The Greeks Save “The West”
This is part two in my chapter by chapter review of Chris Stewart and Ted Stewart’s book, The Miracle of Freedom: 7 Tipping Points that Save the World.
480 BC, Western Persia
Chapter Two opens with a drumbeat of doom as the Stewarts (who are not brothers, FYI) tell us: “The world is a warring place. It is a jarring, unforgiving, and violent place, with power and riches going mainly to the strong.” Then the curtain rises on another fabulous Cecil B. DeMille set. This time it is the enormous traveling throne room of Xerxes, master of the Persian Empire, and according to Stewart & Stewart:
“The spoils of war around him represented the Persians’ unbelievable wealth and power: gold from the Phoenicians, emeralds from the mines in the Azbek highlands, pearls from the mouth of the Nile, red sandalwood from the jungles of eastern India – the display of wealth dazzled like the sun.”
This image from the movie “One Night With The King,” is pretty close to the scene in the book.
As in the palace of Sennacherib, two strong men are facing off. This time one is Demaratus, “He was a king. He was a Spartan. He was a warrior and a leader.”
The other is Xerxes, who was “ incredibly intimidating – dark and tall and strong…”
Historically accurate reconstructions of Damaratus and Xerxes!
A deposed king, Demaratus is also a traitor. Looking for revenge and power, he offers valuable intelligence to Xerxes, the oriental despot who is planning to conquer the freedom-loving city-states of Greece, including Sparta. But like Rabshakeh in Chapter one, he is also there to praise the Great King’s foes. Here are some of his lines:
“Spartans do not fight for a king or empire, my lord. They do not fight for riches or captured booty. They do not fight for greed or lust or power. They fight for something very different.” “They fight for each other. For their families. For the idea that men should live free.”
Cue a lot of sneering and insult from Xerxes, who is pretty much a carbon copy of Sennacherib. How can a collection of small and weak city-states stand up to the greatest empire the world had ever seen? Bah! And yet, chapter two is a lot better than one because this time the heroes have time on center stage as well. The first being, no real surprise here, Leonidas, the heroic commander of Thermopylae. And no real surprise here too, he’s hot,
“Tall. Dark-skinned. Dark-eyed. Thick arms. Leonidas was the epitome of everything a Spartan warrior was supposed to be. Strong as oak. Quick with a sword. Fearless. Intelligent.”
This historically accurate reconstruction of Leonidas is my offering to the gods Hormonio and Testosteronicus.
We also meet Themistocles, the brilliant admiral of the Athenian navy who probably did more than any other individual to rally and guide the Greeks to victory over the Persians. He’s the first military commander whose manly figure the authors do not drool over. This strikes me as an injustice, and one I feel compelled to rectify. So here goes!
The powerful muscles of his brawny arms gleamed in the early morning sun as Themistocles, proud admiral of the Athenian war fleet, leaned on a railing and surveyed the 300 ships under his command. His keen grey eyes, alight with the light of intelligence, shone piercingly from under his noble brow as his heart swelled with pride at the sight. But he was also troubled. As strong, and true, and brave as his sailors were, as committed to the cause of freedom and rights of free men as they were, would they be enough to stand against the might of the greatest empire the world had ever known? Turning from the railing, his tall, broad-shouldered figure cast an imposing shadow on the deck of his powerful trireme, pride of the Athenian fleet. Anacreon, the helmsman, watched with worshipful eyes as the admiral, more god than man, came up to him. Here was a captain: a real captain, and a real man. The kind of man who became a captain that a sailor would happily follow even into hell itself, thought the golden-haired youth. “When do we go against the Persians?” he asked, nervousness apparent in his ardent young voice. Themistocles looked deeply into the clear blue eyes of the brave youth, and they shared something that only men on the verge of risking death in the name of Liberty can share. Resting his strong, calloused hand on Anacreon’s smooth, well-muscled shoulder he said in a low voice that was charged with emotion, “We sail when the gods of Freedom command us to.”
A little drool for this historically accurate reconstruction of the hero of Salamis please!
Writing that was more fun than I want to admit, but back to the book! The major part of chapter two is devoted to explaining the tactical details of the four key battles at Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis, and Plataea, and here the authors are at their best. Clearly military history buffs themselves, their descriptions are clear, lively and fun to read. But the military details are beside the point. The failure of Persia to conquer the Greeks is important because:
“With its culture that valued freedom, individual liberty, and self-government, the Greek city-state was critical to the future development of the Western world. And although it is impossible to know how the history of Europe would have unfolded, this much is surely true: had the Greeks been defeated at Salamis – had their people been conquered by a power for whom the concepts of freedom and citizen did not even exist – history would have unfolded much differently.”
I’ll spend the rest of the review unpacking this statement, as it’s a good opportunity to revisit the standard view of a very important historical event.
Here Come The Spartans!
As the quote above says, the authors contend it was the city-state itself that gave birth to democracy. They continue, “Each city-state was small, locally governed, and in vibrant competition with its fellow Greek city-states…This facilitated innovation and creative genius.” They also quote The Greeks by J.H. Plumb, who explains that they were examples of “extreme chauvinism…highly individualistic and autonomous…all that had allowed the creation and growth of a free landowning citizenry like none other.”
One thing that strikes me is how much this sounds like conservative American doctrine: as in our pioneer tradition of individualism, states rights, and free-market capitalism. But is this answer sufficient? I won’t deny that the competing city-states were important to the vitality of the age, just look at the Italian Renaissance. But city-states were also a key to the dawn of civilization in Mesopotamia – why didn’t they lead to democracy then? In fact, according to the authors, Mesopotamia led to the creation of “the East,” and “a static society with one goal: the maintenance of an absolute, theocratic state.”
Settling for the half-digested notion that Greek democracy was born from the “vibrant competition” of “locally governed” city-states lets the authors avoid two things: a meaningful search for the factors that inspired the Greeks to experiment with new forms of government, and a frank examination of the darker aspects of their society.
Take the Sparta of Leonidas. (Athens is mentioned briefly as the city-state with the most advanced democratic system, but Sparta is the real hero of this section.) The authors are good enough to note how extreme and unique it was, even among the other city-states. How it was a “strange mixture of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy.” (But they don’t discuss what that actually meant.) How it did not rely on citizen-solders, but on men taken from a “master race” of pure Spartan blood. They continue, “Sparta sustained this warrior class through the efforts of the other citizens who engaged in all those fields forbidden to the warriors.” This is as close as they come to admitting that Sparta was a mini-empire that used the conquered as slave labor. That omission leaves them free to admire and to sympathize with Sparta’s militarism.
And why wouldn’t they? Remember that drumbeat of doom that opens the chapter? It vibrates with a fear that mirrors what the Spartans must have felt. For this “master race” was a minority in their own home, and they never forgot that the people who worked their estates might rise up and slaughter them. So in their quest to create the perfect warrior they segregated suitable boys at age eight, and raised them in a highly regulated, communal army barrack, where “a “Spartan meal” [was] insufficient to satisfy hunger, so thievery was encouraged. But one should never be caught, so cleverness and cunning were developed.” – Vibrant competition saves the day again!
Having been honest enough to air some of the dirty laundry, the authors end on a high note with a peon to Spartan virtue: “Women were revered, good manners and order in families were demanded, strong marriages were admired.” Again, these sounds like planks in the Republican Party’s platform. The Democratic Party platform too, for that matter. And full disclosure here, as a liberal, I’m all for good manners and strong marriages. I’m also for “order” in the family, if that doesn’t mean beating the children whenever they question daddy, or denying them the freedom to choose their own mates.
