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East v West

The first encounter
A different interpretation of the Greek-Persian wars



September 29, 2006

From East Against West: The First Encounter: The Life of Themistocles (PublishAmerica, 2005) by Dmitry V Shlapentokh, translated from the Russian by Ludmila Prednewa. Book description: "The United States is possibly the last Western empire that has tried to impose the global predominance of the West. It was assumed in the beginning of the war in the Middle East that American success was predestined and that this encounter would be similar to the first Greek and Persian War in 5 B.C. It is from this prospective that historians have approached the event. This book challenges this assumption. The great Persians had a much greater chance for victory than the Greeks. It was just luck and the genius of a few Greek politicians that saved the West." Dr. Shlapentokh is Associate Professor of History, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, at Indiana University, South Bend.

This is a history of a man, one of countless billions, who has lived and died on this planet.  This is the history of Themistocles – the history of a politician who lived in Greece 2500 years ago.  He is of importance to us, for it is he who first leads his Greeks against the Persians; it is he who leads the first democracy against the first truly global despotic empire.  Thus, it was a  war not only of personal triumph, but of the triumph of democracy against the regime of despotism.  In the views of Western historians (and it was they who dominated the field), the Greeks could not but be victorious, for democracy and political liberties were viewed to be not just as a goal in itself, not just as the bright future of humanity, but as prerequisite for political might itself.  Therefore, the Greeks’ victory was inevitable, and therefore too, Themistocles’ personal misfortune was to be no more than a personal tragedy.  This work suggests a different interpretation of events.

The Despotic State: the beginning and the end of history
Historians, who observed the victory of the Greeks, had a tendency to pre-ordain the Greeks’ victory.  In their view, the Persian Empire was doomed in the confrontation with the democratic Greece.  The Persians were doomed in the same way as the Soviet Union was doomed in its confrontation with the democratic West in general, and with the United States in particular.  The Persian Empire, in this vision, was similar to the Soviet Union – it was huge, but it was actually a colossus standing on feet of clay.  Several reasons may be given for weakness of the Persian Empire.  One need only begin with the numerous nationalities encompassed within the empire, grumbling under the Persian despotic ruler and ready for revolt.  And in any case, these were people who made for poor military material.  Persian economy was also underdeveloped and their elite were ossified in their habits and views.  It was not surprising that the Persian military machine was huge, but obsolete in its weapons and strategy.  And the smaller but mobile Greek forces had crushed them with the same ease with which American and British Special Forces had decimated the rank and file of the Taliban or Iraquis – the courageous but primitive  Asiatics.  A close and unbiased look reveals a different picture of the Persian Empire – as well organized from both a political and social, and economic point of view.  The empire had exercised a remarkable level of ethnic and political tolerance and one could state that most of the subjects of the king lived as well or possibly even better, than the people who lived in most of the Greek states.  Based on this solid economic and political foundation, the Persians had created an army which was not only huge, but in many ways advanced.  Certainly it had its shortcomings, but it also had advantages which overshadowed these shortcomings. 

Fathers of the Nations
Persians were not despotic rulers as the word ‘despot’ is usually understood.  One of the preconceived ideas which has dominated the West, is the assumption that Persians were ruled by Kings who ruled without any restraint.  ‘Despotism’ here implied arbitrariness – the image of a tyrannical ruler who used his absolute power to please himself and his cronies.  The image here is of an ‘oriental ruler’, one which can be directly related to the image of the ruler of Stalinist Russia (USSR) where Stalin was seen by some historians as just such a brutal maniacal ruler with an obsession with power for the sake of power.  This was not the case with the Persian monarchy.  With their broad tolerance towards the peoples of different cultural and religious traditions, the Persians brought about a revolution in the art of building empires.  Here they stand in sharp contrast to the Assyrians--the first builders of a global empire.  Assyrians were great and brutal warriors who broadly resorted to the practice of mass deportation of various ethnic groups.  It was part of Assyrian strategy to uproot the conquered people and to send them from their native land.  This strategy would become quite prevalent in Stalin’s USSR in the future.  Assyrians also regarded brutal force as the only way of dealing with the conquered people, and their rulers saw the conquered peoples just as objects for exploitation and plunder.  The story was a different one with Persian kings. 

