Maori Wars

There had been intermittent fighting with the Maoris for more than a decade; in fact, since colonists first began arriving in numbers on these beautiful but remote islands. The three numbered Maori wars were merely periods of exceptional activity and crisis in a running struggle as Europeans, mostly British, wrested the land from the natives: the intelligent, brave and warlike Maoris. These almost-forgotten wars are among the most disgraceful episodes in British imperial history for they sprang from stark, naked, unabashed greed.

The cause of the fighting was always the same: land. The Europeans wanted it and were even willing to pay for it, but most of the Maoris simply did not want to part with it. The Maori, of whatever tribe, always had a special affection for his tribal land; it was his most treasured possession. ‘The blood of man is the land,’ said a Maori proverb. By the Treaty of Waitangi the colonists had guaranteed the Maori the undisputed possession of his lands for as long as he wanted them. But the ever-increasing number of colonists – rising from 59,413 in 1858 to 218,637 in 1867 – also wanted land.

Disputes about land always ended in fighting. There were atrocities. Soon it was war. The New Zealanders called on the mother country for help, but, far from offering support, the British government announced that in accordance with a self-reliance policy it had established in respect to colonies it intended to withdraw the one Imperial regiment in New Zealand: the 18th Foot (later the Royal Irish, disbanded in 1922). There were screams of terror from the New Zealanders.

The British Government had not favoured the idea of colonizing New Zealand in the first place, and the Colonial Office had strongly disapproved of the policy adopted by the New Zealand colonial government of confiscating the Maoris’ land. The colonists now outnumbered the Maoris and they were considered big enough to take care of themselves. Lord Granville put the matter succinctly and bluntly: ‘the present distress of the colony arises mainly from two circumstances: the discontent of the natives consequent on the confiscation of their land, and the neglect by successive governments to place on foot a force sufficiently formidable to overawe that discontent’.

In spite of the uproar concerning the announced withdrawal of the 18th Regiment, it was, after some delay, withdrawn. In spite of the colonists’ fears, when the last detachment of the regiment left New Zealand on 24 February 1870 the Maori wars ended. The colonial forces did, after all, defeat the Maoris. The fighting continued until the Maoris had been decimated and the Europeans had taken all the land they wanted. But even when the fighting ended the New Zealanders still lived in fear, while the Maoris still lived with the fading hope that they would one day regain their land. As late as 1928 a Maori was quoted as saying: ‘We have been beaten because the Pakeha [European] outnumbers us in men. But we are not conquered or rubbed out, and not one of these Pakeha can name the day we … sued for peace. The most that can be said is that on such and such a date we left off fighting.’ Today the Maoris are on the increase, and they are now, finally, as numerous as they were 100 years ago, but they have less than a sixteenth of their original land holdings. Their hopes and the New Zealanders’ fears are ended. All live in peace under a socialist government.

Bay of Islands War (First Maori War, Hono Heke’s War) (1844-1847)

PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Maori peoples of New Zealand vs. British settlers

PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): North Island, New Zealand

DECLARATION: No formal declaration

MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: Maori, resentful of Europeans’ encroachments on their lands, the subjugation of their chiefs to British authority, and the ill effects of British settlement upon their culture, attacked a British garrison on North Island.

OUTCOME: Fighting ended with the defeat of the Maori warriors, and peace continued for most of the following 15 years.

APPROXIMATE MAXIMUM NUMBER OF MEN UNDER ARMS: Maori, 700 warriors; Britain, 1,500

CASUALTIES: Maori, 260; British, 57


Since Captain James Cook’s (1728-79) explorations of New Zealand in 1769-70, European whalers, sealers, and traders insinuated a capitalist system that tied New Zealand’s inhabitants to Europe’s economy. Soon settlers followed sailors and traders, and they brought with them a hunger for native Maori lands. Britain annexed New Zealand in 1838 and established means, initially acceptable to the Maori, for European land purchases in exchange for Maori protection. But by means legal and not, the Europeans, too quickly to suit the Maori, appropriated lands and thus threatened Maori culture. The tension between New Zealanders and Europeans exploded into the WAIRAU AFFRAY in 1843 over contested land purchases illegally made by the New Zealand Land Company. A settlement favorable to the Maori satisfied them but did not solve the ongoing contest for land.

A local Maori chief, Hone Heke (dates unknown), marched on the British garrison of Russell, or Kororareka, on July 8, 1844, and cut down the British flagpole, a symbolic act of his resentment toward the European presence. The following January he did it twice more. The British had had enough and, after re-erecting the pole, built a blockhouse around it. Undaunted, Hone Heke, with another chief, Kawiti, and 700 warriors, marched on Kororareka on March 11, seizing the blockhouse and cutting the pole down for the fourth time. The chief was not finished. The Maori warriors then advanced on the town and sacked it, forcing both the townspeople and the undermanned garrison to flee.

The governor general, Captain Robert FitzRoy (1805-65), ordered a punitive expedition into the field against the rebels, but Heke and Kawiti quickly annihilated the force in two short engagements. FitzRoy was recalled and replaced by Captain George Grey (1812-98). Grey quickly sent a large force into the field and attacked the heart of traditional Maori warfare, the pa. A pa is the base of operations for Maori warfare both spiritually and tactically. It is also a fortification. The force first attacked Kawiti’s pa in January and defeated it without much struggle. Grey’s troops then attacked Hone Heke’s pa at Ruapekapeka on January 11, 1846, and quickly overran it. Heke did not acknowledge defeat but vowed not to take the field against the British again. Although indiscriminate skirmishes continued for the next year, the fighting was essentially over, but the land disputes would resume with a vengeance in the FIRST TARANAKI WAR (Second Maori War) of 1860.

First Taranaki War, (1860-1861)

PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Great Britain vs. the Maori tribes

PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): Taranaki region, North Island, New Zealand


MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: The British sought possession of land ceded by a certain Maori sub-chief.

OUTCOME: Most of the land was seized and an uneasy truce maintained after retrocession of a small parcel of land to the Maori.


CASUALTIES: The entire period of the First, Second, and Third Taranaki Wars resulted in the loss of 54 percent of the Maori population, at least 27,000 persons.

TREATIES: Truce of 1861

In colonial New Zealand, as in the Indian Wars in the United States throughout the 19th century, tribal members frequently disputed land concessions and other agreements chiefs and other tribal members made with white government authorities. In 1859, a minor chief of the Maori tribe in the Taranaki region of North Island sold to British colonial interests land along the Waitara River. His tribe repudiated the cession and resisted confiscation of the land. Although the British had concluded the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, whereby tribal veto of various agreements was allowed, authorities violated the treaty by attacking Maori strongholds, called pas. Resistance was stiff, and the British made little headway until they finally succeeded in overrunning the critical Te Arei Pa in 1861. This prompted the Maori to conclude a truce in return for the British retrocession of a modest parcel of tribal land.

The truce was an uneasy one, frequently punctuated by outbursts of violence over a 12-year period. It is estimated that during this time significantly more than half of the Maori population of 50,000 was killed. Historians sometimes refer to this period as the Second Maori War; others recognize a Second TARANAKI WAR (1863-64) also called the Waikato War, and a Third TARANAKI WAR (1864-72).

Second Taranaki War, (Waikato War) (1863-1864)

PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Great Britain vs. the Maori tribes

PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): Waikato River area, North Island, New Zealand


MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: The British sought to occupy the area.

OUTCOME: Guerrilla resistance was suppressed in the Waikato River region but persisted elsewhere on North Island through 1872.




Also known as the Waikato War and treated by some historians as part of a larger Second Maori War, this was a resumption of the conflict taken up in the First TARANAKI WAR, which had ended in an uneasy truce. In April 1863, Sir George Grey (1812-98), the British governor-general of New Zealand, laid a military road directly into the disputed area of Waikato River. To do this, and to clear the way for European settlers, Grey attacked the Maori, driving them from Tataramaika “block.” The Maori responded with guerrilla attacks, which the British sought to suppress by neutralizing the pas, the Maori stronghold-fortresses, and counterattacking with riverborne gunboats and special ranger-style military units. The British were quite successful, suppressing guerrilla forces at Meremere and Rangiriri in 1863 and, the next year, destroying Orakau Pa. These triumphs put an end to Maori resistance in the Waikato River region, but elsewhere on New Zealand’s North Island guerrilla warfare continued as the Third TARANAKI WAR.

Third Taranaki War, (1864-1872)

PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Great Britain vs. the Maori tribes

PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): North Island, New Zealand


MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: The British-especially the British East India Company-sought to settle Maori lands.

OUTCOME: The war produced no clear-cut victor; however, by 1872, with all sides exhausted and the Maori resistance all but crushed, the war petered out.


CASUALTIES: Unknown; but see this heading in First Taranaki War.


This was a resumption of the conflict between the British and Maori on New Zealand taken up in the First TARANAKI WAR (1860-61) and the Second TARANAKI WAR (1863-64). The Second Taranaki War had neutralized Maori resistance in the hotly contested Waikato River area but did not suppress resistance elsewhere on New Zealand’s North Island. Throughout this territory, the Maori Hau Hau, a religiously inspired warrior cult, its members motivated by a sincere belief that they were invulnerable and impervious to British bullets, fought with suicidal ferocity against British forces. At this point, the British government was eager to establish peace, but the British East India Company pushed for additional lands in New Zealand and continually provoked new outbreaks. A major attack was launched against the guerrillas at Weroroa Pa in 1865, resulting in a significant British victory. Despite this, the guerrillas continued to block colonial expansion. In 1868, the resistance of the Maori Hau Hau was supplemented by that of a new group, also religious and military in nature, the Ringatu.

From 1865 on, none of the three combatant elements, the British, the Hau Hau, or the Ringatu, could claim any clear-cut victories. The war wound down in 1872-the fighting stopped-not through any resolution of conflict, any claim of victory, or any concession of defeat but as a result of exhaustion on all sides. Nevertheless, by this time, resistance had been so worn down that only a single portion of New Zealand, King County, remained closed to colonial settlement.

Further reading: James Belich, Victorian Interpretation of Racial Conflict: The Maori, the British and the New Zealand Wars (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 1989); Paul Moon, Hone Heke: Nga Puh Warrior (Auckland, N. Z.: David Bing Publishing, 2001). Keith Sinclair, The Origins of the Maori Wars (Wellington: New Zealand University Press, 1957).


