BMCR 2021.03.06

States of memory: the polis, panhellenism, and the Persian War

, States of memory: the polis, panhellenism, and the Persian War. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. Pp. 361. ISBN 9780190673543 $85.00.


David C. Yates’ States of Memory explores the various ways that the Persian War was remembered in antiquity, focusing on mainland Greece, but with some discussion of Sicily and South Italy. Temporally, his framework is the Classical period up to the death of Alexander, but Yates includes a brief discussion of implications for the Hellenistic period.

Yates relies on both archaeological evidence and ancient literature. Ancient texts are given in translation, and text in the original language is presented sparingly and only to prove the author’s point. The book has only three images, all appearing before the actual text: a map of Greece and the Aegean, a plan of Delphi, and a map of the Greco-Persian world. There are no other images, even when Yates refers to monuments or other physical evidence. It would have been nice to be able to see some of these, such as the coins minted by Alexander (pp. 215-217).

In the introduction, Yates clearly sets out his thesis in three arguments: “(1) that the Greeks recalled the Persian War as members of their respective poleis, not collectively as Greeks, (2) that the resulting differences were extensive and fiercely contested, and (3) that a mutually accepted recollection of the war did not emerge until Philip of Macedonia and Alexander the Great shattered the conceptual domination of the polis at the battle of Chaeronea” (p. 3, rephrased occasionally such as on p. 27). He introduces the theoretical background that supports his project, discusses the types of evidence available (limited to extant monuments, literary texts that recall the war, and commemorations that are mentioned in texts), and outlines the form of the book. Instead of detailing his use of memory theory upfront, Yates introduces a set of concepts (collective memory, the influence of power on memory, memorial communities, narrative, and tradition), opting to focus on particular applications of theory at relevant points in the body of the book. This allows the reader to assess the theory in the context of the argument, without needing to review the introductory chapter.

The seven main chapters are organized into three sections. In the first two chapters, Yates develops his first argument: that the Persian War was commemorated from the point of view of individual city-states. He concedes that this assertion is neither new nor controversial (p. 4 n.7),[1] but argues that for various reasons it has been inadequately explored. Yates frames his interpretation as a response to a scholarly consensus that there was a memory of the war that transcended the polis, as represented by Michael Jung’s book on Marathon and Plataea.[2] Yates argues that the evidence does not support that a panhellenic recollection of the Persian War emerged in the Classical period, and that even when panhellenism is recognizable, it is only through the lens of individual poleis.

In Chapter 1, Yates discusses the Serpent Column, a well-known monument that once stood in the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi. According to ancient sources, the original inscription on the column promoted the role of the Spartan general Pausanias as the leader of the Greek army (Ἑλλήνων ἀρχηγός) against the Persians. This inscription was challenged and erased, ultimately replaced by a restrictive list of city-states that were given the same credit (Thuc. 1.132-3). Yates interprets this episode as a suppression of nascent transcendent panhellenism, as the contents of the re-inscription center on the actions of individual states rather than the actions of the Greeks as a whole.

Yates expands this argument in Chapter 2 by questioning whether other monuments and commemorations should be considered “panhellenic”. Here he discusses both texts and monuments—statues of Apollo at Delphi and Zeus at Olympia, the Plataea Elegy, a suite of rituals at Plataea, and the testimonies of Herodotus’ Histories and Isocrates’ Panegyricus. For most of these, Yates shows how the commemorations represent the viewpoints of individual states rather than transcendent panhellenism. The lone exception is the statue of Apollo, which Yates accepts as expressing “contemporary visions of panhellenism” in the years after the war. He uses this to support his larger point, however, since the statue was dedicated relatively early in the Classical period and because there are no other similar examples.

The next three chapters focus on the differences between the various commemorations of the Persian War. In Chapters 3 and 4, Yates seeks to prove that there were different memories of the war throughout Greece, and in Chapter 5 he looks at potential reasons for the differences. The analysis of sanctuary spaces in Chapter 3 draws heavily on the work of Michael Scott on the sanctuaries of Delphi and Olympia.[3] The approach to commemorative space is largely the same, except that Yates zooms in on two areas within Delphi, namely the temple terrace and the entrance to the sanctuary. He ignores the rest of the sanctuary space, and while effective in proving his argument, the limited scope misses interesting interplays between the monuments he covers and other dedications, such as the Theban/Boeotian treasury at the southwest entrance.[4] Moreover, Yates assumes that the sanctuary at Delphi was a well-conceived space accessed by a Sacred Way that was unchanging throughout history, although the path and site as we know it today are largely the result of later reorganizations of the space. Nevertheless, Yates is convincing when he claims that the monuments at Delphi did not “establish a panhellenic story of the Persian War against which local traditions could be judged” (p. 132).

Yates broadens the perspective in Chapters 4 and 5, in order to ascertain whether the pattern of commemoration at Delphi held true for larger perceptions of the Persian War. Chapter 4 is about the framing of the war in ancient sources, in terms of both space and time. Yates uses examples from Herodotus, Thucydides, Plato, and Diodorus Siculus to show that various polis representatives could claim different start and end dates of the war, as well as different foci of fighting, based on their own perceptions and experience of the fighting, or diplomatic necessity.

