[Cyrus] gave the following answer to the Spartan herald: “I have never yet been afraid of men who have a special meeting place in the centre of their city, where they swear this and that and cheat each other. Such people, if I have anything to do with it, will not have merely the troubles of Ionia to chatter about, but their own.” This was intended by Cyrus as a criticism of the Greeks generally, because they have markets for buying and selling, unlike the Persians who never buy in open market, and indeed have not a single marketplace in the whole country.
- Herodotus, Histories, Book I
There are two noteworthy things about this passage. First, Cyrus's worldview cannot accommodate the agora at all. The notion of a special place where men cheat each other, a privileged public space of intercourse, is wholly alien and incomprehensible—and, indeed, the object of mockery. Though Cyrus's sneer is merely one part of Herodotus's account of the various customs of different people, it is interesting that the possession of an agora, for Cyrus, eclipses all the other salient distinguishing characteristics of the Greeks.
The other curiosity is in Herodotus's own explanation. It is clear that by mocking the “special meeting place,” Cyrus is not merely speaking in economic terms: the agora, like the Roman forum, is in equal measure a space of economics and of politics, and the attack is addressed to both aspects (hence the emphasis on “chatter”). But Herodotus, who ought to be most familiar with the institutional features of the agora, does not even mention its political significance. In the context of a broader Greek critique of Asiatic despotism, this means he missed a perfect opportunity to score points at the expense of even the wisest Persian despot—though we might be thankful for Herodotus's restraint in this regard.
What is the meaning of Oriental despotism, when it is so obviously set against the Greek norm of politics grounded in debate? Deleuze and Guattari paint the (rather ahistorical) figure of the Despot as a sort of primitive accumulation of territoriality. That analysis is rather disappointing, but it does point to a certain expectation: the despotic form of power is undeveloped, unsophisticated, undifferentiated brute force unfounded on any debatable ideological grounds. Invariably, when the Greeks want to dismiss the Persian way of politics, they attack the arbitrariness and capriciousness of despotism—implicitly suggesting that the Greek type of monarchy, founded on some sort of implied rational choice, is more sophisticated.
Thus, only after having passed through the gateway of the agora can a form of government become fit for intellectual debate and comparison. This can explain Herodotus's strange description of the conspiracy against the Magi (Median impostors who ruled Persia after the death of Cyrus's son Cambyses). The Persian conspirators slaughter the Magi and then hold an agora-style, Thucydidean debate between democracy, oligarchy, and monarchy. (Monarchy, in the person of Darius, ends up winning.) If Herodotus, broadly, aims to justify his partial sympathy with Persian culture, or at least his cosmopolitanism, against more chauvinistic critics like the later Plutarch, then his insertion of this clearly apocryphal scene can be read as an attempt to domesticate or legitimate despotism as a rationally arrived at form of government.
But is despotism after the agora the same as despotism before it? The theoretical legitimacy of the despotism of Cyrus is not discussed, but presumably it involves an explicit acknowledgment of divine favor and an implicit monopoly on violence. Either way, the roots of the despotism seem unimportant because—as Deleuze and Guattari have it—they rest in unconscious historical developments. But a despotism after the agora is explicitly justified, and hence cannot ground itself in the same kind of collective unconscious. It is permanently in crisis, just like oligarchy and democracy—subject to the “revolutions” of the political wheel, which is turned by the agora itself.
The lesson to be drawn from this is that the public sphere is much closer to a transcendental historical and political category than we might like to think. Once it arises—or is figured as arising—it can never disappear, but must be reckoned with as directly as space and time in Kantianism. As a result, a world which includes the public sphere is intellectually incommensurable with one that does not—for the Greeks, the world without the agora is one big soup of barbarians; for modern Westerners, Russia and the Third World are equally frustrating, equally inaccessible.