Posted: November 11, 2016
aul Rahe has written an important new history of war and strategy in the ancient Greek world, examining the contest between the Spartans and the Persian Empire. The war was fought for the highest stakes: independence of the Greek world from Persian domination. Borrowing the phrase from the late Samuel Huntington, Rahe calls the contest “a clash of civilizations in which liberty successfully withstood the assault of despotism.” Persia’s ruler, the Great King Xerxes, Rahe contends, “fancied himself a universal monarch.” Establishing the universal dominion of the Persian Empire was “the raison d’être of [his] regime. It was a religious imperative.” Using language sure to provoke some of his readers, Rahe judges that Persia’s “attempt to conquer Hellas was no ordinary war. It was divinely ordained. It was what would later be called a jihad.” The Spartans took the lead in rallying the Greeks to fight back and put an end to Xerxes’ dream of universal empire.
A professor of history and political science at Hillsdale College, Rahe demonstrates that both Greek and Persian leaders acted with considerable strategic skill in waging war. First, they understood why they were fighting: they had aims—empire and security—they wanted to achieve by force of arms. Second, they engaged in long-range planning: they understood the effort in men, animals, ships, and supplies required to achieve their aims. Third, they used intelligence and deception: Xerxes surrounded himself with advisors who could offer guidance about how best to wage war against the Greeks; and, as Rahe reminds his readers, “In the Hellenic imagination, Odysseus loomed almost as large as Achilles”—the Greeks admired the fox as well as the lion. Fourth, both sides understood the value of allies: the Greek victory depended on a coalition of Sparta the land power with Athens the sea power; meanwhile, Xerxes reached across the Mediterranean to urge the Carthaginians to attack the Greek cities in Sicily in an attempt to prevent them from aiding the Spartans and Athenians. In short, the Greek and Persian leaders were strategically conscious in assessing their courses of action and in the waging of war.
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Of course, even the most brilliant strategic minds make missteps; in war, as Napoleon is reputed to have said, the greatest general is he who makes the fewest mistakes. But Rahe explains the contending strategies and shows why the leaders’ choices mattered. That the Greeks proved better at strategy than the Persians made the difference between winning and losing.
To understand Sparta’s strategic behavior, Rahe puts it in the context of Sparta’s cultural setting, constitutional arrangements, beliefs, and domestic political pressures. This subject is one that he knows well, having written on it in his previous work Republics: Ancient and Modern (1992). A great strength of Rahe’s analysis is the way he weaves together Sparta’s internal setting with its actions toward the outside world. Rahe contends: “in thinking about foreign affairs and in pondering diplomacy, intelligence, military strength, and its economic foundations, one must always acknowledge the primacy of domestic policy.” That insight into the behavior of countries on the international stage should be posted prominently in every corridor in the State Department and Pentagon lest our leaders forget it.
For many countries, the most serious dangers to the ruling regime emanate from the inside, not the outside. The Spartans faced an immense internal threat from thousands of state-owned serfs known as helots, who in abject servitude farmed the lands of Laconia and Messenia. These Greek peoples longed to overthrow their Spartan overlords. Thucydides, in his account of the warring states of ancient Greece, judged that Sparta’s institutions, politics, foreign policy, and strategy revolved around the necessity of repressing the helots. Spartan males were brought up from boyhood in a hard school of military training (the krupteía) to combat this threat. This training, Rahe observes, “functioned as a rite of passage marking the boy’s initiation into manhood.” Young Spartan men came of age by keeping watch over and terrorizing the helots. The ephors, Sparta’s powerful governing board of overseers, would authorize this state terror by annually declaring “war on the helots, employing the young men of the krupteía to eliminate the obstreperous and those menacingly robust.” Sparta’s internal political and institutional makeup resulted in one of history’s most highly militarized communities. How ironic is history’s course that, in this fight for liberty, the oppressors of the helots took the leading role in saving Greece from oppression by the Persians.
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Spartan leaders had at their disposal soldiers who were physically fit, constantly tested, well trained, and disciplined in action. They had the high morale that comes from incessant teamwork and confidence in their superiority on the battlefield. Rahe adds that music and poetry played an important role in Spartan civic culture and in enhancing fighting élan. And, yet, despite having this magnificent fighting machine at their disposal, the Spartans’ internal security threat predisposed them to a cautious foreign policy. An aggressive policy, requiring the projection of military power far from the homeland, risked strategic overextension and defeat on the battlefield that would give the helots an opportunity to revolt. Rahe notes that the Spartans “understood from early on what history would eventually confirm: that it took but a single major defeat in warfare on land to endanger the city’s very survival.” Spartan caution was reinforced by its constitution, a system of institutional checks and balances among the leadership, which worked to ensure against a tyrant’s seizure of power. This strategic caution came with a price. Most of their coalition partners thought the Spartans were not enterprising enough in their planning and execution of military operations, which afforded adversaries opportunities to seize the strategic initiative.
After interpreting Spartan culture, society, and politics, Rahe recounts Sparta’s resistance to the Persian invasion. At the war’s outset, the odds seemed heavily stacked against Sparta and the Greek states that chose to resist Xerxes. Persia had a large army and, it is often forgotten, a strong navy, which assisted in protecting supply lines across the Aegean for the advancing Persian ground forces. As part of the offensive into Greece, Persian engineers even completed the remarkable engineering feats of bridging the Dardanelles and digging a canal across the Acte peninsula in the Chalcidice. Today, the Persians would be considered a joint and combined force—that is, different armed services acting in a coordinated way, supplied from a proficient logistical system, utilizing intelligence, working closely with the forces of allied states—executing a strategy to conquer Greece.
