It’s been said that the movie “300” draws certain analogies about the US and its fight for freedom. People say that the Spartan’s fight with the Persian armies is a lot like the American struggle against the government of Iran, and the fight to bring democracy to a tyrannical state. While this writer would have to agree that there are lots of analogies to be drawn from the story, they are very different from the ones currently being proposed.
Every thinking person knows that there really isn’t a separation of church from state. Religious beliefs naturally shape opinions and become ideas that eventuate in action – no one is immune. Look at our present political situation with the US Republicans exerting overwhelming pressure on the government and shaping its policy based on their religious beliefs. Will people living a thousand years from now know that the foreign policy of the most powerful nation on earth was formed by biblical prophecies? Or will they only study the political meanderings of a growing empire?
Our current political situation can only be understood by examining both the needs of the empire and the influence of religious thought. As an author who knows a thing or two about the ancient world, let me assure the reader that things were very much the same for our distant ancestors. They too were motivated by religious beliefs and it would be a grave mistake to view their politics without paying close attention to the underlying spiritual motives. A one-eyed person can never hope to achieve focus.
Take, for example, the hysteria surrounding the recent release of the movie “300,” which focuses solely on the political actions of the expanding Persian Empire. Suffice it to say that there is a whole other way of looking at the war between the Greeks and the Persians; one which to my knowledge has never been even discussed. You see, this war was not really about the territorial expansion of a hungry empire; nor was it about the resistance of the so-called freedom loving Greeks. It was really about the emerging war between monotheism and paganism.
There is no motivating force greater than religious zeal. We all know that there is much more to the present political ruckus than just an expanding US empire. We know that it is partly about oil, partly about Israel, and partly about democracy, but we also know that it mainly due to a crusade of religious ideas even though few are brave enough to admit it. Well, things were no different during the times when the Persians and Greeks met in battle, and when you envision these fighting armies meeting on the battlefield you should be hearing “glory to Ahura Mazda” or “victory is with Apollo,” and not just “Victory to the Spartans.”
The birth of the Persian Empire was concomitant with the birth of the Zoroastrian faith. In fact there is a direct correlation since the prophet Zoroaster met with, and converted, the first Persian King, Cyrus the Great. Cyrus, who is featured prominently as a righteous man in the Bible, became a firm believer in the one God, and the course of action he chose for his empire changed history forever. You have to be familiar with the religious ideas of the ancient world to know what a historic occasion this was. In that day and age, the idea that the whole world was run by one timeless creator was new and utterly mind-blowing. It was as revolutionary, controversial, and influential as when Egypt’s Pharaoh, Akhenaton, imposed monotheism on his people and got rid of all the ancient pagan gods and their priests. It can also be compared to the conversion of Constantine to Christianity (monotheism) about eight hundred years later, and the incalculable effect that that event had on all subsequent history.
To those who study history, it appears that the Persian Empire boomed almost as soon as it adopted monotheism, and the growth of the empire spread these new and revolutionary ideas far and wide, as far as Greece, whose people were busy worshipping statues of Zeus, Apollo, Athena and a host of whimsical pagan gods. Needless to say, there was resistance everywhere to Zoroaster’s one God theory – fierce resistance even among his own people. Historically speaking, mortals don’t give up their traditional religions and its gods without a fight.
You don’t have to have a belief in God to understand that monotheism is socially preferable to paganism. Why, you ask? It’s simple: because people are a lot more apt to cooperate and act peaceably if they have the same God. We have enough trouble in the world today with the warring religions even when they supposedly worship the same God, so just imagine a time when every village or tribe you traveled to had a different deity. Hundreds, maybe thousands of different gods!
Cyrus and his successors always fought under the banner of Ahura Mazda, the one God. You can see it on their royal seals and read it in their numerous inscriptions, but so little of the historic records bearing the Persian viewpoint have survived the ages that the world sees things only through the Greek perspective. It takes but a little of study to realize that the Persians saw this fight in a totally different light. In fact, their standing in the ancient world and their international policy at the time seems eerily similar to that of the US policy today.
The Persian Empire at around 500 BC seems so similar to the US Empire today that the present analogies drawn from the movie “300” should not only be modified, but completely reversed! The Persian Empire was, in its heyday, about as large as America and should really be thought of as the “United States of Persia,” because it was comprised of multiple nation/states with different languages, religions, and races. And they were all tolerated under a “Declaration of Human Rights” penned by King Cyrus himself. The world had never seen such a thing before. Again, you would have to be familiar with the pitiful state of our distant ancestors to truly understand what a remarkable and revolutionary feat this was, and what it meant to people living in those times. Cyrus’s Declaration of Human Rights was a historic landmark and a breath of fresh air for its time, and the actual clay barrel bearing the inscription is currently on display in the UN building in New York.
We know that King Cyrus and his armies entered Babylon in 539 BC and deposed its wicked ruler, Nebuchadnezzar, without using force. Cyrus then did something that was simply unheard of: he freed all the Hebrews who had been enslaved in Babylon, and sent them back to Israel to rebuild their temple. To say that this was a revolutionary event would be an understatement. Kings simply did not do such things, ever. A king’s job was to expand the empire by sacking cities, taking their wealth, and capturing slaves in order to build and strengthen the empire. They did not organize armies and conquer distant lands to free slaves! One can only imagine the controversy this created with the Persian populace and the world at large. The king of the largest and most powerful nation on earth gave people freedom of religion, human rights for all races, and actually went around doing good and freeing slaves? This must have sent shudders through down the spine of tyrants and despots of that day, and created overwhelming respect and adoration for Cyrus among the more progressive Persians.
But why did Cyrus free the slaves? Why did he not resort to what every king before him had routinely done by bringing the Hebrew slaves, and the captured Babylonians themselves, to build and expand his empire? The freed Hebrew slaves were themselves so enamored by Cyrus that many of them immigrated to Persia instead of Israel. To understand the answer we have to pay attention to his revolutionary faith in the one God and the tenets of Zoroastrianism. You see, aside from the fact that monotheism unified diverse people, it also gave innate value to human life. The idea that all people are the children of one God creates a set of values that are vastly different from the ideas associated with paganism. It’s important to understand that ideas, when accepted in collective form, give birth to action and eventually create the ideals by which a society lives – or dies. Human beings have no intrinsic value in pagan thought and the idea that a God would want freedom for all of his children was completely alien to the Greeks of that day. To the Persians, it was central to their religion and it formed the foundation of their booming civilization.
Although the Greeks accepted Zeus as the head of the gods, their ideas about deity and their relationship with their gods was far removed from the Persian ideas about the one God, and their subservient relationship to Ahura Mazda who they accepted as an omnipotent deity. The Greeks gods were essentially nature gods, and aside from some powers over nature, they exhibited all the weaknesses and vices of human beings – hardly worthy of reverence. These gods were not worshipped by the Greeks but merely appeased through rituals and sacrifices in order to protect against their moodiness and wrath. Oracles from various gods were routinely given; bloody and drunken sacrifices were common, idolatry was the norm with people bowing to stones and statues; and nature gods were seen in every tree, river and blowing wind.
The Greco-Persian wars were not merely about empire building but in reality revolved around the expansion of the emerging monotheistic ideas and ideals through an otherwise pagan world – the religious fight against idolatry. And that is precisely how the Persian kings would have seen it as they lived and died under the banner of Ahura Mazda, God Almighty. The world may not remember it today, but it was immensely affected by the religious ideas of Zoroastrianism – many of which survive in modern religions, including Judaism and Christianity.
When the world is seen through pagan eyes, and the idea of an overseeing deity that judges human action is rejected, a population has no choice but to live by nature’s only law – survival of the fittest. It should not be surprising, then, that the Spartans relied heavily on slaves. The Spartans actually lived in a totalitarian state whose economy relied chiefly on slave labor, which allowed them to be full-time, professional soldiers. And they battled in the name of various non-existent pagan gods and practiced rituals and ceremonies in ways that would be viewed with derision, if not outright contempt, by their descendants. When two nations meet in the battlefield the results are often decisive and the boundaries are firmly shaped, but there are other results which are not seen on the historian’s notes or the general’s maps. Peek beneath the surface, and you will see a clash of ideas between two cultures, and a battleground of religious ideas that have ramifications far beyond territorial boundaries. The Greeks, you see, were exposed to monotheism for the first time during the Greco-Persian wars, and it was these same Greeks who later became the champions of monotheism and spread it throughout Europe, literally forcing it (Christianity) on the Romans in later years.
At the time when the Persian kings were spreading monotheism through their vast empire, the Jews were the only other people on earth that believed in one God.
Let’s look at this war again, now that we’re armed with the facts left out of Herodotus’s account. Let us look at the real, underlying religious motives that generated the friction needed for the eventual war. The Persians had eradicated paganism and idolatry from their own midst and had set up a government that firmly believed in, and acted on, the belief in one righteous God. Their (Zoroastrian) motto is “Right Thought, Right Speech, and Right Action,” with heavy emphasis on “action,” which prompted them to expand their empire not only for nation building, but even more so for the promulgation of their revolutionary and new creed. In their eyes, they were the freedom fighters who wanted to conquer the pagan world and get rid of those false gods and ideas which brought society down, created slavery, idolatry, and war. The Persian kings themselves held no slaves and their massive building projects were conducted by paid employees of the state, not slaves.
Keep in mind that when the Persian sacked Athens, they destroyed the temples of their pagan gods on the Acropolis, and, similarly, the Greeks took revenge by destroying the Persian temples. Men are motivated by religious zeal, and aside from the usual greed and land-grabbing, this was primarily a war between the followers of the one God and the followers of the olden pagan gods.
I said earlier that the analogies drawn from the movie “300,” which compares the Spartans and their so-called fight for freedom with the present US foreign policy, should not only be abandoned but reversed. A few basic facts have been presented in this article in order to make the case, and the picture they draw is indeed very different from Herodotus’s viewpoint, and the movie. This is not to say that the descendants of Cyrus were as altruistic as he was, or had motives that went beyond nation building, but they did fight under the banner of their revolutionary God, Ahura Mazda, and they did subscribe to monotheism even when surrounded by hostile, pagan nations. There have been, for instance, many different Presidents in America with widely different viewpoints and beliefs, but they all follow the same laws and push the same ideals of the land, and fight under the flag of the same American experiment.
In short, the Persian Empire was a nation about the size of present-day America, which abolished slavery, enacted a Declaration of Human Rights which gave freedom of religion and God-given rights to all races, allowing diverse peoples with different languages and beliefs to peacefully coexist in one nation subservient to one God. It then set about, as the greatest force on earth in its day, to bring these same new ideas and ideals to the rest of the world. The Spartans, however, would have it another way.
Had the Persians won the war they would have undoubtedly pressured the Greek government to abandon idolatry and accept monotheism, which they did eventually anyway. And it would have seemed incumbent on the rulers of the Persian Empire to make sure the state itself is not pagan even though the masses were given freedom of religion. The first order of business was to make sure the government itself does not operate by and through jungle law, keep slaves, and practice idolatry. Think of the US policy on communism and its absolute insistence of its destruction at governmental levels, while simultaneously giving people the right to worship whatever and whoever they want.
In this light, is the American Empire not the modern incarnation of the Persian Empire of old? The Persians of that day believed that their duty was to spread monotheism throughout the empire and instill human rights in a savage world; they even expected a savior from heaven to come during Judgment Day and felt that they could actually hasten his return by creating certain conditions. Sound familiar? It should, because that is precisely what the American Christian conservatives believe, and the US foreign policy is chiefly molded around, and devoted to, this very same cause. Is the US not stamping out what it views as inferior culture while it endeavors to expand its empire and bring its ideals to the world?
Perhaps this historical review has caused the reader to understand that history has not changed all that much and that different races and nations are usually motivated by the same ideas. The details may be different, but history has a tendency to repeat itself. Were the 300 Spartans, pagan idolaters one and all, really the good guys? Or were they the bad guys who did rejected God and the monotheistic faith, founded by the same man that is revered in the Bible as a man of God? As the saying goes, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Surely in this day and age everyone knows that good people and bad people exist in all races and nations.
We certainly can draw an analogy from “300,” but the educated version would compel us to believe that the Persians were not the barbarians depicted in the movie, and that the US is not acting like the Spartans, but rather like the Persians. We can likewise take note, draw analogies, and question why today’s Persia (Iran) is in heated battle with its own modern incarnation, but maybe we will leave that to the Freudian psychologists.
The course of western civilization was indeed changed because of the results of the Greco-Persian wars. But who is to say if a different outcome would have been better for the West, or worse? Had the Persians won, monotheism would have continued to flourish there and Iran would not have fallen back on Mithraism and the old pagan religions. And Mithraism would not have been adopted by Rome and its soldiers, dueled with Christianity, and eventually compromised Paul’s religion with old pagan ideas, bringing it to its pitiful state today. And what of the Greeks? What would their golden age and its brilliant philosophers have produced if their culture had adopted monotheism hundreds of years earlier and not kept its reverence for natural law? Indeed, how would have history changed?
The Greeks coined the term “Know thy self.” We all know that that’s impossible without first trying to “Know thy history!”
About the author: Behzad (Robert) Sarmast is the author of of “Discovery of Atlantis.”
Original article here