The Greeks, Xerxes and the Terrorism of Today


The ancient Greeks were faced with terrorism and slavery from the Persian king Xerxes. Edith Hamilton in her book, The Greek Way (W.W.Norton, N.Y. 1930) explains what they did, how they did it and why it was successful. Revisiting what the ancient Greeks did should renew our appreciation for the uniqueness of Western Civilization. Revisiting how they did it and why it worked will prove useful both for confronting the new wave of terrorism used by ISIS and for correcting the current educational faddishness that deviates from the soundness of the classical Greek academy.

What did the ancient Greeks do?

Edith Hamilton is precise, Western Civilization did not come from ancient Egypt or Asia; it began in Greece, specifically with the two great classics of Homer, The Iliad and The Odyssey. She writes:

All things Greek begin for us with Homer, and in the Iliad and the Odyssey the Greeks have left far behind not only the bestialities of primitive worship, but the terrible and degrading rites the terror-stricken world around them was practicing. In Homer, magic has been abolished. It is practically nonexistent in the Iliad and the Odyssey. The enormous spiritual advance this shows – and intellectual, no less – is hard for us to realize.… In this terror-haunted world a strange thing came to pass. In one little country the terror was banished. Pg. 210-211

What the ancient Greeks did was they banished terror and magic from their country. To illustrate the intellectual and spiritual importance of this Hamilton explains:

Before Greece all religion was magical. Magic was of supreme importance. It was mankind’s sole defense against fearful powers leagued against mankind. Myriads of malignant spirits were bent on bringing every kind of evil to it. They were omnipresent… Life was possible only because, fearful as they were, they could be appeased or weakened by magical means. These were often terrible as well as senseless. The human mind played no part in all the whole business. It was enslaved by terror. A magical universe was so terrifying because it was so irrational, and therefore completely incalculable. There was no dependable relation anywhere between cause and effect. It will readily be seen what it did to the human intellect to live in such an atmosphere, and what it did to the human character too. Fear is of all the emotions the most brutalizing. Pg.211

Terror is used to create and rule a society of slaves. Hamilton writes, “The Persians were slaves so called and so treated; the richest and most powerful claimed nothing as their right; they were completely at the disposal of the king.” Pg.128

An anecdote that illustrates this is given by an eyewitness, Herodotus, whom Hamilton describes, “… his turn of mind was skeptical; he was a born investigator. The word history, which was first used in our sense by him, means investigation in Greek.” Pg.123 The anecdote describes how the Persians rulers used extreme terror to enslave even their own nobility.

A noble who had for many years enjoyed royal favor (Persian) and then lost it, was invited to dine with the king. After he had feasted on the meat placed before him, he was presented with a covered basket. Lifting the lid he saw the head and feet of his only son. “Do you now know” the king asked pleasantly, “the kind of animal you were eating?” The father had learned the lesson slaves must master, self-control. He answered with perfect composure, “I do know, indeed whatever the king is pleased to do pleases me.” Pg. 128

With this sad example of Persian terrorism we can perfectly understand two of the dictums of Euripides; “A slave is one who cannot speak his thoughts” and “A man without fear cannot be a slave.” Pg. 201 When Xerxes sent his officials to demand the surrender of the Greeks, it is reported by Herodotus that the Greeks said: ‘Freedom you have never tried, to know how sweet it is. If you had you would urge us to fight for it not with our spears only, but even with hatchets.’ Hamilton concludes, “As the war the Persians draws nearer in Herodotus, it is seen more and more clearly as a contest not of flesh and blood only, but of spiritual forces which are incompatible.” Pg. 128.

Let us summarize what we have observed. Terrorism works by brutalizing fear, a fear that paralyses the capacity for rational thought. Once this is done the victim’s humanity is enervated and they become part of a mindless herd.

