Little, Brown (2022) h/b 588pp £30 (ISBN 9781472145673)

We are told on the book’s cover that these ‘three (epic) battles changed the course of European history for ever, rescuing democracy for future generations to come’. This statement is questionable on more than one count, beginning with its apparent dismissal of the Greeks’ final victory at Plataea, a battle on the scale of Waterloo and as decisive and ‘close run’.

In fact, Stephen Kershaw does not play down the importance of what Herodotus describes as ‘the most beautiful of all the victories known to us’. He writes (on page 350):

‘Although Plataea could never have been won without the success at Salamis, the resistance at Artemisium, the Spartan heroics at Thermopylae, and the Athenian victory at Marathon, it had still preserved a Greek way of life that may have been “poverty stricken”, divided and fractious, but which had also created ideals and processes of freedom that would influence the world for centuries into the future.’

The qualifying ‘although’ and ‘still’ are perhaps a little grudging.

The battles fought before Plataea, Artemisium making four, were all important to varying extents. Glorious as the victory at Marathon was, especially to Athenian eyes, even foundational, it did not prevent the second Barbarian invasion of Greece, which was to be in much greater force. Although Thermopylae was a disastrous failure of tactical and strategic planning, Leonidas ensured that the losses were sustainable; the noble sacrifice removed any doubt of Sparta’s commitment to the Greek cause; and, like Marathon, Thermopylae became an inspiration for the minority of cities that were prepared to resist the Barbarian invasion. But the naval action at Artemisium had a much greater impact on the outcome of the war.

The strategic aim in the summer of 480 BC was to halt the Persian advance in a combined land and sea operation and then to reverse it when the rest of the Greek army joined Leonidas’ relatively small blocking force. However, almost the entire allied fleet was required to fulfil the naval role in the defence of the Thermopylae-Artemisium line. Defeat would have given the invaders command of the sea and victory in the war, almost certainly in a matter of months or even weeks. But, on the same day as Leonidas’ position was outflanked and overrun, the fighting at sea ended in a bruising draw. The outnumbered Greek fleet survived and was able to retreat to fight again. The confidence and combat experience gained at Artemisium were important factors in the victory won at Salamis a few weeks later.

Though more interested in advocating the moral superiority of hoplites over oarsmen than in making a historical point, Plato had it half right in his Laws: ‘It was the land-battle of Marathon that set in train the salvation of Greece and Plataea that completed it.’ He would not acknowledge here that Salamis was almost as important as Plataea. It had done half the job, but only victory on land would drive the Persians out of Greece.

The sixth battle, at Mycale in Ionia, also fought and won in 479 BC and, according to tradition, on the same day as Plataea, should not be overlooked. As far as the freedom of Ionia was concerned it was fairly symbolic. The naval campaign it concluded involved less than a third of the force that had defeated the Persians at Salamis, but it was sufficient to ensure that the enemy would not sail west to support the occupying army and it freed valuable additional manpower to fight in the Greek frontline or in support roles.

But to what extent did Salamis and Plataea, or any or all of the six battles, ‘change the course of European history’? Persian victory would indeed have set history on a different course. For example, further expansion of the Persian Empire westward, reinforced by Greek levies and in alliance with Carthage, might have stifled Rome in her infancy. Macedon might have remained a backwater.

But the consequences could equally have been less drastic and, in any case, might not have stifled Greek democracy or culture. Herodotus records that the Persians ‘introduced democracy in place of tyranny’ in subject Greek cities brought back into their empire after the Ionian Revolt. Democratic ideas and institutions and Greek culture, which were already quite robustly developed on both sides of the Aegean by the beginning of the 5th century, might still have flourished under Persian rule, pragmatically accepted and pragmatically administered, and Greece would quite likely have been spared the Peloponnesian War. Of course, ‘alternate history’ offers an infinity of possibilities.

The book’s first four chapters (Athens: the World’s First Democracy; Persia: the World’s Most Powerful Empire; Darius the Great; This is Sparta!) set the scene and tone. A pacy, even racy account of events from the Ionian Revolt to Plataea and Mycale follows in nine chapters, and these give due prominence to all six battles of the war. Modern Afterlife, the closing chapter, reviews historical, cultural and ideological perceptions of the Persian War from the Byzantine era up to the present.

The focus on battles in the title raises expectations which are only partially fulfilled. K. writes on Marathon, ‘Our big picture (of the battle) is clear enough but there are endless questions about the detail’. Here and at other points in his narrative, he remarks on the existence of such questions without exploring them much. At intervals it would have been worth sacrificing a little of the pace to engage more with the evidence, and sometimes the absence of it, and to go into more detail (at least in proportion to the attention given to the differing sexual practices of the opposing sides, and to sexual imagery in the language of Greek warfare!).

Instead K. settles for hundreds of precise references to a mass of literature that would respectably stock a university faculty library. These take up at least half the book’s 1500 endnotes, which are spread over 48 pages and followed by a Bibliography listing approximately 250 titles. Citations on such a scale would be appropriate in an academic monograph, but the general reader and school and undergraduate students, the main audiences for this entertaining, introductory ‘retelling’, would be better served by a much shorter and more accessible selection of further reading.

The rest of the endnotes are references to the many extracts from ancient sources quoted or paraphrased, predominantly from Herodotus as one would expect, but also going back in time to Homer and forward over several centuries. These references would have been better placed as footnotes or incorporated in the body of the text; especially useful for students for whom Herodotus may be required reading. Brief notes on all the authors quoted would also have been helpful.

A little reflection once more on the title: Plataea has always been overshadowed by Marathon, Thermopylae and Salamis. This can be traced back to the 5th century and the growing hostility between Athens and Sparta, and specifically Athenian prejudice against what was undeniably a great Spartan victory. Even so, the epic gloss of Thermopylae, well burnished by Sparta, secured that battle’s prominence alongside Marathon and Salamis, which Athens owned. Strangely, Plataea still does not get the popular recognition it deserves. I guess it was a conscious marketing decision not to mention Plataea on the cover. But my votes for the ‘three epic battles that saved democracy’ would place Artemisium and Plataea alongside Salamis.

Although this book does not entirely live up to the promise of its dramatic sales pitch, and despite its overkill in the citation and bibliography departments, K.’s contribution to the massive literature on the topic offers both enjoyment and fresh insights. The tale of Greece’s triumph over Persia is always worth retelling and there is always more to be learned about it.


William Shepherd