By Pagden, Anthony
History Today , Vol. 58, No. 5
Sometime in the fifth century BC, a Greek merchant and traveller known to us as Herodotus of Halicarnassus wrote what he called his Histories--his 'inquiries'--into the origins of the 'perpetual enmity' between the Greeks and the Persians. The Histories are the first work of history in any language, and they tell in broad outline the story of the wars between the city-states of Greece and the mighty Achaemenid Persian empire which ranged on and off between 498 and 479 BC. Behind these all-too real conflicts there lurked, however, a mythic one, probably the most famous war in history, fought between the Greeks and a quasi-mythical people of Asia Minor called the Trojans, over the slighted honour of the Spartan king Menelaus, whose wife Helen had been abducted by a Trojan playboy, called Paris Alexander. Like the Trojan war, the Persian wars came to be seen as a struggle between two worlds, between Asia and Europe.
The origins of the wars were clear enough. In 499 BC the Greek cities of Ionia, then under Persian rule had risen against their overlords. The following year the Athenians had sent a fleet to Ionia. The Greek army managed to get as far as the ancient Persian capital of Sardis, where it destroyed a temple to the goddess Cybele. It was, Herodotus said, 'the beginning of evils for the Greeks and the barbarians'. When the Persian emperor Darius heard of this outrage he vowed revenge on the Greeks and ordered one of his servants to repeat to him three times every day before he sat down to dinner, 'Master, remember the Athenians'. From then until the battle of Platea in 479 BC a succession of Persian armies, first under Darius I and then under his son Xerxes, would attempt to invade the Grecian mainland. Each time they were repulsed by far smaller Greek forces: first at Marathon, in 490 BC and then at the great naval battle at Salamis ten years later. (The battle of Thermopylae in August of 480, although celebrated for centuries as a triumph of Greek, and subsequently European, heroism, in fact succeeded only in delaying Xerxes' for a few days.)
During the course of the wars a simple image of the two sides emerged--at least in Europe. To the Greeks, the peoples of Asia seemed to be slavish hordes, who venerated their kings as if they were gods. They were also too rich, too well-dressed and effeminate. The Greeks themselves, although admittedly fractious and often quarrelsome, were lovers of freedom and equality and they lived by laws they had made for themselves not by the arbitrary whim of kings. Their virtues had secured the freedom of Europe, or, as it later came to be called as it expanded to include Europe's settler populations overseas, the 'West'. What had begun as a conflict over sovereignty, developed into a titanic struggle between two cultures, two ways of life, two ways of conceiving the relationship between the human and the divine. As Xerxes is supposed to have said, between Europe and Asia, 'there can be no middle course'. When the nineteenth-century liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill observed that the battle of Marathon had been a more important event in English history than the Battle of Hastings, he meant that, but for Marathon, all the values he associated with English liberty, and which he believed to have originated in Greece, could never have existed.
The Greeks had, in effect, won the Persian wars. When, in 334 BC, another Greek, Alexander the Great, turned the tables by invading Asia, he did so in imitation of his favourite Homeric hero, Achilles whose armour or what was believed to be his armour--he wore into battle, to seek revenge for the burning by Xerxes of the Acropolis in Athens in 480BC. Alexander, however, was concerned with more than vengeance. He had also come to Asia or so it was said by his second-century Roman biographer Plutarch--to heal the ancient enmity between Greeks and Persians and to transform East and West into one cosmopolitan, albeit Hellenized, world. …