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The Multicultural Persian Wars

Was Thermopylae the guy who hot-footed all the way to Athens? Or was that the famous hoplite Halicarnassus? It was time to sort out what happened in Ancient Greece once and for all, so when they called to say Tom Holland’s Persian Fire had come in I raced to the bookshop to get it.

Holland is a classicist and writer and successful television don. He’s been waiting years to “do” the Greek and Persian wars; his book’s subtitle is The First World Empire and the Battle for the West; and with Osama bin Laden and 9/11 on the very first page you know it will be a good read.

But the author immediately sees a problem—the multicultural issue of “being fair to the Persians” and the need to speak more carefully now. So he begins by wondering judiciously whether Asiatic despotism was really all that bad, or did it have redeeming features? And was the fiery Greek spirit of independence all that good? Perhaps it just made them truculent, quarrelsome, and unmanageable?

Suppose Xerxes had beaten the Greeks into submission: could one say that annexation by a foreign power “might perhaps, under certain circumstances, be welcomed?”

By guaranteeing peace and order to the dutifully submissive, and by giving a masterly demonstration of how best to divide and rule, a succession of Persian kings had won for themselves and their people the largest empire ever seen. Indeed, it was their epochal achievement to demonstrate to future ages the very possibility of a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, world-spanning state.

Tom Holland knows perfectly well what submissive incorporation into the “epochal achievement” of the Persian Empire would have meant for the Greeks, and says so: “Not only would the West have lost its first struggle for independence and survival, but it is unlikely, had the Greeks succumbed to Xerxes’ invasion, that there would ever have been such an entity as ‘the West’ at all.”

But he also feels (and his television producers doubtless felt even more strongly) that in the present cultural climate it would be wise to give the Persians their due; that anxious academic scrutineers will be watching how he treats “the Other”; and that he is morally bound to paint a studiously impartial “panorama of the entire world that went to war—East as well as West”. This makes for a problem in his book (because on the Persian side there’s a yawning historical void) but we shall come to that in due course.

Multicultural massage

Is the modern need to stroke multicultural sensibilities by “being fair to the Persians” more widely felt among classicists? What do we find for example in The Greco-Persian Wars by the distinguished authority Peter Green? This 1996 book is a revised edition of his 1970 Xerxes at Salamis, and by the time the revision appeared he was worrying that his original treatment was a bit too keen for freedom. Looking back, he noted that in 1970 the Greek colonels were still in power. The politics of the region were on everyone’s mind at the time—especially the mind of the Left. Later, by 1996, Green had come to feel that this may have distorted his interpretation of Ancient Persia:

I think many of us were more receptive then than we might have otherwise been to the fundamental Herodotean concept of freedom-under-law (eleutheria, isonomia) making its great and impassioned stand against Oriental Despotism.

Indeed, the one major change in attitude to the subject since 1970 has been the emerging view of the Greek notion of ‘the Barbarian Other’ as a rhetorical and propagandistic device, the prime object of which was the achievement of self-definition.

We know now substantially more about the Achaemenid world [ie, the Persian world] than we did then … and the insistent lessons of multiculturalism have forced us to take a long hard look at Greek ‘anti-barbarian’ propaganda, beginning with Aeschylus’s Persians and the whole thrust of Herodotus’ Histories.

From which it would appear that “the whole thrust” of Herodotus should be seriously re-examined. Modern ethnic sensitivity has taught us that it is wrong to firmly hold western beliefs about the virtue of freedom-under-law; that it was equally wrong of Herodotus to push this ideal 2,500 years ago; and that the very notion of ‘Asiatic despotism’ verges on racial vilification.

The recent wave of pro-Persian enthusiasm has an embarrassingly obvious political cause: the “insistent lessons of multiculturalism” referred to by Peter Green. But scholarly attacks on Herodotus of one kind or another are almost as old as the Histories itself. In fact, as anyone reading Tom Holland or Peter Green soon discovers, scoring off this ancient historian is a way countless scholars have for generations advanced their careers—a pathetic exercise in academic parasitism that began with Plutarch’s ‘The Malice of Herodotus’ nearly 2000 years ago.

