Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.04.42 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.04.42

Robert Garland, Athens Burning: The Persian Invasion of Greece and the Evacuation of Attica. Witness to ancient history.   Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017.  Pp. xiii, 170.  ISBN 9781421421964.  $19.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Sarah A. Rous, Rice University (


Long lines of refugees on foot, possessions heaped on their backs, the elderly and women with small children struggling to continue their halting progress, all slowly snaking their way to the coast, creating enormous dust clouds in their wake. Families huddled in makeshift tents, waiting their turn to board precarious vessels. Once crowded on board, doing their best not to move, lest the overloaded vessel fill with water. Uncertain of their reception should they survive the crossing, some find a warm welcome, but most settle into tent cities they hope will be only temporary, doing their best to maintain their spirits in the face of unhygienic conditions, lack of food, and psycho-social stress.

Unfortunately, such accounts conjure up graphic images in our minds all too easily these days, in the midst of the ongoing global refugee crisis. But these are not descriptions of modern Syrians, risking their lives in crossing the Aegean, facing an uncertain future should they succeed in reaching European soil. Rather, they are Robert Garland’s vivid depictions of Athenians abandoning their city in 481 BCE, “forsaking their homes, their shrines, and their dead” (pp. 47ff.), in the face of Xerxes’s advancing Persian army. Garland’s new volume on the Persian invasion of Greece is unique among the many books on the Greco-Persian Wars in its focus on civilians––particularly Athenians––their collective decision-making, and their fate as refugees and survivors. Garland treats the period from June 480 to August 479 BCE, basing his narrative on those collective decisions and their consequences. Throughout the work, Garland explores questions of logistics, emotions, perspectives, and intentions of the sort that, lacking “hard data,” ancient historians have usually avoided (p. 3).

Like the previous volumes in the series Witness to Ancient History, Athens Burning is a slim volume primarily aimed at the general reader but meant to be of interest to scholars and students as well. A brief prologue setting out the focal points of Garland’s approach to the topic is followed by five chronologically arranged chapters based not on battles but on evacuations and “burnings.” A short epilogue brings the narrative to the 20th century. “A Note on Sources” should be useful for students and general readers, serving to elucidate the necessary reliance on Herodotus throughout the narrative. This is followed by notes, “Suggested Further Reading,” and an index. A helpful timeline near the beginning of the volume covers the aftermath of the Battle of Marathon (Winter 490) until the Battle of Plataea (August 479). The eight figures and six maps throughout the volume are adequate but would be more valuable if they were numbered and referred to in the text.

In Chapter I, “The Origins,” Garland presents concise overviews of the Persian Empire and the state of affairs among the Greek poleis at the turn of the 5th century, then briefly traces the early episodes of the Greco- Persian conflict, including the Ionian Revolt and the Battle of Marathon. He devotes the second half of the chapter to Xerxes’s preparations to invade Greece, with emphasis on his mindset and motivations, and the Athenians’ preparations to meet the looming invasion, especially their decision to build a fleet at the urging of Themistocles.

Chapter II, “The Evacuation,” begins with an engaging narrative of the Athenians considering their options for the defense of their city, consulting the oracle at Delphi, and debating the correct interpretation of the oracle in the Assembly. The result of that debate, in Garland’s view, was the decision to fight the Persians at sea and a concomitant binding decision to abandon Attica. The provisions for the evacuation were laid out a few weeks or months later in the Themistocles Decree, of which Garland finds “a historical kernel” in the famous inscription found at Troezen (p. 43). Garland’s vision of this agonizing but orderly “first evacuation” in Winter 481 or Spring 480, while admittedly speculative, is drawn in vivid imagery, down to visceral details like human waste extending along the shoreline and floating in the sea (p. 49). The question of the destinations of the evacuees, whether Troezen, Salamis, or Aegina, is dealt with rather confusingly (e.g., “Troezen was probably the most favored location for the refugees” (p. 44) vs. Salamis “probably received the largest number of evacuees” (p. 51)). After briefly narrating the battles of Thermopylae and Artemesium and Xerxes’s advance southward, Garland turns to the “second evacuation,” that is, the evacuation attested by Herodotus, Diodorus, and Plutarch. Garland finds it “inconceivable” that the whole population could have been evacuated quickly in the manner described in the sources, and thus concludes that this was only a second, emergency evacuation (p. 58).

Chapter III, “The First Burning,” describes Xerxes’s destructive march toward Attica in September 480, his siege and sack of the Athenian Acropolis, probable destruction of the Agora, and his “dramatic change of heart” (p. 72) after which, according to Herodotus, he ordered the Athenian exiles to perform sacrifices on the Acropolis. A long section called “The Dēmos Afloat” covers the strategy discussions of the Greeks and the naval battle at Salamis. Garland explores Xerxes’s psychological reaction to the battle and his choice to withdraw from Greece, submitting that politics won out over strategy in the decision to leave Mardonius behind.

