8th Grade: Victory and Defeat

Greetings,

This week we looked at the Trojan War and its aftermath in Greece.

In some ways the Trojan War belongs to province of literature rather than history, because no real “history” books describe the events as we know them.  But that does beg the question, what is evidence?  Is Homer’s Illiad a kind of historical evidence for the Trojan War?   That of course depends.  As part of our study of the Trojan War we looked at different kinds of historical evidence, and the strengths of each.

The points in favor of “Historical Accounts” seem obvious to most:

  • We know the author, and we assume that either he was a eyewitness himself, or had access to eyewitnesses, or access to the records of eyewitnesses.
  • The fixed nature of the text means the story cannot change over time.

But we should be careful not to discount Oral Tradition

  • Do we unnecessarily give undue weight to books merely because they are written down?  Why is reading a book more trustworthy than hearing a story?
  • Books have a fixed text, but many times we remain at the author’s mercy.  He may  twist and distort the truth in his writing, and we give it extra weight because it is writing.
  • Books are the product of one man, but oral tradition comes from whole communities.  Thus, some argue, oral tradition has more external checks upon its veracity than texts.

Archeological evidence is both the strongest and weakest of the three

  • Archeology gives us direct access to the past, often times unfiltered.
  • But, in contrast to texts or traditions, archeology usually gives us only a fragment of the story, and must be fitted into a larger context that archeology often cannot provide.

The best extended treatment I have seen of the evidence for the Trojan War is Michael Wood’s In Search of the Trojan War.  Unfortunately, this video series is nearly 35 years old and parts of it stand outdated.  Time has tended to confirm and extend evidence for the conflict.  If interested you can view a more “popular” (and shorter) account here

The aftermath of the conflict did not turn out as the Greeks no doubt hoped.  We know the Greeks plundered Troy for gold, jewels, and slaves, and we might expect that this sudden influx of cash, and the long-awaited return of its leaders might lead Greece into a golden age.

In fact the opposite happened, and Greece descended into a dark age that lasted somewhere between two and four centuries.  It certainly appears at least that the immediate aftermath of the Trojan War brought general dissolution to the Greek mainland.

Why did this happen?

In the end we can do little better than speculate, but in class we advanced a few theories:

  • In winning the war, Greece won the lottery.  But by a decent margin, lottery winners report that their winnings made them less happy, not more.  The added wealth brings added stress, and conflict over that wealth with much higher stakes.  Perhaps the same thing happened to Greece on a grand scale.
  • Civilizations, like individuals,  tend to thrive when responding to a challenge.  Greece especially emphasized this through their doctrine and practice of arete.  But the massive cash infusion might have made them rest on their laurels, making them less vigilant about things in general.
  • The Trojan War took most of Greece’s leaders away for 10+ years, according to tradition.  When parents go out for the night they have a talk with their kids — “be good to your babysitter, or when I get home I’ll ask how you behaved and then you will be punished.”  Thus, babysitters have a delegated, proxy authority in the eyes children.  But what if mom and dad never came home?  Would the sitter still have authority?

I asked students to envision what would happen if, on their block, every parent went out for the night, and everyone had a sitter.  But, only 2/3 of the parents returned to their homes, leaving the sitters there permanently.  Without mom and dad to enforce the sitters’ word, their authority would collapse almost immediately.  What would happen to the block?  If even just five parents did not return, what would happen to the “society” of the block, and its social interaction?  When we realize that many “parents” of various Greek provinces did not return from Troy, we can imagine the results for the whole of Greek society.

Dark Ages usually occur when fear and instability lead to isolation, and then isolation leads to a breakdown in the way society functions.  Perhaps this is what happened with Greece.  Dealing with failure requires careful thought and wise action, but so to does dealing with success.

Next week we will leapfrog a few centuries and focus on how Sparta and Athens emerge from the Dark Ages.

