The Gates of Athens by Conn Iggulden; Penguin Michael Joseph, London 2020,
ISBN: 9780241351239, 464 pp,Hbk RRP £20.00
by Ben Soton
The ‘Clash of Civilisations’ theory; the struggle between Asiatic ‘despotism’ and Western ‘democracy’, originates in the Greco-Persian Wars of the fifth century BC. It sees Greece, which at that time consisted of a loose confederation of fractious city states governed by free men versus the vast Achaemenid Persian Empire, which ranged from northern Greece to India; with its armies of slaves ruled over by a single despot. Supporters of this thesis give the example of Ancient Athens, which after the reforms of Cleisthenes, established an early form of democracy. This view is propagated in Conn Iggulden’s new novel, The Gates of Athens.
The thesis was devised by a neo-con Harvard academic, Samuel Huntingdon, who served as an adviser in the US Carter administration in the 1970s and the apartheid regime in South Africa during the 1980s. It was used as a justification for imperialist interventions in the post-Cold War era but it now lies in tatters. In the Middle East conflict imperialism boasts about its alliance with what the Zionists claim is the “only democracy in the Middle East” while at the same time supporting Saudi Arabia and the other feudal Arab oil princes – all ‘Asiatic despotisms’. The imperialist powers are equally happy to support jihadist fanatics against the National Progressive Front Government of Syria, probably the most democratic state in the region.
But is there any truth in saying that Ancient Greece had the moral high ground over Achaemenid Persia.
Slavery existed in both Persia and Greece. The armies of Persia were not simply slave levies. Their legions consisted of warriors from many nations; Persians, Medes, Babylonians, Egyptians, Ethiopians as well as Greek mercenaries. Almost as many Greeks fought for the Persian Empire as against it. However, it was Ancient Athens that first introduced democracy, however limited.
Women, slaves and those born outside the city had no rights. Nonetheless this was still a positive development and the basis of enlightened government. However, according to Herodotus, the Persian nobleman Otanes considered introducing democracy into Persia only to be overruled. Ultimately democracy came from Athens and subsequently we should be grateful for the Greek victory.
The Gates of Athens starts in 490 BC with the first Persian Invasion and the Greek victory at Marathon. The novel ends ten years later in 480 BC with the Athenian naval victory at Salamis whilst their rivals the Spartans held off the Persians at Thermopylae. Most of the novel covers the period in between the two Persian invasions. Iggulden uses this period to delve into the complexities of Athenian politics.
The main character Xanthippus, a veteran of Marathon is ostracised to the nearby city of Corinth in a ploy by his rival Themistocles to remove potential rivals. However, with the threat of Persian invasion Xanthippus is allowed to return to the city. The author presents a picture of political rivals putting aside difference for the good of their city; thus, showing the superiority of Athens.
We see little of the Persian ruler Xerxes; only brief snippets of Persian court life where he is surrounded by sycophants. Even his general Mardonius is afraid of him. Hence, we see Athens as a city state ruled by consent, as well as an element of intrigue whilst the Persian Empire is based on fear. Although this is not the whole picture there may be some truth in it. For example, at the naval battle of Salamis the Greek ships were rowed by freemen and Persians by slaves.
These days the Greco-Persian Wars have been used to justify Western imperialism’s superiority over the east. But they took place two thousand years before the emergence of European imperialism and in the struggle against absolutism that swept through Europe ancient Greece became a symbol of freedom.
During the French revolution the ancient ‘Phrygian cap’ was worn as a symbol of liberty and the Spartan stand against the Persians at Thermopylae together with Horatius and his two friends who held the bridge against another tyrant were seen as heroic examples of the defence of liberty against tyranny.
“When boyhood’s fire was in my blood I read of ancient freemen, For Greece and Rome who bravely stood, Three hundred men and three men”. These words from the 19th century Irish rebel song A Nation Once Again recall their sacrifice to compare their fight for freedom to that of the national liberation struggle in Ireland. It is still sung today.