Saturday, 11 June 2011

Books about Greeks

I’ve been reading a number of fairly interesting books recently, about the Persian Wars.

The first, ‘The Greek Wars: Why Persia Lost’ is by George Caukwell, and argues at academic length that the Persians lost the Greek wars because of their own mistakes. Although the author regards Herodotus as being mostly unreliable, he actually relies on him a fair bit. I think I’ve observed before that we don’t have a lot of choice when it comes to the Greek Wars.

About half way through, however, Caukwell comments on the end and aftermath of the Peloponnesian wars, and observes that in essence, Persia had won at that point. The Ionian Greek cities on the edge of Asia Minor were under her control, the Athenians and Spartans did pretty well what they were told and if they got uppity, a switch in funding would bring them down, as the Thebans proved to the Spartans.

However, the Persians are still regarded as losers, largely because of the innumerable satrapal rebellions there were in the empire which points, so the argument goes, to political instability. Here, I somewhat disagree. So far as I recall, no ancient empire lasted any length of time without revolts in the provinces. The Romans didn’t manage it, the Greeks certainly didn’t. I don’t know much about China, but I’d guess there were the occasional rebellions, and, to choose a different example, the Aztec empire spent a lot of its time swatting rebels.

So, I would argue that provincial revolts were not necessarily signs of weakness in the empire in which they occurred, but more to do with the necessarily decentralised nature of the polity. It is quite a long way from Susa to Sardis, and it is fairly likely that ambitious satraps reckoned that they had a chance, particularly if the King of King’s attention were elsewhere.

It seems to me that the empire was more an Aztec style tribute and acknowledgement of power state than one of secure political domination. The point is that the organisation of the Persian Empire was much looser than modern empires. Rebellion, even losing control of Egypt for 60 years, is not a sign of decline or inherent weakness, but of the natural state of affairs for most empires in the ancient world, most of the time.

I’ve also just finished ‘Attrition: Aspects of Command in the Peloponnesian Wars’ by Godfrey Hutchinson. This I got cheap at a show, and I’m slightly relieved by that. As a book is it reasonably good, but, overall, I’d say that it is largely a re-hash of Thucydides. It is none the less interesting, but the author is obviously restricted by what is written by the Greek historian, and so does not really expand much beyond retelling the stories. In other words, I found that it failed to penetrate much below the surface of the historical narrative and actually explain how command worked in the Greek armies of the war. That said, it is a light and fairly easy read and as an introduction to what Thucydides was about is a good sort of start.

The last book I’m going to wax lyrical about is ‘The Persian empire – A History’ by Lindsay Allen. This is a book to accompany the British Museum exhibition of a few years ago. It isn’t the catalogue, but an attempt to contextualise the Persian Empire in its own terms.

Now I have to say that this is a very good book. It is what I call ‘mid-range scholarly’ by which I mean that it isn’t a full blown scholarly work, but it is written for the general public (such as would go to exhibitions in the BM, of course) but has copious end-notes relating to where in the scholarly literature the basic reports and arguments can be found. The interested reader can follow up the references and delve into the literature.

I’ve not finished this one, but it has provided a much needed balance to the normal pictures given of Persian decadence, opulence and the vast resources supposed to be at the King of King’s command. I suppose that the overall view given of the Persian Empire is one of an empire which had got, fairly well, as big as it could have done. The King of Kings could not, for example, spend a large amount of time concentrating on one end of the empire, such as Greece. He had plenty of other things to do, like administrating the rest of territory. While the court was moveable, and indeed did move between four capitals, the key figure needed to be somewhere fairly central as accessible. This, it seems to me, was not Attica, so Xerxes fairly brief sojourn there should not be explained as cowardice of hubris, but as administrative necessity.

The other interesting thing to arise from these works is that the idea of ‘Greek’ came about from the experience of the Persian wars. As I’ve said before, I’m sure, the Greek cities scattered around the Mediterranean coasts were linguistically linked, and some were colonies, but before, say 500 BC there was not particular Greekness associated. This came about after the Persian wars, as Herodotus and others were writing the histories. The ability to divide the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’, became the difference between ‘east’ and ‘west’, Greek and barbarian, which was then taken over into the Roman empire and, through the writings rediscovered or recirculated during the European renaissance, became our view of the world. Very interesting, and slightly alarming when you come to think of it…


  1. Surprised you haven't mentioned Persian Fire yet. As un-Helenocentric a history of the Persian Wars in English as you could hope for and a rip-roaring read to boot.

  2. I've not mentioned it because I've not read it...

    Is it any good?

    So many books, so little time .

  3. I really enjoyed it. It gives a lot of background on Persia that really attempts to get under the skin of the culture. Not having read all of Herodutus I don't know how much is "new". Good background on Sparta and Athens too. Despite the basic story being so well known he manages to get across how close run it was. Made me want to get back into ancients wargaming
    Don't be put off by the blurb attempting to paint parralels with the US' adventure in Afghanistan.
    The same author (Tom Holland - not the TV vicar!) wrote a good account of the Roman civil wars and the collapse of the Republic (Rubicon) again giving the cultural background.

  4. Thanks for that.

    Yet another book to add to my ever growing 'to read' list...