Tuesday, June 2, 2020

What Would Have Been Different If The Persians Had Defeated The Greeks? UPDATED

Feel free to discuss and consider this proposition in the comments. 

I will briefly comment that during a visit to Greece, and in particular, some tours in Athens last summer, the Greco-Persian War was vibrantly alive in the hearts and minds of the Greek people and still felt relevant today.
Of all the many counterfactuals, those “what-ifs” posed by history, perhaps the most arresting, if only because the most sweeping, asks: "what if the Persians had defeated the Greeks in the Greco-Persian War of 490–479 B.C.?" 
Had this happened, there might have been no Plato, no Aristotle, no Roman Empire, no Christianity, no Western Civilization. A Great King, a lineal descendant of Darius, might still rule the world. All might worship the Zoroastrian god Ahura Mazda, with men going about in turbans, women remaining at home or in harems. But that, as every counterfactual invariably ends—generally accompanied by a sigh of relief—didn’t happen.
From this book review reviewing Peter Green, Xerxes at Salamis (1970, reissued as The Greco-Persian Wars).

I'll also note that the answer is multi-faceted. 

One aspect of the question is a question of what matters in terms of historical causation.

If you are believer in the "Great Men" and "key moments" theory of history, events like this really can make an immense difference. 

But, if you think that history is largely a function of big, long term fundamental forces like climate and technology and inevitable secular trends (an approach often associated with Marxist historical interpretation but by not means so ideologically bound), you may be inclined to say that if the Persians had defeated the Greeks in the Greco-Persian War of 490–479 B.C., the fortunes of the parties probably would have been reversed in a second Greco-Persian War of 453-444 B.C., without leaving the world notable changed in the long run.

In this view, "Great Men" may change the finer grained details of history, but only rarely the overarching long term trends that matter in the long run. The alternative history would surely be different in some respects, because history does not repeat itself, but it would rhyme with the world we live in, taming our utopian and dystopian instincts.

In the language of mathematics, historical causation is a "chaotic" process, i.e. one in which small changes in the conditions in one moment are capable of producing big differences in outcome down the line due to the non-linear processes involved in how events unfold. But, historical trajectories have an "attractor" to which the non-linear processes' developments tend to gravitate, although the strength of these attractors is not a matter upon which there is a strong consensus, even when it is possible to meaningful define or describe that strength with more than a mere gut feeling. 

Even then, however, a question like this opens up the question of what is really fundamental, and what is window dressing.

An absence of Plato and Aristotle does not imply that the Persian tradition might have offered us equally formidable philosophers and proto-scientists. Cf. Hindu philosophy was mathematical. Indeed, some non-Western figures readily present themselves as alternatives. 

We might not have "Western Civilization" but that is not to say that Persian civilization under the different conditions it would have encountered in the scenario suggested would have been all that different in the ways that matter. Surely, an ascendant global Persian civilization would have still been more similar to our "Western Civilization" than the civilizations of India, China, Japan, the expansionist Bantu tribes of Africa, or the Aztecs.

A Persian Empire, had it extended to Hadrian's Wall, would probably have turned out more similar to the Roman Empire than the Persian Empire of our history books, but it would surely also have been quite distinct in myriad particulars. The notion that "A Great King, a lineal descendant of Darius, might still rule the world", likewise, seems about as plausible as the notion that because the Greeks won, a Roman Emperor still rules the world.

The Roman Empire with late Iron Age technology, was not sufficient robust to survive to the modern day, and neither would a Persian Empire.

Arguably, the therapeutic deism of the typical layman with little training in religious doctrine, who is nominally Christian, is actually closer, doctrinally, to Zoroastrianism than to Christianity or Judaism understood at the level of the doctrines that matter to educated elites.

It could be that 19th century businessmen might have ended up wearing turbans rather than bowler hats or beaver caps and silk neckties, if this had come to pass. But, anyone who thinks that fashion has much intrinsic value vastly overestimates the importance of function over form.

And, the suggestion that in world where the Persians rather than the Greeks prevailed that we would have women remaining at home or in harems, misapprehends the extent to which women's roles are functions of economics more than culture. 

King Solomon is a household name to every small town Christian and Jew in America, and he generally has a very high favorability rating. But, that doesn't mean that modern Americans maintain vast harems in order to follow his allegedly wise example. And, women remained at home to a much greater extent than they do today as recently as the 1950s and early 1960s Baby Boom in the United States.