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Persian might was meant to overawe, to appear invincible. Preparations for the invasion of Greece on the scale undertaken by Xerxes could not be hidden, and they were not meant to be hidden. The great king wanted the Greeks to know what they would be up against if they resisted. He hoped to cow the Greeks into preemptive surrender, to win a rapid victory without fighting. This strategy worked in part: most of the Greeks in north and central Greece, including Boeotia and Thessaly, faced by what appeared an unstoppable Persian onslaught, defected to Persia rather than fight. Meanwhile, those Greeks who did resist courted destruction. In the most famous example, in 480 B.C. when Persian forces captured Athens, the city was wrecked and those inhabitants who did not flee for safety on nearby islands protected by their navy, were slaughtered.
But Xerxes’ information operations did not intimidate the Spartans. King Leonidas and the Spartan defense of the pass of Thermopylae in 480 is a legendary tale of defiance, heroism, and military prowess. Rahe uses this familiar tale to show the strategy behind the Greek defense. He is surely right in judging that, if the defenses around Thermopylae had held—the Spartan-led troops fighting on land, with the Athenian navy blocking the Persian fleet—Xerxes would soon have been forced to withdraw for lack of supplies, resulting in a major blow to Persian prestige. The defense at Thermopylae only failed when the Persians found a trail to outflank it and defeated the contingent of Phocian Greek troops posted to guard the way. As Rahe concludes, if Leonidas had ordered Spartan advisors “to supervise the Phocian militia, impose a measure of discipline upon them, and put steel into their spines, the outcome of the struggle at Thermopylae might well have been different.” There was nothing inevitable about that famous defeat.
Thermopylae demonstrated that the Persians could be defeated if Greeks would only stand and fight. Echoes of Winston Churchill can be heard in Rahe’s comment, “Never in human history has a political community gained as dramatically in prestige by losing a battle as the Spartans did on this particular occasion.”
Though his narrative focuses on Sparta, Rahe does not neglect the other important players in this drama, particularly Athens. The Athenians had fought the Persians once before: in 490 B.C. they beat back an invasion by the Great King Darius, the father of Xerxes, at the famous Battle of Marathon. In the aftermath of Marathon, the remarkable statesman Themistocles advised the Athenians to build up a powerful navy, persuading them that their future security would depend on the “wooden walls” of a fleet made up of triremes. Rahe writes that, in building up the Athenian navy, Themistocles “and others in his camp had their eyes on the Persians.” The defeat of Xerxes’ invasion would not have occurred without the Athenian victories at sea. The most famous was the sea battle off the island of Salamis. If the Persians had defeated the Athenians at Salamis and achieved command of the sea, they could have outflanked any defensive line on the ground erected by the Spartans. Victory at sea enabled the Athenians not only to survive, but to go on the strategic offensive, retaking territory conquered by the Persians, and asserting control over the Aegean.
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The emergence of the Athenians as a sea power—possessing the Greeks’ strongest navy, a thriving seaborne commerce, and financial means garnered from trade and empire—would in turn pose a dangerous challenge to Sparta’s leadership. Thucydides, of course, provides the classic account of how the partnership between Athens and Sparta broke down as the Persian threat diminished, and how the new struggle—a clash within Greek civilization—began. To defeat the Athenians, the Spartans would eventually have to partner with Persia. Rahe intends to examine this Athenian challenge to Sparta in a forthcoming book.
The heroic tales of Thermopylae and Salamis have overshadowed subsequent operations and the huge role played by the Spartans in evicting the Persian invaders from Greece. At the Battle of Plataea in 479, Rahe shows, the Greek coalition led by Sparta fielded an imposing ground force, which at its core had almost 40,000 hoplite (citizen-soldier) infantrymen. The Persian force on the other side of the field numbered well over 100,000 combatants. The battle was hard fought, but Spartan leadership and hoplite warriors provided the punch needed to drive the Persian army from the field in disarray, bringing Xerxes’ dreams of conquest to a decisive end. At the Battle of Mycale in the Aegean, the Greeks won another important victory that rolled back earlier Persian gains. Now, it was the Persian Empire that stood on the defensive, preparing to withstand attacks by the Greeks.
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The war’s major battles demonstrated the fighting edge that the Greeks possessed over the Persian forces on both land and sea. The Greek hoplite, heavily armed with body armor, spear, sword, and shield, fighting in tight formation, was superior to the Persian infantry. Rahe quotes Herodotus’ comment that Persian infantrymen were effectively “‘naked [gumnétes],’ light-armed troops” when fighting the Spartans at Plataea. At sea, too, the Greeks depended upon the superior fighting qualities and weaponry of their soldiers and sailors to overcome the Persian advantage in numbers—what today’s American defense planners like to call an “offset strategy.”
The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta warns of dangers that cannot be avoided and provides us a story of long-ago leaders and peoples who prized their freedom and proved themselves willing to stand in the front lines to dash the ambitious dreams of foreign despots. These problems of politics, war, and strategy have an enduring quality. The story of this ancient clash of civilizations, masterfully told by Paul Rahe, thus provides a timely reminder about strategic challenges and choices confronting the United States.