Blessings,

Dave

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Mayan Collapse and the NFL’s City-State Culture

I wish I had tried harder in math class. I always said to myself that I would never have to use all those formulas in real life, but it turns out that it would have dramatically aided my appreciation of John Lowe’s book on the mystery of the collapse of Mayan Civilization, The Dynamics of Apocalypse: A Systems Simulation of the Classic Maya Collapse.

I usually enjoy historical works that focus on the bigger picture, or at least connect a smaller scale event to something larger. But I know its also important to turn the binoculars around sometimes, and Lowe’s book accomplishes this well. I don’t mind his narrow and technical focus. Had I understood more math (most of it appears to be geo-spatial formulas) I surely would have understood his arguments better, but he does a decent job of summarizing the conclusions of all his deductions.

The mystery surrounding the apparently sudden collapse of Mayan civilization draws many different theories. What makes the case more curious still is that certain areas of Mayan civilization continued to thrive after other areas stopped functioning practically on a dime. Some speculate that the Mayans simply abandoned some large urban areas for reasons unknown.

Lowe begins by dealing with various theories of collapse he rejects.

The Environmental Argument

Lowe admits that many archaeologists find themselves drawn to ecological arguments because the two sciences lend themselves to similar kinds of analysis. But the evidence points away from this. Rainfall remained steady or increased in depopulated regions. Perhaps one might wish to say that the abandoned areas had too much rain and got choked by the jungle, but no . . . other swampy Mayan population sites experienced no depopulation.

Some suppose an over-extension of farming or denudation of soil quality. But no–Rowe points out that the Mayans used different kinds of sophisticated farming techniques that would have kept soil relatively healthy. Of course some form of soil erosion took place. In fact, most of it took place in the northeast Petan region. But again–this region experienced depopulation last among Mayan cities.

Disease

Others suppose disease wiped out the Mayans. But if the Mayans had an interconnected civilization that remained relatively homogenous ethnically, why did this disease not wipe out all of them? Most of the truly virulent diseases have their roots in the Old World, and the Old World would not visit the Mayans until some 600 years after the Mayan collapse.

W.H. McNeil proposed something along the Roman model. As he saw it, disease was not solely responsible for Rome’s collapse, but contributed greatly to it. Two plagues struck Rome in the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D. and had the net effect of depopulating the countryside, setting in motion a chain of events from which Rome was not culturally or politically healthy enough to recover from. But whereas we have plenty of internal evidence for the plagues in Rome, all of the written accounts we have from the Mayans indicate that disease played no factor. Some later sources indicate how healthy people were before the Spanish came. If we cannot rule disease out absolutely, we can safely call it unlikely to have contributed to a collapse.

Ideological Collapse

Much of the rest of the book deals with the more sophisticated and slippery arguments surrounding Mayan beliefs. The basic approach of these scholars argues that, however much certain physical factors might have contributed, the main cause of the fall must have its roots in Mayan religious beliefs.

We know that, for example, the Mayans had a strong sense of cyclical time. D.E. Puleston argues that the general collapse came at the end of an important 250 year cycle, and perhaps the Mayans believed in the need for a general “reset” of their civilization. But the holes in this theory reside in that not all of the Mayans obeyed this “reset,” if it occurred. And other time cycles don’t quite fit the model, so Lowe finds this explanation lacking.

Others, seeing that very specific modeling of ideology can’t quite fit, propose a more general internal negative feedback loop, of sorts. Conditions deteriorate, which makes you double-down on the system of belief, which makes you pour more resources into that system that already leaks. The extra pressure on the system causes it to leak even more, leading to collapse. Rowe remains open to this approach, but it cannot arise to anything more than the level of a guess.

Rowe runs the risk of subjecting everything to such rigorous examination (and complicated mathematical formulas), that he runs the risk of cutting the beef so thin no one can see it. But he eventually gives some of his own theories, which rely on the historical city-state collapse model of ancient Greece and Mesopotamia. Before examining this, I admire that someone with such an analytical bent as Rowe can consider some historical parallels and other paths that one cannot strictly measure.

