All those who are convinced that a reality called Western Civilization existed or exists are likewise convinced that this reality manifested and consolidated itself through a series of key events. At the same time, the historical versions and reconstructions of the history of a supposed Western Civilization are manifold and often conflicting, thereby outlining a picture that is only apparently whole, not unlike Harlequin’s costume of colored patches.
Nevertheless, there are interpretations that if not recurrent occur more frequently as I point out in my book The Myth of Western Civilization. For example, that the first idea of Europe-West as opposed to Asia-East originated with the Trojan War. And that this idea consequently developed in the two wars that opposed Greece-West with Persia which was identified with Asia as a whole. The prominent historian of the Persian Wars Herodotus himself rekindled this idea which was developing in the Hellenic milieu of the time. Another recurrent theme among westernists is the link between the Greek and Roman civilizations, with the latter having inherited the former. Consequently, it was the Romans who spread Greek culture throughout the world just as Alexander the Great had previously done. At the time of Augustus, Dionysius of Halicarnassus sustained in his Roman Antiquities that Rome was a Greek city founded by Greeks. Those who sustain and subscribe to a presumed history of the West next believe in the continuity between the Graeco-Roman and Christian worlds, with the letter inheriting the essential traits of the former, which were then handed down to the contemporary age and modern democracy. From another point of view, this history of the West was often linked with the history of its competitors, namely Asia, the Phoenicians, Persia, Carthage, Islam, communism…
I believe I have documented in my book the inconsistency of these historical reconstructions alongside with the impossibility of viewing the European West and the Asian East as opposed and conflicting, or considering so-called classicism as bearing a dimension exquisitely European and Western.
I will now point out several well-known texts with a view to reconstructing a “counterhistory” of the West – and I will do so according to two criteria. On the one hand, I will try to show how some of the foundational texts of Western civilization could actually be read differently because they tell the story of a West that is not only opposed to the East but also of a West that shares the East’s values, customs, gods and way of life. And this is exactly what emerges, for example, in classics like the Iliad, The Histories of Herodotus, but also, in various ways, in the Quran, Islam’s holy book. I will also point out books that sharply contrast the principle of contiguity and continuity of the different ages of European history, as the Graeco-roman world with Christianity, and Christianity with democracy. Finally, I will cite non-Western texts that have contributed to the development of classical and European culture, which is often considered as an exclusively autochthonous product.
Homer, Iliad. A war between Greeks. The famous chronicle of the final stages of the Trojan War attributed to an aoidos going by the name of Homer is one of the foundational texts of Greek and therefore European culture. These events were not told by a historian but by an aoidos, a poet, who does not speak about politics, international affairs or economics. It is an epic where presumed history is woven with myth, where gods are side by side with men in a relationship that can be conflicting, friendly or even amorous as in the case of Anchises and Aphrodite, who generate Aeneas, the progenitor of the Roman people. Both historians and archaeologists have investigated these events which indeed occurred several centuries before they came to be narrated in the Iliad. The story of the Trojan War was also told by the most famous historian of the Greek world, Herodotus, the one Cicero called the “Father of History”, author of The Histories, in which the truly historical themes are those describing the Persian wars in the ten years from Marathon to Plataea. Herodotus nevertheless starts his book with mythology, with the rapes of Io, Europa, Medea, Helen. Herodotus begins with the stories of Greeks and Phoenicians, of Trojans and other Asiatic peoples. He tells us there was a root cause to the Persian wars, a cause as just as it was majestic and universal, the War of Troy. The Persian are the new Trojans and are also Asiatic. The Greeks, too, are the same, what has changed is the balance of power among them: Athens and Sparta now dominate the scene and have become the most powerful among Greek cities. While Herodotus does not lay claim to this presumed link, he does however bear witness to it considering that even the Persians acknowledge the continuity between the two events. In fact, during his march to Greece, Xerses the Great himself, Herodotus tells us, stopped over at Troy to perform sacrifices and to hear about the events that occurred there centuries before. The idea of an ancestral conflict between Greece, i.e. Europe, and Asia while originating and developing in the Hellenic milieu during the Persian Wars, became a given, an acquired fact, handed down all the way to Alexander the Great who saw himself as the new Achilles come to vindicate the Greeks. But is Herodotus’ version of the story, which in many ways could be seen as an ante litteram take on the “clash of civilizations,” the very same that is present in Homer, the same we find in the Iliad? To answer this we could rely initially on Homer’s story and successively also on modern historians and archaeology.
