Persian revisionism

As soon as I type the title of this post, I imagine a mainstream reader, happening across this blog by chance, imagining that I’m about to insult a Persian historian for distorting the record. I am, of course, about to praise a Persian historian for taking the standard distortion and untwisting it.

If you find that at all confusing, see this post on revisionism.

Part of the confusion comes from a different-but-related use of the R-word that I myself employed in a recent post on Robin Hood: “I have no problem with folklore revisionism; updating the story to fit current concerns is an ancient and well-established part of folklore itself.”

What’s legitimate in the evolution of folklore is rightly suspect in the study of history.

“Revision,” then, is a neutral term, something that can distort for the sake of propaganda, correct for the sake of scholarship, or alter for the sake of art, depending on the intentions of the reviser and on the subject matter being revised.

How does this apply to a movie like 300? Are the changes made to the history of Sparta, Persia, and the Battle of Thermopylae more like recasting Robin Hood (now Norman, now Saxon, now aristocratic tax rebel, now egalitarian hero, etc.) or more like blaming the Jews for the Holocaust (or denying that there ever was such a thing)?

My sympathies on this one are with Persian History professor, Touraj Daryaee in his essay, “Go tell the Spartans How ‘300’ misrepresents Persians in history”:

[L]et us address the historicity of the film and the way in which the film uses history to mount a defense of “Western Civilization” against the invading “Other.” The reasoning for King Xerxes’ invasion of the continent of Europe is never discussed in the movie, and is rarely mentioned in the West. This is because accuracy is sacrificed in order to manipulate ancient history to buttress the Western view of the world. The borders of the Persian empire stretched from the Indus and Oxus Rivers in the East, to the Mediterranean Sea in the West, extending through Anatolia (modern day Turkey) and Egypt. This way the rivers and the seas were to provide a natural defense. But one of the cities along the cost of Anatolia, Miletus, ruled by a Greek tyrant named Aristagoras in 499 BCE staged a revolt and turned to the Athenians for aid. Until then the Persians had no plan or desire to go into Europe. The tiny Greek archipelago was probably almost beneath the notice of the Persian king. But then an Athenian attack on a major Persian province, which culminated in the sacking and burning of the city of Sardis, naturally alarmed the Persians. It is this destructive event that started what is known as the Greco-Persian Wars. It was not an unprovoked Persian invasion of Greece. Nor did Aristagoras start this trouble for “freedom” or “democracy,” but rather as step in his intrigue to take control of another Greek city (Naxos) on the Anatolian coast. The Athenians did not bring freedom or democracy to Sardis either. It was burnt and looted. So much so for the cause. In 494 BCE the Persians soundly defeated the Greek forces at the battle of Lade, and the coast of Anatolia was once again peaceful. Of course most of these preliminary events are of no significance today in the West and the subsequent battle between Xerxes and the Greeks is taken out of context, manipulated, and the freedom-loving, democratic Greeks are set against the slave empire of Achaemenid Persia. Is this is a fair and balanced view of history?

On LRC today, Max Raskin reviews 300 from a different perspective. It was through his article that I discovered Dr. Daryaee, whom Raskin quotes extensively.


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