Wednesday, 6 October 2021

‘For the sake of a single Lacedaemonian girl’… or the insults that caused the Greco-Persian wars

In a previous post, I mentioned that the mechanism of revenge is a key concept helping us understand the causes and conduct of the Peloponnesian war and Greek culture generally. Conflicts and enmities often began as a result of perceived insults, affronts to honour, which could only be redeemed or expiated through vengeance.

In fact, if we read Herodotus, we can see how, for the Greek mind, this mechanism of revenge didn’t just apply to recent events, but could stretch far back into history, and even into myth.

Thus, Herodotus begins his Histories by stating his intention to reveal the aetiology of the wars between Greece and Persia in the fifth century BC and suggesting that they were the culmination of a series of insults and reprisals between Europeans and Asiatics going back centuries and, indeed, into the mists of time.

Herodotus says that the ‘feud’ between Greece and Persia, or Europe and Asia, was initiated by the Phoenicians. These quintessential Mediterranean traders had come on their ships to Argos, hawking goods from Egypt and Assyria, and at the end of their mission, having sold most of their wares, they kidnapped a number of Greek women, including Io (daughter of the Argive king, Inachus) who had come to the beach to make purchases.

Responding to this outrage, Greeks sailed to Phoenician Tyre and abducted King Agenor’s daughter, Europa, taking her to Crete with them. Now, whereas Herodotus asserts that this kidnapping of Europa could be regarded as legitimate retaliation for Io’s abduction, the next offense in this cycle – the kidnapping by Greeks of Medea, the daughter of the king of Colchis – amounted to an unjustified and disproportionate escalation of this Greek-Asian vendetta, particularly when Colchian pleas to return Medea or at least compensate the king for his humiliation were rejected by the Greeks (on the grounds that Io had not been returned and no compensation paid for her abduction).

Thus, in the next generation, Paris, the Trojan prince, as revenge for Greek outrages against Tyre and Colchis, seized Helen, queen of Sparta, and carried her off to Asia. When the Greeks demanded her return and the payment of reparations for the insult Paris had committed, the Trojans said that since Medea had not been returned to her native land and no reparations offered for her kidnap, then the Greeks would receive none for the abduction of Helen.

The events that followed Helen’s kidnap and the refusal of the Trojans to give her up, i.e. the Greek invasion and sacking of Troy, informed, according to Herodotus, abiding Persian hostility towards the Greeks. Not only, for the Persians, did Greek ire at the abduction of Helen amount to a gross over-reaction – more often than not, according to the Persians, these ‘abducted’ women willingly went with their ‘kidnappers’ – but by crossing with an army from Europe into Asia, the Greeks had turned a ridiculous dispute over a woman into an unforgivable violation of the symbolic boundary separating the Greek (and European) from the Persian (and Asian) worlds; the Persians regarding Asia as inherently their domain.

Or, as Herodotus’ puts it:
‘The Asiatics, when the Greeks ran off with their women, never troubled themselves about the matter; but the Greeks, for the sake of a single Lacedaemonian girl, collected a vast armament, invaded Asia, and destroyed the kingdom of Priam. Henceforth they [the Persians] ever looked upon the Greeks as their open enemies. For Asia, with all the various tribes of barbarians that inhabit it, is regarded by the Persians as their own; but Europe and the Greek race they look on as distinct and separate.’