Against Hellenocentrism

Peter Green

  • Trouble in the West: Egypt and the Persian Empire, 525-332 BC by Stephen Ruzicka
    Oxford, 311 pp, £45.00, April 2012, ISBN 978 0 19 976662 8
  • King and Court in Ancient Persia 559 to 331 BCE by Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones
    Edinburgh, 258 pp, £24.99, January 2013, ISBN 978 0 7486 4125 3

In 545 BCE – immediately after the conquest of Lydia by Cyrus, the aggressive and imperially expansive young king of Persia – the Greeks of Asia Minor, who had previously lived under the easy-going rule of Croesus the Lydian, and had received a sharp rebuff when they tried to get a similar deal from Cyrus, approached the Spartans for a protective alliance. The Spartans, notoriously shy of overseas commitments, refused their request; but they did, Herodotus tells us, send a diplomatic mission to Sardis. Its purpose was ‘to deliver a proclamation of the Lacedaemonians, warning Cyrus against harming any city on Hellenic soil, since this they would not overlook’. Cyrus’s reaction, when the diktat reached him, was to ask who on earth, and how numerous, these Lacedaemonians might be, that they dared to address him in such terms.

To most people in the Mediterranean world at the time his response would have seemed eminently reasonable. Both the books under review include maps of the Persian empire that justify Cyrus’s attitude. Though the empire had not yet reached the dimensions it was to attain under his successors Darius, Cambyses and Xerxes, it was already impressive. From Macedonia and the eastern coast of the Aegean, Achaemenid rule extended in a vast sweep of territory, by way of the Black Sea and the Caspian, Syria and the Levant, through modern Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, towards the Oxus river, Pakistan and the Indian Ocean. At the extreme western end of the map was the physically diminutive and politically fragmented territory of mainland Greece. Who indeed were these Lacedaemonians?

Persia soon found out, and was not allowed to forget. The next two centuries saw this minuscule region’s improbable defeat of Darius’ and Xerxes’ huge armies at Marathon (490), and Salamis and Plataea (480/79); the subsequent emergence of Athens as an imperial power and a uniquely creative cultural and intellectual centre; and the final disruption and takeover of the Persian empire (335-23) by the short-lived and ambiguously Hellenic world conqueror Alexander III of Macedon. These extraordinary events – and the Greek writers who, propagandists all, preserved them for posterity – dictated, in definitive and compelling fashion, the triumph, over two millennia of European history, of the Hellenocentric attitude that had aroused Cyrus’s incredulity and contempt.

Hellenocentrism has distorted and diminished the achievements of any civilisation that had the bad luck to come up against the Greek and Macedonian wunderkinds during their brief period of dazzling preeminence. Despite the fact that the Macedonians quickly eliminated the Greeks, and that both fell victim to Rome, and later to the Ottoman Turks, their legacy has survived, to be polished and enhanced by century after century of post-Renaissance enthusiasm. The Greek achievement, against overwhelming odds, should never be underrated. But it has cast an exceptionally wide and long shadow, and it is only in recent years that there has been a serious movement – aided by new archaeological and epigraphical research – to give the Persian Achaemenids proper credit for their remarkable imperial and cultural record.

The case of Egypt is rather different, primarily because far more has always been known about it: its status as the home of a high culture is better documented archaeologically and (ever since Champollion) in literary terms, and it has the most ancient recorded pedigree of any Mediterranean country. There is much less to add or correct. But one area remains in which Egypt too has been, so far as the sixth to fourth centuries are concerned, regularly subsumed to the Greco-Macedonian story: political and military history. Classicists note the Egyptian revolt (487/6) against Persian overlordship that delayed Xerxes’ invasion of Greece; the activities of the Egyptian fleet at Salamis; the mysterious and costly fifth-century relationship between Athens and anti-Persian rebel dynasts such as Inarus or Amyrtaeus; the use of Egypt by Alexander as a strategic and economic base from which to pursue his dream of world conquest. But such a perspective remains for the most part unrelated to the larger overall pattern of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern history, in which the Greeks and Alexander, though disruptive, play an essentially peripheral role.

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