Friday, October 15, 2010

Salamis, and is Western Civilization worth saving?

I've been reading The Battle of Salamis by Barry Strauss (2004). It is subtitled "The Naval Encounter that Saved Greece -- and Western Civilization."

The battle that Strauss writes about occurred in 480 BC. The Persian Empire was the largest and most powerful force the world had ever seen, and its Emperor Xerxes had decided that it was high time to destroy Greece -- at least that part of Greece that had fought against Persia in the past. His predecessor, Darius I, had lost at Marathon and he Xerxes wanted to avenge the Marathon loss and build his own reputation at the same time.

The internal conflicts of the Greeks dwarfed anything the West has gone through in modern times. Did we endure two World Wars? The Greeks endured wars that killed a greater percentage of their population. Did we dilly dally instead of preparing for a serious threat from Hitler? The Greeks were much better at dilly-dallying. Strauss credits Themistocles with finessing the Greeks into defeating the Persians at Salamis, and his task was much greater than Churchill's when he finessed the Americans into supporting the British during World War II. I was surprised to learn that there were as many Greeks fighting for Xerxes as fighting against him.

One would think that the Greeks would be united in their desire to oppose submitting to Xerxes, but the "Freedom" admired by the Athenians and the "Law and Order" admired by the Spartans had their detractors then as they do today. Xerxes built the largest army and navy ever seen by that time, but he had other reasons for being confident. One important reason was that it was easy to find Greek traitors. You may recall, if you saw the movie 300, that it was a Greek traitor that showed Xerxes army how to get behind Leonidas and his 300 Spartans at Thermopylae. Xerxes Persia had become a "haven for losers in Greece's power battles." One of his chief advisors was the former Spartan king, Demaratus. But there were many others and not every Greek nation was willing to fight against the Persians.

The fighting vessel of the day was the Trireme. As they assembled for battle, the Greeks had 333 Trireme's and the Persians 1327. The Greek ships were heavier, slower and had fewer Marines on board. The victory of the American navy over the larger and better equipped Japanese navy in the Pacific was remarkable, but much more was at stake at Salamis. Even had the Japanese destroyed the American navy in the Pacific, they were in no position to conquer the American mainland. Not even the most ambitious militarist in Japan proposed that, but if the Greeks were defeated at Salamis, that would have been the end of them. The Persians typically took defeated soldiers, the ones they decided not to kill, as slaves, raped the women, and killed the old people. The Athenians had evacuated Athens and fled to Salamis when they realized they couldn't stop the Persians from taking their city; so all the ancestors of our Western Civilization were there at Salamis. It would have been an easy matter for the Persians to do whatever they wanted with the Athenians on Salamis Island if they had been victorious at sea.

Think of a Greek philosopher or dramatist you admire. If he created his work after 480 B.C., he would never have produced it if the Persians had won at Salamis. Consider the dates of these contributors to Western Civilization: Socrates (469-399), Plato (428-348), Aristotle (384-322), Sophocles (497-406), and Euripides (480-406).

Think also of the Athenian love of Freedom. Democracy in Athens lasted for 250 years. This ideal was passed along to the Romans. I have read the first 5 books of Livy's The Early History of Rome, which takes Rome down to 386 B.C., and Rome's internal struggles, struggles that often put them at a disadvantage against adversaries, were most often about Freedom. The Commons wanted it and the Aristocrats didn't want them to have it. Livy assumes that Freedom and Democracy are good things, but if Greece had been defeated in 480 B.C. at Salamis, would he have assumed what he did when he wrote (Livy lived from 59BC to 17AD)?

But today Liberal-Leftists don't value Western Civilization all that much, and someone who does, like Geert Wilders, is put on trial, or like Hirsi Ali hounded out of Europe. "Multiculturalism" is what modern Leftist-Liberals value today. They don't just say that all other cultures have a right to exist. They say that they all have a right to exist within our nations.

To paraphrase what seems to be the current, politically correct, European sentiment, one might say, "Come one come all, and if you don't like Western Civilization, not to worry. We don't like it all that much either. Do you want to set up enclaves that work against European governments? Well, go right ahead. We don't mind. One civilization or government is as good as another, and if truth be told, we are rather ashamed of ours at the present time."

If we were to expand our parallel between the Greeks at the time of Salamis and the present time, we can see the European nations surrendering to the modern equivalent of Persia without a fight and America like Athens the last bastion of Western Civilization willing to hold out (several have written in this vein, e.g., the Canadian Mark Steyn in America Alone). At the time of Salamis there were 1500 Greek City-States, but only 31 joined in the coalition against Persia. As Strauss writes, "In fact, more Greek city-states fought on the other side. Persia was too strong and loyalty to the idea of Greece too weak to make the Hellenic League any more powerful. Athens, Sparta, and the few other city-states that stood up to Persia spoke harshly of Greek traitors, but most Greeks would have shrugged their shoulders at the charge."

If a Greek city surrendered to Persia then it wasn't invaded. Tribute was paid and a deal was struck, but once you fought against Persia then your doom was sealed. Men were killed or taken into slavery, women raped or enslaved children and old people killed -- who wanted that? It was much better, those 1469 Greek States believed, to surrender and pay tribute. Of course that option wasn't open to Athens, Sparta and a few others. They had fought against Persia in the past; so they needed to be punished. Surrender was not an option for the ancestors of our Western Civilization -- although it seems to be an option for the European heirs to this civilization.

No comments: