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Greek politicians and commanders

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Periander of Corinth, Vatican Musea, Rome (Italy). Photo Marco Prins. In the course of the late seventh and sixth century, when Greece was experiencing rapid social and political changes, many Greek towns were ruled by  tyrants or sole rulers. Often, these men were aristocrats who had seized extra powers, sometimes relying on a group of wealthy nouveaux riches. Although the word 'tyrant' sounds very negative to us, this was not the case in ancient Greece. The tyrant of Corinth, Periander, was a respected man and was reckoned among the Seven sages. His rule started in 627 BCE, lasted forty years, and saw a great economic boom. He appointed his son Lycophron as tyrant of Corcyra, which became an important trade partner. He also built the diolkos (portage) across the Isthmus and allied his town to the rich city of Miletus. Unfortunately, he survived his children, except for Lycophron. When he asked him to become his successor, the Corcyrans killed him. Periander retaliated by sending the sons of the Corcyrans to Lydia, where they became eunuchs at the court of king Alyattes.
Musei Vaticani, Rome

Mosaic from the villa of Suweydie, near Baalbek. Now in the National Museum, Beirut (Lebanon). Photo Jona Lendering. Athens saw the same problems as Corinth. A class of aristocrats ruled the city and excluded the wealthy nouveaux riches. Moreover, there were social conflicts. One would have expected the rise of tyrant, but instead the Athenians appointed a wise man named Solon (c.640-561) as lawgiver (594/593). He is responsible for several measures: for example, he decreed that no Athenian would be sold into slavery and that magistracies were open to all rich people (diminishing the power of the aristocrats). He also took economic measures and founded the Heliaia, the people's law court. The result was that people for the first time began to define themselves as Athenians. After Solon had written these laws, he left Athens for some time. He is said to have visited Egypt and king Croesus of Lydia. Later, he returned home, where he was forced to see how Athens got its tyrant: Pisistratus. Solon is reckoned among the Seven sages.
National Museum, Beirut

The "Tyrannicides". National Archaeological Museum, Naples (Italy). Photo Marco Prins.
After the measures of Solon, factional strife was destabilizing Athens. Pisistratus was accepted as tyrant because he promised law and order. His tyranny, which lasted from 546 until his death, was the first period of Athenian glory. He broke the power of the aristocracy, strengthened the city institutions, improved the economy, built temples, and stimulated cultural life. When he died in 527, he was succeeded by his son Hippias, whose reign was resented by many people. In 514, two men, Harmodius and Aristogeiton, killed the brother of the tyrant - who had become a tyrant in our sense of the word, and executed the two men. Four years later, Clisthenes introduced the democracy. The new system needed heroes, and celebrated the 'tyrannicides', even though they had not killed a tyrant at all.
Museo archeologico, Napoli

Miltiades Miltiades (c.555-489) belonged to the old nobility, but he was loyal to Hippias' regime. In 520 he was sent to to the Hellespontine region, where he ruled as a tyrant in a small kingdom of his own. However, in 514, when his ally Hippias had been expelled, he switched his loyalty to the Persian king Darius I the Great, who conquered the region on his way to Thrace and Scythia. When the Greeks in the Persian empire unsuccessfully revolted, his position became untenable, and he returned to Athens, where he became one of the war leaders when the Persians wanted to reinstate Hippias in Athens. At Marathon, Miltiades defeated the Persians and secured the continued existence of Athens as an independent power and a democracy (490; go here for the story). The following year, he tried to conquer Paros, but was mortally wounded.

Bust of Themistocles. Museo Ostiense, Ostia antica (Italy). Photo Jona Lendering.
Ten years after Marathon, the Persians returned to Europe. The Greeks knew at least three years before the invasion that war was eminent, because the Persian preparations were visible to all. The obvious strategy was to meet them on the land - it had been successful in 490. However, Themistocles (c.525-459) convinced the Athenians that they had to build a navy and fight the Persians at sea. He was right: the Persian army was too large to defeat. In September 480, the allied Greeks defeated the enemy navy in the harbor of Athens (the naval battle of Salamis). The building of the Athenian navy was important for two other reasons too: (a) from now on, rowers were the strength of Athens, and they were radical democrats; (b) it gave the Athenians the tool to subject other Greek towns. So, Themistocles was the founder of the Athenian empire and the man who saved Greece from Persian domination. However, in 472/471, the Athenians exiled him. It is ironical that he settled in the Persian empire as a vassal of his old enemy, king Xerxes.
Museo Ostiense; ©**

Pausanias. Bust at the Musei Capitolini, Roma (Italy). Photo Marco Prins.
Prince Pausanias unexpectedly became commander of the Spartan forces in 480, when king Leonidas was killed in action at Thermopylae, where he had tried to block the Persian advance, and after his brother Cleombrotus died of natural causes. Leonidas' son Pleistarchus was too young to rule, so Cleombrotus' son Pausanias was made regent. In 479, he commanded the Spartan army and its allies at Plataea, where the Persians were defeated (more). In the spring of 478, he led the Greek army to Byzantium, but he lost authority when rumors were spread that he wanted to collaborate with the satrap of nearby Hellespontine Phrygia, Artabazus. He was recalled, accused, found innocent, returned, again recalled, and assassinated. After this incident, Sparta decided to remain outside the Greek war against Persia. Athens, using its navy, continued the struggle, founde the Delian League, and created its empire.
Musei Capitolini, Rome

