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>


Cambyses’ Still Lost Army

13 November 2009
Photo Marco Prins

Persian soldiers, on a glazed relief from Susa, now in the Louvre.

You can leave it to archaeologists to make exaggerated claims and you can leave it to journalists to swallow the nonsense. The readers of this little blog know that I have introduced the Ctesias Scale to measure poor archaeological journalism. A possible example of wilful disinformation was the announcement, earlier this week, that the remains of Cambyses‘ lost army had been found: go here or here for examples.

The story: in 525 BCE, the Persian king Cambyses conquered Egypt. After that, he sent an army to the west, to conquer the Oracle of Ammon. It never reached the place, and the Greek researcher Herodotus says that it was destroyed by a violent desert storm. Now, two Italian archaeologists, the twin brothers Alfredo and Angelo Castiglioni, claim to have found remains of the army, partly on a sheltered place where people might have tried to find cover against a sandstorm.

There are two reasons to be suspicious.

In the first place, Herodotus is not a very reliable author. Not because he is not interested in the truth: on the contrary, he is certainly one of the most truthloving writers of the ancient world. But it was hard to get correct information, and Herodotus was standing in a tradition that appreciated an artful presentation. So, in his Histories, Xerxes‘ failed expedition is mirrored by the failures of earlier Persian rulers. So, Herodotus says that Cyrus was defeated by the Massagetes (according to Xenophon, Cyrus died of natural causes); that Darius lost a navy in a storm at the Athos; that Darius also lost an army during a Scythian campaign; and that Cambyses lost an army in the desert. These stories are not necessarily untrue, but the repetition makes one suspicious. I would not be surprised if some of these stories were created by Herodotus because he believed they had to have happened.

But even if we assume that Cambyses sent out an expedition to the Oracle of Ammon, there is still a reason not to believe the claim by our two Italian archaeologists. What they have found, or claim to have found, is a set of Persian weapons (e.g., arrowheads), skulls, and bones. Even if we assume that they are indeed Persian, it is a serious logical fallacy to assume that they belong to soldiers of Cambyses’ campaign. The Persians controled Egypt for more than a century (from 525 to c.401) and there must have been dozens of occasions on which soldiers were sent to the west. All these expeditions may have found itself lost in the western desert. What archaeologists can find, is evidence that a Persian army got into trouble; but stating that the finds belonged to a particular expedition is introducing a secundum quid. I think we must be suspicious.

Postscript

Perhaps this message at Andie Byrnes’ Egyptology Blog may be relevant too; although it leaves the Cambyses story itself unchallenged, it suggests that the Castiglionis are not completely bona fide. That may be mudslinging, but I think that suspicion about the report is completely justifiable.

Postpostscript

It helps to check the facts; David Meadows investigated the case. The journalists who swallowed this nonsense, ought to be under orders to read his article.


Susa: 12 pages, 126 new photos

3 April 2009
Mountain goat on a cup from Susa (Archaeological Museum, Tehran)

Mountain goat on a cup from Susa (Archaeological Museum, Tehran)

I finally finished my pages on Susa, the capital of ancient Elam, well-known from Greek, Jewish (Esther), Persian, and Babylonian sources. The site was in the nineteenth century for a very large part excavated by French archaeologists, which explains why so many objects are in the Louvre. All in all, there are twelve pages, which contain 126 photos made in Susa and the museums in Tehran, London, Paris, and of course Susa itself.

For a general history of the ancient city, go here. Other links of interest: the Acropolis (oldest part of the city) with the remains of the Dynastic Temple of the Šutrukids; the Palace of Darius I the Great with its Apadana and Great Gate, its splendid Soldiers’ Relief and the Statue of Darius, situated on a terrace. Across the river Shaour, you will find the Palace of Artaxerxes, and at the foot of the hill are the Tomb of Daniel, a Muslim shrine, and the lovely museum about which I blogged earlier. Your satellite photo is here.

Also available: all Achaemenid Royal Inscriptions from Susa:DSa, DSb, DSc, DSd, DSe, DSf, DSg, DSi, DSj, DSk, DSl, DSm, DSn, DSo, DSp, DSq, DSs, DSt, DSu, DSv, DSw, DSy, DSz, DSaa, DSab, XSa, XSb, XSc, XSd, XSe, D2Sa, D2Sb, A2Sa, A2Sb, A2ScA2Sd. Enjoy!


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?


Six Battles of Thermopylae

2 August 2008
Thermopylae

Thermopylae

I’ve visited Thermopylae three times, have walked a bit through the mountains, climbed into an electric pylon to make the photo to the right – in short, it’s a place I like, even though it is, to quote a poet, “a guilty landscape” with almost too many historical associations. It is hard to imagine that this was once a narrow road along the coast and the site of six ancient battles. I already had something online, but expanded it. There’s a page about the landscape, a page about the famous battle in 480 BCE against the Persians, a page with Herodotus’ account, and a page with the other five battles (actually, six, but one of them was not really at Thermopylae).


Penelope

23 December 2007
Penelope

Penelope

The statue is not very special. Just a torso. In fact, it is rather damaged. It probably represents Penelope, the wife of Odysseus. It’s in wet drapery style, so it dates to the second or third decade of the fifth century. Because it’s made of Pentelian marble, we know it’s from Athens. Nothing special.

What makes it unique, is the place where it was found: the Treasury of the royal palaces of Persepolis. Which explains why it’s now in the National Archaeological Museum of Iran in Tehran. The question how an Athenian statue came to Persepolis is easily answered: it must have been stolen in Athens when the Achaemenid king Xerxes looted the city in September 480. This damaged torso is a silent witness to an almost legendary war, and that’s what makes it unique.


A Jar from Halicarnassus

20 December 2007
Xerxes jar

Xerxes' jar

In the British Museum in London, you can see this calcite jar (almost 30 centimeters high), which was discovered in the ruins of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, the monumental tomb of the satrap of Caria, Maussolus.

The object was probably made in Egypt and contains a very brief inscription in Egyptian, Old Persian, Babylonian, and Elamite: The great king Xerxes. The inscription itself is rather stereotypical and not extremely interesting, but the fact that Xerxes’ jar was discovered in the Halicarnassian Mausoleum, is quite sensational.

It is well-known that the Achaemenid king Xerxes, who ruled the Persian empire between 486 and 465, tried to conquer Greece in 480. However, unrest in Babylonia appears to have made it impossible for the Persians to keep their forces concentrated in the west, and Xerxes was forced to break off the war after he had conquered Thessaly and Boeotia, captured Athens, but lost a naval engagement at Salamis.

The Greek war is described in great detail by the Greek researcher Herodotus of Halicarnassus, who does not mention a visit by Xerxes to his native city. Yet, only the great king can have given this precious object with the almost sacrosanct royal signature to the ruler of Halicarnassus, queen Artemisia, who is also said to have been among the best commanders in the navy of Xerxes. The present passed through the Carian royal line and was eventually given as a funeral gift to Maussolus and his wife, who was also called Artemisia.

It is an intriguing thought that this little jar has been in the hands of king Xerxes, queen Artemisia, satrap Maussolus, and his wife Artemisia. It is also a fascinating object that illustrates the way in which the histories of Persia, Egypt, and Caria were once intertwined.


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