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athens burning

17 january 2017

The Persian invasion of Greece in the early 5th century BCE is very much a part of popular culture today, thanks to comics and film. It's a powerfully persistent event that continues to resonate in the ways people think about East/West conflict, Euro-America vs. the Middle East, civilization vs. barbarity. Of course, as Robert Garland makes clear in an excellent new book about Greece vs. Persia, the realities of that long-ago war are anything but neatly dichotomous.

Garland's keynote is Robert Graves' sonnet "The Persian Version." "Truth-loving Persians do not dwell upon / The trivial skirmish fought near Marathon," Graves begins, reminding us from the start that history depends on who's doing the reporting. One senses immediately from the arch tone of the sonnet that, for Graves, it was far more about the duplicity of 20th-century reportage and memory than about Aeschylus and Herodotus. Once again, this goes to show how we read ourselves into accounts of that archaic war.

We know what the Persian invasion meant to classical Athens: pretty much everything. Without victory over Xerxes, Garland observes, the glory that was Greece would have been impossible. We know what the Greeks thought their defeat meant to the Persians, because we have Aeschylus' play The Persians, which presents much tearing of hair and rending of garments. Aeschylus presents an empire torn apart its losses to the Greeks, but as Garland points out, ahistorically: the Persian empire survived just fine for well over a century after Salamis and Plataea. What we don't know is what the Persians thought, or even purported to think; no contemporary response, not even a historian's, survives from the Persian side.

Every source, Garland argues, has to be taken with a grain of salt. In keeping with the principles of Johns Hopkins' fine Witness to Ancient History series, he presents a useful critique of source materials for the general reader, without getting too technical about the provenance of his information. The most valuable source is Herodotus, the "father of history" who might have been able to interview aging Athenian veterans of the Persian campaigns. If you can imagine a history of the Second World War constructed from 1980s interviews with the Greatest Generation, overlaid with moralizing and a theory of manifest destiny tinged with racialism – well, you probably can imagine that, come to think of it – then you would have something like the filter that Herodotus provides for the wars of the 480s BCE.

Even as filtered by Herodotus, however, the Persian-Greek war was far less an East-West affair than we usually imagine. Much of the Greek world of the early 5th century was "medized" – they'd sworn allegiance to Persia and adopted many Persian customs. (One virtue of the Persian empire was that they were tolerant of their subjects' local religions, so medizing did not involve a wholesale break with tradition.) Since the Greeks would always rather fight amongst themselves than unite against an invader, putting together a pan-Hellenic coalition to resist Persian inroads was a losing proposition. All the famous battles involved Persian invaders teaming with local Greek allies against teams of resisters. Fortunately for Athens and Sparta, those two bullies in the Hellenic world took time out from bullying each other to make common cause against Xerxes.

Though as the Spartans were apparently fond of pointing out, Athenian bullying brought the Persians down on Europe in the first place. "Who started it?" in an age of raiding and revenge is a futile question, but at least the proximate cause of the Persian wars was an Athenian invasion of Asia Minor in the year 499, an effort on behalf of some eastern-Aegean Greeks who were trying to shake off Persian rule. In their enthusiasm, the Athenians burnt the city of Sardis, including a shrine to the Earth Mother that King Darius of Persia was especially devoted to.

Darius, father of Xerxes, was the Marathon man – well, he was not present at the battle of Marathon (490 BCE), but he ordered that invasion, to avenge Sardis. Xerxes, victor at Thermopylae in 480 and loser at a number of subsequent contests, led his invasion personally. His "Asiatic" splendor, possibly amplified by Herodotus as a lesson in hubris, may not have defeated Athens and Sparta, but it won quite a few Greek city-states over to the Persian side, so that the second Persian war, like the first, was more a matter of coalitions of the willing on each side than a race-on-race struggle for existential mastery.

Xerxes, like the much later Alexander the Great, was a big fan of Homer. He is said to have ordered a stopover to see the ruins of Troy, as he and his host marched toward the Hellespont. The Homeric poems, already venerable by the time of Darius and Xerxes, proved proleptic, as they too were about an east-west struggle over the Aegean (also fought by opponents who were more similar culturally than later appropriations of their story allowed). In turn, the Homeric poems changed: later generations of Greeks came to read them in the light of the Persian wars, and to craft endless elaborations of the Homeric tales in order to shore up their patriotic myths.

As Garland's main title shows, his motivation in writing this book is to talk about a little-discussed (indeed little-documented) episode during Xerxes' campaign. The Athenians, defenseless by land against Xerxes' insanely large army, used their naval superiority to ferry almost their entire non-military male population across local straits to the islands of Salamis and Aegina, and Athenian women and children to the city of Troezen in the Peloponnesus. The logistics of this operation must have been astounding – and even more astounding, the Athenians did it twice, once before their victory at Salamis in 480 and once before the Spartans, with their help, defeated the Persians at Plataea in 479. Each time, a Persian army came on the heels of the evacuation and burned the city of Athens, events with mixed consequences. It is never good to have your city burned, but sometimes a great fire can clear ground for a great urban revival. The classical Athens we celebrate rose on ashes of fires lit by the Persians.

Themistocles, the Athenian hero of the second Persian war, rallied his fellow-citizens to build a wall that helped secure the city for the rest of the classical fifth century. That wall, still visible in some places, was patched together with tombstones and statuary and other bits of ruin, the debris of archaic Athens put to pragmatic use by people in great need of security. In so doing they created an invaluable archeological record for future generations. Garland's account of the burning and rebuilding of Athens is another of his finely nuanced reimaginations of the bare documentary and material record.

Garland, Robert. Athens Burning: The Persian invasion of Greece and the evacuation of Attica. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017. [Witness to Ancient History] DF 225.55 .G37