Top critical review
6 people found this helpful
Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat
on 3 October 2012
While better than average and not a bad summary of the Plataea campaign, this Osprey Campaign title does have numerous problems that make it hard for me to rate it more than three stars. First, there are two pieces of hype which may be somewhat misleading, for want of a better word, although I do not know whether this is intentional or not.
The first, which is the book's subtitle, is not too important. The quotation - "the most glorious victory ever seen" - is rather overblown. A more accurate subtitle would have been something like "snatching victory from the jaws of defeat", given the way the campaign and battle happened. A related minor point is the title itself: the contents of the book also include the battle of Mycale, which took place around the same time, although very probably not of the exact same date.
The second is a bit more problematic. The author claims in his section on "further reading and bibliography" that "there was not a single book in English" before 2010 and since 1904 "on this enormous and very important battle". The claim is rather exaggerated and not quite true. While there were not any book that focused ONLY on MAINLY on this battle, there certainly are a number of books that describe it in at least as much detail, and sometimes more, that this book does. What makes things worse here is that the bibliography omits at least some of them from its list. The prime omission is the major work of Peter Green titled "The Greco-Persian Wars" which the Osprey book largely borrows from without mentioning it explicitly at any point.
Then there are a number of statements on which the author does not elaborate upon, possibly because of the usual space constraints that tend to limit the amount of explanations that can be provided. One example, among many others, is about the enormous strategic and economic importance of the island of Cyprus (page 11). While it is possible to guess why Cyprus was so important by looking at a map, there is no way for a customer that has no particular background in Ancient History to understand the island's economic importance (among other resources, it had large mines of copper, used for making bronze, and timber, for shipbuilding). Another example is the author's choice to emphasize, alongside the traditional bronze breastplate, the "linothorax" or "linen breastplate", and to describe it at a lighter, more flexible, more comfortable and much cheaper alternative to the bronze ones. The problem here is that linen needs both a hot climate and lots of water to grow so while it may have been cultivated in large quantities in the Nil Delta, it is doubtful that it was abundant or even grown in Greece, and, assuming it had to be imported, it would certainly not be cheap. What would have been a cheaper form of body armour, and almost as effective while still light, would have been leather cuirasses, but these are not even mentioned. Then there a problematic statement according to which slaves were rowing triremes alongside poor free citizens. While this may have occasionally have happened in times of emergency when there were not enough citizens to crew all available ships, the text make it sound that this was common practice. This does not seem to have been the case, on war-galleys at least, if only because rowers of triremes had to be highly trained and motivated to be able to react swiftly to command during naval engagements.
Then there is a problem with the numbers of the opposing forces, and this is one area where the author has not followed Peter Green. The Osprey volume assumes that the Persians at Plataea were 200 000 all told, including some 50000 "medizing" Greeks, with about half of these being hoplites. The numbers are rather excessive or even impossible, especially on the last case, and feeding such a mass would have been a huge challenge. Macedonia seems to have had few, if any, hoplites at the time, whereas hoplite numbers for Thebes and Beotia were probably around 12000 altogether, or roughly the same number as the Athenians and other allies that opposed them on the left wing. To a large extent, this discrepancy in numbers derives from the traditional assumption that most of the field army stayed in Greece whereas Xerxes marched back to Asia across Thessaly, Macedonia and Thrace with a smaller number of troops. Peter Green takes the exact opposite view, based on his analysis of the strategic context for the Persians after their defeat at Salamis.
The decisive battle was Salamis, rather than Plataea, with Persia losing its mastery of the sea and exposed to sea-borne attacks against Ionia in support of possible Asian Greek uprisings. Given this strategic context, which the Osprey book fails to provide, it is much plausible that Xerxes took the bulk of the Persian army back with him, leaving Mardonios with a smaller but hand-picked force (some 30000 according to Peter Green).
The description of the battle itself also has a few problems. The three main phases are well presented, but the intentions, plans and tricks used by each of the two commanders are sometimes a bit confusing. For instance, the story about the Spartan battalion commander disputing his King's orders of the battlefield just as the Persian cavalry was about to attack is utterly ludicrous and out of character but the author does not seem able to make up his mind as to whether to give it credit or not. Another point omitted by the author is to explain how the Persian infantry after crossing the Aesopus attacked immediately, although disorganized. Here again, the author seems to have relied on Peter Green, but borrowed only part of the story and did not include the interesting thesis that the Persian attack might have gone badly wrong and not at all according to plan.
Then there are the casualties. The author is very discreet on Persian losses, since he would have to come up with some huge and impossible number, given his estimate of the initial force. He does accept the figure of around a thousand hoplites killed on the Greek side (Peter Green mentions about 1300 for the Greeks and some 10000 for the Persians out of an initial total fighting force of 50000 for the latter - numbers which are much more plausible) of which 600 belonged to the centre and were cut to pieces by Beotian and Theban cavalry.
Finally, the maps, diagrams, pictures and illustrations are mostly good. One illustration showing the fight between Mardonios' wing and the Spartans of Pausanias could be a bit problematic. The bottom left of the illustration shows a Spartan hoplite who has reversed his broken lance and continues to fight with the butt end. His heavy shield covered in a layer of bronze is transfixed with two Persian arrows. This could be hard to reconcile with the main text which states that Persian arrows were light and made of cane.