[Electronic Antiquity]


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Volume 4, Number 1
August 1997

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The Greco-Persian Wars

Peter Green
University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles
and London: 1996.
ISBN 0-520-20573-1: pbk 0-520-201313-5.

Reviewed by:
J. O'Neil,
School of Archaeology, Classics & Ancient History,
University of Sydney,
NSW 2006,
e-mail: james.o'neil@history.usyd.edu.au

This is a revised edition of the author's The Year of Salamis of 1970. The basic text is unchanged, with a new introduction, an extensive bibliography of work published since 1970 (I even found my obscure article on Xerxes) and with illustrations, some of which appear to be new - a picture of the reconstructed trireme from a book published in 1988 (between pages 206 and 207) cannot have been in the original.

Green expresses regret in his new introduction that he did not insist for the original publication on the inclusion of detailed footnotes, which were said to have the effect of deterring the non-academic reader. He hopes to produce a second edition in which he will be able to set out his reasoning, but does not expect to need to change much in the way of his conclusions. It seems a pity that he has not been able to do this, since it would be helpful for the academic reader to be able to check his sources and to see his resons for treating them as he does. A reader who is well acquainted with the relevant sources can see that that Green also knows them well - even small points are taken up and sensible comments made on them: to take one example, when Green is discussing the context of Cleisthenes' reforms at Athens (p.17), he mentions in passing that Cleisthenes was debarred from running for election to the archonship because he had already held it under the Peisistratids - a point which is often overlooked by modern scholars, as it was ignored by (or not known to) both Herodotus and Aristotle.

When the ancient evidence appears to be contradictory Green favours a policy of producing an account which saves as much of all the evidence as possible. The absence of more than a very few footnotes makes it difficult to determine how far he has done this. On first reading of his treatment of the Carthaginian invasion of Sicily in 480 B.C., I thought that he had accepted Diodoros' statement at XI 20 that the Persians had asked them to invade Sicily and overlooked Aristotle's remark at Poetics 23.3 that the battle of Salamis and the Carthaginian campaign in Sicily 'did not tend towards the same end'. On reflection, I think that his observation on p.83, 'Self-interest alone was enough to make Carthage fall in with such a plan', may be showing that he has not overlooked Aristotle's evidence, but weighted Diodoros more strongly. We will recall that Herodotus gives us no clue on this question. The general reader to whom Green directed the work would not have wanted the narrative bogged down by such detail, but the academic reader may regret its absence.

Green's work is directed towards the general reader with a lively, readable style and a tendency to illustrate the past with historical parallels to more familiar periods. He notes in his new introduction that some of his reviewers have been critical of his practicise here. In general, I would not be, since I think the academic reader, and particularly the students who we may want to be reading this, or some other, account of the Persian Wars, are not harmed by a readable style or by helpful analogies. I do, however, think that Green has sometimes carried his desire to write in a way that will seem familiar to the general reader a little far. On p.36, his account of the battle of Marathon opens 'then came the shrill note of the trumpet ...''. Is this poetic license, or has he forgotten that the Greeks (Spartans apart) advanced to the song of the paean?

The original title of the book was The Year of Salamis. Chapters three to seven cover that period - an Athenian archon year at the least - from Xerxes' army marching from Sardis to the final defeats of his army and navy at Plataea and Mycale. Green quite rightly fels that this climactic year cannot be treated in isolation from its historical background and sketches it in two introductory chapters. The first covers the period from the foundation of the Persian empire down to the battle of Marathon, looking at the development of Sparta, Athens and other Greeks and how the various parties came into a collision which could only be settled by a major war. Green then treats the intermediate period, between Marathon and Xerxes invasion. 'In 489 Athens was still almost wholly unprepared for total war' (p.46), but by 480 she had turned herself into a major naval power and had built the fleet, which by a narrow margin, was good enough to beat the Persians. Towards the end of the period the mainland Greeks put aside their quarrels long enough and sufficient of them to make an effective resistance. Cocyra's failure to take part was a loss, but Gelon's absence should have been expected. As Green rightly observes, (p.84) Gelon could have done nothing else - but could hardly afford to admit it. Herodotus' story that Gelon was prepared to appease the Persians, while fighting the Carthaginians seems to have been lost to sight.

