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Guest Viewpoints

The Battle of Salamis and the EU Summit on the East Med Crisis

October 5, 2020
By Polyvia Parara

Hellenism commemorates two thousand five hundred years since the Battle of Salamis, 480 BC-2020 AD, yet this unparalleled historical event still gives meaning to humanity's present and future challenges. Defending the free Greek world against the Persian forces, the outnumbered Greeks fought with bravery in the Salamis naval battle and achieved a heroic victory. In this naval battle, the Greeks defended their freedom and the democratic world that had just been born. By overthrowing the invading Great King Xerxes, a victory of fundamental importance was achieved that permitted the development of the historical paradigm of the free city-state. Democratic Athens, with its intellectual achievements, bequeathed to humanity the promise of the autonomous citizen as a possession forever. 

From the Greek anthropocentric world's birth and development and throughout its historical development, Hellenism has manifested a state of freedom that always opposed despotism and authoritarianism. Through the ages, the battle cry of Salamis echoed in the hearts of the Greeks, when they had to fight against despotism, tyranny, Nazism: "O Greek Sons, advance! Free your father's land, free your sons, your wives, the sanctuaries of paternal gods, the tombs of ancestors! Now the contest's drawn: All is at stake!” 

The victory at Salamis defended the ideal of the free man for Greece, for Europe, for the entire world. 

Aeschylus, who glorified Salamis in his tragedy The Persians, was a soldier among the Athenian citizenry during the Persian wars. In his play, he portrays historical events and captures Hellenism's role in the historical process. In Atossa's dream, the Persian Queen and mother of Xerxes, the poet describes Greece and Asia as follows: Atossa: “I saw two well-dressed women; one she has Greece as her homeland, the other Asia. As soon as my son sees them quarreling, he grabs them until he pairs them in his chariot and puts bridles around their necks. And the one (Asia) boasted about her nice dress and had a submissive mouth in the reins, but the other (Greece) stamps, annoyed, and rends apart, seizes the chariot and snaps its yoke in two, and threw my son on the ground.” This literary oracle was confirmed many times through to the modern history of Hellenism, when the Greeks fought against despotism and totalitarianism, defending the ideal of a free man with self-denial. This ethos of freedom was mythicized by Odysseus Elytis in his Axion Esti, summarized in verse "this (Greek) world, the small, the great." 

Those who "boasted of putting the yoke of slavery on Greece" never managed to bend its free spirit. From Thermopylae to Messolonghi, the Greeks created a legacy of freedom with their sacrifice: "Your might is an ocean; my will is the rock." 

Salamis' meanings, in the lines of Atossa: “Who is their shepherd who rules their army?” and of the Messenger: "They call themselves free, they are not subjects of anyone," inspire any person who sees submission as worse than death. "Greeks stand fearless in battle." Only a nation with such a mindset can defend its freedom, since "freedom requires virtue and courage." As long as the Greeks remain engaged to these fundamental values, "never make war in the land of the Greeks, even if your army is bigger," the wise will say to those who plan to attack Greece.  

Salamis cultivated the ethos of prudence: "Xerxes led the Persians, and he destroyed them and ruled everything without prudence. Once blossoming, insolence bears its fruit, a tasseled fruit of doom, from which a weeping harvest's reaped, all tears. Behold the punishment of these! Remember Athens!”

“Remember Greece and Athens/and never let anyone despise their destiny, longing for more/Zeus stands as a heavy righteous judge and punishes the excessively arrogant minds/The great audacity of arrogance is unbearable.” 

Also, Salamis showed that Greece was the womb of democracy and engaged in defending the free man because it gave birth to him. As long as Hellenism lives on, all peoples will aspire to a free life: no longer Persians will bow deeply to the ground/No one restrains the tongue of the people as before, when the yoke of the power's bound looses, the people are free to speak without fear.” "Seaside island of Ajax (Salamina), your blood-stained land forever defeats the power of the Persians!" (Persians, Aeschylus). 

Salamis' importance is relevant today if we want to live in societies of freedom, with dignity and justice, without fear and subjection. The battle of Salamis conveyed many meanings throughout the centuries. First that man's will for freedom is invincible. Second, the defensive war for freedom is glorified as opposed to the offensive war of expansionism. Third, to subjugate free people is an act of hubris and insolence. With their victory, the Greeks handed over to humanity the ideals of democracy and freedom to fight despotism and bequeath to future generations the gift of an anthropocentric society and liberty. The meaning of Salamis after two and a half millennia is more relevant than ever. 

Even today, the Greeks, in a new Salamis challenge, are faced with the authoritarian phenomenon of neo-Ottomanism and revisionism. Erdogan, as the new Xerxes, threatens, violates, and insults democratic freedoms and international law. Defenders of the Western world's values, the Greeks call on the international community to defend international legitimacy against Erdogan's ill-fated expansionism. 

Suppose, unfortunately, that tolerance is offered after the violation of international law. In that case, this dangerous tolerance will open a path towards the instability of international order, which can entail a setback from the realm of a relative ‘cosmos’ (=order) to the realm of chaos. 

Europe is facing a new Salamis, and Europe has to study diligently and understand its most profound stakes in maintaining the rule of law. It must defend international legitimacy unconditionally and give narrow economic interests a secondary priority. The significant stake is to protect the ideal of the free man and democracy. Anyone who dismisses the timeless, highest humanitarian standards for small to medium-term material benefits is committing insolence, and he undermines the fundamental ideal of the free man. Whoever allows the weakening of the ‘cosmos’ in its original semantic sense of the rational order – then one opens a window to chaos. 

Polyvia Parara teaches Hellenic Studies at the Department of Classics of UMD College Park. 

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