Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Classical Athens: Foolishness, Truth, and Beauty (478-431)

Sparta and Athens against Persia (498-478)
After suffering defeats at Salamis (480) and Plataea (479), the second Persian army of invasion left Hellenia just as the first had 11 years before. Following its retreat, the Hellenian cities of Anatolia revolted as they had in 499. This time no Persian army retaliated. In 478, Hellenian soldiers led by Pausanias of Sparta captured the city of Byzantium (later Constantinople) and freed it from Persian control.

So, for a time, Hellenia and the Hellenian cities of coastal Anatolia were free from Persian control.

Being freed from Persian control, however, did not mean that these cities remained free from external control. The people of Olympia, then as now, devoted themselves to the six Olympian gods of power. Hellenians had blunted Persian power in western Anatolia. Being good Olympians, however, Athenians quickly replaced Persian control with their own.

Sparta and Athens against each other (478-404)
Growth of the Delian League (478-461)
With the Persian threat to Hellenia repelled, Spartan leaders wanted to return home with their soldiers. Athenian rulers wanted to create and maintain an alliance with leaders of allied municipal states in Hellenia and Anatolia. These municipal states created the Delian League without Sparta. With this step, leadership of Hellenia passed from Sparta to Athens. Spartan rulers resented this.

Athenian rulers did use the money, means (primarily ships), and men of the League to attack Persian soldiers left behind in Hellenia at Eios (476) and to block a westward advance of a Persian army in Anatolia at Eurymedon (466).

But Athenian rulers also used their power within the Delian League to transform the alliance into an Athenian empire. First they used ships of the League to force new cities to join it and to attack member cities that wanted to leave it. Later they used the annual fees for membership in the League to beautify Athens rather than to protect member cities from Persian attack.

Let us remember, however, that life even in democratic Athens was not just political at this time. Instead, Aeschylus and Sophocles treated Athenians each year to some of the most beautiful and insightful tragedies ever performed.

First Peloponnesian War (460-445)
In 460, Spartan rulers controlled the leaders of smaller cities belonging to their Peloponnesian League. At the same time, Athenian rulers controlled the leaders of smaller cities belonging to their Delian League. Some of these weaker leaders, unhappy with the ruler of their alliance, tried to withdraw from one League by joining the other. Spartan and Athenian leaders compounded their problems by creating their own reasons for hating each other. This led to sporadic battles between soldiers from cities on both sides.

At the same time, Athenian rulers decided to fight the Persians in Egypt. In 460 a Libyan ruler had taken control of the Egyptian province of the Persian empire. Expecting an army from Persia to challenge his control, he begged the Delian League for help. Despite the ongoing Peloponnesian war, Athenian rulers decided to send 200 ships to Egypt. Despite early victories by the Athenians, the Persian army eventually crushed the revolt and killed most of the Athenians in 454. The remaining few returned to Athens.

Shaken by this defeat, Athenian rulers sought and got a five-year truce with their Spartan counterparts. Freed from fighting in southern Hellenia, Athenians sent 140 ships to capture a city controlled by the Persians on the large island of Cyprus. The siege went badly, the Persians counterattacked, but these ships also managed to escape back to Athens.

That was the last major battle between Hellenians and Persians until Alexander (“the Great”) led Hellenian soldiers against the Persians in 334. For now (449), Persian rulers publicly agreed to respect the freedom of Hellenian cities in Hellenia and on the western coast of Anatolia. What they secretly decided to do instead was to keep Spartan and Athenian rulers fighting one another by giving large bribes to unhappy leaders on both sides.

Meanwhile, hostilities resumed between Spartans and Athenians. Then in 445, with neither Spartan nor Athenian rulers able to take control of Hellenia, both agreed to stop attacking one another for 30 years (so they thought).

Artistic interlude (450-430)
Pericles led the Athenian Assembly to commit itself to financing the reconstruction of the Acropolis following its destruction by the Persians in 480. He even committed a massive embezzlement of Delian League funds, stored in Athens, to support these projects.

The most important project undertaken at this time turned out to be the building of the Parthenon. Architects Ictinos and Callicrates designed it. Phidias supervised its construction and
the creation of the sculptures that would adorn it. Building began in 447 and concluded in 438 with the sculptures finished in 431. Surprisingly, the result was the finest Doric temple ever built and an enduring symbol of Western Civilization.

Herodotus (ca 484-425). Born in Halicarnassus, a Hellenian port on the west coast of Anatolia, Herodotus may have spent his youth on the island of Samos. He tells of his own travels to Egypt (454), Tyre, and Babylon before moving to Athens in 447. Already he had been working on his book, The Histories, for 8 years. When his application for Athenian citizenship was denied by the Assembly in 443, he moved to the Hellenian colony of Thurium in southern Latinia. There he finished his book in 430.

His Histories is the oldest Hellenian prose writing to survive. Tradition refers to Herodotus as the father of history because he was the first to methodically conduct inquiries into the past, include in his research the stories of various ethnic groups, test all of them for accuracy, and integrate them into a meaningful narrative. The theme of his book: the conflict between the freedom of Hellenia and the slavery of Incognita and the momentous victory of the former over the latter. So, ironically, the Athenian Assembly denied citizenship to the one author who did more than anyone else to inform future generations of the Athenian victories over the Persians at Marathon, Salamis, and Plataea.

Phidias (ca 480-430). In addition to supervising the construction and adornment of the Parthenon (447-431), Phidias oversaw the building of the Propylaea—the monumental gateway into the Acropolis—during that same period of time. Previously (456) the Assembly had paid Phidias to create a large bronze statue of Athena. She stood 25 feet (7.5 m) tall on a base 5 feet (1.5 m) high and dominated the skyline of the city for centuries. In 447 the Assembly paid Phidias to sculpt a second statue of Athena, using gold and ivory, for placement inside the Parthenon. Phidias also completed a colossal statue of a Jupiter sitting on a throne (42 feet or 13 m tall), also using gold and ivory, which was placed in the temple dedicated to Jupiter at the sanctuary of Olympia (Hellenia) in 431. Tradition regarded this statue of Jupiter as one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

Phidias, one of the greatest sculptors in Olympian history, enjoyed a close friendship with Pericles. Pericles, however, had enemies. To get at him, his enemies attacked Phidias. They accused him of impiety for carving, they claimed, images of himself and Pericles on the shield of his statue of Athena. In 430 they succeeded in having him jailed on this charge. A brief time later he died there.

Copyright © 2013 by Steven Farsaci.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.