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Sowing a Seed of Conflict between Athens and Persia

The reply of the Persian king's representative to the Athenian ambassadors revealed that, from the Persian perspective, the Athenians were so insignificant that he had never even heard of them before, despite his having been posted as a provincial governor on the western fringe of the Persian Empire, as close to Greek territory as Persians usually got. Still less would the king in the distant heartland of Persia (modern Iran) far to the east know anything of Athens. The king's representative immediately demanded of the Athenian ambassadors the symbolic offerings of earth and water1, which the king customarily required from all the peoples under his dominion. These tokens symbolized submission to the king, who recognized no one as his equal; he did not make alliances as if between partners, the kind of agreements that the Greek ambassadors, ignorant of Persian diplomatic procedure, had naively assumed they could make because that was how Greeks made alliances. Afraid to return to Athens empty-handed, they complied with the demand for earth and water. When the Athenian assembly (in Greek, the ekklesia, the body of free-born male citizens over eighteen years old, who met regularly to make policy decisions and laws for Athens) heard what its ambassadors had done, it angrily censured them2—but it sent no message to Sardis to repudiate their actions. The outrage the Athenian assembly felt when their ambassador reported that they had offered tokens of submission revealed the intensity of the feelings the Athenians had developed for the political independence enjoyed by their city-state (polis in Greek—a political unit defined by an urban center surrounded by countryside, which often also had smaller settlements scattered throughout it). Although the Athenians had heard amazing tales of the resources of the Persian king, they were unwilling to buy his protection at the cost of yielding their freedom. The Athenians, then, continued to think of themselves as independent, but as far as the king of Persia was concerned, they were foreigners who had now voluntarily submitted to his representative and owed him the same loyalty he expected from all his other subjects. The dynamics of this diplomatic incident expose a sigificant source of the wider conflicts that would dominate the military and political history of mainland Greece during the fifth century B.C.: failed diplomacy emerging from mutual misunderstanding that opened the way to conflict.

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