"Barbarians" of ancient world still provide a modern lesson

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How are Europeans to deal with the Iranians? And vice versa? Europeans have been considering this question since the beginning of written Western history 24 centuries ago. The conference of the Classical Association in Birmingham discovered surprising answers yesterday.

The crude neocon view is that Europeans are civilised and Persians barbarians. And that all that is needed to bring peace and civilisation to the Middle East is democracy. A series of papers on Herodotus argued that the father of history did not see matters in such black-and-white terms.

For example, in his account of the naval battle of Salamis, in 480BC, the Athenians have the democracy and the Persians the tyranny, under their great king Xerxes. Yet in the strategic debates before the battle, it is the Athenians who create dodgy dossiers and spin, who refuse to discuss alternatives and who collaborate with the enemy. Free debate is impossible for the Greeks. But Xerxes calls repeatedly for the opinions of his generals. His female admiral, Artemisia, speaks up with a freedom that is theoretically impossible under such despotism. After the battle is lost and won, Herodotus quotes Xerxes: “My men have turned into women, and my women men.”

What is Herodotus up to?...

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