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Xerxes Invades Greece (Penguin Epics)

by Herodotus

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This work talks about a king who would be worshipped as a god. When Xerxes, King of Persia, crosses the Hellespont at the head of a formidable army, it seems inevitable that Greece will be crushed beneath its might. But, the Greeks are far harder to defeat than he could ever have imagined. As storms lash the Persian ships, and sinister omens predict a cruel fate for the expedition, Xerxes strives onward, certain his enemies will accept him as their king. But as he soon discovers, the Greeks will sacrifice anything, even their lives, to keep their liberty.,A king who would be worshipped as a god...When Xerxes, King of Persia, crosses the Hellespont at the head of a formidable army, it seems inevitable that Greece will be crushed beneath its might. But the Greeks are far harder to defeat than he could ever have imagined.As storms lash the Persian ships, and sinister omens predict a cruel fate for the expedition, Xerxes strives onward, certain his enemies will accept him as their king. But as he soon discovers, the Greeks will sacrifice anything, even their lives, to keep their liberty...
  Paul_Brunning | Apr 26, 2016 |
Xerxes Invades Greece is an extract from Histories by Herodutos, the founding father of history. The subject matter covers the beginning of the Persian invasion of Greece under Xerxes through Thermopylae to Persian occupation of Athens. The Penguin Epics extract covers the same ground as the end of Book VI and beginning of Book VII of Histories. If the rest of Histories is anywhere near as good as this extract, it is a truly astounding piece of work. The carefully nuanced politics evident through the writing as Herodotus has to juggle contemporary biases are as fascinating as the detailed and seemingly even-handed account of the Persian march into Greek territory.

Xerxes Invades Greece begins with a description of the Persian forces. Scholarly research now suggests that Herodotus has significantly exaggerated the numbers involved and indeed there are points at which explicit extrapolation for instance on the likely numbers of crews to each boat make the sum total of the Persian force a matter of some speculation. The exact number does not really matter though, what matters are the descriptions that Herodotus provides. His understanding of the many different troops within the Persian brigades is an achievement that most today would fail to be able to provide for even their own peoples. Herodotus has no reason to portray the Persians positively but he does, the troops are given descriptions for their uniforms, weaponry, and some basic background to where they come from. What this achievement generates is a summary of the sheer size of the Persian Empire while not falling into the trap of labelling an army of the east as being a horde of faceless millions.

The logistics involved in moving the mighty Persian army and navy must have been immense and this is touched on occasionally. The most memorable moment of course being Xerxes order to have the Hellespont flogged for its disobedience. Of primary concern is water and food in such a vast march and Herodotus refers to some of the difficulties this generated including the impositions that such a huge eating requirement places on the locations the units move through.

The Persians move through lands held by various Greek peoples and Herodotus is very fair in his assessment of why these various factions provide support or choose not to oppose the Persians en route. As with pretty much all of the invasions of Europe from the east, the forces are hugely multi-national and while some are clearly bandwagoners in the most literal sense, others are basically forced to join or risk utter destruction. It is only as Xerxes presses further into Greece that an opposition force can be suitably mobilised to provide some resistance.

That resistance is of course most famouly found at Thermopylae. Given that this is by far the best remembered episode of the Persian Wars, it is quite a surprise to find that Herodotus does not labour too long in its coverage. The 300 Spartans and less famously the 700 Thespians as well as the other assorted Greeks who stood at the hot gates in defiance of the massive army arrayed against them is rightly legendary. The amount of content that Herodotus dedicates to it though puts it in a context that the retrospective view has perhaps overlooked. Thermopylae was one of many battles in the Persian Wars and probably the biggest defeat for the Greeks. That the overwhelming majority of the Greek troops were not involved in the battle meant that the war did not end at Thermopylae but it is and will remain a symbolic landmark of the few standing up to confront the many.

The naval battles clearly went better for the Greeks - after all they were generally a seafaring nation and that is how they carved out their niche while the Persians are primarily a land-based people. The battles at sea like Thermopylae are not hugely detailed but they are still utterly absorbing as Herodotus outlines who and where, making sure to pick out those who gained valour.

Herodotus is a classical thinker in the very best of Greek traditions. He may have been a little credulous in some of his assumptions about numbers of Persians but he goes as far as he can to state where he knows something to be based on opinion. This is most clear in the various analyses of oracle traditions. Herodotus does not go as far as debunking what seem from a modern perspective to be self-serving and unhelpful political machinations cloaked in religion but at times he does mention that he makes no statement on the veracity of claims of supernatural involvement which is as honest as a rational thinker should be.

The politics of the various Greek city-states is of course at the heart of the Persian incursion. The competition between Athens and Sparta and the dislike of various factions for one another (particularly the enmity towards the Spartans) is very clear. Herodotus does side with Sparta in particular in being more positive about their fighting ability and their bravery compared to others. He does though provide apologies for the role of others and in particular the Athenians. THe logic behind his assessment of Athenian involvement is sound and the assumptions he makes about the psychology of decision making are much more likely to be accurate than a perspective from over two thousand years later.

At times it is a little hard to follow exactly who all the various lists of peoples and places are. There are so many factions and they live in such a variety of locations that it is impossible to recall the specifics of each. No doubt a more scholarly read of Herodotus requires much more in the way of preparation and note taking than a casual read as encouraged by this edition does.

The Penguin Epics edition makes an interesting editorial choice in electing to end with Xerxes having seemingly won. Without the context of the later Greek fightback it is a somewhat weird slant on the historicity of the overall work. What it undoubtedly does do though is provide enough detail of this key phase in the Persian Wars to be a must-read for anyone who is interested and to be an introduction to Herodotus for those who will need to take in much more of this great historian's work. ( )
1 vote Malarchy | Sep 17, 2010 |
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