In Antiquity, were Persian arrows considered superior to their Greek counterparts?

In Xenophon's Anabasis I ran into the following part:

The Persian bows are also large, and consequently the Cretans could make good use of all the arrows that fell into their hands; in fact, they were continually using the enemy's arrows, and practised themselves in long-range work by shooting them into the air. In the villages, furthermore, the Greeks found gut in abundance and lead for the use of their slingers.

Xen. Anab. 3.4.17

Translation by "Xenophon in Seven Volumes, 3. Carleton L. Brownson. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA; William Heinemann, Ltd., London. 1922."

Xenophon points to the fact that the Cretans used arrows taken from their Persian foes all the time (διατελέω in Greek) and even started training to use them more efficiently.

The question: were the ancient Persian arrows that superior so the Cretan archers started using them exclusively and trained for them?

A slightly different translation reads as follows:

The Persian bows were also large, so that such of their arrows as were taken were useful to the Cretans, and they continued using their enemies' arrows; and they practiced shooting them upward, sending them a long way. They found a lot of gut in the villages, and lead, which they could put to use for the slings.
(From Wayne Ambler: "Xenophon. The Anabasis of Cyrus", Cornell University Press: Ithaca, London, 2011.)

A note on the Greek διατελέω: bring quite to an end, complete, finish, as a journey or road, [… ], with the end in view, complete the march, finish the distance, continue to do, or do constantly (the participle containing the leading idea.)
Putting on my speculative literary interpreter hat this opens up some interesting possibilities. Shooting Persians with Persian ammo completes the destiny of the ammo?

The enemy arrows were compatible and suitable for Greek uses. That is an immense advantage if you are in enemy territory, far away from your own re-supply.

From Xenophon you can not conclude that these arrows were superior, but that the Greeks used scavenging tactics to recycle them for the next battle.

The Cyreans carried some things because they had to, other things because they wanted to. They carried the tools of their trades - shields and spears, sling bullets, arrows, javelins. They carried the necessities of life - food, water, firewood, cooking pots, cloaks, tents. They carried plunder, anything that looked portable and valuable enough to haul over one hill after another. The things they carried were as heavy and unwieldy as hammered bronze breastplates, as light and tiny as flint and tinder. Only a few had animals or slaves to help with the carrying.
Examining what the mercenaries carried significantly enhances our appreciation of the arduousness of the march. The Cyreans shouldered not the light, waterproof synthetics we take for granted, but bronze, leather, wood, and wool. Their non-combat gear was not standardized military-grade, but a me ́lange of borrowed and adapted items neither designed nor built for years of continuous hard use. More importantly, understanding the characteristics and sources of Cyrean equipment is essential to assessing the troops' behavior. Reliance on suskenoi, reluctance to abandon equipment, vociferous protection of pack animals - all make more sense when placed against the practical context of the army's gear.
Archers and slingers could carry an additional quiver of arrows or sack of bullets with less difficulty, but they too are unlikely to have lugged huge quantities of extra ammunition. For all three light infantry types, then, a total missile load of about 3 kg (6.6 lb) seems reasonable.
The Cretan archers certainly found ways to keep their bows in action, perhaps even fashioning arrows en route using foraged reeds and fletching.
Probably some Cyreans had the skills, but they could not carry hammer and anvil along on the march. So damaged metal items must have remained in use as long as possible, being discarded only when completely unserviceable. The best craftsmen in the world, though, could not keep the Cyreans in fighting trim through repairs alone.

And most relevant to your question:

Because Persian and Cretan bows were of similar design, the Cretan archers were able to collect and reuse Persian arrows. In some cases, captured ammunition found creative reuse. The peltasts, for example, converted oversize Carduchian arrows into javelins, fitting them with thongs for greater throwing force. (p130)

The reason why they practised with them "by shooting into the air", or "shooting them upward, sending them a long way" instead of target practice, is that an arrow that has hit something is often damaged and thus non-recyclable.

Xenophon himself lost his shield in battle, and he was not the only one.139 Light troops had other problems. Discharged arrows and sling bullets were usually impossible to recycle. Javelins were perhaps easier to recover, if their slender shafts did not break. [… ] At greater distances, though, the penetrating power and lethality of arrows and javelins dropped markedly.

Another reason for the "practice of shooting long" is mentioned slightly earlier in the text, Xen. Anab. 3.3.15:

Now the enemy shoot their arrows and use their slings from such a distance that the Cretans are not able to reach in response, nor are those who throw by hand able to reach them.

While the Greek archers were not bad or ineffective (The Place of Archery in Greek Warfare), in comparison with their Persian counterparts, there was a bit left to be desired.

Moving from exegesis of Xenophon to the more general question of Persian arrows, it is not so much the ammunition that counts in this respect but the launch system. This system consists of the bows, archers, and tactics on the battlefield.

The Persian archers were among the finest of their time and neither these tactics nor the sheer numbers can be dismissed:

Though equipped and trained to conduct shock action (hand-to-hand combat with spears, axes and swords), this was a secondary capability and the Persians preferred to maintain their distance from the enemy in order to defeat him with superior missile-power. The bow was the preferred missile-weapon of the Persians. At maximum rate of fire a sparabara haivarabam of 10,000 men could launch approximately 100,000 arrows in a single minute and maintain this rate for a number of minutes. Typically the Persian cavalry would open the battle by harassing the enemy with hit and run attacks - shooting arrows and throwing small javelins - while the Persian sparabara formed up their battle-array. Then the Persian cavalry would move aside and attempt to harass the flanks of the enemy. Defending against the Persian cavalry required the enemy infantry to congregate in dense static formations, which were ideal targets for the Persian archers. Even heavily armoured infantry like the Greek hoplites would suffer heavy casualties in such conditions. Enemy infantry formations that scattered to reduce casualties from the dense volleys of Persian arrows, were exposed to a close-in shock assault by the Persian cavalry. Torn by the dilemma between exposure to a gradual attrition by the arrows or to being overwhelmed by a cavalry charge on their flanks, most armies faced by the Persians succumbed.

As we know, this passage seems to overstate the effectiveness of the Persian army against Greek armour or tactics in only slightly later times than Xenophon describes.

A Greek hoplite could quite happily rely upon his bronze helmet to keep out both Persian and Scythian arrows, and on his breastplate and greaves, if he wore them. On the other hand, his armour was far from complete, and the eyes, right arm, and the neck were particularly vulnerable. His shield would provide adequate protection against arrows from the Scythian bow… , but not, at short range, against those from the Persian infantry bow.
(From: P. H. Blythe: "The Effectiveness of Greek Armour Against Arrows in the Persian War (490-479 BC)", PhD, University of Reading, 1977.)

But the numbers illustrate just as nicely as

"Because of the arrows of the barbarians it is impossible to see the sun", Leonidas replied, "Won't it be nice, then, if we shall have shade in which to fight them?"

how much re-supply for ammunitions was available on a typical battlefield in the aftermath.

Source: John W. I. Lee: "A Greek Army on the March. Soldiers and Survival in Xenophon's Anabasis", Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, New York, 2008.

Classical Greek civilization

Between 500 and 386 bce Persia was for the policy-making classes in the largest Greek states a constant preoccupation. (It is not known, however, how far down the social scale this preoccupation extended in reality.) Persia was never less than a subject for artistic and oratorical reference, and sometimes it actually determined foreign policy decisions.

The situation for the far more numerous smaller states of mainland Greece was different inasmuch as a distinctive policy of their own toward Persia or anybody else was hardly an option for most of the time. However, Eretria, by now a third-class power, had its own unsuccessful “war” with Persia in 490, and some very small cities and islands were proud to record on the “Serpent Column” (the victory dedication to Apollo at Delphi) their participation on the Greek side in the great war of 480–479. But, even at this exalted moment, choice of sides, Greek or Persian, could be seen, as it was by Herodotus, as having been determined either by preference for local masters or by a desire to spite an equal and rival state next door. (He says this explicitly about Thessaly, which “Medized”—i.e., sided with the Persians—and its neighbour and enemy Phocis, which did not.) Nor is it obvious that for small Greek places the change to control by distant Persia would have made much day-to-day difference, judging from the experience of their kinsmen and counterparts in Anatolia or of the Jews (the other articulate Persian subject nation). Modern Western notions of religious tolerance do not apply, however.

It remains true that Persia had no policy of dismantling the social structures of its subject communities or of driving their religions underground (though it has been held that the Persian king Xerxes tried to impose orthodoxy in a way that compelled some Magi to emigrate). Persia certainly had no motive for destroying the economies of the peoples in its empire. Naturally, it expected the ruling groups or individuals to guarantee payment of tribute and generally deferential behaviour, but then the Athenian and Spartan empires expected the same of their dependents. The Athenians, at least, were strikingly realistic and undogmatic about not demanding regimes that resembled their own democracy in more than the name.


Most of the warships of the era were distinguished by their names, which were compounds of a number and a suffix. Thus the English term quinquereme derives from Latin quīnquerēmis code: lat promoted to code: la and has the Greek equivalent πεντήρης (pentḗrēs). Both are compounds featuring a prefix meaning "five": Latin quīnque code: lat promoted to code: la , ancient Greek πέντε (pénte). The Roman suffix is from rēmus code: lat promoted to code: la , "oar": [1] hence "five-oar". As the vessel cannot have had only five oars, the word must be a figure of speech meaning something else. There are a number of possibilities. The -ηρης occurs only in suffix form, deriving from ἐρέσσω (eréssō), "(I) row". [2] As "rower" is ἐρέτης (erétēs) and "oar" is ἐρετμόν (eretmón), -ērēs does not mean either of those but, being based on the verb, must mean "rowing". This meaning is no clearer than the Latin. Whatever the "five-oar" or the "five-row" originally meant was lost with knowledge of the construction, and is, from the 5th century on, a hotly debated issue. For the history of the interpretation efforts and current scholarly consensus, see below.

In the great wars of the 5th century BC, such as the Persian Wars and the Peloponnesian War, the trireme was the heaviest type of warship used by the Mediterranean navies. [3] [4] The trireme (Greek: τρῐήρης (triḗrēs), "three-oared") was propelled by three banks of oars, with one oarsman each. During the early 4th century BC, however, variants of the trireme design began to appear: invention of the quinquereme (Gk.: πεντήρης (pentḗrēs), "five-oared") and the hexareme (Gk. hexērēs, "six-oared") is credited by the historian Diodorus Siculus to the tyrant Dionysius I of Syracuse, while the quadrireme (Gk. tetrērēs, "four-oared") was credited by Aristotle to the Carthaginians. [5] [6] [7]

Oar system Edit

Far less is known with certainty about the construction and appearance of these ships than about the trireme. Literary evidence is fragmentary and highly selective, and pictorial evidence unclear. The fact that the trireme had three levels of oars (trikrotos naus) led medieval historians, long after the specifics of their construction had been lost, to speculate that the design of the "four", the "five" and the other later ships would proceed logically, i.e. that the quadrireme would have four rows of oars, the quinquereme five, etc. [8] However, the eventual appearance of bigger polyremes ("sixes" and later "sevens", "eights", "nines", "tens", and even a massive "forty"), made this theory implausible. Consequently, during the Renaissance and until the 19th century, it came to be believed that the rowing system of the trireme and its descendants was similar to the alla sensile system of the contemporary galleys, comprising multiple oars on each level, rowed by one oarsman each. [9] 20th-century scholarship disproved that theory, and established that the ancient warships were rowed at different levels, with three providing the maximum practical limit. The higher numbers of the "fours", "fives", etc. were therefore interpreted as reflecting the number of files of oarsmen on each side of the ship, and not an increased number of rows of oars. [10]

The most common theory on the arrangement of oarsmen in the new ship types is that of "double-banking", i.e., that the quadrireme was derived from a bireme (warship with two rows of oars) by placing two oarsmen on each oar, the quinquereme from a trireme by placing two oarsmen on the two uppermost levels (the thranitai and zygitai, according to Greek terminology), and the later hexareme by placing two rowers on every level. [11] Other interpretations of the quinquereme include a bireme warship with three and two oarsmen on the upper and lower oar banks, or even a monoreme (warship with a single level of oars) with five oarsmen. [12] The "double-banking" theory is supported by the fact that the 4th-century quinqueremes were housed in the same ship sheds as the triremes, and must therefore have had similar width (c. 16 feet (4.9 m) ), which fits with the idea of an evolutionary progression from the one type to the other. [13]

The reasons for the evolution of the polyremes are not very clear. The most often forwarded argument is one of lack of skilled manpower: the trireme was essentially a ship built for ramming, and successful ramming tactics depended chiefly on the constant maintenance of a highly trained oar crew, [14] something which few states aside from Athens with its radical democracy had the funds or the social structure to do. [15] Using multiple oarsmen reduced the number of such highly trained men needed in each crew: only the rower at the tip of the oar had to be sufficiently trained, and he could then lead the others, who simply provided additional motive power. [16] This system was also in use in Renaissance galleys, but jars with the evidence of ancient crews continuing to be thoroughly trained by their commanders. [17] The increased number of oarsmen also required a broader hull, which on the one hand reduced the ships' speed, but on the other offered several advantages: larger vessels could be strengthened to better withstand ramming, while the wider hull increased their carrying capacity, allowing more marines, and eventually catapults, to be carried along. The decks of these ships were also higher above the waterline, while their increased beam afforded them extra stability, making them superior missile platforms. [18] This was an important fact in an age where naval engagements were increasingly decided not by ramming but by less technically demanding boarding actions. [15] It has even been suggested by Lionel Casson that the quinqueremes used by the Romans in the Punic Wars of the 3rd century were of the monoreme design (i.e., with one level and five rowers on each oar), being thus able to carry the large contingent of 120 marines attested for the Battle of Ecnomus. [17] [19]

Alternative explanations for the switch to larger ships is provided by Murray: Initially larger ships were considered desirable, because they were able to survive a bow-on-bow ramming engagement, which allowed for increased tactical flexibility over the older, smaller ships which were limited to broad-side ramming. Once bigger ships had become common, they proved their usefulness in siege operations against coastal cities, such as the siege of Tyre by Alexander the Great, as well as numerous siege operations carried out by his successors, such as the siege of Rhodes by Demetrius Poliorcetes. [20]

Construction Edit

There were two chief design traditions in the Mediterranean, the Greek and the Punic (Phoenician/Carthaginian) one, which was later copied by the Romans. As exemplified in the trireme, the Greeks used to project the upper level of oars through an outrigger (parexeiresia), while the later Punic tradition heightened the ship, and had all three tiers of oars projecting directly from the side hull. [21]

Based on iconographic evidence from coins, Morrison and Coates have determined that the Punic triremes in the 5th and early 4th centuries BC were largely similar to their Greek counterparts, most likely including an outrigger. [22] From the mid-4th century, however, at about the time the quinquereme was introduced in Phoenicia, there is evidence of ships without outriggers. This would have necessitated a different oar arrangement, with the middle level placed more inwards, as well as a different construction of the hull, with side-decks attached to it. From the middle of the 3rd century BC onwards, Carthaginian "fives" display a separate "oar box" that contained the rowers and that was attached to the main hull. This development of the earlier model entailed further modifications, meaning that the rowers would be located above deck, and essentially on the same level. [23] [24] This would allow the hull to be strengthened, and have increased carrying capacity in consumable supplies, as well as improve the ventilation conditions of the rowers, an especially important factor in maintaining their stamina, and thereby improving the ship's maintainable speed. [25] It is unclear however whether this design was applied to heavier warships, and although the Romans copied the Punic model for their quinqueremes, there is ample iconographic evidence of outrigger-equipped warships used until the late imperial period.

