War of the worlds: The beginnings of a major rift between the cultures of East and West

In a bid to put a permanent end to the trouble from the Scythians, Darius took a huge army north in about 512BCE and marched across the Bosphorus, the short stretch of sea that divides Europe from Asia, and on into what is modern-day Greece. He marched as far as the Danube so he could attack the Scythians from the rear. Unfortunately, thanks to an incorrect understanding of the geography of the region, Darius missed his intended target altogether and instead attacked and subjugated the people of Thrace and Macedonia in northern Greece.

This pre-emptive attack badly backfired. Proud, independently minded Greek cities such as Athens and Eretria encouraged a revolt against Persian rule in western Turkey, led by the Greek Ionians. Darius counter-attacked in 492BCE, but was defeated at the Battle of Marathon two years later, sending shock waves throughout his empire. It was the moment that signalled the beginning of Greek independence from the influence of mighty Persia.

Greek city after Greek city now declared itself free from foreign rule. Instead of having a buffer zone against the nomadic tribes of the western steppes, the Persians had unleashed a new foe, led by the increasingly powerful maritime city of Athens.

Darius died soon after Marathon. In 480BCE, his son Xerxes prepared to put an end to this new European menace and sacked Athens, burning it to the ground. However, the citizens of the city had escaped to a nearby island, from where they watched helplessly as the flames from their homes lit up the night sky. The final act of battle commenced in September, when the Greek and Persian navies locked into combat at Salamis. This time, the Persians' large triremes proved too clumsy against the more manoeuvrable Greek ships and their navy was ignominiously destroyed.

Europe and Asia were now truly at war. And, each time a conflict erupted between the Persian cultures of the Middle East and the European cultures of the West, the Jewish people usually got caught in the middle. One of the big surprises in human history is how little some things have changed.

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