Persians: Plato on Persian decline into effeminacy and tyranny (early fourth century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Justin Nadeau, 'Persians: Plato on Persian decline into effeminacy and tyranny (early fourth century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified March 30, 2024, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=16511.

Ancient author: Plato, Laws / Nomoi, portions of 693D-698A (link).

Comments (by Justin Nadeau): Among the writings of the fourth century BCE Athenian philosopher, Plato, is the longest of his dialogues on Laws (Nomoi). In it, Plato portrays a discussion between three elderly male figures: an unnamed Athenian, a Spartan named Megillos and a Cretan named Kleinias. The men in the dialogue aim to develop a new communal organization for Magnesia, a Cretan colony, with a balanced mix of democratic and authoritarian principles to make the people happy and productive. It should be remembered that some Cretan cities were considered colonies of Sparta (on which see Ephoros’ discussion at this link).

In the section below, the main speaker brings up Persian forms of communal organization, reviewing its positives and negatives. The Athenian speaker is portrayed as seeing balance between freedom and control among Persians in an earlier period when they were herdsmen, a situation that deteriorated into effeminacy and the pursuit of luxury in subsequent generations with rulers being tyrants and Persian subjects being slavish. The Greek stereotype of the effeminate and easily dominated easterner, which Plato echoes here through his Athenian speaker, was common.

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[Early Persian communal organization balanced, followed by decline into effeminacy and luxury]

  • Athenian: Listen to me [regarding what the lawgiver of a given community should aim at]. There are two mother forms of communal organization (politeiai) from which the rest may be truly said to derive. One of them is called “rule-by-a-sole-ruler” (monarchia) and the other “rule-by-the-People” (demokratia). The Persians have the highest form of the former, and we [Athenian Greeks] have the highest form of the latter. Almost all the remaining forms of communal organization, as I said, are variations of these. Now, if you want to have freedom and the combination of friendship with wisdom, you must have both these forms of government to some degree. The argument emphatically declares that no city can be well governed which is not made up of both.
  • Kleinias [Cretan]: For how could this be?
  • Athenian: Neither the one, if it is exclusively and excessively attached to rule-by-a-sole-ruler (monarchia), nor the other, if it is similarly attached to freedom, observes moderation. However, your communities, the Lakonian [i.e. Spartan] and Cretan, are better in this respect. And the same was the case with the Athenians and Persians long ago, but now they have less moderation. Should I tell you why?
  • Kleinias: By all means, if it will clarify our subject.
  • Athenian: Listen, then. There was a time when the Persians had more of a balance between slavery and freedom in moderation. In the reign of Cyrus, they were free and also rulers of many others. The rulers gave a share of freedom to the subjects, being treated as equals, and the soldiers were on better terms with their generals and showed themselves more ready in the hour of danger. And if there was any wise man among them, who was able to give good counsel, he imparted his wisdom to the community. This was because the king was not jealous, but allowed another person full freedom of speech, and gave honour to those who could advise him in any matter. And they were successful in all respects because there was freedom, friendship and communion of mind among them.
  • Kleinias: That certainly appears to have been the case.
  • Athenian: How, then, was this advantage lost under Cambyses, and again recovered under Darius? Do you want us to use some kind of divination to get an answer?
  • Kleinias: The inquiry, no doubt, has a bearing upon our subject.
  • Athenian: I imagine that Cyrus, though a great and community-loving general, had never given his mind to education, and never attended to the order of his household.
  • Kleinias: What makes you say this?
  • Athenian: I think that from his youth upwards he was a soldier and entrusted the education of his children to the women. The women brought them up from their childhood as the favourites of fortune, who were blessed already, and needed no more blessings. They thought that they were happy enough and that no one should be allowed to oppose them in any way. They also compelled everyone to praise everything that they said or did. This was how they brought them up.
  • Kleinias: Certainly a good education!
  • Athenian: An effeminate (gyneikeios) education by women of royalty who had recently grown rich. This happened in the absence of the men, too, who were occupied in wars and dangers, and had no time to look after them.
  • Kleinias: What would you expect?
  • Athenian: Their father possessed cattle and sheep, and many herds of men and other animals, but he did not consider that those about to inherit them were not trained in his own calling, which was Persian. Persians are shepherds, born from a rugged land. That is a tough skill and well fitted to produce a strong people able to live in the open air and go without sleep, and also to fight, if fighting is required. He did not observe that his sons were trained differently. Through the so-called blessing of being royal, they were educated in the Median fashion by women and eunuchs, which led to becoming such as people you would expect when they are brought up beyond reproach. Now after the death of Cyrus, his sons inherited the kingdom, in the fullness of luxury and licentiousness. First, one killed the other because he could not endure a rival. Afterwards, the murderer himself, maddened by drink and poor education, lost his kingdom through the Medes and the so-called “Eunuch” [likely a reference to the Magian Gomates] who despised the folly of Cambyses.
  • Kleinias: That’s what they say, and it is quite likely that is what happened.
  • Athenian: Yes. It is also said that the power came back to the Persians through Darius and the Seven.
  • Kleinias: True.
  • Athenian: Let us consider the rest of the story. For Darius was not the son of a king and had not received a luxurious education. When he came to the throne, being one of the seven, he divided the country into seven portions. There are some shadowy traces of this arrangement. He made laws upon the principle of introducing equality in the community. He embodied in his laws the settlement of the tribute which Cyrus promised. In this way, he created a feeling of friendship and community among all the Persians and won the people over with money and gifts. So his armies happily acquired territory for him as large as those which Cyrus had left behind him. Darius was succeeded by his son Xerxes. Xerxes was also raised in the royal and luxurious fashion. We could justifiably say: “O Darius, how could you raise Xerxes in the same way in which Cyrus raised Cambyses, because you did not see his fatal mistake?” For Xerxes, being the product of the same education, suffered the same fortune as Cambyses. Since that time, there has never been a truly great king among the Persians, although they are all called “Great.” I maintain that their degeneracy is not to be attributed to chance. Rather, the reason for it is the evil life which is generally led by the children of exceptionally wealthy people. For no child or man, young or old, will excel in virtue if they have been educated in this way. These are issues, I say, that a legislator has to consider, and what at the present moment we should consider.