This period between Marathon and 480 is one of the most problematic in the fifth century. Herodotus provides virtually no evidence and the later sources are extremely fragmentary. It is unlikely that scholarly agreement will ever be reached on many of the key problems in these years. Green has produced a judicious and highly readable account, but one that may lead the inexperienced reader to think that there is more evidence for what happened than there is. 'During the latter months of 483 continued arguments raged to and fro in the Assembly, with neither side yielding an inch', Green says on p.56. Probably so, but we have not a shred of evidence surviving on them. George Grote's conjecture, in History of Greece volume V (1851), p.70 that Aristeides probably opposed Themistocles' naval policy is almost certainly correct, but it has become treated, not only by Green but by most modern writers as an attested fact. On the other hand, Plutarch's testimony (Aristeides 7.1) that Themistocles attacked Aristeides' private court as undemocratic is generally lost to sight, though it supports Green's view that the quarrels between the two leaders were over internal politics as well as defense policy.

I found Green's account of the replacement of the polemarch with the board of generals as the effective commander of Athens' forces on p.47 to be concise and thorough - to be recommended as a good coverage of the issue. Green's suggestion that Themistocles may have encouraged development of trade to the West in case Persia cut off the Hellespontine corn route (p.25) is interesting - although the archaeological evidence may suggest Athens' western trade flourished just a little later - and allows Green to defend Nepos' reading of Corcyra as the state Themistocles had dealings with before 480. Green's views on this period are well worth considering.

He has no doubt that 'Modern Europe owes nothing to the Achaemenids' (p.5). Had the Persians won in 480/479, we would probably not have seen the development of liberty and democracy - or even philosophy or artistic creativity. He is definitely on the side of the Greeks in this war. But this does not mean that he does not try to understand the Achaemenids on their own terms. Green's picture of Xerxes as not placing a high priority on military affairs and selecting his commanders by their ancestry - 'nepotism carried to this extent became merely risible' (p.64) - seems to me to reflect the sources better than the picture of a 'band of brothers' set out by A.R. Burn in Persia and the Greeks.

He also has a good understanding of the motives which lead various Greeks, especially those with landed wealth, to collaborate with the Persians. His comments on 'that charming but shifty rogue, King Alexander I of Macedon' (p.87), seem apposite. Green argues that Alexander's report to the Greeks before Plataea, the historicity of which he accepts, 'strongly suggests that Alexander was acting .... as a Persian agent provocateur' (p.260). Green understands, but does not forgive, especially in the case of those would-be medisers whose actions could have sabotaged the Greek resistance to Persia, comparing them to Laval and other World War II collaborators. In his new introduction, Green tells us that he was influenced by his feeling towards the rule of the colonels, under which he was living when he wrote the book.

This hostility is carried over to those opponents of Persia who did not support Themistocles' naval policy. Green believes that a 'mixture of aristocratic snobbery and anti-naval military romanticism' (p.39) has influenced the surviving evidence on the war, to the advantage of Aristeides' reputation and the disadvantage of Themistocles. His is aware that 'neither the Marathon warriors nor the sailors of the fleet could stomach mere tame capitulation' (p.97), but he is less understanding of the anti-Themistoclean leaders. Cimon and his friends are praised for their demonstration of solidarity by dedicating their cavalry gear to the goddess before Salamis, but Cimon, we are told, 'was a true reactionary at heart.' (p.104) Green is not covering the Delian League, but is that a fair view of Cimon's position then or a fair view of his actions in 480?

If Themistocles is to be criticised in early 479 for favouring a purely naval policy against the Persians which would not prevent Mardonius from making a second invasion of Attica (p.215) does not that mean that there were some grounds justifying Aristeides' army based policy, at least in the second campaigning season of the great invasion? Themistocles' policy was clearly superior to Aristeides', but I think Green has allowed his dislike of the conservatives' suppression of Themistocles' credit to understate Aristeides' contributions.

However there is one feature of the year of Salamis which Green notices, although modern writers (and even Herodotus) have overlooked it - the disappearance of Themistocles from any command role against the Persians in 479. After his successful role at Salamis, this requires explanation, and Green suggests that it is due to a reaction by the landed interests in Athens against Themistocles' reliance on the navy, suspicion at Athens against Themistocles' honours from the Spartans and Themistocles' own belief that he was 'invulnerable to criticism' (pp.214 ff.). Ephorus' claim (Diodorus 11.27.3) that Themistocles was debarred for accepting gifts from the Spartans, is seen by Green as possible evidence for Themistocles' removal from the board of generals, although we cannot be certain that this is not just speculation, as most scholars assume.

