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Gcse ancient History

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Read the selections from Plutarch given above, and Herodotus’ account of Leonidas’ involvement in the Battle of Thermopylae (Herodotus 8.206-228).

(a) Summarise Leonidas’ role in the battle of Thermopylae.

(b) Give two qualities of Leonidas as a leader and explain them with reference to the sources.

(c) How reliable do you think Herodotus and Plutarch are as sources for Leonidas’ character?

4.3 Themistocles
Themistocles was one of the most significant individuals in this period. He persuaded the Athenians to invest in the navy, at a time when they would have preferred to do otherwise, and he also engineered the circumstances for a Greek victory at Salamis.
Themistocles is the subject of later biographies by Cornelius Nepos (99BC-24BC) by Plutarch (AD50-AD120), as well as being the central figure of much of Herodotus’ narrative. Because he is so central to the battle of Salamis, this aspect of his life should be considered within the narrative of that battle, other aspects will be considered here. Both Nepos and Plutarch were keen to show their subject’s character, rather than his involvement in specific historical events. They were also writing a long time after the events, so they have to be used with caution.
Themistocles was the son of Neocles, who was of high birth. He quickly became famous because of his energetic interest in political affairs. His first major achievement was the development of the harbour at Piraeus for Athens. In 483/2BC, the Athenians found a large deposit of silver at mines in Laurium, in Attica. At the time Athens was in a dispute with the neighbouring island of Aegina. Themistocles persuaded the people to use the money to increase the size of the Athenian fleet from 70 to 200 ships. These ships were used in the battles at Artemisium and Salamis, and ultimately saved the Greek world from Xerxes’ invasion plans.


The Athenians developed a method of banishing any citizen they thought was becoming too powerful within the state. Each year, the Assembly would decide whether to hold an ostracism. This word comes from ostracon, a Greek word meaning a piece of pottery. The Athenians would choose who might be appropriate for banishment, and then the people would write the name of their chosen person on an ostracon. The man with the highest number of votes was ostracised: banished from the city for ten years.

After Themistocles’ pivotal role in the battle of Salamis (as described above), he was greatly honoured in Sparta. At the end of the 470s Themistocles was ostracised from Athens, and went to live in Argos in the Peloponnese. He visited other cities in the Peloponnese, where an anti-Spartan feeling was growing. Because of the threat from the Spartans he fled, ultimately to Persia. At some point after 465BC, King Artaxerxes I of Persia made him governor of Magnsesia, where he lived until he died a natural death. Meanwhile, the Athenians had condemned him to death in his absence.
In the ancient biographical tradition, Themistocles is often contrasted with Aristides. Aristides was known for his up-rightness and sense of justice, whilst Themistocles was seen as a trickster, always out to get what he could. Plutarch (Themistocles, 3-5) gives various clues to Themistocles’ character: he was keen to make money, may have been generous, very ambitious, well-loved by the people, a reliable arbitrator in disputes and keen to be in a leading position in the state.
To what extent this is true is impossible to judge: it is evident, however, that he had a powerful, positive influence on the Athenian navy, and must take at least some of the credit for the victory at Salamis.


  1. Outline Themistocles’ career.

  2. Do you think Herodotus gives a fair treatment of Themistocles?

  3. Was Themistocles the hero of Salamis or a trickster out to gain all he could? Explain your answer.

4.4 Xerxes
In October 485BC Xerxes, son of Darius, became King of the Persian Empire. His father, Darius, died, leaving him with some small problems: a rebellion in Egypt and the question of the Greeks.
Xerxes was the son of Darius and Atossa, the daughter of Cyrus the Great. Our main evidence for his actions is in Herodotus, where he appears to be a tyrannical and determined ruler. It is important to remember, however, that Herodotus was keen to characterise him as the ruler whose pride in the strength of his forces led to his failure and the collapse of his expedition. We have seen his part in the various battles which his forces fought. It may now be helpful to look at three different views of Xerxes: inscriptions from Persia, Herodotus himself and the Athenian playwright Aeschylus’ view.