The city-state model has the advantage of keeping both independence and interdependence at play simultaneously. This flexibility ideally can make them more creative and adaptive. They avoid putting all eggs in one basket, and can theoretically benefit from innovations other city-states make. But the intricacy of the system can make them vulnerable as well. The Greeks stopped cooperating and left themselves vulnerable to assimilation from the north (just as the Mayans from the south likely assimilated to the northern regions) in the form of Macedonia. When cooperation against a possible hegemon remained impossible or ineffectual, the whole house of cards comes tumbling down.

This may not be quite fair to Rowe. While I admire his book, Rowe is much more clear with his writing when critiquing other theories. He has had time stating a positive truth clearly, held back by all the possible caveats that no doubt lurk in his brain. I may not have read him accurately, especially at this point of the book.

I think his idea of a political collapse has merit, but I believe we need more focus on the ideological explanations. For example, one can say that the Mayans stopped cooperating, but they appeared physically able to do so if they wished. Why didn’t they, then? You can argue for the power of a northern Mayan hegemon akin to Alexander the Great, but the historical record doesn’t indicate this. Even if it did, it still could not explain why the Mayans could not cooperate.

Alas, I have nowhere near the familiarity with Mayan belief systems to propose anything specific. But I can suggest an analogous situation to illustrate my point with the Redskins and the NFL.

First, we can view the NFL as a civilization of city-states. The NFL has customs and laws shared by every team, but every team has its own independent leaders and cultures. Some teams are healthier than others, but all share in a degree of common fate. The city-state model roughly works.Now, the Redskins. In the early phases of their existence the team had a very modest amount of success. They entered their “golden era” around the early 1970’s, and it lasted until January 1992 with their last Super Bowl victory. I lived through this golden era and it was gloriously fun.

Such a run of success created an enormous cache of goodwill among the fans. I have no wish to make this anti-Dan Snyder post or to catalog the many abuses of fan goodwill and the terrible decisions from the late 1990’s until today. There is more here for those interested. But, many outward edifices of a successful team still appeared in place. Fans came to games, fans cheered their team, paid for jerseys, the team made money, etc. One of the puzzling things about the Mayan collapse is that certain elements of their civilization, such as the high quality of their pottery, lasted right up until the end. We see this too with Roman coins. They maintain their weight and intricate design for decades after most historians (with the possible exception of Gibbon) mark the beginning of the end.

This year the team started 6-3 and seemed playoff-bound in a weak NFC East. But underneath lay definite problems, such as terrible performances for key home games, fans and players feuding, etc. And then, suddenly, for the last game of the year–utter collapse, as Eagles fans outnumbered Redskins fans at least 2-1 in the Redskins stadium.

The Redskins had issues in the past with other teams’ fans buying up tickets. The problem came in spurts for different teams, especially big name teams like the Steelers. But for a divisional rival . . . nothing like this has ever come close to happening before.

Of course the NFL can absorb one terribly dysfunctional team. The NFL, for now, need not worry too much. Faith in the “shield” continues on. But, imagine a scenario where

  • The Redskins don’t recover anytime soon and become dead weight in the league
  • A few other franchises (perhaps Jacksonville, Tampa Bay, the Jets) slide into similar positions
  • The concussion and player safety issue grows in importance
  • Domestic abuse and other player issues continue

Then we might see a very sudden collapse of faith, and a sudden exodus from stadiums and television sets. One might imagine abandoned stadiums to accompany abandoned temples.


Valleys of Neptune

Several years ago I attended a conference in which Dr. Peter Kreeft was one of the featured speakers.  I have read a few of Dr. Kreeft’s works and liked them all, and especially enjoyed his essay on surfing, one of his great loves.

During one of the lunch breaks I had the immense good fortune to find myself sitting next to Dr. Kreeft at one the random round tables in the dining area.  I asked him for some surfing tips and he proved gracious and helpful.  Based on his love for the sea I also wanted to run a pet theory of mine by him.

The theory runs something like this. . .

Mankind’s greatest feats of creativity have always come near water.

