East vs. West: The First Round

The early history of Europe is a history of constant invasions from the East. The peoples which think of themselves nowadays as quintessentially European—the French, the Germans, the Anglo-Saxons—all came into what we now call Europe, originally, from what we now call Asia. It was only later that invasion and conquest began to move in the opposite direction, and that Europe, an increasingly precocious and disrespectful heir to the ancient civilizations of Asia, began to march eastward, and to conquer the progenitors of its own upstart culture.

The rise of Greece, in this perspective, was made easier—perhaps was made possible altogether—by a rare intermission in the succession of great powers which usually dominated what we now call the Middle East. The polis, the city-state, the typical form of Greek society in the classical period, grew up in the position, a rare and privileged one, of freedom from the immediate shadow of an overwhelming power. Such empires, like that of Assyria, were based somewhere further east than Hellas. A power of that kind would inevitably, sooner or later, invade and conquer the Greek cities of Asia Minor, where philosophy and the scientific attitude were beginning to take their first tentative root.

As it was, the eastern Greeks encountered, in the sixth century BCE, only the rather well disposed and Hellenophile kingdom of Lydia, based in what is now northwestern Turkey, and surprisingly open to Greek art and to Greek cultural influences. The stories about the kings of Lydia go to show how close they really were to the ways, and to the ideas, of Greece. There was King Midas, of the golden touch, and King Croesus, who claimed to be the happiest man in the world, but who misunderstood an oracle and came to grief, an example for all mankind. Along with these tales we have the solid evidence of enormous Lydian offerings, in gold, at the great Greek shrine of Delphi.

The stories show how keen was the interest taken by the Greeks in these spectacular, opulent, and ultimately vulnerable Eastern neighbors. For Greeks in the sixth century BCE, King Croesus was the greatest king they knew of, and his kingdom of Lydia was the richest power. Then, out of the blue, came astonishing news. Lydia was defeated and conquered (traditional date, 546 BCE); Croesus had perished, burned alive on a great pyre—or, in the defensive propaganda version spread by the priests of the Delphic shrine (Delphi had clearly expected Croesus to win), snatched away from the fire by their god Apollo and carried off, along with his slender-ankled daughters, to a happy existence at the back of the North Wind. That, of course, was because his offerings to Delphi were greater than any other man’s. The moral was explicit: if you know what’s good for you, give generously to Delphi!

The Great King Cyrus, the conqueror of Lydia, founded the latest, the most formidable, and, as it turned out, the last in the long succession of great Middle Eastern…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.