The King had a  strong sense of mission and did not regard his rule merely as personal aggrandizement.  There was, in him, a strong sense of mission and responsibility, in which the building of the empire in concert with the various ethnic groups was an essential element.  “The king’s rule was legalistic, not arbitrary.  The monarch was clearly bound to the acknowledged obligations entered into with his vassals, obligations that modified his rule.  Darius ruled with authority but was also bound to duties and his own sovereign undertakings; his state of affairs reflected the cosmic order, for the eternal Zarathustrian law of Righteousness retained primacy.  In turn, the ruling imperial power of the king necessitated his vassals’ loyalty and obligation to him.”  (Balcer, 135)

The King regarded the maintaining of the internal order of his empire as the major responsibility of his rule.  By insisting on the preservation of internal peace and stability, he was not a modern totalitarian, who insisted on the absolute homogeneity of all segments of the state.  The Persian empire was based on the incorporation of the tradition of all its various peoples; it was based on the idea of  toleration for various cultures (Balcer, p. 53).  By the toleration of the various ethnic and cultural traditions of the empire, the Persians had maintained a particular type of “multiculturalism” that stood in sharp contrast to the Greek tradition, which often implied that those who were not Greeks were simply “barbarians.”  This tolerance and respect for other cultures could be seen among all Persian rulers. 

This was particularly true of Cyrus the Great, who was famous for his religious and cultural tolerance.  Upon his victory over the Babylonians in October of 539 B.C., “Cyrus emerged as the liberator of the city and emphasized in his edicts, that he was bringing to the people of Babylon religious tolerance and liberation from economic suppression.  Indeed, Cyrus had accused the Babylonian ruler, that he exhausted the people “with forced labor” (Burn, p. 58).  While for the majority of the Babylonians, Cyrus came as a liberator, a man of cultural tolerance, this was especially true for the Jews who were brought to “Babylonian captivity” nearly a century before. 

Their hatred towards the people who took them from their native land and destroyed their temple was overwhelming, and in their dreams, they fantasized of a ‘Holocaust’ type of vengeance.  “O daughter of Babylon, that art to be destroyed, happy shall he be that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us:  Happy shall he be that taketh thy little ones and dasheth them upon the stones.”  (Burn, p. 571).  Surely, if these people, indeed, any people were not freed from subjugation, nothing but disaster would follow.  Cyrus permitted these people to go back to Jerusalem without wrecking any terrible vengeance on the natives.  The Jews were jubilant and apparently, upon receiving the news of this permission, proclaimed Cyrus to be a messenger of God. 

The tolerance of foreign culture could be seen not only during the rule of Cyrus, who went down in history as a truly benevolent ruler, but in the policies of other such rulers, as Cambyses II (529-522 B.C.) whom  Greek tradition represented as a brutal maniac.  Upon his conquest of Egypt, he “sought to maintain the ancient Egyptian religious and pharaonic traditions” as long as Persian imperial military power was not impaired.  (Balcer, 103)  Moreover, the Persians continually worked towards harmonizing the relationships between the various political entities which were incorporated into the Persian empire.  Such was the case with the Ionian Greeks. 

These were a conglomerate of city-states which came under the umbrella of Persian rule.  Persians pressured them to conclude various treaties which would ensure that all their own citizens would be treated as equals.  (Burn, p. 22)  This ethnic harmony had reinforced the general order which Persian rulers brought to their empire.  Indeed, they liquidated piracy and “internecine (internal) feuding halted”  (Balcer, p. 159)  The efficiency and fairness of Persian rule had been translated into peace and tranquility – a ‘Pax Persia’, as the Roman empire would become in the future, and similar to that of “Pax Romanum,” “Pax Persia” had brought great prosperity to those who lived under the umbrella of the Persian empire. The economic and political benefit of Persian rule was universal. “To Jews and Babylonians he brought religious freedom; to the trading cities, peace and open roads.”  (Burn, p. 43)  Those Greeks who had been incorporated into the empire, experienced the same fair treatment and enjoyed the same prosperity as  other peoples of the empire.  The Ionians, for example, prospered under Persian rule. (Balcer, p. 85)