  • Egypt had the Nile and the Mediterranean
  • Babylon had the Tigris and Euphrates
  • Greece had the Mediterranean
  • Northern Europe gave birth to the Gothic Age, by the English Channel and the North Sea
  • London then led the way with the Channel, North Sea, etc.
  • The Dutch had a brief but brilliant golden age, again right on the water
  • In America the great cultural centers have always been Boston, New York, L.A., etc.

Even when sometimes you think of an exception, the theory still holds.  Chicago is in the middle of the U.S., but has the Great Lakes.  Twain invented American Literature in the Mid-West. . . but his formative years were spent on the Mississippi.

And so on, and so on.

Assyria was in the Ancient Near East, but not creative in any way that contributed to humanity. They did not live near any great body of water.  The Greek city-state of Sparta was one of the few far away from the Mediterranean, and their culture stagnated.  Rome obviously had lots of power, but came to the Mediterranean late in their game and thus borrowed a great deal from everyone. Their creative cultural contributions pale in comparison to Greece, but also Egypt and probably Babylon as well.

Some might suggest that the key is majestic expanse, not just water.  But I disagree.  The Great Plains have majestic expanse in spades and have not led the way in creative impulse.  The Himalayas have the tallest mountains on Earth but have not produced great thinkers, architects, etc.  Sparta was surrounded by mountains on all sides and may have been one of the more culturally stagnant of all civilizations.  Of course mountains and plains have a beauty all their own and can inspire, but they do not appear to have the universal impact of water.  I still think there must be something to water itself.

A purely rational or mechanical view of this would probably put the emphasis on the fact that living near water would inevitably result in overseas trade, which would blend cultures and ideas to a degree that would naturally lead to creativity.

But I think that this puts the cart before the horse.  For a civilization to think of something beyond survival and necessity, it has to think outside of itself, and for that it needs inspired.  It is this sense of inspiration that opens them up to travel, other cultures, and other things.  In other words, substantial bodies of water subconsciously unlocks our creativity and then civilizations take advantage of the opportunities before them.

“What do you think?” I asked Dr. Kreeft.

“I agree.”

There followed a pregnant pause but all I could think was, “He agreed!  Yee-ha!”

He continued (I paraphrase his words), “There is something about water that ties us to creation itself.  It is where we came from.”  And with that, he politely excused himself.

Part of me wanted him to say more, but upon reflection he had in fact said it all.  I doubt very much that by the “where we came from” comment he meant anything in a purely Darwinian sense.  Genesis 1 talks of creation being drawn up through water.  Our new creation involves the waters of baptism.  1 John 5 talks mysteriously of the three-fold agreement of the Spirit, water and blood.  I know of a physics teacher who begins the year by looking at ancient views of creation and the cosmos, and mentions Thales’ idea that all matter comes from water.  The students tend to scoff until they re-read Genesis 1.  There is the Tradition of the Church which portrays Mary hearing the Annunciation, with the attendant re-creation of all things through the Incarnation, sitting by a well.  The creation of the “new Adam” would obviously take us back to Genesis 1, just as St. John does in the opening of his gospel.

In the Odyssey (13.102-112) Homer refers to a cave sacred to nymphs which contains “ever flowing springs of water.”  Also in the cave are “jars made of stone,” along with “looms, likewise of stone, in which the nymphs weave sea-purple garments.”  The Neo-Platonic philosopher Porphyry writes,

The “garments of sea-purple” are obviously the flesh, which is woven together from blood; the sea-purple dye is derived from blood, and the wool that it colors is also the vital fluids of animals.  All flesh is thus fashioned from blood through blood . . .

To this day Jimi Hendrix stands firmly entrenched as the greatest electric guitarist of all time.  He did things with the guitar that still no one else can equal.  I don’t think it coincidental that some of his most intriguing songs (“Rainy Day, Dream Away,” “Castles Made of Sand,” “May This be Love,” “1983 . . .A Merman I Should Be”) involve water.  Perhaps in some way he understood the power and meaning of water as Peter Kreeft did that day at lunch, a serendipitous moment for me if there ever was one.