In the Athenian Sicilian Expedition of 415–413 BC, it became apparent that the topmost tier of rowers, the thranitai, of the "aphract" (un-decked and unarmoured) Athenian triremes were vulnerable to attack by arrows and catapults. Given the prominence of close-quarters boarding actions in later years, [14] vessels were built as "cataphract" ships, with a closed hull to protect the rowers, and a full deck able to carry marines and catapults. [6] [26]

Quadrireme Edit

Pliny the Elder reports that Aristotle ascribed the invention of the quadrireme (Latin: quadriremis Greek: τετρήρης , tetrērēs) to the Carthaginians. [27] Although the exact date is unknown, it is most likely the type was developed in the latter half of the 4th century BC. [28] Their first attested appearance is at the Siege of Tyre by Alexander the Great in 332 BC, [29] and a few years later, they appear in the surviving naval lists of Athens. [6] [30] In the period after Alexander's death (323 BC), the quadrireme proved very popular: the Athenians made plans to build 200 of these ships, and 90 out of 240 ships of the fleet of Antigonus I Monophthalmus (r. 306–301 BC) were "fours". Subsequently, the quadrireme was favoured as the main warship of the Rhodian navy, the sole professional naval force in the Eastern Mediterranean. [31] In the Battle of Naulochus in 36 BC, "fours" were the most common ship type fielded by the fleet of Sextus Pompeius, [32] and several ships of this kind are recorded in the two praetorian fleets of the Imperial Roman navy.

It is known from references from both the Second Punic War and the Battle of Mylae that the quadrireme had two levels of oarsmen, and was therefore lower than the quinquereme, [30] while being of about the same width (c. 5.6 m ). [33] Its displacement must have been around 60 tonnes, and its carrying capacity at c. 75 marines. [33] It was especially valued for its great speed and manoeuvrability, while its relatively shallow draught made it ideal for coastal operations. [30] The "four" was classed as a "major ship" (maioris formae) by the Romans, [30] but as a light craft, serving alongside triremes, in the navies of the major Hellenistic kingdoms like Egypt. [34]

Quinquereme Edit

Perhaps the most famous of the Hellenistic-era warships, because of its extensive use by the Carthaginians and Romans, the quinquereme (Latin: quīnquerēmis code: lat promoted to code: la Greek: πεντήρης , pentērēs) was invented by the tyrant of Syracuse, Dionysius I (r. 405–367 BC) in 399 BC, as part of a major naval armament program directed against the Carthaginians. [36] During most of the 4th century, the "fives" were the heaviest type of warship, and often used as flagships of fleets composed of triremes and quadriremes. [37] Sidon had them by 351, and Athens fielded some in 324. [6]

In the eastern Mediterranean, they were superseded as the heaviest ships by the massive polyremes that began appearing in the last two decades of the 4th century, [6] but in the West, they remained the mainstay of the Carthaginian navy. When the Roman Republic, which hitherto lacked a significant navy, was embroiled in the First Punic War with Carthage, the Roman Senate set out to construct a fleet of 100 quinqueremes and 20 triremes. [38] According to Polybius, the Romans seized a shipwrecked Carthaginian quinquereme and used it as a blueprint for their own ships, [39] but it is stated that the Roman copies were heavier than the Carthaginian vessels, which were better built. [37] The quinquereme provided the workhorse of the Roman and Carthaginian fleets throughout their conflicts, although "fours" and "threes" are also mentioned. Indeed, so ubiquitous was the type that Polybius uses it as a shorthand for "warship" in general. [40]

According to Polybius, at the Battle of Cape Ecnomus, the Roman quinqueremes carried a total crew of 420, 300 of whom were rowers, and the rest marines. [41] Leaving aside a deck crew of c. 20 men, and accepting the 2–2–1 pattern of oarsmen, the quinquereme would have 90 oars in each side, and 30-strong files of oarsmen. [37] The fully decked quinquereme could also carry a marine detachment of 70 to 120, giving a total complement of about 400. [14] A "five" would be c. 45 m long, displace around 100 tonnes, be some 5 m wide at water level, and have its deck standing c. 3 m above the sea. [14] Polybius said the quinquereme was superior to the old trireme, [42] which was retained in service in significant numbers by many smaller navies. Accounts by Livy and Diodorus Siculus also show that the "five", being heavier, performed better than the triremes in bad weather. [37]

Hexareme Edit

The hexareme or sexireme (Latin: hexēris Greek: ἑξήρης , hexērēs) is affirmed by the ancient historians Pliny the Elder and Aelian to have been invented in Syracuse. [43] "Sixes" were certainly present in the fleet of Dionysius II of Syracuse (r. 367–357 and 346–344 BC), but they may well have been invented in the last years of his father, Dionysius I. [28] "Sixes" were rarer than smaller vessels, and appear in the sources chiefly as flagships: at the Battle of Ecnomus, the two Roman consuls each had a hexareme, Ptolemy XII (r. 80–58 and 55–51 BC) had one as his personal flagship, as did Sextus Pompeius. [28] [33] At the Battle of Actium, hexaremes were present in both fleets, but with a notable difference: while in the fleet of Octavian they were the heaviest type of vessel, in the fleet of Mark Antony they were the second smallest, after the quinqueremes. [44] A single hexareme, the Ops, is later recorded as the heaviest ship serving in the praetorian Fleet of Misenum.

The exact arrangement of the hexareme's oars is unclear. If it evolved naturally from the earlier designs, it would be a trireme with two rowers per oar [45] the less likely alternative is that it had two levels with three oarsmen at each. [28] Reports about "sixes" used during the 1st-century BC Roman civil wars indicate that they were of a similar height to the quinqueremes, and record the presence of towers on the deck of a "six" serving as flagship to Marcus Junius Brutus. [28]

Septireme Edit

Pliny the Elder attributes the creation of the septireme (Latin: septiremis Greek: ἑπτήρης , heptērēs) to Alexander the Great. [46] Curtius corroborates this, and reports that the king gave orders for wood for 700 septiremes to be cut in Mount Lebanon, [47] to be used in his projected circumnavigations of the Arabian peninsula and Africa. At Salamis Demetrius Poliorcetes had seven such ships, built in Phoenicia, and later Ptolemy II (r. 283–246 BC) had 36 septiremes constructed. [48] Pyrrhus of Epirus (r. 306–302 and 297–272 BC) also apparently had at least one "seven", which was captured by the Carthaginians and eventually lost at Mylae. [49]

Presumably, the septireme was derived by adding a standing rower to the lower level of the hexareme. [48]

Octeres Edit

Very little is known about the octeres (Greek: ὀκτήρης , oktērēs). At least two of their type were in the fleet of Philip V of Macedon (r. 221–179 BC) at the Battle of Chios in 201 BC, where they were rammed in their prows. Their last appearance was at Actium, where Mark Antony is said by Plutarch to have had many "eights". [48] Based on the comments of Orosius that the larger ships in Antony's fleet were only as high as the quinqueremes (their deck standing at c. 3 m above water), it is presumed that "eights", as well as the "nines" and "tens", were rowed at two levels. [50]

An exceptionally large "eight", the Leontophoros, is recorded by Memnon of Heraclea to have been built by Lysimachus (r. 306–281 BC), one of the Diadochi. It was richly decorated, required 1,600 rowers (8 files of 100 per side) and could support 1,200 marines. Remarkably for a ship of its size, its performance at sea was reportedly very good. [48]

Enneres Edit

The enneres (Greek: ἐννήρης ) is first recorded in 315 BC, when three of their type were included in the fleet of Antigonus Monophthalmus. The presence of "nines" in Antony's fleet at Actium is recorded by Florus and Cassius Dio, although Plutarch makes explicit mention only of "eights" and "tens". The oaring system may have been a modification of the quadrireme, with two teams of five and four oarsmen. [51]

Deceres Edit

Like the septireme, the deceres (Greek: δεκήρης , dekērēs) is attributed by Pliny to Alexander the Great, [46] and they are present alongside "nines" in the fleet of Antigonus Monophthalmus in 315 BC. Indeed, it is most likely that the "ten" was derived from adding another oarsman to the "nine". A "ten" is mentioned as Philip V's flagship at Chios in 201 BC, and their last appearance was at Actium, where they constituted Antony's heaviest ships. [51]

Larger polyremes Edit

The tendency to build ever bigger ships that appeared in the last decades of the 4th century did not stop at the "ten". Demetrius Poliorcetes built "elevens", "thirteens", "fourteens", "fifteens" and "sixteens", and his son, Antigonus II Gonatas had an "eighteen", while Ptolemy II's navy fielded 14 "elevens", 2 "twelves", 4 "thirteens", and even one "twenty" and two "thirties". [10] [51] Eventually, Ptolemy IV built a "forty" (tessarakonteres) that was 130m long, required 4,000 rowers and 400 other crew, and could support a force of 2,850 marines on its decks. [52] However, "tens" seem to be the largest to have been used in battle. [53]

The larger polyremes were possibly double-hulled catamarans. [54] It has been suggested that, with the exception of the "forty", these ships must have been rowed at two levels. [51]

Several types of fast vessels were used during this period, the successors of the 6th and 5th-century BC triacontors (τριακόντοροι, triakontoroi, "thirty-oars") and pentecontors (πεντηκόντοροι, pentēkontoroi, "fifty-oars"). Their primary use was in piracy and scouting, but they also found their place in the battle line.

Lembos Edit

The term lembos (from Greek: λέμβος , "skiff", in Latin lembus) is used generically for boats or light vessels, and more specifically for a light warship, [57] most commonly associated with the vessels used by the Illyrian tribes, chiefly for piracy, in the area of Dalmatia. [58] This type of craft was also adopted by Philip V of Macedon, and soon after by the Seleucids, Rome, and even the Spartan king Nabis in his attempt to rebuild the Spartan navy. [59]

In contemporary writings, the name was associated with a class rather than a specific type of vessels, as considerable variation is evident in the sources: the number of oars ranged from 16 to 50, they could be one- or double-banked, and some types did not have a ram, presumably being used as couriers and fast cargo vessels. [60]

Hemiolia Edit

The hemiolia or hemiolos (Greek: ἡμιολία [ναῦς] or ἡμίολος [λέμβος] ) was a light and fast warship that appeared in the early 4th century BC. It was particularly favoured by pirates in the eastern Mediterranean, [61] but also used by Alexander the Great as far as the rivers Indus and Hydaspes, and by the Romans as a troop transport. [62] It is indeed very likely that the type was invented by pirates, probably in Caria. [63] Its name derives from the fact that it was manned by one and a half files of oarsmen on each side, with the additional half file placed amidships, where the hull was wide enough to accommodate them. Thus these ships gained motive power without significantly increasing the ship's weight. [62] Little is known of their characteristics, but Arrian, based on Ptolemy I (r. 323–283 BC), includes them amongst the triacontors. This possibly indicates that they had 15 oars on each side, with a full file of ten and a half file of five, the latter possibly double-manning the middle oars instead of rowing a separate set of oars. [64] Given their lighter hulls, greater length and generally slimmer profile, the hemiolia would have had an advantage in speed even over other light warships like the liburnian. [50]

Trihemiolia Edit

The trihemiolia (Greek: τριημιολία [ναῦς] ) first appears in accounts of the Siege of Rhodes by Demetrius Poliorcetes in 304 BC, where a squadron of trihemioliai was sent out as commerce raiders. [65] The type was one of the chief vessels of the Rhodian navy, and it is very likely that it was also invented there, as a counter to the pirates' swift hemioliai. [66] [67] So great was the attachment of the Rhodians to this type of vessel, that for a century after their navy was abolished by Gaius Cassius Longinus in 46 BC, they kept a few as ceremonial vessels. [68]

The type was classed with the trireme, and had two and a half files of oarsmen on each side. Judging from the Lindos relief and the famous Nike of Samothrace, both of which are thought to represent trihemioliai, [50] the two upper files would have been accommodated in an oarbox, with the half-file located beneath them in the classic thalamitai position of the trireme. [34] The Lindos relief also includes a list of the crews of two trihemioliai, allowing us to deduce that each was crewed by 144 men, 120 of whom were rowers (hence a full file numbered 24). [34] Reconstruction based on the above sculptures shows that the ship was relatively low, with a boxed-in superstructure, a displacement of c. 40 tonnes, and capable of reaching speeds comparable with those of a full trireme. [50] The trihemiolia was a very successful design, and was adopted by the navies of Ptolemaic Egypt and Athens among others. Despite being classed as lighter warships, they were sometimes employed in a first-line role, for instance at the Battle of Chios. [34]

Liburnians Edit

The liburnian (Latin: liburna, Greek: λιβυρνίς , libyrnis) was a variant of lembos invented by the tribe of the Liburnians. Initially used for piracy and scouting, this light and swift vessel was adopted by the Romans during the Illyrian Wars, and eventually became the mainstay of the fleets of the Roman Empire following Actium, displacing the heavier vessels. Especially the provincial Roman fleets were composed almost exclusively of liburnians. [69] Livy, Lucan and Appian all describe the liburnian as bireme they were fully decked (cataphract) ships, with a sharply pointed prow, providing a more streamlined shape designed for greater speed. [70] In terms of speed, the liburnian was probably considerably slower than a trireme, but on a par with a "five". [63]

A change in the technology of conflict had taken place to allow these juggernauts of the seas to be created, as the development of catapults had neutralised the power of the ram, and speed and maneuverability were no longer as important as they had been. It was easy to mount catapults on galleys Alexander the Great had used them to considerable effect when he besieged Tyre from the sea in 332 BC. The catapults did not aim to sink the enemy galleys, but rather to injure or kill the rowers (as a significant number of rowers out of place on either side would ruin the performance of the entire ship and prevent its ram from being effective). Now combat at sea returned to the boarding and fighting that it had been before the development of the ram, and larger galleys could carry more soldiers.

