In his latest book, “The Harvest of War: Marathon, Thermopylae, and Salamis: The Epic Battles That Saved Democracy,” ancient Greek historian Stephen P. Kershaw has produced an in-depth study of the famous battles of the 5th century BC. between the city-states (“poleis”) of ancient Greece (or Hellas) and the Persian Empire: the land battles of Marathon, Thermopylae and Plataea, and the naval battles of Salamis and Artemisium. He follows this with their individual significance in defending the Greeks for their democratic freedom.
These specific battles are important to remember for many reasons, not least for their inspirational power millennia later. Like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once wrote: “The lives of great men remind us all / We can make our lives sublime, / And, in leaving, leave behind us / Footprints in the sands of time.” Kershaw presents these historic footprints as a reminder of what has always been demanded of people who desire freedom rather than tyranny.
before the battles
Kershaw introduces the reader to the world of the ancient Persians and ancient Greeks. It provides insight into Persia’s background, as well as its kings, immense wealth and massive reach. Kershaw shows that this reach went too far and proved too costly when it attempted to extend across the Aegean Sea. We are introduced to the reigns of Cambyses, Darius and eventually Xerxes. However, contrary to our modern views, these kings, Darius in particular, have an appeal to them.
Kershaw details how different the city-states of Hellas were from each other. The author discusses the Spartans and how they ruled their polis: their method of democratic voting for who could shout the loudest, how their political representation worked, the establishment of their secret police (the “Krypteia”) and how their young boys were educated to produce brave and obedient soldiers.
The reader also learns how the soldiers fought, what they used in battle, and how the ranks were filled with potential traitors. It just proves that little has changed over the millennia when it comes to the power of corruption. From the start of his book, Kershaw also makes it pretty clear that propaganda abounds among ancient works—another modern similarity.
Kershaw spends a lot of time on the Persians. The reason for his invasion of Hellas is quite clear. Atossa, the queen and wife of Darius, tells him that she wants him to invade Greece so she can have Greek slave girls.
For some of the Greek city-states, tribute of “land and water” to the Persians was preferable to war and possible annihilation. As for those who succumbed to the demands of Darius (and later Xerxes), they were rewarded. Whether from an ancient or modern point of view, there are worse things than being rewarded for subjugation. Athens paid tribute for a short time until it turned around. Sparta never bowed to Persian power.
The author uses the story of the Athenian Miltiades, a hero of the Battle of Marathon, to illustrate how protective the Greeks were of their political freedom. Miltiades had ships and soldiers storm a city for its gold. His pursuit was that of another Greek city-state, Paros, but he failed. His failure to take the city was not the reason he was tried by the Athenians, but rather “their concern, as they looked upon their precious and flourishing democracy, was that he might yet choose to make a tyrant, and ultimately that fear, and cross-faction politics, outweighed any gratitude for spectacularly saving the democracy they now guarded so jealously.
Miltiades narrowly missed the death sentence but was sentenced to a colossal fine. His physical wound from the siege of Paros, however, turned into gangrene and killed him before he paid the fine. Miltiades’ death is one of many in the book. Kershaw exposes the reader to battles, deaths, betrayals and the ultimate triumph of the Greeks over the Persians.
As mentioned above, however, there is the problem of propaganda with these stories. But Kershaw uses ancient works like Herodotus, Thucydides, Plato, the Cylinder of Cyrus and Plutarch, as well as modern archaeological finds, to make up for this.
With both approaches, Kershaw provides clarity to readers about what is true, what is provable, and what is left for the reader to decide. Kershaw references the many ancient texts through quotations and paraphrases. He respects his audience enough to keep readers guessing what is absurd, fantastic, and plausible.
It fixes a number of misunderstood moments and elements, whether it’s combat conditions or symbolism. This includes issues such as the use of “lambda” on Spartan shields, asking the Ionians to challenge the Persians or at least not fight very hard for them, the actual number of Spartan 300, and the contrast of l sanitation. the conditions and shortages or surpluses of supply that the Spartans and Persians experienced at Thermopylae.
Beauty lost in translation
When reading ancient texts like Herodotus or Plato, there has always been the use of poetic, or at least beautiful, prose. Thanks to the modern translations used by Kershaw, we lose much of that.
Translators often attempt to make ancient texts so modern that they deviate from the goal of accessibility, and incidentally engage in a mode of sufficiency. Kershaw’s use of hyper-modern terms (and terms that probably won’t last), like “fake news,” doesn’t fit the context or flow of the book; but these are more likes than complaints.
There is some new and interesting information that Kershaw provides in his book, but “The Harvest of War” tends to be in line with his “A Brief History” and “A Brief Guide” work on the ancient world.
For readers who want an introduction to the Hellas-Persian struggle, this is an ideal book. “The Harvest of War” gives brief but substantial introductions to the many battles, historical figures, and ancient writers and historians.
All in all, “The Harvest of War” provides enough to give the reader the full story of how the Greeks fought for their democratic way of life, and how their sacrifices reverberate today, as the The author rightly explains it in the last chapter.
“The Harvest of War: Marathon, Thermopylae and Salamis: The Epic Battles That Saved Democracy”
By Stephen P. Kershaw
Pegasus Books, October 4, 2022
Hardcover: 480 pages