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Persian Rule Might Have Been Good for Greece (So “300” Got it Wrong)

by / Sunday, 14 January 2018 / Published in Ancient Greece, Ancient History, For Students, For Teachers

During the early 400’s BC, an alliance of plucky little Greek city-states beat back an invading superpower. Athens, Sparta, and their allies defeated the Persian Empire twice, in fact. Westerners often see the Persians’ defeat as a victory for freedom. The Movie “300,” for instance, casts the Greeks as freedom-fighters who saved Europe from an Asiatic slave empire. But “300” is about as accurate as “The Wizard of Oz” (or worse, “Braveheart”). What would Persian rule actually have looked like?

The Persian Empire's admiral dies at Salamis -- part of Greek victory in the Persian Wars

The Persian admiral dies at Salamis

The Persian Empire generally let its subjects govern themselves, and it encouraged local religion and art. So the Persians probably would not have crushed Greek culture or disrupted city government. In fact, Persian rule might have been good for ancient Greece, in at least four ways:

  1. The Persians might have spread democracy in Greece. The Persian Empire didn’t conquer mainland Greece, but it did rule the Greek city-states in what’s now western Turkey. There, the Persians recognized the Greeks’ dislike of tyrants (dictators) and replaced them with democracies. So they probably would have encouraged democracy in mainland Greece too. With more Greek city-states as models, like Athens, democracy might have taken root faster in Western Civilization.
  2. Any harm done to Sparta would have been a victory for freedom. Sparta was a slave society, and during the centuries after the Persian Wars, the Spartan citizens became some of history’s most brutal masters. Ancient sources say the Spartan citizens regularly humiliated, attacked, and killed their serf/slaves, the helots. Every year, Sparta declared war on its own helots, which meant young citizens could kill them. (FYI, some historians think the ancient sources exaggerate Spartan brutality.) Sparta had more helots than the citizens, so fear of slave revolt probably led to the city’s military culture. Defeat by the Persian Empire might have weakened Sparta’s system of state-sponsored terrorism.
  3. The Persian Empire would have given Greek ideas an information super-highway. The Persian Empire connected three continents with a network of roads, travelers’ inns, couriers, and shared languages and writing systems. It spread ideas across more than 2.5 million square miles. Greek culture took advantage of that network of information after Alexander the Great conquered the empire in 330 BC. Persian conquest of Greece during the early 400’s would have started the process earlier.
  4. Persian rule would have prevented the Peloponnesian War. Between 431 and 404 BC, Athens and Sparta fought a devastating war, each leading an alliance of Greek city-states. Athens lost the Peloponnesian War, and both sides suffered staggering losses. But membership in the Persian Empire would have made the war impossible. Freed from that awful conflict, Greek culture could have reached heights we can’t imagine. And Athens might have retained its position of leadership and the chance to develop and spread democracy.

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  • Painting: The Death of the Persian Admiral at Salamis, by William Rainey — provided through Wikimedia Commons

© 2018 by David W. Tollen.

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