The various ethnic groups of the empire not only lived together in the empire and enjoyed all benefits, but actively participated in running the affairs of the state. There was no discrimination and representatives of any religious or ethnic group could find a place in the imperial bureaucracy.  One could even assume, that Persians had followed a peculiar form of “affirmative action,” as in some parts of the empire, minorities had a greater chance for gaining positions than representatives of the majority.  These principles might well have been found in the other despotic or totalitarian societies.  One might recall Turkish Janissary – elite troops who were originally Slavic boys raised as good Moslems.  Some of the Turkish viziers – the men second-in-command to the sultan – were actually Slavic converts.  The same situational phenomenon can be seen in the Mongol empire where everyone -- from Persian to Chinese -- could be found among the entourage of the Great Khan.

The biblical Joseph, who became the second-in-command after Pharaoh, had been a Hebrew slave; in the modern era, it was the totalitarian Soviet Union which demonstrated, at least in the early period of its history, the exceptional opportunities available for numerous minorities – from Jews to Georgians.  The prevalence of minorities within the early Soviet elite made it possible for the Russian nationalists of the regime to assert that the state was nothing more than the rule of minorities, especially Jews, over Russians.  The reason for this ease of upward mobility for minorities, was its direct connection to the absolute power of the rulers of these states -- they were not  restrained in their actions, neither by fixed rules, nor by privileges of cast; nor were they constricted by ethnic limitations, therefore they could elevate to whatever heights the rulers wanted.  Such positive implications of absolute rules are readily apparent within the Persian empire where, since the rule of Cyrus, various ethnic minorities were incorporated in the king’s retinue.  “Wherever he went, Cyrus had found collaborators.”  They were Babylonian priests and the unnamed Hebrew who hailed him as the Lord’s Anointed: “The king found collaborators even among Mides who worked with him against their own king.”  (Burn, p. 43)

To be true, the imperial management and guidance of the various ethnic groups of the empire was not free of charges.  There was a tribute to be paid “to the central government.”  (Hignett, 821)  At the same time, this tribute was not to be regarded as given to the central government just because of fear and coercion. Such tribute may be regarded here as a payment for maintaining the order.  Similar to other activities of the Persian rulers, tribute was not an arbitrary activity.  The entire empire was divided into several regions, or “satrapies”; Herodotus’ “list of twenty satrapies” (Burn, p. 110) and each of them paid a fixed sum.

The Persian rule was distinguished by more than its tolerant fair treatment of the various ethnic groups  of the empire.  Persian kings were quite benevolent, and even magnanimous in their application of punishment and law itself.  While it is true that the Persians had severely punished their rebellious subjects, their emphasis never the less, was on accommodation rather than repression.  “Toward all of the national groups within the empire, Darius and his governmental officials would be kind, gentle, and lenient, but when piqued by rebellion or treason, they destroyed cities, razed temples, deported rebels, and impaled, beheaded, and crucified malcontents.  Yet the policy of accommodation and utilization established by Cyrus and avidly maintained by Darius prevailed.  In direct antithesis to the previous Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian policies to assimilate conquered territories rather than to rule them, Darius kept to a minimum central and satrapal interference with the local traditions, customs, and religious practices.”  (Balcer, 143)  “Rarely did the Persians practice the mass deportations of subjugated communities as had the Assyrians, as the early Achaemenians held to the principles of utilization and accommodation, local national rule, and religious tolerance.”  (Balcer, 188)  This humane treatment of the rebellious subjects was just another manifestation of the generally humane Persian law.  Indeed, the Persian judicial system was equally magnanimous and hardly fits with descriptions of tyrannical rule and arbitrary punishment.  It was Herodotus who first introduced these characteristics of Persian law.  “He particularly admired the Persian custom, that no one should be executed for committing just one crime.”  (Greece vs. Persia, p. 101)  In some cases, Persian punishment can be viewed more as reward rather than a true form of reprisal.  Persians, for example, treated the defeated Ionian Greeks who rose against the king, with the greatest magnanimity and their punishment was reduced to pushing onto them reforms which were to be beneficial to them.  Moreover the kings were extremely kind-minded and even introduced democracy when they thought that it would benefit the natives.  “Herodotus stated that they withdrew tyrants, instituted greater democracy, and even reduced taxation.”  (Greece vs. Persia, p. 71.)

