Herodotus on the Challenge of Hellenic Unity

Greek hoplite citizen-soldiers in phalanx formation

Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from a longer article on Herodotus’s account of the Greek-Persian wars. The entire article will appear in the Summer issue of The Occidental Quarterly.

There was undeniably a strong feeling of shared national and cultural identity among the Greeks. However, if one looks at the sweep of ancient Greek history, one is struck by the disconnect between the pervasive rhetoric expressing pan-Hellenic sentiment and the political reality of division and often brutal wars among Greeks. The demand of the polis for total loyalty from its citizens meant that there were few qualms about annihilating fellow Greeks, if this was in the city’s immediate interests. Furthermore, it is often difficult to determine the degree to which patriotic sentiment actually underpinned the Greek states’ resistance, as opposed to merely being eloquent rationalizations for narrowly political interests, such as Athens and Sparta’s desire not to be dominated by any foreign power, Greek or not. Indeed, Herodotus says that one city, Phocia, opportunistically sided with the allies purely because its traditional enemy, Thessalia, sided with the Persians. (8.30) The collaboration of individual politicians[1] and cities with the Persians was common. Indeed the city of Delphi itself became Medized. In short, as so often in our history, broader ethnic and civilizational interests were ignored in the face of the selfish political interests.

In the Persian Wars, the Greek allies certainly achieved sufficient unity to ultimately repulse the invaders, but one is struck at how tenuous that unity was and how exceptional even that degree of unity was in the course of Greek history. The allies, who called themselves simply “the Greeks,” in the end only made up about one-in-ten continental Greek cities, the rest remaining neutral or collaborating.

Though far less discussed than the polis, the Greeks did have a quite venerable tradition of federalism—i.e., forming leagues of city-states. Such leagues, typically combining joint temples, a common council, arbitration, military alliance, and coinage, with greater or lesser degrees of central authority—were a common feature in Greek political history. Shared ethno-regional identity was a common basis for the formation of such leagues, as in Arcadia, Boeotia, Crete, and Ionia. Athens and Sparta would, in their history, each lead their own military alliances as hegemonic cities.

The league projected the basic features of the familial religion beyond the city to a regional commonwealth: shared blood and gods sealed the alliance of cities in a league, including notably a shared holy sanctuary, just as the family household and the polis were sacred spaces. However, the league was typically not a true federal state or sovereign federation, but a coalition of cities, each with its own army and jealous of its civic sovereignty. The confederal league therefore never had the solidity of the polis. The various leagues tended to fluctuate in their effectiveness as the necessity of unity (typically to acquire military scale) was in constant tension with the centrifugal tendency of each city’s desire for autonomy. In practice, a league tended to do well if it had a hegemonic city which could impose decisive leadership or, if led by two cities, if these leader-cities were in basic agreement. Rebellion and subjugation of cities was common. The Greek leagues failed to scale beyond the region and it is not surprising that they eventually fell to the far larger powers of Macedon and the Roman Empire. The ancient Greek leagues in their fragility were not unlike later fractious confederations of sovereigns, such as the Hanseatic League, the antebellum United States, the German Confederation, or the European Union.

Given the fragility of the league, moderns will be less surprised to learn that despite the Greeks’ strong sense of identity, it rarely occurred to them to seek to achieve political unity. This was not so much due to lack of imagination—Plato and Isocrates did make concrete proposals for Greek unity at the expense of barbarians—but due to the sheer impracticalities of federalism in an age before telecommunications. In the premodern world, as Montesquieu later remarked, scale was only possible for monarchies, not for republics.[2]

External threats were perhaps the most important driver of Greek unity. Prior to the Persian conquest, the twelve Ionian cities of Asiatic Greece were united in a loose league on grounds of their shared ancestry and religion. These Ionians met together to worship Poseidon, compete in sports, and hold council at a joint sanctuary known as Panionion. During the Ionians’ brief independence between Lydian and Persian overlordships, the philosopher Thales of Miletus— famous for his feats of mathematics, astronomy, and engineering— proposed that the twelve kindred cities should unite into a genuine political federation and “establish a single governmental council, that should be in Teos (because Teos is centrally located in Ionia), and that all the other towns should be regarded effectively as demes [i.e., districts].” (1.170) Ionia however lacked any city with the preponderance to be a natural leader, as Athens and Sparta were in mainland Greece, and proved too fractious to resist the Persians. Another proposal, not carried out, was that instead of accepting Persian rule “the Ionians should pool their resources, set sail for Sardinia, and then found a single city for all Ionians,” with the goal of establishing a powerful and independent mercantile state.

