Detain of Gigantomachy from the Great Altar at Pergamon, 2nd Century BC, Pergamon Museum, Berlin
The Pergamon Altar Piece’s Gigantomachy, a battle between the Olympian gods and the powerful, but savage, giants, celebrated the military triumph of the Greek city in Asia Minor over the barbarians by alluding to the mythical triumph of the divine forces of Reason and Order over the earth-bound powers of Cthonic Nature.
Roger Sandall marvels as contemporary political correctness brings an exhibition championing Greece’s barbarian enemy into the Pergamon Museum itself.
For too long had Hellenism been uncritically exalted in the West. Now it was time for the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome to stand aside so that we could gaze upon the je ne sais quoi that was Mesopotamia. But what exactly was Babylon? Imperial majesty? Architectural folly? A voluptuary paradise? Oriental despotism incarnate? To try to answer these questions the combined museological might of the British Museum, the MusÃ©e du Louvre, and the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin had assembled a display of things Babylonian under the title Babylon: Myth and Reality….
That distinguished and venerable classicist Peter Green apologised for having been too keen for freedom in his 1970 book Xerxes at Salamis. Revising it in 1996 under the new title The Greco-Persian Wars, he regretted embracing so enthusiastically â€œthe fundamental Herodotean concept of freedom-under-law (eleutheria, isonomia) making its great and impassioned stand against Oriental Despotism.â€ What he called â€œthe insistent lessons of multiculturalismâ€ had forced all classical scholars â€œto take a long hard look at Greek â€˜anti-barbarianâ€™ propaganda, beginning with Aeschylusâ€™s Persians and the whole thrust of Herodotusâ€™s Histories.â€
The Oxford University Press author of the 2003 The Greek Wars, George Cawkwell, told us in a short preface that he was proud to be part of a scholarly movement that aims â€œto rid ourselves of a Hellenocentric view of the Persian world.â€ Much of the first three pages of his introduction then proceeded to ridicule and discredit Herodotus, who showed â€œan astounding misapprehensionâ€ concerning the Persians, whose stories were sometimes delightful but were certainly absurd, and who, he wrote, â€œhad no real understanding of the Persian Empire.â€
But if Herodotus didnâ€™t get it right, who exactly did? Obviously, some nameless Persian equivalent to Herodotus might have had â€œa real understanding of the Persian Empire,â€ but who was he and where is his narrative? What book by which contemporary Persian historian provides an alternative account of Achaemenid manners and customs, institutions and political thought, imperial policy and administration and ideals?
For much of the past 30 years admirers of classical Greece have been on the defensive, while easternizing admirers of Mesopotamia have been on the attack.
The courts of Cyrus the Great, Darius the Great, not to mention Xerxes, King of Kings, employed armies of chroniclers recording royal achievements and military victories. Is it conceivable that whole decades of the recent research invoked by Peter Green and Tom Holland (author of the 2005 book Persian Fire) reveal no Persian literary endeavors to compare with the achievements of the Greeks?
Alas, that seems to be the case. Even the Oxford don so jeeringly hostile to Herodotus admits that though the evidence of past Persian glories â€œis ample and various, one thing is lacking. Apart from the Behistun Inscription which gives an account of the opening of the reign of Darius I, there are no literary accounts of Achaemenid history other than those written by Greeks.â€ Moreover, he admits, such literacy as existed in the Persian Empire was largely Greek; and such writing as took place was mainly done by Greeks.