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The middle sea a history.., p.4

  The Middle Sea: A History of the Mediterranean, p.4

The Middle Sea: A History of the Mediterranean
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  But it was all too good to last. After Solomon’s death his realm split, into the Kingdom of Israel in the north and that of Judah in the south; the constant discord between the two rivals weakened them both and made them an easy prey to their enemies. Around the middle of the eighth century BC the Assyrians invaded, and in 722 BC the Kingdom of Israel was destroyed. Judah, under its king Hezekiah, remained for the moment inviolate, but only for another twenty-odd years. As the century ended, the Assyrian king Sennacherib swept down, in Byron’s words, ‘like a wolf on the fold’, to the walls of Jerusalem and called for the city’s surrender. Hezekiah, encouraged by the prophet Isaiah, defied him. At this point Assyrian records suggest that Sennacherib had to hurry home to deal with domestic troubles; Isaiah, on the other hand–supported to some extent by Herodotus–claims that a miraculous plague descended on the invading army. Somehow, in any case, Jerusalem was spared.

  But not for long. A century later, in 586 BC, Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, destroyed the city utterly, blinding King Zedekiah–having first obliged him to witness the death of his sons–and carrying him off, together with 10,000 of his leading subjects including the prophet Ezekiel, to their Babylonian captivity. Only in 538 BC, with the capture of Babylon by Cyrus the Great of Persia, were the exiles–or the Jews, as we may now call them–permitted to return. They founded a new Hebrew state, restored the Temple and re-established the old ritual as prescribed in the books of Leviticus and Numbers. Their troubles were, for the moment, over.


  Ancient Greece

  The centuries following Homer saw the collapse of what one might call the palace-based civilisations of the late Bronze Age and their replacement by far more open, more numerous and comparatively more democratic regimes. One of the first and most powerful was that of the city of Corinth, which rapidly grew to be the leading naval power in Greece. The Corinthians boasted a superb geographical position astride the isthmus which bears their city’s name, and which gave them access to both the Ionian Sea and the Aegean; they established control of the trade routes to Italy, and founded colonies as far away as Syracuse in Sicily, Apollonia in present-day Libya and, after the first naval battle recorded in Greek history–it was fought in about 670 BC and was won largely by Corinth’s new secret weapon, the trireme–the island of Corfu. But Corinthian supremacy was relatively short; by the sixth century BC the star of Athens was rising fast.

  By this time the Greeks had colonised the entire eastern Mediterranean as far west as Sicily. (One group, from the city of Phocaea in Asia Minor, went even further and founded a colony at Emporion, now Empuries, on the coast of Catalonia, the only Greek colony in Spain of which we have firm evidence.) They had civilised it too–with their art and architecture, their literature and philosophy, their science and mathematics and their manufacturing skills. We should also be grateful to them for their introduction of fine wine, and with it its associated rites and social practices, the most important of which was the feast, or symposium. But the Greeks were never an empire in the sense that Rome was to be. Politically, they were simply a large quantity of small city-states, often at war among themselves, occasionally forming temporary leagues and alliances but essentially independent. Athens was in those days in no sense a capital, any more than, for example, Halicarnassus in Asia Minor where Herodotus was born, or Syracuse in Sicily which was the birthplace of Archimedes, or the island of Samos, home of Pythagoras. St Paul was to boast that he was a Roman citizen; such a thing could never have been said about Greece, which–not unlike Judaism today–was a concept rather than a nationality. There was no precise definition. If you felt you were Greek and spoke the Greek language, then Greek is what you were.

  One consequence of this broad diaspora is that there are as many magnificent Greek sites in Italy, Sicily and around the west and south coasts of Asia Minor as there are in mainland Greece, and they are often even more rewarding to the visitor. The Parthenon, it goes without saying, is in a class by itself;9 the same could be said, perhaps, for the architectural masterpieces at Olympia and Bassae. But then one thinks of the great temples of Paestum south of Naples, or of those at Segesta and Agrigento in Sicily; or, beyond the Aegean, of the immense Greek theatre at Ephesus, of the smaller ones overlooking the sea at Side and Ka or of the almost unbearably evocative ruins of Priene, one of the relatively few Greek cities of the coast to have escaped romanisation, with its lovely little bouleterion where the chosen representatives of the people would meet under the sky and conduct the business of the city. All this may not be Greece as we think of the country today, but it is the Greek world, which is far more important.