Chinese Women Warriors

Seven hundred years before young Scythian women died in battle and were buried with weapons as grave goods, General Fu Hao (ca. 1200 BCE) flourished and fought to defend the Shang dynasty in Bronze Age China (ca. 1600–046 BCE)—the earliest woman warrior I know of for whom we have a name and a story. She was one of three major wives of the emperor Wu Ding and a successful military commander in her own right. Traditional Chinese histories, written centuries after the fact, tell us that Wu Ding, the twenty-third ruler of the Shang dynasty, was a powerful emperor who ruled for fifty-nine years, but they don’t mention Fu Hao at all. We know her history from a true primary source: inscriptions on some 250 oracle bones, the earliest Chinese written records.

Various oracle bone inscriptions from the Shang period refer to Fu Hao as a royal consort, a general, and a landholder in her own right. She led military campaigns and presided over sacrificial ceremonies in the emperor’s name. Some oracle bones, inscribed during her lifetime, ask questions regarding her health or the tactics to pursue in a specific military campaign. Others, inscribed on behalf of the emperor, ask whether he should send Fu Hao or another general on a specific campaign, or if he should assume command himself. The inscription on one oracle bone suggests she led a force of thirteen thousand men on a campaign—an interpretation some scholars contest, since most Shang forces ranged from three thousand to five thousand troops. Other oracle bones document sacrifices made on her behalf after her death.

Chinese archaeologists established Fu Hao’s place in history without doubt in 1976, when a team under the direction of Zheng Zhenxiang discovered an undisturbed Shang tomb near Anyang, the site of the Shang capital in modern Henan province—the same region where most of the oracle bones were found. Because it had never been looted, the tomb included a larger quantity of grave goods than any previously excavated Shang tomb. At first, the richness of the grave goods and the large number of weapons led archaeologists to assume it was the tomb of a male ruler. Inscriptions on some of the seventy bronze vessels found in the tomb identified the site as the tomb of Fu Hao. Her grave goods included more than a hundred weapons, as well as thousands of ornamental objects in bronze, jade, bone, opal, and ivory, and the remains of sixteen slaves, buried with her to serve her in the afterlife. The bronze goods alone totaled 1.6 metric tons.

Scholars have pieced together a picture of Fu Hao’s career from sources that were never intended to provide a narrative. It appears she not only directed her own troops but also served as the ancient Chinese version of a task force commander in campaigns that included forces led by other generals. She participated in virtually every important military campaign at the height of Wu Ding’s reign. She led an army against the Tu Fang, a tribe of invaders from the north who had been a problem since the beginning of Wu Ding’s reign. For a year and a half, Fu Hao and other Shang generals, including Wu Ding himself, led repeated assaults against the Tu Fang. With the Tu Fang defeated, Fu Hao then led Shang forces against three more attacking forces: the armed horsemen of the Qiang Fang in the northwest, the Yi Fang in the southeast and southwest, and, sharing the command with her husband, the Ba Fung in the southeast. Soon after she returned, victorious, to Anyang, Fu Hao fell ill. She died shortly thereafter.

Fu Hao was not the only woman warrior during the Shang dynasty. The oracle bones give us the names of at least a hundred women who were active in Shang military campaigns. Most were the wives of Shang kings or powerful local lords or officials. Unless (until?) we find one of their tombs, we are unlikely to know more. It is not impossible. In 2001, Chinese archaeologists reported the discovery of a tomb of an unnamed woman who was buried with a large cache of weapons, dating from the Western Zhou dynasty (1046–1071 BCE).

After her death, Fu Hao vanished from Chinese history until Chinese scholars discovered that oracle bones were historical documents in the late nineteenth century, but the idea of the woman warrior never entirely vanished as a possibility. From the Warring States period (246–221 BCE) to the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), Chinese women§ led armies in unsettled times, with the expectation that once the crisis was past they would return to their traditional roles as daughter, wife, or mother. Some were teenage girls; some were tough old broads. They defended the border against invasion by barbarians and, like their counterparts in other times and places, organized the defense of besieged cities. They led peasant uprisings and helped put them down. (One woman who led a peasant revolt declared herself empress.) They helped defend existing dynasties and establish new ones. They raised armies and inherited them. Sometimes they held official ranks in the Chinese military or government. Qin Liangyu (1574–1684), for instance, began her military career by following her husband as the “pacification commissioner” of Shizhu, an area in modern Sichuan province, and eventually attained the rank of regional commander, the highest military rank under the Ming dynasty. More often, their heroism was recognized after the fact with a commemorative title—at least if they were on the winning side.

The stories we know are shaped by the sources in which they appear. Many of these examples were included in collections of biographies of “exemplary women” rather than in the official Chinese histories. One such collection includes short biographies of fifty-five “remarkable women,” most of them women warriors. These accounts are closer to parables with morals than biographies as we know them today: the women who are highlighted fit a number of standard categories, such as filial daughter or chaste widow. As a result, we get incidents, or a series of incidents, in which a seeming transgression of the social norm is shown as being rooted in Confucian ethics of filial piety and loyalty. Most of the examples we know begin their military careers as the mothers, wives, or daughters of Chinese officials, and they either fight beside their kinsmen or in place of male relatives who are unable to carry out the tasks.

China also produced women warriors who were less malleable. Lady Qi Wang (c. 1530–1588), for instance, who led the defense of a coastal fort against Japanese pirates in 1561, was described by her contemporaries as “rude, unreasonable and aggressive”—not an exemplar of Confucian ideals of womanhood.1 The stories of rude and aggressive women don’t make the collections of exemplary tales; instead they are hidden in plain sight in the biographies of others.

A NEW KIND OF WAR – Indian Wars

Quanah Parker, c. 1890

Quanah Parker on horseback wearing eagle feather headdress and holding a lance bottom-up.

Cavalrymen remember such moments: dust swirling behind the pack mules, regimental bugles shattering the air, horses snorting and riders’ tack creaking through the ranks, their old company song rising on the wind: “Come home, John! Don’t stay long. Come home soon to your own chick-a-biddy!” The date was October 3, 1871. Six hundred soldiers and twenty Tonkawa scouts had bivouacked on a lovely bend of the Clear Fork of the Brazos, in a rolling, scarred prairie of grama grass, scrub oak, sage, and chaparral, about one hundred fifty miles west of Fort Worth, Texas. Now they were breaking camp, moving out in a long, snaking line through the high cutbanks and quicksand streams. Though they did not know it at the time—the idea would have seemed preposterous—the sounding of “boots and saddle” that morning marked the beginning of the end of the Indian wars in America, of fully two hundred fifty years of bloody combat that had begun almost with the first landing of the first ship on the first fatal shore in Virginia. The final destruction of the last of the hostile tribes would not take place for a few more years. Time would be yet required to round them all up, or starve them out, or exterminate their sources of food, or run them to ground in shallow canyons, or kill them outright. For the moment the question was one of hard, unalloyed will. There had been brief spasms of official vengeance and retribution before: J. M. Chivington’s and George Armstrong Custer’s savage massacres of Cheyennes in 1864 and 1868 were examples. But in those days there was no real attempt to destroy the tribes on a larger scale, no stomach for it. That had changed, and on October 3, the change assumed the form of an order, barked out through the lines of command to the men of the Fourth Cavalry and Eleventh Infantry, to go forth and kill Comanches. It was the end of anything like tolerance, the beginning of the final solution.

The white men were grunts, bluecoats, cavalry, and dragoons; mostly veterans of the War Between the States who now found themselves at the edge of the known universe, ascending to the turreted rock towers that gated the fabled Llano Estacado—Coronado’s term for it, meaning “palisaded plains” of West Texas, a country populated exclusively by the most hostile Indians on the continent, where few U.S. soldiers had ever gone before. The llano was a place of extreme desolation, a vast, trackless, and featureless ocean of grass where white men became lost and disoriented and died of thirst; a place where the imperial Spanish had once marched confidently forth to hunt Comanches, only to find that they themselves were the hunted, the ones to be slaughtered. In 1864, Kit Carson had led a large force of federal troops from Santa Fe and attacked a Comanche band at a trading post called Adobe Walls, north of modern-day Amarillo. He had survived it, but had come within a whisker of watching his three companies of cavalry and infantry destroyed.

The troops were now going back, because enough was enough, because President Grant’s vaunted “Peace Policy” toward the remaining Indians, run by his gentle Quaker appointees, had failed utterly to bring peace, and finally because the exasperated general in chief of the army, William Tecumseh Sherman, had ordered it so. Sherman’s chosen agent of destruction was a civil war hero named Ranald Slidell Mackenzie, a difficult, moody, and implacable young man who had graduated first in his class from West Point in 1862 and had finished the Civil War, remarkably, as a brevet brigadier general. Because his hand was gruesomely disfigured from war wounds, the Indians called him No-Finger Chief, or Bad Hand. A complex destiny awaited him. Within four years he would prove himself the most brutally effective Indian fighter in American history. In roughly that same time period, while General George Armstrong Custer achieved world fame in failure and catastrophe, Mackenzie would become obscure in victory. But it was Mackenzie, not Custer, who would teach the rest of the army how to fight Indians. As he moved his men across the broken, stream-crossed country, past immense herds of buffalo and prairie-dog towns that stretched to the horizon, Colonel Mackenzie did not have a clear idea of what he was doing, where precisely he was going, or how to fight Plains Indians in their homelands. Neither did he have the faintest idea that he would be the one largely responsible for defeating the last of the hostile Indians. He was new to this sort of Indian fighting, and would make many mistakes in the coming weeks. He would learn from them.

For now, Mackenzie was the instrument of retribution. He had been dispatched to kill Comanches in their Great Plains fastness because, six years after the end of the Civil War, the western frontier was an open and bleeding wound, a smoking ruin littered with corpses and charred chimneys, a place where anarchy and torture killings had replaced the rule of law, where Indians and especially Comanches raided at will. Victorious in war, unchallenged by foreign foes in North America for the first time in its history, the Union now found itself unable to deal with the handful of remaining Indian tribes that had not been destroyed, assimilated, or forced to retreat meekly onto reservations where they quickly learned the meaning of abject subjugation and starvation. The hostiles were all residents of the Great Plains; all were mounted, well armed, and driven now by a mixture of vengeance and political desperation. They were Comanches, Kiowas, Arapahoes, Cheyennes, and Western Sioux. For Mackenzie on the southern plains, Comanches were the obvious target: No tribe in the history of the Spanish, French, Mexican, Texan, and American occupations of this land had ever caused so much havoc and death. None was even a close second.

