Ye gods! Lessons from a Hellenistic ‘NATO’
The end of May was travel time, this time to Greece with a few hours stopover in Turkey to see the ruins of Ephesus. This was a great trip for a person like me, who has a thirst for history and, as a child, read every mythology book I could.
One of the hidden pieces of history was the island of Delos, a day trip out of the island of Mykonos. For centuries, tiny Delos played an important role in the history of the Mediterranean world.
Like much local history, the origins of Delos are self-justifying in that the mythology is used to explain the reality. Delos is an island belonging to the gods. Accordingly, it had their protection, although all that remains are extensive ruins of architectural and sociological interest; it has been bereft of population for two millennia.
Delos was the birthplace of Artemis and Apollo and therefore a major sacred site for the ancient Greeks, second in importance only to Delphi. At its height, it was covered in a variety of temples and sanctuaries dedicated to a variety of gods.
The island was first inhabited in the third millennium BCE. It took on military significance as the center of the meeting place and treasury of the Delian League, founded in 478 BCE, an association of Greek city-states, led by Athens, created after the end of the Greco-Persian Wars, to defend its members from Persian attack.
Our guide proclaimed that this was the world’s first defensive alliance, the second being NATO. The purpose of the Delian League and NATO are quite similar: to finance and maintain a common military for use against a common foe.
This goal was divided into three main efforts — to prepare for future invasion, seek revenge against Persia, and organize a means of dividing spoils of war. The members were given a choice of offering armed forces or paying a tax to the joint treasury; most states chose the tax, which was paid into the League’s treasury on Delos.
In 454 BCE, the Athenian general Pericles moved the League’s treasury from Delos to Athens, allegedly to keep it safe from Persia. However, Plutarch indicates that many of Pericles’ rivals viewed the transfer to Athens as usurping monetary resources to fund elaborate building projects.
Athens also began to use the League’s navy for its own purposes, leading to conflict between Athens and the less powerful members of the League. This led to the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War. The League was dissolved at the war’s conclusion in 404 BCE.
Delos was most prosperous in Late Hellenistic and Roman times, when it was declared a free port and became the financial and trading center of the Mediterranean.
By 100 BCE, the island had a population of 30,000, which included foreigners from Rome, Syria, and Egypt. Here is where mythology comes into play.
Remember, Delos was considered a holy place, protected by the gods. As such, no one was allowed either to be born or to die on Delos. As a place under divine protection, Delos had no need for defenses, being a banking and commercial center of the Mediterranean world.
However, the mythology did not deter Mithridates, the king of Pontus, who, in 88 BCE, attacked the unfortified island. Our guide told us that this was because Mithridates was trying to establish a competing banking and commercial center in Pontus, an area on the southern coast of the Black Sea that is now in Turkey.
The entire population was killed or sold into slavery, the sanctuary treasures were looted, and the city was razed to the ground, giving meaning to the term “cut-throat competition.”
So here we have Delos, a major banking and commercial center, one-time home to a great military alliance, which the people thought was protected by the gods, requiring no conventional defenses, being destroyed by a rival who did not accept the myth of protection.
Like Delos, America is a banking and commercial center. Like Delos, America is the center of a number of military alliances. Like Delos, there are other states that would like to succeed to America’s vaunted position in the world.
Like Delos, a mythos surrounds America, but unlike Delos, this mythos is based on fact, not self-justified history.
The United States is at a crossroad. Do we turn away from the principles and activities that made America prosperous and the world’s predominant economic and military power, or do we increasing rely on myths for protection?
Similarly, Israel is finding itself increasingly economically prosperous. However, the mythos surrounding its military, once believed to be invincible, is starting to erode. Up until now, Israel has been largely self-sufficient for its defense. However, the trend in world politics is to make Israel more reliant on the representations of others for its defense. Critical decisions will have to be made this fall.
Both America and Israel should look at the history of Delos for guidance.