In the Iliad, Greeks and Trojans appear to be sharing a similar view of the world and life, honoring the same gods, speaking the same language, relying on similar warfare techniques. Their funerary practices were kindred, they shared similar values and they fell in love with each other. In the Iliad the model of virility, of ereté, both private and public, is embodied not by voluble Achilles, but by Hector – by the composed and principled Hector who has no qualms about sacrificing his life for his people if circumstances called for it. Hector is the embodiment of the loving father, of the caring but firm husband, of the hero who places nothing before his duty as a guide and example to his people. The name “Hector” itself is not Asian, but Greek, as modern research has verified. Even the conflict between Achaeans and Trojans was in reality a stasis, i.e. a civil war between Eastern and Western Greeks who were vying for the control of one of the truly crucial areas of the eastern Mediterranean. If the notion of West originated at Troy, it originated as the representation of a civil conflict, as a stasis. If Troy is taken as the original example, this example consisted in representing one of the first cases of a clash between Greeks – between Europeans, between people who shared a common language, custom and religion.
Herodotus’ Histories. The Persian Wars – polemos and stasis alike. If Troy was initially singled out as the original source of the conflict between Asia and Europe/Greece, in reality there was to this presumed conflict a precise historical origin. The original cause of this conflict can in fact be traced back to the rebellion of the Greek colonies driven by Miletus in Asia Minor; to Athens’ successive involvement in the uprising; to the first attempt of invasion from Attica which was foiled at Marathon in 490 BC; and to the invasion of Greece by the Persian ten years later, which was repulsed first at Salamina and a year later at Plataea. The Persian Wars marked the development of the myth of the incompatibility of Asia and Europe as civilizations and worldviews – an incompatibility that would be the root cause of their conflicts. Politically speaking, for example, Greece was presented as the land of freedom and culture, while Persia and Asia as the embodiment of autarchy and despotism, of monarchical power, which for the Greeks was tantamount to tyranny. This representation of the oriental monarch, of successively the Muslim monarch, as the quintessential example of absolute power, will become commonplace in European history, a given accepted by intellectuals and politicians of all orientations. It should be recalled that the figure of the monocratic sovereign, i.e. of the king/tyrant, was also recurrent feature of Greek history: in the Mycenaean age we have Agamemnon, Menelaus and Ulysses, not to mention Phillip the Macedonian and his son Alexander, who would take up the title and functions of the “King of Asia,” presenting himself as the vanquisher-successor of Darius III Codomannus and the perpetuator of the Achaemenid royal dynasty. But the “Persian Wars” were, nevertheless, more than just a mere clash between Persians and Greeks. On the side of the Persians were many Greeks who fought either as active allies, i.e. as co-belligerents, or by providing logistics. Other Greeks chose a policy of non-interference, of neutrality, like Argos. “If I may speak freely – Herodotus writes – by staying neutral they medized” (VIII, 73). There were at least three categories of Greeks who were directly or indirectly on the side of the Persians. An integral part of the Persian army that invaded Greece in 480 BC were the Greeks of Asia Minor who were not by choice but by coercion subjects of the Great King. But Herodotus tells us that the Greek seamen serving under Xerxes had rejected the appeal of other Greeks to sever ties with Darius’ son and join them, and that at the end only two triremes at Salamina among those of the Ionians subjected to Persian rule deserted and joined the fleet of their countrymen, which thanks to them amounted to a total of 380 vessels. Herodotus again reports that at Salamina the ships of Samos and the Ionians fought with energy against the other Greeks, deserving the praise of the monarch himself. Princess Artemisia, who governed the city where Herodotus was born, was commended by the Achaemenid king for the way she fought the enemies of the Persians. A second category was made up by those cities, or those peoples, such as the Macedonians, who already starting from the first Persian War – the war that started and ended at Marathon in 490 BC – had accepted the request put forward by the envoys of the Great King to acknowledge his request to concede “land and water,” i.e. to acknowledge his