Pericles. British Museum, London (Britain). Photo Marco Prins.
Although the Athenians were sole masters of the Greek world, they had not decided what kind of foreign policy they were to conduct. Miltiades' son Cimon wanted to cooperate with Sparta, but he was unpopular with the masses. In 462, the radical democrat Pericles (c.495-429) accused him and he had to leave Athens. After 451, Pericles was the leading politician in Athens. Almost every year, he was reelected as general, and controlled the people's assembly. The democracy was developed, the war against Persia continued, and when it was finally over, Pericles started a full-scale building program. The anti-Persian alliance increasingly became an Athenian empire, and in the 430's, Pericles embarked upon an anti-Spartan policy. In 431, the Peloponnesian War broke out. His strategy to wear out Sparta turned out to be a disaster (although the historian Thucydides believed otherwise). Pericles was deposed in the autumn of 430 but almost immediately rehabilitated. However, his death in 429 saved Athens, because it prepared the way for a better strategist, Cleon. He was able to improve Athens' finances, which were running dangerously low.
British Museum, London

Alcibiades. Musei Capitolini, Roma (Italy). Photo Jona Lendering.
After the death of Pericles, the Athenians abandoned his strategy and embarked upon Cleon's less passive policy, attacking Sparta at home. After ten years of war, the Spartans were forced to admit that they were unable to defeat Athens. After 421, Athens started an increasingly aggressive policy. In 420, a nephew of Pericles, Alcibiades (c.450-404/403), convinced the Athenians that they had to join a new anti-Spartan alliance, and five years later, he commanded an armada to conquer Sicily. However, Alcibiades was recalled from the Sicilian Expedition because it was believed that he was involved in a religious scandal (415). Understanding that his life was in danger, he went into exile in Sparta, where he convinced the authorities to start the war against Athens anew (the Decelean or Ionian War). The moment was well-chosen, because in 413 the Athenians had supported Amorges, a rebel in the Persian empire. Almost immediately, the Persians sided with Sparta. This was to be Athens' undoing. It could overcome the loss of the Sicilian expedition force, but could not fight against Sparta and Persia at the same time. Ironically, Alcibiades was able to return to Athens after he had made a false promise to forge an alliance between Persia and Athens, but he had to leave his home town when it became clear that he could not keep his word. Alcibiades went into exile again. After the battle at the Aigospotamoi, Athens was forced to surrender (404); Alcibiades was killed almost immediately after. A couple of years later, the Athenians avenged themselves upon his teacher, the philosopher Socrates, who was forced to drink hemlock.
Musei Capitolini, Roma

After the Athenian defeat in the Peloponnesian War, Sparta was the leading power in Greece. Immediately, it started to support the revolt of Cyrus the Younger against the Persian king Artaxerxes II Mnemon, and later, its king Agesilaus invaded Asia. The only result was that the Persians started to support Athens, which returned to its former power in 395. To keep the Greeks divided, the Persians continued to switch sides. They were responsible for the rise of Thebes, supporting general Epaminondas, who was able to overcome the Spartans at Leuctra (371) and Mantinea (362). Although he was killed during the second battle, his inheritance was important enough: Sparta was no longer a great power.

Aeschines. Bust at the British museum, London (Britain). Photo Marco Prins.
During the fourth century, the Greeks remained politically divided - Persian gold was sufficient to ensure an endless series of wars. Meanwhile, Macedonia gained strength and after 346, it was clearly the strongest power in Europe. The Athenian politician Aeschines (c.390-c.315) tried to make the best of it. In his view, the best way to safeguard Athenian independence was cooperation with Macedonia. However, the Athenians preferred war. In 338, the Greeks were defeated by the Macedonian king Philip and his son Alexander. In 330, Aeschines was exiled by the Athenians, who resented the Macedonian superiority. He now started a school, where he taught rhetorics. To be more precise: he specialized on show rhetorics, because political speeches were no longer important. He is therefore called the 'father of the Second Sophistic'.
British Museum, London

Demosthenes. Bust at the Römisch-Germanisches Museum, Köln (Germany). Aeschines' most important opponent was the orator Demosthenes (384/383-322). He usually -but not always- tried to safeguard the Athenian independence by resistance to Macedonian imperialism. After 343, he dominated the foreign policy of his city, cooperating with Thebes and Persia and deliberately provoking the Macedonian king Philip in several speeches (the Philippics). In 338, the Greeks were defeated. Although Demosthenes' policy had been disastrous, he remained an influential politician. During the reign of Alexander the Great, he supported the Macedonians only half-heartedly, and after 324 he embarked again upon a war policy. After the death of Alexander on 11 June 323, there was indeed a Greek insurrection (the Lamian war), but the Macedonians were victorious. After this defeat, Demosthenes committed suicide. He is regarded as the greatest orator of Antiquity; his death marked the end of Greek political speech. Aeschines' escapism was the final word.
Museum, Köln; ©**


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