Posted by: Trisha Leigh | September 29, 2010

Lessons from c.480 B.C.E.

I’ve spent the last two evenings studying for an Ancient Greece exam, deadline 3:30 pm today. I read over 100 pages of a textbook* in 3 hours tonight (yes, I was behind on my reading, what of it?), which is FAST for textbook reading. At least, for me. Fascinating stuff. I owed you a blog post, so I decided to share what I’ve learned so far. Mostly because nothing else will fit in my brain right now.

  1. Fight the good fight, but have a plan to save your own ass. A man named Themistocles strikes me as an unscrupulous genius. On the one hand, his secret plotting and clandestine correspondence saved Athens in the Battle of Salamis. On the other, Themistocles made sure that if Persia and King Xerxes prevailed, he could just as easily claim to be the author of that victory. Either way, we remember his name.
  1. Never assume everyone’s on your side. The people who considered themselves to be Greeks were hardly allies or even marginally organized when they found themselves at war with Persia, one of the greatest Near Eastern empires in history. The Spartans dallied an extra week when asked to assist at the Battle of Marathon, claiming religious timetables prevented them from going immediately. Most likely they waited with bated breath in hopes the Athenians would crash and burn. In every major battle listed in my textbook, the Greeks were betrayed from the inside to some degree. Several Greek cities, including Thebes and Syracuse, refused assistance or outright sided with Persia.
  1. A little bit of crazy goes a long way. Xerxes said the Greeks (especially the Spartans at Thermopylae) fought as if mad. Whatever the actual numbers – and we’ll ever know, due to great admiration for the Spartan military even in the ancient sources – they killed far more than they should have. I suppose when you know you’re going to die from the outset a little madness is bound to set in.
  1. Every idea sounds insane the first time someone says it out loud. A society where bloodlines didn’t guarantee you either money or political power, where a peasant who’d never been more than a days walk from home had the same voice as an educated thinker, in which laws of man governed above the whims of the Gods, surely seemed a disaster in the making to the rest of the ancient world. It couldn’t have worked for everyone, just as modern day democracy can’t work for every country in the world. Democracy (albeit for males only) was born in Athens and spread to many surrounding Greek poleis (cities). The foundations and ideals (even though the Greeks would hardly approve of our representative version) have survived more than two thousand years.
  1. The biggest, richest, and fiercest don’t always win. Sometimes the little guy can come out on top. It takes determination, a little madness, and smarts. Stir in some ingenuity and fine craftsmanship and you’ve got the much smaller armies of the Greek alliance defeating a force up to four times its size. The Persians figured their reputation would precede them, that browbeating the relatively small, unknown entity in the Aegean wouldn’t take much of a commitment or fight. By the time they realized they were wrong, the Greeks had a taste of winning and weren’t going to give up their way of life easily. The Athenians were offered terms to change sides, and responded thus, according to Herodotus: “There is not so much gold in the world, nor land so fair, that we would take it in payment for going over to the Persians or enslaving Greece… Know this well, if you do not already know it, that so long as one Athenian remains alive, Athens will never make peace with Xerxes.”

The Spartans responded with something not quite as eloquent yet more colorful, as is to be expected.

This is what the Ancient Greeks have taught me thus far, and we haven’t even broached its intellectual height. Some people can’t fathom why I love history with such passion, and particularly connect with the ancient world. For me it’s the similarities we find in the people, though our worlds are vastly changed in many important ways; the amazing fact that through thousands of years their triumphs and defeats whisper lessons and inspiration to their descendents – at least to those willing to listen.

*The Greeks, by Ian Morris and Barry B. Powell.



  1. Whoa, dude. I just had a flashback to college. 😉

    Fun stuff, though. I always did enjoy Greek history. Which is why I like the movie “300” so much. Not because of the *cough* scantily clad men with the great abs, I assure you.

    • Oh no – I’m sure the mostly naked men have nothing to do with it. Considering males in Greece often exercised in the buff I think you could have been quite happy there.

  2. Fun stuff. I’ve always been a fan of history, too. Let us know how the exam went.

    Are you incorporating any of your passion for ancient history into IN THE AUTUMN?

    • The test seemed to go okay, thanks for asking! IN THE AUTUMN is set in a dystopian future, so not directly. I have another manuscript, HEARTSTRINGS, that is partially set in the 1st century CE. I adored writing it.

  3. This is a brilliant description of why I love to write in the period. You hit on the background of my first two novels!

    And very astute observations too.

    Thanks Trisha!

    • Thanks Gary! It’s so lovely when you know someone else really gets what is endearing and exciting about the ancient world. I’ve preordered your book and can’t wait to get my grubby little hands on it.

      • You’re very kind, Trisha. I hope you’ll let me know what you think!

  4. Love this. The ancient Greeks are fascinating.

    • Yay for more ancient history nerds! I knew I liked you 😉

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