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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, 3 Oct. 2012
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This review is from: Plataea 479 BC (Campaign) (Paperback)
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.
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Showing 1-4 of 4 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 15 Dec 2012 20:41:42 GMT
Thank you for this thoughtful and detailed review and your overall, if qualified, approval of the book. However, I think you are a bit hard on me with your reasons for restricting your rating to three stars!

The subtitle is a quotation from Herodotus (IX.64) and if that does not lend it sufficient authority, it is, in my view, well justified by the importance of this pivotal battle in the history of western civilization, by its exceptional scale and by the closeness of the contest, and I feel I make that case quite adequately..
Mycale - Other reviewers have welcomed the attention given to this important battle as a bonus! However I think we would have been overselling the few pages that it was possible to devote to it if we had included it in the title.
It is true that this is the first book that "focused ONLY on the battle" and I think that is remarkable, especially at the end of a period of a couple of years that had seen three books published on Marathon.
Peter Green - I do not mention his book because I have not read it, so it cannot be said that I "largely borrow from it"! I knew of it but felt I had read enough in the several sources I do gladly acknowledge and been sufficiently guided by them. There comes a time (not unrelated to the publisher's delivery date) when you have to stop researching and reading, and make up your own mind about things and get on with the writing! A factor may also have been what seemed to me to be convincing rebuttals of some of Green's interpretations in those other sources.
Cyprus certainly merits more attention than it generally gets in studies of the era, but Cypriots had no involvement in the campaigning of 479 that I'm aware of, so there was really no justification for squeezing in any more than this very brief mention.
The "linothorax" - Thank you! It does indeed seem that evidence for the wide use of this form of body armour by Greeks in the 5th Century is very slight. The numerous vase paintings identified as depicting linen cuirasses could just as well depict leather or felt, or various combinations of materials including metal. However, I haven't yet come across any reference in 5th Century primary sources to leather armour worn by Greeks. Part of the problem, of course, is that the commonplace tends not to get specifically mentioned! In support of linen, it was not as exotic a material as you suggest. Flax was grown in the Peloponnese in the Classical era and, although linen was an expensive fabric, it must have been less costly than bronze. And making a linothorax seems to have required less time and craftsmanship than a bronze cuirass.
It is well documented that non-citizens rowed alongside the citizen "thetes". There weren't nearly enough Athenian citizens to man their navy at its full strength. "Resident aliens" and household slaves (often seen as "family"?) could have been as highly motivated as their citizen comrades to play their part in the defence of Athens.
Numbers - Always difficult, getting from Herodotus' epic headcounts to something more plausible but the number I actually settle for for Mardonius' army at Plataea is 105,000 (see the key to the battle-maps and the "Numbers" section that begins on p34). I include in this 10,000 Medizing Greek hoplites accompanied by the same number of light-armed, roughly equal to the Greek left (50,000 is Herodotus' figure). In my view, a Persian force of the size you say Peter Green argues, mostly comprising relatively lightly armed Asian troops, could not have caused the Greeks the major problems Herodotus tells us about.
I am glad you quite like my overall description of the battle and am grateful for this. However, on the one detail you pick up on here, I do make up my mind and give the Amompharetus story some credit. I believe this has its roots in a real event, possibly one of the major things that went wrong with the Greeks' over-ambitious night-time manoeuvre, but that it quickly acquired its own distorting mythology. The argument that the story can't be true because no Spartan would disobey a battlefield order is somewhat undermined by Thucydides' account of the battle of Mantinea in 418 (V.72) and here it was a king giving the orders, not a young regent, with almost certainly no previous experience at this level of command!
Penetrating power of arrows - I am confident that it can be shown, mathematically or by practical experiment, that a light, iron-headed arrow fired from a compound bow at close range could penetrate the thin bronze skin of a hoplite shield and the wood behind. Xenophon somewhere describes a lethal bowshot passing clean through its target's shield and body- armour!

