Why all the pushing and shoving?

Since I feel I don't have enough people hating on me, I thought I'd talk about something that Merry asked long ago: What's the origin of the conflict between the Greeks and their neighbours to the east?

This subject is really delicate, to put it mildly. So since I'm only talking about the origins, I'll stick to the ancient stuff and ignore all the modern incidents (of which there are enough to fill a book). This is also, quite obviously, Gary's interpretation of events.

It's not true, by the way, to say the conflict has been between only Turks and Greeks. The Greek world has been in conflict with almost every culture and people who've controlled the land which today we call Turkey. The west coast of Turkey, which is really the area of conflict, was known in those days as Asia Minor. I'm going to call it Asia Minor from now on.

The first record of conflict between the Greeks and people of Asia Minor is the Iliad, by a guy called Homer. Since that's the oldest book in the Western world, this has obviously been going on for some time.

The people of Troy have no genetic or cultural relationship to modern Turks, so whether the Trojan War counts as the origin of the current long-lasting conflict is doubtful. It would be hard to say Greeks and Turks hate each other today because Helen had it off with Paris 3,000 years ago. Also, after the Trojan War, things quietened down a lot. For a few hundred years there was nothing between the sides but the usual raids, pillaging, rape and murder which is the stuff of everyday life.

It didn't really get official again until a rather interesting incident in about 508BC. By this time the Persian Empire, which had its origin far to the east, had expanded until it controlled everything all the way to the coast of Asia Minor. In the same period the ever-growing Greek population had expanded and placed colony cities all up and down...you guessed it...the coast of Asia Minor.

The Greek cities of Asia Minor were therefore under Persian rule. Now, Greek culture is highly individualistic, but the Persians were simply stronger, the Greeks were nothing if not realists, and in any case Persian rule was relatively light. As long as the Persians didn't rip off too much in tribute, the situation was semi-stable.

Athens at this time had recently overthrown the last of the Tyrants, and there was a bitter power struggle between factions for control of the city, a struggle in which Sparta decided to lend a hand to put their own man in charge. The Spartans sent an army. No one had ever beaten the Spartans in battle.

When the Athenians heard a Spartan army was on the way, they at once sent an embassy to the Satrap at Sardis. A Satrap was the Persian term for the governor of a province, and the city of Sardis was at that time the effective capital of Asia Minor. The Satrap of Sardis was a guy called Artaphernes. A Satrap is a powerful man at the best of times, but this Artaphernes also happened to be the brother of the Great King.

The Athenians asked Artaphernes for protection against the Spartans. Artaphernes said that was fine, as long as the Athenians offered earth and water. To offer earth and water is Persian-Speak for submitting to the Great King, and thus become a client state of Persia.

The Athenian embassy said...yes. (!)

The desperate Athenians handed over earth and water on the spot. At that moment, Athens and all of Attica became a part of the Persian Empire.

The Athenian embassy returned to Athens, secure in the knowledge that Athens was safe from Sparta, only to discover the crisis with Sparta was over, and Athens no longer needed protection.

Woops.

The ambassadors got into huge trouble for offering earth and water. Whether or not this was fair is not clear. Greek sources claim the ambassadors acted without authority, but then, they would say that, wouldn't they?

The Athenians decided to...er..."forget" that embarrassing little incident had ever happened. The Persians had better memories.

The Persian leadership, which had not really noticed the Greeks before, suddenly realised they had some irritating people on their western flank. What's more, in Persian culture, to lie was a terrible thing. Persian boys were taught only three things: to ride the horse, to shoot the bow, and to abjure the lie. The Athenian embassay had, in effect, lied in the face of the brother of the Great King.

It was all downhill from here. The Greek cities in Asia Minor revolted against the Persians, and the Athenians heavily supported the revolt, which ended with the Greeks getting their asses whipped.

The Persians decided to fix the problem by putting one of the old Tyrants back in control of Athens. That caused the Battle of Marathon, which ended with the Persians getting their asses whipped.

Artaphernes later sent ambassadors to Sparta, demanding earth and water. The Spartans tossed the ambassadors down a well, saying they'd find plenty of earth and water down there. Diplomacy in those days did tend to be robust.

The next Great King decided to do the job properly, with the Persian Wars.

