Those familiar with the Series formula will know that each book begins with “Origins of the Campaign”. I have begun at the beginning and have 4,640 words racked up so far, covering events from around 550, when the Greeks of Ionia first fell under the power of the Great King, to 490, when mainland Greece in the shape of the Athenians and their Plataean allies at Marathon brought up short a successful seaborne campaign to extend his empire across the Aegean. Herodotus, in his investigation (closest translation of the Greek historia) of the causes of the great war between the Greeks and the Persians, goes back much further to the fringes of myth and the earliest history of the kingdom of Lydia, where in Greek eyes, culturally and geographically, east met west. So I pick up Herodotus (or rather he picks up me!) in Book 5 of his nine-book journey from the war against Troy to 479. I was initially concerned that I would find it difficult not to duplicate material in this section in the two “prequel” Campaign titles, Marathon 490 BC and Thermopylae 480 BC, but this hasn\'t been a problem. Without making any conscious effort to do it differently, I have followed other strands in Herodotus\' rich narrative, for example: the influence of key individuals, Greek and Persian, on events; the constant tension in the Greek world between autocratic (tyrannical), oligarchic and democratic forms of government and associated political movements, the resulting different attitudes, from cosy embrace to murderous hostility, of the Greek city-states to the eastern superpower; and the strategic and tactical developments and lessons of the Ionian Revolt, the five-year conflict between Greeks and the Persian Empire, that preceded the main war.
Herodotus\' mighty account of this early watershed in world history is the only possible starting point for any attempt to interpret the period and key events in it. I had been using a number of translations and also referring back to the original Greek (something a happy accident of education enables me to do), particularly important when four different, accurate translations produce as many different nuances of meaning! My ultimate resource, though, recently acquired, is The Landmark Herodotus, a majestic 1000+pages doorstop. The heart of it is an authoritative, contemporary, highly readable translation that also captures the oral character and quizzical wonder of the original. This is supported by numerous side notes, footnotes and maps, excellent introductory material and 21 appendices covering 120 pages by leading scholars on key topics and themes. “To assist the reader who wishes to locate passages or subjects within the text, this edition offers the most thorough and complete Index that can be found,” writes Robert B.Strassler, the Landmark editor, and he is not exaggerating. It spans 100 pages and is fantastically useful in the navigation of this vast and frequently discursive narrative.
With the Origins section in my mind, I have recently given myself a break from research into details (like the exact topography of the straits of Artemisium and Salamis, the time it took to board and abandon a trireme, the unguarded point on the Acropolis cliffs climbed by the Persians, food, the effective range of 5th century arrows, ship timber...) to read and reread at more of an overview level. The Spartans by Paul Cartledge, The Parthenon by Mary Beard and Persian Fire by Tom Holland, three quite recent and excellent examples of scholarly popularisation of ancient history, have been very helpful at this stage for the way they get realistically under the skins of Sparta, Athens and Persia. Persian Fire importantly reminds us that the mainland Greeks and the defeats they inflicted on the Great King were not of such major significance when viewed from an eastern perspective, and all three books counterbalance the simplistic 300-style polarisation of western values as epitomised by the shining Greeks pitted against the dark forces of the east.
Zooming back in to a more detailed level of background reading, I have also been enjoying Greek Warfare: Myths and Realities by Hans van Wees. This presents a convincing case that we have unquestioningly inherited from Greek sources “a highly selective and idealised picture” of the Greek way of war which can be further distorted by too exact identification of recent and present-day conflicts and confrontations with those of the ancient past. Most of the book is about land warfare and the nature and role of the hoplite (and of the unsung but at least equally numerous, lower-class light-armed) but it also has a thought-provoking section on war at sea. I had been clear in my mind that the Greeks did so well at Artemisium and Salamis because their triremes, unlike their opponents\', were rowed by free citizens,not necessarily volunteers but paid a daily wage. However, Hans van Wees shows that this was an impossibility for the 200-strong Athenian fleet, which required 34,000 oarsmen in addition to at least 6,000 other crew. The total pool of male citizens of fighting age was approximately 20,000, of whom not less than 2,000 would have served as hoplite marines, a higher-status role on board than rowing. A further strong hoplite contingent would have been kept on Salamis to defend against any Persian landing and citizens may also have made up all or part of the 800-strong archer contingent on the ships. As many as 20,000 oarsmen in the Athenian fleet would therefore have been non-citizens, “resident aliens” and slaves, who together must have easily outnumbered the citizen population. The slaves were not “galley slaves”, but privately or state-owned for agricultural, domestic, administrative or industrial purposes. The battlecry of the Greeks at Salamis, according to Aeschylus, who was there (but writing a tragedy), was “Sons of Hellas, forward to freedom!” Freedom was a selective and relative concept, far from being a universal human right....
One more recommendation, which I owe to a reference given me by Hans van Wees. He contributes a chapter on “War in Archaic and Classical Greece” to The Ancient World at War edited by Philip de Souza . Published a couple of months ago by Thames & Hudson, this is a deliciously glossy “global account of ancient warfare”. And global it certainly is, with every continent represented and a very reasonable 60%+ focus beyond Europe (though sub-Saharan Africa and America north of Mexico struck me as mildly disappointing omissions, probably because the history is so diffuse). The timespan is colossal, from 12,000BC in the Sudan, “bodies with embedded projectiles” to 1572AD in the Andes, “last rebel Inca captured”. The various start-points, possibly as late as 300BC in Japan, and end-points reflect the different rates of historical change in different cultures and geographical regions, but the text of the 19 chapters and the 351 well-chosen images, 150 in colour, point up many similarities across time and space alongside the differences. A key objective of the book, nicely accomplished, is to provide a survey that balances a comparative review of evolving military structures and the social, political and economic developments driving their evolution in the ancient era with an account of parallel developments at the level of tactics and weaponry. Eight “3-D battle plans” support the tactical strand graphically, disappointingly not going further east than Hydaspes or west than Mons Graupius. The treatment of the battles is broader-brush than in Campaign “bird\'s eye views”, which is fine, though the terrain lacks detail to my taste. I like the ant-like representation of men on the ground. However, this does open up problems with scale and the accurate representation of unit formations which will irritate purists and are, ultimately, probably insoluble in print. Even so, these maps should have scales (are we looking down on 100s or 1000s of square meters?), and it would be nice to know, as with wargaming miniatures, how many men a single “ant” represents. But this is mild criticism aimed at just 16 pages of a 320 page book which is a pleasure to dip into and as rewarding to read from beginning to end. It successfully avoids the unevenness that can afflict multi-contributor efforts, and balances the freshness of approach that will give it appeal to the knowledgeable with the accessibility required by newcomers to ancient military history as a whole or to specific areas of it.