  There were also a number of petty kingdoms in Asia Minor which, though increasingly influenced by Greek culture until they were almost completely hellenised, had their origins in those far-off days before the Greeks were ever heard of: Pergamum, for example, whose shrine to Aesculapius, the god of healing, had made it a place of pilgrimage for many centuries before it acquired something approaching political supremacy in the second and first centuries BC; or Phrygia, whose celebrated King Midas–he of the fabled golden touch–reigned in the eighth century BC;10 or Lydia, ruled in the sixth century BC by the still richer King Croesus, where coinage and gambling were both invented–perhaps simultaneously?–and of whose inhabitants Herodotus was to write: ‘Except for the fact that they prostitute their daughters, the manners of the Lydians are much like our own.’

  This lack of political unity was entirely beneficial to the development of Greek art, culture and thought. It encouraged diversity and gave rise to a good deal of healthy competition. But it proved a serious weakness in the face of a formidable imperial power which, through most of the sixth century BC, was steadily increasing in strength. The Persian Empire was essentially the creation of Cyrus the Great, who during his thirty-year reign from 559 to 529 BC welded a number of disparate tribes into a single nation, and made that nation the mightiest on earth. The Persians were superb soldiers and magnificent bowmen, who would again and again overwhelm their enemies under hails of arrows: thanks to them and to his equally fine cavalry Cyrus defeated Croesus in 546 BC, subsequently extending his authority along the Anatolian coast to Caria and Lycia. At a stroke, Persia had become a Mediterranean power.

  Under Darius the Great–who came to the throne in 522 BC, having murdered Cyrus’s son Cambyses–it very nearly became a European one. Darius launched his first major expedition against the Greeks in 490 BC, when he sent a huge fleet and at least 15,000 men under his nephew Datis across the Aegean in an all-out assault on Athens. The Greek general Miltiades quickly rallied some 10,000 Athenian citizen-soldiers and another 1,000 from the little town of Plataea, ranging them in a long line across the plain of Marathon some twenty-two miles from the city. A reluctant Spartan army failed to turn up in time, and Miltiades did not wait for it. The battle was over quite quickly. The strongly reinforced Greek wings penetrated their Persian opposites and then wheeled inwards to envelop the centre. Datis’s army turned and fled, with the Greeks in hot pursuit. Persian losses amounted to 6,400; the Athenians lost 192, and captured five Persian ships into the bargain.11

  Athens had won a battle, but she had not won the war. All she had gained was breathing space in which to prepare for the next onslaught. Her leader Themistocles, who had been elected archon–titular head of state–in 493 BC, was convinced that her best hope lay in sea power and set about building a navy. By an extraordinary stroke of good luck a rich new vein of silver had just been discovered in the mines at nearby Laurium, so finance was not a serious problem. Fortunately too the Persians were heavily engaged in putting down a rebellion in Egypt, and the death of Darius in 486 BC delayed them still further. Finally, however, in the spring of 481 BC, a new expedition of 100,000 men under Darius’s son and successor, Xerxes, crossed the Hellespont (Dandanelles) on a bridge of boats and marched through Thrace into Thessaly; it was said to be so huge a horde that the men and pack animals together drank the r
ivers dry. The anxious Athenians consulted the oracle at Delphi and were told to put their faith in their wooden walls; but as nobody knew whether this was meant to refer to the fortifications of the Acropolis or the new ships, it did not help much. At any rate, they ignored the advice and–accompanied this time by a fair-sized contingent from Sparta, under the Spartan King Leonidas–marched north to meet the enemy.