Interestingly, Herodotus often has the Persians complaining about the disunity and fractiousness of the Greeks. One Persian governor “sent for representatives from the [subjugated] states and forced the Ionians to submit their disputes to arbitration instead of raiding and plundering one another.” (6.42) Mardonius, one of the leading Persian generals during the second invasion, was amazed at the Greek propensity for infighting and said: “What [the Greeks] should do, since they all speak the same language, is make use of heralds and messengers to settle their differences, since anything would be preferable to fighting.” (7.9)

Herodotus himself laments Greek disunity. In the context of divisions between cities in the Greek alliance, he uses the expression stasis—a term usually used for civil strife or war within cities—and more specifically emphylo stasis or “intra-tribal conflict.” He famously says: “internal dissension is worse than a united war effort to the same degree that war is worse than peace.” (8.3) Herodotus’ expression suggests that Greek ethnic unity should have been the natural state of affairs.

In practice, Greek unity during the Persian Wars was tenuous indeed. During the first Persian invasion in 492–90 BC, in which the Persians secured Thrace, Macedon, and the Cyclades, Athens alone won the battle of Marathon against Xerxes, the famously pious Spartans having apparently been held up due to a religious festival. (6.109) During the second invasion of 480–79 BC, Xerxes achieved titanic feats such as digging a canal at the isthmus of Mount Athos and sending perhaps 200,000 soldiers and 600 warships. The resisting Greek states formed an alliance, calling themselves “the Greeks.” These held a congress of the 70 participating members at Corinth, but had no governmental apparatus as such. These states represented only about a tenth of the 700 Greek cities in the mainland. These patriots assumed ultimate authority over their nation as a whole. The allies swore an oath promising to punish those who had betrayed their Greek nationality:

These peoples were the object of an oath sworn by those of the Greeks who resisted the Persian invasion to the following effect: that after the successful conclusion of the war all those who had surrendered of their own free will to the Persian, despite being Greeks, were to have a tenth of their property made over to the god of Delphi. (7.132)

The allies shared plunder and could annihilate collaborator states. Although, one must say, the Greeks did not need pan-Hellenic justification to raze each other’s cities. The allies justified their authority as representing “all the Greeks who had the best interests of Greece at heart.” (7.172) The Spartans later proposed depopulating collaborator-states and resettling them with the Ionians of Asia Minor. (9.106; the Athenians however objected to both Spartan interference in the Ionian affairs and to the evacuation of the Asian cities)

The Spartans were given supreme command on land and the Athenians at sea. However, the “Greek League” was a fractious alliance, and by no means a state, dependent for its survival ultimately on the good will and relations between the two leading cities: Athens and Sparta, which did have divergent interests. Athens was in Attica, closer to Persian power, and thus was burned down. Sparta was in the Peloponnesian peninsula and had an interest in delaying fighting until the Persians made their way south and even considered abandoning Athens to merely fortify the Peloponnesian isthmus. Both Athens and Sparta had to show goodwill: the Athenians in not coming to terms with the Persians despite the torching of their city, the Spartans in risking battle at Thermopylae before they were directly threatened in the Peloponnese.

The ability of political interests to override ethnic ones is clearly visible in the case of Syracuse. The Greek allies had sent messengers across the Greek world—to Sicily, Corcyra, and Crete—to ask them to join their alliance against the Persians: “The idea was to try to find a way to unite the whole of the Greek world—to get everyone to think and act in concert—on the grounds that all Greeks were equally threatened by the imminent danger.” (7.145) Syracuse was a Greek city-state in Sicily which under a series of tyrants had risen to great power by ruthlessly destroying cities and rearranging populations on the island (including moving them to Syracuse and making them citizens). The allies asked the tyrant Gelon for assistance as a fellow Greek: “your rulership of Sicily means that quite a large portion of Greece is in your hands, so we are asking you to support those of us who are fighting for the freedom of Greece and join our struggle.” (7.157) (Interestingly, this clearly shows that the Greeks did not consider Greece to be a mere geographical entity, but an ethno-political entity synonymous with wherever Greeks lived.)[3] According to Herodotus, Gelon was open to helping the allies, offering them hundreds of ships and tens of thousands of troops. However, this came to nothing for reasons of petty-politics and desire for prestige: Gelon asked to be given supreme command of the overall Greek forces, something which the Spartans rejected. Gelon then offered to be made commander only at sea, but the Athenians rejected that. So much for the politics of prestige . . .