sovereignty and all that ensues from it. It should be recalled that Darius’s son Xerxes would reiterate this request. A third category consisted of cities that were in no position to oppose the might of Xerxes’ colossal army, which descending from the northeast, from Thrace, invaded Greece. To avoid destruction, these cities surrendered to the Achaemenid king: “The farther into Hellas the Persian advanced, the more nations followed him” (Herodotus, VIII, 66). A third group of Greek cities were openly on the side of the Persians even prior to the actual clash. The leading pro-Persian nation was Thebes besides nearly all the inhabitants of Boeotia especially in view of their hostility to Athens. The sole exceptions, Herodotus reminds us, were the Plataeans, who alone among the Greeks, had fought with the Greeks, on the side of the Athenians, at Plataea, and the Thespians, as Herodotus recalls. Xerxes harshly punished several hundred Theban volunteers who fought at the Thermopylae, accusing them of being traitors because Thebes was an ally of the Persians. According to Halicarnassus, hundred-sixty-thousand Greeks fought at Plataea, fifty-thousand on the side of Xerxes. At Plataea against Aristides’s Athenians there were both the Thebans and the Macedonians. When in August 335 BC Alexander reduced Thebes to a heap of rubble, with the sole exception of Pindar’s house, the historical sin that had brought about its destruction was that the city had held a pro-Persian stance, ignoring that the Macedonians too had done the same. Herodotus recalls at the end of the Histories that after the victory at Plataea and Mycale there was talk of transferring the Greeks of Ionia and Asia Minor to Greece, replacing them with the Greeks who had sided with the Persians. While the Persian Wars were a war of resistance of the Greeks against the Persians, the conflict at the same time flared a rivalry so bitter between cities that proved to be even stronger than the risk of losing their autonomy and becoming a Persian satrapy.
Aeschylus, The Persians. Europe and Asia, two sisters. “His glorious valor the hallowed field of Marathon could tell, and the longhaired Persians had knowledge of it,” are verses that can be read on Aeschylus’ tomb, verses, it would appear, that he himself wrote. Aeschylus fought at Marathon, but also at Salamina and Plataea, as Pausanias recalls, yet it was for the participation at Marathon that he wanted to be remembered. Aeschylus was the author of the oldest play to have come down to us, The Persians, which is not only a literary text but a historical account of the battle that was fought on 480 BC a short distance from Athens, in the bay of Salamina.
The tragedy telling the story of the most famous sea battle in Ancient Greece was staged thanks to the contribution of a young Pericles. It was written by a poet-historian who had fought in the battle – one of the Athenians who were behind “the wooden wall”, i.e. the two-hundred triremes of Athens that acted as the capital’s last resort against the Persians. In Aeschylus’ tragedy, we have the representation of an event, the battle of Salamina, described as the clash between a great empire and a relatively small entity, Greece. Indeed, a small entity, but close-knit and homogenous, as clearly emerging from the two fleets that clashed. As a response to the battle cry of the Greeks – a battle cry that was at the same time an invocation to Zeus the Liberator – was the confused babble of the sailors of the imperial fleet who came from a plethora of different nations. At the same time, though, Aeschylus while stressing the distance of the two warring factions does acknowledge the substantial closeness between the Persians and the Greeks. The Persians are believed to be the descendants of a son of Perseus and Andromeda, stressing a legendary origin that Herodotus himself pointed out (VII, 35-37). In a passage known as “Atossa Dream,” involving Darius’ wife and Xerxes’, Persians and Greeks are presented as “two sisters born of the same parents. But one inherited the land of the Greeks the other that of the Barbarians”. According to a representation that was common in the Greek world, the character of the Greeks is typical of free people – a people that shuns all constriction and coercion. A rebellious nature that refuses to be subjected to a master: that is the character of the Greek. The other sister, on the contrary, believes that it is perfectly normal to have a master. But they are “two sisters born of the same parents,” they share the same blood, they belong to the same lineage. Once again, the Persian Wars are described as a Stasis, a fratricidal clash – a clash between two sisters who speak different languages and wear different clothes but who have the same parents.
