Alt histories

What we can learn from re-writing the past

Other articles in this series >

September 18, 2020

Counter-factuals are as old as history itself. The first historian to imagine an altered timeline was the first historian. Herodotus, whose ‘historia’ — ‘enquiries’ — into the great events that had recently shaken the Greek world served to establish history as an entire new genre, knew that some of his perspectives on the past were bound to prove controversial. Of these, the one he evidently felt most uncomfortable expressing was his conviction that the Athenians ranked as the saviours of Greece. This was, he freely admitted, “an opinion which most people will find hard to stomach.” Nevertheless, he stuck to it. Not only that, but he also sought to justify it in a most novel way.

Herodotus’ high estimation of the debt owed by Greece to the Athenians rested on his interpretation of the epic events of the year that we commemorate as 480 BC. 2,500 years ago this summer, the King of Persia crossed the Hellespont at the head of a massive army and fleet. Xerxes ruled the largest empire that the world had ever seen, and the resources available to him seemed so stupefying to the Greeks as to appear effectively limitless. Many, convinced that they had no prospect of resisting such an adversary, scrambled to collaborate.

Only a few cities, headed by Athens and the peerless warrior-state of Sparta, refused to surrender. At Thermopylae, a pass to the north of Athens, a Greek holding-force led by a Spartan king was dislodged after three days’ brutal fighting, and the Spartan king killed. Athens fell soon afterwards. The Acropolis was stormed and burned. But then, in the waters off a nearby island called Salamis, the Greek fleet won an unexpected victory. The following summer, an alliance of various Greek cities routed the Persian land forces. The liberty of mainland Greece was definitively secured. To the Greeks themselves it seemed a barely believable triumph: the most astounding victory of all time.

Who, though, had best earned the bragging rights? Since it was the Athenians who had provided by far the largest contingent of ships at Salamis, and it was Salamis that had proved the decisive engagement, no one could really deny that their role in defeating the Persian invasion had been a significant one. Nevertheless, over the course of the decades that followed, patience with the notion loudly trumpeted by the Athenians that Greece owed them her freedom came to wear very thin. Athenian triumphalism proved as wearying to other Greeks as English chants about the Second World War tend to be today to continental football fans. Nor was boasting all the Athenians did to make themselves unpopular. Cities liberated from Persian rule in the wake of Xerxes’ defeat increasingly found themselves the victims of an Athenian extortion racket. Sparta, the city that alongside Athens had led the resistance to the Persian invasion, grew ever more alarmed. Relations between the erstwhile allies fell apart. In 431, cold war exploded into open conflict — destined to rage for decades to come. The whole Greek world was made to bleed. Such was the background against which Herodotus wrote his history.

So it was, painfully conscious of making a case that was bound to infuriate many, he invented alternative history. Suppose, he pondered, that the Athenians had refused to fight Xerxes. Suppose instead that they had set sail in their fleet for some distant land, or had actively collaborated.

Both options had certainly been open to them. The Persian king had gone to considerable efforts to win them over to his side. His terms had been generous in the extreme. The Athenians might well have succumbed to temptation. In that event, so Herodotus argued, the fight for Greek liberty would have been doomed. Sparta’s allies would have surrendered. The Spartans themselves might have done the same. Alternatively — following the example set by their compatriots at Thermopylae — they might have opted to stand alone, and then, “after displays of prodigious valour, gone down in a blaze of glory.” Either way, the King of Kings would have succeeded in adding a further satrapy to his immense dominion. Greece would have ceased to be free.

That this in turn would have had implications for the entire world was something that Herodotus never doubted. Indeed, it was precisely his conviction that the great war between the Greeks and the Persians had also been a global war that first inspired him to embark on his masterwork — and which led him, in the course of writing it, to range in his subject matter as far afield as Ethiopia and India. Many historians since have concurred with him that the Greek victory over the Persian invasion force was indeed one of the key turning points in world history.