8th Grade: Water and Mountains in Greece

Greetings,

This week we began Greek civilization.

We began where we began where we began our look at Egyptian civilization, with geography.

Greek geography has three dominant features I wanted the students to notice: water, mountains, and climate (below is rough topography of the region)

MapTopoGreece

I believe water had a few key impacts on the Greeks:

1. Psychological — it is nearly universal human reaction to be drawn out by large bodies of water.   At least I tend to think it is.  Most of us have probably vacationed at the beach before.  Have most of you, like me, stood looking at the horizon of the sea and thought, “One day I shall go forth and seek out boldly new lands and new places”?

Alright, maybe not for everybody.

But why does waterfront property sell at such a high price?  Water may not call us all to adventure, but it does seem to impact our psyche in some way.

2. Water also serves as a means to communicate and interact with others.  So those that live near water tend to explore and trade, and this in turn creates vibrant economies and cultures.  England, the Netherlands, and Venice might be examples of this.

In the end, we can see why great cultural explosions often come from places near water if we combine the possible psychological and obvious practical effects (Greece, Renaissance Italy, the Dutch, England)  Of course like most things, this has its limits.  Witness, for example, classical music from Bach though Strauss, Russian music and literature, etc. in essentially land-locked places.  Still — it seems to me that there may be a connection between water and a civilization’s creativity.  I expand on these possibilities here for those interested.

Mountains and Soil

1. Greece had farmers, but in general the soil was rockier and poorer than in the Fertile Crescent.  This in turn, of course, might only serve to push them outwards all the more.

2. The mountains divided them geographically, which in turn divided them politically.  These mostly independent communities may have helped originate, or at least broaden, the concept of self-government.  All of the civilizations we have studied so far have chosen the ‘big’ route to success, partly through choice and partly through circumstance.  In contrast, the Greek philosopher Aristotle believed the ideal political community should have more than 5000 citizens.

Climate

If most people could pick their ideal climate it would probably be between 50-80 degrees, light breeze, low humidity.  This would be a general description of a Mediterranean climate, and one impact this had on the Greeks was that they lived life outdoors.  So — as they interacted with other areas throughout Greece and the Mediterranean, they also interacted a lot with each other, and this too might have helped contribute to the creativity of ancient Greek civilization.

After looking at geography we went to another key foundation of ancient Greece and looked at their concept of ‘Arete,’ which I think can be best translated as ‘excellence.’  ‘Excellence’ is an amoral concept.  The Greeks admired people who were ‘excellent’ people.  Odysseus was excellent at cleverness and like a cat, always landing on his feet.  Achilles is admired because no one can best him in battle.  But neither would be considered moral people in any Christian sense.  Arete tells you to continually pursue excellence, to never rest on one’s laurels.  One of the problems with arete, however, is that it does not tell you when to stop, something that we will see working itself out in Greek civilization.

We have discussed before that what a civilization worships is what it follows after at all costs, and this may not be found ultimately in the gods themselves.  One question I posed to the students was, which came first, the Greek gods, or Greek arete?  Greek gods have power and beauty, but not morality.  In Greek sculpture their is not much difference between how gods and men are depicted.  This one is of Poseidon:

Posiedon

And another famous one of the discus thrower (stance obviously different, but the ‘body’ is the same:

I should say that the students were right to point out some minor differences, as the gods usually tend to look more imposing or regal, but in general the gods were just somewhat better versions of mankind.

We can contrast this with the Egyptian gods.

Egyptian Gods

The difference is more than mere artistic technique.  When they wanted, the Egyptians could be quite expressive, as this tomb painting with birds shows.

Often times the Greeks depicted the gods in motion, perhaps reflecting the fluid nature of their civilization.  The Egyptians, in contrast, often showed their deities in a static posed, often with arms crossed, reflecting the more stable, tradition oriented nature of the Egyptians.

Next week we will look at the Trojan War and the possible historical roots of the conflict.

Thanks again,

Dave

Politics Make Strange Cities

I am republishing this based on a brief, but interesting article I read about Cairo, with info and links inserted below . . .