  1. Inscriptions:

These show how Xerxes himself wanted to be seen within the empire. Many of the inscriptions which have been found state that Xerxes is the King, King of Kings, appointed by the will of Ahura Mazda, the great Persian god. (For further details, see Lactor 16, p.50-53).

  1. Herodotus

Herodotus includes numerous stories about Xerxes. Here are a few in outline.

    1. When his engineers had built a bridge across the Hellespont, a storm destroyed the bridge. Xerxes had the engineers beheaded, and the Hellespont whipped. He then ordered that fetters be thrown into the sea.

    2. A Lydian subject, Pythius, asked Xerxes to allow one of his five sons not to march on the expedition to Greece. Xerxes was so enraged, that he ordered that Pythius’ eldest son be found, cut in half and that the two halves of his body be placed on either side of the road. The army would then march through the middle!

    3. Xerxes was so angered by Leonidas that he had his head cut off and stuck on a stake.

    4. At the battle of Salamis, Xerxes watched the course of the battle from nearby. Whenever he saw one of his officers act in a distinguished way, he had his secretaries write down his name, together with his city and parentage.

  1. Aeschylus

In 472BC the Athenian playwright Aeschylus put on a play called Persians which showed the moment Xerxes returned to Persia after the defeat in Greece. It focussed on the grief and suffering of the Persian women, and glorified the Athenian achievement by showing the suffering which they caused to their enemy. Xerxes appears late on in the play, dressed in rags with a quiver but not a bow. Aeschylus is uncompromising in his characterisation. Xerxes opens his mouth for the first time with these words:



Wretched me, I have suffered a loathsome

and totally unexpected fate!

How cruelly god has come down on the Persian race!

Miserable me, what is to become of me?

The vigour has gone from my limbs

as I contemplate the advanced age of these citizens.

O Zeus, I which that fate had shrouded me

with death as well,

along with the men who died…
Later he continues:
I left them behind, destroyed,

Disappearing from Phoenician ships

onto the strands

of Salamis, striking

Against the harsh coast.
And then:
…It is a miserable

blow for me to have lost so great an army.

(Aeschylus, The Persians, l.908-917, 962-966, 1014-15 trans E. Hall, Aris & Phillips, 1997)
Three very different images of the King: the King of Kings, the cruel tyrant and the wretched, defeated king.
Read Herodotus 7.32-41

  1. Describe Xerxes’ actions in this passage.

  2. What does this tell us about his ambitions and character?

  3. Explain whether you think Herodotus’ narrative is accurate at this point. Give reasons for
    your answer.

Consider the three different accounts of Xerxes given above: the inscriptions, details from Herodotus and the Aeschylus. Assess how reliable you think each is: consider what motivated each writer, and explain whether you think their picture is reliable.

Sources: Herodotus’ qualities as a historian and factors which affect how he writes history

Throughout the study of the conflict between Greek and Persia, any historian is dependent on the work of Herodotus. He was a highly intelligent and inquisitive student of humanity. He took great interest in different cultures, and was very open-minded in his approach to different peoples. This sense of inquiry into things, and the causes of events lies at the heart of history.
He opens his work by stating that it is the presentation of his researches, historie. This is the origin of the word, History: it is a form of research. His research is the first of its kind to have survived, and makes his work unique: it stands at the beginning of the study of history as a subject.
5.1 Herodotus’ aims and interests as a historian


The Ionian coast of Asia Minor was one of the most exciting places to be in the early fifth century BC. It was full of highly intelligent, enquiring people. Hecataeus wrote the first geography book, whilst Heraclitus, a philosopher, is most famous for his saying that you cannot step twice into the same river. Herodotus was not the only intellectual from this area.

The Ionians were related to the Athenians. This may be why Athens later developed as such a cultural centre later in the fifth century BC.

