On Pausanias At Plataea And Dost Mohammed In Afghanistan – The Recurrence Of The Incomprehensibility Of Imperial Over-Extension

I’m writing something atm that’s tangentially to do with the First Anglo-Afghan War; and in the course of my research, happened across this quote from the eventual victor of the conflict, Dost Mohammed:

He said of the British – “I have been struck by the magnitude of your resources, your ships, your arsenals, but what I cannot understand is why the rulers of so vast and flourishing an empire should have gone across the Indus to deprive me of my poor and barren country.”

Now, why this strikes me, is because it mirrors quite poignantly something that’s related in Herodotus’ telling of the Persian Wars.

Following the crushing Persian defeat at Salamis, Xerxes found his desire to attempt to play lord of Greece in person vastly diminished, and left that land in such a hurry that he had not the time to pack up his tent and furnishings; instead leaving the in the possession of his general, Mardonius – left behind in order to do what he could with a hand-picked hardened corps of Persian troops as a ‘holding action’ and attempted diplomacy against the now-rampant Greeks pending a promised subsequent Persian strategic offensive the next year.

This … did not quite go according to plan, and despite a pretty fraught opening, the Greek coalition under the Spartan commander Pausanias managed to first rout and then basically massacre the Persians and their allies at Plataea.

When the Persian camp was overrun, therefore, the somewhat bewildered Pausanias encountered the Tent of Xerxes, still lavishly adorned with all the imperial pomp and finery and een culinary artisans to befit the man who had fancied himself the emperor of the world not so very long beforehand.

Pausanias, according to Herodotus, ordered all this elaborate frippery put to work, and had the Persian cooks and servants prepare the sort of meal which they would previously have produced for their imperial master … while also having his own servants prepare the Spartan style meal that he himself would more usually consume.

This being done, he had the Persian feast set next to the Spartan [in multiple senses of the term] supper, and bade the various officers of the Allied Greek army to come and behold the difference.

Pausanias, apparently possessed of a certain flair for the dramatic, then shook his head in wonder and loudly proclaimed to his comrades and confederates of the clear senselessness of the Persian war-aims and invasion of Greece.

For after all – who in their right mind, having such abundance and such luxury where they were, could possibly think it worthwhile to come to Greece in order to ‘relieve us of our poverty’.

Now as applies Afghanistan, there were some … rather better [if not necessarily altogether much] reasons for the continued British interest in the area – foremost amongst them, being to deny the Russians a salient against British-held India; and, of course, to try and keep a lid on cross-border raiding activity from the Afghanis.

But nevertheless, it is occasionally intriguing just how .. closely certain things echo down the years, the centuries, the millennia.

And, as applies the situation of the British in Afghanistan, just why it can be a very useful thing to be able to not only recite history – but also see, as applies the recurrence of a story, i) that this is happening, and ii) just what part it is you may happen to play therein.

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