Just how bad things were in 1871 along this razor edge of civilization could be seen in the numbers of settlers who had abandoned their lands. The frontier, carried westward with so much sweat and blood and toil, was now rolling backward, retreating. Colonel Randolph Marcy, who accompanied Sherman on a western tour in the spring, and who had known the country intimately for decades, had been shocked to find that in many places there were fewer people than eighteen years before. “If the Indian marauders are not punished,” he wrote, “the whole country seems in a fair way of becoming totally depopulated.” This phenomenon was not entirely unknown in the history of the New World. The Comanches had also stopped cold the northward advance of the Spanish empire in the eighteenth century—an empire that had, up to that point, easily subdued and killed millions of Indians in Mexico and moved at will through the continent. Now, after more than a century of relentless westward movement, they were rolling back civilization’s advance again, only on a much larger scale. Whole areas of the borderlands were simply emptying out, melting back eastward toward the safety of the forests. One county—Wise—had seen its population drop from 3,160 in the year 1860 to 1,450 in 1870. In some places the line of settlements had been driven back a hundred miles.4 If General Sherman wondered about the cause—as he once did—his tour with Marcy relieved him of his doubts. That spring they had narrowly missed being killed themselves by a party of raiding Indians. The Indians, mostly Kiowas, passed them over because of a shaman’s superstitions and had instead attacked a nearby wagon train. What happened was typical of the savage, revenge-driven attacks by Comanches and Kiowas in Texas in the postwar years. What was not typical was Sherman’s proximity and his own very personal and mortal sense that he might have been a victim, too. Because of that the raid became famous, known to history as the Salt Creek Massacre.

Seven men were killed in the raid, though that does not begin to describe the horror of what Mackenzie found at the scene. According to Captain Robert G. Carter, Mackenzie’s subordinate, who witnessed its aftermath, the victims were stripped, scalped, and mutilated. Some had been beheaded and others had their brains scooped out. “Their fingers, toes and private parts had been cut off and stuck in their mouths,” wrote Carter, “and their bodies, now lying in several inches of water and swollen or bloated beyond all chance of recognition, were filled full of arrows, which made them resemble porcupines.” They had clearly been tortured, too. “Upon each exposed abdomen had been placed a mass of live coals. . . . One wretched man, Samuel Elliott, who, fighting hard to the last, had evidently been wounded, was found chained between two wagon wheels and, a fire having been made from the wagon pole, he had been slowly roasted to death—‘burnt to a crisp.’ ”

Thus the settlers’ headlong flight eastward, especially on the Texas frontier, where such raiding was at its worst. After so many long and successful wars of conquest and dominion, it seemed implausible that the westward rush of Anglo-European civilization would stall in the prairies of central Texas. No tribe had ever managed to resist for very long the surge of nascent American civilization with its harquebuses and blunderbusses and muskets and eventually lethal repeating weapons and its endless stocks of eager, land-greedy settlers, its elegant moral double standards and its complete disregard for native interests. Beginning with the subjection of the Atlantic coastal tribes (Pequots, Penobscots, Pamunkeys, Wampanoags, et al), hundreds of tribes and bands had either perished from the earth, been driven west into territories, or forcibly assimilated. This included the Iroquois and their enormous, warlike confederation that ruled the area of present-day New York; the once powerful Delawares, driven west into the lands of their enemies; the Iroquois, then yet farther west into even more murderous foes on the plains. The Shawnees of the Ohio Country had fought a desperate rearguard action starting in the 1750s. The great nations of the south—Chicasaw, Cherokee, Seminole, Creek, and Choctaw—saw their reservation lands expropriated in spite of a string of treaties; they were coerced westward into lands given them in yet more treaties that were violated before they were even signed; hounded along a trail of tears until they, too, landed in “Indian Territory” (present-day Oklahoma), a land controlled by Comanches, Kiowas, Araphoes, and Cheyennes.

Even stranger was that the Comanches’ stunning success was happening amid phenomenal technological and social changes in the west. In 1869 the Transcontinental Railroad was completed, linking the industrializing east with the developing west and rendering the old trails—Oregon, Santa Fe, and tributaries—instantly obsolete. With the rails came cattle, herded northward in epic drives to railheads by Texans who could make fast fortunes getting them to Chicago markets. With the rails, too, came buffalo hunters carrying deadly accurate .50-caliber Sharps rifles that could kill effectively at extreme range—grim, violent, opportunistic men blessed now by both a market in the east for buffalo leather and the means of getting it there. In 1871 the buffalo still roamed the plains: Earlier that year a herd of four million had been spotted near the Arkansas River in present-day southern Kansas. The main body was fifty miles deep and twenty-five miles wide. But the slaughter had already begun. It would soon become the greatest mass destruction of warm-blooded animals in human history. In Kansas alone the bones of thirty-one million buffalo were sold for fertilizer between 1868 and 1881. All of these profound changes were under way as Mackenzie’s Raiders departed their camps on the Clear Fork. The nation was booming; a railroad had finally stitched it together. There was only this one obstacle left: the warlike and unreconstructed Indian tribes who inhabited the physical wastes of the Great Plains.

Of those, the most remote, primitive, and irredeemably hostile were a band of Comanches known as the Quahadis. Like all Plains Indians, they were nomadic. They hunted primarily the southernmost part of the high plains, a place known to the Spanish, who had been abjectly driven from it, as Comancheria. The Llano Estacado, located within Comancheria, was a dead-flat tableland larger than New England and rising, in its highest elevations, to more than five thousand feet. For Europeans, the land was like a bad hallucination. “Although I traveled over them for more than 300 leagues,” wrote Coronado in a letter to the king of Spain on October 20, 1541, “[there were] no more landmarks than if we had been swallowed up by the sea . . . there was not a stone, nor a bit of rising ground, nor a tree, nor a shrub, nor anything to go by.” The Canadian River formed its northern boundary. In the east was the precipitous Caprock Escarpment, a cliff rising somewhere between two hundred and one thousand feet that demarcates the high plains from the lower Permian Plains below, giving the Quahadis something that approximated a gigantic, nearly impregnable fortress. Unlike almost all of the other tribal bands on the plains, the Quahadis had always shunned contact with Anglos. They would not even trade with them, as a general principle, preferring the Mexican traders from Santa Fe, known as Comancheros. So aloof were they that in the numerous Indian ethnographies compiled from 1758 onward chronicling the various Comanche bands (there were as many as thirteen), they do not even show up until 1872. For this reason they had largely avoided the cholera plagues of 1816 and 1849 that had ravaged western tribes and had destroyed fully half of all Comanches. Virtually alone among all bands of all tribes in North America, they never signed a treaty. Quahadis were the hardest, fiercest, least yielding component of a tribe that had long had the reputation as the most violent and warlike on the continent; if they ran low on water, they were known to drink the contents of a dead horse’s stomach, something even the toughest Texas Ranger would not do. Even other Comanches feared them. They were the richest of all plains bands in the currency by which Indians measured wealth—horses—and in the years after the Civil War managed a herd of some fifteen thousand. They also owned “Texas cattle without number.”

On that clear autumn day in 1871, Mackenzie’s troops were hunting Quahadis. Because they were nomadic, it was not possible to fix their location. One could know only their general ranges, their hunting grounds, perhaps old camp locations. They were known to hunt the Llano Estacado; they liked to camp in the depths of Palo Duro Canyon, the second-largest canyon in North America after the Grand Canyon; they often stayed near the headwaters of the Pease River and McClellan’s Creek; and in Blanco Canyon, all within a roughly hundred-mile ambit of present-day Amarillo in the upper Texas Panhandle. If you were pursuing them, as Mackenzie was, you had your Tonkawa scouts fan out far in advance of the column. The Tonks, as they were called, members of an occasionally cannibalistic Indian tribe that had nearly been exterminated by Comanches and whose remaining members lusted for vengeance, would look for signs, try to cut trails, then follow the trails to the lodges. Without them the army would never have had the shadow of a chance against these or any Indians on the open plains.

By the afternoon of the second day, the Tonks had found a trail. They reported to Mackenzie that they were tracking a Quahadi band under the leadership of a brilliant young war chief named Quanah—a Comanche word that meant “odor” or “fragrance.” The idea was to find and destroy Quanah’s village. Mackenzie had a certain advantage in that no white man had ever dared try such a thing before; not in the panhandle plains, not against the Quahadis.

Mackenzie and his men did not know much about Quanah. No one did. Though there is an intimacy of information on the frontier—opposing sides often had a surprisingly detailed understanding of one another, in spite of the enormous physical distances between them and the fact that they were trying to kill one another—Quanah was simply too young for anyone to know much about him yet, where he had been, or what he had done. Though no one would be able to even estimate the date of his birth until many years later, it was mostly likely in 1848, making him twenty-three that year and eight years younger than Mackenzie, who was also so young that few people in Texas, Indian or white, knew much about him at the time. Both men achieved their fame only in the final, brutal Indian wars of the mid-1870s. Quanah was exceptionally young to be a chief. He was reputed to be ruthless, clever, and fearless in battle.

But there was something else about Quanah, too. He was a half-breed, the son of a Comanche chief and a white woman. People on the Texas frontier would soon learn this about him, partly because the fact was so exceptional. Comanche warriors had for centuries taken female captives—Indian, French, English, Spanish, Mexican, and American—and fathered children by them who were raised as Comanches. But there is no record of any prominent half-white Comanche war chief. By the time Mackenzie was hunting him in 1871, Quanah’s mother had long been famous. She was the best known of all Indian captives of the era, discussed in drawing rooms in New York and London as “the white squaw” because she had refused on repeated occasions to return to her people, thus challenging one of the most fundamental of the Eurocentric assumptions about Indian ways: that given the choice between the sophisticated, industrialized, Christian culture of Europe and the savage, bloody, and morally backward ways of the Indians, no sane person would ever choose the latter. Few, other than Quanah’s mother, did. Her name was Cynthia Ann Parker. She was the daughter of one of early Texas’s most prominent families, one that included Texas Ranger captains, politicians, and prominent Baptists who founded the state’s first Protestant church. In 1836, at the age of nine, she had been kidnapped in a Comanche raid at Parker’s Fort, ninety miles south of present Dallas. She soon forgot her mother tongue, learned Indian ways, and became a full member of the tribe. She married Peta Nocona, a prominent war chief, and had three children by him, of whom Quanah was the eldest. In 1860, when Quanah was twelve, Cynthia Ann was recaptured during an attack by Texas Rangers on her village, during which everyone but her and her infant daughter, Prairie Flower, were killed. Mackenzie and his soldiers most likely knew the story of Cynthia Ann Parker—most everyone on the frontier did—but they had no idea that her blood ran in Quanah’s veins. They would not learn this until 1875. For now they knew only that he was the target of the largest anti-Indian expedition mounted since 1865, one of the largest ever undertaken.