The Rule of efficiency
“Despite its huge size, the empire was efficiently organized.”  (Lazenby, p. 174)  The efficiency of  Persian rule could not have been achieved without the positive bureaucratic basis already created by the founder of the empire, Cyrus the Great.  It was certainly, contrary to the future Western stereotype which portrayed the despot as lazy and indulgent, the King himself, who provided the example of the person who worked for the public good.  Cyrus himself, was a man who loved and respected work, he himself stated, .” . . that, when in good health, he never sat down to dinner without having really sweated over some exercise, warlike or peaceful.”  (Burn, p. 64 or 69).  Also, Cyrus and his nobles were hardly snobbish and reluctant to work as  Xenophon, the Greek historian presented in the following story:

“In Mesopotamia his wagon-train, its beasts weak and reduced in number from the desert marches behind them, had to negotiate a wadi with sticky clay bottoms.  Cyrus stood looking down, with his chief nobles about him, and sent Glous and Pigres with some of the native troops to help get the wagons out.  But then, as they seemed to be taking a long time about it, as though in anger, he ordered the leading Persian officers of his own staff to go and help and get those wagons moving.  Then one really did see something of his discipline.  They threw off their purple cloaks, each one just where he was standing, and shot down the bank – and it was very steep – as if they were running a race, dressed as they were in their rich tunics and embroidered trousers, and some of them wearing necklaces and bracelets as well.  They rushed straight into the mud in all this finery and, in less time than one would have thought possible, they simply lifted the wagons out.”  (Burn, p. 69)

Economic achievement
It was not only the end of the internal violence and intolerance of various cultural traditions which pleased the numerous subjects of the king, it was also his economic policies which pleased his subjects.  Pundits usually downplay the economic policies of oriental rulers; the centralization of social-economic endeavors, the massive use of coerced labor – all of these speak to the totalitarian practices of Stalinist Russia.  The conservative historians and political scientists who saw nothing in the totalitarian Soviet experiences but failure, downplay the importance of the centralized efforts of oriental rulers to smoothly develop  the economy of these oriental countries.

The ‘left’ often visualized Stalinist Russia as a particular form of rule by the people.  The comparisons with the oriental empires of the past were not pleasing and they discarded the comparisons as ill-guided or mis-guided.  Consequently, they also paid no attention to the economic efficiency of the ancient oriental states.  Yet a closer look could prove that oriental states, in general, and the Persian empire in particular, had a viable economy precisely because of its centralized, and if needs be, coercive rule.  It was not only internal tranquility and the efficient rule of a huge state which helped economic development.  The economy prospered for other reasons – it functioned by the direct involvement of the state in the economic life of the society.  The Persian empire incorporated into itself the greatest civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt, all of which preceded the Persian empire by thousands of years, and which had as the basis of their economy, an elaborate irrigational system. This system could not be developed and maintained without a strict centralized economy enmeshed in absolute power; indeed, it was only this absolute power which could send thousands of people to be engaged in the great irrigation projects.  The Persians not only continued to maintain these irrigational systems, but also engaged in the other great public work – road building.  There were several major “roads,” one of which  .” . . led from Ecbatana north-east to Bactria; and no doubt the routes to Egypt and India had received similar attention.”  (Burn, p. 112)  In all this grand economic progress, the king was following the long-established oriental traditions which implied that innovation and progress shall be initiated by the ruler – and not by a conservative subject.