  They decided to make their stand at the pass of Thermopylae, the gateway to Boeotia and Attica. Spartans and Athenians fought valiantly side by side for three days, but then a local guide showed Xerxes a narrow path through the mountains by which he could fall upon the Spartans from behind. While the main body of Greeks retired to the south, Leonidas and 300 picked troops fought a desperate rearguard action–and were killed to the last man. Now the way to Athens lay open. Themistocles evacuated the city and established a new headquarters on the neighbouring island of Salamis, summoning all his available ships–they amounted, we are told, to 378 vessels–to assemble in the Saronic Gulf. They did so, only to find themselves almost immediately bottled up by the Persian fleet of nearly 600. But then, instead of trying to burst through the blockade, they craftily withdrew into the narrow waters behind Salamis, luring the Persians in after them. Fighting at close quarters, the Greek triremes proved far nimbler and more manoeuvrable than the heavy Persian war galleys, which they rammed mercilessly while the increasingly furious Xerxes, seated on a silver-footed throne under a golden umbrella, watched the progress of the engagement from the Attic shore. By the time the battle was over, the Greeks had sunk almost half his ships, at a cost of forty of their own. He returned to his capital at Susa, and never set foot in Greece again. In Thessaly he left an army of some 30,000 men under a general named Mardonius; this was defeated at the battle of Plataea the following year, and–traditionally on the same day–a last naval engagement off Cape Mycale in Asia Minor did for the few Persian ships remaining. The war was won.

  Inevitably, the outcome of the Persian War was seen as a victory of western liberty over eastern autocracy and absolutism: the Great King, with all his huge and lumbering war machine, had been unable to destroy a mere handful of Greek city-states. But why, it may be asked, only a handful? Athens and Plataea, Sparta and the few other cities that made up the Spartan-led Peloponnesian League had distinguished themselves nobly; what about the rest? The truth is that the vast majority of Greek states had not lifted a finger. Some, doubtless, had collaborated with the Persians out of fear; others had simply accepted life under a probably tolerant and undemanding satrap12 with a shrug: after all, the great cities of the Ionian coast–Pergamum and Ephesus, Miletus and Priene–had lived under the banner of the Great King for the past forty years without complaint. Finally, there were many upper-class, conservative Greeks all over the Aegean who shuddered at the radical steps towards popular democracy that had been taken over the past century–above all in Athens, by reformers like Solon and Cleisthenes–and frankly preferred the ancien régime. Having no real nationality themselves, they saw no objection to a mildly benevolent foreign domination.

  Halicarnassus (the modern Bodrum) was also under Persian domination when Herodotus was born there in 484 BC. At the age of about twenty, however, he opposed the tyranny of the Persian satrap Lygdamis and narrowly escaped a death sentence. Expelled from the empire, he settled in Samos, which was to remain his principal base until, in 444 BC, he was involved in the Athenian colonisation of Thurii in southern Italy. Throughout his life he seems to have been constantly on the move. He certainly spent some time in Athens–where he became a close friend of Sophocles–and travelled all over Greece and Asia Minor, the Lebanon and Palestine. Other journeys took him to Cyrene in Libya, to Babylon in Mesopotamia and up the Nile to Aswan in Upper Egypt. Wherever he went he asked questions, not only about history but about geography, mythology, social customs and anything else that occurred to him.

  His history–the first important European literary work to be written in prose–was mostly composed towards the end of his life and was divided after his death into nine books, each named after one of the Muses. Although written nearly two and a half millennia ago, it remains today quite astonishingly readable, enlivened as it is with countless digressions, anecdotes and snatches of curious information picked up on the author’s travels. The whole thing is infused with an irresistible sense of curiosity, of wonder, of sheer fascination with the beauty and diversity of the world around him. Herodotus is thus thoroughly, magnificently Greek. He embodies the Greek spirit as completely as the great tragedians of the fifth century, or even as Homer himself.

