BMCR 2021.09.04

The Persian war in Herodotus and other ancient voices

, The Persian war in Herodotus and other ancient voices. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2019. Pp. 504; 32 p. of plates. ISBN 9781472808639 $30.00.


I begin with an explanation of what this book is and is not. It is not a book written for scholars, insofar as it has no citations of modern works, but it was written with deep knowledge of the subject (Shepherd was trained in Classics before embarking on a career in publishing, and he is clearly knowledgeable about contemporary Herodotean scholarship). It will serve best as a companion or selective commentary for those who are reading the text of Herodotus or studying the conflicts of Greece and Persia. Despite its length (almost 500 pages), it would be a worthwhile addition to any historical course to which Herodotus is central, as well as providing the historical framework for a course in which the main task is reading Herodotus in Greek or English. Shepherd quotes extensively (using his own translations) from Herodotus to carry the story along, with the insertion of occasional other voices from antiquity such as Thucydides, Plutarch and Diodorus. By “selective commentary” I mean that between quoted passages he comments on particular issues. Unlike a full-scale commentary, such as the classic How and Wells, or the many excellent commentaries on particular books, which grapple with issues in almost every line of the text and give references to sources ancient and modern, Shepherd discusses the issues which he finds to be most important. In general, his analyses are clear and persuasive, but he doesn’t always allow for or discuss other possibilities.

The book is divided into twelve chapters covering the major players, phases and events of the encounters of the Greek city-states with the Achaemenid Persian Empire in the later sixth and early fifth centuries BCE: an Introduction (dealing with fundamental concepts, such as hoplite warfare, Greek and Persian arms and armor, and trireme warfare), Persia, Athens, the Ionian Revolt, Marathon, the preparations of both sides leading up to Xerxes’ invasion of the Greek mainland in 480, Artemisium and Thermopylae, the sack of Athens, Salamis, Mardonius and the winter of 480/479, Plataea, and Mycale and the aftermath of the invasion. There are a number of useful ancillaries: several maps of regions and battlefields, as well as a list of place-names keyed to the main map; 63 illustrations; a bibliography and suggestions for further reading; and an index.

One of the real strengths of the book is Shepherd’s reconstruction of the battles. He notes that Xerxes’ invasion of Greece in 480 “is the earliest war about which enough is known to attract the serious attention of military historians” (17). As he points out, there is no evidence that Herodotus had personal experience of warfare, and some of the battle accounts are short and inadequate, others hard to relate to the existing topography. Shepherd works hard at estimating the real size of the forces engaged (Herodotus’s numbers are often logistically impossible), the topography of the battlefields, and the likely dynamics of the encounters themselves. His attention to the role of light-armed troops (often unmentioned in the sources) is consistent with the current view of Greek warfare championed by van Wees.[1] His account of the battle of Plataea, which ended the Persian invasion, is particularly vivid, wrestling with the many problems in our accounts, and providing strong images of the dynamics of battle that called to mind my first encounter with the nitty-gritty of ancient warfare in Victor Hanson’s The Western Way of War. Shepherd highlights the historical significance of this battle: “In the region of 200,000 men fought in this battle for the future of western civilization, about the same number as at Waterloo . . . and rather more than fought at Gettysburg or were shipped over the Channel on D-Day” (408).

Shepherd supplements the lengthy quotations from Herodotus with occasional passages from other ancient authors, which, as he says, “add value to Herodotus’ narrative in various ways: some offer fresh analysis and credible extra detail; some contradict him interestingly; some provide background illumination…; and some add drama and colour, probably imagined in most cases, but seen through the lens of the writer’s own experience, knowledge and beliefs” (18). This statement is clear and accurate enough, but one suspects that there is a tendency in readers’ minds to treat the passages supplementing Herodotus’ account as simply additional information. Ancient historians have to wrestle with the paradoxical and problematic fact that often the further in time you get from an event, the more information there is, the obvious implication being that some of it has been invented. Given the audience for this book, it would have been helpful to hear more about Diodorus Siculus than just “a later 1st-century BC source” (103) or Plutarch as one “who wrote about six centuries after the battle” (144). Shepherd gives a solid account of Herodotus’ methods, aims and sources in the Introduction (21-25), so presenting the reader with the tools of historiography is clearly a concern. Shouldn’t the reader also know about Diodorus’ habit of uncritically paraphrasing lengthy stretches of a single source, or Plutarch’s tendency to try to reconcile the many sources he uses and often cites?

One can take issue with some particulars, too. Shepherd may overstate Herodotus’ partiality for Athens and its democracy, and he may see a more rapid evolution of democracy there after Cleisthenes’ reforms of 508 than is generally believed: “In Herodotus’ view, democracy was superior to all other systems for the way in which it generated and channeled the energies of individual citizens to the greatest benefit of the city-state.” (75) While our understanding of internal Athenian politics between the reforms of 508 and Ephialtes’ “constitutional coup” of ca. 461 is fragmented, Aristotle’s Constitution of Athens suggests a more incremental process, and the dominant role of the oligarchically-inclined Cimon in the 470’s and 460’s points the same way. And long ago Strasburger[2] cautioned us not to assume that Herodotus favors Athens and its democracy. Herodotus wittily remarks on the gullibility of the Athenian Assembly (in contrast to the Spartan king Cleomenes) that was persuaded by Aristagoras of Miletus to lend support to the Ionian Revolt, and he concludes that the ships sent by the Athenians “were the origin of the great troubles that were to affect Hellenes and Barbarians alike” (5.97). And he was acutely aware of the growing hostility to the Athenian Empire during the decades (450s to 430s) in which he was gathering materials and composing his text. Indeed, one of his major challenges is to deal with the testimony of contemporary witnesses biased by the conflicts of their own time.

While Shepherd concedes that the speeches reported by Herodotus are invented, he probably overstates the validity of some of Herodotus’ sources. “The words are almost exclusively Herodotus’ own creation since there were no transcripts available to him, and he would have needed translations in any case. But in his research and on his travels he would have talked to Persians and to Hellenes who had direct or indirect contact with the Persian court and with participants in the deliberations that took place at that time” (154). For example, he refers to the disjointed account at the beginning of Book 7 of how Xerxes came to the decision to invade the Greek mainland as a “dramatized reconstruction.” This is a confusing sequence of events, with Xerxes changing his mind at least three times. It is virtually inconceivable that Herodotus had an accurate account of the conversations between Xerxes and his uncle Artabanus in the royal bedchamber. And even for the more public discussions of Xerxes with his courtiers, these events took place thirty to fifty years before Herodotus gathered his information. If Herodotus talked to descendants of Persian officials or Greeks in Persian service, such family traditions tended to “spin” events in ways that aggrandized the ancestor’s role. My sense is that this sequence of events is dramatically repetitive and confusing because Herodotus was trying to join together multiple versions given to him.

In the end, Shepherd has constructed a vivid and plausible account of “The Persian War” (clearly he regards the series of Greek-Persian encounters between 546 and 479 as a single, drawn-out conflict), and to read this book is to experience (or reexperience) a most dramatic and consequential historical episode. One can find no better and illuminating companionsfor the journey than Herodotus and William Shepherd.


[1] Hans van Wees, Greek Warfare: Myths and Realities (2004).

[2] Hermann Strasburger, “Herodot und das perikleische Athen,” Historia 4 (1955).