[Superiority of Spartan approach]

  • Athenian (continued): It is only just, Lakedaimonians [i.e. Spartans], that you are praised, in that you do not give special honour or special education to rich or poor, or to a king or a commoner, beyond the prophetic directions you were originally commanded to give them. For no one should have preeminent honour in a city because they surpass others in wealth, any more than because the person is a fast runner or beautiful or strong unless he has some virtue in him. Not even if he has virtue, unless he has this particular virtue of self-control . . . [omitted material].
  • Athenian: So we maintain that, for a city to be safe and happy as humanly possible, the city must be able to distribute honour and dishonour in the correct way. It is only right to place the goods of the soul first and highest in the scale, always assuming the soul possesses self-control; to assign the second place to the goods of the body; and, to assign the third place to wealth and property. Can we not say that, if any law-giver or city departs from this rule by giving wealth the place of honour or in any way prefers that which is lesser, that person or the city is doing an unholy thing that is not in the interests of the city?
  • Megillos: Yes. Let that be plainly declared.

[Conclusion regarding inferiority of the Persians]

  • Athenian: The examination of the Persian form of communal organization led us to say this at such length. We still find that the Persians grew worse and worse. According to our argument, the reason for this was that they diminished the freedom of the people excessively, and introduced too much tyranny, and so destroyed the friendship and communal spirit. Once there is an end to these, the governors no longer govern on behalf of their subjects or the people, but in their own interests. If they think that they can gain any small advantage for themselves, they devastate cities, and send fire and desolation among friendly peoples. As they hate ruthlessly and horribly, so are they hated. And when they want the people to fight for them, they find no communal spirit or willingness to risk their lives on their behalf. Their vast numbers are useless to them on the field of battle, and they think that their salvation depends on the employment of mercenaries and foreigners whom they hire, as if they were in short supply. Inevitably, they cannot help being stupid, since they proclaim by their actions that the ordinary distinctions of right and wrong which are made in a community are insignificant, when compared with gold and silver.
  • Megillos: Quite true.
  • Athenian: Enough about the Persians, and how poorly managed their affairs are, because of their excess of slavishness (douleia) and despotic rulers (despoteia).

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Source of translation: B. Jowett, The Dialogues of Plato, vol. 5 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1892) (link), adapted by Justin Nadeau and Harland.

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