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The ancient Persian Empire usually doesn’t get the credit it deserves.  I reflected on this as my son read the graphic novel 300.   I give the book credit for its entertainment value and reasonable historical accuracy.  But at one point the story declares that in fighting Persia, the Spartans fought to preserve freedom and the light of truth and reason.  This strikes me as an almost dangerous absurdity, considering that the Spartans enslaved a native population and practiced infanticide.  The Persians built their extensive empire largely on the back of tolerance (note the praise for Cyrus the Great in Isaiah), pioneered some legal improvements, and often paid even their lowliest workers.  One can root for the Greeks against the Persians, as I do, but not quite for the reasons given in 300.

The Persians also are interesting case study in the building of cities.  As a people they originated in the mountainous Iranian plateau, but as their empire spread, Persian natives found themselves far afield from their native climate.  How could they hold their rapidly expanding empire together?  I already mentioned the legal and philosophical approach, but they matched this by having three distinct capital cities scattered in different parts of their empire.

Only Ecbatana, their summer capital, had any proximity to their place of origin.  It made sense to make it their summer capital as it lay further north.  But they gave Susa prominence in the South by making it the final/first stop on their royal road, and they willingly went further south still to Persepolis for symbolic purposes.  Having three different capitals demonstrated the broad-minded, inclusive approach of the Persians.

The very flexibility that allowed them to grow so quickly, however, proved a double-edged sword.  Being Persian came to mean nothing more than having a better economy — in other words — very little about Persia touched the soul.  When Alexander invaded between 333-323 B.C., many willingly and easily switched allegiances to him.

I admire Persia’s feat of flexibility.  No capital city today could “move” to a new location every few months.  We have far too much bureaucracy to achieve that.  Also, they “walked the walk” as well as talked.  They said they were inclusive, and they demonstrated this “on the ground.”  But Persia’s story begs the question of whether or not one can invent history on the fly, whether one can “create out of nothing” a culture and a way of life.  I touched on my skepticism about invented cities in this post a few months ago, and the reasons for the failures of St. Petersburg to lead Russia are quite similar to Persia’s ultimate demise.

Cairo is about to attempt an experiment not unlike Persia.  With their population growth outpacing their population, they plan to build a massive “New Cairo” directly adjacent to the old city to serve as Egypt’s capital.

Ordinarily I might think this a fool’s errand, but Egypt has gone through several distinct historical phases and may not quite have a distinct identity in the modern era.  Maybe, just maybe, this could work (read more here).

America has some similarities to Persia, especially lately with our emphasis on tolerance.  Again, there are many worse things to be known for, and besides, I think being “American” involves more of an inner identity than Persia ever had.  But, we, like Persia, invented our capital city, and we might inquire how that has worked out.

Like Persia, we picked the location of our capital for purely political reasons.  Tradition and geographical position probably pointed to Philadelphia as the best choice.  But, despite a lack of clarity on exactly how we ended up making the decision, it appears that we decided on Virginia both to help them ratify the Constitution and perhaps to honor Washington, Madison, Jefferson, etc.  To build the buildings we had to clear a swamp and import people into it the city from outside.  The transience of the D.C. area has to do with military and government turnover, but has its roots in the fact that most everyone in the region originally got imported. Their homes lay elsewhere.

Thus, D.C. never had a history of its own. It had to be invented, and history has to “happen”–it can’t be invented.  So while New Orleans has Bourbon Street, Memphis has Beale Street, New York has Harlem, D.C. has K Street, where lobbyists and bureaucrats cut a rug.  Not exactly the stuff of legend.

As Toynbee pointed out in Cities on the Move, no city worthy of the name can sustain itself.  It has to import the necessities of life, but evens out the balance sheet in other ways.  All capital cities, for example, export law and national directives.  But one also hopes that they might export some sense of cultural identity, some sense of “soul” for the nation (with the caveat that it need not dominate, but only add flavor).  D.C. will never be able to do this, and we should not expect it.   The town got created out of nothing purely for the function of exporting administration, and a leopard can’t change its spots.

