The (hypothetical) fall and rise of the West

After all the discoveries of the Forgotten Empire exhibition (see previous post) it was a surprise to go into the exhibition shop and see the prominence of Tom Holland’s book, Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West. Judging from the blurb, this seems to be a very traditional Western view of how the heroic Athenians and Spartans held out against the might of the Persian ‘tyranny’ (Sparta wasn’t exactly a democracy either). This started me wondering: just how vital were the Greek victories to the West? The usual disclaimers (not my millennium), but here’s my thought experiment on the difference if the Greeks had been conquered in the fifth century BC.

I don’t think it would have made an enormous difference to Greek culture, because the Persian empire was religiously tolerant and most Greek culture did not depend on the availability of vast wealth. The Persian empire was also multilingual and Greek was one of the many languages used. I think you’d still have got most of Greek literature, with the exception of Athenian Old Comedy (Aristophanes), which is very politically based. The Homeric epics had already been created, tragedy as a genre had been invented. Most tragedy (with the exception of Aeschylus’ ‘The Persians’) didn’t deal with current events, so I suspect would have caused no trouble. Herodotus may not have produced the Histories in the form they are now, but he lived and wrote under Persian rule for at least part of his life, so there is no intrinsic problem about secular history writing developing. Greek religion, philosophy and science could all develop under a monarchy as well as in a democracy, as the Hellenestic period showed. You wouldn’t have got the Parthenon and Greek art might have developed slightly differently, but Persian art would probably also have absorbed a lot of Greek traditions. There would have been the loss of much of the experience of Athenian democracy, although probably not all political theory about it. The long term impact of Athenian democracy was pretty limited – only really significant in C19 probably, and the ideas could develop independently of the Greek example (e.g. Switzerland).

What about the long term effects? I’m assuming here that the Persian empire was relatively stable. That may seem a big assumption, but it survived for 200 years. An empire that survives that long could well survive for centuries more. If most of mainland Greece had been conquered, I don’t think there’d have been an Alexander the Great. Even if Macedonia had remained independent, it wouldn’t have been able to have the gradual build-up, taking over other Greek states, that gave it the resources to take on Persia. The political fragmentation following on from the collapse of Alexander’s empire wouldn’t have happened.

Which is where it gets really intriguing. Rome was able to conquer Greece in the third and second century BC essentially by setting one small Greek state against another. I don’t think it could have conquered the Achaemenid Empire (it couldn’t defeat the later Sassanids, who ruled a similar, but smaller area). So you have Rome confined to the West, probably with much lesser Greek influence on it and in the East you have a vast, religiously tolerant Persian Empire, in one small corner of which are the Jews. I think it’s at least possible that Christianity could have developed and spread in the Persian Empire, in the way it did in the Roman Empire. If the empire as whole became Christianised (of course, not a necessary condition), you might have ended up with a sort of supercharged version of the early medieval Byzantine Empire, richer by far than the Roman West and culturally superior. Possibly it would have been strong enough to limit severely the Islamic invasions of the seventh century AD. The difference between defeat and victory at Marathon and Salamis may have been less about freedom versus tyranny and more about where ‘the West’ developed and who was left to be the barbarians outside it.


5 thoughts on “The (hypothetical) fall and rise of the West

  1. Interesting exercise, even more so I imagine for trained historians. The idea reminds me of the film Sliding Doors – plot summary reminder – partly filched from an uncredited source: –

    Helen (Gwyneth Paltrow) lives in London with a man who is cheating on her. She gets fired from her job and as she is going to catch the train back home, the film takes two courses. In one she misses the train and continues to live unknowingly with her unfaithful lover,in the other she arrives home unexpectedly, discovers the infidelity and moves out.

    The film alternates between these two different lives. In one she moves on and finds a new love, in the other gets a second job to help support the loser boyfriend.

    This continues until one night, Helen in both lives ends up in the hospital. One of her parallel lives dies. The other Helen that lives seems to have some kind of memory of things that happened to her other self.

    It’s all discussed with more critical seriousness by my favourite reviewer, James Berardinelli


  2. Enjoyably analytical and speculative. I think that Christian Orthodoxy would have most certainly have been the dominant form of Christianity and that our philosphical and literary culture might have been enriched earlier. But I am only a dabbler here, my main interest and area being EngLit. However your post is a pleasure to read.