Herodotus was called the Father of History by the Roman orator Cicero. He was a researcher: the opening to his work states that this is the ‘presentation of the researches of Halicarnassus’. He came from the city of Halicarnassus, a city on the West coast of Asia Minor (now known as Bodrum in Turkey), and seems to have travelled extensively during his life: he probably visited Egypt, Athens, and lived in his later days in Thurii in southern Italy.

The fact that he moved around the Greek world so much is significant: he may have spent time in Athens, and may well have received much of his information from the Athenians, but he had a wider view of the Greek world.
He was interested in all manner of things, so his history is not exactly how we might define history. His books include information on Egyptian and Persian customs and geographical descriptions, as well as the accounts of the battles which we have been studying. He states in his own aims the beginning of his work: that human achievements may not be forgotten in time, and that the great and marvellous actions, of both Greeks and non-Greeks, may not be without glory. He then says that he is particularly interested in showing why the Greeks and non-Greeks came into conflict.
The table summarising the contents of Herodotus’ work gives a sense of his interests. It is possible to see that it follows the expansion of the Persian Empire, coming to a crescendo with the failed attack on Greece by Xerxes. One important aspect of his work, though, is not always that apparent: his interest in different cultures. Consider, for example, his description of the mummification process in Egypt. He goes through a range of options, and then concludes: ‘This is the third method of embalming which is used for the poor. Having cleared the intestines with a purge, they pickle the body for 70 days and then they give it back to the family to take away.’ (Herodotus, 2.88). This is a good example of his interest not only in the direct theme of the expansion of the Persian Empire, but also in the people and their customs.
Herodotus makes an important observation about customs. He reflects that the custom (nomos in Greek) is the king of all: it controls all. He tells how Darius wanted to test peoples customs: he asked some Greeks to eat their dead relative: they were horrified, because they always burned their dead. Meanwhile, he also asked some Indians, a tribe known as the Callatiae, if they would burn their dead. They were equally horrified: they always ate their death, and regarded burning them as sacrilege, because it would profane the fire. Herodotus here (Herodotus, 3.38) again shows his interest in a wider form of research: he is interested in the people and their customs, as well as the narrower focus of the conflict between Greeks and Barbarians.
Summary of Herodotus’ Work

Book 1 Expansion of the Persian Empire: Croesus of Lydia and Cyrus the Great

Book 2 Egypt: Geography and History

Book 3 Rise and Fall of Samos; Death of Cambyses and the Rise of Darius

Book 4 Scythia: Persian Exploration in Europe: Ethnography of the Scythians

Book 5 The Ionian Revolt

Book 6 King Cleomenes of Sparta and Marathon; Xerxes’ decision to invade Greece

Book 7 Xerxes’ Expedition: Preparations, crossing the Hellespont; Thermopylae

Book 8 Artemisium and Salamis

Book 9 Plataea, Mycale and the Epilogue to the History


  1. Outline Herodotus’ interests.

  2. How do you think these interests are reflected in his account of the battles against the Persians?


Read Herodotus, 1.1-5

  1. What are Herodotus’ aims in his work?

  2. Summarise the stories of women-snatching between Europe and Asia.

  3. Why do you think Herodotus includes the details of the mythological conflict between Europe and Asia? Explain your answer.

5.2 The nature of Herodotus’ sources and his use of them
The first key aspect of Herodotus’ sources is that they were human. He was keen to investigate the events and phenomena brought about by human activity. Unlike the poets before him, he was not going to ascribe a role to the gods in the course of a battle. He reported oracles: humans, such as Themistocles, were influenced by them. But, at the end of the day, generals, leaders and others determined the course of action, not the slight of hand of a god.
As a result of this, Herodotus rejects myths: in his opening chapters he outlines the mythical origins of the conflict between Europe and Asia. He gives different versions: that from the Persians is contrasted with a Phoenician version, and mention is made of a Greek version. He connects this with the story of the Trojan war: in essence there are a series of incidents in which women are snatched by each side. This culminates in the Trojan War, in which the Greeks destroyed Troy, because of the taking of Helen. He concludes, ‘From this point on it was considered that the Greek world was always in conflict with them (the Persians). For the Persians claimed as their homeland Asia and the barbarian races living there, whilst they considered Europe and the Greek world to be separate.’ (Herodotus 1.4)

