In this, the seventh article of the Human Story series, we are going to explore the horrible and totalitarian Persians and their conflict with the virtuous and democracy loving Greeks. I mean that is what millennia of teachings have told us right – that the Greeks were good whilst the Persians were bad? I mean the Greeks gave us Plato with his Republic and the idea of the righteous Philosopher King and Socrates who knew that he knew nothing whilst the Persians did not even philosophise. Clearly West is Best… right?
Well that is exactly what we are going to find out today.
The Combatants – Persia
Let’s start with dissecting the awful Persians, shall we? The Persian Empire would end up becoming the model for most contiguous land-based empires throughout history. Much of what we know about the Persians and their empire comes to us from an outsider writing about them. That is, of course, the Father of History himself, Herodotus: the first true historian. The fact that Herodotus is Greek is important as it also introduces us to the concept of historical bias for the first time.
The Persian Achaemenid dynasty was founded in 539 BCE after King Cyrus the Great conquered much of Mesopotamia, including Babylon. Cyrus freed the Jews that had been exiled in the city by the Neo-Assyrian Empire (who you will recall had a fetish for displacing huge groups of people in an effort to control them), thus ending a sad period of Jewish history known as the Babylonian Exile (he gets some great coverage in the bible by the way, sometimes he is even referred to as messiah!). This humanitarian act had an upside for Cyrus: with the Jewish elites allowed to return home Cyrus gained a loyal buffer state between Persia and the ever-threatening Egyptians to the southwest.
As great as Cyrus was, his son-in-law Darius I became even greater and extended his father-in-law’s empire east as far as India, west as far as Egypt (with loyal Israel within its sphere of influence) and north to Anatolia. There were Greeks already living in Anatolia when Darius’ armies marched in to occupy and these people were known as Ionian Greeks and will shortly become relevant to the narrative.
The Achaemenid kings ruled their empire with a light touch and conquered kingdoms could keep their kings and elites so long as they pledged allegiance to the Persian king and paid their taxes. Therefore, the Persian king was often referred to as the “King of Kings”. Persian engineers improved the infrastructure of the conquered kingdoms with a better road system that allowed for a very impressive postal service to relay messages back and forth across the colossal empire. The Persian elites embraced Freedom of Religion, a very basic human right that even nowadays is not fully implemented across much of the modern world. The Persians were Zoroastrians (a religion that still exists and claims to be the earliest form of monotheism). Zoroastrianism introduces the idea of the good versus evil dualism that we all know so much about (God/Satan, Darth Vader/Luke Skywalker, elves/orcs). However, the Persians were not interested in converting people to their own religion. Perhaps the most surprising fact of all, given how awful this empire was, is that Zoroastrianism forbids slavery so there was not a slave to be found in the whole of the Persian Empire.
It seems that the Persians were probably not all that bad after all and their empire would probably not have been a bad place to live in the fifth century BCE. That is of course, unless you believe Herodotus and the Greeks.
The Combatants – The Greeks
We all know about the Greeks: the incredible architecture, the meaningful philosophy, the powerful drama, the evocative literature, the very words for astronomy and biology derive from Greek, as does so much more in modern society. The Ancient Greek culture that so many of us in the west still associate with was one founded by poets, mathematicians, philosophers and architects. The Greeks gave us the language to discuss politics, the fist dedicated history books, and gifted us with democracy.
When we think about the high point of Greek culture we tend to think of the Parthenon and the surviving tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. However, what we are really thinking of is Athens in the fourth century BCE, right after the Persian Wars. Athens valued individualism and disdained anyone who could not argue political opinion. Athenians were citizens first before they were anything else and the elites of their society were politicians guiding the state by persuading this free-thinking populace to vote for proposed legislation.
Ancient Greece was so much more than just Athens, however. The Greeks lived in city-states, most of which featured some form of slavery and in each and every one of them, citizenship was limited to males. Each city-state had its own form of governance, ranging from democratic (unless you happened to be a slave or a woman) to completely dictatorial and the people who lived within these city-states would have considered themselves citizens of that city, not of anything that would ever be called Greece.
One of the greatest contradictory Greek city-states to Athens was that of Sparta. Along with Athens, Sparta is the other Greek city-state that springs to mind when people think of Ancient Greece. This is, in part, due to the huge success of Frank Miller’s 300 graphic novel and the subsequent Zack Synder movie of the same name. As sensationalised as 300 is, there is no denying that ancient Sparta was one of the most extreme societies that has ever existed. Spartan society could best be described as a sort of eugenic warrior state. When each new citizen was born the elders would inspect the child, killing it if they perceived any imperfections. At the age of 7, each Spartan male entered into the state education system, known as the agoge, which drilled them in the arts of war. The agoge was both mentally and physically brutal, sometimes to the point of death. This was all to create an effective and unquestioning soldier, loyal to the state. The result of this torturous education system was the best Heavy Infantry of the ancient world. The ideals of duty to state and self-sacrifice were paramount whilst individualism was discouraged.