Cultural achievements
Persian rule was marked not only by its internal stability and prosperity, but also as a time of cultural splendor.  This could be seen in the continuous beatifications of the imperial capital.  The first step in this direction was made by Cyrus the Great, who “concerned himself with the beautification of the first Persian imperial city” (Burn, p. 60). 

Darius had followed his policy;  it was he who erected the splendid capitals of the empire.  Contemporary Persian sources presented the king’s enrichment of the empire through building in the following way: “The cedar timber from Lebanon . . . the Assyrian people brought it to Babylon; from Babylon the Karians and Ionians brought it to Susa.  The yaka-timber was brought from Gandara and from Carmania.  Gold brought from Sardis and Bactria . . ., lapis-lazuli and carnelian from Sogdia, turquoise from Chorasmia . . . silver and ebony from Egypt.  The ornamentation with which the wall was adorned, from Ionia was brought.  Ivory from Ethiopia and from India and from Arachosia.  Stone . . . [from] Elam.  The stone-cutters who wrought the stone, those were Ionians and Sardians.  The goldsmiths . . . were Medes and Egyptians.  The men who wrought the wood were Sardians and Egyptians.  The men who wrought the baked brick were Babylonians.  The men who adorned the wall were Babylonians.”  (Balcer, p. 95)

The ease of conquest
It was this benign nature of Persian rule which explains why the empire expanded so easily. Indeed, the general benevolence of Persian rule and the real benefits which the Persian empire brought to all people, was perhaps the major explanation for the quick spread of Persian dominion.  It can not be explained by the force of arms alone.  It seems that the ease with which Persians often found the “fifth column” was due to the fact that many people saw the Persian as a liberator rather than a conqueror.  In some cases, they might well have preferred Persian rule to their own native dynasty.  Such was the case with Babylon.  The quick victory over Babylon was not simply a result of Persian military genius, nor the might of her army:  Babylonians in considerable numbers, and not only Jews, preferred Persians to their native dynasty.  It was for this very reason that the Babylonian “paid army” did not render much resistance, and as Cyrus entered Babylon, he was accepted not as a brutal conqueror, but as a liberator.  “Cyrus made his ceremonial entry.  Green twigs were spread before him; peace was declared.  Cyrus to all Babylon sent greetings.”  (Burn, p. 54)

This was the case not only with Babylon, but actually a pattern which was seen almost everywhere.   As the Persian armies advanced .” . . Phoenicia and Cilicia did not resist, they kept their local self-government; in Lydia, disarmed after one brief rebellion, Sardis continued to flourish, and Lydian military spirit disappeared overnight.”  (Burn, p. 63)

As a matter of fact, the Persian empire and Persian way of life was quite appealing to mainland Greece.  It was a stereotypical model that implied that the despotic state had always been repugnant to those who lived under democracy and examples of the culture of despotic society is discarded as the culture of slaves--and the free people could not be attracted by the culture of slaves.  This theory implied that Persians were to be fascinated with Greek culture -- and the Greeks despise the culture of the Persians.  This was hardly the case.  As a matter of fact the Persian way of life was not appalling to the Greeks.  On the contrary “Persian mania” spread throughout many Greek cities.  (Balcer, p. 97)

This broad appeal of Persian rule and way of life, and with it the relative ease of Persian conquest, was due to the empire’s policy of benefit for the majority of its people.  And this was well understood by the Persian rulers.  Such was the case with Darius.

Darius attributed his victory not to his military prowess, nor to his abilities.  He believed that he had achieved victory only because of his inherent moral qualities and the implicit knowledge that his rule and his dynasty could only benefit the peoples of his empire.  He believed it was this which pleased God and it was this divine benevolence that had finally led him to success.  “Says Darius the King:  For this reason Ahura-Mazda helped me, and the other gods who are:  because I was not wicked, nor a liar, nor tyrannical, neither I nor my family.  I walked according to right and justice.  Neither to high nor low have I done violence.”  (Burn, p. 117) Comment

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