In Chapter 5, Yates explores why the Persian War was commemorated differently in different places. To do so, he sets the memory of the war in Athens as a baseline against which he compares the case studies of Plataea, Corinth, and Megara. Yates approaches these three cases in terms of contemporary interests, real experience, and preexisting social memory, respectively. Rightly, he concludes that although there are similarities in the various versions, local traditions and perspectives are always present.

Chapters 6 and 7 comprise the last section of the book, covering the memory of the Persian War after Chaeronea. In Chapter 6, Yates examines the short-term perspective after 338 BCE by arguing that Philip enacted strategies of commemorating the Persian War in ways that evoked certain aspects of the past, while avoiding the problematic wartime role of fifth-century Macedonia. According to Yates, Philip created a new Hellenic League that was meant to evoke the alliance against Xerxes’ invasion, while also insisting on a periodization of the war that implied that the struggle against Persia was ongoing. In turn, Alexander followed the same program, issuing coins with relevant iconography, symbolically dedicating booty at charged locations, and supporting a newly re-founded Plataea as a panhellenic “Persian-War theme park” (p. 228). Unfortunately for the Macedonians, these efforts did not succeed, as they were immediately challenged by Thebes, Sparta, and Athens, and the program was apparently abandoned in the policies of Antipater and Cassander.

In Chapter 7, Yates argues that the Macedonian version of the war took root in the Hellenistic period. Yates does not try to be exhaustive in this brief chapter, and instead gives nine examples of how the Persian War memory was used by successor kings, newly ascendant powers that had not been involved in the actual fighting in the fifth century (Aetolian League, Achaean League, and Rhodes), and cities that had fought but were no longer major powers. Yates stops short of discussing the changes brought by the Romans, which would likely fill another book on their own.[5]

This last section is interesting, and the interpretation is compelling, but ultimately it is not as convincing as the rest of the book. After carefully presenting evidence for the nuanced commemoration in the decades after the Persian War, Yates abandons the approach with the introduction of the Macedonians. With limited explanation, Yates uses the works of later writers Diodorus, Arrian, Curtius, and Justin not as sources of their respective periods with their own agendas, but as if they could accurately recreate the conditions of the last third of the fourth century BCE. Yates concludes the section by claiming that the transcendent panhellenism that scholars like Jung saw in the early Classical period had been achieved in the Hellenistic period (p. 264), but I wonder if closer scrutiny would reveal the same kinds of variation that Yates had found in the earlier period.

In the end, Yates successfully supports the first two arguments of his thesis with relevant evidence and insightful analysis. In contrast with earlier studies that assumed commemoration was somewhat unchanging and universal, Yates emphasizes the dynamic nature of memory, further supported by an extensive bibliography on memory theory. His final claim that a mutually accepted version of the Persian War based on transcendent panhellenism emerged after Chaeronea is provocative and interesting, but is not convincingly presented.

There are many books on ancient warfare in general, and the Persian War in particular.[6] These tend to be focused on so-called facts of the engagements, such as the composition of the various forces, the tactics that led to the outcome, or the historical contexts that made the conflict unavoidable. This is not one of these books. Instead, States of Memory is for those interested in the commemoration of the Persian War in the Classical period, and is aimed at an audience familiar with the major monuments and commemorations of the war,[7] as well as scholarship on ancient memory.[8] It is not an introduction to the subject or an exhaustive collection of evidence, but rather a worthy and challenging additional perspective that enriches the discussion, for which I recommend it.


[1] Citing Starr, C.G. 1962. “Why Did the Greeks Defeat the Persians?” Parola del Passato, 17: 321-332.

[2] Jung, M. 2006. Marathon und Plataiai: Zwei Perserschlachten als “lieux de mémoire” im antiken Griechenland. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. Although Yates frequently compares his own interpretations with Jung’s, he is careful to consider the argument judiciously and avoids constructing a straw-man argument.

[3] Scott, M. 2010. Delphi and Olympia: The Spatial Politics of Panhellenism in the Archaic and Classical Periods. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[4] Scott, M. 2016. “The Performance of Boiotian Identity at Delphi,” in S. Gartland (ed.) Boiotia in the Fourth Century B.C., pp. 99-120.

[5] E.g., Alcock, S. 2002. Archaeologies of the Greek Past: Landscape, Monuments, and Memories. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[6] E.g., Butera, C.J. and M. A. Sears (eds.). 2019. Battles and Battlefields of Ancient Greece. A Guide to their History, Topography and Archaeology. London: Pen & Sword.

[7] Such as those collected in West, W.C., III. 1967. Greek Public Monuments of the Persian Wars. PhD diss. University of North Carolina.

[8] E.g., Steinbock, B. 2013. Social Memory in Athenian Public Discourse: Uses and Meanings of the Past. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.