He then outlines a key aspect of his historical method:

That then is what the Persians and the Phoenicians say. About these matters I am not going to say whether this or that version is true, but I will show you who I know to have been the first to harm the Greeks and then I will go on with my story, telling the stories of both small and great cities of men. For the majority of those cities which once were great have become less important, and those cities which were great in my time previously were small. As I realise that human happiness does not stay in the same place for long, I will recall both great and small equally.

Herodotus, I.5

This is a highly significant passage. It shows Herodotus’ interest in having direct knowledge of what he is describing: he will not just accept any story. Also, it shows that he is keen to look beneath the surface: a city today may be great, but was it great at the time of the Persian Wars? Herodotus, then, is an intelligent, critical historian.
Herodotus gives a similar message when describing events in Egypt. Again, this gives a very clear indication of his method:
Until this point my observation, opinion and research have guided what I have said. From here on, I will give arguments which are based on what the Egyptians have said, and I will record them as I heard them. In addition to this, there will be some things from my own observation.

Herodotus, 2.99

Here Herodotus again emphasises the importance of his own observation. Although he is clearly stating that he will have to rely on what he has been told by the Egyptians, he seems to have preferred using his own observation.
Herodotus seems to have made thorough use of other writers at the time, as well as using the information which he was able to gain from speaking to people who were present at the events which he describes.
A good example of the particular sources which Herodotus had guiding his narrative is the incident of Artemisia at the Battle of Salamis. He gives great detail about her ramming a fellow ‘Persian’ ship in an attempt to avoid an attack from a Greek ship. In the end, the plan worked, the Greeks assumed that she was a friendly vessel, and let her escape. In the process, she not only sank a ship on her own side, but also gained the respect of Xerxes. He is alleged to have made the comment, ‘My men have become women, my women men.’
Here it is important to note first that Herodotus was from Halicarnassus, and Artemisia was queen of that city. Did he include this detail because he was interested in his own city or because he had a source from within the city who told him the story? Secondly, how accurate is Xerxes’ response likely to be? In the first place, there is a theme both in his narrative and that of Aeschylus in Persians of showing Persians to be effeminate: this fits rather well into this pattern, so perhaps Herodotus added it, simply to add colour. Secondly, how could Herodotus have known Xerxes’ response? What was his source?

1. Outline Herodotus’ historical method as described above.

2. What makes Herodotus a historian?


Read Herodotus 8.87-88.

1. Explain what is happening at this point in the battle.

2. Why do you think Herodotus includes this incident?

3. How accurate do you think this account is likely to be? Explain reasons for your answer.

4. What does this passage tell us about Herodotus’ use of sources and how they may have shaped

his narrative?
5.3 The role Herodotus ascribes to individuals
One distinguishing feature of Herodotus’ history is that he places considerable emphasis on the actions of individuals. In his account of the Ionian revolt, figures such as Aristagoras and Histiaeus loom large, whilst it is Darius’ almost personal grudge against the Athenians which leads him to launch the expedition against Athens. Equally, figures such as Themistocles or Xerxes play a key role in his narrative. He does not always give much weight to wider questions such as economic hardship in Ionia or the desire of the Persians to expand their Empire.
However, Herodotus often uses individuals to deal with wider questions. A good example of this is the discussion between Xerxes and Demaratus, the former king of Sparta, before the battle of Salamis (Herodotus, 7.101-104). The passage shows the differences between the Greeks and the Persians, and goes some way to explaining how the Greeks will stand and fight against a foreign force which is vastly superior in numbers.


Read Herodotus 7.101-104.

