On the West’s Demonization of Ancient Persia
Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones Unmasks the Philhellenic Myths That Made Europe
From around 550 BCE to the age of Alexander the Great in the 330s BCE, each successive generation of Greeks had its own particular way of reconfirming, as needed, Hellenic identity against the ever-changing yet ever-present Persian threat. The Greek obsession with the Persians focused on minimizing their credibility as a superpower. Denigration of the Persians—by vilification or lampooning—was intended to cauterize the wounds of anguish and fear provoked by the threats and realities of being neighbors of an empire whose territorial ambitions were very real and which showed no sign of ever abating.
In order to increase Greek morale, a series of what might be termed “cathartic” images were created on stage, in sculpture, and in the other arts. These disparaged, degraded, and belittled the Persians and confirmed Greek (especially Athenian) pre-eminence.
One such object is a red-figured wine-jug dated to the mid-460s BCE. Known as the “Eurymedon Vase,” it shows a humiliated Persian soldier bending forward from the waist. His backside is offered up to a grubby Athenian squaddie who stands with his erect penis in his hand, rushing forward in order to penetrate the Persian’s rear. The painted rape scene (for that’s what it is) was created as a “commemorative issue” at the time the Athenians celebrated a victory over Persian forces at the battle of the River Eurymedon in Asia Minor in 467 BCE. It was used at some kind of drinking party, probably a soldiers’ get-together. As the jug was passed around a group of hoplites—the Greek equivalent of GIs—so the wine flowed and the dirty jokes began to fly. So too was the Persian on the vase manhandled from soldier to soldier.
As each drinker gripped the jug, he replayed the drama of the scene: “Now I am Eurymedon,” he boasted. “Look at me, buggering this Persian!” The vase image is a perceptive visualization of soldiers’ humor, although it is highly likely that the scene reflected a lived reality. After all, the post-battle rape of defeated soldiers has never been just a drinking-game fantasy. The Eurymedon vase was an expression of the Athenian zeitgeist of the 460s BCE. It was a well-aimed joke on recent unexpected but fortuitous political and military events which demonstrated the natural superiority of the Greeks over the barbarian Persians.Since the era of the Greco-Persian Wars, the Persians themselves have been at the receiving end of a historiographic smear campaign.
Where does this image of a humiliated, defeated, defunct Persia take us? It takes us directly to the era of the European Enlightenment, when intellectuals began to theorize as to why the West had become so dominant in the world order and had been so successful in the spread of white civilization. They came up with a radical theory: European superiority came not from Christianity, as had previously been thought throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, but from a cultural tradition that began in ancient Greece.
The Greeks, they stipulated, invented freedom and rationality. Rome then spread these precious gifts across Europe in a series of civilizing imperial conquests. Other cultures on the fringes of Greece and Rome were barbaric and the worst and most threatening of all barbarians were the Persians, with their quest for world domination. This was contrary to the natural order of white supremacy.
The concept was given voice by Charles-Louis de Montesquieu in his Persian Letters of 1721: “Liberty,” he wrote, “was intended for the genius of European races, and slavery for that of the Asiatics.” The Scottish historian John Gillies expanded on this thought in 1787, maintaining that the Persians “enslaved the Greeks of Asia Minor and for the first time, threatened Europe with the terrors of Asiatic despotism.” Across the decades and into new centuries, it became the “White Man’s Burden” (as Rudyard Kipling put it) to spread the benefits of freedom-giving Hellenic culture all over the globe, for the betterment of all races and to keep the barbarian at bay.
In September 1889 George Nathaniel Curzon, a young British Member of Parliament with a big destiny, began a three-month tour of Persia (his sole visit to the country). As he strolled around Persepolis, he was moved by what he encountered, regarding the ruins as a “solemn lesson of the ages.” The “lesson” of course was one of hubris—the Persians, he certified, were unable to understand that they “did not have the qualities needed to maintain an empire,” nor to govern it effectively.
Persia’s long decline and fall were inevitable, Curzon opined, but it needed a Greek of Alexander’s stature to bring about its predestined end. Curzon noted in his stately two-volume work Persia and the Persian Question (often regarded as history’s longest job application; the post was the coveted job of Viceroy of India) that he found Persian and Indian resistance to Western colonialization baffling: “the normal Asiatic would sooner be misgoverned by Asiatics than well governed by Europeans,” he wrote, somewhat bewildered.
