Monday, 19 March 2012

What goes around comes around. Sometimes like a boomerang

The film 300 earned its makers some $456 million, a tidy return on an investment of $65 million. But then the heroic tale of 300 Spartans battling to the death at Thermopylae against a Persian army of thousands has so many features to commend it, even if historical accuracy or simple plausibility aren’t among them.

Bloody and dramatic but not as bad as today
The background to the film is the long hostility between the great powers that faced each other across the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia, between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. What’s fascinating is the way the players have changed down the ages but the essential conflict has persisted. 

The Persians at the time of Thermopylae were the Achaemenids, the dynasty that gave us Xerxes and Darius, and their adversaries again and again were the Greeks. In time, though, Alexander the Great led the Greeks in bringing down that great Empire. Out of its ruins rose another, founded oddly enough by a bunch of nomadic tribesmen from the north-east of the country, the Parthians. Meanwhile, the Greeks had fallen too, passing under the dominance of the Romans.

So for the next four centuries, Romans and Parthians faced off across that great border. For Roman leaders, the debate was always whether it was perhaps best to leave well alone and avoid picking a fight with the Parthians, or to take a chance in the knowledge that victory would lead to triumph, though defeat might lead to loss of power if not of life.

The same fighting and the same Roman soul-searching continued once the Parthians had in turn been replaced to the Sassanian dynasty, another 400-year Persian Empire. Its triumph came in the killing of one Roman emperor and the capture of another, said — with probably as much historical accuracy as exemplified by 300 — to have been used as a footstool by the Sassanian ruler to mount his horse.

In time, the Roman Empire morphed into the Byzantine, but between it and the Sassanians, unstable peace continued to alternate uncomfortably with bitter war until the seventh century. Then a terrifying new power emerged from the South to batter them both with the power of a hurricane. The prophet Mohammed died in 632; within two years the first Caliph Abu Bakr had welded the Arabian tribes into a single fighting force; within two years after that his successor Umar had beaten both those Empires, capturing key territory from Byzantium and entirely overwhelming Persia.

So it’s with a certain sense of irony — ‘amusement’ would be too strong a word — that I watch the present deepening dispute with Iran. We’re right back there again, among the Achaemenids and the Greeks, the Romans and the Parthians, the Sassanians and the Byzantines. Once again, the area of conflict is Mesopotamia, Syria, the Levant. And the Levant, of course, includes Israel.

Even the sabre rattling is the same. Peace? War? Is victory worth the risk of defeat?

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

And yet, and yet, there’s a fairly major difference. Leonidas, king of the Spartans at Thermopylae, is said to have replied to the warning that the Persians would turn the sky dark with their arrows, that the Spartans would therefore fight in the shade.

If only Israelis and Iranians were only armed with arrows. Sadly, it’s a bit harder to make brave jokes about the shadow cast by nuclear weapons.

It feels as though something old and familiar has come round again, another twist in the spiral of the old conflict with Persia. Still, if it’s not to be last twist, perhaps this time we ought to try to find a way of calming things down a bit.

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