The quote with which we began continues:

In one little country the terror was banished. For untold ages it had dominated mankind and stunted its growth. The Greeks dismissed it. They changed a world full of fear into a world full of beauty. We have not the least idea of how this extraordinary change came about. We know only that in Homer men are free and fearless. There are no fearful powers to be propitiated in fearful ways… The universe became rational. An early Greek philosopher wrote: ‘All things were in confusion until Mind came and set them in order.’ That mind was Greek, and the first exponent of it we know about was Homer. Pg. 211

The Greeks defeated the terrorism which had been used to enslave large populations of the world. This was the unique gift of Western Civilization to the world. We turn now to the question, how did they do this?

How then did the Greeks defeat terrorism?

How was it possible for the Greeks to triumph over ruthless terror? A key clue is given above when Edith Hamilton says, “…the universe became rational”. She offers more useful insights.

In the world of antiquity those who practiced the healing art were magicians, priests versed in special magic rites. The Greeks called their healers physicians, which means those versed in the ways of nature… To be versed in the way of nature means that a man has observed outside facts and reasoned about them. He has used his powers not to escape from the world but to think himself more deeply into it. To the Greeks the outside world was real and something more, it was interesting. They looked at it attentively and their minds worked upon what they saw… The Greek mind was free to think about the world as it pleased, to reject all traditional explanations, to disregard all that the priests taught, to search unhampered by any outside authority for the truth. The Greeks had free scope for their scientific genius and they laid the foundations for our science today. 30, 32, 34

Here again we see the clue Hamilton repeats throughout her book as to how the Greeks defeated terrorism writing, “their minds worked upon what they saw.” Keep this in mind as you read the next amazing sentence.

The Greek mind that must see a thing never in and for itself but always connected with what was greater, and the Greek spirit that saw beauty and meaning in each separate thing, made Greek tragedy as they made Greek sculpture and Greek architecture, each an example of something completely individual at once simplified and given its significance by being always seen as connected with something universal, an expression of the Greek ideal, ‘beauty, absolute, simple, and everlasting….the irradiation of the particular by the general.’” 242

Because of the importance of that sentence allow me to paraphrase a portion, something completely individual is given its significance by being connected with something universal. What the Greeks saw was the necessity of keeping both the universal (ideal) and the particular (each separate thing) together so that we can determine proportions and make judgments. Everything in the world gets its meaning from some source other than itself. To understand anything it has to be compared to something else. The source for comparison was called by the ancient Greeks many names: ideals, forms, universals, even the divine. Hamilton explains,

To see anything in relation to other things is to see it simplified. A house is very complicated mater considered by itself: plan, decoration, furnishings… but if it is considered as part of a block or part of a city, the details sink out of sight. Just as a city in itself is a mass of complexity but is reduced to a few essentials when it is thought of as belong to a country… This necessity of the Greek mind to see everything in relation to a whole made them also see the individual are a part of the whole… pg. 222, 223

What cannot be overemphasized here is that Greek reason is achieved by learning to see both the distant horizon and the objects the close at hand at the same time. Try to imagine walking a long distance looking only at your feet, never lifting your eyes up to look forward. How long would it take to fall into a pit? Sheep get lost as they move from one clump of grass to another without noticing their surroundings. The Greeks reasoned by keeping a universal or ideal as the backdrop against which they could compare any particular thought, object or event. By keeping that reference in mind any Greek could constantly make a comparison between what he or she was doing and what needed to be done to accomplish their task well. This is how the Greeks used the word ‘form’, anything we can see or think about had an ideal original form, what we see or think at this moment either ‘conforms’ to that original, it is said to be formally correct, or it does not, it is ‘deformed’. To give one example of how the Greeks revered to this ability to reason by comparison we can do no better than to quote Aristotle.

