It happened today - May 22, 2016
On May 22 back in 334 BC Alexander the Great laid an instructive beating on the Persians at the Granicus River near the site of Troy. I’m not a big fan of Alexander, who seems to be a rare but not unknown example of someone who conquered things for no reason beyond liking battles. But what’s instructive is that Alexander’s forces took about 300 to 400 casualties and the Persians around 4,000. As Victor Davis Hanson points out in Carnage and Culture it’s a remarkably stable figure over the next two and a half millennia.
Now no smart-alec comments from the back that Alexander and the Persians haven’t been fighting ever since like something out of an original Star Trek episode. But West and non-West have been and the battles have been strikingly, consistently lopsided.
Granicus is remarkable partly because it’s just a century and a half after the critical clashes at Thermopylae, Salamis and Plataea when Xerxes’ mighty Persians sought to snuff out the small, independent, squabbling Greek city-states before the “Golden Age” of democracy even got started, only to suffer a series of stunning defeats and go home pretending nothing important had happened. Yet here’s Alexander rampaging through their territory, having conquered Greece not because Macedon was an alien civilization but because it wasn’t.
That’s not to say the Greeks liked him or being conquered by the Macedonians. (In fact one of my favourite anecdotes from Plutarch concerns a rumour sweeping Athens that Alexander had died and people rushing about saying we must revolt we must revolt only to be calmed by the statesman Phocion observing dryly that “If he is dead today, he will still be dead tomorrow.”) But such is the dynamic might of open societies that it is already Persia that is on the periphery of Mediterranean wealth and power looking in, a situation that would only become more acute as Rome became the dominant Western power.
It’s not a matter of a pendulum, with Greece or Rome dominant at one point and Persia at another. Instead if you look at the modern world, there’s Iran trying to stare down the Western powers over their concerns about its nuclear program, and Britain, all but disarmed, still sending its submarines to patrol off Iran’s shores not the other way around.
That’s not to say I’m unconcerned about the decay of Western power and resolve. Quite the reverse. I’m acutely alarmed about it. But I still wouldn’t trade our problems for those of non-open societies. Bad as things get here, the imbalance at Granicus is just as dramatic today.