Curzon was a successful product of the locus classicus of a distinctly British form of philhellenism: the English elite public-school system. These all-male institutions, factories of privilege, where senior judges, top civil servants, and Foreign Office diplomats were conveyor-belt manufactured, traditionally embedded Classics at the core of their curricula. Ancient Greek language and literature were considered the cornerstones of education and Greek was used to inculcate the next generation of Britain’s imperial administrators.
Significantly, knowledge of Greek language and history circulated only among this most privileged of Britain’s (mostly male) elite. Winston Churchill famously said that he would allow schoolboys to “learn Latin as an honor, and Greek as a treat.” Yet sitting behind this familiar bon mot was Churchill’s commitment to the use of the Classics as a means of social distancing. It was a powerful device which could be relied upon to keep the classes well apart and, by extension, add to the processes of empire-building by initiating only the top brass of society into its mysteries. The classicist H.D.F. Kitto, himself a product of the British public-education system and the author of a (still bestselling) 1951 introduction to Greek history, invited his readers “to accept… as a reasonable statement of fact” that the Greeks “had a totally new conception of what human life was for, and showed for the first time what the human mind was for.”
What has emerged from this long legacy of imperialized philhellenism is a series of damaging premises and a harmful conclusion—that classical Greece was an exceptional moment in world history and that the West has unquestionably benefited from being the heir to Greek culture. That legacy has shaped national histories. Writing in 1867, the British philosopher and political economist John Stuart Mill claimed that, “even as an event in British history,” the battle of Marathon, fought between the Greeks and the Persians in 490 BCE, “is more important than the battle of Hastings.” He declared that “the true ancestors of the European nations are not those from whose blood they are sprung, but those from whom they derive the richest portion of their inheritance.”
Westerners saw themselves as the direct heirs of the miracle of Greek civilization. It was logical for them to thereby affirm that Western culture must be exceptional too. By deduction, cultures deprived of the legacy of classical Hellenism had to be lesser civilizations in terms of rational thought and governance, unity of purpose, intelligence, and ambition. The old Greek image of a decadent and despotic Persia was repurposed to represent the inadequacies and inabilities of all non-Europeans.
This perverse understanding of a hierarchy of cultural competence is still propounded. An eminent German scholar of the Greco-Roman world, Hermann Bengston, for example, has rooted his academic career in promoting this hackneyed myth of Western superiority. He recently found the compulsion to write that:
The ramifications of the Greek triumph over the Persians are almost incalculable. By repulsing the assault of the East, the Hellenes charted the political and cultural development of the West. With the triumphant struggle for liberty by the Greeks, Europe was first born, both as a concept and as a reality. The freedom which permitted Greek culture to rise to the classical models in art, drama, philosophy and historiography, Europe owes to those who fought at Salamis and Plataea. If we regard ourselves today as free-thinking people, it is the Greeks who created the condition for this.
We can add to this the voice of Andrew Bayliss, a historian at Birmingham University, who in 2020, on the anniversary of the Battle of Thermopylae, fought in 480 BCE between Xerxes’ Persians and the combined forces of the Greek city states, advocated that:
Thermopylae’s greatest legacy was the so-called “Golden Age”… Had the Persians succeeded in permanently destroying Athens they would have snuff ed out the fledgling Athenian democracy, and we would not today marvel at the magnificence of the Parthenon on the Athenian acropolis, or be able to read the great works of literature by the like of… Thucydides… Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes…and Plato. None of this would have been possible without the inspiration that [the Spartan king] Leonidas and his men provided in their stand for freedom.
These sentiments are as flawed as they are spurious. The Persians were never out to destroy “democracy” (whatever “democracy” means in its ancient context). In fact, many Ionian Greek city states continued to practice “democracy” under Persian rule—after all, the Persians recognized the Ionian Greeks’ dislike of autocratic tyrants and they happily replaced them with democracies. Had the Achaemenids brought the mainland Greeks into their empire, they doubtless would have tolerated democracy there as well. They might even have encouraged it. A Persian victory over Sparta—the most oppressive freedom-denying slave state of antiquity—would have been a win for liberty. It would have put an end to Sparta’s terrorist-like hold over the rest of Greece. The idea that the Persians inhibited and held back Europe’s cultural development is absurd.
Since the era of the Greco-Persian Wars, the Persians themselves have been at the receiving end of a historiographic smear campaign in which they have been cast as the tyrannical oppressors of the free world. The Western intellectual commitment to the promotion of its own supposed singularity and superiority has been very damaging for the study of Persia’s history. It is time to rectify the long-standing injurious distortion that the Persians have suffered by giving ear to a genuine ancient Persian voice.
Excerpted from Persians: The Age of the Great Kings by Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones. Copyright © 2022. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.