WHAT A 2500 YEAR OLD MEETING CAN TEACH US ABOUT PITCHING

This post originally appeared on the Ctrl Alt Pitch blog.

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This first entry in the Pit(ch)falls! series delves into a fascinating story from ~500 BC. Set in Sparta, one of the earliest recorded instances of a visual aid / “pitch deck” being used to make a proposal. This story involves Aristagoras, leader of a state called Miletus, and Cleomenes, the ruler of Sparta. Let’s dive right in!

The cast: There are three main characters in the tale. Our protagonist is Aristagoras, tyrant of Miletus, a state near modern-day Turkey. The second character is Cleomenes, the king of Sparta. The third key player is Darius, Persian emperor (and supreme ruler of Miletus).

The setting: The Persian empire has been formed in the last 100 years, and is now the dominant force throughout Eastern Europe / Western Asia. It is comprised of many smaller kingdoms, including Babylon, Egypt, and others. Greece, a collective name given to several independent city-states, is so far an independent power, not under the Persian yoke. Sparta, one of the Greek states is well known of its ferocity and prowess in warfare. It is the lean mean fighting machine of ancient Greece.

 

The spark of a revolution

Around 500 BC, a series of events leads Aristagoras to declare revolt against the Persian empire. Being distantly related to the Greeks, he seeks their support and knowing the Spartans’ warring abilities, travels to Sparta to meet with the king Cleomenes. Essentially he asks Cleomenes to send the Spartan army to Susa (the Persian capital) meet the Persians in combat, and (hopefully) defeat them.

Aristagoras pitches

Aristagoras’ pitch to Cleomenes is described in Herodotus’ Histories. He says to Cleomenes:

“These things can proceed easily for you. For the barbarians are not warlike, while you have attained the greatest degree of excellence in war. Their method of fighting is the following: bows and a short spear; they go into battle wearing trousers and on their heads, turbans. Thus, they are easy to conquer”

Of note is the fact that he used a visual aid to make his point. Herodotus writes:

…Aristagoras, the tyrant of Miletus, arrived in Sparta when Cleomenes was ruling. Indeed, he spoke with him as Lacedaemonians (Spartans) say, with a bronze tablet in hand on which a circuit (map) of all the earth and the entire sea and all rivers had been engraved

Aristagoras came to the meeting with a map of the known world, and showed Cleomenes the many lands that lay on their route to Susa. He hoped that the unique visual (almost no other maps of the world existed at the time) would help convince Cleomenes of two things i) that the distance between Sparta and the Persian capital was not that great ii) that many potential Spartan fiefdoms lay on the route, to be picked off one by one. He prefaces the description of the map by saying this about Asia:

“And the people who inhabit that land have as many good things as all the people put together have: starting with gold, they have silver, bronze, many-colored clothing, beasts of burden, and slaves. Whatever you wish for at heart, you could have”

So to summarize Aristagoras’ pitch to the king of Sparta:

  1. The Spartans could easily defeat the “barbarians” because they were ill equipped and not as good at fighting
  2. The lands on the way to Persia offered up vast opportunities for conquest
  3. The route to Susa (the Persian capital) was well mapped out – a road existed almost throughout the way

After this meeting, Cleomenes asks Aristagoras to come back after 2 days. Two days later, Cleomenes is on the verge of being convinced, when he asks to know how far this Persian capital is from Miletus. Here, Aristagoras got overly honest, and blurts out that it takes 3 months of travel – shocked at the distance, Cleomenes rejects his proposal and asks him to leave Sparta immediately.

Aristagoras later goes to Cleomenes’ house with an olive branch (it has been a sign of peace for 2500 years now!) and starts offering him incremental bribes. It is only because the Spartan king’s 8 year old daughter Gorgo (future wife of Leonidas) intervenes and warns her father, that he refuses Aristagoras’ temptations and rejects the traveler fully.

His pitch having failed, Aristagoras leaves Sparta.

There is nothing new under the sun

In many ways, Aristagoras’ proposal to Cleomenes is like a startup founder pitching an investor. In essence, Aristagoras tried to sell the king on the opportunity to win kingdoms and riches, by investing his resources (army) in the revolt. This would also have the “side effect” of “disrupting” the monopolistic incumbent.

What can we learn from Aristagoras’ failed attempt to convince Cleomenes?

  • Know your audience and tailor your pitch accordingly: The king of a state like Sparta, known for its, well, spartan lifestyle would be unlikely to be tempted with the slaves and riches to be had by invading Persia.
  • Visual aids matter: Aristagoras knew his was a hard pitch to make, and his visual aid – the map, was the ace up his sleeve. It was instrumental in almost convincing Cleomenes before he ultimately rejected Aristagoras because of the distances / his overt attempts at bribery.
  • Paint the bigger picture: If Aristagoras had focused instead on the eventuality that the Persians would come for Sparta itself (which they later did), he might have generated more interest from Cleomenes
  • Don’t oversell: Everyone knew the Persians were a formidable enemy. By claiming that the Spartans can “easily” defeat them, his actions immediately become suspicious and everything he says becomes less trustworthy (including the accurate map)
  • Don’t do shady things: Aristagoras, in his description of the enemy does not ever say “Persians”, and only makes fun of “Barbarians” that the Spartans will have to fight. The barbarians are certainly an easy foe, but they are weakest portion of the vast and diverse Persian army. Herodotus, and subsequently history has not treated Aristagoras very kindly because deceptive tactics like this (because later the Greeks did of course find out just how well the Persians fought)
  • Pre-empt questions & prepare: When Cleomenes asks the distance to Susa, Aristagoras, who has played a tactful game so far, just straight up tells him the answer. Could he have predicted Cleomenes’ response and “positioned” his answer better?

Footnote: Rejected by Sparta Aristagoras journeyed onward to Athens, where he successfully tempted the Athenians to aid him in his revolt. Athens, which was a fledgling democracy then, voted on the topic and dispatched a small army to Miletus – the Athenian army was utterly crushed by the Persians, and Aristagoras’ revolt failed. It is to seek revenge against the Athenians that the Persian king Darius set his sights on conquering Greece. One of the clashes during the ensuing war was the Battle at Thermopylae against the Spartan 300 led by Leonidas.

Thanks to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast for introducing me to this story, and David Branscome’s fanstastic analytical work on Herodotus’ Histories.

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