THE PERSIAN WAR: In Herodotus and Other Ancient Voices

William Shepherd

Osprey (2019) h/b 511pp £25 (ISBN 9781472808639)

S., a classicist and publisher by trade (he retired as Chief Executive of Osprey in 2007), is also the author of books on Pylos and Sphacteria, Plataea and Salamis (all Osprey). In this heavyweight volume, blessed with excellent maps, colour photographs and diagrams, full bibliographies and footnotes at the bottom of the page (these days there is surely no excuse for putting them anywhere else), he follows Herodotus’ narrative of the Persian Wars from the rise of Athens and the Ionian revolt (499 BC) to the battle of Mycale (479 BC), and ends with an assessment of Themistocles and a two-page sprint to the King’s Peace of 386 BC, in which Persia guaranteed Greece autonomy but laid full claim to the Greek cities of Asia, the coastal islands and Cyprus. So closed the circle begun by the Ionian revolt.

S.’s introduction provides a summary picture of the context, scope and method behind Herodotus’ enquiry, followed by a detailed look at contemporary warfare (hoplites, armour, triremes and so on). This is exemplary, the best brief introduction that the reviewer has encountered, filling out the broad picture with much fascinating technical detail (merely unbalancing an opponent or forcing him back could equally disrupt a hoplite line). 

The bulk of the book closely follows Herodotus’ narrative, combining translated passages (these are very well done) with accurate précis of the intervening narrative. Flesh and muscle to these mighty bones are added in two ways: first, by texts from other sources which enlarge on Herodotus’ account, and second by discussions of the historical problems which have kept scholars arguing for over 2000 years. The start of S.’s account of Marathon (491 BC) will give a clear idea of the procedure.

S. begins by quoting Herodotus on king Darius’ orders to his general Datis to load 600 ships and horse-transports for the crossing from Cilicia into Greece. S. comments that, since the Greeks could have mustered only about 150 triremes, 300 triremes and 30 horse-transports would have sufficed. Herodotus then describes the attack on Naxos (the Naxians took flight) and Datis’ pious sacrifice of 300 talents of frankincense (about 8 tons) on Delos. S. points out that that was the equivalent of 40 horses in weight, possibly a better bet for military purposes, though Persia received 1,000 talents of this precious aromatic resin every year as tribute from Arabia. Delos was a famous sanctuary: Datis probably thought it wise, and good propaganda, not to sack it. 

Herodotus now describes the siege of Carystus, and Eretria’s appeal to Athens for help. They sent 4,000 troops, but because the Eretrians could not decide whether to run or join the Persians, the Athenians departed. The Persians took Eretria and sailed on to Marathon. S. comments that the east-west route across the Aegean was now secure and Persia picked up more Greek troops from the surrounding islands. Marathon, with its long sandy shore was an ideal debarking point for the army and far enough from Athens to ensure an unopposed landing. Further, the Persians brought with them the ex-tyrant of Athens Hippias, probably intending to reinstall him in Athens and hoping (maybe) that Hippias’ supporters in Athens would divide the city as had happened among the Eretrians.

Herodotus now reports that the ten Athenians generals including Miltiades marched to Marathon. S. here quotes Plutarch’s Life of Aristides that Miltiades was the lead general and Aristides his second, and S. continues with a brief sketch of Miltiades’ career to date. He suggests the Athenians numbered c. 9-10,000 hoplites, comparing Herodotus’ figure of 8,000 at Plataea in 479 BC, and adds that hoplites were normally accompanied by attendants and slaves (so thousands of them) who could serve as useful light-armed back-up. S. points out that the Athenians troops were far less battle-hardened than the Persians—he supplies the evidence—but military ethos and determination not to fall to a foreign power compensated for that. And so on.

It is not easy to combine the words of Herodotus with other ancient sources and personal commentary, but S. does so masterfully, without overloading or confusing the reader. S.’s judgement too about what to comment on is also sure. For example, the famous charge ‘at the double’ against the Persians clearly requires full discussion and S. gives it nine very informative pages (though perhaps a reference to Krenz The Battle of Marathon which discusses it in great technical detail would have been worth a mention). Finally, it all adds up to an exciting, highly informative and also very enjoyable read: S. writes with clarity and verve.

The bargain of the year at the price, this book should find its way into the hands of all schools, universities and lovers of Herodotus. S. has done the ancient world’s most appealing historian proud.

Peter Jones

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