Taking all this into account, can I perhaps persuade you to consider a recount of your star rating?
William shepherd

In reply to an earlier post on 20 Dec 2012 17:18:12 GMT
JPS says:
Dear author,

Thank you for your response. I understand that you are somewhat unhappy, like most authors whose books do not receive the high ratings that they feel that they deserve. By the way, a three star rating is not a bad one, at least according to Amazon, and I am not been "a bit hard" on you. There is obviously nothing personal in the rating that your book has received, if only because I do not even happen to know you! Unfortunately, your response, rather than making the case for a better rating, has made me wonder whether I may have been too lenient. However, I will not change the rating of this review.

1) I realized that the subtitle was a quotation from Herodotus, and I also happen to be somewhat familiar with him, so there was no need to quote "chapter and verse" at me, unless, of course, you believed that this would somewhat improve your case and impress someone. I does not prove anything, of course, and this where my first major problem with your answer comes in. However remarkable you may believe a source to be, it is - and can only be - "biased", meaning that it reflects a certain point of view at a certain point in time. Believing that a statement is necessarily true because it comes from a source that you believe to have "sufficient authority" and without any form of discussion or critical examination is not exactly what is expected from a historian. You may, of course, choose to consider that the statement is perfectly correct. However, by doing so with the slightest discussion of your source, you have in fact ASSUMED and chosen to BELIEVE that the statement uttered by the source reflects the truth. In other words, you have chosen a certain interpretation, which may or may not be correct, and presented it as if it was the unvarnished truth. By doing this, and by essentially justifying yourself by stating that it must be correct because Herodotus days so, you have in fact adopted the source's bias and made it your own.

2) Then there is the Peter Green case and here I must admit that I was wrong. I had assumed that you had read his book but chosen deliberately not to mention it in your bibliography. This is because, although your mention a relatively large number of books published both before and after his (the first edition was in 1971, if I remember correctly), including a number of books which criticised his interpretations (Lazenby's in particular), Green's book is conspicuously absent. It turns out to be even worse than that. You admit that you have "not read it" but you chose to accept the "rebuttals of some of Green's interpretations" because you found them convincing without even bothering to read the source where these interpretations were initially made. Here again, I could not help being rather astonished by such a method. This is also something that is not exactly expected from a historian.

Regardless of the space constraints or publication deadlines that such a historian may be facing, the least a reader could expect from such a historian would be to make her/his case for a given interpretation. Instead of that, you chose to simply ignore interpretations that did not fit with your personal beliefs. This, by the way, does not imply that your interpretations are wrong. However, it certainly does mean that, according to your own words, your methods are somewhat questionable.

With all of the above in mind, all of the other items from my review that you chose to question seem like quibbles. In a number of cases, you have in fact responded "beside the point" I was making, although I may have been unclear.

1) I will start with what you chose to qualify as the "penetrating power of arrows". All I had in mind here was to point to a discrepancy between your text, which mentions that Persian arrows were light and MADE OF CANE, and one of the book's illustrations which shows a Spartan hoplite whose heavy shield covered in a layer of bronze is transfixed by two arrows. My point here is that an arrow made of cane is likely to shatter against such a shield, rather than to transfix it. The implication here is that some of the arrows shot by archers in the Persian army were light, and some of those were also made of cane, but this is very unlikely to have been the case for all of them because otherwise they would simply have failed to penetrate shields. So, my point here is that either the text is a generalisation or the illustration needs to be corrected.

Besides, as you know, Persian and Medes, not to mention Sakae, Bactrians and others, were remarkable archers and it is somewhat unlikely, to say the least, that they would ONLY have had light arrows and that these were ONLY made of cane where wood could have been used. Regarding the penetration power of arrows, since you chose to raise this somewhat different issue, it all depends, at the very least upon
a) the type of arrow we are talking about (long or short, cane or wood, leaf-shaped point or bodkin armour-piercing type etc...),
b) the type of bow and
c) how close to the target the bowman happens to be.

As you can see for yourself, this is hardly only about "mathematics". Try shooting with the various types of bows and arrows one day and you will see for yourself: it makes a huge difference when shooting at a target at the same distance. So yes, Xenophon does mention a lethal bowshot passing clean through shield and body-armour. However, did he mention that the arrow was made of cane? I don't think so...

