Perpetual Enmity: The 2,500-Year Struggle between East and West

Anthony Pagden describes how the conflict between Europe and Asia, which began over two millennia ago, hardened into an ideological, cultural and religious struggle between the West, which has always cast itself as free, and – despite frequent outbursts of religious fanaticism – secular, and an enslaved East governed not by the laws of man, but by the supposed laws of god.

The origins of the wars were clear enough. In 499 BC the Greek cities of Ionia, then under Persian rule had risen against their overlords. The following year the Athenians had sent a fleet to Ionia. The Greek army managed to get as far as the ancient Persian capital of Sardis, where it destroyed a temple to the goddess Cybele. It was, Herodotus said, ‘the beginning of evils for the Greeks and the barbarians’. When the Persian emperor Darius heard of this outrage he vowed revenge on the Greeks and ordered one of his servants to repeat to him three times every day before he sat down to dinner, ‘Master, remember the Athenians’. From then until the battle of Platea in 479 BC a succession of Persian armies, first under Darius I and then under his son Xerxes, would attempt to invade the Grecian mainland. Each time they were repulsed by far smaller Greek forces: first at Marathon, in 490 BC and then at the great naval battle at Salamis ten years later. (The battle of Thermopylae in August of 480, although celebrated for centuries as a triumph of Greek, and subsequently European, heroism, in fact succeeded only in delaying Xerxes’ for a few days.)

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