Delphi: Shaping the Future of the Past

Delphi is just a small town built into the hillside under Mount Parnassus – home to the Muses – and overlooking the Gulf of Corinth. It’s three hours drive from Athens and even at the height of the tourist season you can escape the crowds here.

Gulf of Corinth view from Delphi P1010130
View of the Gulf of Corinth from Delphi

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The Forgotten Battle (Best Stories of Herodotus)

Most people who took any notice of the Persian wars in their history class would know about the battle of Marathon in the first Persian war and the battles of Thermopylae and Salamis in the second; maybe, if you were really into it, you’d be aware that in fact there were a couple more battles, that of Plataea and Mycale the year after, that marked the genuine end of the Persian invasion of Greece. But the battle that almost everybody invariably forgets is the battle Artemisium, a sea battle fought simultaneously with the battle of Thermopylae. Yet without holding the Persian navy up at Artemisium there would have been no battle of Thermopylae – nothing would have prevented Xerxes to simply sail his troops round the wretched pass, making its defence wholly pointless. It’s hardly surprising, however, that in the end the battle of Artemisium got entirely overshadowed by the fame of Thermopylae.

So what happened in the forgotten battle at Cape Artemisium?  

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Of the Mani, Manhattan and Alexander the Great

What kind of a book would a chain-smoking former Special Operations Executive officer write? A man who at 18 had thought he had nothing better to do but to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople with a volume of English verse and Horace’s Odes in his pocket? A man who felt equally at home in shepherds’ huts and in aristocratic palaces?…What kind of book?!

And English readers, who know exactly whom I’m talking about, here answer in unison: a travel book, of course.

A travel book, yes. Er… sort of.

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The Labyrinth of Knossos

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Knossos

The archeological site of Knossos, near Heraklion on the island of Crete, was discovered in 1878 and excavated by Sir Arthur Evans from 1900 to 1935. The palace of Knossos was the centre of the Minoan Civilisation and was abandoned towards the end of the Bronze Age. There’s a theory that the Minoan Civilisation collapsed as a consequence of the explosion of the volcano at Santorini, with the ensuing tidal wave destroying the low-lying coastal areas of Crete and volcanic ash falling over the island; there’s another theory that the Minoans’ downfall was brought about by large scale Mycenaean invasion (who destroyed Troy too). Or you can take the two in combination – how the Minoans, weakened by the consequences of the volcanic eruption, were unable to resist the invading Mycenaeans.

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The Destruction of Athens (Best Stories of Herodotus)

It appears that I went like a month without blogging about Herodotus. I don’t know what I’m coming to. All this reading of 20th century literature! It’s time I got my act together, so here we go:

The last episode of the Greek-Persian Wars à la Waterblogged saw the Persians chased away from Delphi by no less personage than the handsome Apollo himself. (No, I don’t mean the one in Battlestar Galactica. I mean the god of the silver bow.)

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The Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion

Place me on Sunium’s marbled steep,
Where nothing, save the waves and I,
May hear our mutual murmurs sweep;
There, swan-like, let me sing and die.

Lord Byron: The Isles of Greece

Byron wrote these lines about the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion which he visited during his Grand Tour (carving his name into one of the columns).

The Temple of Poseidon was built in 440 BC, when Athens was led by Pericles. The first temple on the site, dating from the Archaic period, was destroyed by the army of Xerxes during the Persian invasion of Greece in 480 BC. If you need help to imagine what the temple might have looked like, the Temple of Hephaestus on the agora of Athens was built at about the same time, possibly by the same architect, and is in a much better shape.

Cape Sounion is a promontory on the southern tip of the Attica Peninsula, not far from Athens. You can reach it by coach from Athens taking either the coastal route or an inland route passing by the ancient mines of Laurium (whose silver enabled Athens to build its famous fleet). According to legend, Cape Sounion is the spot where King Aegeus threw himself off the rocks, giving his name to the sea in which he died. Cape Sounion is also famous as the location from which to watch the sun set over the Aegean Sea. There is a path leading down from the temple to the bay below and you can finish your visit with a swim in the crystal clear water. (Shame about the ugly hotel.)

