Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Key Dates of European History

Many people reduce history to a mass of dates and facts. This is the way history is usually taught in schools and often presented in various media. Usually, a timeline consists of a number of dates and brief facts next to them. I personally believe that it is essential to know a number of dates to have a reasonably accurate chronological view of history, but I also think that it is necessary to know what these dates mean exactly, and why we have to remember precisely these dates.

As a European, I identify myself with European culture and history. While I won't attempt to trace the political, cultural and social reality that the European Union is - or will hopefully become - to a more or less imagined historical foundation as has been done before (Charlemagne, anyone?), I do believe that there is a certain, vague cultural identity that has tied Europe together throughout its history. I will try to trace this cultural identity in a series of posts here, in timeline fashion, because that is perhaps the easiest way to both present and understand... however, I also believe that the events themselves are of little importance. If you want to know more about them, read Wikipedia. What I find much more relevant is the meaning of these events. Each timeline entry is a new post, in which I explain why I believe these dates are of unique significance to European history. Sometimes they may seem like a cliché, but sometimes, they might be a straight-out surprise.

479 - The battle of Plataeae

When the Persian King Xerxes I (rg. 486-645 BC) launched his infamous Greek campaign in 480 BC, nobody believed that this tiny, poor and unorganised collection of warring city states would ever be able to put anything against him. Sure, the Greeks had previously beaten the Persians, ten years before at Marathon; but at that time, the Persians did not seriously intend to conquer mainland Greece. King Darius I only sent out to recapture lost territories and punish what he considered a treacherous ally.

It was different in 480. Whatever his motivations may have been, King Xerxes, son of Darius, wanted to conquer Greece and incorporate it to the Persian Empire. I have discussed the actual size of his army before; but in any case, what Xerxes came up with seemed like an idiot-proof plan: The seemingly unlimited resources of the largest empire the world had seen to that point against a handful of mountain tribes. It was a sure thing. So sure that even the Carthaginians allied with Xerxes, just to be on the winner’s side and not become a Persian province themselves some time in the future.

Two things made Xerxes’ plan fail: A sudden sense of unity in Greece, and Greek geography. Despite being arch-enemies, the Greek cities of Athens and Sparta allied and vowed to stand together, along with a number of other city states. Only few Greek territories chose to stay neutral and even less sided with the Persians.

At the same time, the Persians underestimated the viciousness of Greek terrain. Be it the bottleneck of the Thermopyles or the unrest of the Aegean Sea, Xerxes’ army was held up long enough for the Greeks to evacuate their territories, mostly Athens and Attica, and come up with a strategy to beat the Persians. Truth be told, in the small-scaled Greek countryside, the size of the Persian army was a major disadvantage. Try to imagine a narrow corridor with concrete walls and a huge Stalin-eque tank running through it and you’ve got a picture of what the Persian situation was like. Add to that the fact that the Greeks knew how to deal with their country, and the Persians didn’t- the Greeks had the superior army. Quality won over quantity. After decisive victories at Salamis (480), Plataeae and Mycale (both 479), the Greeks expelled the Persians from their country for good. No Persian army would ever set foot on mainland Europe again.

I am a bit wary when people cite this as a victory of freedom over slavery and all that sort of stuff. Being a part of the Persian Empire wasn’t all that bad. Persian rule usually reduced itself to two things: A governor appointed by the Great King, but with a few notable exceptions usually part of the local aristocracy, and the fact that the province had to pay taxes to Persia. In times of war, the provinces also had to send soldiers to the imperial army, but this only happened a few times in the 200-year long history of the empire. The comparison of the Greeks serving nobody, and the Persians being slaves to their king is also poor: Both the Greeks and the Persians alike served their gods. The only basic difference is that the Persians believed their king was appointed by the Gods, hence disloyalty to the king was blasphemy. From a theological perspective, there is no difference. In fact, Zoroastrian theology explicitly states that it is a peoples right to rid themselves of an unjust ruler.

These thoughts aside, it remains undisputed that the Greek victories at Salamis and Plataeae were defining moments in European history. Whatever would have happened after a Persian victory, good or bad, it would have been profoundly different. To clarify this importance, we only need to ask ourselves a few questions. Without the Athenian expansion and hegemony in the 5th century BC, would the Athenian agora have become a place of intellectual and cultural discourse that brought together Socrates, Sophocles, Aeschylus, Phidias and Hippocrates? Would Plato have founded his academy? Would Thucydides have developed the scientific method if Persian overlords prevented the terrible wars between Athens and Sparta? Would Aristotle have developed his ideas of science and logic if the Macedonian kings would not have gathered the greatest thinkers of their time to compete with the southern Greek states?

Ancient Greece laid the foundation of what we today know as the European civilisation and all that derived from it. The only danger to be faced when arguing that the Greek-Persian struggle originally kick-started the development of Hellenic civilisation is that the analogy is carried to the modern world. Despite this historic fact, there is no inherent struggle of East vs West by which either civilisation is defined. Moreover: Even though Europe’s spiritual genesis lies in ancient Greece, the influence of neighbouring – oriental – cultures is profound. Clio likes to deceive us into drawing easy conclusions by offering simple, superficial facts, but historic truth is always much more complex.

1 comment:

  1. Not bad, a very interesting series of points. But you forgot one thing. This...is...SPARTA!