As for “revering” women, that’s a funny way to put it, because what they had more of in Sparta than in the rest of Greece was freedom. The state’s obsession with training and maintaining a ferocious military force meant that men were away from home most of the time. It was the women who ran the households, and they moved about in public with a freedom that shocked foreigners. Wanting healthy mothers that bred healthy children, Spartan girls also had sports training in fields such as running, wrestling, discus and javelin throwing.
Which brings us to those “strong marriages,” the authors admire so much. Sparta’s focus on producing healthy children of the “master race” led to things like wife-sharing, where an older husband would allow a younger man to have sex with his wife, in the hopes this would produce a baby. Women were also free to divorce, and what’s more, they would keep their private wealth and, amazingly, their children.
For unlike most societies in recorded history, biological paternity, the identity of the father, didn’t matter so long as he was Spartan. Something else that was rare until modern times, the mothers had the rights of citizenship. These two radical innovations make Sparta, so awful in many ways, a fascinating place, and one that would have shocked and perplexed old school male chauvinists like the authors, had they ever visited.
There’s something else that would get their goat, pardon the phrase, and I’ll lead into it by noting an interesting marriage custom called “bride-capture.” A soldier who still lived in the military barracks could “secretly” get married by “kidnapping” a young woman – with her father’s permission, of course. They’d have a very brief, ur, honeymoon that night, but come sunrise, he was back in the barracks. What’s intriguing is that her friends would prepare her for the kidnapping by dressing her up in a man’s robe and sandals. And so we come to the shocking idea of man on man sex in the Spartan army. It happened. A lot. But you’d never know it to read this book – another sin of omission.
There Go The Persians!
I won’t argue against the main point of this chapter – that the Greeks had many amazing cultural achievements, and their victory against Persia preserved the idea of democratic government, which made the American, French, and other democratic revolutions possible. Still, there’s a note of ethnic chauvinism in the author’s celebration that makes me uncomfortable.
Several times throughout this chapter it is asserted that the words freedom and citizen did not even exist in Persian – or in any other Mediterranean language. This might be true, but I’ll have to do some due diligence before I accept this as fact. And that’s just the set up, here’s the pitch, “The Persians, for all their grandeur and might, left very little to the world of lasting value. Theirs was a static society with one goal: the maintenance of an absolute, theocratic state.”
And they go even further, by quoting Cowley’s “What If” book again, that if the Greeks had lost, “In place of Hellenic philosophy and science, there would have been only the subsidized arts of divination and astrology, which were the appendages of imperial or religious bureaucracies and not governed by unfettered rational inquiry… We would live under a much different tradition today – one where writers are under death sentences, women secluded and veiled, free speech curtailed, government in the hands of the autocrats extended family, universities mere centers of religious zealotry, and the thought police in our living rooms and bedrooms.”
Wow. This is just too black and white. The Greeks are too perfect, and the line drawn from the Persia of Xerxes to the Iran of the Ayatollah Khomeini is too straight and direct.
Starting with the Greeks, they too had secluded women (except in Sparta), and state subsidized divination. Free speech could be curtailed, and writers placed under a death sentence – the most infamous example is the trial and execution of Socrates for “refusing to recognize the gods recognized by the state,” and for “corrupting the youth.” (This is a horrible blemish on the record of my beloved Athens.)
Which brings us to “religious zealotry.” It’s an odd charge to lay at the feet of the Persians, when the authors acknowledge the tolerance of Cyrus the Great, the founder of that empire. He let the people worship whichever god they chose, and today he is celebrated by some as a pioneer in human rights. Tucked away in chapter two is another important development – it was Cyrus who let the exiled Jews of Babylon return to Judah. I’m curious why the authors don’t celebrate this as one of their miracles. I’m also confused at the authors’ sudden distaste for theocracy, because in chapter one they noted with approval how King Hezekiah, “purged heresy from his people, bringing them back to their true religion.” And lets see, what’s the next chapter about? Oh yes, it’s all about the Emperor Constantine forcing Christianity on the Roman Empire. Hurray for freedom!
To be continued…