Barry Strauss has written a very accessible account of the second time the Greeks fought off the Persian Empire. He spends a good amount of time on the background: the Ionian revolt, the general configuration of the Persian court, etc. Along the way, we good descriptions of triremes, the geography, and the backgrounds of many of the important people. So it’s was a little surprising that he spends so little time and descriptive power on Marathon and (while talking about the aftermath) Plataea. But, Strauss is fixated on the water; the fighting at Thermopylae gets decent coverage, but the naval fighting at Artemesium is where the early focus lies. This generally makes sense for a book mostly about a naval battle, but enough other things are thrown in that I found these omissions surprising. A nice touch is that every chapter has a small map near the beginning (at least in the Kindle version, they might be elsewhere in print).

The biggest enemy in any book looking back ~2500 years is the lack of sources. Strauss leans heavily on Thucidides (who I agree is more reliable than sometimes given credit for) and Aeschylus, but does leaven his text with a few other sources and modern reconstructions of triremes. He does not hesitate to speculate, but marks these off with ‘we may assume’, etc., so you know when he is doing so (which, as to be expected, is pretty often).

Generally, he does a good job with his analysis, but there are places I disagree. He compares the Spartan stand at Thermopylae to Persian confusion at Salamis saying “Leonidas served a transcendent cause, while the Phoenician king Tetramnestus merely calculated the odds.” I’d think Leonidas saw delaying the Persian army as much as possible as his strategic goal, while Tetramnestus’ only goal was the destruction of the Greek navy; if that wasn’t going to happen, then the battle wasn’t worth fighting. He also assumes that Artemesia must have fooled the Greeks into thinking hers was a Greek ship, and Xerxes into thinking she had just rammed a Greek ship during a famous incident when she rammed her ally Damasithymus’ ship (this is the usual view). I wonder. Given that there are only a few angles at which ramming is truly effective, I wonder if she had just put her ship in position much more difficult to get at (by having to go through Damasithymus’ ship to do so, for instance). Given normal courtly politics, Xerxes may also have been willing to celebrate the competence of someone who instantly saw and acted upon a chance to avoid defeat/capture and cut down a rival at the same time.

The subtitle is a bit mixed. ‘Saving Greece’ is hard to argue—except for the fact that ‘Greece’ was not a very cohesive concept, a fact pointed up, as Strauss does, by the fact that a lot of ‘Greeks’ fought for the Persians. But there was a cohesive Greek alliance, fairly untroubled by defections to Persia, and Salamis was the turning point in the campaign. As for ‘Western Civilization’… Strauss notes that, perhaps, defeated Greeks would have fled to Italy and continued on, even retaken Greece. But there’d be no Delian League, what he calls the birth of ‘imperial democracy’. “Defeat at Salamis would not have deprived the world of Greece’s glory but of its guile and greed.” From there he talks about the road to Western political philosophy. So it’s not just hyperbole.