BMCR 2005.10.31

The Greek Wars. The Failure of Persia

, The Greek wars : the failure of Persia. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. viii, 316 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 0198148712 £65.00.

Across the Eastern Mediterranean attitudes towards the Persians could not be more different. While one searches the Hebrew Bible in vain for any derogatory remark about the last of the Ancient Near Eastern empires, the Greeks had a different opinion, and much of the post-classical image of Persia and the Persians is derived from the negative evaluation of the last of the Ancient Near Eastern Empires by the Greek sources. In recent years this negative evaluation of the Persians and the strict separation of Greek and Persian affairs have been subject to some serious re-evaluation. Cawkwell’s study has to be seen as part of this trend, and it offers an important contribution to a more differentiated understanding of Greek-Persian relations on and beyond the battlefields.

Cawkwell structures his book in ten clearly written chapters. And, despite his claiming that his work “seeks to discuss, not to narrate”, a coherent narrative of the events and problems emerges by a close reading of the relevant sources. There are no long (and distracting) Greek quotations, which makes the book accessible to the non-specialist, even though he or she would need a great deal of background information to be able to follow Cawkwell’s argument (unfortunately he refrains from offering translations for Greek phrases in the footnotes).

Despite the lack of other material, Cawkwell displays a certain sceptical view of the Greek literary sources (esp. Herodotus) — even if such scepticism leads to conjecture. This scepticism is a very welcome methodological step, which, nevertheless, could have been taken further. There are hints at the reasons (i.e. ideology) behind the Greek literary attitude, but a larger debate about the motives etc. is omitted in favour of the military events.1 However, Cawkwell succeeds in making a very strong case that the Persian failure was not due to the might of the Greeks but entirely intra-Persian course of things is to be blamed. Thus the book is rightly entitled “The Greek Wars” because it was the Greeks who structured their ethnic identity around the conflict with Persia.

After an introduction that offers a survey and critical evaluation of the literary sources available for a study of the Greek-Persian encounter in the 5th century but neglects theoretical aspects of ancient warfare, Cawkwell structures his book according to the chronology of events. Chapter 2 is devoted to the subjection of the Greeks in Asia. It becomes apparent that Persian rule was feared by the Greeks from the beginning even though actual conditions did not differ that much from Lydian rule, with which the Greeks had lived comfortably enough. Chapter 3 looks at the establishment of Persian rule in Europe, making the case that mainland Greece must have been very aware of the threat posed by the Persians not only from the East but also from the North (Thrace). Thus, “the seemingly feeble response of the Greeks to the opportunity of the Ionian Revolt is indeed remarkable” (p. 53). Chapter 4 addresses the Ionian Revolt and the problems in the account of the events in Herodotus. Cawkwell offers a substantial rejection of Herodotus’ version of the revolt as being a hopeless enterprise from the beginning. Instead he argues that Herodotus, whose mother city Halicarnassos did not take part in the revolt, offered the view of mainland Greece or more specifically the trends of the Athenian isolationists. As the reason for the revolt Cawkwell assumes that the Greeks did not reject any particular aspect of Persian rule (e.g., economic constraints) but rather resented Persian rule tout simple. Thus the revolt is seen as an attempt of the Ionians to recover their freedom — such a view is of course a problematic one and I will have to return to it below.

Chapter 5 deals with the conquest of mainland Greece. Cawkwell stresses that it will be futile to search for detailed reasons why Persia invaded Greece and simply settles for the easiest explanation: the Persian empire wanted to expand westwards. This means that the military campaigns of 490 and 480 BCE have to be seen as serving the same aim — to incorporate mainland Greece within the Empire. Herodotus’ view of 490 as a punishment of Athens and Eretria for the raid on Sardis has to be abandoned. In the course of the discussion of the events of the military campaign of Xerxes, it becomes apparent that the failure of the expedition was entirely due to intra-Persian problem rather than to the bravery of the Greeks. First of all there is Salamis, a needless battle in Cawkwell’s eyes, fought only because Xerxes thought it appealing to destroy the entire Greek navy. A tactical error, because by entering the strait of Salamis the Persian (or better to say Phoenician) fleet disabled itself by giving up its advantage of “sailing through” enemy lines. Cawkwell rightly stresses the different perception of the navy in Persian and Greek consciousness. It becomes quite clear that, despite the superior Phoenician naval power, the Persian military command regarded its fleet first and foremost as supporting the army on land: “Persian ideas of naval strategy remained always those of a land power that regarded ships as the mobile wing of land forces rather than as a means of dominating the seas” (p. 257). This also means that the battle of Salamis, despite its impact on the Greek view of things, in the Persian view was simply a set-back. Persia did not need to fight the battle at Salamis but did so and lost. As a result, the Persian military command sent the fleet home. Also Platea, the battle that demonstrated the superiority of the Greek hoplite, was a needless battle.

Chapter 6 focuses on the war in the East Aegean. Again the Greeks take advantage of Persian inactivity: attacks on the Mediterranean seaboard were only possible because more pressing problems (such as revolts in Bactria and Egypt) than several Greek cities kept the Persian king from resuming his offensive against Greece. So the military campaigns of the Greeks were finally crowned with success in Asia Minor and led to the peace of Callias. Chapter 7 treats the period of peace between Greece and Persia (449-412 BCE, making clear that even in the absence of direct military encounter, Persia remained well informed about Greek affairs. Chapter 8 treats the recovery of Asia by the Greeks. Again Cawkwell is able to disentangle the complex web of inner-Greek and Persian affairs and he argues that the support of the usurper Cyrus by the Greeks led Artaxerxes to undertake every possible effort to incorporate the Ionian cities again into his territory. Chapters 9 and 10 address the final stages of the Achaemenid empire and the ascent of the Macedonian dynasty to power.

