Common Errors (34): The Origins of Western Civilization

The plain of Marathon - the battle was important but less decisive than used to be claimed

The Persian Wars are often presented as a turning point in world history. It was indeed an important conflict: the Greek national identity, until then expressed as a shared religion and language, had withstood a powerful attack and had been reinforced. With good reason, the Greeks believed that their fight against the armies of Xerxes had been their finest hour.

However, it is possible to overstate the importance of the conflict. Many nineteenth-century classicists argued that if the Greeks had lost their war against Persia, their new masters would have substituted the Athenian democracy with a tyranny, and the young Athenian culture would have vanished in a vortex of Oriental despotism, irrationality, and cruelty. Democracy and philosophy would have died, and Greek civilization would have had a different nature.

As it happens, the importance of the Persian War has been the subject of a famous theoretical discussion between Max Weber (1864-1920) and Eduard Meyer (1855-1930), who had written that if the Persians had won the war,

“the outcome would have been that some kind of church [...] would have put Greek life and thought under a yoke and would have chained all free dynamics, and the new Greek culture would, like the oriental cultures, have had a theological-religious nature.”

It is not true, as is often said, that the question “what if…?” is meaningless. It is discussing why and how we’ve become what we are. Nothing less. Meyer focuses on an important point. However, we can no longer answer the question with his dogmatic certainty.

Weber, who is best known as one of the founders of the social sciences but started his career as a pupil of the great ancient historian Theodor Mommsen, discussed this matter in a rightly famous essay, “Kritische Studien auf dem Gebiet der kulturwissenschaftlichen Logik”. I will not summarize it, and will concentrate on one simple question: how did Meyer know that a Persian victory would have obstructed the rise of freedom, democracy, and rationalism? Weber easily proved that Meyer’s reasoning was counterfactual: he explains the significance of an event by pointing at what would have happened if it had not taken place. And counterfactual explanations are, as any student of history learns in his first year, rarely reliable.

Let’s take a look at some uncontested facts. In the first place, in 493, the Persian general Mardonius accepted democracy in the Greek cities in the Persian Empire (Herodotus, Histories, 6.43); we cannot be certain that Xerxes would have abolished the Athenian democracy. In his account of the great war, Herodotus does not refer to Persian plans for regime change in Athens, and his description of the negotiations in 480/479 even suggests that the great king had no problems with democracy.

In the second place, the axiom that the Persians were opposed to rationalism was perhaps acceptable in 1901, before the great cuneiform archives were known. We cannot blame Meyer, but his idea can no longer be accepted: the research program of the Chaldaeans in the satrapy of Babylonia, for example, is perfectly rational. An Athens under Persian control would have accepted a Plato or an Aristotle (who, as a matter of fact, was to do some of his best research in Persian-controled Assos). Meyer’s qualification of the ancient Near East as theological-religious in nature, has been shown to be incorrect, and tells a lot about the prejudices of his age (more…).

Meyer’s ideas have been refuted, and what’s more: Weber’s essay has become one of the foundations of historical theory. Not many students actually read it, but in the first year, when students learn to define causality, get acquainted with the three (or four) explanatory models, learn what kinds of argument are acceptable and which are not – in short, when they learn the logical and epistemological foundations of their discipline – they are in fact getting acquainted with ideas formulated for the first time by Weber.

To return to the initial question: Meyer later admitted he had been too optimistic. The truth is that we simply do not know whether Greek culture would have been very difficult. And even if it were, it is hard to pass judgment – to state that there would have been no Plato or Aristotle is as absurd as saying that under Persian domination, Greece would have avoided a lot of epistemological speculation and might have proceeded directly to the inspiring ethical systems of Epicurus and Zeno.

We cannot answer Meyer’s important question. We have to live with that. People who cannot accept incertitude, simply must not study ancient history.


  • Ed. Meyer, Geschichte des Altertums (1901), vol. III, pp. 445-446
  • M. Weber, “Kritische Studien auf dem Gebiet der kulturwissenschaftlichen Logik” in: Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Wissenschaftslehre (1973), esp. pp. 286-287

<Overview of Common Errors>

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2 Responses to Common Errors (34): The Origins of Western Civilization

  1. Bill says:

    Wonderful! In a Persian Greece, Socrates and Plato probably go the same way, but I’m not sure how much of Aristotle’s lasting fame we owe to his fame as the Great Alexander’s personal tutor. Some of Aristotle’s fame may be due to Philip’s privilege of attracting the best southern Greek minds.

    That, to me, brings us to the real critical point of these theoretical questions. If Persia controls Greece for long enough, and if Persia rules Macedonia copacetically enough, [a] Philip’s whole life would have been very different. Then, if some Philip arises to liberate Greece, instead of to subdue it, he might not have inspired such further eastward ambitions in any successor of his, any Alexander.

    Thus, the most intriguing incertitude may not be so much about how western (Greek) thought might have been easternized… but would Palestine ever have become Hellenistic? Change Philip’s world, and Judaism *might* not develop a Septuagint. Abandon Anatolia to the Persians, and Rome *might* not move so inexorably towards controlling the East… Jesus might have stood before some Parthian governor… and the Gospel *might* not cross the Hellespont as quickly (or as effectively) as it did.

    Uncertain? Absolutely. But interesting…

  2. joshuacarlsen says:

    First let me state that it is very difficult to say what would happen if one side would have won a war. That being said I do believe that democracy and philosophy would be different than it is today. Depending on how long the Persian occupation of Greece lasted it could change it slightly or significantly. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle could have been radical leaders of fringe groups to start a revolution. You could go as far as call them Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin. Philip or Alexander could have been the George Washington of their time. Meaning that at some point the Greeks would have risen up arms against the Persians and they would need leader to do it. Being oppressed greatly changes the way a person thinks. So there for their lasting teachings would have been different. You would see these men as revolutionists and people who fought oppression and not really philosophers. Greece may have ended up being what America is today but century’s before. Just a thought not saying that any of this would happen but it is fun to think about.

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