There is a life which is higher than the measure of humanity: men will live it not by virtue of their humanity, but by the virtue of something in them that is divine. We ought not to listen to those who exhort a man to keep man’s thoughts, but to live according to the highest thing that is in him, for small though it be, in power and worth it is far above the rest. Pg.220

The highest thing in a human being was not their personal thoughts or opinions, it was to perceive the never changing original forms or ideals behind everything. An original form that is not dependent on any individual’s whims was so important to the ancient Greeks that Aristotle here calls it divine. An educated Greek was to base his or her life, what they did and thought, on the timeless universals not their own unstable thoughts or opinions! The comparison of the individual with the universal ideal will always show the smallness of the individual. Having the universal as a backdrop for looking at life makes ridiculous any individual, including Xerxes, who wishes to exaggerate their own importance. What is common to all humanity is the individual’s smallness in comparison to the immensity of the ideal.

We have seen what the ancient Greeks accomplished, they freed themselves from terror and how they did it; they used reason based upon informed comparisons between unchanging universals and the fickleness of individuals. Now we cans ask, why was this skillful reasoning successful?

Why the Greeks succeeded.

The words, cited by Hamilton, of Xenophon, a man tested in many battles with the Persians, help to answer why reason triumphed over terror. “He who conquers by force may fancy that he can continue to do so, but the only conquests that last are when men willingly submit to those who are better than themselves. The only way really to conquer a country is through generosity.” Hamilton continues, “In a play written by Aeschylus about the defeat of the Persians at Salamis, the Persian queen asks, “Who is set over the Greeks as despot?” The answer given is, ‘They are slaves and vassals of no man.’ Therefore, all Greeks believed, they conquered the slave-subjects of the Persian tyrant. Free men, independent men, were always worth inexpressibly more than men submissive and controlled.” Pg. 156,157 She continues:

The Athenian was a law unto himself, but his dominate instinct to stand alone was counterbalanced by his sense of overwhelming obligation to serve the state. This was his own spontaneous reaction to the facts of his life, nothing imposed upon him from the outside. The city was his defense in a hostile world, his security, his pride, too, the guarantee to all of his worth as an Athenian. Plato said that a man could find their true moral development only in service to the city. The Athenian was saved from looking on their life as a private affair. Our word ‘idiot’ comes from the Greek name for the man who took no share in public matters.

It is reported that Pericles said at the funeral of Xenophon, “We do not allow absorption in our own affairs to interfere with participation in the city’s. We differ from other states in regarding the man who holds aloof from public life as useless, yet we yield to none in independence of spirit and complete self-reliance.” Pg.164

In summary there are four reasons why of the Greeks were successful against terrorism. They were not intimidated by the fearful reputation of Xerxes because they held a higher ideal of humanity than any individual could usurp. They knew terrorism could not succeed in controlling people in the long run. They enjoyed their freedom and were loath to surrender it to become slaves. They tempered individual freedom with the humility that comes from the recognition that freedom depends upon having a safe place to exercise that freedom.


Having explained what the Greeks did, how they did it and why it was successful, Edith Hamilton closes her book asking us to reflect on the situation in the West today.

For nineteen hundred years the West has been undergoing a process of education in the particular versus the general. 245

Today the ideal, universal or original form that the ancient Greeks used to designate the goals by which they ordered their lives are disdainfully mocked by educators (post-modernism). Situational ethics are taught and teachers promote the magical notion that individual rights can be sustained without respect for any absolutes or universal ideals. Hamilton perfectly identified the academic conceit of the universities today. She reminds us:

Things were simple in the old days when the single man had no right at all if a common good conflicted, his life taken for any purpose that served that served the public welfare… Not that we can perceive too clearly the rights and wrongs of every human being but that we feel too deeply our own, to find in the end that what has meaning only for each one has not real meaning at all. Pg. 246

This is the dilemma of the West today, it is what makes the West vulnerable to slavery under the sharia law of ISIS or some other tyrant. The successful defense against terrorism depends upon commonly held ideals, the discipline to work towards those ideals and a population wise enough not to put their individual caprice above the welfare of the all.

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