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.

Literature

  • 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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The Positivist Fallacy

17 September 2009
Eïon

Eïon

The Positivist Fallacy is a logical error, sometimes made by historians, when they confuse “what happened” with “that for which we have evidence”.

For example, many books about the Persian Wars end after an account of the battle of Mycale or Plataea. These are the last events mentioned by Herodotus and are the last events about which we know some details. But the war continued: we know that a Greek navy attacked Cyprus, we know that the Spartans invaded Thessaly, we know that a coalition army was active in the Bosphorus, and we know that the Persian fortress at Eïon was captured. It was only then, when the Persians were expelled from Europe, that hostilities ceased. But this stage of the war is poorly documented – and therefore, ignored. Yet, a historian can not make his account dependent on the randomness of the tradition.

Read more about the positivist fallacy here.


Common Errors (12): Marathon

31 May 2009
A Greek soldier and his panoply (Koninklijke Musea voor Kunst en Geschiedenis, Brussels)

A Greek soldier and his panoply (Koninklijke Musea voor Kunst en Geschiedenis, Brussels)

In 490 BCE, Hippias, a former tyrant of Athens, attempted to return to his native city, which was, by now, in the hands of the democrats. His interests matched those of the Persian king Darius I the Great, who liked the idea of a pro-Persian regime among the Yauna-across-the-Sea. The expedition turned out to be an epic failure: the army was defeated at Marathon. After the Athenian victory, a man named Thersippus of Eroeadae ran to Athens to announce the outcome; having told his compatriots that they were safe, he fell down dead.

At least, that’s what Plutarch says in his treatise The Glory of Athens. But the reliability of this anecdote is about zero. Plutarch lived about six centuries after the events. Worse, he adds that other sources report that the runner was called Eucles, and that he covered the distance while wearing his panoply, which is physically impossible. The Greek researcher Herodotus of Halicarnassus, who lived shortly after the famous battle and could interview the survivors, knows nothing about the Marathon runner, although he does mention a long-distance runner named Pheidippides who ran to Sparta to ask for reinforcement.

Whatever the reliability of the story, Plutarch’s anecdote inspired the organizers of the first modern Olympics, in 1896 in Athens, to invent an athletic contest of epic dimensions: the marathon run. It was repeated on later occasions, and since the Olympic Games of London (1908), the distance has always been 42 kilometer. Many people now believe that it’s also 42 kilometer from the battlefield to the Athens, but that is not the case. It is in fact about 35 kilometer, depending on your route. I once covered it in a little over seven hours. Without panoply.

<Overview of Common Errors>


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?