story was believed, and we whom neither Diomedes nor Thessalian Achilles , neither ten years nor a thousand ships could tame, were led captive by tricks and crocodile tears.

At this point another blow, more momentous and much more fearsome was delivered to us pitiful wretches which shocked our unsuspecting minds. Laocoön , chosen by lot as priest of Neptune was sacrificing a huge bull at the appropriate altar. Suddenly, from Tenedos , through the calm waters twin sea-serpents (I shudder at the memory) breasted the swell and in unison made for the beach. Their necks were held stiffly above the waves, and their blood-red crests towered over the water: the rest of them churned the sea behind, as their bodies looped in a long series of undulations. A noise was produced as the salt-water foamed: and already they were homing in on the land, their blazing eyes flecked with blood and fire as they licked their hissing jaws with flickering tongues.

We retreated, pale at the sight. They made a beeline for Laocoön. First each snake enfolded one of his two small sons, and as they snaked round them bit off the pathetic limbs and devoured them. After this, they seized Laocoön himself, as he brought weapons to help them, and immobilised him with their massive coils. Now they had wrapped themselves twice round his waist, and looped his neck twice with their scaly bodies, while they towered above him with their heads and tall necks. All the time he was trying to prise the knots apart with his hands, his priest's headband soaked with slime and black venom; all the time his ghastly shrieks filled the air. It was like the bellowing when the wounded bull escaped from the altar and shrugged off the badly-aimed axe from its shoulder. But the two snakes made off, slithering towards the temple on the height, the citadel of heartless Minerva , and found protection under the goddess's feet and beneath the circle of her shield.

Then indeed a fresh panic crept into all our palpitating hearts, and they said that Laocoön deserved to have paid for his crime, for damaging the sacred wood with his spear-point, and aiming his evil lance at the horse's back. The clamoured for the image to be towed to its rightful position, and for the goddess's power to be appeased.

We breached the walls and exposed the buildings of the city. Everyone readied themselves for the task and slid rollers under the feet, and tied ropes of hemp round its neck. The deadly engine, pregnant with armed men mounted our walls. Boys and unmarried girls sang hymns around us, delighted to touch the rope with their hands. The horse crawled on, and came to rest menacingly in the centre of the city.



The terms derives from the work of Edward Said, whose book Orientalism challenged established western attitudes towards the East. In particular, patronising western assumptions about political, cultural and racial superiority.


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