  We have all been brought up to see the fifth century BC in Athens as a Golden Age: an age which not only saw an unprecedented advance in the arts and sciences as well as in philosophy and political theory, but which in many cases attained in these same fields a level of perfection that has never since been surpassed. This, it need hardly be said, is a generalisation. We can see the beginnings of the phenomenon almost a hundred years earlier, and those responsible for it were by no means only Athenians. It was in Ionia that Thales of Miletus–who was considered by Aristotle to be the first natural philosopher–correctly predicted a solar eclipse as early as 585 BC, and that his colleague Anaximander produced the first map of the inhabited world. Half a century later on the island of Samos, Pythagoras produced his famous theorem about right-angled triangles. But it was in Athens that Peisistratus began the Temple of Olympian Zeus in 540 BC, by which time the art of black-figure pottery was at its height; and it was again in Athens that, after the end of the Persian War, all this creativity, versatility and brilliance seemed to come together in a single concentration of genius, bringing with it a huge wave of confidence and optimism. Man, it seemed, had freed himself from the primitive superstitions of former times; at last he was beginning to understand the universe about him, and to understand it was surely to control it. Simultaneously, he was discovering the basic truths of political philosophy, which taught him how to live in the society into which he had been born. With such a combination of power and knowledge he would not simply enjoy his Golden Age; he would make it go on forever.

  The presiding spirit over all this was Pericles. He dominated Athens from 461 BC, when he was thirty-four, until his death in 429 BC of plague, and everything he did or said was inspired by a passionate love for his native city. He did his best to adorn it in every way possible–by restoring the temples destroyed by the Persians and organising the construction of new ones, particularly on the Acropolis, where he was directly responsible for the Propylaea, the Odeon, the Erechtheum and the Parthenon itself. But he was also a war leader and an incorrigible imperialist–for it should never be assumed that the fifth century in Athens was a time of peace. On the contrary, there was almost constant fighting with Sparta, as also with many other Greek states who resented and resisted Athenian expansionist policies, the pressures steadily building up until in 431 BC they exploded in the Peloponnesian War. That war–one of the chief reasons for which was the determination of each side to control the trade routes linking Greece to the Adriatic–lasted for just over a quarter of the glorious fifth century. Anyone wanting to know the full story can read Thucydides; here it need only be said that it ended with a winter-long siege of Athens (405–04 BC), during which the city was starved into surrender. So much, it might be thought, for the Golden Age. But the Golden Age was never about politics; it was about art and thought. In the field of literature–and in particular that of Greece’s greatest strength, the drama–the first great name was that of Aeschylus. Having been born in 525 BC, he had certainly fought at Marathon, and probably also at Salamis and Plataea. During his long life he wrote over eighty plays, of which seven have survived, including the only extant Greek trilogy, the Oresteia. Aeschylus was in many ways a pioneer. His tragedies were the first to explore human personality, and the first also to use a second actor, thus reducing to some degree the importance of the chorus. He made two prolonged visits to Sicily–at that time
still an integral part of the Greek world–and it was there, in 456 BC, that he died–killed, according to a venerable tradition, by an eagle which mistook his bald head for a rock and dropped a tortoise on to it in order to crack the shell.

  Sophocles, some thirty years younger than Aeschylus, was still more prolific, with 123 plays to his credit; once again, seven tragedies have come down to us, including three which deal with the Oedipus legend. Apart from these–Oedipus Rex, Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus–his masterpiece is unquestionably Electra, which tells the story of the murder by Electra and her brother Orestes of their mother, Clytemnestra–wife of Agamemnon–and her lover, Aegisthus. Sophocles too was an innovator. Aristotle tells us that he added a third actor, and he also introduced the art of scene-painting. On top of all this, he somehow found the time to distinguish himself in Athenian public life. Treasurer of the Delian League, he served twice on the military council of ten generals; he was also a priest of Halon, another, lesser god of healing. He died in 406 BC, at the age of ninety. Some time before his death his sons took him to court on the grounds that he had grown senile and was no longer competent to manage his affairs. He replied by reciting from memory a long extract from his most recent play, Oedipus at Colonus–and won his case.

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