  3. I think you’re being rather harsh on my blurb! Athens and Sparta are described as “terrorist states”; the Persian invasion is described as a war “to bring truth and order” to Greece; Darius is hailed as “the supreme political genius in the history of the Middle East”. Oh, and the word “tyranny” certainly does NOT appear in the blurb – in the context of a book that is at least partly about 6th Century Athens, that would be an unforgiveable solecism. Not even the most revisionist Hellenophobe, however, could deny that Darius was indeed – if the word is to have any meaning at all – a ‘despot’.


  4. Dear Tom,

    I’ve now re-read the blurb (I’m sorry, I still haven’t bought the book, but I’m broke) and you’re right that I overstated my case and that there’s no reference to tyranny. But there are still two key points about the blurb that I take issue with. One is the idea of ‘saving the West’. What my post was suggesting was that the victory wasn’t necessary for the preservation of most of Greek culture. I don’t see that as making me a Hellenophobe. I’m not denying the value of the Greek heritage or saying another culture could have replaced most of its ideas (though I do think democracy could and did develop independently). All I was saying was that Greek culture could have flourished in a non-democratic Greece or under foreign rule. The example of the Hellenistic world and the Roman Empire surely confirm this – I was querying whether the same phenomenon could have happened further back, given that the Persians do not seem to have felt the need to destroy the cultures of the peoples they conquered.

    The second thing I disliked was the whole idea of the conflict between East and West. This was a very Greek-centred view in 500 BC (which is why it seemed incongruous after an exhibition on the Persians, which showed that Greece was rather peripheral to them). But I am also very unhappy with the recent tendency to claim millennia of conflict between East and West. (This is where I think Edward Said went wrong in trying to project Orientalism too far back). First of all, I dislike this view because it’s historically inept. Aside from the fact that the Persian Empire was one of the first conquests of Islam and that there’s little cultural continuity, I’m looking from the point of view of a Carolingianist, studying the dominant Western empire of the eighth and ninth century. To the Franks of that period, the Saracens were one among a number of many non-Christian/bad Christian peoples and by no means the worst. There is no crusader spirit, but far more hostility towards the Vikings and even the Byzantine Empire. If there was a West for the Franks, it ended at Croatia.

    I also dislike the idea of the ‘conflict between East and West’ because it can lead to stupid claims about eternal values, as if there’s a simple connection between Athenian democracy and our own or between Persian despotism and modern Middle Eastern states. The nadir of this is stuff like Victor Davis Hanson claiming that there’s a ‘western way of war’.
    At some point I will try and read your book so I can make some more informed comments about the actual content. But this is why I’m not happy with your blurb.


  5. Thanks for your reply – to which I hope you won’t mind me replying in turn.

    Were Marathon and Salamis truly decisive battles? Would it have mattered that Greek independence was crushed in the early 5th Century BC, rather than the late 4th? Of course, you are perfectly correct to point out that the Hellenistic era saw the acme of Greek scientific achievement – and yet much else that was distinctive about Hellenistic culture – from literature to philosophy to architecture to sculpture – depended upon the achievements of 5th Century Athens – and 5th Century Athens, had the Persians won at Marathon, would quite simply not have existed. No Thucydides, no Socrates, no Plato. No functioning democracy – as opposed to the zoo attraction that the Romans tolerated – and so no tragedy, no oratory, no Parthenon, no Pheidias. And also – perhaps most intriguingly – no ‘Histories’ of Herodotus, the man who more than any other served to develop the notion of the world being divided into two rival points of the compass, East and West – and it is to Herodotus, more than to anyone, that my subtitle is alluding.

    And yes, coming to your second point, you are again, of course, perfectly right: the Carolingians had no notion of Europe and Asia as rival continents, in the Herodotean sense – nor, with a Byzantine Empire still straddling the Hellespont, would it have meant anything to them, even if they had still been reading Greek. But come Montaigne in the 16th Century, and still more come the Enlightenment, and European thinkers do very much start identifying themselves with the Greeks who fought at Marathon and Thermopylae. If I may – clearing of throat – quote myself: “As the word ‘Christendom’ began to lose its resonance in the aftermath of the Reformation, so the heroics of Marathon and Salamis began to strike many idealists as an altogether more edifying exemplification of Western virtues than the Crusades. More principled, after all, to defend than to invade; better to fight for liberty than in the cause of fanaticism.” The ‘West’, as the word is used today, is a modern term; and yet it is not anachronistic to use it with reference to ancient Greece, because the Greeks too thought of themselves as belonging to the lands of the setting sun.

    I guess this must all seem terribly nit-picking. But I am niggled at being scolded for knee-jerk orientalism when you will see, I hope, if you can one day scrounge together the coppers to buy it, that I have actually made a real effort to tell both sides of the Persian Wars – or should that be the Greek Wars?


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