IMPORTANT UPDATE (July 6, 2020):
One noteworthy aspect of Zoroastrianism is that, in contrast to other ancient religions (including Judaism, and later, Christianity), Zoroastrianism appears to have banned slavery on spiritual grounds. This is important to bear in mind in the context of discussing the Persian War, below. The Greeks thought of the war as the defense of their glorious traditions, including the political participation of citizens in the state, but it was the Greeks who controlled a society that was heavily dependent on slavery, whereas slavery was at least less prevalent in Persia than in Greece (despite the religious ban, slavery was clearly still present in the Persian Empire to some degree).

From here.


Graham Dungworth said...

Barry Strauss "Salamis" 2004 makes the same point. Had Themostocles strategy backfired, as a consequence of the daily weather pattern, our world would be vastly different, not just in culture but in the timing of future civilisations.
However, two millenia ago, where would be now had the equivalents of say Galileo, Kepler and Newton appeared on the scene? There must be a googleplex number of alternative scenarios, ignoring multiverse equivalents. Might there be a transinfinate number of possibilities?

Graham Dungworth said...

Actually, upon reflection, what has changed?

Infact with the collection of Greek States, more Greeks fought with Xerxes against Greece than for it.

The democracy in Athens was just for Greek males in the demes. Women didn't just stay inside their homes the wrought iron bars on the windows was to keep them inside and to keep outsiders out. It was also a slave owning democracy throughout the city states.

At the coucil of Nicea in 335AD, that Constantine called to resolve Christian heresies, he invited each bishop to be accompanied by 2 presbiters and 5 slaves. As a youth I was taught that the British abolished slavery in 1833. I may chortle here but it's serious stuff. Perhaps it's rare and illegal but it exists here and now and in the UK.

Name me one civilisation where systemic racism didn't exist?

In HG Well's "War of the Worlds" the invaders didn't discriminate on the grounds of race or colour and it was the lowly bacteria that finished them off and not human will.

What has changed? Well these notes certainly wouldn't be published now in the English language, more probably machine code. Is it encrypted?

Why Solomon? Early Christian branded heretics claim that Herod's wife Salome was exiled to Lyon and buried there,in Gaul, France which Claudius ( respectfully Tiberius Claudius Nero Drusus Germanicus) founded in AD43; subtract 336 years if you are a Christian Copt.
Few leaders of nations ever bothered to wave a Christian bible in public.Such an outcome would be infinitessimally improbable, and yet it's wholly commonplace for a Khoran in Islam- and that's what we've got!

andrew said...

I think the Council of Nicea to which you are referring was in 325 CE. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Council_of_Nicaea

andrew said...

"Greek Buddha: Pyrrho’s Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia. Looks very interesting from Christopher Beckwith.

Here’s a crazy assertion: the victory of legal analysis in Sunni Islam over philosophy is the victory of Turanian Buddhism over Greek paganism."

Onur Dincer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Onur Dincer said...

If the Greco-Persian War had been won by the Persians and all of Hellas had fallen to Persia, Athens would certainly not turn into the center of Greek civilization and philosophy beginning from the 5th century BC.

In our own history, it was the western Anatolian Greek lands, specifically Ionia, and, to a lesser extent, Magna Graecia (the Southern Italian Greek lands) that were at the center of Greek civilization and philosophy well into the mid-5th century BC. It is worth noting that the western Anatolian Greek lands continued to flourish throughout the Persian rule. But after the failures of the Persians in conquering Hellas in the early 5th century BC, Athens turned into an attraction center owing to its great political influence in the Delian League, which had been formed to fight and resist the Persians following the Athenian victories in the early 5th century BC and brought the newly-liberated western Anatolian Greek cities under Athenian sphere of influence. So in an alternative history in which the Persians conquered all of Hellas in the early 5th century, Athens would not turn into an attraction center and the western Anatolian and Southern Italian Greek lands would probably preserve their central position in Greek civilization and philosophy for a long time.

Would Greek civilization and philosophy still have the influence they have had in our own history in this alternative history of Persian domination of Hellas (and probably also many more regions in Europe)? Certainly not, but the Greeks could still have a high influence considering the influence of the Greeks on the non-Greek peoples of the Balkans, Asia Minor and Italy already before the conquests of Alexander the Great in our own history.