Who tilled the land and did the menial jobs of ancient Sparta if all male citizens were off soldiering? The Helots did, of course. We cannot discuss Spartan culture without mentioning the Helots. These were a massive caste of enslaved people upon whose backs Spartan society was built. The Helots are the reason that Sparta could devote their whole culture toward producing perfect soldiers. By 480 BCE, there were about 7 Helots for each Spartan and this imbalance left the government in a perpetual state of fear of a slave revolt. The irony of producing this perfect warrior culture was that the Spartan army was not one to fight abroad, but rather to prevent the Helots from rising up in revolt at home. These unfortunate people were treated abysmally in order to keep them in constant fear of their masters and it was Spartan law to brutally beat (and even murder) Helots. Life would have been unbearably sucky for the Helots of ancient Sparta!
The Greco-Persian Wars
From 499 until 492 BCE the abovementioned Ionian Greeks, supported by the Athenians, rebelled against their Persian overlords. In 490 BCE the Persians invaded mainland Greece but were decisively crushed by an outnumbered Athenian army at the Battle of Marathon. The Persian King Darius I began preparations for a second invasion. However, he died before the preparations were complete, thus leaving the task to his son, Xerxes I.
Xerxes invaded mainland Greece in 480 BCE and at the Battle of Thermopylae, a small force of Greek warriors led by King Leonidas I of Sparta resisted the much larger multi-ethnic Persian force for two full days before finally succumbing on the third day of battle.
After the battle, Xerxes captured Athens and burned the city to the ground. However, almost all the inhabitants of the city had fled to the island of Salamis at the news of the Greek army’s collapse at Thermopylae. Xerxes attacked the Greek fleet under unfavourable conditions and was soundly defeated at the naval Battle of Salamis. After this defeat Xerxes pulled the majority of his army back to Asia, leaving a contingent to finish the campaign. This army was defeated by the Greeks at the Battle of Plataea in 479 BCE, ending the Persian offensive on Greece for good.
The War is Won! What now? More War!
In the wake of the shared Greek victory, the people began to see themselves more as Greeks and less as Athenians, Spartans or Corinthians etc. Athens emerged as the de facto capital and then flourished under a new Golden Age. When we combine the high-minded rhetoric with the undeniable power and beauty of Ancient Athenian art and philosophy, it is easy to visualise the foundations of western civilisation. If you buy into this then you must be happy that the Greeks won the Persian Wars.
However, even if you put slavery and the other social injustices aside, Ancient Greek society still had a whole slew of problems.
The Peloponnesian War (431 – 404 BCE) was a 27-year conflict between the democracy loving Athenians and the kingship embracing Spartans. The war was fought, as so many are, over power and resources and the Athenians did not come across all saintly as evidenced in the Melian Dialogue. The Athenian navy sailed to the island of Melos, a Spartan colony, to demand that the Melian people submit to Athenian authority. The Melians argued that they had never actually fought alongside the Spartans and intended to remain neutral throughout the conflict. Unimpressed with the Melian response, the Athenians declared: ‘The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.’ Obviously this was not a terribly democratic nor enlightened position to take. So, what exactly did the democratic and meritocratic Athenians mean by such a statement and what did they intend to do to the Melians who only wanted peace? Tragically, and unsurprisingly, they killed all the men and enslaved the women and children of the island.
So yes, Anaximander gave us cartography, Thales gave us geometry, Hippocrates gifted humanity with a better understanding of disease and physiology and Pythagoras gave me a sore head with angles, but the true legacy of Ancient Greece is one of deep ambiguity. All the more so because it was the tyrannical Spartans and their allies who triumphed in the Peloponnesian War.
Did the Right Side Win the Greco-Persian Wars?
Did the correct side really win the Persian Wars? Most classicists and defenders of the west will argue that of course they did. After all, winning these wars set off a cultural flourishing that gave us the Classical Age. Additionally, if the Persians had won then they may have strangled democracy in its infancy.
This is certainly a possibility but as a counter argument to the classicists let’s consider three things:
1. Life under the Persian Kings was pretty good and if we consider the previous five thousand years of human history then there have been far more successful and stable empires than there have been democracies.
2. Life in Ancient Athens was not all that great, especially if you were unfortunate enough to be a slave or born a woman. The government was notoriously corrupt and ultimately this government derived its power not from the citizenry but rather from the imperialist notion that ‘might makes right’ – look no further than their awful abuse of the people of Melos. It is true that Athens gave us Socrates, but one must also remember that that same Athens also forced him to kill himself too.
3. Under Persian rule, the Greeks may have avoided the Peloponnesian War which, ultimately ended up weakening the Greek city-states so much that Macedonia (a state that had been under Persian influence until they were kicked out of Europe) and its king Philip II were able to conquer all of them. Philip’s son, Alexander III, would then go on to make more bloody conflict with the Persians and Greece would not glimpse democracy for a further two millennia. All of this could have been avoided if they had just lost to Persia in the first place!!
So, did the good guys truly win the Persian Wars? It is one of history’s great ‘What Ifs?’
The Rest is History
Enjoy this? Then check out the rest of the series in the links below: