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New Light on Ancient Battles

By Victor Davis Hanson
8/7/2018 • MHQ Magazine

A careful reading between—or even underneath—the lines can change our interpretation of pivotal military engagements.

From the vantage point of the 21st century, the seemingly remote historical events of ancient Greece appear immutable, often literally set in stone. But occasionally a new shred of evidence emerges, offering a tantalizing glimpse at life in the classical world, and sometimes altering our perception of those events. Such is the case with recently discovered fragments of speeches made by the fourth-century B.C. Greek orator Hyperides that shed light on the critical battles of Salamis and Chaeronea. Both battles changed the course of early Western civilization. The text of some five double pages, or 320 lines, has not yet been properly published. However, enough information has emerged from the preliminary transcription and translation by Judson Herrman, a professor of classics at Allegheny College, and Natalie Tchernetska of Trinity College at Cambridge to suggest that in two courtroom speeches Hyperides offered takes on both these monumental engagements that differ slightly from what we know from our usual sources.

At Salamis in autumn 480 B.C., Themistocles won a naval victory that saved Greece and Hellenic civilization from a huge Persian invasion force under King Xerxes. The historian Herodotus, who wrote a half-century after the battle but may have interviewed aged veterans of the fight, described the Greek victory in ample detail. It is also the subject of a near-contemporary tragedy, The Persians, by the dramatist Aeschylus. A few Roman-era writers, such as the historian Diodorus and the biographer Plutarch, add further detail not found in the fifth-century B.C. Greek authors’ works.

The crux in reconstructing what happened at Salamis has always been in fathoming how such a small Greek fleet destroyed the larger and more experienced Persian armada. Moreover, they did so after most of the Greek mainland north of the isthmus at Corinth was already in Xerxes’ hands.

Chaeronea—fought nearly one hundred fifty years after Salamis—was an equally important landmark battle. The engagement took place on a narrow plain at the north end of Boeotia, where Macedonian King Philip II and his son Alexander (later dubbed “the Great”) defeated a Greek coalition led by Athens and Thebes, ending the freedom of the Greek city-states. Greek losses were heavy, and after the rout most of the city-states capitulated to Macedonian rule. Yet we know even less about this later epic encounter than we do of Salamis. Without much contemporary evidence, reconstruction of the battle has depended mostly on anecdotal references made by the Roman writers Diodorus and Plutarch in a much later era.

How, then, did scholars find these new fragments from an obscure Greek author like Hyperides—and what exactly does the orator say of any new importance about Salamis and Chaeronea?

The Hyperides text, which appears to have been copied in the tenth century, was discovered beneath a fairly well known thirteenth-century palimpsest, or reused parchment. Following a practice common in the medieval period, church scribes in search of scarce vellum to write on customarily expropriated older books, washed and scraped the pages clean, and then wrote ecclesiastical texts over the erasures.

Sometimes traces of the older book beneath are still faintly visible. Recently, with the aid of modern X-ray and ultraviolet imaging techniques, researchers have been able to decipher more and more of these original classical texts. Such was the case with the so-called Archimedes Palimpsest—about 120 pages of Greek treatises recovered from beneath the ecclesiastical text of a prayer book dating from 1229. The collection takes its name from some scientific works of Archimedes, together with a few philosophical commentaries, all erased, probably in Constantinople, so that prayers could be copied over them.

Although the palimpsest was uncovered in 1906 at Constantinople (the manuscript currently resides in the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore), not all the erased texts from the original tenth-century book had been transcribed and translated. Only with enhanced imaging from new technology at the Stanford Linear Accelerator could this previously unknown fragment be discovered among the existing erasures. In 2006 it was positively identified as containing commentary from Hyperides.

We know that Hyperides, who lived from 390 to 322 B.C. at the critical period of Macedonian aggression when Philip II was trying to subjugate or subvert the Greek city-states, supposedly wrote more than 70 orations. But other than a few extended fragments from a handful of his speeches, there are hardly any surviving orations by this highly influential statesman.

Hyperides was a sort of public intellectual, a speechwriter for hire, courtroom gadfly, politician, and occasional statesman. Contemporary Athenians considered him one of the most influential and controversial men of the mid- to late fourth century B.C. Thus the loss of almost all of his written works makes reconstructing this crucial period of Greek history extremely difficult, and the prospect of discovering even portions of his speeches is intriguing to historians.