The Battle of Thermopylae: The Heroes & The Villain (Best Stories of Herodotus)

Previous:
The Battle of Thermopylae: Who, Where, How (Part I) 
The Battle of Thermopylae: The Fight in the Pass (Part II) 

First the heroes, of course… the villain can wait!

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The Battle of Thermopylae: The Fight in the Pass (Best Stories of Herodotus)

Previous: The Battle of Thermopylae: Who, Where, How (Part I)

Considering how long The Histories is, Herodotus didn’t spend too long on the description on the actual battle at Thermopylae – a mere two dozen paragraphs or so. Nevertheless, it’s still too long to be quoted in its entirety – especially, if I want to keep my few readers!

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The Battle of Thermopylae: Who, Where, How (Best Stories of Herodotus)

United We Fall…

Xerxes’s army was already on European soil but their Greek opponents were still to determine where and how they should fight them. Or even to ascertain who was willing to fight them. The Delphi oracle – which in hindsight has been accused by some historians of being in Persian pay – advised all and sundry to sit on the fence if they could, told the Athenians to “flee to the ends of the earth” and warned the Spartans that either their city of “wide spaces” would be sacked or “the whole of Lacedaemon shall mourn the death of a king”.

View of the Gulf of Corinth from Delphi
View of the Gulf of Corinth from Delphi

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The Wild Words of Demaratus (Best Stories of Herodotus)

As he began the march into Greece, Xerxes inspected his army and his navy; and much pleased with what he had seen, he wondered how the Greeks would react to his overwhelming power. Therefore he sent for Demaratus, the exiled Spartan king, who was accompanying him on the march in the role of a counsellor:
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Xerxes Weeps at the Sight of His Army (Best Stories of Herodotus)

Ten years passed since Darius’ humiliating defeat in the Battle of Marathon. His son, Xerxes was now king of Persia and he wished to take revenge on the Greeks, especially on the Athenians and the Spartans. But he did not merely wish to take revenge: his  goal was to extend his empire over the Greek mainland and beyond, “as far as God’s heaven reaches”. He aimed at creating the first empire on which the sun never set. (If you ever wondered where the phrase, first used about the Spanish empire, then the British, originated, Xerxes’s comment in VII.8, ie. “the sun will shine on no land beyond our borders” is a good contender.) Xerxes’ speech is also the reason why some historians see the Greek-Persian Wars as a crucial defining moment of Western civilisation; that moment in history in which the Greek idea of freedom (accompanied by the inevitable in-fighting) collided with the Eastern idea of the god-king…
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A Trial of Freedom (Best Stories of Herodotus)

“…you know well how to be a slave but have not yet experienced freedom, nor have you felt whether it is sweet or not. But if you could try freedom, you would advise us to fight for it, and not only with spears, but with axes!” (Herodotus, VII.135)

The Tribute of Earth & Water

Darius I, imagined by a Greek painter, 4th century BC
Darius I, imagined by a Greek painter, 4th century BC. Source: Wikipedia

Having subdued the Ionian Greeks who had rebelled against his rule, Darius I, king of Persia had decided it was time to extend his empire into the Greek mainland. In order to test whether the Greeks were likely to offer resistance or would submit easily, he sent his envoys out to demand a tribute of earth and water – a mark of submission to his rule – from the city-states. (VI.48) Some gave and some did not; but two went so far in their defiance as to throw the Persian envoys into a pit (Athens) and into a well (Sparta) and bid them to take their earth and water from there. (VII.133)
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Herodotus and the Persian Wars

Xerxes, Would-Be Conqueror of the World

Nearly 2500 years ago, Xerxes the Great, King of Kings, the king of Persia who considered himself a god, decided to go to war:

“My intent is to throw a bridge over the Hellespont and march an army through Europe against Greece, that thereby I may obtain vengeance from the Athenians for the wrongs committed by them against the Persians and against my father.” (The Histories, Book VII, Chapter 8)

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