South African Military History Society


There was no curtain raiser to the three-part talk given at our evening meeting on 14th July. The title was "The Persian Invasion of Greece", an historical epic that culminated in a decisive victory for the Greeks at the Battle of Plataea in 479 BC.

The speakers -- Hamish Paterson, Kemsley Couldridge and Martin Ayres -- each dealt with a particular aspect of an episode that helped shape the entire subsequent history of Europe.

The invasion of European Greece marked the limit of Persian expansionism, which in the decades spanning the turn of the 5th century BC had subjugated the numerous Greek cities established earlier in Asia Minor to the rule of the Persian emperor Darius.

Hamish described how these cities were secured to Persian rule by despots appointed by Darius, and their inhabitants co-opted into serving the Persian cause.

Persian influence on the internal politics of European Greece led inexorably to full-scale invasion in 512 BC via the famous "Bridge of Boats Across the Bosphorus", while a subsequent revolt among the Greeks in Asia Minor resulted in requests to the European Greeks for help.

This, and accompanying developments, led to the Persians, who had by now conquered and pacified Thrace, embarking on the complete conquest of Greece. They were, however, repelled by the Athenians, and this setback, along with the death of Darius in 485 BC and a revolt against Persian rule in Egypt, gave the Greeks 10 years' respite before the main onslaught.

A Greek military federation was organised in the meantime, and this enabled the renewed Persian invasion to be opposed by a relatively united front of the southern Greek nations at the famous battle of Thermopylae on the western shores of the Aegean Sea. The Thermopylae position was eventually outflanked, however, and the Persian advance to the south culminated in the capture of Athens.

The story of how the Greeks succeeded in halting the invasion by their resistance on both land and sea was told by Kemsley and Martin.

Sea battles were fought throughout the Persian invasion, but notably north of the Greek island of Euboea, and, finally in the Gulf of Aigina, off the island of Salamis south of Athens.

The types of ships involved were biremes - galleys propelled by two banks of oars - and triremes, a later development, with three banks of oars.

Kemsley explained in detail how this early example of revolutionary naval technology represented by the trireme was achieved by using outrigging, with the rowers banked in tiers. The result was an exceptionally fast vessel mounting a heavy ram in the bow designed to hole enemy ships.

It was fascinating to learn how the manning of these ships conformed closely with the pevailing structure of Greek social hierarchy.

Darius had been succeeded by his son, Xerxes, whose Persians now found themselves facing a confederate Greek army defending an impregnable position on the Isthmus of Corinth. The Persians built a fortified camp commanding the Plataean Plain near Thebes, north of Athens, and waited for the Greeks to attack.

Martin described how the Greek army advanced to the Plataean Plain, and how the two armies manoeuvred for tactical advantage before committing themselves to what is know to us as the Battle of Plataea, a battle in which the Persians were defeated, their invasion halted, and the Greek Confederation saved.

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Coming lectures:
11th. August Kemsley Couldridge: Napoleon dallies in Egypt
Hamish Paterson: Luederitzbucht to Gibeon 1914-1915

8th September Dimitri Friend: Koevoet
Terry Leaver: Dien Bien Phu

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The Museum is still in urgent need of volunteers to do duty at the pay desk and in exhibition halls on Saturdays and Sundays in order to save on overtime expenses. Will any member who would like to help out with these tasks please come forward.

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The Society is in need of speakers for evening meetings, particularly outsiders who may not be members. At present too much reliance is being placed on committee members for both curtain raisers and main talks, and it is felt that other Society members and outsiders could make a bigger contribution.

As an incentive to excellence, Dr. Felix Machanik is offering a prize of an illuminated scroll and a cash sum for the best lecture contribution in any one year.

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The Journal has an open requirement for articles from both Society members and outsiders. Submissions from writers based on original research or personal experience will be welcomed.

For information on all the above, please contact the Society's chairman, John Mahncke, on (011) 453-6353.

George Barrell (Scribe). (011) 787-1524

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