How can it be that we continue to unearth new information about the classical world, when the field of classical studies is often considered static and its sources “dead”? Millions of people lived in the Greco-Roman world that once extended over most of the Mediterranean region. The field of organized classical scholarship that systematically seeks to reconstruct the ancient life of the Greeks and Romans is relatively young, however, mostly dating from the late eighteenth century in Western Europe. Periodically, archaeologists still excavate new towns or graves, uncover the remains of an ancient ship, find a buried or reused stone inscription, or piece together some papyrus scraps or erased and written-over texts on paper manuscripts— the everyday detritus that tens of millions of ancients have left behind. As a result, our body of knowledge about the classical Greek world— including its military history—is never quite as static as we might otherwise expect of a civilization that fell apart more than two millennia ago. There were simply too many Greeks and Romans in the past, and currently too few who study them, for new information not to emerge over time.

Some of this evidence occasionally sheds new light on ancient battles. Recently, for example, classical archaeologists found sizable troves of Roman military equipment in Sussex, England, dating from about the time of Christ, roughly half a century before the invasion of Britain by the Roman Emperor Claudius in A.D. 43. The finds suggest that the emperor’s much-celebrated invasion of the island was more theatrical than military. Significant numbers of Roman soldiers had apparently been occupying the British countryside for decades before the Claudian surge.

Perhaps the most dramatic—and controversial—new evidence concerning ancient wars was the discovery of the so-called Decree of Themistocles. This stone inscription was purportedly a record of a decree passed by the Athenian assembly detailing the proposed evacuation of Athens before the Persian invasion of 480 B.C. The text was found in 1959 at a coffeehouse in Troizen, Greece, by the late M.H. Jameson, my thesis adviser at Stanford, who published the decree amid a flood of controversy.

Argument immediately arose over the authenticity of the stone inscription—was it an outright forgery, or does this later inscription represent, albeit in second- or third-hand fashion, a resolution passed by Athenians on the eve of the Battle of Salamis? If the latter case, then it would seem to contradict the text of Herodotus on which our standard view of Xerxes’ invasion is based. Until Jameson’s discovery, scholars assumed—as Herodotus implied— that the Athenians evacuated their city in frenzied fashion upon hearing that Xerxes had breached the defense at Thermopylae pass, and that there would now be no stopping tens of thousands of Persians from streaming southward.

However, the Decree of Themistocles, passed before the Greek defeat at Thermopylae, made provisions for an orderly evacuation and a more deliberate policy of abandoning the city and countryside in a preplanned effort to meet the Persians at sea—no matter the outcome of Greek infantry resistance in the north. It suggests that while the Athenians did not necessarily expect the Greek alliance to fail at Thermopylae and Artemesium to the north, Themistocles was savvy enough to take no chances, and had already convinced the public of the potential need to abandon their city and flee to the nearby islands.

In one new Hyperides fragment, we are told that the Greek fleet at Salamis numbered only 220 ships. That small number is at odds with all other figures, found in writings by the contemporary Aeschylus and the near-contemporary Herodotus. Aeschylus believed the Greeks had at least 310 triremes, while Herodotus’ estimate was somewhere between 366 and 378. A variety of ancient sources give estimates of the far larger Persian fleet at between a thousand and twelve hundred ships.

So did Hyperides have access to sources—either oral or written—unknown to us? If so, how can we assess their relative accuracy vis-à-vis Herodotus and Aeschylus? An entire branch of classical scholarship—the so-called German science of Quellenforschung— exists to track down the original (and now lost) sources for ancient Greek historians, and no doubt we will eventually learn either where Hyperides got that figure, or perhaps the methodology by which he arrived at it.

If 220 ships is an accurate figure, and refers to the entire Greek fleet, what would that much smaller number mean to our understanding of what happened at Salamis, beyond the fact that the Greeks were even far more heavily outnumbered than we had previously thought?

Assuming Hyperides was right, two immediate corollaries follow. First, the Hellenic alliance was far shakier than previously believed, and like the Christian alliance before the 1571 Battle of Lepanto, it reflected the internecine squabbling of the West in the face of a united East. Second, if the Greeks were outnumbered at sea five or six to one rather than three to one, their victory at Salamis was even more incredible. If Hyperides’ smaller number is correct, did the Greeks take heavier losses than is usually believed at the sea battle at Artemesium, fought a few weeks earlier, or does it reflect widespread defection after the loss of Thermopylae?

If there were only 220 triremes, the battle’s outcome also would clearly magnify the qualitative superiority of Greek seamanship. And it might also highlight the importance of Themistocles’ ruse, in which the Greek naval commander sent a false message to Xerxes that the Greeks were getting away. That stratagem prompted the Persian king to divide his force and send his sizable Egyptian contingent to the opposite end of the straits of Salamis. There, the Egyptians waited in vain for a Greek escape that never came—effectively taking a large part of Xerxes’ fleet out of the battle equation.

