The Persian War – William Shepherd

As part of my lockdown reading I have just read William Shepherd’s The Persian War in Herodotus and Other Ancient Voices, on the attempt by Persia to conquer Greece in 479/480 BC. This is a bit off-period for me, but it looked to be a very interesting book. It was.

First a word of caution. The book is published by Osprey Books, and the author has written the Osprey Campaign study on this topic. But an Osprey book it is not. It is heavy with 488 pages of text plus bibliography etc. There are some pictures in two sets of plates, but these aren’t integrated with the text. It is heavy where an Osprey is light. It is a serious study.

The driving structure of this book is the narrative of the campaign by the ancient Greek author and near contemporary Herodotus, which comprises most of what we know of the episode. This is by no means all of the ancient work – Mr Shepherd misses out great chunks not relevant to the military narrative. The quoted passages are interspersed with the author’s own commentary, and fragments of what other ancient authors have said about the events. The result is a narrative of what happened and why, and an exhaustive study of what little evidence there is. The extensive quotation of the sources is a necessity I think for ancient history. In an earlier life I took up the Second Punic War (i.e. Hannibal et al). I found I had to get a copy of Livy, and then Polybius, to get any feel for the history.

The book is interesting on a number of levels. Herodotus’s narrative is the earliest piece of historical writing we still have, certainly in the Western world. He is known, justifiably, as “the father of history”, as it is possible to trace a succession from this all the way from this piece of writing to the modern art of history, but nothing before it. Modern historians don’t count his work as a true history, but more a collection of stories strung into an overall narrative. Herodotus does not attempt to resolve conflicts in the evidence, and his critical faculties are only employed sparingly: the numbers he gives for the size of the Persian army are nonsensically huge. Thucydides, who wrote about the Peloponnesian War, which followed the Persian War, is usually given the accolade of being the first historian. But Thucydides was following Herodotus’s lead. What is so interesting about Herodotus is that he spent so much time gathering stories from all sides. He shows real interest and respect for the Persian side of things. In fact a huge part of his book is about explaining the Persians and their empire to his Greek audience. He was originally from Halicarnassus, on the south cost of what is now Turkey, and a Greek colony that was part of the Persian empire, fighting on the Persian side in the war. Not that you are left with any illusion about whose values he sympathises with. Democracy, as then understood, is equated with freedom, where as the royal Persian system was enslavement. It is the earliest development of this sort of narrative, which still rings out in modern Western thought.

A further reason to be interested is that the events Herodotus describes are of seminal historical importance. It is generally agreed that if the Persians had won this war, then modern Western civilisation would have been a very different thing. It was a pivotal moment in world history. Mr Shepherd treats this as self-evident, as writers from that day to this generally do, though the contrarian in me would like to explore an alternative view. But the events, taking in the battles of Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis and Plataea, form part of our cultural heritage. The war was the making of Athens as a major power, and Athens is second only to Rome as a centre of Western heritage. Strangely enough, from our distant historical perspective the Persians civilisation seems no stranger to us than the Greeks’. The Persian empire looks more like a modern state, and its religion, Zoroastranianism, is much closer to our own. The Greeks thought it was unmanly to wear trousers. We find the importance they placed on oracles and portents a bit baffling; the Persians look a bit more modern on this front, though they had to play the game for the benefit of their Greek allies.

The book is a good read, though on occasion I find that Mr Shepherd comments a bit too much. But he is very knowledgeable and it is clearly a labour of love. I do enjoy the detective work that goes into the working out of ancient history, and there is a lot of it here.

Is there much here for the Wargamer? Not as much as I hoped. The battles are few; most of the drama is around the wider campaign, the diplomacy and the various ructions, especially amongst the Greeks. Little is actually known about the land battles, and not much more about the sea ones, and the climactic battle, Plataea is messy. There was a ten-day stand-off between the two sides, and an accidental quality to the final day’s fighting, with many forces on the field not taking part (apparently on both sides, though the Persian element of this is a bit mysterious). The two sides were highly asymmetric, with the Greek heavy infantry on one side, and the Persian lighter infantry and cavalry on the other. Neither side wanted to fight unless it could play to its own strengths, which meant that it was rare that both sides wanted to fight at the same time. In fact there is an accidental quality to all the main battles. Trying to convey this tactical essence of only engaging by mistake would be something of a challenge. A campaign board game, on the other hand, could be an interesting proposition.

And there are some mysteries about the way they fought, and how this could be represented on the tabletop. Each Greek hoplite took with him one or more servants, who apart from carrying armour and supplies while on the march, and so on, took part in the fighting as psiloi. But how many? Where did they go? What did they do? They seem to have taken cover in the hoplite formations (only much later referred to as “phalanxes” incidentally) when the Persian cavalry attacked – otherwise they would have been massacred. Also the hoplite formations seem to have been a bit more flexible than I had supposed too. Each file (if that is a correct concept) took about a metre frontage – something a later era would call “loose files”. The depth of the formation varied according to need. Representing all this on the tabletop would be a bit of a challenge. The Persian side is relatively less mysterious – though there are complexities too. The heavier infantry had shield bearers to carry and deploy their shields up front while they used their bows; once close quarter fighting was imminent the infantry would take up their shields. The Persians had a lot of hoplites too from allied greek cities, though mostly these fought less hard than the other side, it seems. One thing would be a definite plus for warmers though: visually both armies would be a lot of fun. That goes for the ships too: the naval side was critical (Salamis was a sea battle), but no less challenging to recreate – though at least much more symmetric.

But much as I would enjoy putting together tabletop armies for this era, I will give it a miss!

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