Pick up a copy of George Cawkwell’s 2003 The Greek Wars and you’ll see what I mean. Dr Cawkwell is a Fellow at University College, Oxford, a professional classics man and no doubt esteemed in his field. Yet in the first paragraph on his first page he can’t resist a sneering tone. Herodotus, he writes, told “a pretty story” regarding Darius that was “perhaps truer than Herodotus knew”. [The story being, that after the Greeks burned Sardis, inflicting a humiliating defeat on the Persian king, Darius asked a servant to forcefully remind him, at dinner each day, to seek revenge—“Sire, remember the Athenians!”]

Cawkwell embodies the new “let’s be fair to the Persians” school of classics—though in his hands it’s more a case of “let’s demean the Greeks”. He admiringly pictures Darius as “the Great King, seated on his throne at Susa or Persepolis” with all the cares of Empire on his mind—a ruler so grand that he seems barely aware of the Greek world, and entirely unconcerned with its affairs. It is even suggested that the Greeks were beneath his notice since “he had more important matters to think about”.

No doubt he did: despotism unsleepingly pursues everyone it fears—and it fears everyone. But it’s comical to see a modern Oxford academic, with the multicultural police looking over his shoulder, first ridiculing Herodotus for telling a “pretty story”; then ridiculing him for not realising that the story was “perhaps truer than he knew”; and finally ridiculing the Greeks in general for imagining that they could have been of any concern to “the Great King” of the Persians—a title Cawkwell reverently recites whenever he can.

An impossible assignment

Each of these scholars wants to improve on Herodotus. It is implied that he was too partisan, too ill-informed, too inclined to believe what he was told. And it is clear (so they say) that in the light of new research on ancient Persia much of what he wrote won’t do today. In fact—and I should make this perfectly clear—both Green and Holland have the greatest respect for history’s first historian: their multiculturalism is little more than a political gesture. But Dr Cawkwell is something else, boldly declaring that Herodotus “had no real understanding of the Persian Empire.” (The Greek Wars, 3)

One is bound to retort that if Herodotus didn’t, who exactly did? Obviously, some nameless Persian equivalent to Herodotus might have had such an understanding, but who was he and where is his narrative? What book by which contemporary Persian historian provides an alternative account of Achaemenid manners and customs, institutions and political thought, imperial policy and administration and ideals? For surely there had to be one. Writing itself began in Mesopotamia, and long before the Persians appeared on the scene rudimentary economic records were being kept on clay tablets that can still be read today.

The courts of Cyrus, Darius, and Xerxes were of legendary magnificence. They would have employed an army of clerks and chroniclers to record royal achievements and military victories. Is it conceivable that no books of an anthropological character were produced at all, no written inquiries into historical events, no manuscripts containing studies of the natural world or philosophical speculations—in brief, that three whole decades of exhaustive new research reveals no ancient Persian literary endeavors whatever to compare with the achievements of the Greeks?

Alas, that is the case. Dr Cawkwell, ever eager “to see Persian relations with Greece with other than Greek eyes”, refers to decades of archaeology through which “the riches of the Oriental evidence are revealed”. But even he has to face the awful fact that although “the evidence is ample and various, one thing is lacking. Apart from the Behistun Inscription which gives an account of the opening of the reign of Darius 1, there are no literary accounts of Achaemenid history other than those written by Greeks.” Moreover, as we learn elsewhere, such literacy as existed in the Persian empire was largely Greek; and such writing as took place was mainly done by Greeks.

Peter Green begins his revised 1996 book The Greco-Persian Wars with similarly respectful comments on the exciting wealth of information about the Achaemenids now available. “In recent years, thanks to spectacular work by Oriental scholars and archaeologists, our knowledge of Achaemenid Persia has increased out of all recognition. Today we are in a position to assess Darius, Xerxes, and their civilisation with greater insight and less a priori bias… Our picture is no longer the xenophobic libel produced by Greek witnesses…”

He reminds us too of the great Professor Toynbee’s provocative suggestion that the Greeks would have fared better “had they lost the Persian Wars: enforced unity and peace might have stopped them dissipating their energies on absurd internecine feuding until they were absorbed by the benevolent pax Romana of Augustus.”

