Common Errors (34): The Origins of Western Civilization

2 June 2010

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>

Leonidas’ Obscenity

21 May 2010

Torso of a Spartan hoplite, found at Sparta and identified as a memorial statue to Leonidas.

I recently made a remark on this blog that Leonidas’ famous reply to Xerxes‘ demand to hand over his weapons, that the great king could μολὼν λαβέ, did not mean that the great king ought to come over and fight to obtain the Spartan’s weapons, although it is usually translated as “come and get them”. Mr Steven Saylor invited me to elaborate on it, and I gladly do so, because I like Mr Saylor’s novels.

In the first place a remark that is slightly beside the point. I will assume that the words – which are only known from Plutarch‘s Laconic Sayings, 225D – are historical, although Herodotus states that all Spartans were killed at Thermopylae, and presents his account of the battle as an opinion (introduced by gnomê, 7.220). Although μολὼν λαβέ is not transmitted by Herodotus, later authors could not interview witnesses either, and it is reasonable to ask whether the words were actually spoken. This, however, does not influence the meaning of μολὼν λαβέ.

Back to topic. The common translation “come and get them” is misleading because there is no reason to assume that Leonidas was referring to weapons, plural. A more correct translation would be “having come, take”. Although Plutarch says that these words were written, and Xerxes’ translator must have believed these words referred to the weapons, it is certainly possible that the soldiers with Leonidas understood them differently. If there had been any doubt, one obscene gesture would have been sufficient. A free translation like “my weapon in your —” is just as likely as the more prudish “come and get them”.

I think a coarse translation is more likely. The ancients often used sexual imagery to describe victory and conquest – think only of Caesar‘s famous remark that he would “mount on the Senate‘s head” (Suetonius, Caesar, 22.2). A less famous, but closer parallel is offered by two pictures on a small vase in the Hamburg Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, which show an Athenian about to rape a Persian, who (according to the inscription on that vase), says “I am Eurymedon, I’m screwed”.

Besides, isn’t obscenity part and parcel of the military language, in each and every society? Although I knew what to expect – I’ve been in the army myself – I felt quite embarrassed when I read Swofford’s Jarhead (2003; I liked the book in general, though). And I think I do not have to point out what General McAuliffe‘s reply to the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge, “Nuts!”, really meant.

Circumnavigating Africa

2 May 2010

A Phoenician ship on a Phoenician coin

One of the most interesting anecdotes in the HerodotusHistories is the story about the circumnavigation of Africa by a group of Phoenician explorers (4.42). In Aubrey de Selincourt‘s translation:

Africa is washed on all sides by the sea except where it joins Asia, as was first demonstrated, so far as our knowledge goes, by the Egyptian king Necho, who … sent out a fleet manned by a Phoenician crew with orders to sail west about and return to Egypt and the Mediterranean by way of the Straits of Gibraltar. The Phoenicians sailed from the Arabian gulf into the southern ocean, and every autumn put in at some convenient spot on the African coast, sowed a patch of ground, and waited for next year’s harvest. Then, having got in their grain, they put to sea again, and after two full years rounded the Pillars of Heracles in the course of the third, and returned to Egypt. These men made a statement which I do not myself believe, though others may, to the effect that as they sailed on a westerly course round the southern end of Africa, they had the sun on their right – to northward of them. This is how Africa was first discovered by sea.

The last detail is of course the most interesting point: Herodotus’ argument that the story cannot be true, is the best proof that it really happened. In class, I often use this to explain Herodotus’ method: he tells the stories he heard, but he does not always believe it himself. He’s not a simple teller of tall stories, but is sometimes skeptical, and the reader must be extremely alert if he wants to learn – to decode – Herodotus’ own ideas. (Nearly all modern literature about the battle at Thermopylae is irrelevant, because almost all scholars have ignored that it is introduced with the highly significant gnomê, “in my opinion”: Herodotus does not claim that Leonidas’ presumed self-sacrifice is a fact.)

But to return to our Phoenician explorers, it is interesting to know that at this very moment, a group of mostly British sailors is trying to repeat the great voyage. You will find their website here and you can track them here. I must confess that I am a bit puzzled about their route, because they do not stay close to the shore, as the ancient Phoenicians must have done (explanation). I can understand that they wanted to evade the Somalian pirates, so it makes sense that they made a detour to a point even east of the Seychelles, but I am surprised that in the Atlantic, they visited Saint Helena. As a landlubber, I can only think of sea currents, but somehow, it strikes me as a bit inauthentic.

That being said, it is a good thing that archaeology can be presented as an adventure. The real adventure is, of course, intellectual, but our neo-Phoenicians make science accessible and comprehensible in a way that is better than imitating Indiana Jones, as Zahi Hawass does.

Xerxes killing a Greek Hoplite

2 March 2009

A couple of months ago, two of my best friends, Marlous and Marco, spent their honeymoon in New York. They visited several museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Marco made photos, like this one:

A Persian King Killing a Hoplite

A Persian King Killing a Hoplite

It is an impression of a Persian cylinder seal, which can stylistically be dated to the first quarter of the fifth century. It represents a Persian king fighting against a Yauna (Greek). As Darius is not known to have fought against them -he had generals like Datis and Artaphernes to do that- it must represent Xerxes. The man fallen on the ground must be someone important; perhaps it is Leonidas. Of course it is symbolic – the two probably never came this close during the fight. Still, it brings to mind that, according to Herodotus, Xerxes hated no one as much as the Spartan king.

Seals like these are, except for Xerxes’ claim (in inscription XPh) to have conquered the “Yauna from across the Sea” and a probably unreliable reference to tapestries with scenes from the Persian War in Babylon (mentioned by Philostratus, Life of Apollonius, 1.25), the only evidence for the Persian side of the story. The seals say that the Persians considered it a triumph like any other, and that makes it important.

Besides, isn’t this picture -in spite of the unpleasant scene- beautiful?