Aeschylus and Strategic Culture

Fire, Aristotle observed in the Nicomachean Ethics, burns both here and in Persia, but what is seen as just seems to vary. Aristotle, of course, depended on the universality of nature (fire), including human nature (with transcendent standards of justice), to stake a claim for the possibility of political philosophy – as compared to relying on the claims of the ancestral or of convention. Of course, Aristotle goes on to say that natural right is changeable.And reflective Greeks had to take into account the real-world differences between the city states of Hellas and the empire of Persia, especially when it came to war. One such reflective Greek was the dramatist Aeschylus, whose tragedy, The Persians (performed in 472 BCE), recounts the moment when the Persian court and queen learn of Emperor Xerxes’s defeat by the Greeks in the 480 BCE naval battle near Salamis.

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Xenophon, The Persian Expedition

To encourage fidgety school boys to pay attention to their Greek lessons, English and American headmasters would frequently assign Xenophon’s Anabasis of Cyrus (The Ascent of Cyrus, sometimes rendered as “The March Up-Country” and popularly titled “The Persian Expedition”). Xenophon told the thrilling story of what became known as the Ten Thousand, a Greek mercenary contingent engaged during the summer of 401 B.C. by a Persian prince, Cyrus the Younger, to support his campaign to claim the throne from his brother, Artaxerxes II. These events took place shortly after the Spartan-led coalition, with aid from Persia, had defeated Athens and its allies in the decades-long Peloponnesian War.

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Herodotus, The Histories (5th Century BCE)

Herodotus, who wrote a generation after the Persian Wars, puts these battles in the context of a great clash of civilizations, between Greek freedom and Asian despotism. He seeks to explain why and how a relatively poor, small, and divided collection of Greek-speakers were able to defeat a much larger, wealthier, and centralized empire. On the battlefield itself, on land and at sea, the Greeks were better disciplined and employed superior close-order tactics, such as staying in ranks rather than attempting to kill the greatest number of enemy soldiers in open combat. But Herodotus' generic answer reflected the views of his contemporaries and greatly influenced the West's understanding of itself: "As long as the Athenians were ruled by a despotic government, they had no better success in war than any of their neighbors. Once the yoke was flung off, they proved the finest fighters in the world."

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