But having paid his respects to the Office of Ethnic Affairs, to Professor Toynbee, and to the provisions of the anti-vilification laws, Peter Green very sensibly feels that he has done more than enough. After prostrating himself at the shrine of multiculturalism he stands up, dusts himself off, and forthrightly states his true opinions. Regardless of Persian imperial achievements

The whole concept of political and intellectual liberty, of the constitutional state—however individually inefficient or corrupt—depended on one thing: that the Greeks, for whatever motive, decided to stand out against the Oriental system of palace absolutism, and did so with remarkable success.

Modern Europe owes nothing to the Achaemenids. We may admire their imposing if oppressive architecture, and gaze in something like awe—from prostration level, as it were—at the great apadana of Persepolis, with its marvellous bas-reliefs. Yet the civilisation which could produce such things is almost as alien to us as that of the Aztecs, and for not dissimilar reasons.

Achaeminid Persia produced no great literature or philosophy: her one lasting contribution to mankind was, characteristically enough Zoroastrianism. Like Carthage, she perpetuated a fundamentally static culture, geared to the maintenance of a theocratic status quo, and hostile (where not blindly indifferent) to original creativity in any form.

Against this monolithic opposition the Greek achievement stands out all the more clearly, an inexplicable miracle… Free scientific enquiry, free political debate, annually appointed magistrates, decision by majority vote—all these things ran flat counter to the whole pattern of thought in any major civilisation with which the Greeks had to deal.

Their achievement, however brought about… becomes all the more extraordinary when viewed against such a background.

Facing the void

Which brings us back to Tom Holland and his little problem. Like Dr Cawkwell and Peter Green he feels he has to treat Darius and Xerxes generously, and he praises those now polishing the image of the Persian world. A “formidable band of scholars” have been working for the last thirty years, he tells us, “and the results have been spectacular: a whole empire brought back to life, redeemed out of oblivion, rendered so solid that it has become, in the words of one historian, ‘something you can stub your toe on’. As a display of resurrectionism, it is worthy to stand beside the opening of Tutankhamen’s tomb.”

If only that were so! The plain fact is that compared to the detailed descriptions of the ancient world provided by Herodotus the Greek, when Holland turns to the alternative resources of Persian archaeology he is facing the void. Not something solid at all. But as an imaginative man, and an experienced novelist, he boldly decides to write his way out of trouble.

In Chapter One there’s an account of the Khorasan Highway linking East and West from Babylon to Bactria—and it’s a yawn. All empires build highways. Highways take commands from the emperor out, and bring taxes and tribute in. But were you ever grabbed by a history of the Interstate System—or even Route 66? I doubt it… Does it excite you to learn about the stud farms of the Zagros mountains or that the Assyrians “spoke in wondering terms” about their “numberless steeds”? I don’t think so. Is it a big turn-on to learn that

Travellers who made the final ascent through the mountains along the Khorasan Highway would see, guarding the approaches to the Iranian plateau ahead of them, a vision which could have been conjured from some fabulous epic: a palace set within seven gleaming walls, each one painted a different colour, and on the two innermost circuits, bolted to their battlements, plates of silver and gold?

Unlikely. This is the prose of a guy pumping iron and going nowhere. It’s a mixture of travel writing and the medieval fantasy world of C S Lewis and Tolkien. There are “visions” that are “conjured”; the epic is inevitably “fabulous”; there’s a palace with “seven gleaming walls” (seven’s a magic number) and then of course there’s all that eye-catching “silver and gold.”

