Modern echoes of ancient history

Stephen Kershaw may have taken accessibility too far in his classical account


This article is taken from the July 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

If 2020 marked the 2,500th anniversary of the beginning, in 480 BC, of the invasion of Greece by the Persian King Xerxes, 2022 could be said to mark 2,500 years from its conclusion at the siege of Sestos in 478. Though the pandemic meant celebrations were somewhat muted, a new book by Stephen P. Kershaw provides a fitting commemoration of important historical events. 

This war was, in fact, the second invasion of the Greek mainland. The first, following the subjugation of the Greek cities of Ionia (in the Aegean and the eastern coast of modern Turkey), was an abortive attempt to capture Athens that ended in failure at the Battle of Marathon in 490. Xerxes’ assault on Greece ten years later was significantly larger and better prepared. The Persians drew upon the resources of a vast empire stretching from Ionia to Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Persian heartland in modern Iran. Until that point the expansion of Persian power had seemed unstoppable, checked only by the single defeat at Marathon and the failure of an expedition against nomadic Scythian tribes beyond the Danube. 

Three Epic Battles that Saved Democracy: Marathon, Thermopylae and Salamis, Stephen P. Kershaw (Hachette, £30)

A coalition of Greek city-states, led by Athens and Sparta, nonetheless resisted. The story of that resistance, and the eventual Greek victory, is one of the great tales of history. As with all such stories, there is much drama, heroism and sacrifice. Thermopylae is the Alamo and the Mariupol of ancient history; the rowers at Salamis are the Spitfire pilots of 1940. 

These are what Tolkein’s Sam Gamgee would call “the tales that really mattered”. They are formative stories for the combatant nations. For successive generations those who took part are, like Shakespeare’s Harry the King, “in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red”. And, perhaps most importantly, they tell what free men can achieve in the cause of freedom and in defiance of tyranny, even in the face of terrifying odds. 

The need for such stories is greater than ever. Tyranny and war are once again real and present realities in Ukraine. The purported words of the defenders of Snake Island, “Russian warship go fuck yourself”, find an echo in Leonidas’s response (reported by Plutarch) to the Persians at Thermopylae. Xerxes invited the Spartans to surrender their arms; “Come and take them!” Leonidas replied. (That is not the only Classical connection: Snake Island, or Leuce as the Greeks called it, was believed to be the final resting place of the Homeric hero Achilles.) 

As such, Kershaw’s book is a timely contribution. Indeed, the contemporary resonance is evident from Kershaw’s title, since he asserts that Marathon, Thermopylae and Salamis are the “three epic battles that saved democracy”. In making this claim, he echoes (and quotes) the 2020 declaration of the Greek government “For Democracy and a Global Culture of Values”, which identified the Greek victory in the Persian Wars as “our legacy for the generations to come”. 

Kershaw’s book is one of many to which a reader could turn for an accessible account. Others might include Tom Holland’s Persian Fire or older but still serviceable histories such as A.R. Burn’s Persia and the Greeks. Ultimately the first and foremost account remains that of Herodotus himself. With this in mind, there are perhaps three things a reader might want to find in a new study of the Persian Wars: an engaging account of the story; a work of military history with a focus on “the three epic battles”; or a political history focused on the “democracy” that was meant to have been saved. 

Kershaw attempts all three, but with mixed success. The book is at its best as a narrative history. The main events of the war, and those that led to its outbreak, are recounted in an engaging style. Kershaw is a generally excellent guide for those without the time or confidence to tackle Herodotus, as well as for those who want accessible synthesis of the literary sources and the results of archaeological excavations. 

Kershaw tends to resort to a plethora of ugly neologisms

That said, while accessibility is a commendable aim, I wonder whether it is not taken too far in places. Kershaw, like many of his competitors, tends to resort to a plethora of ugly neologisms: the Greeks in the Ionian revolt are guilty of “mission creep”, the Athenian Lycomedes is “voted MVP” at the Battle of Artemisium, combatants engage in “PR exercises”, their prisoners are “POWs”. (The Greek word is aichmaloˉtos, meaning “spear-taken”, which says something about the harsh beauty of their language when compared with the bland utility of modern English acronyms.) 

Pop-culture references or anachronisms are evident even in the chapter titles: “This is Sparta”, “The Persians are Coming!”, “Battle Stations”, “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”. Inevitably, much of the grandeur of Herodotus’ original is lost in an attempt, seemingly, to make his story “relevant” to modern readers. 

Another difficulty is the need to balance nuance and scholarly caution with accessibility. Kershaw is particularly successful in the chapters that deal with his core subject matter. Here, the reader is alerted to scholarly disputes (the presence of Persian cavalry at Marathon, the location of the battlefield, etc), but not unduly burdened with detail. It is in the introductory chapters, where Kershaw attempts to summarise the history of archaic Greece, that one should observe caveat lector. Subjects on which there is great disagreement and uncertainty (the nature of Solon’s reforms, the existence of the Eupatrids as a political class, the nature of the Spartan education system) appear under the guise of “what happened”. Of course, extended discussion of these topics would be inappropriate, but perhaps a more circumspect, concise introduction would have served Kershaw’s aims better. 

As far as military history is concerned, the title “Three Epic Battles” misleadingly suggests a detailed reconstruction of the kind provided by Peter Krentz in The Battle of Marathon. In fact, Kershaw’s book is a narrative of the whole war and gives almost as much space to Plataea and Mycale as to any of the “three epic battles”. Nor is Kershaw especially concerned to argue for a “Western Way of War”, to borrow Victor Davis Hanson’s term, or anything similar as a legacy from the conflict. 

The emphasis is rather on the political legacy: it is “democracy” that is “saved”, “resurgent” or “on the offensive”. Kershaw’s argument that the Greeks were fighting for something that mattered and should matter to us now is by no means original (as the quotations from modern commentators in the final chapter illustrate), but it is important and deserves to be restated. 

This is especially true at a time when confidence in democracy and the West is now more fragile than at any point since the Cold War. One minor symptom of this malaise is the current attempt to “destroy” the discipline of Classics or “knock it off its pedestal”: a charge led regrettably in some cases by the very professionals tasked with teaching and promoting the subject. 

Plato and Aristotle were not blind to the failings of what they called ‘democracy’

Kershaw performs a service in restating the value and significance of the Greek achievement. I think, however, he could have gone further. He leaves many questions unanswered. For one, it is assumed as self-evident that “democracy” is a good thing that needed to be saved, but it is never explained why. 

The Greeks themselves did not entirely agree: Plato and Aristotle were not blind to the failings of what they called “democracy”, nor were the Founding Fathers of the American Republic, who in creating the US constitution endeavoured to learn from the Athenians’ mistakes. Kershaw describes Athens as “the world’s first democracy”, but what is its relation to modern democracies? Clearly the institutions of a democracy that elected most of its magistrates by lottery are very different from the representative assemblies of modern states. Moreover, one might argue the legacy of the Greeks was much wider and richer than “democracy” alone. After all, Sparta was not a democracy. 

Perhaps the word “freedom” would be better. The Greek city state, or polis, was the first attempt to set limits on the power of rulers and assert the rule of law. This is an important moment in the development of the modern democratic state. We can thus learn much from the mistakes and successes of the Greeks in pursuing and defending the freedoms afforded to citizens. 

The fruits of that freedom are evident in all the Greeks achieved: from architecture, to art, poetry, rhetoric and, most especially, history itself. At a time when freedom appears especially under threat, it is worthwhile to reaffirm its virtues. But Kershaw’s book, while an entertaining read, represents perhaps a lost opportunity. 

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