Some of the later galleys were monstrous in size, with oars as long as 17 metres each pulled by as many as eight banks of rowers. With so many rowers, if one of them was killed by a catapult shot, the rest could continue and not interrupt the stroke. The innermost oarsman on such a galley had to step forward and back a few paces with each stroke. [ citation needed ]

Classical Studies

One of the top-grossing films recently was also a very controversial one. The film 300, is based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel of the same name, which in turn is based on the story of the Battle of Thermopylae. Both the novel and the movie are told from the perspective of the Spartans. In any telling, the tellers will usually slant the story towards their favor. Let’s compare what the movie presents as what happened, what they left out, and what they totally missed on.

The “300” that fought the battle where 300 Spartan’s. The Spartans where considered by many the greatest warriors in all history. Their tribe, based in the city of Sparta (a Greek province) was a warrior society, and the rituals of “manhood” depicted in the movie where quite accurate. The selective birthing, in which an elder would discard deformed babies, was accurate. Young boys were forced to train, and fight, and kill, and survives on their own. What they left out is that the boys where also taught dance, and riddles, and history. These where supposed to be complete warriors, and they valued the mind as much as the body. The film presents them more as elite thugs, rather then educated hoplites.

The 700 Thespians that we encounter during the film were accurate in their numbers, while little time is spent on character development and Thespian history, the fact that they were conscripted soldiers, and not trained warriors is fairly accurate. This brave city was the only other committed city besides Sparta against the Persian invasion of Greece. For their troubles, their city was eventually burned to the ground. A year later 1,800 Thespians where sent to the battle of Plataea.

Not shown in the film is an estimated support group of 2,000-6,000. While primarily not warriors (save for a few Greek volunteer fighters) this group was composed of blacksmiths, cooks, tailors, etc. The total number is roughly 1,000 warriors plus support.

The “Villains”

The Persian army was a collection of countries in the vast empire of Persia. Their leader, Xerxes, was the son of Cyrus, who had lost to the Greeks in the war of Marathon. Cyrus asked his son to punish Greece for their victory over Persia. In the movie Xerxes is depicted as a tall bald man. The engravings found of him have him of average height and build with a traditional Persian beard. His telling of the story has the Persian army at 2.5 million (including support forces and sailors) others believe his numbers to be closer to 800,000 or less. While not 1 million to 300, 800,000 to 1,000 is still a decisive advantage.

The Persians themselves where not mutant creatures, this was just Hollywood-ification of the artwork from Miller’s novel. The Spartan may have viewed the enemy as monsters and visualized them as such. In reality the Persians appear much as their descendants do today.

The Weapons

A Spartan hoplite would be equipped with a sword (xiphos), spear (aspis), shield, cloak and armor. The armor set would be grieves (metal shin protectors) a helmet, bracers (fore arm guards) and a chest plate. The movie left out the chest plates in order to show off the physique of its actors. These items would have been made form bronze, with the shield being made from wood or bronze, depending on the wealth of the city.

The Persian infantry would have worn overlain straw and wood vests (wicker), if they were given armor at all, their primary weapon would have been spears and swords. Their shields were also wicker.

The depiction of the equipment alone is very impressive in this film. The small Greek force would have had better equipment, as only the elite warriors were present, and the mineral rich Greek lands provided many metals. The large Persian force, mostly of forced warriors, would have had cheaper equipment, made of cloth and fauna. The oil rich, but mineral weak Middle Eastern lands would have made the mining and smelting of bronze (the metal of choice at the time) very costly and difficult. Almost all metals found were used in swords, spears, and arrows.

The elephants and rhinos seen in the film would not have made an appearance the Persian Empire did not quite expand to African/Asian regions that contained these animals yet.

The Traitor

The story of Ephilates is a true one. He led a group of Persian warriors to a mountain trail, that allowed them to flank the Greeks. What was added for the movie was the Leonidas-Ephilates interaction. The two most likely never met.

The Last Stand:

The movie shows the remaining Spartans standing alone to allow the remainder of their Greek comrades to flee. What is missing is the 700 Beotians who stayed with the Spartans to allow the 2,000+ support group to return home.

What They Missed

What the movie misses is that, the waterways where defended by Phoenician sailors who defeated the Persian navy and prevented them from surpassing the Spartans. The Spartans did have slaves of their own, but their military was treated like royalty. The movie also fails to note the significance fo the earlier battle with Cyrus and Xerxes motivation for his conquest,

What should be learned?

A group of 1,000 warriors held of nearly 1,000 times their number for three days. They used superior armor, training, tactics, and a geographical advantage to stay off defeat. This story has been a testament to “small vs. big.” This is a lesson on how preparation and knowledge can defeat brute force and size.

The Legendary Spartan Warriors of the 5th Century

Greek soldiers were known to be fearless and fought bravely against their enemies. Their great military strength made them formidable to their opponents. This image shows Spartan warriors with a bronze corselet, helmet, and other accessories. (Image: declarmat/Shutterstock)

Plutarch in his Life of Lycurgus memorably states that the Spartans “belonged entirely to their country and not to themselves.” And evidence supports his claim that unlike the Athenians, the Spartan warriors received rigorous training. However, it would be noteworthy that Spartan history was written by non-Spartan philosophers and historians, which means that we know Sparta only from an outsider’s perspective.

Every male citizen in Sparta was required to serve in the military and that dictated the rhythm of everyday life for an average citizen. They considered service in the military as a privilege rather than duty. It was part of their political identity equivalent to their attendance in the Assembly. Interestingly, other than Spartans, none of the Greeks from other city-states were professional soldiers.

Sparta – The Warrior Society

Sparta, known for its military prowess was one of the important city-states in Greece in fifth century B.C. – the period that begins with the Persian Wars and ends with the Peloponnesian War. It was in constant conflict with the city state of Athens and involved in the Peloponnesian War.

In sharp contrast to Athens, which was a center for arts and philosophy, Sparta encouraged a warrior culture. Spartan boys were separated from their parents at the age of six and made to enter an extremely arduous state-sponsored education, known as agôgê. The objective of the system was to instill discipline, a sense of duty, obedience and resourcefulness in the children. By the time these children reached 20 years of age, military service dominated every aspect of their lives. These warriors were dedicated to military service and placed the state above all, including their families.

The Spartan Army

Spartan hoplites were well-trained and the fiercest of the Greek soldiers. Their constant training made them dexterous in the formation of a phalanx. The highlight of the phalanx formation was that the success in the battle was a team effort and no one man could take credit for the victory.

A Spartan warrior wore a bronze corselet or breastplate, a bronze helmet, a pair of greaves, a thrusting spear about eight feet long, and a short sword. Spartan soldiers were also known for their distinctive scarlet cloak, long hair, and the letter lambda painted on their shield. While the red cloak apparently helped the warrior disguise their blood if they were wounded, the lambda inscribed shield gave them the status of a Lacedaimonian, the name by which Spartans were generally known. These warriors attained full citizenship at the age of thirty and were called homoios, meaning ‘one who is equal’.

A Spartan soldier donned a bronze breastplate, a bronze helmet, a pair of greaves, a thrusting spear about eight feet long, and a short sword. This image symbolizes the uniform of the legendary Spartan warriors. (Image: Milagli/Shutterstock)

The Spartans were so committed to the state that they were the only citizens of Greece, who enjoyed war more than the business of preparing for war. The utmost importance given to the state was obvious from the fact that Spartan warriors were permitted to spend only a short time with their bride on the wedding night and were expected to return to the barracks before dawn. So, when these men were finally released from their military obligations at the age of 60, they felt more at home with their companions than with their own family.

This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Fighting Spirit of the Spartan Warrior

The warriors of Sparta had the reputation for being the fiercest of warriors amongst the Greeks. Around three hundred Spartans famously defended the narrow pass at Thermopylae under king, Leonidas at the Battle of Thermopylae in August 480 B.C. Though the Spartan warriors suffered a tragic defeat at the hands of the Persian king Xerxes, their fighting spirit remained unsurpassed.

Spartan soldiers were reputed for being the fiercest soldiers in all of Greece. This image depicts the three hundred Spartans who famously defended the narrow pass at Thermopylae under King Leonidas at the Battle of Thermopylae in August 480 B.C. (Image: Vector Illustration rudall30/Shutterstock)

Greek historian Herodotus mentions that a spy sent by the Persian king found the Spartans brushing their long hair before they placed their lives at risk. Another remarkable incident was when Dienekes, one of the three hundred warriors replied that they would fight in the shade in reply to an observation made by a local that the Persians had so many arrows that they would block out the sun. The poet Simonides wrote this wonderful, restrained epigram to commemorate their sacrifice: “Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by / That here obedient to their law we lie.” The fighting spirit of these three hundred Spartan warriors is commemorated to this day by the American and British soldiers serving in Afghanistan, by wearing tattoos on their bodies that affirm their appreciation.

Nevertheless, this noble sacrifice is a reminder of the lasting negative repercussions caused by inter-racial hatred and the reason for the East-West divide. The origin of this divide lies in the wars fought between the Greeks and Persians. Though there was no deep-rooted animosity between the two groups, the destruction of the temples on the Acropolis and ruining of the grave markers made the Persians quintessentially “The Other” in every way to the Greeks.

Common Questions about the Legendary Spartan Warriors of the fifth Century

Modern day Sparta is a big town and capital of the region Lakonia. The city has been built over the ancient city of Sparta. Though it is not as big as Athens, it is one of the important cities in the Peloponnese area.

Spartan society was divided into three main groups : the complete citizens, the Helots or slaves, and the Perioeci, who were neither slaves nor citizens but worked as craftsmen, traders, or built weapons for the citizens.

A Spartan warrior became a full citizen, a homoios, meaning ‘one who is equal’ at the age of 30, meaning he could live in his own home and the helots or slaves would work on his land.

Leonidas was Sparta’s legendary warrior king, who with his three hundred brave warriors defended the narrow pass at Thermopylae against the mighty Persian king Xerxes.

Bravery is in the eye of the beholder: Courage and Cowardice in Herodotus’ Histories (Richard Tucker, 2019)

Abstract: What does it mean to be brave? In Herodotus’ The Histories, the answer is shaped by his Greek bias and a dislike for Xerxes, the Persian king. Herodotus views individual and group bravery as distinct. The Spartans and Athenians exhibit bravery as a group, due to their willingness to fight Xerxes and the Persians, even when they are overmatched. The Spartans in particular will accept certain defeat and die for the polis. Yet, when a Persian soldier faces the same situation, Herodotus does not consider it bravery, rather a fear of Xerxes and his absolute power. Loyalty is very important in battle, but only if the individual is free from a tyrannical power forcing him to fight. While Herodotus dislikes the Persians, he implies that the Thebans are even less brave. All Greeks poleis had a choice: fight with the Greeks, or medize and join Xerxes. Thebes chose the latter and thus their reputation is tarnished. Herodotus is also biased in his conception of individual bravery. Individuals are viewed as brave when they fear death, yet are successful in battle or escaping the enemy regardless. Using cunning to defeat an enemy, typified by Themistocles tricking the Persians to fight at Salamis, is also highly respected by Herodotus. His respect for the Spartans as a group extends to individuals, as he defends a Spartan named Aristodemos who fled at Thermopylae. Unsurprisingly, Xerxes expresses his desire to die and is also a poor military commander. Rather than abiding to a consistent standard for bravery, Herodotus accentuates the valiant acts of the loyal Greeks while providing a negative interpretation of the Persians and the motivations for their behavior.

In Herodotus’ The Histories, Herodotus provides his account of the Persian wars. In his narrative, he finds the actions of some to be brave, while others are cowardly. His conception of bravery is inseparably linked with the qualities of loyalty and obedience. It is also linked with cunning and a willingness to battle despite long odds. There is also a noticeable difference between individual and group bravery. Some groups, such as the Athenians and the Spartans, are portrayed as the bravest, while the Thebans are more cowardly. Individuals who did not want to die, yet performed acts of valor regardless of their fear, were seen as the bravest.

Herodotus views people as brave when they sacrifice themselves in combat, even though they do not fear the retribution of a ruler. The Hellenes are generally regarded as braver than the Persians, who fight out of fear of retribution from Xerxes. To be brave is to transcend the fear of death and fight for freedom from tyranny. Before the Second Persian War, Xerxes underestimates the bravery of the Spartans and their dedication to their constitution. When Xerxes hears from Demaratos about the Spartans willingness to fight even if they are outnumbered, he refuses to believe it. He argues that the rule of one man, like the Persians have, is necessary for that sort of courage (Herodotus 7.103.4-5). He is later proven wrong by the willingness of the Spartan hoplites to fight given certain defeat. While the Persians also go into combat knowing they will lose, it is not considered bravery. This inconsistency is due to Herodotus’ bias against tyranny. The Spartans are worthy of praise for abiding by a prevail or perish culture, as is exemplified in the Battle of Thermopylae. Leonidas, leader of the 300 Spartans who died in the battle, is described as the most valiant of the Hellenes or barbarians (Hdt. 7.224.1). Dienekes, another Spartan, is similarly described as brave. Upon hearing that the sun is blocked out when the barbarians shoot their arrows, he replies that he would rather fight in the shade (Hdt. 7226.1-2). Whenever the Spartans face certain defeat, their laws and custom stop them from running and they fight to the death. Another instance of another Hellene willing to fight to the death is Pythaes from Aegina. Even after his ship is captured by the Persians and he is butchered, he continues to fight (Hdt. 7.181.2). Even after he cannot fight anymore, he remains alive and is treated with respect by his captors, unlike the rest of the men on his ship (Hdt. 7.181.3). Because of his willingness to die for his freedom, the Persians, perhaps ironically, do not kill him and treat him much better than the rest of the captured men.

Herodotus explains that the Persians also found themselves in a similar predicament, with regard to the entire expedition. When the Hellenes are faced with long odds and yet continue to fight, Herodotus portrays them as brave and honorable. Yet when a Persian soldier realizes that he and his fellow soldiers will likely not survive, Herodotus depicts them much differently (Hdt. 9.16.2). Thersandros of Orchomenus spoke to a Persian, who knew that he and his fellow soldiers would probably perish. This Persian is said to have been weeping while telling this story, indicating his lack of courage (Hdt. 9.16.3). He continues, calling it a “painful anguish” to be certain of defeat yet forced to fight (Hdt. 9.16.5). Xerxes, a ruler with absolute power, strikes terror into his soldiers so that they are coerced to fight. They fear retribution from their king, and thus they fight against their own will. The Spartans are similarly coerced into fighting to the death, but it is by their laws and custom. The difference exposes Herodotus’ dislike of tyranny, which the rest of the Greeks share. Though not as brave as the Spartans, Herodotus views the Athenians as having fought courageously (Hdt. 9.71.1). They are not bound to their laws in the same way that the Spartans are, but the Athenians are still committed to maintaining the freedom of the Hellenes (Hdt. 8.143). Their loyalty to the common Greek identity keeps them from making an agreement with Xerxes.