While such speculation must wait until the full Hyperides text emerges sometime this year or next, the new figure can only prompt reexamination of the incredible victory. If his figure of 220 ships is true, the Greek miracle now might appear even more miraculous.

In the second fragment from the palimpsest, this one discussing the Greek defeat at Chaeronea in 338 B.C., Hyperides apparently offered an assessment of sorts on the battle’s outcome. It was made in a highly charged political case sur- rounding whether his kindred orator Demosthenes was to be blamed for mobilizing the Athenian forces at Chaeronea.

It was a shameful defeat. Demosthenes himself supposedly threw his shield away while running for the hills and the path back to Athens. We also know the defeat bore down hard upon the Athenians—and sixteen years later Hyperides himself would pay with his life for his nearly half-century-long opposition to Macedonian rule, which commenced after Chaeronea.

Looking back on the role he played in advocating the stand at Chaeronea against Philip, the new fragment has Hyperides asserting, “For we chose the noblest policy and we believed it necessary to free the Greeks by taking on the risks ourselves, just like before.” Then he added: “One must assign the start and the suggestion of every risk to those who make the motion, but the outcome of these things is to be assigned to chance. Diondas proposes the opposite happen: not that Demosthenes be praised for his policy, but that I give a defense because of chance.”

Hyperides seems to argue that the policy of forward defense he and Demosthenes embraced—sending Athenian hoplite infantrymen far into northern Boeotia to join the Theban resistance against Philip—was sound and thus both were without regrets. The subsequent defeat was due not to this flawed strategy or innate Greek military inferiority or even poor Athenian tactics at the battle but to a “chance” victory by Philip in a fight that could have gone either way.

He may well have been right. There are no contemporary accounts of Chaeronea. From later narratives of the Roman era that were based on now-lost Greek sources, the battle seems to have been a near thing, decided by sudden panic and bewilderment.

The combined Greek force of Athenians and Thebans may have nearly matched the approximately thirty thousand Macedonian infantry under Philip. The fourth-century Theban phalanx, anchored by the famous Sacred Band, was considered the most formidable infantry in the Greek-speaking world.

At the battle, the Athenians on the left soon pushed back the Macedonian right wing under Philip, with some of the jubilant hoplites screaming “Pursue to Macedon!” as their foes ran. But apparently the wily king was preparing some sort of ordered retreat, intended to lure the Athenian left wing into recklessly advancing too far ahead of the rest of the Greek line. At the opportune moment, Philip ordered his phalangites to stand firm and turn back against the wildly pursuing Athenians. Meanwhile, the center of the Greek line had extended toward the advancing Athenians, opening a gap between the Boeotians and their allies.

Philip’s son, eighteen-year-old Alexander, far distant on the Macedonian left, led the heavy Companion Cavalry through the developing tear between the Athenians and various Boeotian contingents. This he did brilliantly, and apparently got to the rear of the Theban veterans, effectively herding them into his own advancing phalanx and cutting them off on their left from their Athenian allies—who at this point evidently collapsed and headed for the mountain passes that led back into Athens.

This new fragment of Hyperides might lend further credence to the notion that Chaeronea—after initially going well for the Greeks—was won only through a Macedonian stratagem of deliberate withdrawal, followed by a surge forward on a prearranged signal. Had the Athenians marched ahead, slower and in better order, and ensured that their own right wing stayed in close contact with the Theban contingent on the right, they might well have defeated Philip.

The royal Macedonian army was not yet the death machine of the next fifteen years that tore apart Darius III’s Achaemenid forces. Moreover, an ordered withdrawal, followed by a sudden halt and subsequent charge, has always been one of the most difficult maneuvers for either ancient or modern armies to execute. No wonder Hyperides concluded that chance just as likely could have given the victory to the Greeks, who had fought well until Philip and Alexander were able to spread the two Greek wings apart.

In any case, after the Greek defeat both Athens and Thebes were left defenseless and capitulated to Philip’s demands. Hyperides, like Demosthenes, years after the battle made no apologies for their firm stance and had only disdain for the defeatists and appeasers in their midst.

On learning of Alexander the Great’s death in 323, Hyperides made the fatal mistake of equating the ability of Macedonians to rule Greece with the magnetism of a single man. After calling for the liberation of Athens in the Lamian War (323-322 B.C.), Hyperides was executed when a large Macedonian contingent quickly ended such nonsense.

The previously known fragments of Hyperides’ lost speeches offer tantalizing tidbits about Greek history. These new fragments from the Archimedes Palimpsest are similarly intriguing, and remind us both how grievous is the loss of Hyperides’ work—and that the Greeks of antiquity were as unsure of what actually happened in their greatest battles as we are today.


Originally published in the Winter 2008 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here

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