I don’t want to be misunderstood. Overall, Persian Fire is a good book and a good read too. It’s a much better than average introduction to the whole subject of the Persian Wars and what they have meant for the West. And by the time you finish you’ll certainly have sorted out Thermopylae and Halicarnassus. But the huffing and puffing of Persian glory in the opening chapter is hard to take seriously—and all because the author is padding a story that doesn’t have enough facts. Worse still, the most substantial things Holland relates fill us with horror instead of admiration. The history of the Assyrians is a tale of slaughter without meaning; of slaughter for the sake of slaughter itself; of slaughter without end.

Around 650 BC they are described as having an empire “for centuries synonymous with cruel and remorseless invincibility”—an empire that had “sent repeated expeditions into the Zagros mountains, dyeing the peaks, in its own ferocious vaunt, like wool, crimson with blood.” Another historian writes that “the Assyrians, like the later Mongols and Aztecs, were notorious for their insensate destructiveness and ingenious sadism.”

The Assyrian king Sargon II says of a newly conquered people: “Grovelling they came to me, for the protection of their lives. Knowing that otherwise I would destroy their walls, they fell and kissed my feet.” The Book of Nahum tells us that when Assyrian Nineveh was pulverised by Median cavalry it was pretty much the same: “Horsemen charging, flashing sword and glittering spear, hosts of slain, heaps of corpses, dead bodies without end.” Not nice chaps, not a happy scene, and of no lasting historical significance whatever.

Oriental despotism versus Greek democracy

Was life under the Persians 150 years later any better? Tom Holland works hard for sixty pages, but has little to show for it. Darius himself achieves power by the usual process of intrigue and murder, after which there are the usual megalomaniac proclamations: “I am Darius, King of Kings, King of Persia, King of Lands, the son of Hystaspes, grandson or Arsames, an Achaemenid”. All very grand: but it is unclear what benefits the man conferred. Toward the end of the author’s attempt to glamorise Darius we finally learn that —

The king’s appetite for centralisation was insatiable. The city which the Greeks would much later call Persepolis was built as a nerve-centre, power-house, and showcase. Not only Persia but the realms of the vast dominion beyond it were to be unified into one immense administrative unit, focused, as was only natural, upon the figure of the king himself.

All this was happening in the years between about 520 BC and the year of the Battle of Marathon, 490 BC. So just as a matter of interest, while Darius was using blood and fire to impose on his realm “one immense administrative unit” centered on himself—a system resembling Russia under Stalin or Germany under Hitler—what were the Greeks doing?

In Athens, a mercifully different dispensation was laying the foundations of democracy. The reforms of Cleisthenes in 507 BC were nothing less than that. Paraphrasing and summarising Tom Holland’s discussion, on pages 134–135 of Persian Fire, we find the most complete imaginable contrast with Persian imperialism. The new political rules introduced by Cleisthenes made equality before the law the chief political virtue; made Athens a city in which all citizens enjoyed freedom of speech; made government policy something requiring debate in open assembly; and made it impossible to pass new laws except by popular vote.

From an organisational point of view Cleisthenes’ reforms were just as radical. The dynastic feuding of ‘tyrants’ had brought Athens to the point of ruin. It had to be stopped. Cleisthenes’ solution was to firmly suppress a citizen’s political identification with family and neighborhood, with mafia bosses and clan chiefs. He sliced the country into 150 electoral districts called ‘demes’, and it was from these—and no longer from clans and families—that the citizens of Athenian democracy were obliged in future to take their second names. This applied to the haughtiest aristocrat and the humblest plowman alike.

Tom Holland draws a number of historical parallels between the ancient and modern worlds and the continuing clash of East and West. But nothing is more revealing than the determination of Cleisthenes to stamp out despots and despotism by severing the connection between clan power and political representation. This was in 507 BC. Today, 2,500 years later, throughout most of the Middle East and conspicuously so in Iraq, they still haven’t got the point.

So what about Herodotus?

But getting back to Herodotus—was he prejudiced? Is it true that he failed to give Darius and the Persians a fair hearing? Are his Histories transparently biased in favor of the Greeks?