It is a shame that all D.C. can export is bureaucracy, but our invention of the capital does testify to our inherent flexibility as a nation.  Our lack of attachment to History itself has given us the ability to adapt quickly to challenges and allowed individuals in every generation to make of themselves what they will.  The question for the future remains whether or not the lack of cohesive cultural and historical identity will ultimately hurt us as it hurt the Persian Empire 2500 years ago.

8th Grade: The Clash of East and West at Marathon

Greetings,

The week before break we had our discussion on the forms of government, and this week we concluded our look at Persian civilization.  Early next week we will have a test on our Persia unit.

We looked at Persia’s expansion in Europe under Darius as they crossed the Hellespont into Greece.  Why did they do this?  I think there are a variety of possibilities.

  • We talked before about the ‘Burden of Cyrus.’  His extraordinary accomplishments made Persia a world power.  However, this legacy could be a burden as well as a gift.  Both with Cambyses and Darius we see this ‘need’ to do something grand that Cyrus did not do, something that would allow them to leave their own mark on Persia.  For Cambyses, this took the form of the conquest of Egypt.  For Darius one could argue, it took the form of conquering Greece.  One needs only look at how childhood stars often fare in their adult lives to see the problems of too much success too quickly.
  • The answer could be simpler.  Expansion may erase current enemies but it usually creates new ones.  The Aegean Sea may simply have been the ‘next’ enemy for Persia given their previous expansion through Asia Minor.
  • A more obvious and practical reason may have been Athens’ support for rebellions against Persia amongst “Greek” cities in Asia Minor.  Though this support amounted to little more than a token gesture, Darius may have felt than any slight to Persian power needed dealt with.  If this story is true, it has similarities to Emperor Claudius’ decision to invade Britain (Britain may have been giving aid — in the barest sense of the term — to conquered Gauls) during his reign in Rome.
  • Herodotus records a few stories that suggest that Darius may have had personal motivations for conquering Greece involving a personal attendant of his who was Greek.  The stories may or may not be true, but they might have a ring of truth.  It is not unknown for kings or country’s to act at least in part with this kind of motivation.

We wanted to realize, however, that expansion across the Aegean would be a different kind of expansion than the Persians were used to.  Almost the entirety of their empire was land based.  Anyone can walk.  Not everyone can sail.  Their expansion overseas would mean the creation of a whole wing of their empire.  Embarking on the sea would put them in a position where they would need a strong presence but have little experience.  In contrast, most Greek city-states grew up on the water.  Persia would still be able to muster an overwhelming advantage in raw manpower.  For most city-states this would be enough.  But as we shall see, not for all.

We looked at the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C., and what it revealed about Persia.  Persia’s defeat at Marathon hardly spelled doom for Persia, but it did demonstrate their weaknesses, and perhaps, the fact that they had finally stretched out their imperial arm too far.  The map below shows them coming right up against classical Greece at this time:

Persian Empire

Persia was, in general, less oppressive and more tolerant than previous empires.  They provided economic advantage and security.  But being part of Persia did not come with any sort of identity.  One might argue that Persia was all head, but no heart, and on some level people need inspired.  They possessed huge armies, but the majority of those armies had conquered troops that probably felt little reason to fight for Persia.  Thankfully for Persia, most of the time their huge numbers meant that they often did not have to fight at all.  In fact, Persia’s absolute requirement for military service for all eligible males shows them at their least tolerant.  When one father asked King Xerxes to exempt his youngest son to stay on the family farm, Xerxes executed his son, hacked his body in two, and had his departing forces march between the pieces of his son’s body as they left the city.  They allowed for no exception to their ‘No Exceptions’ policy.

