Iran wasn’t always what we think of it nowadays, supposedly straight men walking around holding hands while heterosexual couples are jailed for displays of affection. The Asians of Greek perception always had what we would nowadays determine backwards customs, particularly in regards the obscenity of nudity and the nature of clothing, but that would be a complete oversimplification.
Ancient Asia was a diverse place. Among its denizens, there had once been the Assyrians, even longer ago the Hittites, and then the Akkadians, and the Sumerians. Contemporaneously there were the Egyptians, the Lycians, the Lydians, the Greek Ionians, but also other Indo-Iranian groups like the Medes and the Mittani. These all just to name a few. This was within an area running from the Asian coast of the Aegean all the way to India and all the way South to the Nile filled with vibrant and innumerable civilizations whether great or small, too many perhaps to be reckoned in the pages of Herodotus.
When Cyrus succeeded in the creation of the Persian Empire, which was arguably stolen from the Medes, in addition to his own conquests he set into motion a series of expansions that would lead Persia to become perhaps the most powerful Empire of its age, possessing countless millions of constituents from cultures to each other utterly alien. While this came with the sort of fabulous wealth only dreamed about in the Greek consciousness, there were also the massive armies the Persian king and his appointed satraps could raise, enough to utterly dwarf the levies in the west. The Greeks were but an impoverished backwater by contrast.
Nevertheless, as the Greeks battled to maintain their sovereignty on both sides of the Aegean, the inkling of a national identity fomented. The Greeks burned the satrapy capitol of Sardis, for which King Darius intended revenge, resulting in two major but abortive attempts at the conquest of Hellas ended calamitously for the Persians–at Marathon and Salamis in particular.
At the time those victories seemed like miracles, miracles difficult if not impossible to reproduce. The canon of Greek tactics in that time rested within the quality of their hoplite phalanxes, for they made little use of cavalry and poor use of lighter troops. As such, it was difficult to meet such a force that was more flexible with good archers and cavalry, certainly on its own terms. Greek victories tended to rest in the Greek choice of favorable terrain alongside the general disdain of the Persians for the Greeks. Again and again, somehow, Persian forces simply couldn’t stand against the wonderful heavy infantry that predominated in virtually all Greek armies.
And it’s here that things get interesting. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of learning Classical Greek, you might have been compelled under the unwavering tutelage of an elder scholar to read the fairly straightforward contents of the Anabasis, written by Xenophon. Within, he details, among other things, the march of the ten thousand, something you may have heard of before. I’ll try to make it short and eschew the huge list of names involved. Ten thousand Greek Hoplites sold their services to a member of Persian royalty, presumably for the purposes of putting down rebellions within his satrapy. Instead, he marches upon the king, his brother, to dethrone him and take the kingdom for himself. At the essential battle, while the Greeks give a good accounting of themselves in the melee, the rest of their army is routed by the forces of the king. From here, the Greeks are compelled to march out of the Persian country and secure boats for their return to Greece, all the while under the assault of the monstrous number and variety of Persian forces. It seems something impossible–ten thousand finding victory repeatedly at forces several times their size, in some situations, several orders of magnitude, but with good choice of terrain and a little ingenuity, the superior Greek infantry routed or circumvented their pursuers at every opportunity, only giving battle when they know they should be successful.
This account naturally came with them when they returned home, and the myth of Persian invincibility disintegrated.
Some years later, the previously second-rate power of Macedon, frequently bullied by its neighbors, comes to power under a figure named Philip II, who in the course of his own reign completely reforms the Macedonian army into a standing force of professional soldiers equipped with prototype arms specifically intended to function as an organic whole as part of mixed arms force possessing the means to tackle virtually antagonist imaginable. He uses this to abuse his neighbors and eventually develop a hegemony over the majority of Greece itself, save for the sour Spartans who are content to watch their civilization rot around them. It’s amazing. Persia couldn’t subdue Greece, but the relatively paltry forces of Macedon nevertheless did.
But it’s never enough, dreaming of further glory and riches unimaginable, as his eyes turned to the east just upon the precipice of his unforeseen demise.
When he died, also of this was inherited in the hands of his burgeoning, still teenage son Alexander–all the equipment, all the tactics, all the men, all the unit commanders, all exceptional. A short punitive expedition into Thrace precipitated his crossing of the Aegean, and from there, it’s all history. Using the principles derived from the march of the ten thousand, a well coordinated army of between thirty and fifty thousand souls–phalangites, light infantry, cavalry, the whole lot–faced off against the Persian king at Gaugamela, who led an army of possibly three hundred thousand souls to as many as a million, and Alexander completely crushed him, leading to the Persian King’s long flight that would result in his murder at the hands of his own bodyguards. There are other battles relevant to the narrative, but Gaugamela saw the dream of Persian hegemony evaporate.
But what does this have to do with European Civilization? Europe is a relatively small region of the world with a relatively small population. It does and did possess many different nations within its boundaries–nations inconsequential against the goliath societies that dominated Asia and continue to do so today. But, Alexander played Goliath and came out on top, defeating and then dominating a society that utterly dwarfed his own nation in both population and wealth. Since then, while it is not a universal quality, there has been a tendency for the West to either treat the East as encroaching about its borders or as an opportunity for wild military adventurism, particularly in the case of the Colonialist Age, in which the West for centuries virtually dominated the entire world, despite being a tiny fraction of its constituents.