NEW YORK – The East Mediterranean Business and Culture Alliance (EMBCA) in association with the Order of AHEPA Hellenic Cultural Commission presented a fascinating discussion on August 30 to commemorate the 2,500th anniversary of the Battles of Thermopylae and Salamis.
Lou Katsos, EMBCA’s President & Founder and Chairman of AHEPA's Hellenic Cultural Commission gave the opening remarks and introduction to the commemoration which was moderated by Executive Officer of the PhD Program in History of the Graduate Center/Queens College and Professor of Classics Joel Allen. The panelists were the Mayor of Sparta and former Deputy Minister of Finance/ Foreign Affairs Petros Doukas, Prof. Chris Carey - Emeritus Professor of Greek at University College London, Jennifer T. Roberts - Professor of Classics at the Graduate Center, CUNY, and Prof. Barry S. Strauss - the Bryce and Edith M. Bowmar Professor in Humanistic Studies at Cornell University.
This unique discussion on the historic battles which took place 2,500 years ago, in August for Thermopylae and September for Salamis in 480 BC offered insights not only into the battles themselves but also into the history of the Mediterranean world at the time, and the repercussions of those battles through history which may be felt even to the present day with Greece as the pillar of the West, standing for democratic values and freedom against the invading imperial Persian army from the East.
As Prof. Strauss noted, Thermopylae was not meant to be a “suicide mission.” King Leonidas was prepared to die, according to Herodotus and according to the prophecy of the oracle which said that in order to save Sparta, Leonidas would have to die. The battle also “galvanized Greek public opinion” to join in the fight against the Persians. Prof. Roberts, whose research interest is Greek history, had a Herodotus face mask she said she would have worn if the discussion had been held in person. She noted that Herodotus, called “the father of history and the father of lies,” was a small child in the time of Xerxes’ invasion. He decided to write his book to show the human condition and to show the importance of freedom for the Greeks and to highlight freedom, as Prof. Roberts pointed out, adding that the Persian king considered everyone a slave, even his relatives.
Prof. Carey said that Thermopylae was tremendous PR for the Spartans, they claimed it as their place and it gave the Spartans a boost to their reputation that they will always stand and die rather than surrender. He noted that the Spartans act and don’t speak, they use the minimum number of words to say what they need to say, mentioning that to this day the Spartans are known for their laconic sayings. Prof. Carey noted the anecdote recounted by Herodotus of someone mentioning that the arrows fired by the Persians would blot out the sun to which the Spartan Dienekes responded “then we will fight in the shade.” The number of men in the battle also became exaggerated early on, Prof. Carey said, adding to the compelling David versus Goliath quality of the story.
Prof. Allen then asked about the modern implications of Thermopylae and Salamis to which Mayor Doukas said that the battles still refer to the conflict between East and West in culture, the conflict of cultures, as when Xerxes met with his nobles concerning the invasion of Greece, “if we don’t do it to them first, they will do it to us.”
Doukas noted that Sparta was the dominant power in Greece at the time and when the Ionians came to ask for help against the Persians, they went to the Spartans, not Athens, and got a no from the Spartans. The Scythians also asked for help from the Spartans who again said no, but still, all the Greeks felt it was the Spartans who were the protector of Greek rights. Even though Sparta did not have a major navy, Greek city states asked for a Spartan admiral to lead in a naval battle.
Of King Leonidas and the 300, Doukas said that they were the product of Lycurgus, who is credited with the formation of many Spartan institutions integral to the country's rise to power, the Spartan training of young people and the Spartan state which allowed all levels to participate unlike Athens. Leonidas knew what his fate was going to be, he knew the prophecy of the oracle, when he marched away with his 300 and people said he didn’t have enough soldiers with him, he said I have more than enough soldiers for what I am going to do. He knew he was earning glory for Sparta, himself and his men.
Carey also noted that Greeks were fighting amongst themselves before and many city states refused to join the cause against the Persians. He added that the sense of the “other” was exacerbated among the Greeks after the Persian Wars.
Allen also noted that there’s a strange worldliness and parochialism among the ancient Greeks turning on the “other” and on each other, mentioning Thucydides’ criticism of Herodotus’ version of the history.
Katsos noted that while the Greeks fighting amongst themselves thousands of years ago shows a consistency of character that has continued to some extent to the present day, the lessons of the past show the importance of unity. He said, “United we can’t be defeated.”