At Marathon, the Athenians gained a tactical advantage by focusing their attack on the non-Persian members of Persia’s force.  The Persian force collapsed quickly as large portions of their force beat a hasty retreat.  They may have been willing to follow orders and march where told.  Why would they risk more than that?  What were they fighting for?  On a variety of occasions, Herodotus speaks of the bravery and skill of the purely Persian troops. But the conquered and incorporated troops proved to be a hindrance rather than an asset.  But I also think that the Athenian victory was part psychological.  They ran at the Persians — they actually attacked!  Herodotus hints at the shock the Persians must have felt under such a circumstance.  In Greece, Persia would meet a people who refused to accept their ‘deal.’  The fact that Persia needed to build a navy to deal with this threat put them in an unusual position, like fish out of water.  We will see in a few months how and why the Greeks defeated Persia when their clash grows into something much more than a skirmish.

Many thanks,

Dave

8th Grade: Cyrus and the Medo-Persian Empire

Greetings,

This week we began our next civilization, Medo-Persia, and began the story of the origin of Cyrus the Great as told by Herodotus.

There are those who dispute the story’s accuracy.   It does resemble in some ways the stories of both Moses and Paris of Troy.  We can trust the Moses story, but we need not immediately discount the Cyrus story merely for that it resembles the story of Moses. The story of Paris seems to reside in myth and folklore, but again, this should not immediately preclude the veracity of the Cyrus story.  These are interesting questions to ponder, and I don’t know if we can find absolute answers.  What it obvious is that it is a great story.  If you ask your children about it, I’m hoping they can retell it to you if you would like.  You can find it in full online in Herodotus’ Histories in Book 1, beginning in chapter 107.

The Persian Empire had its flaws, but did most things right and represented a vast improvement over the Babylonian, and especially the Assyrian empire.  Some of this had to do with historical coincidence, but a lot of it had to do with the values and practices of Cyrus, the empire’s founder.

Some things to note. . .

1. Cyrus arose to power at a time when no other dominant power dominated the ancient Near East.  Egypt had been on the wane for some time, Assyria was destroyed, and the Babylonians had lost their former shine.  Thus, Cyrus was able to expand by slowly incorporating smaller kingdoms into his realm, without a major challenge posed by any other empire.

2. I think the biggest factor, however, was Cyrus’s foreign policy/diplomacy.  According to Herodotus, he set the tone during his usurpation of the Mede King Astyages.  Cyrus was half Mede, half Persian.  Conquering the Medes in the traditional sense would have meant conquering himself.  He spares Astyages and integrates Median and Persian alike.

Cyrus used this same model for most all of his conquests.  He wanted expansion, but he also strove for incorporation and integration.  He tolerated a variety of customs and religions.  You got the benefits of security and participation in Cyrus’s growing network of trade and prosperity.  Very little about your daily life would change. True, the former king would be exiled to a distant palace, but Cyrus tried to promote from within.  He might use local lesser magistrates to rule in his stead.  In class I put it this way: If Cyrus conquered the U.S. he might exile the President and V.P., but perhaps promote the Senate Majority leader and Secretary of State.  He would create loyalty to himself by this, because those promoted would owe their position to him.  The transition of leadership would be softly felt by the locals.

It could be said that Cyrus positioned himself as a ‘liberator,’ and not a conqueror.  He could somewhat truthfully pledge that you would be better off under his dominion.  Slavery came close to disappearing in his realm.  The only thing he asked in exchange was that your army get attached to his and you pledged your loyalty to his person.  He succeeded like few others, and we will not see such effective empire builders until we look at Rome.  One sees something of his personality and humility in his surprisingly simple tomb.

This method of course differed significantly from others that we have seen so far.  One tremendous benefit of this method was that it appears that the Persians had far less slavery than previous civilizations.  As we progress, however, we will see that the splendid machine known as the Medo-Persian empire did have an Achilles heel. What, after all, did it mean to be Persian?  Can an empire’s identity revolve only around economic advantage and efficiency?  The other possible weak link was the army.  This was the one sticking point in an otherwise tolerant (at least for the time) regime.  They mandated and enforced military participation throughout their empire.  This army grew so huge and so multi-national that it might conquer merely by showing up.  But what held the army together?

The history of Persia will in some ways revolve around this question, as we shall see in the weeks to come.

 

Dave