While the Spartans and Athenians are superior to the Persians in terms of bravery, not every polis is described as such. The Thebans, most notorious of the medized Greeks, are usually depicted as less brave than the Persians. In the Battle of Plataea, the Thebans lead the way for the Persians, until the fighting occurs, when the Persians take over and perform brave and valorous acts (Hdt. 9.40.1). The Thebans willingly gave away their freedom away to fight with the enemy, leading Herodotus to conclude that they were not brave in battle. At Thermopylae, the Thebans are even more cowardly. In this battle, they are forced to fight alongside the other Greeks. When they saw that the Persians were beginning to prevail in the battle, the Thebans gave themselves up to the Persians (Hdt. 7.233.1). Unlike the Spartans or Athenians, the Thebans are willing to surrender as soon as the odds are against them. They were not loyal to the other Greeks and gave up their freedom to be ruled by a foreign oppressor. The single time the Thebans are depicted as brave is the battle of Plataea, where they were the only medized Greeks who fought valiantly (Hdt. 9.67.1). They proved themselves to be brave, because many of them fought to the death in spite of their slim chances to win.

The bravery of an individual is often determined not only by their actions, but also whether or not they wanted to die before they acted. Herodotus views wanting to die as cowardly, and those who avoid it using cunning are perceived as brave. Xerxes is again the antithesis of bravery. This is likely due to the Greek bias against a ruler like Xerxes, which Herodotus shares. Before the expedition, Xerxes expresses his frustrations with life. He explains that most people will wish to be dead because of the tragic experiences everyone faces, and that when death does come it is a welcome escape (Hdt. 7.46.3-4). Throughout the rest of the expedition, Herodotus gives examples of those who do everything within their power to remain alive, and sets these people up as brave. Perhaps Herodotus views Xerxes as pampered, and thus far removed from a warrior mentality. As with his underestimation of the Spartans and their reverence for their laws, Xerxes is set up by Herodotus as the opposite of the ideal brave person.

Cunning or ability to creatively defeat an enemy is also highly regarded by Herodotus. One such example of this individual bravery comes against the Spartans. Hegesistratos of Elis, the seer for Mardonios, was captured and confined to wooden stocks. Facing certain death at the hands of the Spartans, he cut off part of his foot to escape (Hdt. 9.37.1-2). Although he was later captured, Herodotus describes this act as the “bravest of all deeds we know” (Hdt. 9.37.2). Hegesistratos, although not a warrior, was determined not to die. He acted with extreme courage, accepting tremendous pain in order to escape captivity. He combined his will to live with cunning, and found a way out. Herodotus notes that Sophanes proves himself to be the bravest Athenian by way of his innovative tactics in battle (Hdt. 9.74-1). In one story, he uses an anchor to break the enemy out of position, then proceeded to pick up the anchor and chase his enemies with it. (Hdt. 9.74.1). These two men, while largely inconsequential in the grand scheme of the war, highlight two main characteristics necessary to be considered brave by Herodotus.

Themistocles, the Athenian general, is portrayed as brave and wise in combat. He utilizes unconventional tactics to get what he wants done, often to great success. These tactics are sometimes seen as immoral, though this does not reduce his valor. One such example is his decision to force a battle in Salamis. Finding himself on the losing end of the dispute, Themistocles decides to send a man by boat in order to convince the Persians to attack at Salamis (Hdt. 8.75.1). It ends up being the right decision, as the battle results in disaster for Xerxes and the Persians (Htd. 8.97.1) Once the Persians are defeated, Themistocles suddenly urges the Athenians to let the Persians go home free (Htd. 8.109.5). The third questionable act made by Themistocles was to force a large payment from the Karystians and the Parians (Htd. 8.112.1-2). Once he had the power and respect to get what he wanted, he did not let any sense of morality stop him. While moves like this make him open to suspicion, he was still respected as a general because of his brilliant strategic mind. He is voted by his fellow commanders as the most valorous of the Hellenes in 480 BC (Hdt. 8.123.2). This proves that Herodotus does not consider bravery and morality to be intertwined in any way. The cases of Hegesistratos, Sophanes, and Themistocles exemplify Herodotus’ labelling of those who use their wits to achieve success as brave.

Herodotus usually adheres to these standards when determining if an individual is brave, although there is one instance where he does not. Aristodemos, one of the few Spartan survivors at Thermopylae, was seen as cowardly by his peers because of his actions (Hdt. 7.231.1). He and another Spartan named Eurytos had both fallen ill with an eye disease, and Leonidas gave them both the option to return home (Hdt. 7.229.1). When Eurytos learned of the Persian advance, he charged into the fighting blind and died (Hdt. 7.229.1). Aristodemos was too weak, and thus was forced to return to Sparta, where he was given the name “Aristodemos the Trembler” (Hdt. 7.231.1). Given the standard for individual bravery he applies to Xerxes, Hegesistratos, and Sophanes, one would assume that Herodotus would assume that Aristodemos would be labeled as not brave. But the opposite is true. He proclaims that Aristodemes, despite the fact that he was dishonored at Thermopylae by his Spartan peers, is the best and bravest of the Hellenes (Hdt. 9.71.2). He notes that three other Spartans, named Poseidonios, Philokyon, and Amompharetos were the next best (Hdt. 9.71.2). His opinion differs from that of the surviving Spartans, who note that Aristodemos performed great feats in a rage. The Spartans argued that Poseidonios did not want to die and was just as courageous (Hdt. 9.71.3). This is a surprising point for Herodotus to disagree with the Spartans, given his prior respect for those who did not want to die, yet performed acts of valor regardless. Both Xerxes and Aristodemos express the urge to die, yet Herodotus expresses two different opinions of their bravery. Thus, Herodotus’ standard for bravery cannot be viewed as consistent.

Herodotus’ conception of bravery is based on a willingness to fight for freedom. The Spartans and Athenians face long odds against a supposedly superior foe, yet are willing to die to avoid slavery. The Persians are not as brave, because they fight out of fear of Xerxes instead of respect for the laws. Yet the worst are the Thebans, who gave up the opportunity to fight for their freedom to join the foreign invader. Individuals who are cunning and crafty in battle are respected by Herodotus. He usually singles out those who are valiant, yet still fear death as the bravest. The inconsistencies in Herodotus arise as a result of his bias against the tyranny of Xerxes.

Sparta and Athens

Greece can be thought of as consisting of two land masses separated by a small pass — the Peloponnese and mainland Greece. Sparta is located on the Peloponnese, a peninsula of fertile soil. Athens is located in Attica, mainland Greece.

Sparta was a recluse warrior society. In its peak, it conquered neighbouring villages, condemning their villagers as “helots” — servants of the Spartan people. Aggressive expansion allowed the Spartans to sustain a vibrant economy and maintain population growth.

Today, the infamous Spartans are known for their military prowess, and that is not without historical truth. They were a fearsome bunch. The Spartan legislator Lycurgus is thought to have been the pioneer of this iconic force, speaking of “a wall of men instead of brick.”

Social hierarchy thus became increasingly determined by military achievement rather than educational background. The pinnacle of society, the kings, were warrior leaders instead of tactful diplomats, who preferred the sword to the pen.

In fact, there were two kings who reigned simultaneously in Sparta, one designated to fight and the other left to rule in his absence. The most famous king was Leonidas, who led Sparta in the Battle of Thermopylae and was played by Gerard Butler in the movie 300.

Surprisingly for such a hyper-masculine society, Spartan women enjoyed more rights than their counterparts of the time. They could own property and had the freedom to roam about the city. Half of Sparta’s land was even owned by women.

Compared to patriarchal Rome or even democratic Athens, Sparta was relatively liberal with its women. Historians have generally explained this anomaly with the fact that the Spartan men were away from home, out conquering the world most of the time. The city was thus tended to by the women. When men died in war, women were naturally left with their inheritance.

Across the Peninsula, another power was rising — Athens. In contrast to Sparta’s infamous army, Athens maintained a dominant navy.

Though Athens did not have Sparta’s fortune of fertile land, it sat along the Aegean coast, relying on maritime trade with other cities to thrive. However, wealth slowly became concentrated in the aristocracy, forcing many into debt slavery and cultivating an unhappy civilian population.

This brings us to the celebrated birth of Athenian democracy. In 621 B.C., the politician Draco set laws to address the inequities in Athens. However, the laws were considered by many to be too harsh toward the wealthy (hence the modern term “draconian”).

The lawgiver Solon eventually made wise changes to the Athenian Constitution. He cancelled debt slavery, upgraded the legal system, cultivated trade routes, encouraged the migration of tradesmen, and most importantly, lowered the requirements for public office and laid the foundations of democracy.

But it was under statesman Pericles that Athens entered its famous Golden Age. During the period 500 B.C.-425 B.C., Pericles’ reforms allowed culture, philosophy, science, and democracy to flourish.

Interesting Facts About Battle of Marathon: 26-30

27. The Persian army initially broke through the Greek formation at the center but the Greek forces at the flanks managed to overpower the Persian flanks and surrounded the Persians at the center.

28. The Persians panicked and ran towards their ship. Many Persians were simply unaware of the terrain and ran directly to the swamps where many of them were drowned.

29. The remaining that ran towards their ships were pursued by the Athenians and many were slaughtered. Athenians even captured 7 Persian ships and thereby decisively defeating the far superior Persian army.

30. According to Herodotus, 6,400 Persian soldiers were killed and many more died in swaps while the Athenians only lost 192 of their men and 11 more from Plataeans. Polemarch Callimachus died from Greek side.

According to Herodotus, the remaining Persian fleet immediately sailed around Cape Sounion in attempt to attack the undefended city of Athens. However, modern historians believe that this event actually took place before the Battle of Marathon started. Whatever be the case, Athenian did realize that their city was undefended and they marched all the way back to the city as quickly as possible. If Herodotus’ account is true then the tribes Leontis and Antiochis stayed back at the battlefield under the command of General Aristides and the remaining Greek forces returned to Athens and were there just in time to prevent the Persian landing and thereby forcing the Persians to return.

After the Greek victor in Battle of Marathon Pheidippides ran 26 miles straight from Marathon to Athens to deliver the news of victory. It is being said that Pheidippides ran non-stop and so fast that when he eventually reached Athens and delivered the message, he collapsed to death. This is what gave rise to today’s Marathon Run.

The Battle of Thermopylae

In the year 480 BC, one of the most famous battles in history took place on the shore of the Malian Gulf in the Aegean Sea.

Several thousand Greeks held back several hundred thousand Persians, in a battle which is still remembered 2,500 years later.

While the Greeks lost the battle, they did ultimately win the war.

Learn more about the Battle of Thermopylae and the 300 hundred Spartans, on the 300th episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

This episode is sponsored by

My audiobook recommendation today is Thermopylae by Paul Cartledge.

In 480 B.C., a huge Persian army, led by the inimitable King Xerxes, entered the mountain pass of Thermopylae to march on Greece, intending to conquer the land with little difficulty. But the Greeks, led by King Leonidas and a small army of Spartans, took the battle to the Persians at Thermopylae and halted their advance – almost. It is one of history’s most acclaimed battles, one of civilization’s greatest last stands.

Renowned classical historian Paul Cartledge looks anew at this history-altering moment and shows how its repercussions affect us even today.

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Most battles and wars throughout human history have involved neighboring kingdoms or tribes, who despite their differences, were probably more alike than different in the big global scheme of things.

Occasionally, however, different civilizations will clash. These conflicts can alter the course of world history in a way that regular battles cannot.

One of the first such cases occurred 2,500 years ago between the Persian Empire and the City-States of Greece.

These were profoundly different societies.

The Persian Empire, also known as the Achaemenid Empire, was a massive empire which stretched from what is today northern Greece to India to Libya. While the empire was multicultural and multilingual, it was a highly centralized bureaucracy, with an absolute ruler at the top.

They were the largest, richest, and most powerful empire on Earth. Many historians have considered them to be the world’s first superpower. Before the Romans, before the Chinese, before the Mongols, and before the Macedonians.

Greece, on the other hand, wasn’t really even a thing. What we think of as Greece was at the time a collection of city-states that were constantly warring with each other.

Many of the cities were republics that exercised a form of democracy. They would trade extensively through the Aegean and the Mediterranean.

The customs, traditions, religion, and aesthetics, of the Greeks, were profoundly different from the Persians.

They didn’t have anything close to the size or wealth of Persia, and that is ignoring the fact that they were in no way united.

It was in this context that the Greco-Persian wars took place.

In the year 490 BC the Persians attempted their first invasion of Greece.

Led by King Darius I, also known as Darius the Great, they were ultimately unsuccessful, having decisively lost at the Battle of Marathon.

After Darius died, his son Xerxes took the throne. Xerxes intended to complete the job that his father couldn’t. He was going to invade and conquer Greece.

The Persians spent four years planning and preparing for the invasion.

They assembled one of the largest armies in the ancient world. Herodotus, a contemporary Greek writer, claimed the Persian army had 2.6 million men under arms, with an equivalent number in support.

Simonides of Ceos claimed that it was four million strong.

Ancient writers had a tendency to exaggerate numbers, especially if it makes their side look good if they win. The bigger the opponent, the greater the victory.

Modern scholars think that the actual size of the Persian army was between 100,000 and 300,000 men, which would still be one of the largest armies in ancient history.

They created a huge logistical operation to feed and support their army.

Xerxes dug a canal through the Mount Athos peninsula, which is something I referenced in my previous episode on the topic.

The Persian Army had to cross the Hellespont, today known as the Dardanelles, so Xerxes had built a floating bridge a mile long to have his entire army cross it on foot.

Both of these were incredible engineering feats for the time.

Supplying and equipping an army of that size was an incredible undertaking, but Xersex didn’t want to leave victory to chance.

The Greeks were not in a good position.

The Athenians, who were the primary force that defeated the Persians at the Battle of Marathon 10 years earlier, had been preparing for another war against Persia for years. They had built a massive fleet, but they didn’t have enough men to both fight at sea and on land.

Xerxes sent ambassadors to all the Greek city-states, except Sparta and Athens, which were the two strongest. He wanted them to capitulate without a fight, and create division between the city-states, isolating Athens and Sparta in the process.

A council was called with various city-states to deal with the Persian threat.

