The arts of coding and code-breaking have been prevalent throughout history. It is based upon a simple rule: one who masters the code, masters the message. And it is widely known that a single message can change the course of history – as exemplified by the pigeon which saved the Lost Battalion during WW2, or (potentially) by the replies we expect when we reach out to E.T.
Thus, one has to travel centuries back to spot the first time codes were used; Herodotus recalls such a story said to have occurred circa. 500 B.C.
Histiaeus is the King of Miletus, one of the most powerful Greek provinces at the time – now located in Turkey. However, neighboring (and expanding) Persian Empire poses a direct threat to his authority as well as most of the Greek provinces’ spanned across Asia Minor.
Histiaeus’ worries are soon confirmed, when a couple years later, Persian armies cross the Aegean Sea and conquer Thrace (actual Bulgaria), then turn Macedonian cities into vassal states, and keep marching towards southern Greece. Most of the territory has already surrendered, and Darius I the Great, King of Persia, prepares for phase two: the political submission of the remaining cities. Numerous ambassadors are thus dispatched in every Greek town and village, requesting immediate surrender. Only two of them did not come back: messengers sent to Athens and Sparta were executed. (It may recall some historically-discussed “THIS IS SPARTA!” since the Battle of Thermopylae, where 300 Spartans resisted to Xerxes’ army, occurred only a decade later in the course of the Second Persian Invasion.)
Let’s head back to Anatolia, where Darius’ offensive left a track of red-glowing embers. The province of Miletus has fallen into Persian hands and tyrants are appointed everywhere across the newly-conquered territory. Forced to obey the orders of King Darius I the Great, Histiaeus is brought to the capital of Susa; his hands are now tied to organize further resistance. But his mind is already teeming with plans to overturn Persian authority.
He knows that his nephew Aristagoras has taken over Miletus following his departure. But how could Histiaeus deliver him a proper message, surrounded with suspicious enemies? As he’s being walked to the Persian capital, the former leader of Miletus thinks hard on how to design a ‘coded’ means of communication so as to protect its integrity from the nosy eye.
Weeks have passed in the new King of Miletus’ palace. Aristagoras is still awaiting news from his uncle, and wonders what has happened to him in Susa… It is said that Darius considers him a wise personal adviser. What if Histiaeus breaks his word and befriends the enemy?
Suddenly, a servant enters the throne room and, bowing before the monarch, asks: “A messenger has come for you, Master. Should I let him in?” Aristagoras nods. Could Histiaeus have found a breach in the Persian defenses? The messenger, a long-haired slave looking exhausted, is introduced into the room. “What’s your message?” the monarch asks feverishly. “I don’t know,” he replies, “for you shall need to shave my head to know about it.”
Stunned, Aristagoras proceeds accordingly, and that’s when he uncovers… a tattoo: the freshly-shaved messenger’s head reads a message warning the King of Miletus of an upcoming threat, urging him to spark the Ionian revolt. Joined by several other provinces, the initiative would at least postpone the Greeks’ fate for some time: precisely six years, until Miletus fell again and this time definitely lost its former prestige.
In 493 B.C., the Greek territory was occupied and ruled by Persian leaders. Histiaeus, who had eventually joined the ranks of Greek forces against the Persians as a simple soldier, was arrested by the enemy and quickly executed without further ado. His nephew Aristagoras fought bravely but failed to associate Spartans to his cause, and was killed in action some months later. The Ionian revolt was brought to a bloody end.
Athens was to be severely punished, alike Sparta, for both cities’ resistance. Darius insisted on crushing the former’s power and legend has it that he appointed a servant to repeat three times a day: “Master, remember the Athenians.” Indeed, the Greco-Persian conflicts were only in their early days. Numerous face-offs would follow, including the one at Marathon, a turning point for Greek independence: the story goes that the messenger Philippides run 40 kilometers to cover the distance from Marathon to Athens and announce the Persian defeat, before dying on the spot of exhaustion.
Then, eventually, the treaty known as ‘Peace of Callias’ (449 B.C.) was negotiated to put an end to Persian invasion, never to be completed. The Hellenistic civilization was preserved, only to expand dramatically under the reign of Alexander the Great, in the 3rd century B.C.
At the end of the day, resistance of invaded Greek provinces only comes down to a loyal, tattooed slave – while threat of Persian supremacy has been, indeed, a close shave.
- Simon Singh, Histoire des codes secrets (1999), éd. J.C. Lattès