Mackenzie’s Fourth Cavalry, which he would soon build into a grimly efficient mobile assault force, for the moment consisted largely of timeservers who were unprepared to encounter the likes of Quanah and his hardened plains warriors. The soldiers were operating well beyond the ranges of civilization, beyond anything like a trail they could follow or any landmarks they could possibly have recognized. They were dismayed to learn that their principal water sources were buffalo wallow holes that, according to Carter, were “stagnant, warm, nauseating, odorous with smells, and covered with green slime that had to be pushed aside.” Their inexperience was evident during their first night on the trail. Sometime around midnight, above the din of a West Texas windstorm, the men heard “a tremendous tramping and an unmistakable snorting and bellowing.” That sound, as they soon discovered, was made by stampeding buffalo. The soldiers had made the horrendous mistake of making camp between a large herd of buffalo and its water source. Panicked, the men emerged from their tents in darkness, screaming and waving blankets and trying desperately to turn the stampeding animals. They succeeded, but by the smallest of margins. “The immense herds of brown monsters were caromed off and they stampeded to our left at breakneck speed,” wrote Carter, “rushing and jostling but flushing only the edge of one of our horse herds. . . . one could hardly repress a shudder of what might have been the result of this nocturnal visit, for although the horses were strongly ‘lariated out,’ ‘staked,’ or ‘picketed,’ nothing could have saved them from the terror which this headlong charge would have inevitably created, had we not heard them just in time to turn the leading herds.”

Miraculously spared the consequences of their own ignorance, the bluecoats rounded up the stray horses, broke camp at dawn, and spent the day riding westward over a rolling mesquite prairie pocked with prairie-dog towns. The latter were common in the Texas Panhandle and extremely dangerous to horses and mules. Think of enormous anthills populated by oversized rodents, stretching for miles. The troopers passed more herds of buffalo, vast and odorous, and rivers whose gypsum-infused water was impossible to drink. They passed curious-looking trading stations, abandoned now, consisting of caves built into the sides of cliffs and reinforced with poles that looked like prison bars.

On the second day they ran into more trouble. Mackenzie ordered a night march, hoping to surprise the enemy in its camps. His men struggled through steep terrain, dense brush, ravines, and arroyos. After hours of what Carter described as “trials and tribulations and much hard talk verging on profanity” and “many rather comical scenes,” they fetched up bruised and battered in the dead end of a small canyon and had to wait until daybreak to find their way out. A few hours later they reached the Freshwater Fork of the Brazos, deep in Indian territory, in a broad, shallow thirty-mile-long valley that averaged fifteen hundred feet in width and was cut by smaller side canyons. The place was known as Blanco Canyon and was located just to the east of present-day Lubbock, one of the Quahadis’ favorite campgrounds.

Whatever surprise Mackenzie had hoped for was gone. On the third day the Tonkawa scouts realized they were being shadowed by a group of four Comanche warriors, who had been watching their every move, presumably including what must have seemed to them the comical blunders of the night march. The Tonks gave chase, but “the hostiles being better mounted soon distanced their pursuers and vanished into the hills.” This was not surprising: In two hundred years of enmity, the Tonkawas had never been close to matching the horsemanship of the Comanches. They always lost. The result was that, while the cavalrymen and dragoons had no idea where the Comanches were camped, Quanah knew precisely what Mackenzie was doing and where he was. The next night Mackenzie compounded the error by allowing the men the indulgence of campfires, tantamount to painting a large arrow in the canyon pointing to their camp. Some of the companies blundered yet again by failing to place “sleeping parties” among the horses.

At around midnight, the regiment was awakened by a succession of unearthly, high-pitched yells. Those were followed by shots, and more yells, and suddenly the camp was alive with Comanches riding at full gallop. Exactly what the Indians were doing was soon apparent: Mingled with the screams and gunshots and general mayhem of the camp was another sound, only barely audible at first, then rising quickly to something like rolling thunder. The men quickly realized, to their horror, that it was the sound of stampeding horses. Their horses. Amid shouts of “Every man to his lariat!” six hundred panicked horses tore loose through the camp, rearing, jumping, and plunging at full speed. Lariats snapped with the sound of pistol shots; iron picket pins that a few minutes before had been used to secure the horses now whirled and snapped about their necks like airborne sabres. Men tried to grab them and were thrown to the ground and dragged among the horses, their hands lacerated and bleeding.

When it was all over, the soldiers discovered that Quanah and his warriors had made off with seventy of their best horses and mules, including Colonel Mackenzie’s magnificent gray pacer. In west Texas in 1871, stealing someone’s horse was often equivalent to a death sentence. It was an old Indian tactic, especially on the high plains, to simply steal white men’s horses and leave them to die of thirst or starvation. Comanches had used it to lethal effect against the Spanish in the early eighteenth century. In any case, an unmounted army regular stood little chance against a mounted Comanche.

This midnight raid was Quanah’s calling card, a clear message that hunting him and his Comanche warriors in their homeland was going to be a difficult and treacherous business. Thus began what would become known to history as the Battle of Blanco Canyon, which was in turn the opening salvo in a bloody Indian war in the highlands of west Texas that would last four years and culminate in the final destruction of the Comanche nation. Blanco Canyon would also provide the U.S. Army with its first look at Quanah. Captain Carter, who would win the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery in Blanco Canyon, offered this description of the young war chief in battle on the day after the midnight stampede:

A large and powerfully built chief led the bunch, on a coal black racing pony. Leaning forward upon his mane, his heels nervously working in the animal’s side, with six-shooter poised in the air, he seemed the incarnation of savage, brutal joy. His face was smeared with black warpaint, which gave his features a satanic look. . . . A full-length headdress or war bonnet of eagle’s feathers, spreading out as he rode, and descending from his forehead, over head and back, to his pony’s tail, almost swept the ground. Large brass hoops were in his ears; he was naked to the waist, wearing simply leggings, moccasins and a breechclout. A necklace of beare’s claws hung about his neck. . . . Bells jingled as he rode at headlong speed, followed by the leading warriors, all eager to outstrip him in the race. It was Quanah, principal warchief of the Qua-ha-das.

Moments later, Quanah wheeled his horse in the direction of an unfortunate private named Seander Gregg and, as Carter and his men watched, blew Gregg’s brains out.

FILM: RAN (1985)


Ran is a Japanese-French war film/period tragedy directed, edited, and co-written by Akira Kurosawa, adapted from Shakespeare’s tragedy, King Lear and the legends surrounding daimyō Mōri Motonari. The film stars Tatsuya Nakadai as Hidetora Ichimonji, an aging Sengoku-era warlord who abdicates for his three sons—with disastrous results.


Akira Kurosawa first conceived of the idea for the film that would become Ran (Japanese for “chaos” or “discord”) in the early 1970s, when he read about Mōri Motonari (1497–1571), a powerful daimyō in the Chūgoku region of Japan who is remembered as one of the greatest warlords of the Sengoku period (mid-16th century). Though a brilliant diplomat and strategist, Motonari is best known for an event that probably never happened: the “lesson of the three arrows,” a parable that Motonari illustrated by giving each of his three sons an arrow to break. He then gave them three arrows bundled together and pointed out that although one may be easily broken, three bundled together are impossible to break. Motonari actually had nine sons (two of whom died in childhood) but most prominent of them were the three sons the parable concerns: Mōri Takamoto (1523–1563), Kikkawa Motoharu (1530–1586), and Kobayakawa Takakage (1533–1597). Formulating a scenario that could generate real drama, Kurosawa imagined trouble among the three brothers rather than unity and reasonableness. As he later told an interviewer, “What might their story be like, I wondered, if the sons had not been so good? It was only after I was well into writing the script about these imaginary unfilial sons of the Mōri clan that the similarities to [Shakespeare’s 1606 tragedy, King] Lear occurred to me. Since the story is set in medieval Japan, the protagonist’s children had to be men; to divide a realm among daughters would have been unthinkable” (Grilli, 2008, p. 126). Kurosawa and two co-writers—Hideo Oguni and Masato Ide—had a draft of a screenplay completed by 1975, but Kurosawa would not be able to arrange financing for an expensive, large-scale epic set in medieval Japan for another seven years. In the meantime, he painted storyboards of every shot in Ran and made Dersu Uzala (1975) and Kagemusha (1980), the latter of which he described as a “dress rehearsal” for Ran. In 1982 Kurosawa finally secured funding for Ran from two sources: Japanese producer Masatoshi Hara (Herald Ace Productions) and French producer Serge Silberman (Greenwich Film Productions). After the box office success of Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Diva (1981), Silberman was able to put up most of the money needed to back Ran, which ended up costing ¥2.4 billion (i.e., $12 million), the most expensive Japanese film produced up to that time. Kurosawa cast Tatsuya Nakadai (who played the dual lead roles in Kagemusha) as Hidetora Ichimonji, an aging Sengoku-era warlord based on Mōri Motonari who decides to abdicate as ruler in favor of his three sons. Prior to production, several hundred elaborate costumes had to be created by hand, an arduous process that took two years to complete. Pre-production also involved extensive location scouting and set construction, for example, a castle destroyed in the middle of the movie had to be specially built on the slopes of Mount Fuji, only to be burned down.


Akira Kurosawa was 75 years old when he directed Ran (June 1984–February 1985) and was nearly blind when the initial photography started. He required assistance in order to frame his shots, and his assistants used hundreds of his storyboard paintings as templates to construct and film scenes. Almost the entire film is done in long shot, with only a handful of close-ups. An enormous undertaking, Ran used some 1,400 extras, 1,400 suits of armor (designed by Kurosawa himself), and 200 horses, some of them imported from the United States. Over his long career, Kurosawa worked with the same crew of technicians and assistants. Toward the end of the shoot, Kurosawa lost two of his old stalwarts. In January 1985, Fumio Yamoguchi, the sound recordist on nearly all of Kurosawa’s films since 1949, and Ryu Kuze, action coordinator on many of them, died within a few days of each other. A month later (1 February 1985), Kurosawa’s wife of 39 years, Yôko Yaguchi, also died. Kurosawa halted filming for just one day to mourn before resuming work on the picture.

