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Archives from The Flâneur's Arcade (2007-2017)

Tag: a history of europe

Bummer


Frederick III, Holy Roman Emperor, detail
(Hans Burgkmair, circa 1500)
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

from H. A. L. Fisher, A History of Europe, pp. 351-352
(Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1935)

Frederick III (1440-93), the first Emperor to show the famous Habsburg lip, and the last Emperor to be crowned in Rome, was as great a nullity as ever played an important part in history. Without any of the engaging gifts of Edward II of England, Frederick was just as little fitted as that unfortunate monarch for the dispatch of business… [This] dull obstinate bigot ruled in Vienna for more than fifty years, leaving no print of mind or will upon the conduct of affairs. The Turks conquered Constantinople and overran Hungary. The rôle of Austria as the chief remaining bulwark of Christianity against the Ottoman Turk became charged with a new significance, which could hardly escape the meanest intelligence. But no event, however, startling, could ruffle the placidity of Frederick, no problem however grave could excite his sluggish mind, or the most alarming prospect inflame his torpid imagination. Inertia was the principle of his life. The most important station in Europe at one of the most critical moments in her history was occupied by a blockhead.

Looking Back at Obama


Ex-President Obama’s last look at the White House
(Source: Pete Souza’s Instagram)

As Obama’s term ends, one cannot help reflect on the legacy of his presidency. While his approval ratings remain highest among exiting chief executives of the recent past, I’m afraid that the sober eye of history will cast a harsh judgment on what he did–or rather, did not do–during his watch. As the glitter of his celebrity tarnishes with time, the deficiencies of his feckless leadership will come to full relief, like that of “dull” and “sluggish” Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III, who oversaw the final fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks (1453). When Europe is finally completely Islamized, and its democracies subjected to Sharia Law, its people will look back on Obama’s failures in Libya, Syria, and Iraq, the rise of the barbaric Islamic State and the mass migration of muslim refugees to Europe, and discover in his inscrutable inertia the root of its decline.


Afghanistan


Libya


Benghazi


ISIS


Syria


Iran


Russia


Ukraine


Europe


“No problem however grave could excite his sluggish mind”

The Course of Empire


The Course of Empire: Desolation (1833-36, Thomas Cole)
“First freedom and then Glory–when that fails
Wealth, vice, corruption–barbarism at last” (Lord Byron)

from H. A. L. Fisher, A History of Europe
(Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1935)

The Western Empire, A. D. 476 (pp. 124-125)

From this moment, the germanization of the West steadily proceeded. Ostrogoths poured into the Balkan peninsula, creating by their restless and turbulent activities a problem similar to that which had taxed the resources of the Eastern Empire a century before. In Italy a succession of phantom and ephemeral emperors reached its close with a pathetic figure, named by the supreme irony of providence, Romulus Augustus, who was deposed by Odovacar, the East German master of the troops (476). Military revolutions were no novelty in the annals of the Roman Empire, and the act of Odovacar had many precedents… It is true that he deposed Romulus, but the lad was a usurper, unrecognized in Constantinople, and the deed condoned by the bestowal upon its author of the high imperial title of patrician. What was original in Odovacar’s action was not that it was revolutionary, but that it was conservative. He refused to appoint a successor to Romulus, calculating that he would have more elbowroom in a united Empire governed from Constantinople as in the days of Theodosius the Great. That unity was in fact and theory preserved until the coronation of Charlemagne as Emperor of the West in 800.


The Roman Empire at the time of Theodosius I,
Last Emperor to rule the Eastern and Western parts


Barbarian invasions of the 5th century

The Eastern (Byzantine) Empire, A. D. 1453 (pp. 418-419)

Constantine VI (1458-53), the last of the Caesars, though the nominee of Murad and his vassal, shines out in the final crisis of the Empire as a statesman and hero, prepared alike for compromise and for sacrifice. The Greek population of Constantinople, for whom the quarrels of monks were always more important than the clash of races, were unworthy of such a leader. While Mohammed’s artillery was battering at the walls, the public opinion of the capital was inflamed by denunciation of the Emperor who, in the desperate hope of winning the West to his side, had dared to recognize the Roman Church and to permit the celebration of Roman rites in the Church of Saint Sophia. To these wretched theological preoccupations we may perhaps ascribe the fact that the main part of the defence of the city was undertaken, not by the Greeks, but by Spaniards, Germans, and Italians. And as the defending force was not principally Greek, so the attacking army was not wholly Turkish. The levies of Mohammed were largely recruited from men of a Greek and Christian stock. So it happened that on May 29, 1453, by default of the Christians the great city was breached and stormed, the last of the Byzantine Emperors perishing honourably in the death agony of the Empire.


Left: The Sack of Rome by the Barbarians in 410
(1890, Joseph-Noël Sylvestre)
Right: The Entry of Mahomet II into Constantinople
(1876, Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant)

Marginal Notes:

Another example of Fisher’s gift for compression–a rendering of complex history vividly yet with great economy. While he describes the final fate of the Western and Eastern Roman Empires at a galloping pace, he does so in evocative language that attends to all that are remarkable and of consequence, and to the peculiar nature of personalities: the pathetic figure of Romulus, ironically named after the Empire’s mythical founder; the germanic military mensch, Odovacar, usurping power from the effete boy-king; the tragic Constantine XI (not VI), last emperor of Byzantium, protecting with his life a city that bickered against him.

While germanic barbarians whittled away at the Western Empire over a period of a hundred years, the Byzantine Empire slowly collapsed under its weight for another thousand years, until the Ottoman Turks finally captured Constantinople. Fisher dramatizes the immediate causes of the fall by describing how, even as Mohammed II’s army were banging at the walls, the Greek monks were busy publicly denouncing the Emperor for allowing Latin liturgy in an Orthodox church.

These epic historical moments were popular subjects of paintings in the 19th century, with Sylvestre depiciting in Academic mode the Sack of Rome by the Visigoths, while Benjamin-Constant employed the lush Orientalist style for Mohammed II’s triumphal entry into Constantinople. In Sylvestre’s painting, brutish barbarians, in their animal nakedness, scale the imposing statue of Caesar to topple it, while Alaric the Bold looked on. The stolid white marble of the Roman Forum, and the imperious demeanor of larger-than-life Caesar, adorned with laurels of victory and bearing a lion shield, contrast effectively with the sanguine beastliness of the German mob. In Benjamin-Constant’s painting, Mohammed II on his black Arabian stallion raises the green crescent flag as he tramples upon the dead Byzantines–patrician women and slaves, monks and knights, even Moors. Smoke billows from the burning Christian city, as a late afternoon light washes the stone archway with a tinge of saffron, the sun setting on the ruins of a once glorious Empire.

While such arcane theological debates that caused so much grief and bloodshed throughout Europe’s history seem quaint today, a new sort of religion has taken its place, especially among the secular Left in the West, in the form of PC activism. While ISIS razes the Middle East and Al-Qaida threaten Western civilization in Europe, the priests and prophets of Climate Change are preoccupied with theological sophistries (carbon emissions causing terrorism?) and persecution of its heretics (plotting civil suits against “deniers”?). Their long incubation in the comforts of civilization have detached them from the grim realities that prop up the conditions of their existence, and like the monks behind the walls of Constantinople, they have lost all sense of proportion.

Cities, however, are not defended by beliefs, but by will and material power. Had the Greeks been resolute and united, had the navies of Genoa and Venice been placed at the disposition of the Imperial Government, had there been among the Greek and Italian peoples a common will to save Constantinople, saved it would have been. (p. 418)

This flight from reality is symptomatic of a decadent exhaustion in the late phases of Empire. What fools they would seem when Europe is finally reduced to the rule of tribal despots and subjected to Sharia Law. The barbarian invasions of the 5th century forever changed the character of Europe; there is no reason it will not happen again.

But while the pagan German invaders converted to Christianity and schooled themselves in Latin culture, the Ottoman Turk did not. At the end of his account of the fall of Constantinople, Fisher writes this coda:

The conquerors were Asiatic nomads and so remained. Sir Charles Eliot, describing the interior of the house of a Turkish gentleman in the nineteenth century, observes that it contained no more furniture than could be carried off at a moment’s notice on a wagon to Asia. A certain dignity of bearing, coupled with a grave exterior polish and a sense of humor and irony, were noted by Western observers as favourable traits in the Turkish character… But the culture of the West was not valued. The Turk remained an alien in Europe, having no part in its traditions, and limited in his notions of imperial government to the philosophy of a slave-owning oligarchy in a world of potential slaves. (p. 419)

Vikings in Sicily


Coronation of Roger II, robed in Byzantine splendor

from H. A. L. Fisher, A History of Europe, pp. 195-196
(Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1935)

So under the full glow of papal benediction these freebooters of the North laid the foundations of a civilized state in Mediterranean waters. With Norman flexibility the descendants of Tancred organized government under new and difficult conditions and on original lines. In the kingdom of Roger II, who united the Norman territories on either side of the Straits of Messina, Europe witnessed a polity half Oriental, half Western, providing a shelter for Greek, Latin, Moor, and Jew, and better organized, seeing that it preserved the tradition of its Greek and Saracen past, than any other European government of that age. Among the orange groves of Palermo, Roger, the descendant of the Vikings, sat upon his throne, robed in the dalmatic of the apostolic legate and the imperial costume of Byzantium, his ministers part Greek, part English, his army composed as to half of Moors, his fleet officered by Greeks, himself a Latin Christian, but in that balmy climate of the South, ruling in half Byzantine, half Oriental state, with a harem and eunuchs, a true representative of his lovely island shared then as ever between East and West.


Monreal Cathedral (from Wikipedia)

Time has dealt kindly with this dynasty of gifted pirates. Mosaics, the best which Greece could provide, still embellish the walls of the noble cathedral of Monreale, which looks down upon the flowers and orchards of the Conco d’Oro. In that same earthly paradise an exquisite cloister still invites to repose, and the visitor, noting what he there sees of building and sculpture, of jewellery and decoration, must admire the splendour of the Norman princes now sleeping in tombs of dark porphyry, who in the twelfth century brought about so great an assemblage of the arts and crafts of their age.

Very different was the Scandinavian scene from which the Vikings had sailed forth to slay, to burn, and to conquer. No Monreale, or Caen, or Durham rose in the solitary valleys of Norway. There the Viking aristocracy bled to death in civil war. By the thirteenth century Scandinavia was empty of personal eminence, The days of her influence was over. A rude, unlettered peasantry extracted a sorry living from a barren soil.

Marginal Notes:

One of the many memorable passages in H. A. L. Fisher’s A History of Europe. A signal example of what contemporary critics called “a marvel of compression” (The Spectator), while praising its “[narrative] richness and glow” (The Times). I continue to delight in reading this book I found in the dusty bins of an old thrift shop. It is a must companion on any trip to Europe.

Here Fisher describes in one nimble sweep the effect of Norse conquest of Latin Europe after the disintegration of the Western Roman Empire. Like the Germanic tribes before them, the Norsemen became more humane from contact with civilizing Latin culture. Thus the conquerors, in turn, were conquered, adapting the language and manners of the Romans, the prestige of their Church and gilded glow of their liturgy. The romance and chivalry of Medieval Europe evolved from the Latin enlightenment of these Northern barbarians.

To make the point of how far these Viking marauders have come along in two centuries of Mediterranean settlement, he describes the splendor of their palaces and churches, their cosmopolitan society and civil government, and the excellence of their arts and crafts, contrasting this to their progenitor’s descent into barbarity.

But even as Fisher surveys history with a clear-sighted long view and even-handed judgment, he brings into relief those remarkable characters, scenes, and episodes in expressive, even lyrical, language rich in detail and drama, such as the coronation of Roger II, decked in Byzantine splendor among the orange groves of Palermo, or the elegiac image of Norman princes in their tombs of porphyry.

This vivid language and magisterial command is what is now lost in the tedious bureaucratese of what passes for scholarship these days in the humanities.

Gorgo


Bronze figure of a running girl (perhaps Spartan?)
Archaic Greek (520-500 BC), British Museum

from Herodotus, The History, 4.49-51
(Translation: David Grene, University of Chicago Press, 1987)

But Aristagoras, the prince of Miletus, came to Sparta while Cleomenes held the power. And Aristagoras came to speech with him (according to the Lacedaemonian account) having in his hand a bronze tablet with the whole map of the world engraved upon it, and all the sea, and all the rivers. So Aristagoras came to speech with the king and said: “Cleomenes, be not amazed at the eagerness of my coming here. The circumstances are these: that the children of the Ionians should be slaves instead of free men is the greatest of reproaches to ourselves, and, of all the rest of men, especially to you, inasmuch as you are the leaders of Greece. Now, by the Greek gods, rescue from slavery the Ionians, for they are of your blood. It is easy for you to compass the matter. The foreigners are not men of valor, and you, in war, are in the foremost ranks of mankind for bravery. Their fighting is with bows and short spears. They wear trousers when they go to battle and peaked caps on their heads. So easy are they for the beating. What is more, these men that live on that continent have an abundance of good things such as not all other men together have–beginning with gold, and then silver, and bronze, and dyed raiment, and beasts of burden, and slaves. You may have of these all your heart’s desire. They live, too, next to one another, as I can show you: here are the Lydians, right next to the Ionians, living in a fertile land, and they have much silver among them.” As he spoke, he pointed to these places on the map of the earth that he carried around, engraved on his tablet. “And here, next to the Lydians,” said Aristagoras, “are the Phrygians, to the east, with more flocks than any people on earth that I know and with greater crops. Next to the Phrygians are the Cappadocians, whom we call Syrians. On their borders are the Cilicians, whose land comes down to the sea right here, where the island of Cyprus lies. Fifty talents are what they contribute to the Great King yearly. Next the Cilicians are the Armenians, here–they, too, are rich in herds–and next the Armenians are the Matieni, who live in this country. Next them is the Cissian land, and in it, by this river, the Choaspes, is Susa, where the Great King has his lodging and where his treasure houses are. Capture that city and you may well boast that you rival Zeus in wealth. But here you are fighting for land that is neither large nor fertile but of small bounds. Ought you to risk such a fight? It is against the Messenians, who are as good men as you, and Arcadians and Argives, who have no possessions of gold or silver, the lust for which has led many a man to fight and die. You have the chance of an easy empire over all Asia; will you choose something else?” That was what Aristagoras said, and Cleomenes answered him, “My friend from Miletus, I postpone my answer until the day after tomorrow.”

That was as far as they went, then. When the day appointed for the answer came and they met at the place arranged, Cleomenes asked Aristagoras how many days’ journey it was from the Ionian sea to where the Great King was. In everything else Aristagoras was very clever and had tricked Cleomenes successfully, but here he tripped up. He ought not to have told the truth if he wanted to bring the Spartans into Asia. However, he did tell it, saying that the journey from the sea up to Susa was a matter of three months. Cleomenes cut off all the rest of the story that Aristagoras was set to give him about the journey and said, “My friend from Miletus, away with you from Sparta before the sun sets! There is no argument of such eloquence that you can use on the Lacedaemonians if you want to bring them three months’ journey from the sea.”

With these words Cleomenes went to his house; but Aristagoras, taking on himself the signs of a suppliant, went to Cleomenes’ house and entered and sat down there as a suppliant, begging Cleomenes to hear him. He asked the king to send away his daughter (whose name was Gorgo), for the girl was standing beside her father. She was his only child and was perhaps eight or nine years old. Cleomenes bade him say whatever he liked and not to hold back because of the child. Then Aristagoras began with an opening promise of ten talents if the king would do what he asked. As Cleomenes refused, Aristagoras raised his bids, little by little, till he made an offer of fifty talents. At this the child cried out and said, “Father, this stranger will corrupt you if you do not take yourself away.” Cleomenes was delighted by his daughter’s advice and went into another room, and Aristagoras left Sparta altogether and never got another chance to give any more information about the journey from Ionia inland to the dwelling of the Great King.

Marginal Notes:

Aristagoras was an opportunist and snake oil salesman. Here he tries to convince Cleomenes to come to the Ionians’ aid against Persian invaders with smooth talk about the value of kinship and tempting dreams of empire–of rich distant lands ripe for Sparta’s easy picking. But before this, Aristagoras went before the Persians to recruit their aid against Naxos and the Cyclades, with ambitions of being their ruler. When the expedition turned sour, he switched sides and here, before the court of Cleomenes, presents himself as champion of the cause of Ionian (and thereby Greek) liberty.

What he failed to consider was Sparta’s deep conservatism. They will not venture far from hearth and home–not even for a get-rich-quick imperial scheme. Here is how H.A.L. Fisher describes the Spartans’ moderate disposition (against the more venturesome Athenians):

A deliberate prudence was the mark of the Spartan, a vivacious and enterprising audacity of the Athenian character. The Spartan loved his home, the Athenian sought adventure far and wide in foreign lands. All the oligarchical parties in the Greek cities looked to conservative Sparta as their natural leader and the principal prop and support of the aristocratic cause. To the democrats, on the other hand…, Athens stood out, not indeed as the champion of liberty, but as the exponent of equality at home…

(A History of Europe, 1935, p.35)

Gorgo was the voice of Spartan prudence in this episode. She saw through Aristagoras’ used-car salesman’s tenacity of slowly sweetening the deal until her father caved in, and so abruptly puts a stop to it. What is surprising (and bad ass) was the self-possession of this young girl, unafraid to let her voice be heard at the king’s court. While Spartan men were solely dedicated to war, women were left to govern the household, the estate, and the economy. Hence Cleomenes’ delight at his daughter’s display of good sense.

The Inquiries of Herodotus


“When they are going to risk their lives, they make their heads beautiful.”
Leonidas at Thermopylae, 1814
Jacques-Louis David

Herodotus, at the very outset of The History, makes manifest his intentions:

I, Herodotus of Halicarnassus, am here setting forth my history, that time may not draw the color from what man has brought into being, nor those great and wonderful deeds, manifested by both Greeks and barbarians, fail of their report, and, together with all this, the reason why they fought one another. (1.1)

It is ostensibly an account of the war between the Greeks and the Persians (the barbarians), in which the latter suffer a decisive and humiliating defeat, putting to end their imperial ambition of annexing the free Greek city-states. For Herodotus, it was more than a military victory; it was the triumph of Western liberty against Eastern slavery, of Athenian democracy over Oriental barbarism. (H.A.L. Fisher, A History of Europe, 1935, p. 28)

For the Greeks, it was either freedom or death, rather than the yoke of a master however benevolent. Both Spartans and Athenians had occasions to make terms with the Persian king, who was indeed often magnanimous to those he conquered, but had refused tempting offers of vassalage with lofty speeches in defense of liberty.

Hydarnes was the Persian who was general over the peoples of the seacoast in Asia. He entertained the Spartans hospitably and, in his place as host, asked them, “You men of Lacedaemon, why do you avoid friendship with the King? You see how the King knows how to honor good men; you can take as your standards myself and my fortunes. So, too, if you put yourself in the King’s hands, you will be judged by him as good men, and each of you might hold office in Greece under the King’s mandate.” They then answered the Persian: “Hydarnes, your advice with relation to us comes from something less than an equality of position. You counsel us as one who has tried one condition but knows nothing of the other. You know what it is to be a slave, but you have no experience of freedom, to know whether it is sweet or not. If you had had such experience, you would bid us fight for it, not with spears only, but with axes as well.” (7.135)

The Athenians made their answer to Alexander: “We know of ourselves that the power of the Mede is many times greater than our own; therefore, you need not throw that in our face. Yet we have such a hunger for freedom that we will fight as long as we are able. Do not try to induce us to make terms with the barbarian, for we will not listen to you. Now tell Mardonius that this is the word of the Athenians: So long as the sun keeps his wonted track where even now he is going, we will never make terms with Xerxes, but putting our trust in our gods and our heroes we will go out to fight him in our defense. He had scant regard for those gods and heroes when he burned their homes and their images. And for the future do not make your appearance before the men of Athens with propositions like these, nor, seeming to do us a service, advise us to do what is against all law for us; for we would not have anything untoward happen to you at the hands of the Athenians–you who are our consul and our friend.” (8.143)

The History, however, is more than a history. It includes travelogues, ethnography, politics, and tabloid gossip. It is “history” only in the original sense of being inquiries, and attests to the author’s inquisitive and omnivorous mind. Herodotus mixes mythic accounts with eye-witness reports (to Thucydides’ consternation), makes long digressions for sensational stories (e.g., the scandalous stripper dance of Hippoclides), and eschews passing judgment on other people’s customs.

[If] there were a proposition put before mankind, according to which each should, after examination, choose the best customs in the world, each nation would certainly think its own customs the best. Indeed, it is natural for no one but a madman to make a mockery of such things. That this is how all men think about their customs one can see from many other pieces of evidence and from the following case in particular. Darius, during his own rule, called together some of the Greeks who were in attendance on him and asked them what would they take to eat their dead fathers. They said that no price in the world would make them do so. After that Darius summoned those of the Indians who are called Callatians, who do eat their parents, and, in the presence of the Greeks (who understood the conversation through an interpreter), asked them what price would make them burn their dead fathers with fire. They shouted aloud, “Don’t mention such horrors!” These are matters of settled custom, and I think Pindar is right when he says, “Custom is king of all.” (3.38)

A well-travelled cosmopolitan, he is both chatty and charming, someone who would make a very entertaining dinner guest, like an explorer back from wondrous adventures. He would describe head-hunters and cannibals with the same unflinching nonchalance as the pot-smokers and free-love hippies of antiquity.

Now, they have hemp growing in that country that is very like flax, except that it is thicker and taller. This plant grows both wild and under cultivation, and from it the Thracians make garments very like linen. Unless someone is very expert, he could not tell the garment made of linen from the hempen one. Someone who has never yet seen hemp would certainly judge the garment to be linen. The Scythians take the seed of this hemp and, creeping under the mats, throw the seed onto the stones as they glow with heat. The seed so cast on the stone gives off smoke and a vapor; no Greek steam bath could be stronger. The Scythians in their delight at the steam bath howl loudly. (4.74-75)

The Agathyrsi are the ones who live most delicately of these peoples; they wear gold jewelry a lot. They enjoy all their women in common, so that they may all be brothers and so, being all kinsfolk of one another, have neither envy nor hatred against one another. In their other usages they are very close to the Thracians. (4.104)

The spirit to whom the Taurians make the sacrifice they themselves say is Iphigenia, the daughter of Agamemnon. In the case of such enemy warriors as they capture they do as follows: each man cuts off his enemy’s head and takes it home, where he sets it on top of a great pole, which projects far above the roof of his house–for the most part, above the chimney. They say that these heads hang aloft there as sentinels over the house. (4.103)

The Man-Eaters have the most savage manner of life of all men; they believe in no justice nor use any law. They are nomads, wear clothing like that of the Scythians, but have a language all their own. They are the only one of these people who eat human flesh. (4.106)

Herodotus’ riveting storytelling can be seen in the account of Pythius of Celaenae, a city in Phrygia where Xerxes’ army encamped on their march to Greece. Tension builds up like a scene in a Quentin Tarrantino film (think of Xerxes as Samuel L. Jackson) where you know shit hits the fan at the end.

In this city there lay, awaiting the King, one Pythius, the son of Atys, a Lydian, who entertained the entire army of the King with every sort of hospitality, and Xerxes as well. This man also declared that he wished to contribute money to the war. When Pythius made this offer, Xerxes asked the Persians who were near him who on earth was this fellow Pythius and what money he possessed that he should make such an offer. They told him: “My lord, this is the man who gave your father Darius the golden plane tree and vine, and he is now the first of men for his wealth–after yourself–of any we know.”

Xerxes was surprised at this final comment, and so he in turn asked Pythius how much he possessed. He said, “My lord, I will not conceal anything from you, nor will I pretend not to know exactly my possessions. I know them and will tell you exactly; for as soon as I heard you were coming down to the coast, to the Greek sea, I made my inquiries because I wanted to give you money for the war; and on my reckoning I find that I have two thousand talents of silver, and, of Daric staters in gold, I have four million, lacking some seven thousand. All of these now I give you; for me the livelihood from my slaves and my estates will suffice.”

Thus he spoke. Xerxes was delighted with his words and in answer to them said, “My Lydian host, since coming from the land of Persia I have till this day never met with a man who would offer hospitality to my army, nor one who stood before me and of his own will was willing to contribute money to my war except yourself. You have entertained my army magnificently, and magnificent is the offer of money you have made me. So I will give you rewards to answer your gifts. I will make you my friend, and I will fill up your four million staters, giving you the seven thousand from my purse, that your four millions may not be lacking those seven thousands but that, thanks to me, you will have the full tale made up. Possess, then, that of which you stand possessed; know how to be ever such a one as now you are; for, if you do so, you shall neither now nor for all time to come repent it.”

That is what he said, and made the four million complete, and on he went, forward always. (7.26-30)

But as Xerxes’ army prepared to leave, an eclipse occurred that disturbed Pythius who thought it a bad omen. He thereby appealed to the king, confident in his good standing with his lord.

As Xerxes marched away, Pythius the Lydian, because he had been terrified by the appearance of the heavens and had been encouraged by the gifts the King had given him, came before Xerxes and said, “Master, I have a request for you, which I would greatly wish you could grant me; it is easy for you to do me this kindness, but for me it is a great matter.” Xerxes thought that he would ask for anything rather than what he did, and said, yes, he would do him the kindness, and only bade him tell him what it was that he needed. When Pythius heard that, he took heart and said, “Master, I have five sons, and it behooves them all to go with you to Greece. My lord, do you take pity on me, at the age to which I have come, and release one of my sons–the eldest–from your army, that he may be the caretaker of me and of my possessions. Take the other four with you, and may you come home again, having accomplished all that you intend.”

Xerxes was violently angry and answered, “Vile creature, I am myself marching to Greece, and with me are my children, my brothers, my household, and my friends, and you dare to speak of your son–you who are my slave, who ought, with all who live in your house, and your wife herself, to follow in my train? I would have you know that a man’s spirit dwells in his ears. When he hears what is good, it fills his body with delight; when he hears the opposite, it swells with anger. When you did good to me and offered more such, you will never boast that you surpassed your King in deeds of kindness. But now that you have turned to this shameless course, you shall not receive the full value of your deeds–no, it will be less than the full value. You and four of your sons will be protected by the hospitality you showed to me, but for this one son of yours, for whom you care so mightily–your request will cost him his life.” Such was his answer; and immediately he ordered those who were charged with such matters to find the eldest of the sons of Pythius and cut him in two and to set the two halves of the body on each side of the road, to the left and to the right, and the army should march between them. (7.38-39)

This self-contained episode is but a digression to the overarching narrative of Xerxes’ march towards Attica to punish the Athenians for aiding and abetting the Ionian revolt against Persian rule. These detours can sometimes be so long-winded, it can be difficult to know when he has gone back on track to the main story line. But what a fabulous tale! And what shocking, sensational ending! Still, it is not an entirely indulgent excursion. The story dramatically illustrates the life of an imperial subject of Persia as someone always on the knife edge of the arbitrary whims of an absolute despot.

The Persian subject lives and fights out of fear of their king, but for the free citizens of Greece courage is achieved “by a compound of wisdom and the strength of their laws.” Before the battle at Thermopylae, Xerxes consults Demaratus, a Lacedaemonian who switched to the Persian side, to inquire of the Spartan’s courage and strength of will to fight the hosts of Persia. Demaratus replied:

[Fighting] singly, they are no worse than any other people; together, they are the most gallant men on earth. For they are free–but not altogether so. They have as the despot over them Law, and they fear him much more than your men fear you. At least they do whatever he bids them do; and he bids them always the same thing: not to flee from the fight before any multitude of men whatever but to stand firm in their ranks and either conquer or die. (7.104)

Leonidas and his 300 men did stand their ground and die at Thermopylae. But they were avenged by the Persian defeat at Salamis, at Artemisium, and finally at Plataea. A flowering of Hellenic civilization followed from the space that freedom afforded with the defeat of the Persian empire. What transpired was thus, more than anything, a spiritual victory.

[The] real significance of the Greek victories in this great decade is to be found not so much in the field of politics as in the domain of spirit. A tiny people had defeated a great empire. Something spiritual had by the help of favouring gods, vanquished wealth, numbers, material strength. Insolence had been curbed; the pride of power had received a fall. The goddess Athena had protected her chosen people in the hour of need. The exaltation which ensued bred great designs and a body of achievement in literature and art so astonishing in its beauty, its variety, and the permanence of its human appeal, that of all the elements which have entered into the education of European man, this perhaps has done most for the liberation of thought and the refinement of taste.

(H.A.L. Fisher, A History of Europe, 1935, p. 31)

While the legacy of ancient Oriental empires live only as relics in museums, Greek thought as embodied in their art and literature, in their philosophy and politics, still informs the intellectual life of Western civilization.

(Translation of The History by David Grene, University of Chicago Press, 1987)