  1. What aspects of Greek, and especially Spartan, character are shown in this passage?

  2. What aspects of Persian character are shown in this passage?

  3. How far do you think these character traits explain the Greek victories against Xerxes?

  4. Why do you think Herodotus has included this dialogue?

TASK 5F: Essay

Consider the sections of Herodotus which you have read: Marathon, Thermopylae and Salamis. Does Herodotus give too much emphasis on the individuals in these episodes? Explain your answer.

Option 2: Alexander the Great, 356–323 BC

Introduction: the sources for Alexander
There are a number of surviving sources for Alexander from the ancient world, though there are only a few fragmentary contemporary references. In this course, there are three specified sources: Plutarch, Life of Alexander; Diodorus Siculus, Library of History; Arrian Anabasis of Alexander. There is also an extended account by Curtius Rufus (History of Alexander) and considerable material elsewhere. However, because these accounts were written long after Alexander’s death, there are some question marks about their reliability. There are also different presentations of Alexander, which seem to go back to sources writing about him during his life or soon after his death but which are now lost: for example, Callisthenes (see Plutarch Alexander 33; Arrian 4.10-12) was the official court historian and biased towards Alexander (he is the only source we know who actually wrote during the campaigns); Ptolemy (Arrian 1.14; 7.4, 26) and Aristobulus (Arrian 2.3; 4.8; 7.4, 24, 26, 28-9; Plutarch Alexander 75) both exaggerated their roles in events. In addition, there are references to the court journals (Ephemerides) which claim to be a record of what happened in the king’s court but may not be authentic. Not all contemporaries wrote favourably about Alexander; for example, Cleitarchus was probably the source of some of the negative material developed by later writers such as Curtius Rufus.

Using the internet or suitable reference books, find out more about the three historians whose work is used in this course: Arrian, Diodorus Siculus, Plutarch (you can add Curtius Rufus, if you wish):

  • What sort of books did they write?

  • At what time were they writing?

  • What do we know about them?

You may find this website useful; the page has links to further discussions of the sources:

Context: Macedon and the Greeks

1.1 The Macedonian Background

The Kingdom of Macedonia played a minor role in the great events of the fifth century in Greece. Many Greeks regarded the Macedonians as barbarians, not part of the Greek world at all. This had begun to change in the fifth century BC, as Macedonian kings such as Perdiccas II and Archelaus played a more significant role in Greek affairs. However the turbulent relations between the Macedonian kings and their nearest neighbours to the north, and even the outlying areas of the kingdom, restricted what could be achieved. Even a successful king like Amyntas III was driven out of Macedon for a period of time. In addition, interest in the coastal areas of the Aegean Sea by states such as Athens restricted Macedonian influence over areas they considered rightfully theirs.

As the list of kings (above) shows, violence was seldom far away for members of the royal dynasty. This history of assassination and warfare formed an essential backdrop to Alexander’s childhood. His father, Philip II, spent a good deal of time on campaign, both strengthening his own position at home and establishing Macedon as a central force in the Greek world, partly through diplomacy and partly through the use of force.
This is clearly illustrated by events after the accession of Alexander II in 370/69 BC. He was the son of the successful Amyntas III and the older brother of Philip (later Philip II, father of Alexander the Great). He succeeded his father without dispute, but the Illyrians then chose to invade; while he was campaigning against them, a relative, Pausanias, mounted an invasion from the east. The king’s mother Eurydice was forced to call on the Athenians for help, which secured his position. Alexander II then sought to establish his wider influence to the south, helping the Thessalians against the tyrant of Pherae; he gained control of some significant strongholds, which he then tried to keep under his authority. The Thessalians called on Pelopidas of Thebes to assist them; Alexander was forced to surrender the territory he had gained, and some 30 hostages from leading Macedonian families were taken back to Thebes, including Alexander’s younger brother, Philip.
Philip’s chance came when Perdiccas III was killed fighting against the Illyrians in 359 BC. There were a number of other potential claimants to the throne, so his reign was challenging from the start.
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