In his best-selling book The Right Side Of History: How Reason And Moral Purpose Made The West Great, Ben Shapiro makes a compelling case that we, meaning the West, are the offspring of two great civilizations: Jerusalem and the subject of this series, ancient Greece, in particular, Athens. The advent of the Greece whose concepts of reason as the diviner of truth, be it scientific, philosophical, or moral, which are so very much a part of our Western culture today, was forged in the crucible of war. The violent births of great nations is a common theme in history. Our own Revolution, and the democratic institutions that emerged from it, many a direct by-product of Athenian ideals, had to be won by force of arms. The abolition of the sin of slavery in North America would hurl the United States into the dark pit of an horrific and bloody Civil War. And so it was with ancient Greece, for at the crucial moment 2,500 years ago, when Athens was just emerging as the democracy whose impact would reach across the chasm of time and affect Western civilization even now, a threat from the East almost smothered the infant democracy in its crib.
At the beginning of the Fifth Century BC, the Persian Empire, under king Darius I and then his son Xerxes I, ruled the eastern ancient world from Egypt to Babylonia to India. And it had its eyes set on Greece, and with it Europe. Had the Persian invasions of 490 and then 480 BC been successful in their goals to subdue all of Hellas, the Western world as we know it, the world that Ben pays appropriate homage to in his book, would never have been. And as such, we would never have been.
Therefore, as Ben’s book celebrates the Golden Age of ancient Athens that led to the rise of the West—the most productive and empowering culture the world has ever known, one with unsurpassed achievements in business, science, education, the arts, technology, medicine, the lifting of more people out of poverty, and the liberation of more enslaved souls than any other in history—it seems fitting to remember on the pages of The Daily Wire those ancient Greeks who defiantly resisted the encroachment of the Persian god-kings. These determined citizen-soldiers bravely marched out to meet invading armies that outnumbered them anywhere from three to fifty-to-one, while their smaller navies did battle with massive enemy fleets on the high seas. We owe them our very existences. And certain names like Themistocles and Miltiades of Athens, Leonidas and Eurybiades of Sparta, and Demophilus of Thespiae and many others should be remembered along with Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Aristophanes. For without the former, there’d have been no arena for the latter to flourish. And without the latter, there’d be no us…certainly not as we have come to know ourselves. And as Ben warns us, we could lose this legacy in one generation if we fail to remember. So let’s not forget these ancients. Let’s instead, enjoy their story. It’s better than any fiction anyway.
The Athenian Crisis—Late Summer, 480 BC
As he considered the threat bearing down on Athens from the mountains to the north and the sea to the east, Themistocles, the most outspoken, abrasive, arrogant, and persuasive politician-soldier of the nascent Greek democratic city-state, must have felt very much alone. How could he convince his fellow Greeks that they could run no more? That they were the last hope of Greece, whose city-states to the north had fallen one-by-one to the encroaching horde that was the great army of the Persian King Xerxes? As the threat grew ever closer, and with much of the land north of the region of Attica now under Persian rule either by sword or alliance, the first citizens of Athens continued to debate the meaning of the prophecy spoken to them by the mysterious priestess at the Oracle of Delphi, whose counsel was sought before any critical decisions of this magnitude were made. Yet the oracle’s words had been maddeningly vague. “A wall of wood alone shall be uncaptured.” Some believed this was a reference to the wooden gates of the Acropolis, and thus should Athens be defended rather than abandoned as Themistocles was advising. The Greek statesmen and admiral insisted that the oracle was, in fact, referring to the wooden ships of the Athenian navy he’d convinced his city to construct ex nihilo when, three years before, word of Xerxes ominous intentions towards Athens began to drift across the Aegean from Asia. Now the Persians had arrived. He felt that the city had to be evacuated, its citizenry dispersed among the islands across the Straits of Salamis. And then, if properly led, the Greek warships could lure Xerxes’ armada whose captains were unfamiliar with these waters into a trap and win a great victory.
But time was running out. Thebes, the powerful city-state in Boeotia in central Greece had already bent the knee to the Persian king of kings. At the narrow pass of Thermopylae, an expeditionary force of 6,000 Greek allies, led by the Spartan King Leonidas and his 300 hand-picked shock troops, had been routed. Leonidas’ severed head was now on a pike and his body crucified as an act of sacrilege; all 300 out-flanked Spartans and the 700 brave Thespians who stood by them to the end after the rest were ordered to withdraw had been massacred. And after a stalemate naval engagement at Artemisium, the Greek ships had fallen back to the waters off Athens. An invading army that some historians estimate at 250,000, along with 1,000 ships, the largest military force yet seen in the ancient world, was bearing down on Athens. The young Persian king was determined to inflict a terrible vengeance that had consumed him for ten years. But how had this come to pass?
Brad Schaeffer is an historian, author, musician, and trader. His eclectic body of writings have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, New York Daily News, and a variety of well-read blogs and news outlets. Be sure to check out Schaeffer’s acclaimed historical novel, Of Another Time And Place, available here: