The End of Western Civilization? What if Persia Won

In popular discussions of the attempted Persian invasions of 490 amd 480 BCE, one theme that is often heard is that they were a turning point of Western Civilization. The wars are presented as a battle between the nascent Athenian democracy, a city that would go on to produce the art, drama, philosophy, and political ideals on which the glorious of the West are founded, and the autocratic Persian Empire, ruled by Great Kings who wielded absolute authority over nations of abject slaves. Had the Persians won, the notion runs, the Persians would surely have crushed a form of government that they saw as anathema to their vision of a well-ordered empire bowing to a single Great King (as a random example of this narrative, see

I’ll just leave this here…

This view is, of course, nonsense. It is true, of course, that by the 480s and 490s Athens had begun to institute the system of government that they would later come to term “democracy” (though it is far from clear if this term was yet being used when the Persians attacked). And it is also true that Persian royal ideology viewed the Persian King as the representative of Ahura Mazda, the Zoroastrian creator-god, and promoted an image of the king as an absolute ruler who was the focal point of his empire. In the Behistun inscription, the first major work of Persian royal self-presentation, King Darius I states that in all the lands he ruled, “whatsoever commands have been laid on them by me, by night or by day, have been performed by them.” Darius’ tomb continues the theme of the glorification of the monarch, depicting the various peoples of the empire literally supporting their king while he piously sacrifices to Ahura Mazda.



But it would be a mistake to view such declarations of royal supremacy as necessarily reflecting the realities of the Empire. Persian royal pronouncements are designed to impress the population with the power and majesty of the king, to emphasize his link to divinity, and thus to make rebellion or disobedience into acts of futility and blasphemy. In their actual government of the empire, however, the Persians were highly pragmatic. In the territories they conquered, the Persians largely left local institutions undisturbed. The ancient priesthoods and scholarly organizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt were left to their own devices. Local administrative structures and personell were largely retained, and simply repurposed to serve the Persian administration. True, Persian governors known as satraps were assigned to supervise the conquered regions, but they seem to have often taken care not to disturb local arrangements. Indeed, an inscription from Asia Minor contains a copy of a letter in which King Darius chastises a satrap named Gadatas for having interfered with the traditional privileges of a Greek temple (though I should say I’m aware that some have questioned the authenticity of this document).

This tolerance extended to allowing the Greek cities under Persian rule to govern themselves largely as they saw fit. It is true that immediately after conquering the Greek cities of Asia Minor, the Persians supported the tyrants who governed some of them (many of whom had already been in power prior to the Persian invasion). Nevertheless, when this policy led many of these cities to revolt, the Persians swiftly cancelled the policy. Indeed, the historian Herodotus, whose work can to some degree be held responsible for perpetuating the whole autocratic-Persia-vs.-free-Greece trope, is adamant that, after putting down the revolt, the Persian general Mardonius “deposed all the Ionian tyrants and set up democracies in their cities” (Herodotus Histories 6.43.3). Herodotus is writing sixty or seventy years after the event,and may well be using anachronistic language – precisely what the “democracies” Mardonius installed actually looked like is anyone’s guess.A century after the last Persian invasion, however, we find better evidence that the Persians were quite happy to accept democracy in their empire: an inscription from the city of Miletus, on the coast of Asia Minor and very much under Persian rule, contains language that seems to reflect almost exactly the same structure of government as democratic Athens.

I don’t want to belabour my criticisms of the image of the Persian Wars as the defence of democracy and Western Civilization. It has been challenged many times over the last hundred years (see, for example, Dutch scholar Jona Ledering’s scathing critique here: Instead, I’d rather focus on a more interesting and speculative question: what would have happened if Persia had conquered Athens?


In fact, I think that Athenian democracy might have been seriously challenged – not because the Persians hated freedom and sought to crush it, but due to more subtle, domestic forces.First, there would have been the fact that democracy had lost the war. The system of government that we refer to as Democracy was only a couple of decades old in Athens in the 480s. There were still plenty of citizens who looked askance at the mad experiment of giving power to all men, regardless of wealth or birth. In the real world, the victories at Marathon in 490 and Salamis in 479 did a great deal for the legitimacy of the democratic order. The Athenian people had voted for policies and leaders which led them to victory over the greatest empire in the known world – clearly, the system worked.

