Monday, October 17, 2011


Will Wolfgang, Die Perserkriege. Beck'sche Reihe 2705. München: C. H. Beck, 2010. Pp. 128. ISBN 9783406606960. €8.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Sara Wijma, University of Groningen (

Version at BMCR home site


Wolfgang Will's introduction to the Persian Wars is part of the laudable German series C.H. Beck Wissen, which regularly produces smart (and cheap) paperbacks on key subjects from the cultural and natural sciences for a general public. By now, over 500 titles have appeared. Those concerning antiquity include biographies of Cicero, Hannibal, and Cleopatra and more general titles on Athenian democracy, Byzantium, and the Peloponnesian War. No one will disagree that such a project should include an issue on the Persian Wars. But has Will, whose main work concerns the lives of great men, like Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Pericles, succeeded in informing the educated but lay German reader on the Persian Wars in a sophisticated and competent way, as the website claims is one of the aims of the series? Will indeed offers a concise and highly readable overview of the backgrounds and battles of this great conflict, beginning with the subjugation of the Ionians in Asia Minor by Croesus and ending with Alexander, who, as Will comments in an Herodotean way, in the end still made the Greeks subjects of a Persian ruler. However, this book rarely offers anything beyond that, i.e. presenting an overview of historical events, and whether Will has done so free from a Eurocentric perspective, as is stated in an unofficial preface, is also debatable. In the end, this book seems to be particularly aimed at the lay German reader, who knows nothing about either the Persian Wars or Herodotus and is in need of a short and clear introduction to the topic.

Die Perserkriege consists of an introduction, thirteen short chapters and an appendix, which includes a timeline, a glossary, an index, and a (very) short bibliography. The (unnumbered) chapters are presented in chronological order and touch upon Herodotus and his work, the various phases and expeditions of the Persian Wars, the situation in Greece (i.e. Sparta and Athens) before, in between, and after the Wars, and the reception of the Wars in modern times.

In the introduction, Will presents his case; he touches upon the timeframe, his sources, or rather source, and with that implicitly his method, which appears to consist primarily of presenting a summary of Herodotus' Histories. It is stated this will be done with a focus on how the Greeks perceived themselves and their opponents since the battles cannot be reconstructed in any reliable way as Herodotus had no interest in strategic detail (9). In light of this claim it is remarkable that while the promised focus on perception remains undelivered – Aeschylus' Persai, for instance, is firmly rejected as a historical source1 – Will attempts and often succeeds in presenting very balanced accounts of the most important revolts, battles and deliberations.

Before dealing with these events, a chapter is included on Herodotus, which presents the reader with a clear insight into the historian's background, his work, its aims, perspectives, sources and method, all placed in a historical context. Insightful is the explanation that the pater historiae did not simply appear out of the mist as a deus ex machina, but answered to a Greek self-awareness that had risen from the debris of the Persian Wars. This is clearly Will's cup of tea, although his statement that Herodotus was 'frei von jener perserfeindliche Hysterie' (11) feels a bit overstated, perhaps to justify the claim that this book is free from Eurocentrism. This claim is unnecessary, as an introduction of the Persian Wars from an Hellenocentric perspective is no matter for shame as long as it is admitted, and if one indeed wants to do justice to a Persian perspective there are other possibilities besides (over)stressing Herodotus' non-judgmental worldview.2

In the third chapter we finally delve into the marvelous deeds of Hellenes and barbarians, with a sketch of the situation in the sixth century in Asia Minor and Athens and Sparta, appropriately ending with the Athenian delegation that went to Sardes in 507, which resulted in the formal submission of the Athenian envoys to Artaphernes – even though the Athenian demos later on refused to agree to this submission. Next, the Ionian Revolt is dealt with. Will is careful not to follow Herodotus' single focus on Aristagoras as The Instigator and presents a number of reasons why the Ionians were so willing to revolt. Interesting are his comments on tensions between Persian magistrates in the west and members of the city elite in the east in their competition for attention from the Great King, and it is a pity he does not goes into this any deeper.

Drawing on the details of the Ionian Revolt, one of the book's main threads is presented: the Athenians sent help to the Ionian Greeks, not only because of their common descent or to gain strongholds on Imbros and Lesbos but also, or perhaps mainly, to stop Hippias in his attempt to return to Athens, which, at least according to Will, was one of the main objectives of the Persians in attacking Attica. Although Herodotus' revenge theme is rightly rejected, it remains to be debated whether Will is not falling into another trap of Athenian propaganda by playing this tyranny card. By contrast, his interpretation of Mardonius' failed "first" expedition to Athens as an attempt to secure power in Thrace and Macedonia instead is highly convincing.

