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Persia In Alexander's Time Notes

Classics Notes > Alexander the Great and his early Successors (336 BC – 302 BC) Notes

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What do we know about Alexander's enemy?
Our impression of Alexander's Persian enemy is often clouded by the stereotypes in the majority of our Greek literary sources which build a highly negative image of femininity, decadence and the softness that such things bring. They are often contrasted with the tough but poor Greeks and shown to be inferior in all respects by medical writers such as Hippocrates, historians like Herodotus and even philosophers such as Plato. In order to get a clear impression of the difference between what is often literary fiction and what we actually know about Alexander's enemy it is useful to examine the Greek literary tradition and compare it to the epigraphic and archaeological evidence that we have from ancient Persia. The work of the historian Herodotus is a good example of how Greek prejudice can negatively affect the Persian's image. He often discusses what he sees as the key differences between the eastern and western way of life; that the west is hard and free and the east is soft and servile. The most important difference is between hard and soft people, which he explores in books seven and eight by a detailed comparison of the decadent Persians under the tyrannical Xerxes and the freedom loving Greeks. This polarity is constantly reinforced in books 7-9 where he narrates the Persian wars and the close comparison of Greeks and Persians allows the contrast to be emphasised for the sake of further glorifying the Greek achievements. For example at one point Xerxes is shown whipping the Hellespont for daring to destroy his bridge. In fact this is the moral which he ends his work with when Cyrus says, "Soft countries breed soft men. It is not the property of any one soil to produce fine fruits and good soldiers too." (9.121). The implication is that because the Persians live in such luxury they cannot possibly be effective warriors. Hippocrates, the medical theorist, wrote that the people of Europe and Asia differ entirely in their physique in every respect, both because of their customs and the climate they live in, so much so that he attempts to explain these innate differences scientifically. Firstly he says that in Asia the people are gentler and more beautiful and that pleasure, not hard work is supreme. The climate is primarily responsible for their softness as a people, "With regard to the lack of spirit and of courage among the inhabitants, the chief reasons why Asiatics are less warlike and gentler in character than Europeans is the uniformity of the seasons, which show no violent changes either towards heat or cold, but are equable." Hippocrates also says that their customs also made a significant contribution to their condition because any time they perform and brave or worthy deeds they serve only to aggrandize their tyrannical master and so they have made the inevitable decision to not risk their lives for glory of someone else. On the other hand the Europeans are far harder because of the harshness and unpredictability of their climate and they are also, "more warlike because of their institutions, not being under kings as are the Asiatics." Even Plato has something to say on this matter claiming that Xerxes was brought up in a typically luxurious Persian way and because of this the empire began to decline in and after his reign.

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