What useful lessons does Herodotus's Persian Wars have for the current events in Iraq? How is classical history used, misused, or ignored by current policy makers?
PARTICIPATING AUTHORS: MARY BEARD
Mary Beard has a Chair of Classics at Cambridge University and is a Fellow of Newnham College. She is the author of The Invention of Jane Harrison, The Parthenon, The Colosseum (co-author with Keith Hopkins), and the forthcoming The Roman Triumph (Fall 2007)
Look carefully at most of the rhetoric surrounding the current wars between West and East--and you’ll almost certainly find Herodotus somewhere. The Persian Wars (both book and event ) provide all of us with a model of the conflicts of our own day. That’s true now, just as it was forty years ago when the Persians were regularly cast as Soviet-style totalitarians rather than Islamist extremists. Different war, same reassuring historical antecedent. The classical world somehow legitimates our own struggles and hatreds.
It’s easy for professional classicists to blame the speech-makers and policy-advisers of the White House or Downing Street for this glaringly self-serving use of the past. But I am afraid that we are partly responsible for making the “us versus them” world of the fifth-century BCE city-state stand for the classical world as a whole, and for the lessons it might offer to the twenty-first century. Herodotus certainly in his revolutionary attempt to define the place of Greece in the world order exploits a set of polar opposition between West and East, Greeks and Persians, freedom and slavery, right and wrong. But later ages of classical antiquity had a more complicated vision and may provide more useful comparisons. There’s more to antiquity than the fifth-century BCE.
After the conquests (massacres?) of Alexander the Great had spread “Hellenism” through vast tracts of Western Asia, the so-called “Hellenistic Age” became a tremendous cultural melting pot. You can see this very clearly in the art and literature of Alexandria in Egypt. But I’ve just visited a really eye-opening exhibition in Paris (due shortly in New York) of material excavated from the “Greco-Roman” cities and settlements in modern Afghanistan, lent by the Archaeological Museum in Kabul.
First of all it is a stunning show, and a timely reminder of how far the poppy fields of Kabul were once part of “our” world. But it was also a world defined by cultural mix and interchange between West and East. When the first century CE inhabitants of the town of Begram looked around, they saw Indian ivories rubbing shoulders with Greco-Roman bronzes; the divine Lakshmi taking her place next to Aphrodite and Zeus. In the rich graves of the nomad “princesses” from Tillia Tepe (the highlight of the show, and the cause of a long queue) Indian and Parthian coins sat next to a golden aureus of the emperor Tiberius.
It was hard not to reflect that this was a better classical model for thinking of Afghanistan (and of the world) today, than the Herodotean, “West or else”, approach we usually take.