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The Greek and Persian Wars 499-386 BC by…

The Greek and Persian Wars 499-386 BC (2003)

by Philip de Souza

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Philip de Souza

The Greek and Persian Wars 499-386 BC

Osprey, Paperback, 2003.

4to. 96 pp. Essential Histories 36.

First published, 2003.


Background to war: The coming of the Persians
Warring sides: Persia, Sparta and Athens
Outbreak: Dareios sends an expedition to Greece
The fighting: Xerxes’ invasion of Greece
Portrait of a soldier: Aristodemos the Spartan
The world around war: Persian architecture
Portraits of civilians: Demakedes and Demartos
How the war ended: The Greeks attack the Persian Empire
Conclusion and consequences: The Peloponnesian War
Further reading


Wonderful little book that gives as excellent an overview as it is possible in so short a space about one of the greatest epics in human history. It is hardly surprising that the Greek and Persian Wars retain their appeal to human mind and imagination more than 20 centuries after their end. They must have been an extraordinary clash of ideologies: the Greek democracy again the Persian totalitarianism; the obligation to obey one man against the desire to rule as representative to the majority of people. It is well known that the Persian subjects feared their emperor as the Greek didn't fear even their Gods. Such a difference in the outlook must have produced an epic battle indeed.

What I like most about Philip de Souza, the author of this delightful book, is that he always looks at the people and their motives behind the events, thus giving the lie to the ridiculous misunderstanding that history is a never ending and quite tedious string of dates and events. Basically, history is the science of psychology. History is done by people with all too human feelings, passions and obsessions. Most of these people might look, and even really be, extraordinary but they are people nonetheless. It is the people who matter and not the events in history, because the latter is a direct consequence of, and it does not even exist without, the former. Philip de Souza's insight and speculations about some of the most important participants in the Greek and Persian Wars make a fascinating read, not least because of his lucid and clear style.

For all lovers of ancient history who are also beginners in the field, this Essential History volume of Osprey is an essential reading indeed. All advanced learners should, of course, avoid the book because it is by design only a brief introduction and could hardly tell them something they don't already know.

Afterthoughts on re-reading and Herodotus [April 2017]

Having recently (and finally) finished The Histories of Herodotus, I have re-read this charmingly concise account of one of the most decisive moments in world history. It is distressing to see how much of it is based on Herodotus – all of it, in fact. I have long suspected this, of course, but it’s another story to be sure first hand.

“The Father of History” is mentioned no fewer than 31 times in the Index! On many of these pages his name is mentioned more than once. There is a short Preface in eye-killing font tucked in on the copyright page in which the author frankly admits that “the contents of this book are firmly based on Herodotus and other ancient sources.” He might have spared himself the trouble of stating something so obvious.

Those “other ancient sources” remain rather elusive. The Further Reading mentions only two – Ancient Greece: Social and Historical Documents from Archaic Times to the Death of Socrates by M. Dillon and L. Garland (London, 1994) and The Persian Empire from Cyrus II to Artaxerxes I, translated and edited by Maria Brosius (LACTOR 16, 2000) – but how much they were used is anybody’s guess. Herodotus, on the other hand, is ubiquitous. (The Further Reading also mentions Plutarch, but he is never referred to in the text.)

I found Herodotus rambling, tedious, ridiculous, superstitious, scatterbrained, scientifically idiotic and credulous to a fault; in short, disappointing. Mr de Souza is right that Herodotus “was consciously looking for explanations of the events”, which makes him different from earlier chroniclers of great events, but unfortunately that doesn’t make him more reliable. It’s not quite clear when he wrote his sadly unique work, but the greatest glories of the Wars must have been already at least a few decades old. Enough for fact and fiction to mingle irreversibly! Even if our “historian” really was able to “talk to many who had experienced the events themselves, or who had heard first-hand accounts from others who were involved”, in Mr de Souza’s rather presumptuous words, there is no guarantee that what they told him was what really did happen.

Like his presumably extensive travels, Herodotus remarks curiously seldom on his major source of information. As far as specific events are concerned, as opposed to customs and monuments, he must have relied entirely on hearsay. Considering the ancient ideas of scholarship, I should have expected him to be more boastful about this type of “research”, especially if he did interview survivors. But he isn’t. How did he know so much about Darius, Cleomenes, Miltiades, the Ionian revolt and the Battle of Marathon as related in Book VI? We are never told. How did he know so much about the speeches and dreams of Xerxes, not to mention his Greek campaign described in tedious detail in Book VII? We are never told. Perhaps there is no need. It’s enough to know it was all hearsay. Zeus only knows how many hands it passed through before Gossipotus, the Father of Rumours, came to use it.

I expect Herodotus is accurate as far as the big events are concerned but more fanciful with the details. Unfortunately, his Histories consists mostly of details. I am no fan of conspiracy theories and I am not going to propose an alternative history of the Greek and Persian Wars. My only appeal is to regard Herodotus with a solid dose of scepticism. ( )
1 vote Waldstein | Sep 21, 2009 |
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"This book covers one of the defining periods of European history. The series of wars between the Classical Greeks and the Persian Empire produced the famous battles of Marathon, Thermopylae and Salamis, as well as an ill-fated attempt to overthrow the Persian king in 400 B.C., which helped to inspire the conquests of Alexander the Great. To tell the story of these momentous events, of the lives of great men and women of the societies and cultures that produced them, and to explain how and why they came into conflict was the aim of Herodotus, the 'Father of History' whose account of the wars is our principal source and the first book to be called a history."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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