On top of Acropolis among the ancient monuments, the crimson sunset and the misty islands in the distance can still appear mythical as if history can go back and forth freely without the trammel of time. Acropolis was no ordinary elevated rocky platform as the massive Persian army approached. It was the political, religious and economic center of the Athenians.
It is impossible to look at the Greco-Persian Wars from any other perspective except the Greek’s. There are no Persian accounts of the events.This has provided some Western historians with an opportunity to project their current political biases and ideologues into those ancient events. There is some evidence to suggest neither the Persians nor the Greeks were aware of such dichotomy of East versus West or Absolute Monarchy versus Democracy.
The Athenians had anticipated the coming of the Persians but must have felt even more terrified when they found out the Persian army with more than 40 nations has joined forces to conquer them, punish them or destroy them.
King Darius was more determined to conquer the entire Hellenic world in the second invasion of Greece but he didn’t live long enough to lead it. It was Xerxes fate to do it. He sent his envoys to all the Greek cities asking for their submission-deliberately excluding Sparta and Athens for they were marked. You couldn’t intimate them more.
As much as the Western historians have made the Greco-Persian wars to sound like the battle for the Western civilisation it was far from being a black and white scenario. The international community then was under the Persian rule. Athens and Sparta were the odd ones out. And there was not even a unified Greek nation. There were only Greek states. There were thousands of Greeks fighting on the side of the Persian army against Athens and Sparta. Only one-tenth of the Greek or the Hellenic world joined Athens and Sparta against the Persians.
The scale of Xerxes army is mind-boggling and all the logistics that went in sustaining them unimaginable. The feat of their engineering to connect the pontoon across the Dardanelles showed that nothing was going to stop them. But in hindsight, it was a useless undertaking and shouldn’t have taken place. The support of the Athens to the Ionian Revolt was the main reason for Darius to attack them but the revolt was not successful why to take such a disproportionate response!
The Athenians, confused and scared decided to consult the Oracle of Delphi. This was no ordinary war campaign against them. The Oracle had to be consulted twice. ‘Run for your lives’ was the gist of the Oracle’s warning. But there was something else also, as ambiguous as it was, it gave them a clue to work out what to do next. A wooden wall was mentioned. First, they mistook it for the palisades already in place around Athens, it was Themistocles who said that it meant their fleet, their only chance to reverse this massive tide. It wasn’t the first time Themistocles had to go to war with the Persians. He was at the battle of Marathon.
Xerxes leadership during this campaign is questionable. What did he really want to do with the rebellious Greek states? The size of his army meant business, a total control of the Hellenic world? Despite the minor setbacks he conquered the mainland Greece and stood on Acropolis. He torched and leveled everything, sent a message home that the mission was accomplished. Why did he get involved in the naval battle in Salamis after that? It was not necessary. Modern historians cannot agree on many details of that naval battle. It is said Themistocles lured Xerxes to Salamis sending a message that he was going to switch sides if he came with his fleet. After the Salamis, Xerxes put his general, Mardious, in charge and leaves in a great hurry to fight another war, this time much closer to home and more important to him, Babylon, a key province that had to be dealt with without delay. He was at the risk of losing an empire, especially if the pontoons for his return were destroyed. With no resolution reached, he took most of the army with him.
It was Mardious who had insisted on the second invasion of Greece, now he was left with the daunting task of winning it. It was a terrible final act that befell Mardious and his army. You may even think that Xerxes left him behind intentionally if Mardious had become a threat to him and his leadership. We know Xerxes was later assassinated. Perhaps he was not entirely fit to rule and his top generals knew it?
Achaemenids Empire nevertheless was a great experiment in human history. A new vision for the world and it worked for a while. And all of this was realised by a people who were not even important enough to be mentioned in any significant historical account. They came from nowhere and started the world’s first major empire. But by the time Alexandra invaded and destroyed the Achaemenids, the empire was in decline, plagued by regicide, incest, corruption, assassinations, and decadence.
But how did the failure to subjugate Athens and Sparta save the ‘Western civilization’? We know the Persian Empire had respected and even saved other civilisations, the Hebrew culture, is the most quoted example who found their livelihood under the Persians. The Persians wanted all the Hellenic world to join their league of nations but not to change their customs or traditions.
What if the Persians and Athenians did come together, couldn’t they have learned something from each other? The Persians could have seen the benefit of the democratic system and may have come on board and put an end to bestowing absolute power to one person which was in itself a form of delusion. Some Greek territories under the Persian administration had their own democratic system of governments and the Persian didn’t mind it as long as they paid their taxes to them and acknowledged their overlordship. The Persians were not against democracy per se. General Mardonius who was also the son-in-law of Darius, previously had travelled to Ionia and abolished the tyrannies, replacing them with democracies in order to keep the colonies happy and on the good terms.
But what do the Western historians mean when they say ‘Western civilization’? If they mean democracy, the decline of democracy in Athens is associated with the rise of Macedonia under the leadership of Philip and his son, Alexander and not the Persians. If they mean culture the Achaemenids did not have a policy of annihilating other cultures under their sovereignty.
Themistocles’ illustrious career took a big dent after the war was over. His arrogance and self-aggrandisement became too much and the Athenians became sick of him bragging about himself and how he saved them. So Themistocles was ostracised and then exiled. Still, the Spartans wanted nothing but his head. Charges were brought against him. ‘Both Diodorus and Plutarch considered that the charges were false, and made solely for the purposes of destroying Themistocles.’ Out of all places he went straight to Artaxerxes I (اردشیر یک )the Persian king whose father he had helped to defeat. What a strange choice of place to take refuge in. But the clever Themistocles had plans to resurrect his career and didn’t have to consult the Oracle of Delphi for it either, this time he wasn’t bluffing he had truly switched sides.
Themistocles who saved the ‘Western civilisation’ from the barbarians was granted to stay and immediately took a crash course on the Persian language. We know for sure ‘after some time Themistocles went back to Asia Minor, where he governed Magnesia, Lampsacus, and Myus and protected them against Greek attacks.’ He was now protecting the Persian civilisation from the ‘Western civilisation’ I guess.
Painting: Themistocles appearing before Artaxerxes I