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.