Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Thermopylae, the Persian invasions and Greek triumphalism

Above is a lecture from Jeremy McInerney of the University of Pennsylvania on the Battle of Thermopylae (480 BC) in which, famously, a small group of Greek warriors led by Leonidas’ 300 Spartans, resisted for three days a vastly superior force of invading Persians, dying heroically to the last. It’s a seminal moment in Greek and European history that McInerney provides a good introduction to, placing it within the wider context of the Persian invasions of Greece – the Ionian revolt, Marathon, Salamis, Plataea and so on – the repulsion of which is widely considered to have resulted in an upsurge of Greek self-confidence that paved the way for the flowering of Greek culture that continues to resonate to this day. 

In the last 10 minutes of the lecture, however, McInerney claims that apart from the extraordinary vitalism of Greek culture that flowed in the aftermath of the defeat of the Persians, he also detects the emergence of an overweening and deplorable triumphalism in which Greeks developed a contempt for the East that has never been erased from Western discourse – and McInerney points to the war on Islamic terror and the recent cartoon film, 300, which purports to be about the Spartans at Thermopylae, as examples of this. 

McInerney’s condemnation of the Greeks is nonsense. 

Not only was swaggering pride not something the Greeks lacked before the Persian invasions, but it is also characteristic of Greek culture, beginning with Homer, that this conceit was tempered by self-criticism and objectivity. Aeschylus’ Persians is anything but patriotic tub-thumping and even Herodotus, in whose Histories the Persian invasions are documented, was censured, most notably by Plutarch in his Of Herodotus’ Malice, for favouring the barbarians and maligning the Greeks.