One of the drawbacks of ancient Athens’ direct democracy was that the fickle mood swings of the citizens were swiftly translated into government actions. One hallmark of that fickleness was the notoriety that Athens gained for the speed with which it put heroes upon pedestals one moment, then dashed them to the ground as public enemies the next. Nowhere was that more evident than in the Athenians’ treatment of Miltiades (550 – 489 BC), a general who beat the Persians at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. It was an upset victory against a numerically superior force, and it saved Athens from Persian conquest.
Miltiades was lionized by the Athenians, but it did not last long. The following year, he led a strong expedition against some Greek islands that had supported the Persians, but he bungled it badly. Miltiades was defeated, and for icing on the cake, he suffered a severe leg wound in the process. Given the superior forces under his command, Miltiades’ defeat seemed so absurd to the Athenians, that they figured it could only be explained by deliberate treachery on his part. So his fellow citizens, whom he had so recently saved, put him on trial for treason. He was convicted and sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted to a heavy fine. Miltiades was sent to prison while his family and friends raised the money to pay the fine, but he died before the fine was paid when his leg wound became infected.
The rise of Persia in the 6th century BC upended the ancient Middle East, as the surging newcomers conquered left and right, and became the ancient world’s greatest empire until then. For a while, the Persians held off from taking on Egypt, until a disgruntled Egytpian doctor instigated a war. It began when Persia’s king Cambyses II wrote Egyptian Pharaoh Amasis II (570 – 524 BC), asking him to send an eye doctor. The doctor chosen by Amasis was upset at getting picked out of all of Egypt’s physician to get dragged away from his family and sent to distant Persia. So upon reaching Persia, the doctor got his revenge by advising Cambyses to ask for Amasis’ favorite daughter, knowing that it would put Amasis in a bind: accept and grow wretched at the loss of his daughter, or refuse, and offend Cambyses.
Amasis did not want want to send his beloved daughter to Persia, knowing that Cambyses did not even want her as a wife, but just as a mere concubine. However, the Egyptian ruler was also intimidated by Persia’s power. So Amasis sent the daughter of a former Pharaoh, claiming that she was his. The former Egyptian princess was no more pleased than the Egyptian doctor had been at getting sent to Persia. Soon as she reached the Persian king, she told Cambyses of the ruse. Angered, he declared war and prepared to invade Egypt.
3. The Greek Mercenary Who Delivered Egypt to the Persians
As Pharaoh Amasis gathered his forces and prepared to defend Egypt against the Persians, he managed to offend Phanes of Halicarnassus, a respected Greek general in his service. So the disgruntled Phanes decided to switch sides, and set out to join Persia’s king Cambyses. Amasis sent assassins to kill or capture Phanes, but after harrowing adventures, including an escape from captivity by getting his guards drunk, the fleeing general reached the Persians. Cambyses was trying to figure out the best invasion route into Egypt, and Phanes recommended a route through Arab tribal lands. He advised the Persian king to seek safe passage from their rulers, and to sweeten the request with generous gifts. Cambyses heeded the advice, and the Arabs gladly granted safe conduct through their territory.
By then, Amasis had died, and was succeeded as pharaoh by his son, Psamtik III, Enraged at Phanes, Psamtik tricked the Greek general’s sons into meeting with him, took them captive, and had them executed. Then, as an object lesson to would-be traitors, he had their blood drained and mixed with wine, which he drank and made his councilors consume as well. Phanes got his revenge by leading the Persian army into Egypt, acting as Cambyses’ guide and military advisor. With the Greek general’s assistance, the Persians defeated Psamtik’s forces, and forced him to retreat to his capital, where they besieged and eventually captured him. Phanes then engineered the execution of his sons’ murderer by uncovering and informing Cambyses of a plot by the captive pharaoh to stir up a revolt.
2. The Gracchi: The Reformer Brothers Who Tried to Save the Roman Republic
Rome’s legions were originally drawn from those who could afford to arm and equip themselves – mostly a middle class of independent farmers. However, the independent farmer class steadily shrank over the generations, as public lands were illegally seized and consolidated into vast estates controlled by the patrician senatorial classes. In addition to illegality, those large estates, worked by massive slave gangs, drove small farmers off their lands and into poverty, diminishing the pool of prospective legionaries. Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (circa 164 – 133 BC) was a Roman tribune of the plebes and a populares politician – a faction that supported plebeians against the conservative aristocratic patricians. He sponsored agrarian reforms to help small independent farmers, who were being driven into extinction by the concentration of public lands into illegal giant estates controlled by a small elite of the patrician senatorial class.
Tiberius Gracchus proposed to break the giant estates and redistribute the lands in small parcels to lower class Romans. He was vehemently opposed by the senatorial class, and when he pushed through legislation that began redistributing land, he was murdered by a senatorial mob during a riot organized by optimates – conservatives who sought to limit the power of the popular assemblies and the tribunes, while extending that of the pro-aristocratic Senate. It was the Roman Republic’s first act of organized political violence, and it broke a double taboo: that against political violence in general, and that against visiting violence upon a tribune of the plebes, whose persons had been deemed inviolate for centuries. Tiberius Gracchus’ cause was carried on by his younger brother, Gaius, who as seen below, met a similar fate at the hands of Rome’s conservatives.
Tiberius Gracchus’ younger brother Gaius Sempronius Gracchus (154 – 121 BC) followed in his older brother’s footsteps. He became a tribune of the plebes, a populares politician advancing the cause of the plebeians, an advocate of agrarian reform, and finally, a victim of political violence when the conservative Roman Senate and the optimates murdered him. Elected a tribune of the plebes in 123 BC, Gaius Gracchus used the popular assemblies to push through his brother’s agrarian reforms, and advocated other measures to lessen the power of the senatorial nobility. He also pushed through legislation to provide all Romans with subsidized wheat, and was reelected tribune in 122 BC. In 121 BC, the Senate again organized a riot to go after a turbulent tribune. After one of his supporters was killed, Gaius Gracchus and his followers retreated to the Aventine Hill, the traditional asylum of plebeians in an earlier age.
The Senate ordered the consuls to go after Gaius, which they did with a mob. Gaius committed suicide, and the mob massacred hundreds of his followers, then threw their bodies into the Tiber river. In the long run, the murders of the Gracchi brothers backfired upon the optimates and the patrician class. The patricians were virtually exterminated during rounds of proscriptions that claimed the lives of thousands, first by the dictator Sulla going after populares following his victory in Rome’s first civil war, only for the pendulum to swing a generation later when Octavian and Mark Antony went after the optimates in an even bloodier and more thorough proscription following their victory in a civil war against Julius Caesar’s assassins. What relatively few patricians survived were gradually killed off later as they were caught up in or were falsely accused of conspiracies against various emperors, until they became virtually extinct.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading