It happened today - October 20, 2015
Well, that was close. If a ragtag Greek fleet hadn’t defeated the mighty Persians at Salamis on October 20 the improbable story of the West would have stopped before it started.
It happened back in 480 B.C., when what we think of as classical Greece was just getting started. And it was an improbable microcosm of the whole story of West v rest. The Persians had a mighty army and a mighty fleet unified under the rigorous, unquestionable command of a God-emperor. The Greeks were a bunch of squabbling, impertinent, disorganized lovers of a foolish thing called “liberty”.
Of course Xerxes' invincible forces walloped them on land at Thermopylae and at sea at Artemisium. And as they moved south to administer the coup de grace, these ridiculous farmer citizen-soldiers cobbled together a navy and land forces and bickered about strategy and questioned their commanders and, in the actual conflict, had found the right strategy while the Persians had not.
After two more thumping defeats by this rabble the next year, at Plataea on land and Mycale at sea, Xerxes did a sour grapes and decided Greece wasn’t worth conquering anyway and went home to be divine while the Greeks invented philosophy and history and a bunch of other stuff where they questioned dogmas and rulers and quarreled and argued and worked things out in a debate where it mattered what you said not who you were.
The dynamism of the resulting free society, which spread through Rome (where Athens met Jerusalem) to the Anglosphere, has irritated and amused the leaders of closed societies for 2500 years since, and then when attacked has routed and crushed their mighty armies and fleets time and again.
You really should read Victor Davis Hanson’s Carnage and Culture to get a gripping, convincing portrayal of this improbable tale over two and a half millennia. But it all started at Salamis.
Interestingly, we know the names of the historian who recorded this battle, albeit imperfectly, and the Athenian commander Themistocles because the Greeks also celebrated, and mourned, the ordinary people who fought there and at Thermopylae and elsewhere explicitly in the name of freedom. On the Persian side we remember Xerxes and nobody else.
That’s why he lost and we won.