It was decided that the best strategy was to use the terrain to their advantage to try and counter the Persians superior forces. Their first, best opportunity to slow them would be along the coast of the Malian Gulf at a place known as Thermopylae.

If you’ve seen the movie 300, or any other depiction of the battle, it is almost always shown as taking place on a path with large rocks on either side.

This is not what happened.

There was a winding trail that hugged the coastline. On one side there was a mountain, and on the other side was the sea.

If you look at a picture of the location today, or if you visit it, it doesn’t look like this at all today. I drove through the area several years ago and I was perplexed at how they could have defended such a broad area.

Over the last 2,500 years, the Malian Gulf has silted in because of a local river, which has caused the shore to move out. Today, the spot is several kilometers from the shore.

It is estimated that the width of the path that the Greeks defended was about 100 meters, or 300 feet, wide.

King Leonidas of Sparta agreed to take 300 of his elite royal guard to Thermopylae. Along the way, they would try to recruit as many men as they could to try to hold off the Persians.

Along the way they recruited about 7,000 more men, and set up camp, defending the narrowest part of the passage.

After several weeks, the Persians finally arrived.

For several days, they didn’t do anything. On the fifth day, Xerxes ordered his men to take the passage.

They first fired an enormous volley of arrows, but they were ineffective due to the Greek shields and armor.

He then sent in 10,000 men on a frontal assault. They were torn to ribbons by the Greeks.

The Greeks fought in a formation known as a phalanx with their primary weapon being a very long spear. With their shields locked, the Greeks could reach the Persians with their spears, and the Persians couldn’t reach the Greeks.

After the first assault, Xerxes then sent in his elite Immortal guards, who suffered the same result.

On the second day of the battle, Xerxes figured that the Greeks would be tired and injured, so he just tried another frontal assault, and got the same results.

However, later that day, they were informed of a path that went up into the mountain and came back down on the other side of where the Greeks were defending. The information was given to them by one Ephialtes of Trachis, whose name became synonymous with treachery and treason thereafter.

Xerxes sent his elite units up the path that evening to encircle the Greeks.

The Greeks heard the Persians realized what was happening. They had been aware of the path.

They held a war council that evening and Leonidas said that he and his men would stay to defend the pass, and everyone else could retreat. As the battle was hopeless, they felt that if they could hold off the Persians long enough, the rest of the Greek forces could get away to fight again another day. About 2,000 of the 7,000 men stayed behind to fight.

On day three of the battle, knowing that all was lost, the Greeks, led by the Spartans, advanced into the Persians with the goal of taking out as many of them as possible, and occupying them for as long as possible.

They fought until their spears broke, then they fought with their swords and their hands.

They were totally wiped out.

In the end, 2,000 Greeks were killed in Thermopylae. However, they killed over 20,000 Persians in the process.

Even though it was technically a defeat, the valor and performance of the Greeks at Thermopylae was a huge morale boost to the rest of Greece.

Xerxes continued to march into Greece. Athens was evacuated and there was a retreat across the Isthmus of Corinth, which was highly defendable.

It was then the Athenian navy defeated the Persians in the decisive Battle of Salamis, which gave the Greeks control of the sea, about one month later.

Xerxes, afraid that the Greeks would destroy his bridge across the Hellespont stranding his army, retreated with most of his forces back to Asia. Having lost control of the sea, he was unable to supply his massive army, and most of his men died in the retreat from starvation and disease.

The remaining Persian forces left behind were defeated the next year in the Battle of Plataea, which ended the Persian invasion of Greece.

150 years later, the tables would be turned. Philip II of Macedon would conquer Greece, and his son, Alexander the Great would, in turn, conquer Persia, ending the Persian threat once and for all.

It is difficult to stress just how different history would have turned out if Greece had been conquered by Persia.

The Battle of Thermopylae has been a centerpiece of western and military history since it took place. It has been the subject of poems, books, songs, and movies.

Today, over 2,500 years after the events took place, the defiant last stand of the Greeks is still remembered.

The Associate producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Thor Thomson.

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Introduction: Late Antique Conceptions of Late Antiquity

This article begins with a brief overview of The Oxford Handbook of Late Antiquity, which attempts to integrate all the interpretive systems (economic, social, artistic, religious, cultural) while maintaining a broad geographical perspective—from the Atlantic to Central Asia. The discussion then turns to the challenges of recreating the mental world of Late Antiquity. In order to describe the mental world of the elites of Late Antiquity, it is first necessary to know how they conceived of the late antique geopolitical world. One can then proceed to study the values of late antique societies, the late antique religious world, and ultimately the late antique knowledge of the world, in particular, the history of the 'poque as it was understood by its contemporaries.

For a half century now, a diverse range of historiographical models for the end of antiquity has been increasingly reshuffled (Mazzarino 1959 Demandt 1984 Inglebert 2003 Marcone 2008 James 2008 Ando 2008). “Late Antiquity,” a term first attested in German, has, since 1900, been delineated by four main characteristics: (1) a periodization, more or less long in duration (2) a geographical area, more or less expansive (3) central themes, either numerous or singular and, especially, (4) a judgment of overall value. In 1949 (and subsequently), Henri-Irénée Marrou explained why it is preferable to replace the weak adjectives “bas-empire,” “spätrömisch,” and “late Roman”—all of which suggest a universal Roman decline that never happened—with the strong nouns “Antiquité tardive,” “Spätantike,” and “Late Antiquity” (Marrou 1949 1977). These latter terms allow for an understanding of the period unto itself, and art historians, under Riegl’s influence (Elsner 2002), had already been using such terms for half a century by Marrou’s time. But for Marrou, the expression “Late Antiquity” applied above all to the Roman empire and its immediate neighbors, whereas art historians had used it to describe an entire (p. 4) époque—applying it even to phenomena attested in Central Asia (Le Coq 1923–1933). What is more, the expression allowed value to be placed on the creative aspects of the period—especially in religious, cultural, and artistic domains—and it took into account all the historical dimensions, understanding these to be linked to the disappearance of the western Roman empire and to the decline of specific regions.

In 1971, a book by Peter Brown, The World of Late Antiquity, described Late Antiquity as a long-lasting phenomenon (200–800 c.e. ), during which the dissolution of the ancient Mediterranean world led to the creation of three civilizations, all equal heirs of antiquity: western Europe, Byzantium, and Islam. This conception was accompanied by the positive depiction of a period that was altogether creative. Later, in The Making of Late Antiquity (1978), Brown proposed defining Late Antiquity by its religious and cultural themes, in their relation to the social evolutions at the heart of the Mediterranean world. Subsequently, Late Antiquity was conceived of as encompassing a vaster area, combining the Roman and Sasanian territories, and later the Umayyad (Fowden 1993)—all the while preserving not only its longue durée (250–800) and the central themes defining it (Hellenism, Christianity, Islam) but also the positive judgment it now carried (Hägg 1997 Bowersock, Brown, and Grabar 1999).

However, this new historiographical norm has been sharply criticized in the last ten years or so (Giardina 1999), and some scholars no longer hesitate to take up once more the concept of decline: whether it be in the region-by-region picture of Mazzarino (Liebeschuetz 2001) or even in the universalizing sense of Gibbon (Ward-Perkins 2005). These debates are accompanied by the abandonment of an a priori favorable judgment and by the reassertion of classical themes neglected since 1971. Some favor a new geographical and chronological delimitation of the “Late Roman Empire” (Mitchell 2005) others preserve the broad geographical scope but restrict the time frame (400–800) and keep to economic and social systems (Wickham 2005). This present collective work, The Oxford Handbook of Late Antiquity, has chosen to attempt to integrate all the interpretive systems (economic, social, artistic, religious, cultural) while maintaining a broad geographical perspective—from the Atlantic to Central Asia. It offers itself as a thematic complement to the final two volumes of the new Cambridge Ancient History (XIII and XIV), which together cover the period 337–600. The Cambridge Ancient History volumes emphasize above all classical historiographical themes (political, military, social, and institutional history) and leave out the Sasanian world, which is treated in The Cambridge History of Iran (III). By contrast, the Oxford Handbook of Late Antiquity tries to extend its reach as far as possible, in terms of both thematic categories and geographical scope.

However, the chronology of this volume is a different matter, since it was announced to the contributors that “from Constantine to Muhammad” was to be the chronological span, and the contributors were asked specifically to problematize this periodization in their chapters. “From Constantine to Muhammad” (p. 5) differs from the periods typically reserved among classicists for the “Late Roman Empire,” which begins with the accession of the emperor Diocletian (i.e., 284) and draws to a close—depending on the author—with the death of the emperors Justinian (565), Maurice (602), Phocas (610), or Heraclius (641). To begin with Constantine rather than with Diocletian and to end with the prophet of Islam rather than with a Roman emperor is a choice in favor of religious themes. In the debates over the nature of Late Antiquity, this chronology insists on continuity, as opposed to drastic change. Rupture, by contrast, is what a political periodization usually champions, not least because of the disappearance of the Roman empire in the West.

The fact that this religious periodization favors Christianity (and Islam) in comparison with other religious systems of the époque (“paganism,” rabbinic Judaism, Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism) is not what some might call “politically scandalous,” for Christianity was in fact the major religious movement in the Roman empire, in the Romano-Barbarian kingdoms of the West, among certain neighboring peoples, and even in some regions of the Sasanian Persian empire (Armenia and Mesopotamia). The growing significance of religious sentiment from 250 to 311 is well attested: Christians became more numerous Manichaeism emerged general anti-Christian persecutions were perpetrated by the Roman authorities (249–251, 257–260, 303–311), as well as Zoroastrian persecutions ordered by the Moabadan-Moabad Kartir (the Zoroastrian “priest of priests” who had Mani executed in 276) and the term “Hellene” began to be used to signify those who were religiously “pagan.” However, only the conversion of Constantine, made public at the end of the year 312, crystallized these sentiments by establishing a link between the Roman empire and Christianity, both bearing ambitions of universality. The emperor was able to present himself as a universal protector of Christians, a stance that was immediately understood in Persia by the Christian Aphrahat and by the Zoroastrian “king of kings” Shapur II, persecutor of the Christians after 337. 1 And three centuries later, the expansion of Islam was another example of convergence between a monotheistic religion and a politics of imperial domination. The conversion of Constantine and the Muslim conquest very much had a global impact in allying a religion and a universal power. Even if the rate of conversion to Christianity or Islam diverged region by region, the process persisted into the following centuries.

Nevertheless, this central religious/political/military issue, however important it may be, does not exhaust the significance of the period: one cannot legitimately omit the social dimensions (especially the role of the elites), the economy, 2 or cultural factors. But yet, so long as the evolution of diverse diachronic themes is not rendered in a synchronic manner, it is inevitable that periodizations will vary according to the themes broached. Thus, for Late Antiquity to avoid becoming only a projection of contemporary anachronistic ideas—related to American multiculturalism, to concepts of European Union—or to be only a predictable framework of scholarship, 3 the historian has only two solutions. (p. 6) The first would be to try to articulate the diverse evolving unsynchronized systems in a unified structure that would describe the appearance, the development, and the disappearance of Late Antiquity and would correspond to the raison d’être of the term itself, as previously described. Such a systematic synthesis, hoped for by Andrea Giardina and necessarily worked out according to the understandings of our time, remains to be written. The second solution would be to describe Late Antiquity from the point of view of the “mentalities” of the époque (or of “representations” of its mentalities, though representations are too often understood only as the effects of discourse). This approach would give Late Antiquity what we might call a “psychological” unity.

Such an attempt to re-create the mental world of Late Antiquity—already partially tried (Sambursky 1962)—nevertheless runs into particular difficulties. If one supposes that Late Antiquity existed as a place of shared consciousness—that is to say, as a network of communication—one must admit that it was not a homogeneous space. If one should wish to include the western part of the Roman empire (subsequently the Romano-Germanic kingdoms), the eastern Roman empire (earliest Byzantium), and the Sasanian empire as one geographic unit for the period of 300 to 630, it would be necessary to acknowledge that this unit would not form a “civilization” of Late Antiquity, in the sense that there once existed a Roman civilization. 4 Since this grouping did not know cultural unity (still less political, ideological, or religious unity) before the Muslim conquest—being as it was divided between two large empires and two large official religious systems (leaving aside various others)—the existence of a unity of mentalities seems impossible. However, such a unity might be established in two ways: either according to jointly common ideas (idées communes)—which was obviously not the case—or according to shared ideas (idées partagées). For example, the idea that the truth was contained in revealed religious texts, even if these texts could be different, was a shared idea (une idée partagée) among the Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, Manichaeans, Neoplatonists, and Muslims. On the other hand, the Christian groups (except the Gnostics and the Marcionites) had the common idea (l’idée en commun) that their revealed text consisted of the Old and the New Testaments, which deterred alternative views of the status of these texts. One could say that a common idea (une idée commune) allowed a collective identity to be defined and that a shared idea (une idée partagée) led to the definition of a commonwealth. Late Antiquity was not a common civilization (une civilisation commune), but a shared commonwealth (un commonwealth partagé).

Reconstructing the mental world of Late Antiquity, therefore, returns to describing the representations that peoples had of themselves and of their world (and the connections between these representations). Nevertheless, this world was a real geographical space, which, from the Atlantic to India, had a center of gravity, the imperial Roman power, henceforth Christian. This center, like a very massive star, bent the world of meaning around itself and oriented the mental space-time of people toward its own center. Since it was (p. 7) the most ancient, the most powerful, and the most prestigious empire of Late Antiquity, all other self-definitions referred back to Rome. When the Roman empire disappeared in the West from the fifth century, it was the eastern Roman empire that then assumed the role of reference point. It is for this reason that those who have defined Late Antiquity from the point of view of the Roman East exhibited a correct intuition, but this “East Side Story” was only one facet of the plot. The demographic, economic, military, and cultural importance of the Roman East is alone insufficient to provide us with a definition of Late Antiquity. Rather, the East was only the necessary condition, a central hub around which (and for which) existed a network of traffic in information and meaning—a role that the Muslim world would perform later. In other words, the Roman East was the material cause but not the efficient cause of Late Antiquity. Late Antiquity arose out of the redefinition, from 312 to 632, of the imperial Roman ideological model of the superiority of the “High Empire,” an empire that saw its sovereignty contested in many ways after 230 and that Constantine reformulated from a Christian point of view. Late Antiquity, from Constantine to Muhammad, was both the époque of a new Christian assertion of Roman ideology and hegemony and the époque of challenges to such an assertion.