Plot Summary

[Act I] Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai), a powerful warlord near the end of his life, decides to divide his kingdom among his three sons: Taro (Akira Terao), Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu), and Saburo (Daisuke Ryu). The oldest son, Taro, is bequeathed the sought-after First Castle and is named commander of the Ichimonji clan. Jiro and Saburo are given the Second and Third Castles, respectively. Hidetora retains his title of Great Lord, and the two younger sons are expected to rally behind Taro. Saburo calls his father a fool, stating that he can’t expect loyalty from sons who grew up watching their father use the most cruel, heartless methods for power and domination. Hidetora is threatened by his son, but his servant, Tango (Masayuki Yui), defends Saburo. Hidetora responds by exiling both men. Nobuhiro Fujimaki (Hitoshi Ueki), a visiting warlord, sees Saburo’s fervor and forthrightness and asks him to wed his daughter. [Act II] After Hidetora divides his remaining lands between Jiro and Saburo, Taro’s wife, Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada), encourages Taro to gain control of the entire clan. Emboldened, Taro tells Hidetora to give up his title of Great Lord. Hidetora, now betrayed by two sons, runs to Jiro’s castle only to discover that Jiro plans to use him in his own scheme for power and influence. Unsure of where to go, Hidetora and his company depart from Jiro’s castle. Tango finds his father and informs Hidetora of Taro’s new decree: anyone who assists Hidetora will be sentenced to death. Hidetora flees to Saburo’s castle, which was left empty when Saburo went into exile. [Act III] Hidetora and his samurais are attacked by Taro’s and Jiro’s forces. In the ensuing battle, almost all of Hidetora’s men are killed and the Third Castle is set on fire. Hidetora, alone and losing his mind, leaves the castle as it is consumed by flames. During the siege on the castle, Taro is killed by a bullet from Jiro’s general, Shuri Kurogane’s (Hisashi Igawa) gun. Meanwhile, Hidetora wanders the wilderness and is found by Tango, who tries to assist him. The pair take shelter in a peasant’s home, but realize that the peasant is Tsurumaru (Mansai Nomura), the brother of Lady Sué (Yoshiko Miyazaki), Jiro’s wife. Tsurumaru was a victim of Hidetora’s regime: he was blinded and left for dead after Hidetora murdered his father and conquered their land. [Act IV] After Taro’s death, Jiro takes on the title of the Great Lord, moving into the First Castle and commanding the Ichimonji clan. Jiro returns to the castle to find Lady Kaede, unbothered by Taro’s death, waiting to blackmail Jiro into an affair. Lady Kaede uses her influence with Jiro to call for Lady Sué’s death. Jiro orders Kurogane to carry out the task, but he declines, stating that Kaede will be the ruin of both Jiro and the clan. Kurogane runs to tell Sué and Tsurumaru to leave. Meanwhile, two ronin are captured by Tango, who coerces them to reveal plans for assassinating Hidetora. Tango leaves to share the news with Saburo. Hidetora is overtaken by madness and runs off into a volcanic plain while Kyoami (Pîtâ) runs after him. Saburo and Jiro meet on the battlefield and agree on a truce, and Saburo becomes concerned by the report of his father’s onset of madness. While Saburo meets with Kyoami and takes 10 warriors along to rescue Hidetora, Jiro takes advantage of the situation and sends gunners to ambush his brother and father. Jiro also attacks Saburo’s army, which falls back into the woods as the soldiers go on the defensive. As the family is warring, a messenger shares news that Ayabe, a rival lord, is headed towards the First Castle. At the same time, Saburo locates Hidetora, and the father experiences a reprieve from his insanity and begins to heal his relationship with his son. However, in the midst of the reconciliation, one of Jiro’s snipers kills Saburo. Hidetora dies out of sadness. Fujimaki arrives with his troops to see Tango and Kyoami grieving. [Act V] In the meantime, Tsurumaru and Sué get to the ruined castle, but realize that they forgot a flute at Tsurumaru’s home, one that Sué had gifted to Tsurumaru at the time of his banishment. She goes back for the flute, but is discovered and murdered by one of Jiro’s assassins. Simultaneously, Ayabe’s army attacks the First Castle. When Kurogane hears that Lady Sué has been killed by Jiro’s assassin, he corners Kaede and pushes her for information. She comes clean about her plot to obliterate Hidetora and his clan to avenge the deaths of her family members. Kurogane decapitates Kaede for her treachery. As Ayabe’s army overtakes the First Castle, Jiro, Kurogane, and all of Jiro’s men are killed. Tsurumaru is left amidst the rubble, alone.


Ran had its world premiere in Tokyo on 25 May 1985. It was subsequently screened at a number of film festivals before going into staggered general release in about two dozen countries. Ran did not do very well at the box office, initially making only enough to break even. It did, however, receive Oscar nominations for Best Director, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, and Best Costume Design (which it won), among many other international nominations and awards. Reviews were, for the most part, adulatory. Vincent Canby wrote, “Though big in physical scope and of a beauty that suggests a kind of drunken, barbaric lyricism, Ran has the terrible logic and clarity of a morality tale seen in tight close-up, of a myth that, while being utterly specific and particular in its time and place, remains ageless, infinitely adaptable … Here is a film by a man whose art now stands outside time and fashion” (Canby, 1985). Roger Ebert called the film “visually magnificent” and said he realized on seeing it again in 2000 that “the action doesn’t center on the old man, but has a fearful energy of its own, through which he wanders. Kurosawa has not told the story of a great man whose sin of pride drives him mad, but the story of a man who has waged war all his life, hopes to impose peace in his old age and unleashes even greater turmoil” (Ebert, 2000). Decades after its release, most film critics and scholars view Ran as Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece.

Reel History Versus Real History

The story that Ran tells is, of course, entirely fictional. One can only judge its historical accuracy in terms of its depictions of medieval Japanese castles; the look, dress, and demeanor of the Ichimonji clan; the conduct in battle of the samurai; etc. On these counts, Ran has extraordinary verisimilitude.


“Askari” was a term applied to local Africans who served in European colonial forces. The entomology of the word comes from the Arabic word soldier and, as it was most commonly used in the eastern African context, reflects the mixed Swahili culture of the region. The term also means someone who is “locally recruited,” which carries special import in terms of Africans recruited from the colonies to serve European interests. The importance of the askari to the colonial project underscores the true nature of imperialism. Despite the claims of imperialists that European success was due to their cultural, racial, or technological superiority, the reality of most colonial conquest underscores European dependence on Africans to accomplish the aims of imperialism. For example, the famous colonial standoff at Fashoda, in that the French force consisted of seven Frenchmen and around 140 Senegalese, illustrates this reliance. African askari were of critical importance to nearly all of the colonial powers, although the manner in which they were organized and employed was as varied as the colonizers themselves.

What was common to the colonizers, at least initially, was a firm belief in a hierarchy of “martial races” that meant Africans from certain communities were seen as naturally good soldiers for the Europeans. Not only were these races deemed strong and hearty (useful qualities in any soldier), but also they were considered most willing to obey European officers. Often, this led to common recruitment practices as Europeans attempted to maximize their use of these martial races. Prized for their effectiveness against the forces of the Egyptian Khedive, and later against Europeans under the Mahdi, were Sudanese troops. Sudanese were recruited by both the British and the Germans, for example, to staff their initial forces. Even after such common recruiting practices went away, largely due to the solidification of colonial divisions, this belief in racial or ethnic hierarchy was sim- ply transferred to the specific colony or colonial holdings of the respective powers. Beyond racial categorization, askari often would be recruited on ethnic lines to ensure the connection of one people, group, or region to the colonizers. The very nature of recruitment was designed to divide and conquer the colony.

African soldiers were often utilized in regions not connected to their ethnic background to ensure that there would be no chance of common cause between colonial troops and African civilians. These tactics underscore that the role of the askari was as much about internal security as about de- fending the colony from foreign threats. Beyond such racial and political justifications were the practical matter that utilizing African troops made colonial conquest and administration far less costly in money and European lives. Every askari in a colonial force lowered the monetary cost of administration, as well as the risk to European troops, who often suffered mightily from the African climate and African diseases.

As Belgium’s King Leopold II served as one of the major catalyzing agents for the Scramble for Africa, it is unsurprising that his Force Publique (FP) employed askari. Leopold’s force reflected the views of the “martial race,” with his force initially recruiting heavily from the Sudan. Of the initial 2,000 askari, for example, only 111 were Congolese. Only in the 1890s were local chiefs required to produce recruits for ser vice to fill out the ranks. During the period of personal rule, the line between soldier and mercenary was thin, with the askari more readily employed as overseers to punish those African civilians who did not meet their rubber quotas. Famously, the Belgians went out of their way to recruit cannibals in order to heighten the potential terror of their troops. The largest action of the FP was during the Congo- Arab War, to repress Arab population centers along the Lualaba River. The war involved a massive number of African troops as the FP absorbed mercenaries and irregulars into their forces to quell the Arab states. After a three- year war, the Belgians were able to defeat the remaining Arab positions and solidify their control over the Free State. After the Belgian government acquired the colony, the askari became a more regularized force, both in weaponry and organization, which enabled the FP to acquit themselves in Africa during World War I.

In the British case, the use of Africans to fight for British interests was originally an ad-hoc affair. Frederick Lugard helped create the Central African Rifles and Uganda Rifles when serving the interests of British companies attempting to solidify their hold over the African interior. Eventually these ad- hoc units, as well as the East African Rifles, combined to form the King’s African Rifles (KAR) in 1902. The KAR served with distinction in colonial campaigns in Somalia and the German East Africa campaign of World War I. Lugard was also responsible for the creation of the askari forces in the British possessions in West Africa. He was the founding commander of the West African Frontier Force (WAFF), which was an amalgamation of a number of ad- hoc units in West Africa. This force was organized in order to protect Nigeria’s hinterland from French encroachment. Lugard utilized the force, however, to conquer the Sokoto caliphate in what is now northern Nigeria. The WAFF fought in World War I in Africa and was renamed the Royal West African Frontier Force (RWAFF) in 1928.

Despite the common utilization of the term askari, it is most readily associated with the German Schutztruppe (Protective Force) of the respective German colonies. Like other colonial forces, these units were created out of necessity to meet the needs of the imperial venture. In 1888, after suffering under the exploitive rule of Carl Peters and his German East Africa Company, Africans led an uprising against the company that took over nearly the entire coast. The German government, in responding to this threat against their interests, sent a force under the command of Hermann von Wissmann to repress the revolt. Originally, this Wissmann-Truppe consisted of a polyglot assembly of Africans (600 Sudanese, 100 Zulu from Mozambique, 80 East Africans, and 40 Somali), in line with the common European attitude of the martial races. The Sudanese were deemed the bravest soldiers with some Germans referring to them as “black lansquenets” in homage to the Germanic mercenary soldiers. This force, which was used to crush the rebel- lion, was then made the official protective force of East Africa by the German government. While initially relying on foreign Africans, the Schutztruppe shifted to utilizing locally recruited Africans (in other words, askari), primarily from the Nyamwezi people located in western Tanganyika. This region, heavily connected to the caravan culture of east Africa which required the service of young men as soldiers and porters, served as an attractive area of recruitment. While the forces in East Africa have attracted the most historic attention, largely due to their success in World War I, another primarily African Schutztruppe force was formed in German Cameroon, while an entirely white cavalry force was created in German South West Africa. These forces served as the punitive and protective force in the German colonies and then became the main fount of German resistance during World War I. Under Paul von Lettow-Vorbek, the east African Schutztruppe proved a thorn in the side of the British, as the Germans were able to conduct a guerilla campaign that tied down British imperial troops throughout the entire war.