The next chapter presents a standard overview of the rise of Themistocles and Miltiades, the construction of Piraeus and the Battle of Marathon. Again, Will sticks to Athenian propaganda: at Marathon Hippias is repulsed a second time and Miltiades is the hero of the day; the infamous Miltiades decree is even referred to as authentic. After this follow two slightly distracting chapters on the situation in Athens between the invasions, with a long and unnecessary excursus on ostracism, and Herodotus' second introduction in book 7. The latter chapter rarely touches upon the causes and events of the Persian Wars and seems inspired by Will's fascination with ancient historians and their objects of admiration.3

After the situation in 481/0 is outlined, with Xerxes crossing the Hellespont, the foundation of the Hellenic League, and, at least according to Will and the famous Themistocles decree, the orderly evacuation of Athens, summaries of Herodotus' account of Thermopylae and Artemision are given, concluded with a rather long exposé on the reasons why Leonidas and his 300 stayed put at Thermopylae, as according to Will Leonidas must have had rational motives, as heroism from stupidity serves no purpose (80). Perhaps Leonidas decided to provide cover to those leaving, or perhaps the return of the 300 was made impossible by the death of their king as they had to retrieve his body from the battlefield. In any event, Athens' growing distrust towards Sparta was (temporarily) proven wrong.

The rendering of the chaotic and quite unheroic events before and at Salamis, with a fitting dose of skepticism toward the performance of Themistocles and the slandering of Corinth, ends with the Persian peace offered to Athens, used by Athens to press Sparta to send hoplites beyond the Isthmus. This is followed by a chapter on Plataea and Mycale. Because of the innumerable heroic tales circulating in Hellas after 479, detailed accounts of these battles are impossible – which Will seems to understand as the Greeks having no strategy both in 480 and in 479. Instead we are informed on general military movements and the history of the Serpent Column.

After a standard sketch of the situation in Greece after the Wars, with the rise and fall of Athens and the isolationistic policy of Sparta, the book ends with an enjoyable and important chapter on the reception of the Wars up until modern times, tying in with recent approaches to the Persian Wars.4 With the Nachleben of Thermopylae, the reader embarks upon a rollercoaster ride along Vannucci's frescoes in Perugia (1497), where Leonidas is depicted as the embodiment of Fortitudo, David's focus on patriotism in his Léonidas aux Thermopyles (1799-1814), the monuments of World War I addressing the passerby in Simonidean words, the twentieth-century warning against Asian despotism in Maté's The 300 Spartans, Zack Snyder's 300, in which, according to Will, the only thing the 300 seem to be defending is bad taste, Kokoschka's Thermopylae (1954), and Heinrich Böll's attack on the abuse of ancient imagery. This tastes moreish! It is therefore unfortunate that Marathon is dismissed with a treatment of the invented tradition of the hoplite allegedly covering the first marathon (from Marathon to Athens), reporting the victory and dying on the spot.

Will's Perserkriege is a fine and impeccably edited introduction to the main players, backgrounds and events of The Persian Wars, ending with a strong chapter on the reception of the wars in modern times. Its intended audience, however, seems to be restricted to lay readers as the book mainly stays on the paths walked by Herodotus and only rarely offers insights into ongoing debates and new perspectives. As a short introduction for the lay it could furthermore have been greatly enhanced by including more maps, full references to ancient sources and a more extended bibliography including more Anglo-Saxon publications.


1.   Both E. Hall, Inventing the Barbarian: Greek Self-Definition through Tragedy (Oxford 1989) and T. Harrison, The Emptiness of Asia: Aeschylus' Persians and the History of the Fifth Century (London 2000) are missing from the bibliography.
2.   See for instance G. Cawkwell, The Greek Wars. The Failure of Persia (Oxford 2005) with BMCR 2005.10.31.
3.   E.g. W. Will, Thukydides und Perikles. Der Historiker und sein Held (Bonn 2003).
4.   Cf. M. Jung, Marathon und Plataiai: Zwei Perserschlachten als „lieux de mémoire" im antiken Griechenland (Göttingen 2006) and E. Bridges, E. Hall, P.J. Rhodes (eds.), Cultural Responses to the Persian Wars: Antiquity to the Third Millenium (Oxford 2007).

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