2) Then, since we are on equipment, we have the rather interesting issue of "linothorax" - linen body armour - which historians used to believe to have been widespread among Greek hoplites and becoming increasing common during the Fifth century but which is now a hotly disputed issue that revolves at least partly around climate change. Egyptian marines seem to have been commonly equipped with them, but this is hardly surprising since the plant from which linen is obtained, and which needs both heat and a lot of water, was grown in the Nile Delta. Whether the plant was grown in Greece during the Fifth century is much more uncertain, although it does seem to have been grown there during Mycenean times, some seven or eight hundred years before, at a time where there were also lions.

How widespread was linen body armour in Greece at the time of the Greco-Persian wars? Was it common, because produced locally or was it rare and relatively expensive (even if less than bronze armour) because at least the raw material had to be mostly important from far away (and from Egypt in particular). The point can probably be argued either way. What might tend to tip the scales towards the latter interpretation (expensive and therefore rare) is, as you noted, the "very slight" evidence for wide use. Moreover, as you mentioned, many vase paintings could be depicting felt or leather cuirasses, or various types of scale armour (leather with metal scales, more probably bronze rather than iron, sewn onto it), with the latter types being possibly "borrowed" from Asia Minor patterns. If linen armour was not widely used in the early Fifth century because it was relatively expensive, this would have been because it had to be imported by ship from far away (Egypt). There is also a case to be made that linen armour became more widespread little by little during the Five and Fourth centuries, partly because living standards improved and partly because hoplites (starting with the "quasi-professional" ones including both mercenaries and Spartans) went for lighter types of body armour that would give them more mobility and stamina against peltast and lighter-armed troop types.

3) Regarding slaves rowing alongside citizens, you have also chosen to answer beside the point I made. Indeed, there were slaves and foreigners living in Athens and rowing in some of Athens triremes because they built more ships that they could crew. Some of their ships were also crewed by the Plateans, if I remember correctly. However, if you take the time to carefully read my review, you will see that the point I was making was that "the text makes it sound as if this was common practice", which was not the case, or, to be more accurate perhaps, had never been the case in Athens up to then.

4) Then we have the rather strange story about this battalion commander somewhat questioning his commander's orders on the battlefield. Had you read Peter Green's take on it, you would have understood that I was not questioning that this certainly had "its roots in a real event" but rather than the account that we have may have been garbled. Whether at Mantinea in BC 418 or at Platea in BC 479, it does seem rather extraordinary to have a Spartan battalion commander questioning orders, even if one was a veteran and the commander was without any battlefield experience which was definitely the case of young Agesilaus at Mantinea and may or may not have been the case of Pausanias at Platea (although the latter was no teenager!). By the way, your distinction between a "young regent" and "king giving the orders" is a rather spurious one: both were young and both belonged to the Spartan royal families...

5) Finally, we have the rather huge overall number you come up with for the Persian army and the absence of any mention about Persian losses. I would have expected you, at the very least, to discuss both items, make your case and explain why you chose a) this high overall number and why you believe it to more plausible than any other, including Peter Green's and b) mention and attempt to estimate Persian losses, since you do give a number for the Greek ones. You have done neither...

Posted on 3 Jun 2013 13:09:31 BDT
Flopot says:
Salamis is not the decisive battle in this war. After Salamis, the Persian army returns to burn down Athens a second time. It is the Spartans who must decide to save Greece (i.e. themselves) or face the prospect of the Athenians going over to the Persians.

Spartiates always seem to question their commanders in the middle of a battle. Not only at Plataea and Mantinea but see also the Battle of Nemea. This is probably a reflection of the paradox at the heart of the Spartan system - they are all equals but must strive to be better than their peers.

It is fascinating to speculate on the social ramifications of such contradictions: cognitive dissonance (confused Spartans); double think (Spartan hypocrisy) and, perhaps, Spartan cynics abroad and I am thinking of Lysander and Brasidas in particular!

Finally, I would regard Herodotus' comment that it is the "most glorious victory" as a reflection of the decisive nature of the battle's outcome (the final end of the Persian threat to mainland Greece) and the odds they had to overcome. As you say, victory snatched from the jaws of defeat. Sounds glorious to me.

In reply to an earlier post on 3 Jun 2013 16:38:30 BDT
JPS says:
This post is already on Since it is the same, my response will also be the same and does not need to be duplicated here.
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