Rhetoric and reality: the clash of civilisations from Classical Greece to today

The concept of the ‘clash of civilisations’ is usually traced back to Classical Greece. In Classical times as today, this idea of an unbridgeable gap between the West and the Rest does not describe reality, but is instead a line of political rhetoric. The article continues our series Lest we forget, an editorial project in association with History & Policy, asking historians to reflect on wars gone by and the light they shed on present conflicts.
Naoise MacSweeney
1 September 2010

The ‘clash of civilisations’ is a popular theme in today’s political rhetoric, positing the idea of an unbridgeable gulf between the West and the Rest. In domestic politics, the theme is raised in debates over migration and minority integration; while on the international stage it is regular undercurrent in discussions of the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, or of ‘rogue’ states such as Iran. As with so much of western culture, the concept of the ‘clash of civilisations’ is usually traced back to Classical Greece. The opposition between East and West, Europe and Asia, Us and Them is often thought to stretch back into antiquity – a division as old and as ingrained as civilisation itself.

The political philosophies of Classical Greece were, however, far more fractious and complex than one might initially assume. The idea of ‘East versus West’ was indeed a strand of Greek thinking, but it was only one strand woven into a much more complex tapestry of ancient Greek political discourse.

It should be noted that the intellectual ancestors of our modern ‘clash of civilisations’ theory can indeed be found in the writings of Classical Greece. It starts with the myth of Europa, the daughter of the Phoenician king (modern-day Lebanon). In the story Zeus, the ruler of the gods, adopted the form of a bull to seduce Europa, carrying her off across the sea to the empty continent of Europe, where he left her to give birth to her offspring – the first Europeans.

Europa’s abduction kicked off a series of reciprocal kidnappings of women, including the famous Helen of Troy. The animosity between Asians and Europeans, suggested the historian Herodotus, could be traced back to these transcontinental rapes. It was an animosity which, Herodotus argued, eventually led to the Persian Wars of 499-449 BCE, which saw a small confederation of Greek city-states pitted against the might of the Persian Empire. The Persian Wars were a turning point for Greece. Although they did little to change the political map of the Mediterranean, a new ideological era had begun. During the wars, a rhetoric of Panhellenic unity emerged, and for the first time in Greek writing we see the appearance of the twin stereotypes: the virtuous, manly, and freedom-loving Greek on the one hand; and the weak, corrupt, and servile Persian on the other. The concept of the ‘Barbarian’ had been invented.

It is only from this point on that we find the idea of culture clash, and the fundamental opposition between Europe and Asia, East and West, Greek and Barbarian. But once it had emerged, the idea quickly became popular. In Greek art, depictions of non-Greeks began to change, their features becoming more grotesque as racially characterised, their clothes increasingly resembling Persian dress rather than their diverse national costumes. In medicine, the concept of civilisational clash was given a pseudo-scientific basis with the theory of environmental determinism. The climate and natural conditions of Asia, it was argued, gave rise to a softer and more effeminate disposition than the rougher landscapes of European Greece.

For all its popularity, the idea of culture clash does not fully characterise Greek thinking about outsiders. It was a new invention of the fifth century, rather than being a fundamental part of Greek political thought. Even at its peak, the idea was only one of many competing political theories which were aired, and does not even seem to have been the dominant one. Not everyone in Classical Greece thought in terms of a ‘clash of civilisations’.

Despite his account of intercontinental conflict, Herodotus displays a much more even-handed approach to foreigners than people often credit him for. Throughout his Histories, Herodotus is just as interested in chronicling the glorious deeds of barbarians as he is in recording those of Greeks. Even his account of Persian history is full of Persians behaving nobly, sometimes even setting the standard for Greek behaviour. In one notable episode, he describes an occasion (probably fictional) where three Persian noblemen engage in a Greek-style political debate over the most efficient form of government. While one favours monarchy, another argues for oligarchy, and the third makes an impassioned case for democracy. In this scene, Herodotus was tapping into a key debate of his day. Contrary to our popular image of ancient Greece, at the time many cities were ruled by oligarchies or by individual tyrants, and the strengths and weaknesses of these different forms of government was very much a topic for debate. But by putting this debate into the mouth of Persians, Herodotus was explicitly casting barbarians as the same as and equal to Greeks – subject to the same political, social, and personal concerns, and capable of the same intellectual and physical achievements.

Several authors collapsed the distinction between Greeks and non-Greeks completely, using the term ‘Hellene’ to refer to anyone sharing similar cultural norms rather than to describe an ethnic group. Foreigners could become Greek and Greeks could become barbarians, and both could share in mixed blood and heritage. Even the most conservative of historians, Thucydides, argues that the very concept of ‘Hellas’ was a recent invention and sees little distinction between Greeks and others.

The concept of a ‘clash of civilisations’ also had limited traction on everyday life in Classical Greece. Foreign objects, technologies, and even religious practices were embraced by the Greeks, who adopted these eastern innovations enthusiastically. The worship of the mother goddess Cybele was imported from Phrygia (in modern Turkey), and the Greeks believed that Dionysios, the boisterous god of wine, originally came from India. Luxury goods were also more often than not foreign, and some of the most potent status symbols were originally Persian objects. Parasols, for example, were carried by high-ranking officials in the Persian Empire, but in Greece they became a desirable upper-class accessory. As well as providing inspiration for luxury items, Persian art and architecture also provided the blueprints for some of the most famous public moments of Classical Athens – the Odeion of Pericles owes its design to the Persian hypostyle hall and the Parthenon frieze itself borrows from the decoration of the Apadana in Perspeolis.

In politics, as well as in daily life, the interaction between Greeks and non-Greeks was collaborative and friendly just as often as it was hostile and oppositional. Even at the height of the Persian Wars, many Greek cities never joined the Greek alliance – Thebes and Delphi notably chose to side with the Persians. Later, when Athens and Sparta were at war with each other (431-404 BCE), both sides requested alliances with Persia, each vying for Persian funding and support. And less than a century after fighting the Persians at Thermopylae (recently dramatised in the Hollywood film, 300), the famed Spartan warriors were hiring themselves to the Persians as mercenaries, as chronicled by the Greek soldier-historian, Xenophon.

The idea of a ‘clash of civilisations’ was far from being the dominant way of thinking in Classical Greece. In literature, politics, and in everyday life, the engagement between Greeks and non-Greeks was far more complex than a simple ‘clash of civilisations’ theory would allow. Although the concept was certainly present, it did not determine how Greeks acted and lived. Today, we are in much the same position. The idea of a ‘clash of civilisations’ is very much present in our public discourse. However, if we inspect ourselves closely, it is evident that it does not adequately describe the cultural environment of the 21st century, the multifaceted complexities of international politics, or even the way we live our everyday lives.

In Classical times as today, the concept of a ‘clash of civilisations’ does not describe reality, but is instead a line of political rhetoric. Indeed as we have seen, in ancient Greece it only existed as one line of political rhetoric amongst many, developed in response to a very particular historical context – that of the Persian Wars. It follows from this that the ‘clash of civilisations’ is not a timeless and universal truth, handed down from antiquity to today. It does not describe a fundamental and inherent opposition between East and West, Europe and Asia, Us and Them. Rather, it was a specific rhetorical argument, tailored to a specific political situation at a specific point in time. Instead of buying into the rhetoric blindly, we should consider why the rhetoric is now making a comeback. Like Greece in the fifth century BCE, we are now caught in a particular historical moment when the idea of a ‘clash of civilisations’ appeals to some people. But this moment will pass, as it did before.

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