I’ve always sympathised with the Persians more than the Greeks in the Greco-Persian Wars, a titanic showdown that started around 490 BC and lasted for half a century. From the Persian point of view you have a large, sophisticated and wealthy imperial power, struck by an unprovoked(ish) Greek attack; it responds with a retaliatory invasion, gets mired in the ensuing faraway war, and finally pulls out in ignominy. It all smacks of high tragedy, there are lessons in hubris, triumph and fall; that side of the story appeals much more to me than the Greek story, that of the scruffy underdogs who took on the bad guys and won through sheer gutsiness. That’s probably also why I’m an Empire man and not Rebel Alliance. And don’t even get me started on films like 300 (fun though they may be).
This is how I have often laid out the scene for the Greco-Persian Wars: the Persian Empire, under the dynamic leadership of its founder Cyrus the Great (the very same mentioned in the Bible), launched a veritable blitzkrieg during the late 6th century BC into what is now Turkey. In those days it was home to many Asiatic Greeks; Cyrus quickly conquered them, but not first without a stern warning from the western Greeks (Sparta in particular), which he ignored.
Fast forward about a generation, and the Asiatic Greeks have risen in revolt. The western Greeks now offer military support instead of mere words, but this is not enough to turn back the Persian onslaught – the Empire is striking back and there is no stopping it. One of the last, desperate acts of the Greeks is to sack the Persian city of Sardis, the jewel of Asia, one of the most beautiful cities of the Empire. The western Greeks are chased away and the Asiatic Greeks crushed, but the Persians never forget this horrifying affront. A decade later in 480 BC, the Empire marches westward in full fury; Athens and Sparta are singled out for reprisals. And so the stage is set for the most spectacular phase of the Greco-Persian Wars – but just a year after Persia’s glittering host marches out, the Empire’s soldiers are in full retreat from Europe.
That’s all ancient history – or is it? I have traditionally compared Sardis, the jewel of Asia, to Paris, a city famous for its beauty. Compare the burning of Sardis to the burning of Paris, and you’d come close to grasping the shock of the Persians, and their burning desire for vengeance. A cultured, storied city was laid low by a scruffy mob of uncivilised scum (that’s how many Persians viewed the western Greeks) – what else to do but march out to punish them?
And only now do I realise that this is not just ancient history: an unprovoked attack on a beautiful city, then retaliatory strikes by the aggrieved, sophisticated power on a faraway corner of the globe that many have written off as a hellhole – this is as applicable to 480 BC as it is to AD 2015 (or even AD 2001 – one of my college professors compared the burning of Sardis to 9/11).
Now obviously the situations aren’t exactly the same, and hear me when I say it’s not fair at all to compare the western Greeks to Daesh or the Taliban – but the pattern of events is eerily familiar. And so now might be the time to look at 480 BC and ask ourselves questions: how far do the ‘imperial’ powers need to commit themselves before they can have full revenge? (the Persians achieved the burning of Athens but lost the war in the strategic sense); what might happen if imperial forces commit themselves fully, on enemy soil? (the western Greeks proved themselves surprisingly tenacious on their home turf); what might victory actually look like?; what to do if imperial forces strike back but achieve little strategically? (as happened with the Persians)
Now might also be the time to consider what stories are being told on both sides; remember that both sides saw Persia’s retreat in 479 BC in vastly different lights. To the Persians, it was a victory overall: yes, the natives gave us some grief, but the Empire achieved what it had set out to do, to punish the aggressors and burn down their city. To the Greeks it was nothing less than the most glorious victory ever seen: victory over an aggressive bully, and the greatest empire in the world, to boot.
What stories are being told today, after the attack on Paris, and the ensuing imperial retaliation? In the western world, renewed airstrikes on Daesh are portrayed as nothing less than justice, another reason to wipe this organisation off the face of the earth.
But how about on the other side? Do Daesh see themselves as scruffy underdogs fighting off an imperial menace? Do they view the Paris attacks as part of a long-running feud that can be traced back generations, and justified from there? Do they hope to take on the imperial powers in a fight, or just to outlast them?
I’m no fan of relativism, and I strongly insist that Daesh are on the wrong side of history (though it’s far harder to make that judgement when it comes to the ancient Greeks and Persians). Looking back at 480 BC does however remind us of a sobering truth: history repeats itself. We keep making the same mistakes, keep going back to our old feuds, and we’ll keep doing that till the end of time. The best we can do is learn a little from the ghosts of 480 BC, and do a little better in AD 2015 (and beyond).