And so it has gone on. If you're looking for the start of the long term conflict, I think the Athenian embassy to Artaphernes is it. There've been odd moments when one empire or another has controlled both sides of the Aegean Sea, such as the Roman and Byzantine, and at those times it's been quiet. There've also been periods when one side of the other has been too poor to make much trouble. But for those moments, there's been pushing and shoving ever since 508BC.

The ultimate issue is who gets control of Asia Minor. The natural balance of force lies along the coastline, so that the Greeks get all the islands and whoever's on the other side gets the Asian land. From time to time during history, one side or the other has been able to push across, but it always ends with a return to the natural border, which is what we more or less have today.

12 comments:

Merry Monteleone said...

"That caused the Battle of Marathon, which ended with the Persians getting their asses whipped.

Artaphernes later sent ambassadors to Sparta, demanding earth and water. The Spartans tossed the ambassadors down a well, saying they'd find plenty of earth and water down there. Diplomacy in those days did tend to be robust."


Oh, my God, Gary - you should so be teaching this subject in college or high school - you would have been my favorite teacher - and as an added benefit, no one in that class would ever call ancient Greece a boring subject.

I really can't wait for your novel to come out.

Stephanie Thornton said...

Artaphernes later sent ambassadors to Sparta, demanding earth and water. The Spartans tossed the ambassadors down a well, saying they'd find plenty of earth and water down there. Diplomacy in those days did tend to be robust.

Heavens to Betsy, but this is great stuff! I don't know how people can say history is boring- these are the details that make it totally awesome.

Kind of reminds me of the Potsdam Ultimatum with World War II (which I happen to be teaching right now). When Truman met with the Japanese and told them to surrender or else... Well, they told him to go to hell.

Of course, then he bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Yowza.

This was a great post- I learned a lot!

Gary Corby said...

So, everyone likes the idea of throwing diplomats down wells. I'm not surprised.

That story is for-real! You can find it in Herodotus.

Thanks for the lovely compliments, Merry and Stephanie. I had fun writing this one.

Loretta Ross said...

So, everyone likes the idea of throwing diplomats down wells. I'm not surprised.

I'd like to start throwing CONGRESSPERSONS down wells. Only, we'd run out of wells. Sigh.

I agree with the others. This is a great post and you really would make a great history teacher.

Kosmos said...

Thank you again for another wonderful and fascinating post. I never knew the Athenians had offered the Persians earth and water ... Wonder why my Classical Studies teacher never mentioned that bit. Though she did have a soft spot for the Spartans over the Athenians LOL ...

I'd like to also agree with other posters in here .. Too many Bureaucrats, Politicians and Diplomats. Maybe we should have a well digging program ;)

Carrie said...

NEED MORE WELLS.

I love your posts Gary. They are clicked at first sight.

Now, about those Romans...hmm?

Gary Corby said...

Interesting how many people want to en-well politicians and congresscritters.

Kosmos, the little detail about the Athenians offering earth and water doesn't tend to make it into school history texts. It's a bit like looking for mention of Vichy in French textbooks. (All right, that was catty. But accurate.)

Chantal said...

It's funny--I love these stories and it's really hard to remember that these people were just like us and yet so different. I can see us doing the same move if we didn't have quite the same government set-up--there'd be a Texas army moving against the city-state of Georgia. Georgia would go to NY and all hell would break loose. LOL!

I mean, look at the US-Mexico War. Only, ambassadors weren't exactly offed, but hey--lots of back-and-forth treaties and years of fighting to get the end result.

Geoff Carter said...

Cracking stuff Gary!
Splendid, history, and even prehistory, is often brutally simple.
France/England also share a strategic seaway.

Gary Corby said...

Glad you liked it, Geoff.

Yes, the English/French historical rivalry is sort of cool too.

This is a big advantage I have with my writing: there's reams of fun stuff to mine from the classics.

Gary Corby said...

That's a fascinating point, Chantal. I have a theory that the modern USA is more like Classical Athens at its height, than Rome at its height, but it seems to be a minority opinion. Thanks for the comment. I might add that to my to-blog list.

Meghan said...

That's a fascinating point, Chantal. I have a theory that the modern USA is more like Classical Athens at its height, than Rome at its height, but it seems to be a minority opinion. Thanks for the comment. I might add that to my to-blog list.

There is actually a book that was advertised on Greek TV here in the Bay Area that compared 5th century Athens to the US now. I think it's a pretty good comparison in some respects, if not all.