One of the most iconic scenes in all of movie history is probably the scene when the Spartan king Leonidas throws (or rather kicks) the Persian messenger into a well. But did that really happen? Did Leonidas and his Spartans really throw Persian messengers into a well? Or has Sparta ever thrown Persian messengers into a well?
In 481 BC, the year before the Persian invasion and the Battle of Thermopylae, the Persians sent messengers to the Greek regions of Boeotia and Thessaly (both showed a certain willingness to ally with the Persians). But Leonidas had no opportunity to throw messengers down a well since the Persians didn`t send any messengers to Sparta. And the Persian messengers who came to Sparta in 491 BC were also not thrown down a well since they didn`t ask for Spartan submission but wanted to explore the chances for an alliance.
Let`s take a closer look!
When it comes to the idea that Leonidas threw (or rather kicked) Persian messengers down a well we only have to look at the years of 481 and 480 BC. But later we will also take a look at why Sparta also didn`t throw Persian messengers down a well when they came to Sparta in 492 BC.
So let`s start out by looking at the situation in the year 481 BC.
Why didn`t Leonidas throw Persian messengers down a well in 481 BC
Leonidas, the Spartan king who would eventually fall in the Battle of Thermopylae in late August of 480 BC, could not throw a Persian messenger down a well because the Persians hadn`t sent any messengers to Sparta in 481 BC.
Instead, in 481 BC the Persians had only sent messengers to the Greek city-states where they could see a certain willingness to ally with the Persian Empire. And they didn`t have to look for long. Most city-states of ancient Greece didn`t join the Hellenic League, the anti-Persian alliance, but stayed either neutral or were pro-Persian.
Two of the regions where the Persians sent their messengers were Boeotia and Thessaly. But neither Sparta nor Athens was visited by Persian messengers in 481 BC since both were leading members of the Hellenic League, the anti-Persian alliance that was also founded in 481 BC. So even without sending messengers, it was clear to the Persians that both Athens and Sparta had chosen to fight against the Persian invasion.
By the way. Since the Persians also didn`t send any messengers to Athens, the Athenians could also not throw any Persian messengers down a cliff in 481 BC!
However, almost exactly 10 years before the Persians tried to gain allies in Greece in 481 BC, there had already been Persian messengers in Sparta. But they were also not thrown into a well.
Let`s find out why not.
Why the Spartans didn`t throw Persian messengers down a well in 491 BC
In 491 BC, 10 years before the Persian attempt of invading Greece, a Persian army had already marched into Greece. That advance was stopped at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC and is often (wrongfully) called the First Persian Invasion of Greece. Herodotus claims that in 491 BC, the year before the Persian army marched into Greece for the first time, the Persians had sent messengers to all Greek cities to ask for their submission. It is in this context that the claim of Spartans throwing the Persian messengers into a well usually comes up.
But that was most likely also not the case!
The reason why that was most likely not the case can be found in the reason why the Persians attacked (and not invaded) Greece in 490 BC.
In 490 BC, the Persians did not march into Greece to conquer all of Greece. Instead, the Persians only wanted to punish the city-states of Athens and Eretria since these two states had given military aid to a rebellion against Persian rule in Asia Minor (the so-called Ionian Revolt).
I wrote an entire article on the Ionian revolt and how that started the Greco-Persian Wars, so please feel free to check it out if you are interested in that topic.
Ok, so in 490 BC the Persians didn`t want to invade all of Greece. They only wanted to punish the two city-states that aided a rebellion against Persia. (By the way, they managed to punish Eretria but failed to punish Athens because of the Persian defeat at the Battle of Marathon).
So Sparta, unlike Athens and Eretria, didn`t have any problems with the Persians in 491/490 BC since it hadn`t supported the Ionian revolt against the Persian Empire and also didn`t have any other rivalries or disagreements with the Persians.
So why would Sparta throw Persian messengers down a well if Persia didn`t threaten Sparta (again, the Persian attack of 490 BC most likely only targeted Eretria and Athens) and Sparta and Persia also didn`t have any bad feelings towards each other?
Well, they didn`t!
Yes, the Persians sent messengers to Sparta in 491 BC. But these messengers didn`t demand the submission of Sparta. They wanted to explore the chances for an alliance between Sparta and the Persian Empire. So there was simply no reason for Sparta to throw the Persian messengers down a well in 491 BC!
So that leaves one question open: Why does Herodotus claim that the Spartans threw the Persian messengers down a well in 491 BC when that was most likely not the case?
Where does the claim that Spartans threw Persian messengers down a well come from?
When we ask that question we have to remember the motives behind Herodotus writing his book „The Histories“.
And while his book „The Histories“* is a prime source for the Persian Wars, we still have to take it with a grain of salt because of several reasons. Especially the army sizes, but also speeches and the course of battles are often altered or invented to improve the reading pleasure.
Additionally, we also have to acknowledge that Sparta, just like Athens, drew its claim of being the leader of all of ancient Greece from its role as the leader in the fight against the Persians.
So after the Persian Wars were won, Sparta had the incentive to claim that it had always opposed the Persians (although that was not true). Claiming that they had thrown the Persian messengers into a well in 491 BC was much better than admitting that the Persian messengers were welcomed in Sparta to talk about a potential Spartan-Persian alliance.
By the way, the dispute between Sparta and Athens over who had really contributed the most to the victory over the Persians in 479 BC would eventually turn into a serious rivalry between the two states. And that rivalry would eventually lead to the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC).
Towards the end of the Peloponnesian war, Sparta and the Persian Empire would not only once more talk about an alliance, this time Sparta and the Persian Empire actually ally!
But that is a story for another time.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
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