Any student of classical history must admire the incredible flourishing of 5th century Periclean Athens. From the years 480-430 B.C. we see the birth/enormous growth of drama, architecture, sculpture, politics, etc., etc. Kenneth Clark called this period one of the four or five great eras in human history, and few would dispute this.
Historians also always point out how the unexpected victory of the Greeks in the Persian Wars between 490-479 B.C. propelled them into this golden age. The victory gave them an unexpected burst of confidence and a validation of their identity. I have not read anyone who has not made this connection, for it seems obvious. More than this, we can see that golden ages in other civilizations have origins in similar bouts of resistance against an apparently stronger foe. So, the Florentines resist the French in the early 15th century, and the English defeat Spain’s Armada in 1588 (not long after we get Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, etc.), and the Dutch defeat the Spanish in the early 17th century, after which we get Rembrandt.
The epilogue to this glory comes with the Peloponnesian War, where Athens flushes away this incredible storehouse of achievement in a messy and long conflict with its rival Sparta. Athens loses and the golden age ends, but . . . all good things must end, the wheel of fortune spins, and no one doubts the salutary effect of their victory in the Persian Wars.
Recently I have read a slight amount of Japanese history and I wondered about certain possible parallels. The Russo-Japanese War had all the makings of an equivalent to Greece’s triumph against Persia. With Japan, we see a ‘rising star’ defeat a much larger power in Russia that everyone expected to win. Like Greece, the Dutch, the English, etc. the Japanese also were a rising naval power. Like the Greeks, the Japanese experienced a surge of confidence which led them into a disastrous conflict between 1937-45. Yet I have yet to read anyone who makes this connection.
Add to this, certain historical conditions for the emergence of a golden age in Japan existed in addition to their underdog victory over Russia.
- Their naval power gave them a chance to come in contact with other civilization to experience a cultural fusion, (like the Dutch and the English), and
- A cultural fusion of sorts already existed in their country, with a revival of traditional Japanese culture combined with the western industrial influence.
In response to this at least partial connection, a few thoughts arise:
- Though the classic conditions for a golden age in Japan existed, they did not experience a golden age for various possible reasons (most seem to think that Japan’s golden age existed in the Edo Era (1605-1868).
- Maybe they did experience a golden age, or at least a silver age, of cultural achievement but we in the west don’t recognize it as easily.
- Perhaps neither the Japanese or the Greeks experienced a golden age after their unexpected victories! Perhaps the appearance of a golden age in Greece in the 5th century B.C. is simply a sham propagated by generations of uncritical historians!
- Perhaps unexpected military victories are in fact not the necessary spark that ignites a golden age. Perhaps instead they serve as impediments.
Numbers 1-2 both could be possible, but both lie beyond my abilities to discern. Alas, though I love the exhilarating death or glory dash of number 3, we must conclude that yes, at least Athens experienced a golden age in 5th century B.C. We shall have no slaying of dragons today.
But I am intrigued by #4.
Let us revisit the “Golden Ages” I listed above with a fresh eye.
After Dutch independence from Spain we did get Rembrandt and certain pleasant, if unremarkable architectural style. But the other byproducts of this victory appear more prosaic, such as the first corporation and the first stock exchange. Of course Shakespeare has few if any equals, but might we see a more sustained English cultural flowering from the late 18th-mid 19th century with Turner, Dickens, etc.?*
Furthermore, we see that some of the greatest and most profound cultural landmarks have come in the midst of defeat or decline. St. Augustine writes The City of God after the fall of Rome. Plato and Aristotle pen their penetrating insights after the Peloponnesian War. Homer’s tales come to us in the midst of the Greek Dark Ages. The Byzantines may have done their best art just decades before their fall to the Turks. The golden age of Russian literature came in the final years of the Romanov’s.**
We should also surmise, did civilizations experience a golden age without the assumed prerequisite of unexpected military victory?
Florence’s true golden age may have had nothing to do with the French in the 15th century and more to do with double-entry bookkeeping developed far earlier for medieval fairs. This skill put them in demand throughout Europe. The increased revenue and attention led to a burst of innovative construction way back in the 11th century. This lacks the pizazz of defeating the Persians, but may have been more effective.
Northern Europe experienced one of the great golden ages in history during the late 12th and early 13th centuries. Here we had a revival of individual scholarship but also the invention of Gothic architecture. One could argue that this had something to do with the Crusades, but not necessarily a direct military victory that impacted local communities. I agree with Kenneth Clark, who argues that this particular cultural boom had more to do with movement in general (even for double-entry bookkeeping) than the Crusades which took place so far away, and from which no news would be had for years at a time.
Maybe a military victory such as Athens and Japan experienced might serve as a dangerous stimulant. Both victories did not contribute to golden ages, but both contributed certainly to overconfidence and expansion. In the case of Athens they turned the Delian League and the Aegean Sea into an Empire, which certainly contributed to their demise as a result of the Peloponnesian War. As for Japan, their triumph over Russia may have spurred on efforts to turn much of Asia into their backyard.^ Historian Niall Ferguson I believe argues that Japanese expansion had more to do with the origins of W.W. II than Germany’s expansion.
The Russo-Japanese War may have been akin for Japan to the Persian Wars for Greece. But if so, perhaps World War II served as their own version of Greece’s disastrous Peloponnesian War.
*One could argue that this happened after England’s triumph in the Napoleonic Wars, however.
**A possible answer to this might be the civilizations do their best work amidst heady and confident days–things like great architectural works, whereas individuals have their most penetrating insights only in the midst of suffering.
^We think of W.W. II as a global war, but we can see Japan mainly trying to establish dominance over other Asians. The Greek city-states had a relatively common religious, ethnic, and cultural heritage (with certain distinct differences), just as perhaps did Japan, Korea, China, Manchuria, etc.