I must say I can’t see it myself. In fact, the whole point of Plutarch’s nasty attack was that instead of glorifying Greek achievements, Herodotus belittled his own people while talking up the Persians and Egyptians instead. According to Plutarch—himself a 1st-century AD Greek who lived much of his life in Athens—this pro-Persian bias in a Greek historian deserved to be exposed and denounced as an unpatriotic scandal.

But judge for yourself. Here are some passages from Herodotus. They give a sense of his calmly matter-of-fact style and tone, as both ethnographer and historian, treating the manners and customs of the Persians when compared with the Greeks. Below is a lightly edited excerpt from Book 1: 131-140. The translation is George Rawlinson’s of 1858.

131. The customs which I know the Persians to observe are the following. They have no images of the gods, no temples nor altars, and consider the use of them a sign of folly. This comes, I think, from their not believing the gods to have the same nature with men, as the Greeks imagine.

Their wont, however, is to ascend the summits of the loftiest mountains, and there to offer sacrifice to Jupiter, which is the name they give to the whole circuit of the firmament. They likewise offer to the sun and moon, to the earth, to fire, to water, and to the winds. These are the only gods whose worship has come down to them from ancient times.

132. To these gods the Persians offer sacrifice in the following manner: they raise no altar, light no fire, pour no libations; there is no sound of the flute, no putting on of chaplets, no consecrated barley-cake; but the man who wishes to sacrifice brings his victim to a spot of ground which is pure from pollution, and there calls upon the name of the god to whom he intends to offer.

It is usual to have the turban encircled with a wreath, most commonly of myrtle. The sacrificer is not allowed to pray for blessing on himself alone, but he prays for the welfare of the king, and of the whole Persian people, among whom he is of necessity included.

133. Of all the days in the year, the one which they celebrate most is their birthday. It is customary to have the board furnished on that day with an ampler supply than common. The richer Persians cause an ox, a horse, a camel, and an ass to be baked whole and so served up to them: the poorer classes use instead the smaller kinds of cattle.

They eat little solid food but abundance of dessert, which is set on table a few dishes at a time; this it is which makes them say that “the Greeks, when they eat, leave off hungry, having nothing worth mention served up to them after the meats; whereas, if they had more put before them, they would not stop eating.”

They are very fond of wine, and drink it in large quantities. It is also their general practice to deliberate upon affairs of weight when they are drunk; and then on the morrow, when they are sober, the decision to which they came the night before is put before them by the master of the house in which it was made; and if it is then approved of, they act on it; if not, they set it aside. Sometimes, however, they are sober at their first deliberation, but in this case they always reconsider the matter under the influence of wine.

[At this point the translator, Rawlinson, adds in a footnote that “Tacitus asserts that the Germans were in the habit of deliberating on peace and war under the influence of wine, reserving their determination for the morrow.”]

134. When they meet each other in the streets, you may know if the persons meeting are of equal rank by the following token; if they are, instead of speaking, they kiss each other on the lips. In the case where one is a little inferior to the other, the kiss is given on the cheek; where the difference of rank is great, the inferior prostrates himself upon the ground.

Of nations, they honour most their nearest neighbours, whom they esteem next to themselves; those who live beyond these they honour in the second degree; and so with the remainder, the further they are removed, the less the esteem in which they hold them.

The reason is, that they look upon themselves as very greatly superior in all respects to the rest of mankind, regarding others as approaching to excellence in proportion as they dwell nearer to them; whence it comes to pass that those who are the farthest off must be the most degraded of mankind.

135. There is no nation which so readily adopts foreign customs as the Persians. Thus, they have taken the dress of the Medes, considering it superior to their own; and in war they wear the Egyptian breastplate. As soon as they hear of any luxury, they instantly make it their own: and hence, among other novelties, they have learnt unnatural lust from the Greeks. Each of them has several wives, and a still larger number of concubines.