Any attempt to describe the “Late Antique Conceptions of Late Antiquity” encounters three methodological problems. The first is the geographical origin of the sources: we have many more documents stemming from the Roman world than from the Sasanian world. Consequently, the reconstruction of a late antique consciousness of the world would be unbalanced in favor of the Roman empire, but at this time, the political and psychological reality always favored Rome. The second difficulty lies in the social origin of the sources: we must lean principally on written sources, and one cannot reconstruct a whole conception of the world from a small selection of works. But in an aristocratic world, there is nothing else that might be used to generalize. The third problem is the criticism that the sources that supply us with information provide more representations than descriptions of reality. However, these are the very representations that structured the shared mentalities (les mentalités partagées).

To describe the mental world of the elites of Late Antiquity, it is first necessary to know how they conceived of the late antique geopolitical world. One can then proceed to study the values of late antique societies, the late antique religious world, and ultimately the late antique knowledge of the world, in particular, the history of the époque as it was understood by its contemporaries.

To understand the late antique geopolitical world, it is necessary to start from the situation of the High Empire, from Augustus to Gordian III (27 b.c.e. to 244 c.e. ). The known world for the Romans (orbis terrarum), as it was derived from what was known by Greek geographers from the fourth century b.c.e. (oikoumene), had four characteristics: (1) it was assumed that the oikoumene was greater in longitude than in latitude by a ratio of 2 to 1 (2) it was divided into (p. 8) three parts: Europe, Asia, Africa (3) it was composed of a central civilized zone (exemplified by the city), which was surrounded by barbarian peoples living in villages or as nomads, and beyond these lived mythical peoples of the borders (eschatia) finally, (4) within the civilized zone, the Roman empire held a dominant position. This image of the world—illustrated by the now lost maps of Eratosthenes and Strabo and also by the surviving itinerary map called the Peutinger Table—remained the common conception until 550, when the first atlas of world and regional maps, derived from the Geography of Claudius Ptolemy, was produced in Alexandria (Wolska-Conus 1973). From a Roman point of view, the world could be divided into six political and geographical regions: (1) the Roman empire, (2) European Barbaricum, (3) the Iranian world, (4) the Erythrian or Red Sea (Arabia-Ethiopia-India), (5) Scythia (the northeastern steppes), and (6) the country of Seres or “silk” (i.e., the Silk Road, including Central Asia and northwestern China). But from a cultural point of view, one might distinguish (within these six regions) four zones of information circulation: (1) the Roman West (Latin), (2) the Roman East (Greek), (3) the Near East (Aramaic), and (4) Persia (Middle-Persian). 5 Each of these cultural zones had its own perception of the world, which did not, however, prevent some exchange of information and knowledge.

From an ideological point of view, Roman power asserted the extension of its own power, or at the least its own influence, into the entirety of the known world, from the Atlantic to the Ganges, ever since the victory at Actium was presented as if it were Rome’s victory over the peoples of the East, who had allied themselves with Cleopatra and Marc Antony. The Imperium Romanum, which Virgil had defined as sine fine (Aeneid 1.278), spilled over the provincial frontiers. It is necessary to understand that this pretension, that there was an urbs to rule the orbis terrarum, was not absurd (Nicolet 1988). On the world maps from the period—such as Strabo’s, upon which the coordinates of certain points were fixed according to an astronomical system—the Roman empire extends in longitude over more than half of the known world. In the second century, when Rome controlled the client kingdoms of the Rhine and the Danube, as well as the Red Sea, it was in a position of strength against the Parthians (who were defeated by Trajan, Marcus Aurelius, and Septimius Severus), and it received ambassadors from Central Asia and southern India. The Romans could think without exaggeration that their superiority (maiestas) was recognized by all peoples—China was not known—and that the Roman emperor was indeed the master of the world. In the second century, a Roman soldier, to the east of Aqaba (in modern Jordan), inscribed in Greek: “The Romans always prevail. I, Lauricius, wrote this. Greetings Zeno” (IGLJ 4.138 = Sartre 1993) and in Trier, as in Rome, one could write on the stadia, “Parthi occisi, Britto victus, ludite Romani” (Année Épigraphique 1949, +00258). The grandeur of Rome was known in China, as claimed by the princes of southern India who used denarii as local money and received a cult of the divine Augustus at the port of Muziris (probably in modern Malabar). Around 200, Bardaisan of Edessa, a Christian (p. 9) aristocrat writing in Syriac, admitted in his Treatise on the Laws of the Countries (45 and 48) that the Romans would always be ready to conquer new territories and to extend their laws to others, a concept that harks back to Virgil, Aeneid 6.851–853:

  • Tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento
  • (hae tibi erunt artes) pacique imponere morem,
  • parcere subiectis et debellare superbos. 6

This image of the world was cast aside by the crisis of the third century. From 240 to 275, the Roman empire was attacked on three fronts by adversaries that had become more powerful: the Sasanians in the East, the Goths along the Danube, and the Franks and Alamanni along the Rhine. The defeats, the civil wars, and the fragmentation of the empire into three parts that occurred around 270 created a dramatic situation that stabilized only around 298. But in 300, though Rome had regained a semblance of its former hegemony, this would not last. After 350, the attacks against the Roman empire resumed: troops were withdrawn in the face of the Persian onslaught (Nisibis was lost in 363, Armenia divided in 387) they were defeated by the Goths (Adrianople in 378 the sack of Rome in 410) they were unable to defend the Rhine frontier (407) they suffered losses at the hands of the Vandals (Africa was lost from 429 to 439 Rome was sacked in 455 Roman expeditions were held in check from 460 to 468). All of these events led to the end of the western empire during the years 475 to 480. And even the Justinianic reconquests (533–552) in Africa, Italy, and southern Spain were afterward contested by the Mauri/Moors (535–548), the Lombards (after 568), and the Visigoths (until 624). Eventually, the menace of the Slavs in the Balkans (540) and the Sasanians in the East (613–629) was more pressing. But all of these events were henceforth understood in relation to the Christian Roman empire, a mental framework that was the founder of Late Antiquity, ideologically established by Constantine during the years 312 to 337, at the very moment when the notion of Roman superiority was rediscovered. It is now necessary to present the different understandings of this space-time according to the various cultural zones.

(p. 10) In the Latin West, it was still possible in the fourth century to reaffirm the traditional ideology that a Roman hegemony extended all the way to the Ganges (André and Filliozat 1986). This can be seen from the Panegyrici latini or in the Historia Augusta (Vita Cari 9.1–3), which criticizes (even c. 400!) the idea that destiny would prohibit the emperors from going beyond Ctesiphon: for the author of the Historia Augusta, Rome rules over a world wherein Persians and barbarians are subordinated. The Peutinger Table offers us a graphic expression of this conception of Roman rule. Even if the surviving copy is medieval, with some early medieval, maybe Carolingian, inclusions (Albu 2005 cf. Talbert 2010), its final conception can be dated to around 360 (Arnaud 1991), and on it the Roman empire represents 80 percent of the depicted space. But the Christian Jerome, who was attuned to the actual state of eastern affairs and wary of an (originally pagan) ideology of Roman domination, wrote around 392, “Persae, Medi, Indi, et Aethiopies regna non modica et Romano regno paria” (Adversus Jovinianum, 2.7). For Jerome, Rome was an empire among others in history. The idea of the Roman hegemony became rare after 400. But even after the invasions along the Rhine in 407, it was possible to believe from 417 (Orosius and Rutilius Namatianus) to 470 (Sidonius Apollinaris) that, despite the machinations of the Vandals—in 460 and in 468 it was still possible to hope seriously that they would be destroyed—the Roman empire was surviving (at the least) in the power of the emperor over confederated barbarians henceforth installed within Roman territory. After 470, however, these illusions disappeared. Nevertheless, during the fifth century, men in the West began to think that the “empire of Christ” could take the reins from Rome, perhaps in the form of a Christian commonwealth extending itself beyond the frontier of the empire (Rufinus of Aquileia after 400 in his Ecclesiastical History) or perhaps in the form of a spiritual empire of Christ of which Rome would be the citadel in the name of an ideology making the pope the successor of Peter (Leo the Great and Prosper of Aquitaine, around 440–450). The concrete Roman universality could become a Christian universality. This, however, did not prevent barbarians (Odoacer in 476, the Burgundian kings around 520) or the popes—Gregory the Great, who, around 600, was still truly a Roman citizen thanks to the Justinianic conquest—from respecting that the Roman empire was henceforth directed from Constantinople. Throughout the sixth century, however, Visigothic Spain and the Merovingian kingdoms remained outside Justinian’s Romania.

Seen from the Roman East, the world was rather different because the Roman empire remained in place. Of course, the known world had grown significantly: around 380–390, Ammianus Marcellinus correctly described China, not Central Asia, as the country of the Seres. But some still believed in the sovereign superiority of the Roman empire. Recording the Indian voyage of a scholasticus from Thebes, Palladius reported the respect that the Roman emperor had inspired in those far-off regions (Commonitorium 6.10). And around 550, Cosmas Indicopleustes, a merchant from Alexandria, proudly reported how (p. 11) many eyes of southern Indian princes had been struck by the gold solidus after Constantine had gotten the better of the silver money of the Sasanian empire (Christian Topography 9.17–19). At that same time, the first atlas of maps based on Ptolemy were created (Wolska-Conus 1973): if the Roman empire appeared smaller, its renown, not only in India, was only appearing greater. However, the fame of Rome was greater than its influence, and the imperium sine fine had been replaced with Romania, a word that appeared in the fourth century and was prominent thereafter: from now on—that is, after 350, as attested by the Expositio totius mundi—the frontier that separated Rome from the barbarians was more insisted upon. And the wars of the fourth century with the Sasanians led Ammianus Marcellinus to reflect on the Persian “other”: in his description of the Sasanian territory (23.6), he adopted a model of Persian origins, going from the center to the periphery, thereby recognizing the specificity of an empire that had to be defined for itself. And if the Greek-speaking Romans continued to qualify the Persians as “barbarians,” Ammianus—who, though he was a Greek-speaking Syrian-Roman, wrote in Latin—avoids the term, as do other Latin authors. For him, barbaricum denotes Germanic areas of Europe, not the powerful and civilized eastern empire.

The Syriac and Armenian Near East, divided between the Roman and Sasanian empires, was without doubt the best place to learn about the late antique geographic world. Already around 200, Bardaisan of Edessa, in his Laws of the Countries, describes the world from the Seres (probably the Chinese) in the East to the Celts in the West. Around 337, Aphrahat, a Christian from Persian Mesopotamia, was meditating on the Roman and Sasanian empires (Memra 5, “On Wars”), and his preferences leaned toward the Roman emperor and the Christian Constantine, who presented himself as the natural protector of Persian Christians. These were Christians who retained lasting suspicion among their Persian rulers and had famously suffered persecutions. Cosmas Indicopleustes, himself a Roman citizen from Alexandria, was in contact with Christians from the Persian empire due to his conversion to “Nestorian” (i.e., East-Syriac) Christianity. For his own theological reasons, he refused to use the maps derived from Ptolemy and instead took up again the very ancient geography of Ephorus (from around 350 b.c.e. ), privileging the Celts and the Indians as the peoples at the edges of the world, but he knew China (Tzinista), and he gave the number of days for a journey across Eurasia (Christian Topography 2.28): 243 days from Tzinista to Seleucia on the Euphrates and 150 days from the eastern Mediterranean coast to the columns of Hercules. The Persian empire appears in his work to be comparable in size to the Roman empire. Following Cosmas, it is then possible to continue the investigation after 632, beginning with Ananias of Širak in Armenian, Jacob of Nisibis in Syriac, and the Umayyad frescoes at Quṣayr ‘Amra.

Sasanian Persia is the final cultural sphere that concerns us here. Due to their central position in Asia, the Sasanians were a priori very well placed to assemble information (Fr. information). But they did not have the Greco-Roman (p. 12) ethnographic and cartographic techniques at their disposal with which to organize their findings into knowledge (savoir). They were not in direct contact with the Chinese, except at the end of the Sasanian empire at the time of the Arab invasion, but they knew of their power from Sogdian merchants. They were in contact with northern India, because they fought against the Kushans from 230 to 240. This is shown in a recently discovered bas-relief from Rag-i Bibi, in Afghanistan, which depicts a Sasanian king (no doubt Shapur I) on horseback, attacking a rhinoceros (as a symbol of Kushan India and not of the Afghan mountains!) with a spear. But the Sasanian control over Sogdiana, Bactriana, and Gandhara lasted only until around 360, coming to an end with the arrival of the Ephthalite Huns. The Persians maintained more lasting contact with the Arabs, and they managed to extend their control to Yemen by 575. But in the eyes of the Sasanian “king of kings,” only two exterior powers were of any significance: the Romans and the peoples of the Steppe—the Huns and the Turks—the region that the poetic tradition later called Turan. However, Rome was the model, not the nomads. Around 600, Khusro II wrote to the emperor Maurice: “God effected that the whole world should be illuminated from the very beginning by two eyes, namely by the most powerful kingdom of the Romans and by the most prudent sceptre of the Persian state. For by these greatest powers the disobedient and bellicose tribes are winnowed and man’s course is continually regulated and guided” (Theophylact Simocatta, History 4.11.2–3). 8 This duality and this parity were reiterated shortly afterward by Persian ambassadors: “For it is impossible for a single monarchy to embrace the innumerable cares of the organization of the universe, and with one mind’s ruler to direct a creation as great as that over which the sun watches” (4.13.7). 9

It is known that the Sasanians had asserted their Persian origins, connecting themselves to the Achaemenid Persians in reality, this pretension was theoretical and aimed less at conquering the Roman East than at justifying their power over the Arsacids, against whom they fought from 224 to 226—though their princes still reigned in Armenia and at Hatra (they had established a rapprochement with Rome by then). Neither in the third century nor in the sixth did the Sasanians endeavor to use their opportune victories over the Romans to annex Syria or part of Anatolia they did this only at the beginning of the seventh century. But the claim to Achaemenid heritage was real, and it held a strong ideological force. 10 It permitted the rejection of the Parthians as Philhellenes alongside Alexander, an enemy of the Iranians, and it justified animosity toward Rome as Alexander’s heir and the eternal enemy of the Iranian people. 11 Indeed, it allowed a claim of, if not sovereign primacy, at least equality with Rome.