Further Reading Jonas, Raymond. The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the Age of Empire. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2011. Moyd, Michelle R. Violent Intermediaries: African Soldiers, Conquest, and Everyday Colonialism in German East Africa. Athens: Ohio University, 2014. Page, Malcolm. A History of the King’s African Rifles. Barnsley, UK: Pen & Sword Books Ltd, 2011. Parsons, Timothy. The African rank and file: Social implications of colonial military ser- vice in the King’s African Rifles, 1902-1964. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1999. Vandervort, Bruce. Wars of Imperial Conquest in Africa 1830-1914. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.


In 480 BCE an army marched into Greece under the command of the Persian king Xerxes. His goal was to conquer Greece and make it part of the Persian Empire. In an unprecedented act of cooperation, many of the Greek poleis set aside their differences and formed a coalition to resist the Persian advance. An army of allies, under the command of the Spartan king Leonidas, took up position at Thermopylae, a natural choke point on a narrow coastal plain.

Leonidas was not the only Spartan king in the action. Demaratus, a former king of Sparta who had been exiled by his people, was with the Persians as an adviser to Xerxes. As the army approached the pass at Thermopylae, Xerxes consulted Demaratus about what his forces were about to face. According to Herodotus, the two kings discussed the Spartans. Xerxes compared his massive army with the small population of Sparta and was incredulous that the Spartans would dare to stand against him. Demaratus assured him that they would do so: “Their master is the law, whom they revere far more than your subjects revere you. They will do what it commands, and it always commands the same: not to flee, whatever the numbers, but to remain in their ranks and to triumph or be destroyed.” Xerxes remained unconvinced.

Once the battle began at Thermopylae, Demaratus was proven right. The Greeks held their defensive position and the narrow pass prevented the Persians from bringing their superior numbers to bear. The stalemate dragged on until the Persians finally learned of a mountain track that allowed them to send a contingent to attack the Greek position from behind. Leonidas ordered most of the allied forces to withdraw, but the Spartans, Thespians, and Thebans remained behind and fought to the last man. Surveying the battlefield in the aftermath, Xerxes admitted that Demaratus had been right.

The Battle of Thermopylae has come down in legend as one of the great clashes between East and West. Framed by the conversations between Xerxes and Demaratus, it has been interpreted as a test of Western democracy against Eastern tyranny. Since the only thing more romantic than a victory is a noble defeat, Leonidas has been celebrated in forms ranging from ancient hero cult to Hollywood film.

Like most heroic legends, however, Thermopylae becomes more complicated the closer we look at it. Thermopylae was a battle, not a morality play, and the choices of both sides were dictated more by practicality than ideology. Xerxes’ large army required supplies brought across the Aegean by ship, but the Mediterranean is stormy in winter and the Persians could not risk going hungry because of a shipwrecked supply fleet. A swift conquest, before winter came, was therefore crucial to Persian strategy. The Greeks knew they could not expect the army at Thermopylae to hold the Persian forces back indefinitely. Their mission was not to die nobly but to slow down Xerxes’ advance enough to strain his supply lines and make a swift conquest impossible. When the Persians turned the Greek flank, the Greeks withdrew. Those who stayed behind may have been intended only as a covering force who would withdraw last, but they ran out of time. Despite Demaratus’ assertions to Xerxes, Spartans had been known to withdraw in the face of overwhelming forces before. If Leonidas did in fact intend to fight to the death, he had strategic reasons for doing so besides romantic heroism. The greatest danger to the Greeks was always that their alliance would fall apart over old rivalries. The Athenians in particular, whose fleet was vital, were suspicious of Sparta’s commitment to the cause. By fighting to the last, the Spartans demonstrated their resolve and helped keep the alliance intact. The events at Thermopylae reflect the realities of ancient warfare, not a test of national character.

The conversations between Xerxes and Demaratus in Herodotus’ account also mean rather less than some have made them out to. Like most such dialogues in ancient histories, they were probably pure invention. Herodotus, proud of his fellow Greeks for their resistance to Xerxes, used these exchanges to make a point, but his argument is less sweeping than a cosmic opposition between democratic Greeks and despotic Persians. First of all, Demaratus is  explicit that his praise applies only to Spartans, not all Greeks. Second, it is not freedom or democracy that Demaratus points to, but self-control. The unspoken contrast is not to Persians as a culture but to Xerxes himself, whose capricious character Herodotus explored elsewhere in detail. The trouble with the Persians was not that they had a king but that they had a bad one, and bad rulers were not unique to Persia; Greeks had had plenty of their own.

The wars between Greece and Persia in the early fifth century have been hailed as the defining clash between East and West and the spark that lit the torch of Western civilization. While the events of the war were important in the history of ancient Greece, the reality is that Greece and Persia were not so starkly opposed as many have made them out to be. Greeks and Persians had much in common, and the history of their interactions turned more on the practicalities of politics and diplomacy than on ideology. The war was a painful and complicated event that provoked many different responses, but it was no clash of civilizations.

The Greco-Persian Wars in Western History

Western scholarship up to the latter half of the twentieth century was unabashedly pro-Greek and anti-Persian. The nineteenth-century German historian Barthold Niebuhr spoke for many of his peers when he wrote: “a Persian man has never been a free and proud man. . . . At the same time the Persians are exceptionally cruel. . . . The orientals are an evil and morally corrupt people through and through.” Niebuhr’s English contemporary Sir Edward Creasey began his 1851 history The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World with the battle between a Persian expeditionary force and the Athenians at Marathon in 490 and left no doubt as to how he judged the significance of the event: “on the result of [the Greek generals’] deliberations depended not merely the fate of two armies, but the whole future progress of human civilization.” Even a century later in the 1950s, it was regarded as no more than a banal truism to state that “In 480–79 the Greeks saved themselves and the future of European civilization from Oriental conquest.”

The idea of the Greco-Persian Wars as a conflict between two radically opposed forces has lingered on in more modern scholarship but has come to be expressed in cultural rather than racial terms. One book from 1996 still described some Persian troops as “Stone Age savages” and celebrated the Greek victory as one that “continue[s] to irradiate and quicken our whole western heritage.” Books on the Battle of Salamis, from 2004, and Marathon, from 2010, both argued that the outcome saved Western civilization.

A different approach to Greece and Persia has developed with the rise of postcolonial studies. Some scholars have shifted the focus to the Persian perspective and have explained the failure of Persia’s campaigns in Greece less as the product of Greek heroism and more as the result of poor strategic planning on the Persians’ part. Others have ousted the wars from the center of Greco-Persian interactions and traced a long-term pattern of trade, accommodation, and cultural interchange in which the invasions of mainland Greece were only a brief interruption. Greek attitudes toward Persia have been examined more fully and found to be far more nuanced and multifaceted than was long assumed.

Understanding the Greco-Persian Wars requires setting aside nineteenth-century assumptions about “Oriental” races and twentieth-century arguments about Western civilization to see both the Persians and the Greeks on their own terms.


The Persian Empire arose in the context of another empire’s fall. In the tenth century BCE the old northern Mesopotamian kingdom of Assyria began to build an empire using innovative techniques of siege warfare. Walled towns that might have held out for months or years against earlier armies fell to the Assyrians’ towers and battering rams in a matter of days. Supported by its army’s expertise in capturing cities, the Assyrian Empire expanded faster and farther than any state in the region had done before, ultimately stretching from the edge of the Iranian plateau to the Nile valley.

The Assyrians faced new challenges as their army was stretched thin by its rapid conquests. To suppress rebellion, they massacred, enslaved, or forcibly resettled many conquered peoples and destroyed rebellious cities. Assyrian cruelty was a calculated political strategy, and though effective in the short term, it sowed resentment among its victims. When the empire was weakened by civil war in the late seventh century BCE, an alliance of its subjects and neighbors banded together to overthrow it. A few generations later, with the memory of Assyrian oppression still fresh, the Persians began to build a new empire.

The Persians first appear in history as nomads in the southern Iranian plateau at the fringes of Assyrian power. They allied themselves with another Iranian people, the Medes, who lived to their north. Both the Medes and the Persians were part of the anti-Assyrian coalition. In 550 BCE the Persian king Cyrus began a campaign of expansion and ultimately built an empire larger than any the world had seen before. Persian territory stretched from the Indus River in the east to Egypt and Anatolia in the west. Cyrus and his descendants, the Achaemenid dynasty, ruled over this empire for the next three centuries.

In a deliberate contrast to the Assyrians, the Persians adopted a policy of tolerance toward the peoples they ruled. Slavery was forbidden by Persian custom, and though they did not end slaveholding among their subjects, they took no slaves of their own. They never massacred a conquered people and only forcibly resettled the most persistent troublemakers. In fact, the Persians helped some displaced people—notably the Jews—return home and rebuild.

Local cultures were allowed to thrive. The Persians did not impose their customs, language, or laws on their subjects. The only demands they made were the payment of taxes and provision of soldiers for the army. In return, the Persians guaranteed peace and stability, and they supported trade through the construction of roads and the issuing of a common currency. The empire was organized into provinces ruled by governors, called satraps, who had a degree of local autonomy but were accountable to the king for the orderly administration of their territories. At a more local level, the Persians generally left peoples with their own native rulers, so long as those rulers did not support rebellion. Achaemenid royal art, such as the stairway of the ceremonial palace at Persepolis and the tombs cut into cliff faces nearby, shows the king surrounded by subjects of many different ethnicities in their own native garb, rendered in a style that combined elements from the artistic traditions of many different peoples. For the Persians, multiculturalism was both a virtue and a pragmatic policy.

Persians and Greeks

No empire has ever been created without violence. The Persian Empire is no exception. Most of the peoples over whom the Persians ruled were, most of the time, content with the arrangement and prospered from it, but some parts of the empire resisted Persian rule and threatened the stability of their satrapies. The northwestern frontier was a persistent trouble spot for the empire. The conquests of Cyrus had brought the kingdom of Lydia, in western Anatolia, into the empire in 546. Not long before, around 560, the Lydians had conquered the Ionian Greek cities on the Aegean coast. These cities now came under Persian control.