Chapter IV, “The Second Burning,” begins with “the first homecoming” in October 480, when Garland believes many of the refugees, on Salamis at least, would have come home and begun rebuilding. The traumatic homecoming, like the evacuation, is presented with great empathy as Athenians “pick among the ruins” and “encountered decomposing bodies in their homes.” (p. 89) The Athenians reject Mardonius’s offer of alliance, delivered by Alexander I of Macedon, and finding no help arriving from the Peloponnese, are finally forced to abandon their city again as Mardonius’s army crosses into Attica in mid-summer 479. By now, he claims, they could indeed pull off a last-minute departure, having “got evacuation down to a fine art” (p. 95). Mardonius duly finds Athens empty, sacks whatever the previous plunderers had left standing, withdraws to Boeotia, and dies at Plataea, thereby changing the course of the battle and the war. One might wish for a slightly more robust account of the aftermath of Plataea and the action of the Greek fleet—previously a major player in the narrative––at Mycale, but the focus returns again to the Athenian refugees making their way home and beginning the work of cleaning up and rebuilding. The unity and urgency they felt is encapsulated by the construction of the “Themistoclean” city wall––a major collective undertaking indeed, though not accomplished exclusively, as G. makes it seem, through the appropriation of elite funerary monuments.

A final chapter on “The Postwar Period” begins with an account of lessons not learned on both sides, which includes an exploration of what the “Persian version” of the Greco-Persian Wars may have been, and the Greek cities’ lamentably quick return to making war on each other. The Greeks thanked the gods by initiating new cults and festivals, but showed no great gratitude toward their successful leaders Themistocles or Pausanias. At Athens, the Agora was rebuilt, and so too, eventually (Oath of Plataea or not), was the Acropolis. Garland ends the chapter with brief discussions of the historiography of the Greco-Persian Wars (focused on Aeschylus’s Persians), the question of Athenian reception of Persian material culture, and the development of the Greek stereotype of the Eastern barbarian.

In a brief epilogue, Garland confesses to being “profoundly moved by the extraordinary courage and self-sacrifice of the Athenians,” without which we would not have the myriad achievements “that have illuminated Western civilization” (p. 125). Salamis did not “save” the West, only because the West was still in danger. Despite repeatedly emphasizing the positive aspects of the “remarkably inclusive” Persian empire throughout the book, then, Garland does hew to the view of the Greco-Persian Wars as the first pivotal moment in a continuing clash of civilizations, a view that many classicists and ancient historians find increasingly problematic.

Overall, Garland’s take on the latter years of the Greco-Persian Wars is a welcome departure from the many accounts and investigations focused around battles. His emphasis on people rather than events, on the experiences and attitudes of individuals and communities, and on the impassioned debates that must have taken place but rarely leave traces in our sources, provide rich food for thought for both the specialist and general reader. The writing style is clear and engaging, if prone to hyperbole (e.g., “without precedent in human history” (p. 11), “virtually unparalleled in the history of human conflict” (p. 24), “rarely in the history of human conflict” (p. 81)). The headings within each chapter are helpful, though they sometimes seem deliberately designed to further downplay battles within the narrative. The Battle of Salamis, for instance, is covered in the section headed “The Dēmos Afloat,” and the Battle of Plataea in “The Persians Withdraw from Greece.”

As with many books aimed largely at a general audience, the specialist reader will find plenty to quibble with in the choice of which questions merit lengthier discussion, or points where the general reader deserves franker admission of scholarly uncertainty or debate. The most striking here is perhaps the question of multiple stages of the evacuation of Athens, which deserves more candid treatment than it receives in Chapter II. When coming to the “second evacuation” (the only one attested in sources), the reader suddenly has the sense that Garland may have invented the whole “first evacuation,” presented with such empathic richness earlier in the chapter. He admits in a footnote to a later discussion (n. 56, p. 143) that the idea of two evacuations is a “theory” but this merits more explicit argumentation since the evacuation(s) are such a focal point of his approach. That the section on Mardonius’s advance in Chapter IV is titled “The Second Evacuation,” adds to the confusion. More generally, in Garland’s treatment of individual episodes in, for example, Herodotus and Plutarch, the reader will find it hard to understand the distinction between those anecdotes of which Garland is skeptical and those he takes at face value.

A more substantial problem is Garland’s treatment of secondary scholarship. Particularly on questions of topography and archaeology, Garland’s claims are often outdated, unsupported, or occasionally simply incorrect. Most of his discussions of the buildings on the Acropolis and the damage they suffered in the Persian sack, for example, lack any references, and where he does acknowledge any degree of uncertainty he cites only older summary treatments. To give just two examples: on the vexing question of the “Hekatompedon,” Garland cites only R. A. Tomlinson’s Greek Sanctuaries (New York: St. Martin’s, 1976), which itself lacks adequate citation. He relies heavily on Tomlinson elsewhere as well, including most egregiously on an unreferenced inscription that must be the much-discussed IG I3 35 on the appointment of a priestess for Athena Nike, which Garland takes as the first evidence of rebuilding on the Acropolis, “dated by its letter forms around 450” (p. 118). Of course one does not expect an exegesis of the three-bar sigma controversy in book like this, yet repeated instances of such less-than-current interaction with scholarship may make one hesitant to assign this book to students. A few topics, like the Perserschutt deposits, do receive more comprehensive notes, so the issue does not seem to be one of space constraints.

If one can get over such qualms (and perhaps one should), the book’s reasonable price and modern relevance make it attractive for classroom use. The production quality is high, with only a few mostly minor typographical errors noted. Scholarly quibbles aside, the attempt to humanize ancient warfare is a worthy endeavor and Garland is to be commended for managing this effort well, painting a vivid and universalizing picture of the human causes and consequences of war with which we can, sadly, too easily relate.

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