The Persian Empire in the Fourth Century

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At the end of the fifth century, the rebellious brother of Artaxerxes II, known as Cyrus the Younger to differentiate him from the great founder of the dynasty, led a mixed force of barbarians and Greeks into the heart of the Persian Empire. The troops that confronted the armies of the Great King included more than 10,000 Greek mercenaries, drawn from many parts of European Greece, each contingent with its own commander. Although their leader and paymaster, Cyrus, was killed on the battlefield of Cunaxa, not far from Babylon, the Greeks (whose own generals had treacherously been slain by the satrap Tissaphernes) managed to escape the victorious army and fight their way back through the mountains of Armenia to the Greek settlements on the Black Sea. Their story is told vividly by Xenophon, the man who claimed to have assumed command of the force after the murder of the generals. His Anabasis or “March Up Country” was known to educated Greek and Macedonian youths, and there is no doubt that Alexander, as a boy, was held spellbound by the adventures of the Ten Thousand and the exotic world of Persia. But the Anabasis also played no small part in contributing to the view of the Achaemenid Empire as decadent and “ripe for the picking.” This picture of Persia in decline, so long accepted by modern writers, has now been revised through the efforts of Achaemenid scholars. But the observations made by Xenophon about the inherent weaknesses of the empire proved to be true, and they were brilliantly exploited by Alexander the Great.

Two passages, one recording Xenophon’s own estimate of the empire’s strengths and weaknesses, the other allegedly preserving the words of Cyrus himself, deserve closer attention. In the first, Xenophon observes,

It was clear to anyone who paid close attention to the size of the king’s empire that it was strong in terms of lands and men, butweak on account of the great distances of road and the dispersal of its forces, if someone made a quick military strike against it.

In the second, Cyrus remarks to the Greeks, in the hope of encouraging them to endure hardships on his behalf,

Our ancestral kingdom stretches southward to the point where men cannot live on account of the heat, and northward to where the winter prevents habitation. All that lies between these limits is governed by my brother’s friends (philoi). If we conquer, we shall have to put our friends in charge of these areas.

The Persian Empire was thus a large but cumbersome structure, which could be taken by an efficient army and which offered opportunities for the enrichment of the conquerors, an empire to be coveted rather than feared.

In reality, the conquest of Persia, though possible – as Alexander himself would prove – was not a simple matter in the first decades of the fourth century. Xenophon’s declaration that Agesilaus, who had been campaigning with a force of not more than 10,000 in 395 and 394, was recalled to Europe just when he was on the verge of striking at the very heart of the Achaemenid empire amounts to little more than wishful thinking, and the general perception of Agesilaus was one of a “robber baron” who was making life difficult for Tissaphernes in Ionia. But when the time came, and “the man and the hour had met” (to use William Yancey’s famous phrase in reference to Jefferson Davis), the truth of Xenophon’s observations became clear.

Common Enemy of the Greeks

The death knells of the Persian Empire were thus premature. Artaxerxes II turned aside challenges from his brother and the great satraps of the west. Disparaged as militarily inept, his resolve blunted somewhat by advancing age, he nevertheless had the financial resources to buy mercenaries abroad and traitors in the Greek homeland. In tandem with first Sparta and then Thebes, he divided and weakened the Greek states, acting all the while as the guarantor of their local freedoms. When he died in 359/8, he left the throne to Artaxerxes III Ochus, who ruthlessly purged his family and the court of rivals and brutally suppressed rebellion in his lands. In doing so, he strengthened Persia for the moment but created conditions, particularly amongst the Phoenicians and Egyptians, that would facilitate the Macedonian conquest. For when Alexander arrived they were ill disposed to fight to the death for their Persian masters.

