Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
16 Dec. 2019
Review by Nicholas D. Cross, Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy
Athens Burning: The Persian Invasion of Greece and the Evacuation of Attica
By Robert Garland
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2017. Pp. xiii, 170. ISBN 978–1–4214–2196–4.
Descriptors: Volume 2019, Antiquity, Greco-Persian War Print Version

The global refugee crisis of recent years has heightened interest among academics in refugee studies.[1] In Athens Burning, classicist Robert Garland (Colgate Univ.), an authority on ancient Greek refugees,[2] looks at the trials of the Athenian populace after the Persians burned their city in 480 BCE and again in 479. His novel point of view and elegant prose enable his readers to understand and identify with the plight of refugees, both ancient and modern.

Instead of writing a military history of the Greco-Persian Wars, Garland examines the impact of the Persian invasion specifically on Athenian civilians. Adopting a bottom-up approach, he challenges traditional interpretations that view the conflict in moral terms:

Many ancient historians see the Greco-Persian Wars as a "clash of civilizations" with the right side, that is, "us," winning, and Western civilization surviving and flourishing as a result. It can hardly be denied that Western civilization in general and Greek civilization in particular benefited greatly from the Persian defeat. Even so, it's important not to be too dewy-eyed. The Greeks were fighting for their survival, not for any ideal. Most of their decisions were governed by narrow self-interest. Both they and the Persians committed acts of despicable barbarity. And finally, many Greek communities did not fight against the Persians, while many others were compelled to fight on the Persian side. It's also vital not to fall victim to the stereotypical image of the Persian king [Xerxes] as a brutal and bloodthirsty tyrant—an image that derives as much from modern interpretations as it does from the historical Greek tradition. (3)

Garland expands on this admonition throughout the book. Chapter I, "The Origins," gives a balanced overview of the Athenian and Persian antagonists and the historical background of the latter's invasion of Greece. His lucid prose and extensive research in the relevant primary and secondary sources make his account accessible and instructive for both academic and lay audiences. Given the paucity of ancient treatments of such aspects of the refugee experience as logistics and the conditions of the non-elite, Garland resorts to his well informed imagination to bring to life the ordeal that ca. 100,000 Athenian evacuees endured. To his credit, however, he recognizes this obstacle and the effects it has on his narrative style:

much that relates to the Persian invasion of Attica is obscure, though this has not deterred modern historians from writing confident accounts of what "actually happened." I have tried my best to be insightful, but I have kept my imagination on a tight rein. For this reason, I have flagged (tediously, I suspect) my uncertainties with adverbs like "possibly," "probably," and the like. Even so, much of what I have written is in places necessarily speculative. (135)

The most consequential of Garland's speculations is in chapter II, "The Evacuation," which follows the resolution of the Athenians, as a democracy, to abandon their city to the Persian invaders. He suggests here that there were two mass evacuations: an orderly one in late 481 BCE, mentioned (he believes) in the controversial Decree of Themistocles; and the emergency exodus in late summer 480 depicted in traditional literary sources.

Though Herodotus, Diodorus, and Plutarch describe only this emergency evacuation, it is inconceivable that the whole population could have been spirited out of Attica in advance of the arrival of the Persian army in what was probably no more than a week. More likely, the evacuation that had taken place before Thermopylae-Artemisium had been on a much larger scale than this last-minute scramble. (58)

This revisionist proposition needs more discussion and reinforcing than Garland gives it.

Chapters III and IV cover the two Persian occupations and the burning of Athens. Though his primary focus is not on battles per se, Garland does discuss the engagements at Thermopylae, Artemisium, and Salamis as they relate to the experiences of the Athenian refugees. For the destruction of the monuments in Athens, he employs both literary and material evidence, though some of the scholarship on the latter is dated.

Chapter V, "The Postwar Period," concerns the reconstruction of Athens, which included the inauguration of new cults.[3] The author returns here to the warning in his prologue against overdramatizing the Greco-Persian Wars and offers a nuanced discussion of the "invention of the barbarian," that is, the Greek representation of the Persians as the "Other" that emerged after the conflict. Although, in the grand scheme of things, Xerxes's failure to conquer Greece was insignificant in Persia, for the victors, "the Greco-Persian Wars had a profound impact on Greek identity, both by sharpening the contrast between Greeks and non-Greeks and by bolstering the Greeks' sense of their cultural superiority" (124). The author asserts, too, in his epilogue, that, while the Greek victory was "pivotal" for Western civilization, "I resist the interpretation that it was the Battle of Salamis that 'saved' the West" (125).[4] By consistently stressing the human factors of war, Garland helps readers grasp the extraordinary effort it took for the Athenians both to abandon their city and to drive out the Persian occupiers.

The book contains a useful Note on Sources, a list of Suggested Further Reading,[5] helpful endnotes, and a thorough index. Overall, Robert Garland achieves his purpose of critiquing and giving color to the ancient evidence in order to bring to life an overlooked facet of the Greco-Persian Wars.

[1] For ancient Greek refugees, see Elena Isayev, "Between Hospitality and Asylum: A Historical Perspective on Displaced Agency," Internat'l Rev of the Red Cross 99 (2017) 75–98; and Laura Loddo, ed., Political Refugees in the Ancient Greek World (Toulouse: Pallas, forthcoming).

[2] See his Wandering Greeks: The Ancient Greek Diaspora from the Age of Homer to the Death of Alexander the Great (Princeton: Univ. Pr, 2014).

[3] See, further, Garland, Introducing New Gods: The Politics of Athenian Religion (Ithaca: Cornell U Pr, 1992).

[4] Contrast the histrionic subtitles of recent works like Barry Strauss's The Battle of Salamis: The Naval Encounter That Saved Greece—and Western Civilization (NY: Simon and Schuster, 2004); Paul Cartledge's Thermopylae: The Battle That Changed the World (NY: Vintage, 2006); and Richard Billows's Marathon: How One Battle Changed Western Civilization (NY: Overlook Duckworth, 2010).

[5] Inexplicably, he calls Tom Holland's nonfiction book Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West (NY: Anchor, 2005) "the best fictional account of the Persian invasion" (160).

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