Stephen P. Kershaw’s new book has been published at the right time, what with an autocratic ruler recently invading a European democracy with overwhelming odds. There are always problems with direct comparisons, but one can’t help thinking of Ukraine when reading Three Epic Battles That Saved Democracy.
The power of the resistance that the Athenians, Spartans, Plataeans, Thespians and a host of other Greek cities states (poleis) inspired not only subsequent generations, including Alexander the Great, but even surprising individuals such as Hermann Göring when commemorating the fallen at Stalingrad. The poet Simonides created an epitaph that has also been imitated down the centuries. ‘Stranger, tell the Spartans that here We lie, obeying their words’ has been seen in both world wars.
Before we get to the three battles, Kershaw carefully lays out the world in which the Greeks and Persians lived at the beginning of the 5th century BC. The conflict between West and East was a long-time brewing, but inevitable. The Athenians in particular provoking the Great King Darius with their burning of Sardis at the start of the Ionian Revolt in 498BC, prompting a slave to whisper to Darius, ‘Master, remember the Athenians!’
At the Battle of Marathon in 490BC, Athens and Plataea defeated a force twice their size in a stunning victory commemorated on the Parthenon. The clash took place 26.2 miles from the Pnyx in the Greek capital and the race is run from the battlefield today. I know this from personal experience.
Ten years pass, and animosity to the Greeks is inherited by Xerxes, prompting a massive invasion resulting in Thermopylae (and at the same time the naval battle Artemisium nearby), and then Salamis before the Persians are finally despatched at Plataea a year later in 479BC. The first of these is probably the most legendary, with the last stand of the Spartan 300. It remains a shame that even today we forget the 700 Thespians who also fell, as well as an unknown number of helots (those subjugated by Sparta).
Kershaw has a playful style with contemporary phrases sprinkled in, such as alternative facts, fake news, gender-fluidity and cultural appropriation to name a few. Importantly he is scrupulously faithful to the source and archaeological material, but that does not mean the odd fun story can’t be included. The tale of Xerxes, fleeing from the defeat at Salamis, hurling off fellow passengers to lighten the weight on his overloaded vessel, then having the helmsman executed for the deed is one such episode. Another, also involving Xerxes, is a complicated sexual tryst involving his sister-in-law, daughter-in-law and wife, which ends in a brutal disfiguring of an entirely innocent party, and the death of his brother. Here Herodotus demonstrates the true character of the Persians to his Greek audience.
This is a timely account of a hugely important episode in world history, and Kershaw has written it with flair. With the siege of Mariupol recently being described as ‘Ukraine’s Thermopylae’ by an advisor to President Zelensky, the Greco-Persian Wars remain as relevant as ever and with Three Epic Battles the author has brought them to life in this vibrant re-telling.
Oliver Webb-Carter is the Editor of Aspects of History.