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The Middle East as Seen Through Foreign Eyes

Antiquity to the Nineteenth Century

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The Greeks and Persians

Persian invasions of Greece in 490 and 480 BCE failed, despite what appeared to be overwhelming Persian military superiority. The Greek victory promoted a sense of shared identity among the diverse and contentious Greek city-states. It also promoted the idea of a contrasting shared identity of all “barbarians”—that is, all non-Hellenes. These contrasting identities were given a voice in the oldest Greek tragedy known to us today, the “Persians” of Aeschylus (ca. 472 BCE). They were shaped more decisively by the “Histories” of Herodotus (ca. 440 BCE). Herodotus cast the invasions as a culmination in a long struggle between Europe and Asia, tracing its origins in the societies of Western Asia and Egypt.

When Alexander the Great conquered the Persian empire in 334-323 BCE, his armies were accompanied by scholars who recorded geography, natural history, and even ethnography, adding much to the understanding of the new subject societies. But only when the successors of Alexander created the Hellenistic kingdoms after about 300 BCE—the Seleucids in Mesopotamia and Syria, the Ptolemies in Egypt—did they have a need for comprehensive accounts of ancient history. The Babylonian Berossus and the Egyptian Manetho prepared accounts of their societies’ antiquity for the first generations of Hellenistic rulers, after about 300 BCE. From the point of view of the rulers, such documents were aids to making policy in the governance of complex societies. From the point of view of the authors, they were expressions of pride and priority for indigenous societies. From the point of view of the scholars of that time, they were an element in the encyclopedic compilation of knowledge and science, the intellectual enterprise embodied in the great libraries of Alexandria, Antioch, and Pergamon. Around the same time, a panel of scholars also prepared a Greek translation of the Hebrew bible.

But this enterprise failed to preserve the ability to read the ancient scripts of the Near East that would allow the record of Near Eastern antiquity to be examined and interpreted at first hand; so from the point of view of posterity, these secondary accounts—shadows and reflections that were transmitted in excerpts, quotations, epitomes, and fragments—were all that was left for understanding the ancient Near East.

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