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Tuesday, November 01, 2016

The Ancient World: East Vs West

Jacobites and the Ancient World | Podcast | History Extra

"We're so used, when working in the Mediterranean world, to think about the sort of Civilised vs Barbarian dichotomy. The foreigners over there to the East are the Barbarians going all the way back to Herodotus obviously in the Persian invasions of Greece.

But when you look at some of the first reports of contact from the West further East and from the East to the West, actually the note you get is one of respect.

So from the West going East, at the end of the 4th century BCE, we have the figure of Megasthenes, who is the first official ambassador to be sent by the Seleucid rulers to the court of the Indian King Chandragupta Maurya Pataliputra and he writes his account of India as he finds it. His Indico, which is then recounted for us in part, by writers such as Diodorous Siculus and others.

And what's striking about his record of India is on the one hand, fanciful claims about ants the size of men and men who have their feet on backwards and things like that, but on the other hand, an incredible respect and admiration for Indian culture. He marvels for example at the fact that they seem to exist perfectly happily without slavery and that their society functions without much crime.

And on the other hand if you look at some of the sources from the East, from the world of the Chinese looking West, particularly in document the Hou Han Shu, the Book of the later Han Dynasty, in which there's a section on, a chapter on Western regions, talking about the first people to make their way West, and the quote there is fascinating: it says that the people of this country of the West are all tall and honest, and then it's goes on to say: in fact, in that they're quite like us. These are decent people and this is why that we've given the name to this far Western realm: Da Qin, the Greater Qin, which was a mark of huge respect coming from the Chinese world.

So in that sense it's quite a wonderful note, I think, that the first kind of records and mullings over of what the East is like from the Western perspective and what the West is like from the Eastern perspective is in both cases full of admiration and respect rather than the more typical are ones that we've seen over the centuries and sadly are still present nowadays of disrespect and of fear...

What's striking is for example that in the Greek story with the invention and then growth of democracy for example is you have an enormous number of sea battles.

Sea battles are very important, because everyone is rowing the ships. They are battles which reinforce the right of everyone across a society to have a role, a say in what that society does.

If you would look to China on the other hand or indeed to Rome, you would see an equal amount of war but actually much more focused on land, and in land battles you have a much more hierarchical system in which those that can afford the better weaponry or the horses tend to be more important to the battle and so battles and war in those worlds tend to reinforce traditional hierarchies"
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