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ClassicsOnline Home » HERODOTUS: Histories (The) - The Persian War (Abridged)
In this, the first prose history in European civilization, Herodotus tells the heroic tale of the Greeks’ resistance to the vast invading force assembled by Xerxes, King of Persia, as currently retold in the feature film 300. Here are not only the great battles—Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis—but also penetrating human insight and a powerful sense of epic destiny at work.
The Persian War
from The Histories
This abridgement is based on the second half of Herodotus’
The Histories, in which he tells the story of the prolonged struggle between
the Persian empire of Xerxes and a small group of Greek city-states led by Athens.
The first half of The Histories
describes the growth of the Persian empire: for half a century prior to the
outbreak of war with Greece, the Persians had been steadily pushing back the
boundaries of their empire until it stretched from Libya and Thrace in the west
to the River Indus in the east. This empire also included the Greek states of
Ionia, on the eastern shores of the Aegean.
Although the Greeks called the Persians ‘barbaroi’ —
barbarians — this was not strictly a pejorative term, but reflected the simple
fact that they spoke a language quite unlike Greek. The Persians were in fact
highly civilized and accomplished people, skillful not only in war but also in
the arts of peace — they were knowledgeable farmers and gardeners, and
administered their territories both efficiently and humanely, provided their
subjects were loyal and obedient. The empire enjoyed good communications by
land and sea, and was by the beginning of the 5th century BC in a position; it
seemed, to annex Greece as the next stage of expansion.
Herodotus, although respecting the Greeks and especially the
Athenians, is quite ready to criticize them when he feels it necessary, and is
openly admiring of the best qualities of the Persians. He was himself born in
Halicarnassus, one of the Ionian Greek cities under Persian rule at the very
time of the wars, which he was later to chronicle.
In 499 BC the Ionian Greeks revolted against their Persian
masters. Although the Persians eventually suppressed the rebellion, they were
not slow to recognize the power and influence of Athens, which had helped the
rebels. In 492 King Darius sent his cousin Mardonius against the Greeks, but he
enjoyed little success. Now Darius decided to mount an expedition of huge size
and strength, one which might conquer all Greece but whose principal objective
would be Athens itself, and which the King in person would lead. Before he
could start, however, Darius died and was succeeded by his son Xerxes, who
decided to continue the project and finally set out in the spring of 480,
crossing the Hellespont by a bridge of boats.
Herodotus carries this great story through both the land
battles (Marathon, Thermopylae, Mycale) and those fought at sea (Salamis,
Plataea). Throughout this heroic narrative — which effectively describes the
salvation of Greek civilization — Herodotus not only delights in the revealing
incident, the note of character, but also carries the tale forward with force,
authority and style. It is worth remembering that Herodotus is effectively the
first European historian —- the first, that is, to attempt an objective and
properly researched account of real events, as distinct from a fanciful
re-working of myth. Of course, he made mistakes, could not always double-check
his sources (which must primarily have been oral): but his achievement remains
remarkable. Thucydides and Xenophon, who came after, could never have written
as they did without his example.
Notes by Perry Keenlyside.
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