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Wednesday, August 25, 2021

The Greek Way of Sexualizing Military Victories

In 478 BC, the Greeks led by Athens met on the island of Delos and formed the Delian League whose purpose was to capture the vulnerable areas of the Persian Empire. Between 469 or 466 BC, the Delian League besieged the cities of Sestos and Byzantium (modern Istanbul). Persian Emperor Xerxes did not order an immediate offensive action against the Greeks—he was engaged in suppressing revolts in other parts of his far-flung empire. He probably did not see the Delian League as a major threat, since the Greeks in Anatolia were on the Persian side and were fending off the attacks of the Delian League.

Eventually the response came from the Persian side. Their army and navy gathered at the Eurymedon River, from where they planned to move through the coast of Asia Minor and drive the Delian League out. While the Persians were engaged in developing their battle plan, and were waiting for reinforcements to arrive from Cyprus, the Athenian general Cimon learned of their plans. He moved in with 200 triremes to preemptively attack the Persian force at Eurymedon. The Greeks smashed the Persian ships which were moored at the river’s bank, and then they landed on the bank and slaughtered a significant number of Persian troops.

The Battle of Eurymedon was a great victory for the Greeks and it was a humiliation for the Persian side. Soon after the battle, potters of Athens created the Eurymedon vase, currently preserved at the Museum of Hamburg. The arrogance and overconfidence of the Athenians is in full display in the vase which carries the motif of a bearded Greek, naked except his mantle, holding his turgid phallus in right hand and advancing towards a Persian archer who is bent forward. The vase carries an inscription in Ancient Greek which has been translated as: “I am Eurymedon, I stand bent forward.”

It is not known how many Eurymedon vases the Athenians created to boast that their victory over the Persians was a sexual conquest. Some of these vases might have reached Persia and come to the notice of the Persian elite.

In 463 BC, there was a revolt in Egypt, a Persian satrapy. The Athenians took the ambitious decision that the Delian League should intervene on the rebel side and wrest control of Egypt from the Persians. An Athenian fleet of 200 triremes sailed into Egypt. Initially the coalition of Egyptian rebels and Athenians won some victories. They killed the Persian general Achaemenes, and besieged the Persian garrison at Memphis, a town in lower Egypt. The siege of Memphis dragged on for three years. Artaxerxes I, then the Persian Emperor, dispatched reinforcements under a new general, Megabyzus.

The arrival of Megabyzus transformed the situation in Memphis. The Athenians and the Egyptian rebels who were besieging Memphis were wiped out. Some Athenians escaped the Persian dragnet in Memphis but they were captured or killed in other parts of Egypt. The Persians wanted to avenge the defeat at the Battle of Eurymedon and were merciless. The Greeks suffered a massive loss of 50,000 men. It can be imagined that while attacking the Athenians, the Persians might have boasted, “This is Eurymedon in reverse”—alluding to the Eurymedon vase. There is no evidence that the Persians made their own vases to give a sexual angle to their Egyptian victory.

The Greeks taught the art of sexualizing military power and victory to the Romans, and the Romans disseminated this art to modern Western culture. The Western soldiers are depicted in media, books, and movies as sexualized superhuman beings, beefy as Rambo and Conan the Barbarian—it is said that ten of them, armed with high tech weaponry, would be enough to defeat any number of enemy soldiers, and that a thousand of them would suffice to transform the culture and politics of any non-Western nation. Such bombastic claims can be dismissed as a display of chauvinism of the calibre of the sexualized Athenian Eurymedon vase.

The sexualizing of military power and victory did not enhance the power and prestige of the Greeks and the Romans—they lost most wars. The Greeks fought a disproportionately high number of wars, as compared to the Persian Empire, Macedonians, and Thracians, but they could not expand their territory, while the pace of expansion of the Roman Empire was very slow. 

The depiction of soldiers as sexualized Rambos and Conans will not help the West in the twenty-first century. War is a serious enterprise, and the side that is frivolous, overconfident, and impatient generally loses. The serious people with a long term view of culture win the war. There are Rambos and Conans on all sides. The West does not have a monopoly on physical strength, courage, and the will to power. It would be a mistake to underestimate your rivals because history never ends and there will certainly be new wars in the future.

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