After 240, Shapur I proclaimed himself “King of the Iranians and of the non-Iranians” in his inscriptions (e.g., at Naghsh-e-Rostam, near Persepolis), which was a new definition of universality, and around 250, the prophet Mani developed another universality, this one religious, affirming that—after the teaching of Buddha in India, Zoroaster in Iran, and Jesus in the West (the (p. 13) Roman empire)—he had come to close the cycle of prophets. This Manichaean selection of three great religious spheres was different from the ideological traditions of the Sasanians, which was as much cultural—two civilized empires, Rome and the Sasanians—as it was political: four thrones, China, Central Asia, Persia, and the eastern Roman empire. If the Romans were well acquainted with the Persians after 350 (as the work of Ammianus Marcellinus shows), the Persians were informed about the Romans from the time of Shapur I (as demonstrated by his description of the army of Valerian in 260). The Persians, whether under Shapur I or under Khusro I, were equally receptive to certain Roman models—including political models (ceremonies), military technology (siegecraft), artistic styles (mosaics, the iconographic theme of Victory), philosophical learning (translations of Plato and Aristotle), and scholarship (medicine)—in an effort to be able to claim equality with their great rival, Rome, who was also the great model (Garsoïan 1983).

Thus, beginning after 230, the hegemony of the empire of Rome was called into question, and despite the reestablishment of Roman authority around 300, the question was taken up again after 337 in the East and led to the political and economic disintegration of the Roman West after 400. The Sasanian military power forced the Romans to admit their parity, something they had refused to admit to the Parthians. At the same time, the expansion of Christendom allowed a greater assertion of Christian universality. The world of Late Antiquity was thus organized around four loci: (1) the affirmed primacy of the Christian Roman empire (which became the empire of Constantinople after 476–480), (2) the accepted equality between the Roman and the Sasanian empires, (3) the integration of a number of peripheral regions through the expansion of Christianity (e.g., Ireland, Ethiopia), and (4) the diffusion of culture (e.g., cultural factors of Hellenistic origin in the Arabian peninsula: Bowersock 1990).

In the late antique world, connections among the values of the elites was an important phenomenon just as under the High Empire, it is easy to simply hold the Roman and Iranian elites in opposition. The former maintained civic, urbane, cultural (paideia), and civil values. In effect, the city was the foundation of the municipal Roman civilization, with its double dimension of the local patria and the universal city, as found in the dialectic of the “two patriae” inherited from Cicero (De Legibus 2.2.5). Even still, these civic values expressed themselves best in the towns that (almost without exception) were the civic centers where the aristocrats who governed the cities resided. They levied taxes, maintained the imperial highways, and assured public order. In exchange, the autonomy of the cities and the primacy of the aristocrats were guaranteed by Roman power. Finally, the dominant values were civil values, since the Roman army was composed of professional soldiers who were stationed on the frontier. Classical education in grammar and rhetoric marked membership in the elite class. Public spectacles allowed popular participation in the pleasures of the pax Romana and classical culture. Only the senators and a small segment of the Equites (those who had (p. 14) entered into the imperial administration) had experience—brief for senators, substantial for Equites—of military life as an officer. After Augustus, who had created a professional army to avoid a resumption of civil war, Italian Roman society lost that warlike structural system that had allowed them to conquer the world in only three centuries. After 300, with few exceptions (Isauria, Mauretania), civil values became dominant throughout all of Romania. The recruitment of volunteer soldiers, however, became insufficient, and recourse was found through conscriptions beginning during the reign of Diocletian and by the use of Germanic mercenaries.

On the other hand, in the Iranian world, aristocratic values were based in the military it was necessary to be an excellent horseman and a skilled archer to justify your rank. Furthermore, the Parthian aristocrats lived less in towns and more on their rural estates, where they devoted themselves to hunting, considered to be the best practice for war. The arrival of Sasanian authority did not change this value system, shared by the kings who set their example. Sasanian bas-reliefs and paintings show scenes of hunting because the kings withdrew to their rural palaces surrounded by gardens—the paradis inherited from the Achaemenids—which were also hunting reserves. The Sasanian army still remained composed of a substantial rank and file, but it was poorly equipped and poorly trained, consisting of peasants brought by the aristocrats, who, for their part, formed a fearsome cavalry.

The ineffectiveness of the Roman army between 249 and 275 led the emperors to privilege officers who were outside the high ranks for command posts after 262, and the fear of usurpation led them to separate civil administrative careers from military careers after 285. As Rome began to engage many barbarian soldiers after 330, an elite officer corps of barbarian origin arose (Franks, Alamanni, Goths, Alani). They were loyal to the emperor, they adopted some traits of the elite senatorial class (a luxurious life, classical culture), and, sometimes, they married within this class. The “barbarization” of the Roman army in the West, significant after 380, became predominant after 420, whereas in the East after 400, the role of barbarians was limited and controlled. In the West, after 480, the disappearance of the Roman empire led to the devaluation of the civil models of Roman elites (though this was true by 410 in Britain). Euergetism and spectacles had, for the most part, disappeared during the turmoil of the invasions of the fifth century, surviving only in a marginal and dissimilar manner, such as in a royal, imperial, or even an episcopal context (versus a local, elite context).

There was a reduction in the number of administrative posts in the Roman empire’s western successor kingdoms because taxation was simplified and some administrative levels—praetorian prefect, dioceses, sometimes even provinces—that were no longer needed after the creation of city counts and court counselors disappeared entirely. This rendered classical culture less attractive, because the effort and investment necessary to master it became less socially profitable. When other careers, especially episcopal ones, opened up to (p. 15) aristocrats in Gaul and Spain, the creation of new cultures was needed: patristic (synthesis of classical and biblical culture) or monastic (primarily biblical). At the same time, the career mode nearest to the kings became, above all, military. Already in 449, at the height of the power of Attila the Hun, Priscus, the ambassador from Constantinople, met with Romans in the service of the Hun king they were making their careers in an open aristocratic system as administrators or as soldiers (History fragment 8). Additionally, in 506, Gallo-Roman aristocrats came from Aquitaine and Auvergne with their peasant militias to support the Visigothic king Alaric II against Clovis for the first time in many centuries, war became an aristocratic Roman value again (though this was true earlier in Britain and in the time of Sidonius Apollinaris in Gaul). During the same period, aristocrats began to reside less in towns, which were no longer places of spectacles, power, or culture. Thus, urban, cultural, and civil values began to weaken, from 440 in Great Britain, from 500 in Gaul and Spain, and after 530 in Africa and Italy. As for the towns, they became more and more centers of religious power (the bishop), royal power (the count), and military power (the garrison). A similar evolution took place after 550 in the Balkanized regions of the eastern Roman empire. The necessity for pagans to convert to Christianity after 527–529, the increased importance of the law (as opposed to rhetoric) in the formation of civil servants after 540, the progressive clericalization of culture after 550, and the decline of civic life all led to a weakening of classical culture and to the predominance of military and religious values (which supported alms distribution and pious building projects).

This evolution slowly led the aristocrats of the western kingdoms, the Roman East, and the Sasanian empire toward shared dominant values. Everywhere in the sixth century, one can find the elites engaged in military, administrative, and religious pursuits. But these values were shared (partagées) differently, and it is because of this that they were not values held in common (communes). The bishops of Gaul and Spain often came from the aristocratic senatorial class (Sidonius Apollinaris, Remy of Rheims, Gregory of Tours) and had only a little in common with bishops from Africa, Italy, or the East, who were from a more modest social background, and still less with the hereditary caste of Zoroastrian magi. The social rank of the warrior aristocrats from the West was quite different from that of the Roman officers (and sometimes the barbarian ones) from Constantinople, as well as their Sasanian counterparts. Finally, the administrators of Germanic kingdoms—Roman aristocrats like Cassiodorus or, increasingly as the sixth century advanced, clerics—were not as effective as the huge, meddling bureaucracy of Constantinople: in Africa, reconquered by Justinian, the people felt the difference in tax collection. On the other side, it is possible that after 500, the Sasanian administration had been inspired by Roman models. 12

Two remarks will suffice for a conclusion to this section. One can observe some convergences between the two states, the Roman one and the Sasanian one: the more centralized placement of power, the organization of an official (p. 16) state church, and increased militarization caused by a greater presence of conflicts (either between the two empires or against barbarians from the north: Germanic tribes, Alani, Huns, Slavs, Turks). This occurred to the detriment of local traditional elites and to the profit of new administrative, military, and religious elites. But these did not all carry the same respective weight, nor the same power relationships, nor the same functions in the different societies (western kingdoms, eastern Roman empire, Sasanian empire). Finally, one can reflect on the evolution of the term nobilitas. At the end of the Republic and under the High Empire, this term denoted a small group of aristocrats (around 200 families) whose ancestors had been patricians or consuls. In the fourth century, emperors created a state nobility, which never had the same prestige as the senatorial nobility determined by birth (“pars melior humani generis” according to Symmachus, Ep. 1.52). On the other hand, one could use the term nobilis to denote the quality of individuals (and not of groups) among the local elites of the cities and also among the bishops and the barbarian, German, and Persian nobles—nobles defined in two cases by their status as warriors (i.e., the German ruling class the Persian aristocratic cavalry class). The Roman senatorial nobility disappeared after 550 in Gaul and after 570 in Italy, but the term “noble” was sufficiently extended to designate the various administrative, military, and religious elites of the late antique world (Badel 2005).

In the late antique world, religious values became the central values, even the supreme values, for conceiving of the world and for justifying discourse and action. However, this was not previously the case, except in a socially marginal manner, before Late Antiquity. Of course, all of ancient life can appear to us as saturated with religion, but this classical religion was not of the same nature as its late antique counterpart. Indeed, in classical communities—cities, gentes, and kingdoms—“religion” was comprised of a group of official and family rites maintaining good relations between the community and its gods religion was thus a part of communal life, side by side with politics and the military, and did not have superior status in the case of conflicting authority, politics took precedence. Personal religious aspects, beliefs, acts, and sentiments were less glorified (superstitio, δεισιδαιμονία) and were not to interfere with the communal religion. Marginalized behaviors, scorned but more often tolerated, were not reprimanded unless they questioned or threatened authority: this is the principal reason for the occasional Roman and Sasanian persecutions against Christians or Manichaeans, as well as against the astrologers in Rome.

The principal evolution was that new religious behaviors became the norm. Alongside traditional rituals (above all, sacrifice), others appeared, but explicit beliefs, in particular, took a central place. If the ruling authority continued to privilege some religious aspects with a view toward its own security, it permitted diverse religious systems to coexist, a peace that was occasionally interrupted with phases of persecution. These evolutions took place in a complex way, and through various channels, but it is evident that the most important, in light of (p. 17) the number of people concerned and considering its impact on others, was the development of Christianity from the time of Constantine. The religious mental map was completely transformed. The supreme God, the God of philosophers since Plato, became the principal actor in human history that which had been evident to Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians became evident for all (save the Neoplatonists). The supreme God, until then withdrawn from a world that he nevertheless controlled through general Providence—keeping watch over its proper functioning and over the harmonious balance of the cosmos—would henceforth be interfering with collective history, 13 as well as in the details of private life, either directly or through the intermediation of angels or daimones. Christianization—and in reaction, the development of a more organized paganism—resulted both in the increased presence of divine providence through its miracles and in man’s responsibility for his own salvation, caused by the growing belief in the survival of the whole person because of the Christian faith in resurrection.

In addition to these aspects, linked as they were to the quantitative growth of the number of Christians, the fourth through sixth centuries witnessed the generalization of the model of religious communities, which had all of the characteristics that would be also found later in Islam. These communities were defined by four main principles: (1) a revealed fixed text (the Jewish scriptures of the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Bible including the Old and New Testaments—and some additional apocryphal writings among the East-Syriac and Oriental Orthodox churches—the Avesta of the Zoroastrians, the books of Mani, the Chaldean Oracles of the Neoplatonists, the works of Homer, Virgil, or Cicero for certain educated pagans) (2) a tradition of interpretive commentaries defining the norms of belief and life, that is, a kind of “orthodoxy” (the Mishna and the Talmud for the Jews, the conciliar decisions and patristic traditions of the Christians, the Neoplatonist philosophical commentaries) (3) the existence of professional religious authorities controlling the others (Christian clerics, pagan philosophical scholarchs, Jewish rabbis, Manichaean clerics, Zoroastrian priests) and holy men who were models for life (Christian ascetics and monks, Neoplatonist ascetics, some rabbis, the Manichaean “elect”) and (4) a sacred geography of pilgrimage to the dead or living saints (the “holy men”) but also to certain landscapes, as much for monotheists (Sinai for Egeria), as for pagans, with their landscape relics (Tardieu 1990).

But if the problem of human relations with the divine world and the role of intercessors became more significant for everyone, the proportions of these elements could vary. The Roman polytheists preserved the rituals, such as the sacrifices, even if they were henceforth prohibited in the Roman empire at the end of the fourth century, which led to the birth of new pagan practices: the philosophers added the “Hellenic” practices of Neoplatonic theurgy to their spiritual exercises (those of stoicism and the spiritual asceticism of Plotinus). Christians insisted on the essential intercessory role of Christ—which explains (p. 18) the extreme importance of the theological and Christological debates, but also the centrality of sacramental rituals (from which comes the significance of the Donatist schism in Africa)—and the role of the intercessory rituals of the saints (pilgrimage for the veneration of relics of dead saints or living holy men, a group to whom the Virgin and some angels were later added). Though the Jews privileged rabbinic meditation on the Torah, they also made pilgrimages, and not only to Jerusalem but also to the tombs of the patriarchs. 14 The Manichaeans emphasized instead the salvific asceticism of the “elect,” but their discourse was very understandable to Christian monks. The Iranian Zoroastrians were without doubt the most traditional, particularly in their cult of the fire altars, but the fixation on the Avesta and the social uses of Iranian religion (such as the Mazdakite movement) were also innovations.

The evolution of mentalities toward a predominance of religion explains the modification of identity categories, principally in the sixth century, since this process was quite slow. 15 Subsequently, in the West, the fact that the homoian Germans (Visigoths, Vandals, Ostrogoths) were considered to be heretics by the Catholics of the vanished Roman empire—who were very much in the majority—limited relations with the new powers, despite the Latin acculturation of the latter (including the adaptation of Roman law in the codes of the new kingdoms). The adoption of religious Catholic orthodoxy by barbarian kings, on the other hand, allowed the growth of post-Roman ethnic identities: around 500 in Britain, formerly Roman people were able to define themselves as Britons, as Goths in Spain around 600, and as Franks north of the Loire at the same time. In the East, in the fifth century, the persistence of the Roman empire was accompanied by the creation of parallel churches: Chalcedonian, “Monophysite” (miaphysite), and “Nestorian” (dyophysite). If this did not contradict loyalty to the empire, it nevertheless allowed men to define themselves religiously, something that became essential after 600 during the Persian and Muslim Arab invasions in the Near East and in Egypt, when communal religious affiliation became more important than imperial affiliation. Thus, the religious factor altered relations within the Roman citizenry, which lost its universal value as an identity.

