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Xerxes at Salamis by Peter Green
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Xerxes at Salamis (1970)

by Peter Green

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My books do not live in isolation from each other, but as counterpoint or coincidence. They are always holding conversations behind my back. A recent contretemps between two books in my pile has forced me to resort to a double review, pairing two seemingly disparate works that together had a keen point to make on the writing of History. As I was reading Peter Green’s Xerxes at Salamis and Scorpions by Noah Feldman, I kept overhearing grunts and harrumphs and decided to pay closer attention to what was going on between the books.

Feldman’s excellent history of mid-20th c. American constitutionalism, framed as an examination of the experiences of four Supreme Court justices appointed by Franklin Roosevelt, shines a light on everything from racial profiling and segregation to executive power during wartime to the tension between civil liberties and national security, and illuminates far beyond the topics treated in the book. Feldman expertly situates his case studies in context, but in such a way that the reader may ponder the links between the particular and the universal. He knows that, in the real world, principle and ideology always submit to complexity and ambiguity, law-making is seldom rational (as apart from partisan interests or individual motives), and thinking people sometimes change their minds.

Green’s book is an extrapolation from scant material and will appeal to those who like their Ancient History told as a story with kings and warriors as dramatis personae. Lines from Aeschylus and passages from Herodotus or Plutarch are analyzed, supported or corrected with fragments of archaeology. Persian kings are posed as oriental despots, and three decades of 5th-c. Athenian life stand in for the roots of Western Civilization. A single battle in a long war between regional powers almost 3000 years ago becomes the Hinge of History, though this point is to be taken as a matter of faith. Moses Finley warned against treating ancient sources at face value, against supposing that we can know ‘how things really were,’ and against psychologizing the causes of ancient warfare. Would that Green had a copy of Ancient History: Evidence and Models.

Perhaps Aeschylus was able to do what even Shakespeare could not: embody the whole of a cultural mindset in a few lines of a dramatic script. But there is no way to know. Still, many strain to believe that—like good, real Americans—the classical Greeks ‘believed in freedom,’ and without their efforts on our behalf the History of Freedom in the World would have been smothered in the crib. Works like Xerxes at Salamis are stimulating of the imagination, but must be taken with lots of salt.

This is what I think my books were talking about: that Historiography is not just an academic exercise. It is the deployment of critical thinking in the judgment of evidence, assumptions, arguments and conclusions about the past. In disputes about the sources and bases and meanings of ‘freedom’ in American political discourse of the 21st c., for instance, the ‘lessons of history’ are frequently cited to bolster one side or another. The problem is that not everyone learns the same lessons.

One of the lessons from the classical Greeks, assumed by many and reaffirmed by Green, is that the History of the World is the story of the West v. the Rest, and that war makes us free. The evidence from Xerxes at Salamis and Scorpions suggests that the freedoms enjoyed by people in 'the West' are less the consequence of warfare (or strict adherence to ideology, or divine intervention) than the product of a flexible, pragmatic jurisprudence developed over the past one hundred and fifty years—and the gravest threat to those liberties are politicians and our fellow citizens, not foreigners.
  HectorSwell | Mar 13, 2012 |
2041 Xerxes at Salamis, by Peter Green (read 27 Dec 1986) This is a 1970 book telling in detail of the great Greek victory in 480 B.C. over Xerxes, with suitable accounts of events leading thereto and following. Green is a scholar who writes readable history. This book is meticulous and fun to read. Its concluding paragraph so impressed me I copied it out: . "Freedom, in the last resort, implies the privilege and right to abuse freedom, a privilege of which every Greek state availed itself liberally throughout its history. To follow that melancholy yet inspiring story further is not, at present, my concern. As Xenophon said at the end of his Hellenica, 'for me, then let it suffice to have written thus far, and what followed thereafter may be some other man's care.' Let us leave the Greeks in their brief and incandescent moment of triumph over the Barbarian, a timeless instant when--as at the apogee of a successful revolution--all values are simple and clear-cut, every human ideal achievable. Such fragile and perfect revolutions cannot long exist in time: for one day only, perhaps--and yet that one day, sub specie aeternitatius, continues to irradiate and quicken our whole Western heritage, now and for ever." I think one must periodically read in the various periods of history, so as to not forget. (four stars) ( )
  Schmerguls | Aug 4, 2008 |
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