Would a defeat have made any difference?

Posted by Tory Historian Thursday, January 10, 2008 ,

Tory Historian has started the new year by reading two books almost simultaneously (not to mention the odd detective story or Georgette Heyer historical romance). One is R. J. Q. Adams’s biography of Balfour, subtitled “The Last Grandee” about which there will be postings later on.

The other book is a completely entrancing history of the Persian Wars by Tom Holland. Entitled “Persian Fire”, it is subtitled “The First World Empire and the Battle for the West”.

There has been a mention of the Battle of Thermopylae on this blog before as well as a speculation about different views of how significant those battles on the borders of the Persian Empire were.

Naturally enough, Tom Holland speculates on the significance, especially, his underlying thesis is that the division between the West and the East or the rest began in the 5th century BC though he also believes that the divisions have never been as clear-cut as one might assume.

What is it that has excited many generations of people about those wars?

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.
That is clear and unarguable, though some doubt has to be raised about the Athenian claim to democracy in any post-Classical sense of the word.

One has to admit, however, that the Persian empire has also had a great deal of influence on subsequent political developments, not least its ability to keep a balance between various conquered and subdued peoples.

Then there was Sparta. Much as one admires the heroism of the Spartans and the recent film “300” (no, Tory Historian decided to give it a miss), one has to admit that no tradition of freedom or democracy emerged from that militant and militaristic city. Had the Persians defeated Sparta, many of its enslaved neighbours might have preferred the new regime. The chances are Xerxes would have dealt with the liberated helots more intelligently than Sparta’s admirer, Hitler, did with the oppressed people of the Soviet Union.

There can, however, be no argument about one aspect of the difference between the West and the rest, an aspect that emerged from the Persian Wars. Forty years after the events, a Greek, Herodotus, began asking questions about them and about their causes.

The desire to know and to understand the history of what there is around us seems to be peculiar to European mentality. Even when conquering other peoples Europeans seem to want to write their history – an unusual attitude, not shared by other cultures, though there is the odd individual exception. We have much to thank the Greek from Halicarnassus who first asked the question: “Why did it happen like that?”


  1. "...no tradition of freedom or democracy emerged from that militant and militaristic city."


    The citizens were a tiny minority, but they ruled themselves and their country by deliberation. they did not have a bogus "son of heaven" ruling them. Athens had a much larger franchise, and was much less brutal to its slaves. But they were both ruled by the citizens according to known and agreed-to laws and traditions, and their rulers were not treated as absolute.

  2. Anonymous Says:
  3. "The desire to know and to understand the history of what there is around us seems to be peculiar to European mentality."

    Tell the Chinese. And the Mayans. That is a pretty ignorant statement, all things considered.

  4. Dear Jeffrey Beaumont,

    I can't tell the Mayans. They are not around. What we know about them depends on European study and archaeology. Your comment is pretty silly, all things considered.

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