I suspect that we all have some idea of what we mean by a state. In these days, post-1918 anyway, a state is usually a 'nation state', by which we mean a state is something of one nationality with a recognised central government and a well defined boundary.
Unfortunately, this is not the case. Take the term ‘Greek’, for example. Well, today, the term 'Greek’ is well understood as someone who comes from Greece, or an artefact that is from there, or food, or similar sorts of things.
Wind the clock back 200 years. What is ‘Greek’ now? A geographical area under the nominal domination of the Ottoman Empire? Somewhere to borrow marbles from, Lord Elgin?
I’m sure I don’t need to labour the point any more. Notions of statehood, too, are elastic. To the classical Greeks, the city was the state – a polis.
Now, I’ve been reading Herodotus, and one of the intriguing things about this work is the practically everywhere in his world, there are Greeks. When he talks about the north coast of the Black Sea, there are Greeks to consult. In Libya, there he finds Greeks. In the south of Egypt, we find, wait for it, Greeks. All along the coast of Ionia, and far inland too, we find the Greeks.
Now, either the Greeks got around a bit, which is quite possible as Herodotus himself seems to have done, or we have a slightly different meaning to the word ‘Greek’ to the great man himself.
To Herodotus, it would seem, the term ‘Greek’ is a cultural one, not a strictly political, national or even racial one. This would seem to be why he can say, with a straight face, that Greeks were in the Persian army when, so far as we know, there were no significant troops from what we know as Greece today there. Greek to Herodotus means a certain cultural, linguistic group of peoples who regarded themselves as Greek.
It goes a lot further than that, of course. We speak of a Persian army. What do we mean? Contingents of soldiers were there from all over the place – Egypt, Persia, Asia Minor, Babylon, and who knows where else. But Persia was a lot closer to our modern idea of a state than Greece was. It had a centralised administration and taxation, and was, in ancient terms a powerful, united state with a single head. Yes, there were rebellions, but that was true of practically every state in the ancient world, and rebellions were not unknown even in early modern states.
I think, though, that we tend to read back our concepts of ‘state’ onto the ancient world. The Romans would not really recognise the term. They ruled various places, one way or another. If the natives didn’t like it, they could submit or be invaded. Our experience of say, the Austro-Hungarian Empire or the former Soviet Union, or Yugoslavia suggests strongly that a modern composite state, one of various nations, doesn't work. And yet there is no a priori reason why not. On a certain view, all pre-modern states were composite, because the smack of firm central government was not readily present. Only when nationalism gets going, more or less in the nineteenth century, does the composite state start to fracture and collapse. Before that, most peoples were fairly happy to be ruled by a foreigner.
No ancient state could actually run its affairs across the whole breadth of its territory. Various empires found various sorts of solutions. The Romans ruled by province, with officials sent out from Rome. The Persians ruled by satrap, which seems suspiciously similar to me. Yet the Persians are deemed ‘alien’ and the Romans are ‘us’, even though they were not.
The exception to this seems to be the Greeks. The Greek cities (in Greece, at least) were independent. This particular culture has handed down to us a lot of our political language, and that has made the way other politics work alien to us. Greek culture has conquered us more thoroughly than Alexander ever managed to conquer the world.
At the risk of slightly repeating myself from a previous post, we thus tend to project onto the Persians some prejudice. For example, we view the Persian army as a heterogeneous mass of unwilling conscripts, scarcely better than slaves, and are hardly surprised when they get thrashed by the freedom loving Greeks.
On the other hand, the Persians managed to project force very successfully over a wide area of the ancient world. They did get beaten by the Greeks, yes, but they ran a large a successful empire with a powerful army, and Greece was a bit of a sideshow most of the time. Concepts of state and nationality are different now than they were then. The troops may have been levies, but that does not necessarily mean that they were ipso facto of low morale or poor training. They would have been supplied by treaty or agreement with the rulers of the towns and provinces, probably equipped by them, and sent off to the great king’s army. Along the way they may well have got the hang of marching together, a bit of weapons training and, most importantly, generated some esprit de corps.
Just because the troops were not fighting for their king and country (at least directly) in our terms, that does not mean that they would automatically be of poor quality. After all, modern studies of fighting men suggest quite strongly that the principal cause they fight for is their mates in the squad. Modern armies spend quite a lot of time engendering loyalty to country and regiment. It is hard to imagine that a contingent from Sardis would not be out to prove themselves better men than those wets from Ephesus, or wherever.
So again, we need to be very careful when grading troops. ‘Levy’ does not mean ‘poor’ necessarily. Nor does ‘not Persian’ mean ‘not enthusiastic’. It might, if the territory from which the unit hailed had been recently captured, or had rebelled and been re-subjugated, but it is not necessarily the case.
Oh dear. This is getting rather complicated. Now, I seem to have argued myself into the position that, to rate troops, we need to know the history of the area they come from. And, of course, we probably won’t.