While The Greco-Persian Wars is a scholarly volume, with the full apparatus of notes and bibliography, it has the feel of more popular writing: one can sense Green's other calling as a historical novelist. So he uses anecdotes from later sources — Themistocles being warned by his father about the fickleness of the Athenian demos, the story about Aristeides and the ostrakon — without critical analysis and fills in gaps in the record with speculation and extrapolation. He indulges in comparisons with other periods, mostly with World War II — Themistocles is compared with Churchill and the medisers with Vichy. And we even get an old-fashioned touch of the "decided the fate of Europe" and "defence of freedom" themes. All of these things are guaranteed to arouse the ire of some; indeed the new introduction is mostly a response to criticisms levelled at The Year of Salamis.
While Green does little more than hint at many factors (the differences in military technology, the importance of the Laurium silver strike, etc.), he offers something technical studies of such details or solid exegeses of Herodotus can not — an attempt to make sense of the wars as a whole, to provide a single coherent overview of them. There are surprisingly few works which attempt this and there are fewer still which combine a scholarly approach with popular accessibility. Green's accounts of the key battles are entrancing and the whole volume is hard to put down — for pure pleasure The Greco-Persian Wars is unmatched by anything I have read on the subject since I first discovered Mary Renault's Lion in the Gateway as a child.
Physically The Greco-Persian Wars is an attractive volume, with a nice selection of halftones and a dozen maps (though many of these have no scale or indication of north, or, rather distractingly, show modern roads and towns). I recommend it to anyone who enjoys history, especially military history, but its biggest readership will be amongst school and university students studying the period, many of whom simply won't read anything more stolid.
- Related reviews:
- Peter Green - The Laughter of Aphrodite: A Novel about Sappho of Lesbos
- books about Greece + Greek history
- more ancient history
- books published by University of California Press