Had Athens fallen in 490 or 479, the credibility of democracy would have been severely shaken. “What did we expect,”disaffected aristocrats might have said. “We gave power to the many, and they led us to disaster.” In our own reality,critics of democracy had to sit in impotent frustration as the democracy went from victory to victory, becoming the dominant state of the Aegean (a good example of this attitude is that of the anonymous anti-democratic writer often dubbed “The Old Oligarch”, whose attitude can be summed up as “democracy is awful, ignoble and unjust – but it does get results”). The aristocrats of a defeated Athenswould have felt much more emboldened in their denunciations of democracy, and the democrats would have had a hard time coming up with counter-arguments. With democratic leaders like Themistocles, Miltiades, Ephialtes (and his protégé Pericles)now blamed for the humiliating defeat, it might not have been hard for the old elites to retake power and roll back many of the democratic reforms.

The second reason I suspect that Athenian democracy might have been weakened under Persia has to do with the mechanics of empire. The prosperity of smaller communities within large empires depends on their attracting the positive attention of their rulers. One of the main ways in which this is achieved is through the mediation of wealthy individuals within the smaller community. In our hypothetical conquered Athens, elite Athenians would seek to befriend important Persians, whether the local satrap, members of the royal family, or other high officials. These friends in high places could, in turn, promote Athenian interests to the King, and hopefully secure favourable treatment for Athens.

The Athenians who facilitated these contacts would, however, become extremely influential in Athens. If you know a citizen has the ear of someone who has the ear of the king, you want to make sure to make sure that that person is your friend. As a result, even if democracy had formally endured in a conquered Athens, it is likely that actual power would have increasingly passed into the hands of the small number of people who could dispense patronage from the Persian court.

I’ve spoken pretty confidently about this scenario, and the reason for that is that it happened. Not, obviously, in the non-existent Persian conquest of Athens, but in the Macedonian conquest 150 years later under Philip, Alexander, and the warlords who succeeded them. As Athens became increasingly a pawn in conflicts between royal dynasties – the Seleukids in Asia, the Ptolemies in Egypt, and the Antigonids in Macedonia itself – domestic power increasingly moved into the hands of the few wealthy individuals who maintained contacts with these new kings. I see no reason why things should have been different had Persia become their overlord one-and-a-half centuries earlier: the logic of empire seems pretty stable across history.

So Athenian democracy might have had a rocky time,either overthrown by disgruntled aristocrats or gradually watered-down as a few Persia-connected magnates increasingly dominated politics. But what of the other “glories of Greece”? Would drama and philosophy have been strangled in their cradle by Persian victory?

On the whole, I doubt it. The outspoken, vulgar, gloriously irreverent Old Comedy might never have fully come into being – if influential citizens could bring the wrath of the Great King down on you for making fun of them, you might be a bit more reluctant to mock them too openly. Perhaps we’d have seen an earlier development of the New Comedy that formed under Macedonian rule, focussing on stock characters, domestic situation-comedy and steering clear of mocking anyone who might be in a position to make your life unpleasant. But other areas of art and culture would, I think have remained untouched. Tragedy had already come into being before the Persians invaded, and I see no reason why it should have stopped under Persian rule. Though the precise connections between Athenian tragedy and democracy are much-debated, it is clear that tragedy could and did exist without democracy: tragedy was in fact born under the Peisistratid tyranny in Athens, and tyrants like Hieron of Syracuse were happy to stage tragedies under their own rule.

As for philosophy, I think it would not only have survived but in fact thrived. The pioneering Greek thinkers who in the 490s and 480s were challenging traditional ideas about both the physical world and the human spirit would have had no reason to cease their speculations. Indeed, with Greece incorporated into the Persian empire, philosophers would have gained greater access to a host of other cultures. The mathematical, theological, and natural knowledge of Egypt and Babylon could have enriched and been enriched by the daring speculations of the Greek thinkers. Once again, history is a clear guide here: precisely such a flowering and cross-pollination of thought did occur following Alexander’s conquest of Persia, when traditions as diverse as Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism all came into contact with, modified and were modified by the Greek philosophical tradition.

Almost all the phenomena I’ve mentioned here are essentially derived from what actually did happen in Greece in what we term the Hellenistic Age, following the Macedonian conquest of both Greece under Philip and the Persian Empire under Alexander. Though Alexander’s empire did not last very long, it did serve to bring Greece and Western Asia together into the same conceptual world, and allowed for a much greater cultural interaction than had prevailed before.

Pure speculation, of course. But, I hope, more historically grounded than a jingoistic narrative of the triumph of a free West over a despotic East – a narrative that has become deeply ingrained in our cultural memory, and has, over the centuries, been used to justify so many wars of conquest and “clashes of civilizations.”


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