Two leaders of considerable power come together after half a century at war, join hands and speak about peace, apparently genuinely, but in no great depth and the details remain vague. The world looks on with interest as East meets West, and two avowed enemies, who have mistrusted each other for years, make the first move towards an unlikely treaty.

It is a great moment, don’t you agree – a real turning point in the history of the world, perhaps. I am thinking of the Peace of Callias, made in 449BC, which brought an end to the war between Greece and Persia, which had been going on for the past 50 years. If you had modern day Korea in mind, I forgive you – that was entirely intentional. It is an example of why history is such fun; you may not believe this, but the first thing I thought of on Saturday when I saw Kim Jong-un and President Moon on the front page of the Times with their hands aloft after 65 years, was the Peace of Callias. Let me tell you a bit about it. By way of background, you need to think of Greece representing the West (it was the cradle of Western civilisation) and Persia (modern day Turkey to Iran and beyond) representing the East.

In the early 5th century BC, the Greek cities all along the coast of Persia – i.e. on the other side of the Aegean Sea in modern day Turkey – revolted against the Persians in response to Persian aggression against a Greek island close to that coastline. This led to a 50 year war between the Greeks and Persians, which remains famous to this day for a few battles in the first quarter of the 5th Century BC: the Battle of Marathon saw a huge Persian fleet cross the sea to invade Greece, only to be repelled by a small group of Athenians who achieved the most glorious victory in that country’s history in the marshes around a town called Marathon. This battle gave its name to the modern running race, the marathon, after an Athenian messenger ran the 26 miles to Athens from Marathon to report the victory – he is supposed to have collapsed and died when he got to Athens, having delivered the famous last words, “Joy to you”. The fuller story was that, only days before, he had run all the way from Marathon to Sparta to try to get help for the Athenians in the battle – a return run in fact of about 150 miles in two days – only to be turned down on some lame excuse of a festival in Sparta – so he must indeed have been pretty knackered by the time he knocked off the last 26 miles! The other battle in the Persian War that you will have heard of was the Battle Of Thermopylae, when the Persians invaded Greece by land this time and their force of over 100,000 men was held up in a narrow pass for a whole week by only 7,000 Greeks, resulting in a final two-day last ditch fight to the death of 300 Spartans. The Persians, finally victorious, marched on Athens, before losing a famous sea battle at Salamis and another land battle at Plataea and being expelled back to Persia.

Much of the last 30 years of that war is far less well documented; it seems a pretty quiet period, much in the same way that these last 60 years or so of the Korean War have played out. I am no expert, but the Korean War was started in 1950 in, seemingly, a not entirely dissimilar manner, by a number of border skirmishes which brought West into conflict with East. Korea had been divided between Russia and the US in 1948, two superpowers who wholly mistrusted each other. North Korea, with help from the East in Russia and China, invaded the south and almost overran it altogether, before a counter attack from the US saved the day and a stalemate ensued on the ground, with the North winning some key moments, and the South doing the same. The same thing had happened in Greece; the Persians invaded, almost overran the whole country, until a late counter-attack repelled the Persians.  With the Koreans, it was in the end the vastly superior US air power that ended the fighting; with the Greeks, it was the vastly superior Athenian navy.

One interest for us in all of this is that, in both cases, the wars arose out of mistrust between the different cultures of East and West; after World War II, the coldness between East and West was obvious; and back in the 5th century BC, Herodotus devotes most of the first half of his history of the Persian Wars to differences between the cultures of East and West as an explanation for how they came into conflict. The second interest is that, even after so long at war, East and West can come together; time can heal; diplomacy (in both cases) can work. And, as I mentioned a few weeks ago, how lovely is was that a Greek tradition, the Olympic Games, seems to have brokered the latest Korean peace. And, to take a metaphor from last week’s assembly, bridges can still be built between nations, no matter how poor their relations have been in the past.  

So what happens next? Well, it is tempting to look to history for that, too, though in reality, the cases are also quite different. In Ancient times, both Greece and Persia left lasting and significant legacies for the world. The immediate upshot of the Peace of Callias was that Perikles, who was leader in Athens at the time, set about rebuilding the Acropolis. The Persians when they invaded had destroyed many temples and other buildings of merit in Greece. When the Persians were expelled, the Greeks vowed to leave these great buildings in rubble, to show all Greeks what would happen if the Persians ever invaded again. Only a couple of column drums still stood on the destroyed old Parthenon, before the Peace was finally signed and Perikles decided to rebuild. If you go to Athens today, you not only see one of the great buildings of the ancient world, but if you look carefully you will also see a number of column drums from the previous destroyed building set into the rock of the Acropolis to remind all Greeks today what happens if the Persians ever invade again. Athens became a great power, as did Persia – they both flourished initially. The coming together of Kim Jong-un and President Moon represents a key moment in history which you are witnessing in your lifetime – enjoy it. I do hope that the two halves of Korea flourish as East and West did straight after the Persian Wars; but the sad news is that after a while, no doubt, unless your generation can build a lasting and meaningful understanding between East and West, history will intervene again. My question for you today is: will you take up that challenge?


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