1. The Greeks

‘The idea of liberty is and has always been peculiar to the West’, wrote the libertarian economist Ludwig von Mises, and ‘what separates East and West is first of all the fact that the peoples of the East never conceived the idea of liberty. The imperishable glory of the ancient Greeks was that they were the first to grasp the meaning and significance of institutions warranting liberty.’ Athens has long occupied a place in Western thought as the cradle of democracy and the love of liberty. This is in spite of the fact that the leading philosophers associated with this celebrated city-state were deeply suspicious of the ability of the demos (the people) to carry out the affairs of the polis with judiciousness. Plato’s critique of democracy, his disdain for the hoi-polloi, and his adulation of the philosopher-king may not have been shared entirely by his mentor, Socrates, but the great itinerant philosopher who wandered about the agora was no enthusiast of democracy, or rule by the people. Aristotle was scarcely thrilled that in democracies, rather absurdly, ‘the poor—they being in a majority, and the will of the majority being sovereign—are more sovereign than the rich’, and he was prone, as a close reading of his Politics shows, to complain that in a democracy ‘each man lives as he likes—or, as Euripides says, “For any end he chances to desire”.’ Each man was free to do as he pleased—an outlook that, as Plato put it in the Republic, could have no outcome other than one in which women and slaves were as free as citizens, an abomination that was to be feared as much as deplored. How, then, did Athens acquire a reputation as the home of democracy in the ancient world, as the very fount of those freedoms—of speech, expression, assembly—that the West holds dear?

Before there were the Greek philosophers, there was Herodotus—a master storyteller born most likely between 490 and 480 BCE, a slightly older contemporary of Socrates and nearly 100 years older than Aristotle. Cicero dubbed him ‘the Father of History’, the designation by which he has been known ever since, and from his long and colourful narrative of the Persian Wars that consumed, indeed ravaged, the Greek world from around 500–450 BCE we derive a keen sense of how the Greeks birthed the narrative of their love of liberty. Sometime around 470 BCE, the Persian king, Darius, had sent messengers to Greek cities seeking signs of their willingness to submit to his overlordship. In Athens, Herodotus tells us, the barbarians—the word by which the Greeks designated all foreigners, whose language was incomprehensible and seemed to be but little more than a series of incomprehensible sounds (‘bar bar’)—were thrown into a pit and in Sparta they were ‘pushed into a well and told that if they wanted earth and water for the king, those were the places to get them’. It would appear that the Greeks, having violated the universal tradition which guaranteed messengers and diplomats immunity from harm, had shown themselves to be the true barbarians—but let that pass. Around ten years later, Darius’ successor, Xerxes, similarly sent messengers, but this time without any ‘request for submission’.

In the meantime, the Spartans had been unable ‘to obtain favourable signs from their sacrifices’, and some in Sparta thought that the city had gone through bad times as a punishment for the egregious offence committed against Darius’ emissaries. Two Spartans, Sperchias, and Bulis, ‘both men of good family and great wealth’, decided to offer their lives ‘to Xerxes in atonement for Darius’ messengers who had been killed in Sparta’. On their way to Susa, they stopped at the court of the Persian general Hydarnes, the governor of Ionia. The young Spartans were treated royally, and during their conversation the relations between the Greeks and the Persians came up as a subject of discussion. Hydarnes advised his guests to seek Xerxes’s friendship and offered himself as an example of a man who had gained immensely from his acceptance of subservience to the Persian king. ‘Both of you, if you would only submit,’ Hydarnes tells them, ‘might find yourselves in authority over lands in Greece which he would give you.’ 

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