Like most other Greek poleis of the time, the Ionian cities in Anatolia had a variety of constitutions, but most allowed some degree of democratic participation. Democracy is by its nature messy and unpredictable. As practiced in ancient Greece, it was also prone to outbreaks of factional violence. Although it was the Persians’ custom to leave local politics alone, they needed a measure of stability on their frontier. They therefore supported the rise of local aristocrats who ruled the Ionian cities as pro-Persian tyrants.

The opponents of these tyrants found shelter across the Aegean in the cities of mainland Greece, especially Athens, which had strong historical ties to the Ionians. Agitation against the tyrants continued until 499 when many of the Ionian cities rose up in revolt. Athens and some other mainland Greek cities committed warships to the cause. The Athenians had their own troubled history with Persia, which helped draw them into the revolt. The former tyrant of Athens, Hippias, had fled to Persia when he was driven out of the city in 510 and had been trying for some time to engineer a return with Persian backing. Having forced out Hippias, the Athenians went through a series of internal conflicts, ending with the establishment of a democratic constitution. When Sparta tried to intervene and help some pro-Spartan aristocrats regain power, the Athenians went so far as to offer submission to Persia in return for protection. After the Spartan threat had passed, however, the Athenians wanted neither Persian rule nor the return of Hippias. Driving the Persians back from the Aegean coast must have seemed a prudent step toward avoiding both.

The Ionian revolt had some initial success, including capturing and burning down the satrapal capital at Sardis, but in the end the rebellion was a failure. Most of the Ionian cities accepted their old tyrants back on the promise that no harm would come to them. The only city to suffer reprisals was Miletus, where the revolt had begun and which held out until recaptured by force. The population of the city was forcibly resettled at the mouth of the Tigris River. The Persians’ uncharacteristically harsh treatment of the Milesians shows how vexing this frontier problem had become.

The Persians continued to try to pacify their Aegean frontier through diplomacy and targeted strikes against foreign agitators such as Athens. In 491 King Darius sent envoys to many cities on the Greek mainland and islands asking for earth and water, the traditional symbols of submission to Persia. Many cities, remembering what happened to Miletus, acquiesced. The next year, Darius sent a naval expedition across the sea against Athens and some of the other cities who persisted in resistance. Hippias, now an old man, was brought along in the hopes that he could rally local supporters and seize control of the city, but that support never materialized. After a long standoff, some of the Persian forces were defeated in battle with the Athenian army at Marathon. The rest tried to sail around Attica and attack the undefended city, but the Athenian troops raced overland in time to draw up outside the city walls as the Persian ships came into view. The Persians withdrew to Ionia.

In 486 Darius was succeeded by his son Xerxes, who decided that after some sixty years of trying to manage the Aegean frontier, the time had come to conquer and incorporate the territory. In 480, apart from the delaying action at Thermopylae, Persian forces marched largely unopposed into Greece. Most Athenians abandoned their city and fell back to the fleet. In the straits between the island of Salamis and the Attic coast the allied Greek fleet won a major battle against the Persian navy and changed the strategic calculus. Without naval superiority, the Persians could no longer count on keeping their army supplied by ship. Xerxes withdrew with most of his army, leaving a small force under his general Mardonius to overwinter in Thessaly and continue the campaign the next year. The following summer the Greeks assembled the largest army they could muster and defeated Mardonius’ troops at Plataea. Following up on the victory, the Greek forces expelled Persian garrisons from many of the cities they had occupied in their march.

Once the Persians had been driven out of Europe, Sparta withdrew its forces from the alliance. Athens instead took the lead and organized a new alliance, known as the Delian League, with the avowed purpose of carrying on the fight to liberate the Greek cities in Ionia and defend them from Persian interference. The Ionian cities seized the opportunity to rebel against Persia again and joined up with the new league. Athenian-led forces won a decisive victory against the Persians at Eurymedon in 466 that secured Athenian dominance over the Aegean for decades.


Persian Infantry

Greek Reactions to the Wars with Persia

The wars with Persia were traumatic to those who lived through them. Most of Greece was involved in the fighting and many cities suffered deep losses. After the war, Greeks enjoyed a long period of peace and prosperity. Their art and literature expressed a new sense of self-confidence. The Parthenon of Athens, great works of drama and philosophy, the maturing of classical sculpture and vase painting—much of what we think of as the defining achievements of ancient Greek civilization were created when the Battles of Marathon and Plataea were no more than a generation or two in the past. It is no surprise that we find the experience of the wars reflected in many of the great works of Greek culture.

Persians became the definitive barbarians in Greek consciousness and certain conventional narratives emerged in discussions of both the Persians and the wars. These narratives became part of the Greek philosophical, literary, and artistic repertoire, to be deployed at need and liable, like all such conventional narratives, to be reduced to shorthand and caricature. One narrative depicted the wars as a struggle between free but disciplined Greeks and weak-willed Persians under a despotic king. Another regarded Greek victory as the vindication of democracy. The unity of the Greeks in their alliance against the invaders was also celebrated. Another common theme was the hardiness of Greeks who lived in poverty as compared with the softness of Persians accustomed to luxury. There was never a single unified Greek view on Persia. Multiple conflicting and overlapping narratives always existed.

Some Greek ideas reduced the Persians to stereotypes. A narrative of otherness depicted the Greeks as hardy, democratic, masculine, and independent while portraying the Persians as soft, despotic, feminine, and servile. The philosopher Plato used Persia as an archetypal example of monarchy and its failings. His student Aristotle went further and defined all barbarians as natural slaves fit to be ruled over by Greeks. The orators Demosthenes and Isocrates both invoked the weakness of Persia in their arguments over Athenian foreign policy, clearly appealing to a theme their audience knew well.

Not all Greek responses to Persia were so straightforward. The writer and sometime mercenary Xenophon’s The Education of Cyrus is a fictionalized account of King Cyrus’ youth that presents him as a model of temperance, honesty, and martial vigor. The final chapter of the work, however, portrays a modern Persia in which Cyrus’ virtues have all been overthrown and replaced with the vices of greed, gluttony, and deceit. The change is so dramatic that it seems unlikely Xenophon meant his conclusion to be taken at face value but was instead ironically tweaking an existing narrative of Persian decline. The Education of Cyrus casts contemporary Persians as the most stereotyped of others, but they stand in contrast to the virtue of earlier Persians, not Greeks.

Artistic renditions of Persians and the Persian wars are a similarly mixed group. Persians and Greeks in battle appear as a common theme of vase painting in the decades after the war, but while the Persians are depicted as the enemy, they are not caricatured as weak, effeminate, or cowardly. They stand their ground and fight as worthy adversaries; sometimes they even win.

In other cases, the Persians were assimilated into the Greek mythic tradition. In the Painted Stoa in Athens, images of the Battle of Marathon were paired with depictions of the hero Theseus fighting Amazons and Greeks fighting Trojans. On the Parthenon the Persians are evoked only through mythic analogues, as Greek heroes battle Trojans, Amazons, and centaurs. The symbolism is potent, but not simple. On one hand, figures such as Amazons and centaurs represent chaos. Their defeat is necessary for the restoration of good order as personified by Greek heroes. The Trojans are a different case. The legends of the Trojan War were among the most celebrated Greek myths, but the moral standing of the Greeks as destroyers of Troy was dubious, and the story of Troy was as much one of tragedy as of triumph. Recasting the Trojans as precursors of the Persians made the Greco-Persian Wars equally complex. As Herodotus points out, the destruction of Troy was a gross overreaction to the abduction of one woman. In this mythic context, Xerxes’ invasion of Greece could even be seen as justified retribution for the Greek invasion of Troy.

The modern assumption that Greeks and Persians were implacable enemies has distorted the interpretation of some artworks, such as the so-called Eurymedon vase. On one side of this vase stands a man naked but for a cloak, grasping his penis in one hand. On the opposite side a man in form-fitting clothes carrying a bow case stands bent forward with his hands raised. Between the two figures runs the text: “I am Eurymedon. I am bent over.” This image has conventionally been interpreted as a bawdy celebration of the Greek victory at Eurymedon; as Dover put it: “We’ve buggered the Persians.” But this interpretation depends on the unfounded assumption that Greeks considered being the penetrated partner in a homosexual liaison demeaning. In fact, a liaison like the one depicted was considered humiliating for both partners, not because of who was doing what to whom but because their disorderly haste showed a lack of self-control. The identities of the two figures are also less than clear. The Greek is unarmed and unkempt, far from heroic. The “Persian” may actually be a Scythian, another people customarily depicted in close-fitting clothes carrying bows. “Eurymedon” is the name of not only a river but also numerous individuals, including the man who introduced Scythian archers into Athens as a kind of police force. This vase may be a bit of political mockery aimed not at the Persians but at an Athenian.

Herodotus and Aeschylus: Bringing the Persians Home

While Greek art and literature of the classical age celebrates Greek victory, its attitudes toward the Persians are diverse and subtle. Simple narratives contrasting Greek virtue with Persian wickedness are a part of that diversity, but only a part. Two surviving works of Greek literature engage more deeply with the nature of the Persians and the causes of their wars against the Greeks than any others: Aeschylus’ drama The Persians and Herodotus’ Histories. Both of these texts emphasize the similarities between Greeks and Persians more than their differences.

Aeschylus’ tragedy takes place at the Persian court where the queen mother Atossa anxiously discusses the war with Persian elders. A messenger arrives bearing the news of defeat at Salamis and Atossa summons the spirit of Darius for counsel before Xerxes, defeated and bedraggled, finally returns home. Aeschylus was a veteran of the wars who was manifestly proud of his service and one might have expected a triumphal celebration of Greek victory, but the play is surprisingly subtle.

The Persians is a tragedy and Xerxes is its hero. The tragic hero is by definition a noble character brought down by the flaws in his nature. In Aeschylus’ drama, Xerxes’ flaws are rashness and arrogance, not an unusual turn in Greek tragedy. The catharsis that tragedy was meant to create came in the tension between the audience’s compassion for the sufferings of the hero and their horror at the deeds that led to his downfall. Without the audience being able to imaginatively cast themselves in the role of the tragic hero and recognize the small echoes of his faults in themselves, tragedy fails. Greek drama created empathy between the audience and the hero by inviting the audience to imagine the play as taking place in their own city. By setting his play in Persia with a cast of Persian characters, Aeschylus was asking his Athenian audience to imagine themselves as Persians.