136. Next to prowess in arms, it is regarded as the greatest proof of manly excellence, to be the father of many sons. Every year the king sends rich gifts to the man who can show the largest number: for they hold that number is strength. Their sons are carefully instructed from their fifth to their twentieth year, in three things alone—to ride, to draw the bow, and to speak the truth. Until their fifth year they are not allowed to come into the sight of their father, but pass their lives with the women. This is done so that, if the child die young, the father may not be afflicted by its loss.

[Regarding the matter of lying, Rawlinson adds in a footnote that “The special estimation in which truth was held among the Persians is evidenced in a remarkable manner by the inscriptions of Darius, where lying is taken as the representation of all evil.]

137. To my mind it is a wise rule (ie, the separation of infant sons from their fathers) as also is the following—that the king shall not put anyone to death for a single fault, and that none of the Persians shall visit a single fault in a slave with any extreme penalty; but in every case the services of the offender shall be set against his misdoings; and, if the latter be found to outweigh the former, the aggrieved party shall then proceed to punishment.

138. The Persians maintain that never yet did anyone kill his own father or mother; but in all such cases they are quite sure that, if matters were sifted to the bottom, it would be found that the child was either a changeling or else the fruit of adultery; for it is not likely they say that the real father should perish by the hands of his child.

139. They hold it unlawful to talk of anything which it is unlawful to do. The most disgraceful thing in the world, they think, is to tell a lie; the next worst, to owe a debt: because, among other reasons, the debtor is obliged to tell lies.

140. Thus much I can declare of the Persians with entire certainty, from my own actual knowledge.

Herodotus prejudiced? Biased against the Persians? Needing correction from our multicultural monitors today? Not as I see it. If modern anthropologists and historians could write as evenly, moderately, carefully, and as sensibly about ethnic matters, we would all have reason to rejoice.

Whatever concessions Tom Holland may feel obliged to make to the historian’s current critics, he remains a stalwart champion of Herodotus, and we could not do better than end with his own assessment. He begins by pointing out that Herodotus undertook “a wholly novel style of investigation”:

For the first time, a chronicler set himself to trace the origins of a conflict not to a past so remote as to be utterly fabulous, nor to the whims and wishes of some god, nor to a people’s claim to manifest destiny, but rather to explanations that he could verify personally.

Committed to transcribing only living informants or eyewitness accounts, Herodotus toured the world—the first anthropologist, the first investigative reporter, the first foreign correspondent. The fruit of his tireless curiosity was not merely a narrative, but a sweeping analysis of an entire age: capacious, various, tolerant. Herodotus himself described what he had engaged in as ‘enquiries’—historia.

“And I set them down here”, he declared, in the first sentence of the first work of history ever written, “so that the memory of the past may be preserved by recording the extraordinary deeds of Greek and foreigner alike—and above all, to show how it was that they came to go to war.”

Historians always like to argue for the significance of their material, of course. In Herodotus’ case, his claims have had two and a half millennia to be put to the test. During that time, their founding presumption—that the great war between Greek and Persian was of an unexampled momentousness—has been resoundingly affirmed…

Any account of odds heroically defied is exciting—but how much more tense it becomes when the odds are incalculably, incomparably, high. There was much more at stake during the course of the Persian attempts to subdue the Greek mainland than the independence of what Xerxes had regarded as a ragbag of terrorist states.

As subjects of a foreign king, the Athenians would never have had the opportunity to develop their unique democratic culture. Much that made Greek civilisation distinctive would have been aborted. The legacy inherited by Rome and passed on to modern Europe would have been immeasurably impoverished.

Not only would the West have lost its first struggle for independence and survival, but it is unlikely, had the Greeks succumbed to Xerxes’ invasion, that there would ever have been such an entity as ‘the West’ at all.


Tom Holland, Persian Fire (2005). Peter Green, The Greco-Persian Wars (1996). A. R. Burn, Persia and the Greeks (1962, 1984). Victor Ehrenberg, From Solon to Socrates (1968, 1973). C. Hignett, Xerxes’ Invasion of Greece (1963). Victor Davis Hanson, The Wars of the Ancient Greeks (military history, 1999). Plus the unique and irreplaceable Histories of Herodotus himself.

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