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By Jonathan Roy February 16, 2015

The Fish Diplomacy of Empires

Illustrated by Chelsea Ann Leyland

The story begins when a flute player saw some fish in the sea and played his flute to them in the hope that they would come ashore. It didn't work. When the fish continued to refuse, he took a net and hauled them in. Seeing the fish jumping about, he said to them: “It is too late to dance now: you might have danced to my music-but you would not.”

The story is over 2,500 years old and takes place in a part of the world where diplomacy and force, music and dance, power and subjection still go on. It starts with Cyrus, the great Persian ruler of the 6th century BCE. He went to war with Croesus of Lydia after provocation. Once Croesus was defeated, the states under the rule of Croesus went to Cyrus to pledge loyalty. It is at this point, Cyrus, according to Herodotus's Histories, spoke the parable of the fish.

Cyrus saw the Ionians and their pledge of loyalty as the fish to the flute player, echoing the sentiment that it is ‘too late for that now.’ When Cyrus had sent to the Ionians to ask them to revolt from Croesus, they had been unwilling to do so, though they were ready enough to offer their allegiance when everything was settled. The parable origins remain ever interesting through antiquity to today.

The Ancient Greeks were a predominantly sea power. Athens was the most powerful of cities due to its trade network across the Mediterranean that linked Emporion (Spain) to Syracuse (Sicily) to Byzantium (Istanbul). The near Eastern kingdom of Persia was more of a land-based society. It follows precursors like Sargon II who claims to have " drew the lamanean from out of the sea of the setting sun, like a fish." The use of the term “fish” for Persian and Greek societies is often used to refer to the capture and conquest of sea dwelling peoples.

 The meaning of the parable is one of dominance. When you catch a fish, you take it out of its natural habitat by force, usually in large quantities. You exert human dominance over these fish and make them your own to eat. Cyrus and his descendants are very much like fisherman. Even though all their conquests were not completely sea based, the Persian empire expanded into other Asiatic and Mediterranean lands, rivers and oceans with their massive armies -their nets- to conquer and absorb their lands and people -the fish. The most powerful metaphor of fish conquering that the Persians used against the Greeks refers to the land dominance the Persians had. The Persians were essentially fishing the Aegean to “catch” Greek fish.

The variety of eco-systems mimics the variety of peoples and societies. We are all different fish in the great ocean that is the world. We can be caught by a fisherman and forced to become their meal, or we can continue swimming around together. This parable can also be applied to recent historical narratives that involve societal and cultural conflict in the Middle East.

In February of 2014, Russia played its kind of Russian “music” only to watch the Ukraine assert its self and join Crossean-European sides. Pro-Russian activists sought to rejoin the federation after the revolution that saw the pro-Russian president of the Ukraine pre-crisis deposed. The Ukrainian fish did not come ashore and it is too late for the pro-Russian activists to dance now. This event has since sparked what seems to be an ever-lasting dance between Russia, the Ukraine and the West. Since then, Russia has begun to cast its net by annexing Crimean peninsula in March and steering Ukraine back in the Russian net.

These tensions rose to points that saw Western leaders begin to impose economic sanctions on Russia. What is not presented on the world stage, however, is the motives behind Putin’s desires in the Ukraine. Could he potentially be striving to birth a new Soviet Union? Now while today’s borders seem to outline our countries, it is hard to determine how far a certain people or culture makes its borders. The Soviet Union was made up of many Eastern European countries and after its fall and arbitrary borders were made that didn’t destroy whatever identities the local populaces had. Many could have still felt “Russian”. How big is his net?

Now what is the result of these old decisions on where the present borders are? Tensions have escalated in recent weeks to Cold War levels with Western and Russian forces probing each other’s defenses with over 40 such incidents being reported. Now hopefully we can all assume that it won’t reach the point of the last Cold War where both sides had their fingers poised above the nuclear trigger. We can only observe why these conflicts of ideals are present in the first place.

The borders were arbitrarily set after the fall of the Soviet Union. Yet the people living in the regions would not have automatically became Ukrainian, Russian or even Slavic after the Union’s fall. The identities of these people are not constrained by the limits of a border. The formation of post-Soviet countries is also not the first instance of this. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, a French and English representative essentially carved up the borders of the Empire into the countries we see in the Middle East today. It did not separate the groups and cultures whose identities have been connected to a certain region.

The recent crisis in the Middle East is no different in foundation as the one on Russia’s western borders. These conflicts between countries are not conflicts between countries at all but between people. It is unknown whether or not after this apparent second Cold War the arbitrary borders will shift again, what is certain is that the cultures and people who have been around for hundreds and even thousands of years before will stay resolute.

The recent conflicts in the Middle East, like the other wars in Iraq that preceded it, were driven by the cultural differences between the people living there. We see clearly defined borders and maps today that outline the countries, but societies and cultures have no borders. The ancient Persian Empire was populated by hundreds if not thousands of different cultures with similar yet differing beliefs. These cultures survived to the present day in the Middle East, and that is why there are many extremists in different areas of the Middle East who can so easily decimate other Muslims. It is because their cultural backgrounds are separate despite them sharing a religion. The cultural mosaic of the Middle East is stretched all across it and not centered in one specific country that was outlined by two western professors after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

The multiethnic collage of differing cultures in the Middle East is what has lead to separate societal groups in and around Iraq into targeting other Muslim people. The Middle East is not inhabited by one sole group of people many westerners consider to be Muslim. Today, as in ancient Persia, it is comprised of hundreds of different ethnic groups, all with different societies. The parable refers to the fish flocking to Cyrus for protection. The modern reflection of the parable in the same place would be of some those fish biting off the heads of others.

About the illustrator

Flamboyant and quick-witted, Chelsea Leyland is a young up-and-coming artist from Southern Ontario. Although her work can sometimes be dark or disturbing, Chelsea takes great interest in one day writing and illustrating her own childrens’ books. She primarily enjoys working with watercolour paints to bring pops of colour into her intricate drawings, often done in pointillism with black ink.


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