Praise of Greece in the play is muted. Atossa questions the chorus as to who commands the Athenians and learns that “They are said to be no one’s slaves and heedful of no man.” Later the herald who describes the Battle of Salamis comments on the Greeks’ unity in battle, but both sections are brief.50 Aeschylus does not disparage the Persians but presents them as a noble people. As Darius recounts, their state was ordained by Zeus who gave the scepter of kingship to their first ruler. Atossa recalls a dream in which she saw Greece and Persia personified as two sisters whom Xerxes tried to yoke to a chariot. While Persia accepted the bridle, Greece refused and smashed the yoke, but in Atossa’s eyes they were equal in beauty.

The play leaves us in no doubt that Xerxes was wrong to invade Greece. Darius castigates his son’s arrogance and condemns the invading army’s sacrilegious destruction of temples and sacred images. But this was Xerxes’ failing, not a fault of the Persians as a whole, and if Aeschylus’ audience were to condemn overseas expeditions and the burning of temples, they would have to admit that the Athenians had interfered in Ionia and burned Sardis long before Xerxes had gone on the march. Nor was their involvement in the Ionian revolt the only campaign the Athenians had cause to regret. The hero of Marathon, Miltiades, had led a disastrous campaign in the Aegean in 489 that ended so badly he was nearly put to death on his return. The success of Aeschylus’  drama depended on the Athenians’ ability to see the Persians as people in whose troubles and sorrows they could share, not as oppositional others.

Herodotus’ Histories offers a similarly nuanced view of the Persians and their dealings with the Greeks. Early in his work, Herodotus gives an ethnographic account of the Persians with a mix of praise and disapproval. On one hand, the Persians were devout, truth-loving, and courteous. Their laws were moderate and they especially esteemed martial prowess and honesty. On the other hand, they overindulged in wine and fine foods, they abased themselves in unseemly ways before men of high status, and they left the bodies of the dead to be mauled by birds and dogs before burial, which offended Greek sensibilities. On the whole, however, Herodotus avoids judging the Persians. Their customs were appropriate for them just as Greek customs were appropriate for Greeks. The fact that their ways were different did not make them wrong.

Herodotus’ Persians were not ethnic stereotypes or anti-Greek others but individuals with their own individual virtues and flaws. Some, indeed, were bad. The worst of the lot was Cyrus’ abusive and impious son Cambyses. Xerxes was not much better, but his flaws were different: rashness and changeability. It was not only kings who were flawed: Xerxes’ general Mardonius was a blustering bully and a fount of bad advice. On the other hand, many Persians were good. Like Xenophon, Herodotus praises the wisdom of Cyrus, but he does not go on to paint the Persians of his own day as degenerate. Persians with admirable qualities were to be found in any age. Prexaspes, a general of Cambyses, revealed his master’s crimes to the public. Otanes, Darius, and a group of other noblemen, aided by Otanes’ daughter Phaidymie, boldly overthrew a usurper and then held a rational debate about what form of government was best. Darius’ general Zopyrus endured extreme physical hardship in order to get behind the walls of Babylon and open the gates for the king’s army. Artabanus provided wise counsel both to Darius and Xerxes.

Like Aeschylus, there is no doubt that Herodotus deplored the Persian invasions of Greece and was proud of his countrymen for their resistance, but the blame fell on Darius and Xerxes, not the Persians as a whole. Herodotus evinces sympathy for the Persians who were burdened with bad kings. Bad kings do not make a bad people, and the Persians were hardly the only ones to have them. The Egyptians and Lydians had them, too, but the bad rulers Herodotus devotes most of his attention to are the Greek tyrants, whose crimes included theft of private property, abuse of women, and the murder of rivals.

Herodotus was on the side of democracy, but he was not an absolutist. He knew that democracies sometimes failed, just as some kings were good. He also knew that democracy was not a definitively Greek invention. Greeks had lived under tyrants and, as he is at pains to inform his audience, the Persians were perfectly familiar with democracy. The Persians and Greeks were, if anything, more alike than any other people Herodotus knew.

This similarity gives force to one of Herodotus’ most powerful passages. At the very end of his history, once Xerxes’ invasion had been defeated, Herodotus casts his eye all the way back to the birth of the Persian Empire some seventy years before. He recounts a story in which some Persians approached Cyrus and proposed that they go forth and conquer an empire. Cyrus warned them that this plan would lead to their downfall: “For from soft lands come soft men; the same land cannot bear rich fruits and noble, valorous men.” Herodotus’ audience was the Athenians of the late fifth century who were themselves engaged in a project of empire building at the head of the Delian League. Cyrus’ warning to his people serves as a warning to the Greeks about the consequences of imperialism. Like Aeschylus, Herodotus believed his Greek audience could see the similarities between the Persians and themselves.

The Greek and Persian worlds had long been entangled. The wars left their scars, but they did not leave Greeks and Persians polarized and unable to think beyond binary oppositions. Individuals traveled between the two cultures, trade carried on, and culture was shared. Athenians adopted elements of Persian art, architecture, and dress while Ionian artisans helped carve the tombs of Persian kings. Stereotyped and pejorative attitudes toward Persia existed in the Greek world, but they existed alongside narratives that made Persians familiar, individual, and sympathetic.

The Greco-Persian Wars and Western Civilization

Although the wars with Persia were important events in fifth-century Greece, their consequences were not simple, nor should they be magnified into a battle for the fate of the West. The Persians and the Greeks were not idealized representatives of two fundamentally different ways of life. Greece was a small, underdeveloped, fractious region whose politics, economy, and culture had long been entangled with Persia’s. Persian kings recruited Greek mercenaries and hosted Greek exiles. Some Greek cities sought or accepted admission to the Persian Empire as a bulwark against their enemies, and Persians were sometimes looked to as arbiters between warring Greek factions. The fact that Herodotus knew so much about the Persian Empire, its peoples, and its history testifies to the deep interconnections between the two cultures.

While the outcome of the wars was important to the Greeks, the events were much less momentous for the Persians. The loss of territories in Europe and the Aegean registered very little effect on the wider empire. The Persian kings returned to a diplomatic strategy for dealing with the Greek problem, patiently managing frontier affairs as the Greeks wore themselves down with inter-polis fighting. This diplomacy eventually paid off in the fourth century when the Persians were able to dictate terms to exhausted Greek cities. For Persia, the conflicts with Greece had never been ideological. The shift from a military to a diplomatic approach to dealing with the unstable frontier region was a rational adaptation of policy. A useful comparison can be made with the Roman Empire’s policy toward the peoples of its northern frontier: when conquest proved unfeasible, Rome’s interests in the region were secured through diplomacy instead.

The idea that Persia would have stifled the emergence of democracy and classical art, literature, and philosophy, thus cutting off Western civilization at the source, is misguided. On one hand it gives classical Greek culture an unwarranted status, and on the other it misapprehends Persian culture.

The art, architecture, literature, and philosophy of classical Greece have long had a place of special honor in the Western tradition, not because Greek culture was superior but because later peoples chose to elevate and emulate it. The veneration of Greece was part of the ideology of European imperialism in which connections to the classical past were asserted as marks of a “superior” society justified in its conquest and colonization of “inferior” societies. Without Greek culture to emulate, later Europeans would simply have found other markers of status to celebrate.

Moreover, it is unlikely that a Persian conquest of mainland Greece would have snuffed out the creative flowering of the following age. The unexpected victory over Persia did invigorate the Greek imagination, but it was not the sole cause for the developments of the classical age. The archaic period saw a tremendous flowering of cultural inventiveness in Greece, even through difficult periods of war and internal conflict. There is no reason why defeat by the Persians should have stopped up that creativity. The Persians had no interest in suppressing Greek culture. The Ionian Greek cities thrived economically and culturally under Persian rule.68 Persian kings and satraps patronized Greek artists, and elements of Greek art were incorporated into the multicultural Achaemenid court style. Greek culture under Persian rule would surely have been different, but it would not have simply ended.

Like Greek culture, Greek democracy may have been different under Persian rule, but it would not have disappeared. In 480 the Athenians had lived under a stable democratic constitution for less than three decades, but democracy was not a fresh flower to be easily plucked. It was the product of centuries of social pressures and power struggles that were not unique to Athens and that could not be simply dispelled by Persian fiat. While most of the Greek poleis were governed with some degree of citizen participation, the nature of their constitutions varied drastically from one state to another, with many dominated by entrenched aristocracies. Sparta was a far more totalitarian state than the Persian Empire. The image of Persians as enervated slaves cowering under their master’s lash is a gross fiction.

After conquering the Ionian cities, the Persians suppressed democracies and installed friendly tyrants, but in the aftermath of the Ionian revolt the Persian satrap Artaphrenes renegotiated the arrangements in Ionia to be more favorable to the Ionians. The Persian general Mardonius shortly later deposed the Ionian tyrants and established democracies. No doubt these democracies were required to maintain an acceptable level of stability and not to challenge Persian suzerainty. Still, Persian rule was pragmatic and flexible. The Persians had no ideological opposition to democracy. As in Ionia, if the Persians had conquered mainland Greece they would soon have found it prudent to compromise on the nature of their rule there.

Furthermore, democracy was not a uniquely Greek invention. Other peoples had experimented with varieties of participatory government before and would do so later—notably the Roman republic.73 Greek democracy was always a work in progress built up out of personal feuds and precarious compromises, not a pristine development gifted to the world. It was a government that excluded women and immigrants (sometimes even the native-born descendants of immigrants) and that depended on a large slave population. Persian culture abhorred slavery, allowed women substantial freedoms, and welcomed people of all origins. In many ways, the ideals of modern Western society are more in line with those of ancient Persia than those of ancient Greece.

Persians and Greeks

The popular memory of Greeks and Persians tends to be dominated by the image of heroic Spartans making their last stand against a tyrannical Xerxes at Thermopylae. The reality of Greco-Persian relations was never so simple.

From a Persian point of view, Greece was at worst a minor frontier nuisance. Persians neither hated the Greeks nor wished to destroy their culture but welcomed Greek dignitaries, traders, and artisans into their multi-ethnic empire. Many Greek cities flourished under Persian rule, and Persian goods and ideas were welcomed in Greece, even in the aftermath of war.

The Greeks who lived through the Greco-Persian Wars of the early fifth century were deeply affected by the experience, and it is no surprise that we find anti-Persian sentiments in later Greek culture. The wars, however, were only a brief incident in a centuries-long history of commercial, cultural, and personal interaction between the Greek and Persian worlds. Many Greeks, even those who were proud of the victories against Darius and Xerxes, also thought of the Persians in ways that were sympathetic and nuanced. Indeed, the more focused the attention Greeks gave to Persia, the more they tended to dwell on the things that made Greeks and Persians similar, not different. Between Greece and Persia there were a few clashes of armies, but never a clash of civilizations.