If Salamis has been enshrined as a particularly decisive moment, then so too has the victory won by the Athenians 10 years earlier, when a Persian expeditionary force sent to burn their city and transport the survivors into slavery had been defeated on the plain of Marathon. John Stuart Mill famously claimed that the battle, “even as an event in British history, is more important than the Battle of Hastings.”

Unsurprisingly, then, timelines in which Athens is wiped from the face of the earth have long been a popular feature of alternative history. Mill himself imagined one in which Britons and Saxons continued to wander like savages in woods. Others — drawing on a counterfactual proposed by Livy, in which Alexander the Great was imagined confronting Rome — have portrayed a Mediterranean fought over by Persian kings and Roman consuls. Others yet portray a world converted to Zoroastrianism, or without democracy, or in which Christianity and Islam were never born. All these various alternative histories, despite running in a bewildering array of directions, bear witness to the same founding conviction: that a war in which the Persians had succeeded in conquering Greece would have echoed in eternity.

Perhaps — or perhaps not. Conjecture on such a theme can hardly help but shade into fantasy. In sombre truth, we know far too little about what did actually happen in the Persian Wars to speculate — except on the most tentative basis — about what failed to happen. This is why Herodotus’ own attempt at a counterfactual is so valuable. While it tells us nothing about the possible impact of a Greek defeat on Rome or Christianity or the Anglo-Saxons, it does provide us with a near-contemporary perspective on how the Persians might have won.

Herodotus’ alternative history is one in which a new Athens is founded far distant from the soil of Attica, perhaps in Sicily or Italy, or else endures in pampered slavery, as a client of the King of the Kings. The Spartans, humbled or destroyed, can no longer continue with the merciless exploitation of their neighbours that had been the foundation of their pre-eminence. The Persian monarchy, brilliantly subtle as it was in the exploitation of its subjects’ rivalries, would doubtless have made sure to grant patronage to cities long resentful of Athenian and Spartan greatness. Perhaps, over the course of the century that followed Xerxes’ victory, Greece would have experienced an unprecedented period of peace. Or perhaps, resentful of barbarian rule, and seeking to take advantage of their distance from the Persian centre of power, the Greeks would have risen in revolt, bringing yet further war to their cities, and suffering on a scale greater even than they were to endure as the result of the great war between Athens and Sparta. It is impossible to know. The path not travelled is a path inevitably lost to oblivion.

For all that, though, the value of Herodotus’ counter-factual does not lie merely in its elucidation of the role played by the Athenian fleet in the ultimate victory of the Greeks. It also focuses for us a question that can risk otherwise, perhaps, remaining obscured. What was it, precisely, that made Athens Athens? Would an Athenian demos that had transplanted itself to foreign soil or submitted to barbarian rule still have ranked as an Athenian demos at all? To what extent were the achievements of the restless, turbulent and self-confident democracy of the fifth century BC dependent on its successful defiance of the most powerful ruler on the face of the earth? “Only the gods did more.” Such was Herodotus’ judgement on the record of the Athenians in the Persian wars. We might be tempted to brush such a comment aside as a mere platitude — but that would be a mistake.

Athenian democracy was founded neither on a secular model of governance nor on any abstract understanding of individual rights. Both concepts, as distinctive products of Christian civilisation, would have meant precisely nothing to an ancient Greek. What sustained Athenian democracy instead was — in the words of Greg Anderson — “a primordial cosmic ecology of gods, land, and people.” This is why to imagine an Athens transplanted from Attic soil to some distant land or under the imperious sway of a satrap is to imagine a city very different from the one that emerged triumphant from the epic ordeal of the Persian invasion. Its democracy would, perhaps, have continued to function; but it would not have been the democracy that provided a stage for the tragedies of Aeschylus, the comedies of Aristophanes, the philosophy of Socrates. Nor, indeed, for the history of Thucydides.

Perhaps Herodotus himself, born a subject of the King of Kings though he was, might never have been inspired to write about “the glory of those exploits which served to display Greeks and barbarians alike to such effect” had the Athenians themselves ended up subject to Persian rule. His counter-factual, then, implies a truly disorienting possibility: a world in which history — and counter-factuals — never came to exist.