This week in 534 BCE, Thespis of Icaria became the first person we know of to portray a character on stage in ancient Greece. He sang about myths to an audience in Athens. But rather than just narrating by song, he played the various characters in the story, using masks to differentiate them. Thespis also won Athens’ first recorded “Best Tragedy” competition. Then he took it on the road, performing in the various Greek city-states with his masks, props, and costumes. Thespis changed theatrical story-telling in the ancient world – and today, we use “thespian” as a synonym for actor, in his honor.
During the early 400’s B.C.E., the Persian Empire twice tried to conquer ancient Greece. An alliance of city-states fought back, led by Athens and Sparta. Against seemingly impossible odds, the little cities defeated the greatest empire the world had ever known. Westerners have long credited the Greeks’ victory with saving Western Civilization. Persian rule, they say, would’ve cut off the flowering of Greek culture and the development of democracy, particularly in Athens. The movies 300 and 300: Rise of an Empire bang that drum hard. They cast the Greeks as masculine freedom-fighters saving Europe’s future from a corrupt, effeminate Asiatic slave regime. Obviously, you can’t take the movies too seriously, but how about the widespread view behind them?
Imagining Persian rule in Greece calls for a guessing-game. But we have lots of pieces to move around the board. So let’s play. To start off, we’ve got to recognize that the Persians relied on local self-rule far more than any other ancient empire. And they encouraged local religious and artistic traditions. (The Old Testament calls the Persians’ King Cyrus a messiah because he let the Jews return from exile in Babylon and rebuild their temple.) So it’s not likely the Persians would’ve governed the Greek city-states directly or crushed their culture. Continue reading ““300” Got It Wrong: Persian Rule Might Have Been Good for Greece – and Western Civilization”