Monday, January 30, 2006

Persian Fire. Greek steel.

Persian Fire by Tom Holland. The re-writing of Herodotus for modern times.

One of the most notable changes in our intellectual life since I went to university is the rebirth of the Classics. They have become, after lying dormant for several decades, 'relevant' again, popular even. When Lindsay Davies was casting about for a publisher in the early nineties, she was turned down time and again by editors saying that no-one was interested in whodunnits set in Ancient Rome. It would be difficult to count now how many such books there are, not to speak of conventional histories in the bestseller lists, such as Tom Holland's Rubicon. It requires no great learning to say why.

The 9th of September. For Bin Laden, at least, ancient history is now. In how many speeches beamed to a waiting world by Al-Jazeera has he hurled the word 'crusaders' at us and recalled the lands haunted by the dead caliphate. The enmity he spits at us surprised many. For all but the oldest of us, the only Great Enemies had been European creations: Imperial and Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia. But we don't have to go too far back to find trace of an enemy that had a much longer pedigree. I wondered in another post how Disney were going to deal with the several Narnian books in which the baddies are clearly modelled on Ottoman Turks. Lewis's use of them was not eccentric. After all, the Caliphate was only abolished in 1924 and for CS Lewis's generation the Old Enemy, though one whose teeth had long been pulled, was Islam. Folk memories are hardy, but the roots were deep and went back to the 8th Century and the Moorish invasion of Spain and were reinforced repeatedly up until the 17th Century. For Lewis as for Bin Laden, it's Christianity vs Islam, and Bin Laden, for one, has not forgotten.

And yet even his grievance-hungry memory does not encompass the span of this conflict. For in its basic formulation, East vs West, the script on this one was ready to go to production two and half thousand years ago. The basic plot concerned the world's greatest superpower, its empire managed by a superb bureaucracy and an unmanageable bunch of squabbling hotheads on its fringes. The superpower eventually sought to remove this annoyance with a multinational force greater than any that had ever been mustered or would be before the D-Day landings. Facing it were the aforesaid squabblers, groups united only by language and religion, and of negligible military clout. And yet, momentarily united, they beat back the superpower and went on to become one of the major cultural powers of world history.

Yes. This is the Persian Empire versus the Greeks by Herodotus. And yes, I loaded that account a bit for the sake of 'contemporary relevance'. And, no, I don't believe that we, the West, the US, are the latter-day Persians, or that the Islamofascists yonder could take on the role of the Greeks. The analogy collapses very quickly. For instance, the Greeks were already a commercial force (ie they were offering others products and ideas that the others actually wanted), and an innovating cultural one, with their experiment in democracy not yet 20 years old. However, one of the many virtues of Tom Holland's book is that it does allow you at least a glimpse of the world through Persian eyes. It's an intriguing sight.

It confirms some views of the East that would have a very long life: the luxuriousness of the court culture and the arbitrary and absolute power of its monarch backed up by a powerful religious idea, Ahuru Mazda, Lord of light and truth. But it also fills in many blank spaces. Its tolerance of foreign customs for the sake of stability and commerce, a tolerance that would even consider allowing some token democracy in its Ionian territories. The efficiency of its organisation that assigned rank and status precisely enough to regulate how many wineskins you were worth at the imperial roadside inn. The depth of its intelligence network, a superb weapon which allowed them, under a show of respect for native customs and beliefs, to use a people's devotion to its own traditions to enslave them. As Holland puts it: "harmony in exchange for humility; protection for abasement; the blessings of a world order for obedience and submission".

There could have been no greater shock, to the Greeks as much as to the Persians, than the defeat of the invincible forces out of the East. Just as nothing could have demonstrated the value of this new form of government, this democracy, better than these improbable victories. It was put down, yes, to their 'technology of war': the hoplites, their armour and their discipline. But more, it was the spirit of those who had a real stake in what they were defending that shone out in that moment, and then kept on shining. The Athenian trajectory, already rising, now soared and the truly great age came swiftly on, the age that we can look back on as one of the places that are our source-springs.

So, the 9th of September, yes, but not only. After all, Lindsey Davies started writing her Falco books in the early nineties. The threat we face from Islam focusses the question, but it was being asked before the Twin Towers fell. Could it be that it is indicative of a civilisation that had gone too far in denigrating and corrupting itself from within, and like the healthy organism it really is, started looking back in order to go forward? Just as it did in Florence 600 years ago.

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