The military campaigns of the Great Persian Wars had been a dismal failure. Despite Greek euphoria, for the Persians they had been little more than an unsuccessful border war of the sort regularly suppressed in Near Eastern chronicles. But a lesson had been learned. The noted Assyrian and Persian scholar A. T. Olmstead rightly observed,

From the very first contact with the Greeks, Persian monarchs had been well aware of the outstanding weakness of Greek statesmen – their susceptibility to bribes – and now that Xerxes had suffered a crushing series of military defeats Persian diplomacy, backed by the empire’s gold must be brought into play.

Not only bribery, but actual funding of Greek states at war with one another, became the preferred method of securing the western frontier. The late stages of the Peloponnesian War presented the Great King, Darius II, with the opportunity of regaining control of the Aegean littoral. Particularly hard hit by the loss of the coastalGreek cities were the satraps of Ionia and Hellespontine Phrygia, who coveted the additional revenues these would generate. The revolt of the tribute-paying states of the Aegean islands against Athens after the Sicilian disaster of 413 was doomed to failure if the Spartans could not bring aid; for even in its hour of crisis, the Athenian state was far from defeated and showed both the will to and the means of recovery. With the aid of Persian gold, Sparta could establish a naval presence in the east that would not only ensure the safety of the rebels but also offer the prospect of victory in the war. But in exchange for this victory, the Spartans – who had entered the war as the avowed liberators of Greece – would have to relinquish control of the Greeks of Ionia to their Persian paymasters. The decision to ally themselves with the Persians – the treaty negotiations are described in detail by Thucydides – was politically embarrassing for the Spartans, but it guaranteed success. Spartan navarchs, especially the flamboyant Lysander, directed ever stronger fleets, manned in part by rowers who had been enticed away from Athenian service by higher wages. The partnership between Sparta and Persia was brokered by Darius II’s son, Cyrus, whose concern to foster the friendship of Lysander was motivated in no small way by his aspirations to the Achaemenid throne. Hence, the Persians failed to heed Alcibiades’ advice that it was not in their interests to support one side only.

The Athenians sent ambassadors to Cyrus, using Tissaphernes as a go-between. Cyrus, however, refused to receive them, in spite of the entreaties of Tissaphernes, who urged him to follow his own policy (which he had adopted on the advice of Alcibiades) – namely, to guard against the emergence of any single strong Greek state by seeing that they were all kept weak by constantly fighting among themselves.

In the event, Cyrus’ schemes came to an abrupt end on the battlefield of Cunaxa, as we have already noted, and the involvement of Peloponnesian mercenaries turned Artaxerxes II against his former allies.

Now it was the Athenians who benefited from Persian gold, and Conon, the admiral who had gone into self-imposed exile after the disaster at Aegospotami (405), terminated the short-lived Spartan thalassocracy in the waters off Cnidus in 394. At about the same time, Agesilaus had returned to Greece to deal with the Corinthian War, after a fitful campaign in Ionia, driven out of Asia “by 10,000 archers.” The war in Greece dragged on until 387, when the Spartans again sought Persian aid in order to prop up their power and force a settlement on their opponents. This Peace of Antalcidas, more appropriately called the “King’s Peace,” revived once again the charge that Sparta was in league with the “common enemy of the Greeks.”

We may blame the Lacedaemonians because to begin with they went to war in order to liberate the Greeks, but in the end handed so many of them over . . . to the barbarians. . . .

In some respects, Sparta’s was a Teflon empire; for, despite its autocratic and narrow-minded policies, the opprobrium of Medism did not stick to it as it did to Thebes. Who could cast blame on the defenders of Thermopylae and the victors of Plataea? For their part, after the Spartan army was broken in the battle of Leuctra (371), the Thebans imposed a new peace on the Greek world, again supported by Persia. Theirs were not the only ambassadors who found their way to Susa, but their actions were dutifully reported by the orators and historians. Most telling, however, was the Theban response to Alexander’s appeal that they join the Panhellenic cause: instead they called upon all Greeks to side with them and the Great King in liberating Greece from the tyranny of the Macedonians.

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