The Persian War in Herodotus and Other Ancient Voices, William Shepherd

The Persian War in Herodotus and Other Ancient Voices, William Shepherd

As the acknowledges right at the start, the Persian Wars are amongst the most studied conflicts in human history, so any new book on this topic really needs to find a new approach. In this case the author’s aim is to focus on the words of Herodotus, the great historian of that conflict, without whom we would know very little about the events of Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis and Plataea. At first glance this doesn’t look like a terribly novel approach, but while all books on this topic do of course rely heavily on Herodotus, it is rare for any recent study to focus this heavily on his work.

Many use the ‘military probability’ approach to try and work out their own versions of the battles, often starting from the assumption that we can’t rely on Herodotus’s accounts. Sometimes this can be valuable – one of the earliest examples was an attempt to work out how many men could actually fit on the battlefield at Marathon, but others fall into the trap of assuming that the military techniques of their day can be case back onto this early period. Others tend to reply on other secondary sources, ending up some way from the original sources. Those that consider Herodotus to be unreliable suffer from one key problem – he’s our only near contemporary source for these wars.

This book is built around long extracts from Herodotus’s text. We don’t get the full text – Herodotus was very prone to digressions, interrupting his narrative to recount Egyptian legends or discuss the length of the Persian Royal Road – and these are largely excluded. As we approach the key part of the text – the two main Persian invasions of Greece – we get more and more of the text, and my checks suggest that all of the significant material is included for these sections (and indeed for all of the military sections).

One key area where this book does differ from others I have read is in its analysis of those areas where Herodotus’s account is unconvincing. Shepherd starts by reminding us that Herodotus himself warned us that he was including everything he had heard, even if he didn’t think it wasn’t true, and there are plenty of occasions where he provides more than one version of a story, or makes it clear that he wasn’t convinced by a particular anecdote (normally by ending a story with ‘or so it is said’ or some similar phrase). In some cases it is likely that the time frame of events has been shrunk to add to the drama of the story, with a decision making process that probably lasted for some time being compressed down into a single dramatic conference, or news of the Persian movements only arriving at the last moment. In other cases it looks like the story has been altered to be more flattering to the main city involved – a classic example being Thermopylae, where a costly Greek defeat became a major matter of pride for Sparta. Other parts of the text are clearly influenced by the context they were being written in, with Herodotus surviving into the era of the Peloponessian Wars when the Greek cities who had united against the Persians were at war with each other. There is some speculation, such as the suggestion that the vast army and fleet sizes given for Xerxes’s invasion might have reflected the entire military capacity of the Persian Empire at the time, but they are normally well signposted.

I would say this is a very successful approach to the subject, acting as both a good readable history of the Persian wars and an annotated version of the directly relevant parts of Herodotus. As someone who has read plenty of other books on this conflict I found it a useful approach, but it would also be a good starting point for someone new to the topic (and wanting a fairly detailed account to get started). 

King of Kings, ruler of the lands: The Rise of Persia
The Best by far: The Rise of Athens
The origins of great troubles: The Ionian Revolt
Grant me vengeance on the Athenians: Marathon
I will make all lands one land: The Return of the Great King
Pray to the winds: Artemisium and Thermopylae
Fire and fierce Ares: The Fall of Athens
A wooden wall: Salamis
Razor’s Edge: Autumn 480 to Spring 479
The most glorious victory ever known: Plataea
Freedom first and foremost: Mycale and Afterwards

Author: William Shepherd
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 512
Publisher: Osprey
Year: 2019

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