The study is completed by nine appendices: 1. Persian and Greek Naval Warfare: The diekplous; 2. Histiaeus; 3. Persian armies; 4. The Persian Navy; 5. Thermopylae and the ‘way into Greece’; 6. The Themistocles Decree; 7. The Peace of Callias; 8. The Alleged Treaty of Boiotios; 9. 366 BC. These appendices are very useful, because they provide much needed background information as well as discussions that otherwise would interrupt the flow of the narrative. Unfortunately there is nothing on the phrase to demand “earth and water” — a phrase otherwise unknown from contemporary sources and probably a Greek way of describing the Persian practice of the obligations of hospitality.

Cawkwell builds an impressive case for his thesis that the Persian failure was really their own fault and in that respect the book will be a very welcome addition to the debate about the conflict of Greece and Persia, but it falls short of explaining sufficiently the relationship of Greece with her eastern neighbour.

From a book that claims to get rid of “a Hellenocentric view of the Persian world” the reader learns surprisingly little about Persian imperial ideology and politics. This is especially disappointing since Cawkwell explicitly mentions his indebtedness to scholars such as A. Kuhrt, P. Briant and H. Sancisi-Weerdenburg.2 Very often the reader is informed in detail about Persian military movements but otherwise gets the impression that the Great King is not really any different from a Roman emperor. Furthermore, recent years have seen the publication of several studies on the influence of and the exchange with the Persian world that seem to suggest that the “official” picture of the antagonism between Greeks and Persians needs to be revised.3 In a way, Cawkwell wants to do precisely that and succeeds in many ways, but he limits himself to the political sphere of Persian influence on Greek affairs. Thus one gets the impression that exchange happened only on a diplomatic level, and the reader is left to him/herself to fill in the social component of the moves and actions of less prominent figures. The different and difficult ethnic composition of the Persian empire, of which Cawkwell is of course aware, needs more explanation, especially if one wants to counter the Greek claim that the Persian army was a vast rabble of all sorts of “Orientals”.

Also, Cawkwell likes to refer to the Hebrew Bible to support his view of the might and impact of Cyrus on the Eastern Mediterranean. Several times we read a quote from Deutero-Isaiah: “Even the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as dust on the scales; see, he takes up the isles like fine dust” (Isa. 40:15 [NRSV]). Tempting as it is — especially in the context of Deutero-Isaiah — to have these lines refer to the Persian king, in their context they are used in a statement about the power of Israel’s God.4 True, the Persian king is named twice in Isaiah 40-55 (Is 44:28 and Is 45:1) and most likely alluded to in several other passages, but one has to be careful not to read too much Cyrus into Deutero-Isaiah’s prophecy.5 Also the advent of the Persians is seen as a sign of hope and (divine) promise in the Bible, while nothing could be further from the truth for the Greek world.

Furthermore, Cawkwell seems to labour under the impression that, before the Persians, the Ionian cities were free (cf. pp. 74-5) — this is surprising because Asia Minor had previously been a firm part of both, Assyrian and Babylonian empire,6 and it is highly doubtful whether the Greek cities in Asia Minor could actually remember a time without foreign domination. Also one misses a more detailed discussion of why Lydian supremacy was acceptable to the Greeks but Persian rule was not. Cawkwell seems aware of the problem but quickly moves to the Persian side of things.

All these minor quibbles should not distract from the positive assessment of the work. One has to thank Cawkwell for offering a revised picture of a well known subject, even if such revision comes wearing old-fashioned dress by happily ignoring more theoretical approaches to military history.7


1. On the problem of representation see J.M. Hall, Hellenicity. Between Ethnicity and Culture. Chicago: Chicago University Press 2002. Pp. 176-178 and the classic study by E.M. Hall, Inventing the Barbarian. Greek Self-Definition Through Tragedy. Oxford: Clarendon Press 1989 (esp. pp. 56-98 ‘Inventing Persia’).

2. P. Briant’s massive volume is now available in an (updated) English translation by Peter T. Daniels: P. Briant, From Cyrus to Alexander. A History of the Persian Empire. Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2002. See esp. pp. 165-354 on the role, status, and ideology of the Persian Great King.

3. Especially M.C. Miller, Athens and Persia in the fifth century BC. A study in cultural receptivity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

4. Cf. J. Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 40-55. Anchor Bible 19A. New York: Doubleday, 2002. pp. 187-193.

5. See R.G. Kratz, Kyros im Deuterojesaja-Buch. Redationsgeschichtliche Untersuchungen zu Entstehung und Theologie von Jes 40-55. Forschungen zum Alten Testament 1. Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1991.

6. On this problem see S. Dalley, The Legacy of Mesopotamia. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. Pp. 85-106 and G. Lanfranchi, The Ideological and Political Impact of the Assyrian Imperial Expansion on the Greek World in the 8th and 7th Centuries BC, in: A. Sanna and R.M. Whiting (eds.), Melammu Symposia I. Helsinki: Helsinki University Press, 2000. Pp. 7-34.

7. On the theoretical issues see H. van Wees, Greek Warfare: Myths and Realities. London: Duckworth 2000.