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Tue, 4 Sep 2007 17:35:02 -0500
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The Greek Wars: The Failure of Persia. By GEORGE CAWKWELL. Oxford and New 
York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Pp. iv + 316. Paper, $45.00. ISBN 

Order this text for $41.85 from Amazon.com using this link and benefit 
CAMWS and the Classical Journal: 


Print Version (forthcoming): CJ 103.1: 99-101

George Cawkwell’s treatment of the Greco-Persian conflict from the Persian 
point of view is revisionist history at its very best. It is true that such 
an approach is no longer novel, thanks, in large part, to the work of 
Pierre Briant, Heleen Sancisi-Weerdenberg and Amélie Kuhrt (whom the author 
generously acknowledges). But C. nevertheless provides the most insightful 
and comprehensive analysis to date of Greek and Persian interaction from 
Cyrus to Alexander.

C. begins by offering a comprehensive condemnation of the Greek writers on 
Persia, virtually all of whom, he argues, made little attempt to understand 
Persian society and the political and social relationships fundamental to 
the kingdom. Greek writers, historians and others, lacked the will or 
imagination to understand situations from the Persian point of view. Even 
when they might have known better, Greeks continued to traffic in 
half-truths, misleading stereotypes and “panhellenist claptrap” (one of 
C.’s particular objects of scorn). The result is that the Greek historians 
are systematically unreliable on Persia, and any sober analysis of the 
historical relationship between Greeks and Persians needs to go far beyond 
their viewpoint. That is what C. does, bringing his customary independence 
of judgment and droll wit to bear on the centuries-long conflict between 
the two peoples.

The treatment of the Ionian Revolt and the wars of 490–479 serve as 
excellent cases in point. On the first, C. dismisses nearly in its entirety 
Herodotus’ account, laden, as it is, with misunderstandings of the ways of 
the Persian empire (C. notes, e.g., that vassals of the King could not act 
independently), an exclusive focus on the personal motivations of the 
actors and a clear hostility to the Revolt’s aims. C. revives De Sanctis’ 
view of Aristagoras as a hero of Greek liberty, and shows that his strategy 
(which was limited and not the full-scale assault on the Persian empire 
that Herodotus suggests) was realistic and that, had the Ionian Greeks 
received better support from their compatriots, independence from Persia 
was not a dream: the Athenians later showed how naval power could keep 
Persia from the islands and coastal lands. It is disappointing, however, 
that C., who is so good at looking at the larger context, dismisses any 
consideration of political or economic motives for the Revolt, and his 
argument that it was motivated by a Greek passion for liberty seems more 
appropriate for Herodotus than a hard-headed modern scholar, even if C. 
demurs by saying that his “hypothesis is weakly grounded, more properly to 
be called a presumption” (p. 74). Be that as it may, C. observes that one 
important consequence of the Ionian Revolt was that it bought time for the 
mainland Greeks, since an attack by the Persians in 497 would have found 
them largely unprepared, and had such an invasion been under Darius’ 
capable command, it likely would have fared far better than Xerxes’.

For the wars on the mainland, C. offers a provocative attack on the usual 
picture. Marathon was important only to the extent that it showed the 
Persians that they would need a full-scale invasion to conquer Greece. 
Salamis is even more harshly dealt with. Contrary to general opinion (both 
ancient and modern) that the battle saved Greece, C. argues that Persian 
success from the beginning rested on land warfare—having forced the gates 
at Thermopylae, the King could have marched his troops to the Isthmus—and 
the Persian navy had been needed only to bring supplies until the army 
could pass Thermopylae. Though Salamis was a defeat, it was irrelevant (an 
example of the King’s folie de grandeur: p. 109) and had no bearing on the 
ultimate outcome of the war. The Persians consistently committed errors of 
strategy. Their decision to retire from Attica was foolish, for the 
Athenians could not have endured an entire winter away from their city. 
Likewise at Plataea, Mardonius’ decision to attack was extremely foolish: 
Pausanias’ delay, “far from masterly” (p. 113), was instead an indication 
that he and his colleagues thought there was no hope of victory. C. 
observes that the Persian cavalry attacks had been so successful in harming 
Greek morale that if they had continued they would almost certainly have 
destroyed the precarious unity of the Greek forces, and caused most of them 
to abandon the campaign. But defeat on the battlefield, once it came, was 
decisive—“It was at Plataea, not at Salamis, that the new satrapy was lost” 
(p. 103)—and the Persians, lacking supplies, were forced to depart.

Although the thread of Persian ineptitude runs through this volume (and is 
meant to serve as a corrective to excessive praises of Greek valor), C. is 
nevertheless careful to exonerate the Persians from charges of slowness and 
hesitation. He points out repeatedly that the mustering of army and 
(especially) navy was a complicated affair and could take years to carry 
out properly. No less important, the vital heart of the Persian empire lay 
elsewhere, and the vastness of that empire meant that the King constantly 
needed to decide where and to what extent he would use his forces. (Only 
the Greeks were obsessed with the Greeks.) And when defeat finally came, it 
was the superior Macedonian army, not a lack of Persian valor, that caused 

In a review one can do no more than offer a few examples, but the reader 
can expect similarly thoughtful and provocative insights throughout this 
volume, from Cyrus’ conquest to Alexander’s. The writing is crisp, though a 
stronger editorial hand might have helped: material is sometimes repeated 
verbatim (cf. p. 24 n. 21 with p. 29 n. 61; the same remark of Macan’s 
quoted on pp. 111 and 120 n. 29); a number of references are garbled (pp. 
41, 51); and spelling is inconsistent (Cimon … Kimon, pp. 133–4; 
Pissouthnes … Pissuthnes, p. 145, within two lines). These are minor 
distractions, however, and do not lessen the delight of this volume. And an 
important volume it is: as the popular history market continues to churn 
out treatments of the “Greek miracle” and its importance for “Western 
civilization,” it may be hoped that C.’s book will serve as a useful 
corrective for those still interested in history rather than myth.

Florida State University

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