Green does correct one implication of the wording of the passage in Diodorus - he points out that the generals elected in February 479 would not have taken up office until July. If he has considered the implications of Diodorus' statement that the Spartans honoured Themistocles for fear of what he might have done if they did not conciliate him, it is not obvious to me. Green then ties this in with a theory of Munro's that the initial failure of Leotychidas to advance beyond Delos was due to the delayed arrival of the Athenian fleet. However, both Herodotus 9.3 and Diodorus 11.34.2 (cited by Green in one of his rare footnotes, on p.229) say that Xanthippus and the Athenian fleet had been with Leotychidas when he was at Aegina, before sailing to Delos. Green's stated priciples of accepting the evidence of the sources, should, I would have thought, led him to reject Munro's conjecture.

Green's accounts of numbers and tactics in battles are based on the principles that he will accept as much of the surviving evidence as possible and that his reconstruction will assume rational decisions. On the vexed problem of the precise numbers offered by Herodotus for the Persian navy giving the Persians a higher numerical advantage than Herodotus' own account suggests, Green suggests that the missing ships were those which supplied the bridge of boats over the Hellespont. 'If we subtract 674 from 1,327 we obtain a net figure of 653: this agrees admirably with most scholarly estimates of the Persian fleet's actual size before Artemisium' (p.62). This is an elegant solution to a long standing problem.

On Thermopylae, Green accepts that the Spartans were serious about holding the line, in spite of the small size of Leonidas' force. 'It was an advance guard only: so it is treated by Herodotus, so Leonidas himself described it.' He does not treat the Spartans' religious scruples uncritically: they were probably glad enough to have 'an excuse for some days' delay, if only to see which cities .... could be relied on, and which could not.' The disaster was caused by Spartan 'slowness to move in a crisis', not by bad faith. (pp.111 ff.). I think this very sound.

I find myself in some disagreement with his account of the battle of Salamis. He argues 'the battle of Salamis was planned, down to the last detail; its complex strategy could never have been put through without long and painstaking preparation' (p.182). It seems a circular argument to reject Herodotus' evidence for great confusion on the grounds of a complex strategy which we can only reconstruct by rejecting Herodotus. Green's reconstruction, like all such, relies on the story in Herodotus 8.94 of Adeimantus' sudden panic and retreat, which is generally taken be a planned retreat by the Corinthians to lure the Persian fleet into the straits, which was misinterpreted, maliciously or otherwise, by the Athenians. Green seems to accept that Herodotus believed this 'libelous story' (p.187) - though I would agree with Munro (CAH IV p.309) that 'this scandal did not impose upon Herodotus.' Green argues that we should accept 'the observed facts, which are seldom in dispute' (188). But this fact is indeed disputed: the Corinthians told Herodotus, and the rest of the Greeks agreed, that the Corinthians 'were among the first of the Greeks into the seabattle' (8.94.4) If we wish to reject this point of Herodotus' testimony we should surely give our reasons for it, rather than saying the Corinthians 'may have got back in time to participate in the main battle' (note on p.198). But I expect that mine will remain the minority position on this matter.

The account of the battle of Plataea also reconstructs an elaborate battle plan, with Pausanias luring the Persians to fight on ground more favourable to the Greeks by a feigned retreat, and explains the actions of the Greek centre, which Herodotus dismisses as disordered, as tardy, but fulfilling their part of the plan. This produces a readable and coherent account of the battle of Plataea (pp.262-8). I can well believe that the battle might have been fought in this way. But I still think that A.R. Burn in Persia and the Greeks pp.533 f. has the right of it: 'There are many indications that it was was well planned; but for a battle to be well planned, and for the plan to be frustrated by the enemy, and for the troops to win it nevertheless, is no rarity in the history of war.'

This book is a thorough, readable account of the Persian Wars, directed to the general reader, rather than the student or the academic. The last two groups should find it useful all the same, although the limited use of footnotes is unfortunate. I recommend it strongly, both for setting for university students and for one's own consideration of what actually happened in the course of Xerxes' invasion and its antecedents.

J. O'Neil,
e-mail: james.o'neil@history.usyd.edu.au

COPYRIGHT NOTE: Copyright remains with authors, but due reference should be made to this journal if any part of the above is later published elsewhere.

Electronic Antiquity Vol. 4 Issue 1 - August 1997
edited by Peter Toohey and Ian Worthington
ISSN 1320-3606

DLA Ejournal Home | Electronic Antiquity Home | Table of Contents for this issue | Search ElAnt and other ejournals