There are all sorts of reasons that the Persian Emperor Darius I finally decided he’d had enough and prepared to invade Greece. After all, it was probably just a matter of time before the noisy, quarrelsome inhabitants of that rugged, mountainous and impoverished backwater finally came to the attention of the most powerful man the world had ever seen.
Today we think of Darius the Great as Persian but, as ruler of the Achaemenid Empire, he was hailed as ruler throughout the known world—from Egypt to Iran; from Thrace to Scythia. The key primary source ‘document’ of his reign is actually a massive inscription carved, high up on a rock cliff, on the old road to Babylon. It’s 15 metres high by 25 meters wide—but the key point for us is that, just like the Rosetta Stone, it’s a proclamation in three languages: Persian, Babylonian and Elamite. Darius’ Empire was so great that translation was necessary to ensure that he was understood.
The Greeks by contrast (and despite a common language) never really managed to achieve any lasting power greater than the city-state. About the only thing that ever united this collection of warring towns was their enjoyment of plotting against each other or the presence of a common enemy, Persia.
The Greeks found ingenious ways to communicate with one another. During the First Persian War, for example, one leader needed to send a message encouraging another to revolt. He shaved the head of a slave, tattooed the instruction on his scalp, waited for the hair to grow back, and then sent the helpless man as a present to a general serving with the Persians. When this bizarre instruction was received the Greeks knew what to do. They sprang their trap, captured the foreign admirals, and ‘damaged Darius in every way‘.
Effective I’m sure, but civilised? Well, not even an example of petty scheming such as this was capable of convincing the Greeks they were anything other than the Gods’ gift to the world. After all, they’d tried understanding the strange words foreigners spoke but it was all just “bar, bar, bar” as far as they were concerned. Hence their word for the uncultured. βαρβαροι—Barbarians.
A hundred years ago it would have been unnecessary to translate from the original Greek for a sophisticated audience such as this. Today, alas, we are undone! People simply don’t understand the meaning of words such as λυω. Less than a century ago Australians were bound together by much more than a common language. Shared cultural experiences, like reading Billy Bunter, Jeeves and conjugating ancient tongues, united people in a specific part of the Anglosphere. But there was no certainty things would turn out like this.
Two hundred years ago, in 1814, the British were burning the White House. Go back one hundred years and the king/emperors of the UK and Germany were cousins. We boasted then of our common Anglo-Saxon Teuton stock and noted that ‘blood was thicker than water’. Even as recently as 1940, there was absolutely no guarantee the US would enter the Second World War.
America didn’t fight alongside Britain at Suez; the UK abandoned first France, and later the US (and Australia) in Vietnam. The English speaking peoples may be willing to go to war for their own interests, but they’re notoriously unwilling to prop up the foreign entanglements of others. Hugh White has a point: there’s nothing inevitable about countries with a common language sharing a strategic outlook. Our physical environments are different for a start and there’s no guarantee that culture will necessarily trump geography.
But it did, mostly, for the Greeks and that’s where Peter Jennings’ piece is absolutely correct. He emphasises the continuing strength of the community of people who use English—even if we do it simply in order to argue with one another more precisely. As Winston Churchill said, we’re more often ‘divided by a common language’ than united by one.
However, look around you and you’ll see Australia is fast becoming a new society. Bertie Wooster’s brilliant insights into the correct way to treat servants are no longer appreciated by the likes of (to pick an example completely at random) my wife. Now you may well find this utterly inexplicable. Nevertheless, allow me to assure you there are times when it indeed appears as if she’s treating me like the common help!
But our military still physically represents the Australia of more than three decades ago. Last time I was in Afghanistan, for example, I only saw four ethnically Asian-Aussie diggers. Wander down to growing centres like Chatswood or Box Hill and the scenery is very different.
Cohesion is vital, not just in fighting units but also in society. Mark Thompson’s recent ASPI’s Budget Brief emphasised the dangers of monoculturalism when he referred to the significant ‘over-representation of Anglo-Celtic born individuals’ in the forces. He went on to warn ‘there’s something unsettling about a defence force that’s unrepresentative of the society it seeks to protect’.
It seems likely we may find that a concept like the Anglosphere, so comfortable today, doesn’t fit quite so well tomorrow. Perhaps it might just be better to focus on being Australian.
Oi, Oi, Oi!
Nic Stuart is a columnist with the Canberra Times. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
 Simply for the sake of this argument, please accept that Alexander the Great was a Macedonian and both the Athenian and Spartan ‘Empires’ were really little more than protection rackets on a massive scale.
 Strictly speaking this word means “untied” rather than undone. Nevertheless the cognoscenti will notice the intended pun with the verb traditionally used to teach conjugation, λουω, ‘to wash’. I am, of course, in no way suggesting this audience is part of the “great unwashed”.
 Undoubtedly some readers will quibble at the idea that their butlers could truly comprehend the refined pleasure that culture brings. I cannot help but feel, however, that propinquity brings refinement. Remember Jeeves, although from the lower classes, is a valet and hence in continual contact with his betters. Ex falso quodibet.