From the Archives - The Spartans Choose a General
On the morning of what was probably Aug. 27, 479 BC, an enormous Persian army of perhaps 100,000 men confronted an equally large Greek host near the city of Plataea, in central Greece about 40 miles northwest of Athens. As was the custom of the times, the soothsayers of each army made sacrifices to seek the intentions of the gods.
For the Greeks, these rites were performed by the Spartan general Tisamenos, son of Antiochos of Elis. Tisamenos was not a native-born Spartan. He was a hereditary seer of the Iamidai family of Elis, and was one of the very few aliens ever granted citizenship by the Spartans, let alone rising to general among them.
How this came about is told by the historian Herodotus, in the Ninth Book of his Histories
. . . when Tisamenos was seeking divination at Delphi, the Pythian prophetess made answer to him that he should win five of the greatest contests. He accordingly, missing the meaning of the oracle, began to attend to athletic games, supposing that he should win contests of athletics; and he practiced for the pentathlon [running, leaping, javelin, discus, and wrestling] and came within one wrestling fall of winning a victory at the Olympic games [of 492 BC] in competition against Hieronymos of Andros.
The Spartans, however, perceived that the oracle given to Tisamenos had reference not to athletic but to martial contests. They endeavored to persuade Tisamenos by payment of money, to make him a leader in their wars together with their kings. Tisamenos, seeing that the Spartans set much store on gaining him over as a friend, he raised his price and signified to them that he would do as they desired, if they would make him a citizen of their State and give him full rights, but for no other payment. The Spartans at first when they heard this displayed indignation and altogether gave up their request [for a time. But,] when great terror was hanging over them of this Persian host [in 479 BC], they gave way and consented.
Tisamenos, perceiving that they had changed their minds, said that he could not now be satisfied even so, nor with these terms alone; but it was necessary that his brother Hegias also should be made a Spartan citizen on the same terms as he himself became one. . . . [Being] very much in need of Tisamenos, the Spartans agreed with him on any terms which he desired.
Thus it was that Tisamenos came to be the Spartan general offering sacrifice on the morning of the great Greek victory over the Persians at Plataea.
Plataea was the first of the five victories that Tisamenos had been promised, and he went on to offer the sacrifice four more times before Spartan victories:
- Battle of Tegea (c. 469 BC), over the Tegeatines and the Argives;
- Battle of Dipaieis (c. 465 BC), over all the Arcadians;
- Battle at Cape Tainaron (c. 465 BC), a rather shadowy affair that seems to have been more of a massacre of rebellious serfs or bandits, a “victory” gained by a dishonorable ruse, which led many to claim that it caused the gods to strike Sparta with a devastating earthquake the following year;
- Battle of Tanagra (457 BC), against the Athenians.
So despite their initial reluctance to accept Tisamenos as a citizen, the Spartans certainly did well out of the deal.
As for Tisamenos, after the Battle of Tanagra we hear nothing more about him, or his brother Hegias. Nevertheless, an odd fragmentary document suggests that their descendants still lived at Sparta during late Roman republican times.
GeoNote: Cape Tainaron: Alternatively known as Cape Taenarus, is today known as Cape Matapan, off which were fought some interesting naval battles:
- July 19, 1717: A devastating Ottoman victory over a Portuguese-Venetian-Italian expedition.
- March 28-29, 1941: A major British victory over the Italian fleet.