Hippocrates, On Airs, Waters and Places. Political liberty imposes itself upon nature. The treaty that is attributed to Hippocrates presents itself apparently as a geography text dealing with climes and territories, is actually far more complex than a mere manual. The work, in fact, investigates the connections between the places people inhabit and their characters, attitudes and psychology. It is, of course, also a treaty on medicine and anthropology where the environment, physical wellbeing and sickness are seen as being closely related. And we could also consider it as study on political anthropology, for a link is here established between institutions and behavioral patterns. As for the “places” mentioned in the text, they are those that for the Greeks of the fifth century BC represented the center of the world: where Europe (Greece) and Asia (Middle-East) met. Lands touched by the waters of that sea, the Aegean, where in Salamina (480 a.C) and ten years later, at the Eurymedon, all Persian aspirations of conquest were dashed. The coast of the Anatolian peninsula, the town of Kos, where Hippocrates Asclepiades hailed from, or the coastal cities like Halicarnassus (today’s Bodrum), home of Herodotus, were politically as well as culturally places that shared two identities, distinctive but not too distant: the identity shaped respectively by the Greek and Persian worlds. It should be recalled that both Kos and Halicarnassus fought on the Persian side because they were part of the empire of the Great King before gaining independence under the Delian League. In these lands where civilizations met – the Greek, the Lydian, the Phoenician, the Persian and the Babylonian – science and philosophy blossomed and great scholars like Tales, Herodotus and Hippocrates, respectively the fathers of philosophy, historiography and medicine, were born. Among the various themes that Hippocrates puts forward in this work, one that appears to be particularly interesting concerns the characterization and differences between the Greek/European/Western and Persian/Asian/Eastern hemispheres. Hippocrates specifically points out in this case the relationship between type of man and environment. “Everything is produced much more beautiful and large in Asia; the country is milder, and the dispositions of the inhabitants also are more gentle and affectionate,” Hippocrates writes. “The inhabitants too, are well fed, most beautiful in shape, of large stature”, but at the same time, though, “manly courage, endurance of suffering, laborious enterprise, and high spirit, could not be produced in such a state of things.” In Europe, on the other hand, differences in climate and territory and the changes these produce keep minds awake, leaving no room for inactivity. In other words, it is the relationship between man and the environment that shapes character and the difficulties therein drive man to react: “a climate which is always the same induces indolence, but a changeable climate, laborious exertions both of body and mind; and from rest and indolence cowardice is engendered, and from laborious exertions and pains, courage.” But the Asiatic, Hippocrates adds, are cowardly “also owing to their institutions.” Being subjected to a king and master, they fight unwillingly because if they win it is their masters who will reap the fruits of victory and if the lose it is they who will die. On the contrary, free men will fight for themselves, and victory is for them alone to enjoy. In other term, “institutions contribute not a little.” The conclusions in some ways overturn the premise because: “those in Asia, Greeks or Barbarians that do not depend on a master are free and work to their own advantage are indeed the most warlike.” Hippocrates sustained the primacy of culture and political liberty over environmental conditions: free institutions can create individuals who are in terms of character more alike regardless of where they come from.
Virgil, Aeneid. Aeneas, a Trojan, Greek and Mediterranean hero. Hesiod, Homer and Pausanias are the main sources of the Greeks, while Virgil, Augustus’ poet, is the most important Latin source. It is Virgil who tells us the story of Aeneas, the Trojan hero, the “pius” who was second only to Hector. Son of Anchises and Aphrodite, husband of Creusa, daughter of Priam, lover of the Phoenician Dido, and successively husband of Lavinia, Aeneas was the last of the Trojans and the first of the Romans. Why did Caesar Augustus, why did the Romans of the imperial age, feel the need for a foundational myth that, through Aeneas, would link them to Troy, to an ancient Asian capital? Very briefly, the answer could be that by claiming Aeneas as their progenitor, the Romans wanted to distance themselves from Greek history and political institutions while recalling at the same time their ties, ancestral, legendary and cultural, to Hellenism. In fact, Troy, as hundreds of other cities in Asia Minor, was at the same time both an Asian and Greek city. And the Trojans, similarly, could be defined, according to history and archeology, Asian Greeks, as I have pointed out in my book The Myth of Western Civilization. Aeneas is a prince with a Greek cultural upbringing; an Asian Greek who, according to Virgil, “returns” to the ancestral land from where the legendary founders of Troy had set out. On his travels by sea, Aeneas lands at Carthage, a city that was being built. There he encounters the beautiful Dido, Phoenician princess who had been exiled from a city known as the “Queen of the Seas.” It is the gods that prevent the union between Aeneas and Dido, between Trojans and Carthaginians, transforming their passion in tragedy. Aeneas and Dido are brought together not only by the language of love and passion but also by cultural and existential ties. The gods themselves influence their lives, while poets tell their story, for they are the characters of a Mediterranean that is Trojan, Greek, Phoenician and Roman alike.