The Triumph of Greek Freedom

Artist’s impression of the Battle of Plataea (479 BC)

Despite lack of Syracusan support, Athenian and Spartan unity and combined naval and land power proved sufficient to defeat the Persians. The legendary sacrifice of King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans at Thermopylae in 480 BC was less significant military than in showing Sparta’s willingness to fight and die for her allies and indeed for Greece. Without this sacrifice, perhaps Athens would have come to terms. The Athenians for their part at the same time fought the Battle of Artemisium at sea, sinking hundreds of Persian ships. Herodotus says: “In both cases the Greeks’ rallying cry was to stop the foreigners entering Greece.” (8.15)

That same year, the largely Athenian fleet defeated the Persians at sea at Salamis. Finally, in 479 BC the Athenians and Spartans defeated the Persians together on land at Plataea. A Greek praised the Spartan Pausanias for his victory at Plataea in the following words:

The god has allowed you to earn more fame than anyone else we know of, for saving Greece. What you need to do now is follow up this achievement, to enhance your reputation even more and to make any foreigner in the future think twice before committing obscene crimes against Greeks. (9.78)

In fact, the conservative Spartans showed little interest in retaliating against Persia following the collapse of Xerxes’ great project. The Athenians however boldly counter-attacked, began liberating Asiatic Greek cities, and established their own Delian League, which would gradually become an Athenian empire. This league was justified on grounds of the unity needed to ward off the Persians and the shared Ionian kinship of most of its constituent states. Greece would enjoy a half-century of peace before the onset of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta.

By their triumph in the Persian Wars, the Greeks preserved their sovereignty and identity, setting the stage for the Golden Age of Athenian power and philosophy. The Greeks triumphed because of the winning combination of their culture of civic freedom and solidarity, and the successful alliance between Athens and Sparta, which required both cities to adopt a conciliatory attitude. Herodotus’ Histories are a poignant commemoration of the fragility and value of Greek unity. Whether in the Athenians’ retreat en masse from their city rather than surrender or in the fight to the death of Leonidas and his 300 at Thermopylae, the Greeks’ struggle against Persia provides an exemplar of unity and sacrifice for national freedom which has resounded throughout the ages.[4] Some Greeks believed that the gods themselves had been angered by the arrogant Persian ambition of intercontinental world-government. As the Athenian leader Themistocles said: “the gods and the heroes [divinized ancestors] . . . did not want to see a single man ruling both Asia and Europe.” (8.109)

The idea of Greek freedom against Asiatic slavery has also been a common theme in later times, especially with the modern rise in republican and democratic self-government. There has been a tendency, notably among neoconservatives, to equate Western civilization with the values of freedom and democracy. There is truth to this insofar as civic government is to a large extent a Western phenomenon. Even so, the reduction of Western identity to the “values” of “democracy” is absurd, if one only considers our long history in the eras of hunter-gathering, “barbaric” tribes, the Roman Empire, the feudal Middle Ages, or the absolutism of the Enlightenment, not to mention modern experiments in authoritarian government. Contra neoconservatives, “Western Civ” is not synonymous with “democratic imperialism” and “human rights,” let alone their quest to impose a single ideology across the world.

Certainly, the pursuit of freedom is central to Western civilization and to the very being of European man. However, this must be well understood. The Greek conception of freedom was fundamentally “illiberal,” ethnocentric, and virile. For Herodotus, Sparta as a military aristocracy was as “free” as democratic Athens, for the Spartans adhered to a holistic rule of law. Athens for its part was dynamic, powerful, and marked by an exceptionally fertile cultural and intellectual life, but her democratic excesses were often lamented. The Greek notion of freedom was fundamentally ethnopolitical: civic life did not mean not defending mere “values” as such, let alone imposing them on outsiders, but rather this meant participating in an organic community defined by shared blood and gods.


Herodotus (trans. Robin Waterfield), The Histories (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998)

Plato (trans. G.M.A. Grube, rev. C.D.C. Reeve), Republic in Plato (ed. John M. Cooper), Complete Works, (Indianapolis, Indian: Hackett, 1997)

Thucydides (trans. Martin Hammond), The Peloponnesian War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)

Xenophon (trans. Robin Waterfield), The Expedition of Cyrus [Anabasis] (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005)

Xenophon (trans. Rex Warner), A History of My Times [Hellenica] (London: Penguin, 1966)

[1]For example. at the end of the wars, the Spartan general Pausanias collaborated with the Persians and was rumored to wish becoming “the tyrant of all Greece” (5.32)

[2]In passing, I note that with the rise of modern telecommunications, polities were able to expand to their natural optimal size: the nation-state. If a polity expanded beyond a single a single ethny, the natural sensitive pride of each constituent nation made keeping together such multinational states difficult, often leading to secession. The development of national pride itself was facilitated by the telecommunications and mass education of the modern era.

[3]Similarly, Xenophon says he wanted to establish a new city on good land on the coast of the Black Sea as “it would be a fine achievement to found a city and acquire extra land and resources for Greece” (Anabasis, 5.6.15-22)

[4]Most notably, in recent years, in the film 300, which while cartoonish has more historically-accurate dialogue and events than one might think.

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