This recomposition of values explains the construction of a Christian commonwealth, an empire of Christ that spilled over beyond Roman borders. From 300 to 600, a series of regions and peoples converted to Christianity, often with the intention of thereby establishing relations with the Roman empire, sometimes in opposition to the Sasanians: Armenia, Iberia (Georgia), the Ethiopians of Axum, some Himyarites (Arabs from Yemen), some Saracens, some peoples of the Black Sea (Huns and Goths), the Nubian kingdoms—a broad collection of peoples among whom it is necessary to include both the Christians of Persia (especially those in Mesopotamia) and the distant peoples of the far West (Irish Scots, Caledonian Picts, later the Angles and Saxons). This reality does not mean that there was Christian uniformity—since differences in language, doctrine, and monastic regulations were quite real—but it does create a world of common (p. 19) references from the Atlantic to Persia. And above all, this reality redefined what it meant to be civilized: to the Romans, it was henceforth necessary to include the Persians, for political and military reasons, and people formerly scorned as barbarians who had become Christians, for religious reasons. Late Antiquity was not a common civilization (une civilisation commune), but a mental space-time with a new, larger definition of civilization that was shared (partagée) and accepted (acceptée) by Romans who had become Christians.

In this world, more and more modeled on a new definition of religion and on the new role of the elites, culture and learning’s place in the world was modified. In classical Greek and Roman culture, poetic and rhetorical composition was central, and erudite learning formed only a complement. Though totalization of learning was the ambition of the Aristotelian school and of the Ptolemaic project of the Museon and the library at Alexandria, erudite learning nevertheless remained outside the enkyklios paideia. But the pretension of assembling the totality of knowledge had real ideological significance, and it can be observed in imperial Rome, with its Latin and Greek libraries, and in Sasanian Persia, where the sovereigns supported translation projects of certain Greek and Indian texts. The totalization of late antique knowledge also had an impact on religious hermeneutics: both Christians and Neoplatonist philosophers claimed the ability to exhaust the world’s meaning (Inglebert 2008). Another point of connection between the learned Christians and pagan philosophers was their certainty that classical culture (grammar, rhetoric, knowledge) should not be an end in itself, but an instrument in the service of higher religious truths. For Christians, however, the biblical texts held a supreme authority, and because of this, certain literal readings occasionally led to tensions between “Christian (inner) knowledge” and “Greek (outer) knowledge.” For instance, there were debates about the shape of the world: the ancient conception (with a flat earth and heavenly dome) or spherical (with a spherical world encompassed by spherical heavens). This debate principally took place from 350 to 550, and above all among the Greek and Syriac Christians. But there were also debates over the existence of a single ocean or closed seas (Cosmas versus Philoponus) and on the comparative efficacies of medicine or prayer for healing indeed, they even debated the eternity of the world (Philoponus versus the Aristotelians). It is thus possible to propose a typology of the Christian modifications to knowledge about the world (Inglebert 2001).

One must not overlook two sociological factors. The first, already mentioned, is that the elites were now less interested than they had been previously in investing in classical culture to make a career—which brought about a decline in civic schools during the sixth century—whereby it became necessary for bishops to create religious schools to form the clergy. The second is that Christianization of the culture was different, depending on whether one was a member of the pepaideumenoi. In regions where there were not any Greco-Roman schools, traditional rhetorical techniques were less important than technical knowledge and ecclesiastical rules, which (in order of priority) were (p. 20) translated from Greek into Syriac and Armenian in the East, or imported in Latin in Ireland. In the sixth century, the school of Nisibis, located in Persian territory since 363 but near Roman Edessa, was the only ancient institution (with the monastery of Qenneshre in the West-Syriac tradition) dedicated to biblical exegesis and Christian theology (Vööbus 1965 Becker 2006) teaching there was done from Greek and Syriac Christian texts. It was a theoretical model for some Christians from Constantinople, Italy, and Africa, but in the Roman world, the Christian cultural shift was actually the founding of monasteries. Thus, for various reasons, linked to the absence (Armenia, Mesopotamia) or to the disappearance (in the Roman empire, first in the West, then in the East) of civic schools, clericalization of the culture became the sociological norm after 550 (the rabbinization of the Jewish tradition had already occurred). In the Mediterranean world at the end of the sixth century, the patristic synthesis, or the coexistence of the profane and Christian between classical and biblical contributions, was replaced by a more strictly theological culture that insisted on criteria of orthodoxy for the selection process of texts, as in the catenae (Cameron 1996). But this phenomenon—which selected portions of prior works according to particular rubrics and reorganized knowledge that was formerly distributed in a different mode, that is, according to works by individual authors—was not to be found only in theology. One can find it in other fields where authority had become the criterion for classification: the Theodosian Code, the Code and Digest of Justinian, and the Talmudic tradition.

Another important change was the new status of language and culture that Christianization brought to languages other than Latin and Greek: Syriac, Coptic, Gothic, Armenian, Georgian, and others. 16 This change likewise favored translations of erudite classical knowledge (philosophy, geography, medicine) into Syriac and Armenian. Middle-Persian also served the elaboration of a written corpus of both religious knowledge (Avesta) and profane knowledge (translations from Greek or Sanskrit). This cultural evolution thus encouraged the extension of the concept of civilization, via Christianization, to new people groups.

An example of this transformation of knowledge was the manner in which one understood the history of time, which combined political, religious, and intellectual dimensions together. Classical history, beyond its mere description of events, expresses the earthly reflection of a cosmic reality: eternal Rome, the last universal empire, was the telos of history and the sign of a unified divine order. With the advent of Christianity, history became another process of realization, in that the expansion of the Church proved the continuity of sacred history. Though the Manichaeans would also use such reasoning, this view was, by contrast, less common among Roman pagans, among Zoroastrians, and among Jews: ecclesiastical history and a universal narrative were Christian specialties. However, contemporary political and military topics, the primary themes of classical history, were central preoccupations of all groups.

(p. 21) For the pagans, Roman military defeats (e.g., Adrianople in 378, the sack of Rome in 410) could be explained by the cessation of divine support, brought about by the coming of the christiana tempora (as in Libanius, Eunapius of Sardis, Zosimus). In 417, for instance, Rutilius Namatianus (De redito suo, vv. 47–155) could still think that Rome would remain the eternal city, but later pagan hopes—too closely linked to the terrestrial fall of Rome—disappeared. For Latin Christians, the arrival of pagan or heretical barbarians signaled various things: either a sign of the end of the fourth empire of the Book of Daniel, and thus the end of the world (Hydatius, Quodvultdeus) a punishment for the sins of Roman Christians (Salvian) an opportunity for the spread of Christianity (Orosius) or an event to be understood from a philosophico-theological point of view (Augustine, Prosper of Aquitaine). Roman Christians of the East, on the other hand, until the arrival of Arab Muslims, were able to maintain the ideology of Eusebius, Constantine, and Theodosius, that of a Christian Roman empire: God would protect the last empire, Roman and Christian, up to the end of times. As for the Sasanians, they interpreted their victories as victories of Ahura Mazda, and their defeats as resulting from impious leaders, similar in this to the view of pious Romans (pagan or Christian).

The Roman understanding of Persian history was similarly complex. The Sasanian pretension of being the heirs of the Achaemenids was known by the Romans from the third century, but it was not necessarily accepted, and the Persians were considered by some, such as Julian (On Royalty 11) and Ammianus Marcellinus (23.6.2) to be merely “Parthians.” One Syriac text, the late version of the Cave of Treasures, written around 500, presents another history of the Sasanians. The text integrates the Sasanian dynasty with biblical history, making them descended from Sisan the servant of Nimrod, the first king of Babylon (Cave 24.25 cf. Genesis 10:8–12)—according to tradition, “Sasan” was the grandfather of Ardashir I, founder of the Sasanian dynasty. Further, with respect to the magi who came to adore the newborn Jesus in Bethlehem, the text specifies that they were certain kings, one of whom was the king of Persia (Cave 45.19): this claim once again linked the Persian empire to sacred history. Thus, Syriac Christians proposed a syncretistic history in order to insert Sasanian power into Biblico-Christian history. Cosmas Indicopleustes, a Roman but a “Nestorian,” displayed another conception of Sasanian history around 550. According to his Christian Topography (2.76), the Sasanians descended neither from the Achaemenids nor from the Parthians. Their empire was actually a kingdom of magi, founded by the descendants of those who came to Bethlehem. This showed that the Sasanian empire, officially Zoroastrian, was in fact willed by God and that it therefore had the same theological foundation as the Roman empire, although with a pagan origin. For Cosmas, the Roman empire since the time of Augustus had been the guardian of the empire of Christ, and it would return it to Christ at the end of time. The association of Christ with the Roman empire of Augustus was ancient (Origen, Eusebius of Caesarea), and the census mentioned in Luke 2:1 (p. 22) was interpreted wrongly during Late Antiquity as Jesus’ enrollment as a Roman citizen and was understood as such even by Syriac Christians like Aphrahat (Memra 5.24). But the idea that the Sasanian power was linked to the magi of Bethlehem is profoundly original and is not found elsewhere (Panaino 2005), and this idea had, without any doubt, a Persian “Nestorian” origin—perhaps due to the fact that the “king of kings” had given official status to the Church of the East in the fifth century. Such an idea affiliated the two great empires via the same Christian unity and the same chronology focused on the birth of Christ. On one hand, this gave credence to the Sasanian ambitions for parity while, on the other hand, it reserved the first rank for the Roman empire of Justinian.

From the Atlantic to Central Asia, the world of Late Antiquity was neither unitary (unitaire) nor common (commun), but was fragmented (fragmenté) and shared (partagé). However, one notices from the fourth to the seventh centuries a convergence of elite values and of conceptions of the world among educated people. And there existed unifying representations of this world, especially religious—those of the Manichaeans, as well as those of Syriac Christians of the sixth century. Situated between the two empires, the Roman and Sasanian, where they formed minority communities and used both Greek and Aramaic, Syriac Christians made simultaneous use of received knowledge from Greco-Roman paideia and from data of eastern origin. They were better able than others to affirm the geographical and historical unity of the Mediterranean and Iranian territories based on biblical traditions and the expansion of Christianity.

One can comprehend the late antique world from Constantine to Muhammad from three perspectives. First, there was hardly any upheaval in geographical knowledge: the addition of China, which remained mostly unknown, modified the map of the world only marginally Christian traits that were inherited from Jewish traditions (e.g., locating the terrestrial paradise in the east, or the central placement of Jerusalem) imposed themselves only slowly as the culture was clericalized and cartography derived from Ptolemy remained secondary. On the other hand, this world witnessed profound transformations: political (e.g., the disappearance of the western Roman empire and the arrival of the Germanic tribes the growing power of the Sasanian empire to the east), religious (e.g., the majority victory of Chalcedonian Christianity), social (e.g., the redefinition of the role of elites with respect to military and religious values), and economic (e.g., the decline of economic complexity in the West during the fifth century and in the East after 550).

Finally, representations of this fragmented world were strikingly restructured, and, in this sense, Late Antiquity was above all an époque of revolution and of the adaptation of different mentalities. One cannot simply pass from a world dominated by political models to a world dominated by religious models, but, more subtly, we see the transition from a political, classical, uncontested model of Roman hegemony to a religious, Christian, contested (p. 23) model of Roman supremacy. This late antique world was without unity, but nevertheless, there was a structural scheme that created a shared world (un monde partagé), a necessary reshuffling that occurred with reference to the model of a Christian Roman empire, inherited from Constantine. The imperial conversion to Christianity was, in effect, the opportunity to reassert, in a new way, the superiority and universality of Roman ideology and values. And it is through this discourse, linking Rome (with its two possible interpretations: the empire and the city) and Christianity, that one can understand the late antique conceptions of Late Antiquity: whether in explaining this new Roman model according to the various categories of time, place, and social and cultural settings in seeing it transformed according to the whim of emergent circumstances or, by challenging it, for religious or political reasons.

From Constantine to Muhammad, one can therefore characterize Late Antiquity as an époque of “transition,” with the condition that the term transition is used in a strong sense, distinguishing it from simple transformations that are inherent in every historical period. We pass from a world in the third century wherein identity was primarily political (the principal affiliation being either civic or ethnic), to a world in the seventh century wherein identity became above all religious (the principal affiliation depending on one’s religious community). Late Antiquity was a historical period in which the two conceptions coexisted and in which the second overcame the first: this is true whether within the empire of Constantinople, the kingdoms of the West, the Sasanian empire, or in the Qur’ān with “the people of the book.” This transition can be explained by the fact that the notion of religion had changed, insisting henceforth less on cosmic and topical aspects and more on soteriology and history (Brown 1978). The main consequence was that the notion of “civilized” was redefined, juxtaposing the ancient political criteria, which permitted the inclusion of the Sasanian empire, and the new Christian religious criteria, which justified the inclusion of converted peoples, even those who were barbarians. The imperium Romanum, in theory sine fine, became Romania in the fourth century, which after 480 denoted the empire ruled from Constantinople. But Romania was only one part of the Christian world, which was itself included within a late antique commonwealth. However, this commonwealth did not exist as a unified representation until the sixth century—and only among Sasanian rulers, with the rhetoric of the two “eyes,” and among Syriac Christians (or among those, like Cosmas, who were religiously affiliated with them), and only then with reference to Christianity—that is, a common sacred history encompassing the Roman and Sasanian empires, both of which were connected to Christ through Augustus and the magi at Bethlehem. In both cases, this expanded and united “world of Late Antiquity” was that of Rome’s (or Constantinople’s) political or religious challengers.

But yet, this matrix of discourse, which had been organized by reference to the Christian Roman empire, disappeared with the expansion of Islam. This expansion signaled after 634 the end of any possible Roman and Christian (p. 24) hegemony, a hegemony that had again been reasserted in 629–630 through Heraclius’ victory over the Sasanians. In effect, the military victory of the Muslim Arabs—understood as heretical or impious barbarians—was incomprehensible outside of eschatological reasoning, 17 a fact that might explain the end of the Byzantine tradition of ecclesiastical history (which linked Christianity and Roman empire) after 600. The expansion of Islam, by its destruction of the Sasanian empire and the given Roman and Christian certitudes, sealed (in an archaeological sense) a particular conception of the world: Late Antiquity, which lasted from Constantine up to Heraclius, the Roman emperor (610–641) contemporary with both the “king of kings” Khusro II (591–628) and the prophet Muhammad (612–632).

It is therefore possible to say that the analysis of ancient mentalities strengthens the idea of a real Late Antiquity within an expanded geographical framework and is also an argument in favor of a short chronology. Nevertheless, with respect to the chronology, our debate must remain open, if only because the respective roles played by the ancient conceptions of ancient realities and by the contemporary representations of those realities have yet to be delineated clearly. 18