The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Since most books on history are written by Westerners, it is not surprising to hear constantly that the battle of Thermopylae was a fulcrum on which the future of civilisation depended. Despotic, poncey (but bearded) Persians were shameless aggressors, while graceful and manly Greeks epitomised culture and sophistication. What if the Spartans hadn't fought like tigers to grind the mighty Persian war machine to a standstill? The classical world would have ended, the ideals of democracy forgotten, no heroes remaining to sing of. The history of the world would look quite different, and (horrors!) I would not be writing this in English.

Consider the counter-argument, though. As limned at the recent exhibition at the British Museum (it ran from September 2005 till January 2006) entitled Forgotten Empire, in Persian eyes, the Greek wars were mere border skirmishes: The petty squabbles, alliances and disputes of these states on the edge of the empire ... were of little or no importance to either the Great Kings or the Persian Empire as a whole. The Persian 'invasions' of Greece in the fifth century BC were expeditions to punish specific instances of Greek interference in Asia Minor. Afterwards it was the skilful diplomacy of able satraps that maintained the stability of the Western frontier. Persia had inflicted considerable damage on the Greeks for most of their history. What the western historian considers a struggle for survival with planetary repercussions is, for the easterner, a case of no moment.

You could ask, however, why Xerxes bestirred himself to invade Greece if it was such a provincial backwater not too high on his list of priorities. Perhaps there is something to the extravagant claims made over the ensuing centuries. The Greeks were onto a notion of importance - their promotion of the rights of the individual and collective governance was a threat to the absolute rule of the emperor of Persia. To stamp out the dangerously heretical idea of democracy, the god-king himself needed to go to war, and if he lost the flower of his chivalry at Thermopylae, surely we can't cavil when we are told that this was a battle that changed the world.

  1. Thermopylae by Paul Cartledge
  2. Introduction to Persepolis, by John Curtis
  3. An Iranian Perspective on the Forgotten Empire exhibition, by Bahram Pourghadiri
  4. A review of the exhibition, in the Guardian
  5. A rebuttal of some of the dismissals of Persian culture that appeared in the Guardian's review.
  6. A criticism of Herodotus and his Histories.


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