This if Book four of Christian Cameron's series on the Long Wars against the Persian Empire and it continues the life story of Arimnestos, a historical character that the author has chosen as the ancestor of his later characters during the time of Alexander's Successors.
For those of you that have not followed Arimnestos through the previous episodes, the historical character did fight at Marathon. In the previous episode, the author makes him rather fictiously travel to west to Iberia and up the coast of France before reaching Cornwall from where he comes back with a most valuable cargo of tin. In this episode, however, you get it all: you still get the travelling but you also get the war against Persia as the King of Kings, after long preparations, comes at last with a huge army and a no less huge fleet.
As usual, Christian Cameron's three main ingredients are at play.
First, the historical context is described rather well. There are some liberties and bits and pieces which are clearly fiction - there was no "last chance" embassy to Persia, for instance, as far as we know - although this fiction is just about plausible. It is easy to understand why this embassy was inserted: the author simply could not resist describing the wonders of the East, in particular Babylon, Susa and the Persian Court. There are a couple of features that did not work very well with me here. One was the leader of the Babylonian rebellion, which I did not find terribly plausible and which seems to have been inserted to spice the story up. The rebellion in Babylonia really happened after the death of Darios the Great and it did buy time for the Greeks, as indicated in the book. However, I am not quite sure there were two rebellions, as the author makes it out.
In what seems to be another piece of fiction, the author comes up with a "war party" and a "peace party" at the Persian Court. This did not work out very well in my view, if only because there seems to be little to differentiate between the two parties with regards to their attitude towards the Greeks. Even the "peace party" seems bent on putting Athens and Sparta in their place - meaning enslaving the populations, possibly deporting them and certainly torching the two cities - and punishing them for killing Persian ambassadors some years before. The only difference between the two factions seems to be that one of them is quite ready to "bump off" the Greek embassy (although this would have been a sacrilege) whereas the other faction inclines towards protecting the ambassadors and letting them go back to Greece. Neither faction, howewer, suggests to even postpone the invasion.
If this factional divide had any basis, the crux of the matter may rather have been, as Cameron also mentions, a power fight between members of the Great King's family in order to gain power, influence him, or even replace him. Artaphernes (and NOT "Artapherenes", as the book keeps calling him) was the uncle of Xerxes (and Darius' faithful brother and competent right hand man). Atosa was the new King of Kings mother and she seems to have played a major role in helping her son with the succession and getting rid of his brothers, whereas Mardonios was the King's cousin. Although Mardonios certainly had a vested interest in waging war on the Greeks - he has been promised what would become the new satrapy of Greece after conquering the satrapy of Thrace - it is much more doubtful that he had his eyes on the main prize - his cousin's throne.
Another superb piece, which precedes the embassy to Persia, is the Olympic Games where the author catches rather well the spirit of the Olympics. I am not sure about the politics and dirty tricks that the author introduces in them. They were not supposed to happen, of course, but the story as it is told is plausible, if only because Greeks in general, and the largest cities in particular, did tend to be over-competitive and would stop at just about nothing to gain an advantage over their rivals.
Several features come out clearly, with the author striving to illustrate the events as realistically as possible. Here again, some of the author's choices may at times be debatable, such as his decision to largely follow Herodotos with his huge and somewhat implausible numbers for both the Persian army and fleet. It is clear that the Greeks were hopelessly outnumbered, but perhaps not as much as the Greek author makes them out to be. Anyway, Herodotos is very unlikely to had access to the Persian roles so his numbers may be no more than guesswork, at best, or deliberatly inflated to create a dramatic effect, at worst. What is realistic, however, is that the Greeks probably believed in similar numbers at the time, and the Persian embassies, spies and allies would of course have made sure that such numbers were wildly known to the Greeks. Anyway, the Persian forces were feared and, as well shown in the book, this was not only because they were numerous. The Persian army, so much derided by the Greeks afterwards, was a dangerous and powerful opponent and the fleet, in particular the Phoenician contingents and those from Cyprus (which, together, must have totalled at least 300 ships), had better trained crews and rowers than most of the Greeks, including most of the Athenians at the time.
Another feature that comes out clearly is that the League of Corinth only brought together a small number of cities, around thirty out of perhaps as many as eight hundred across the whole of Greece (Southern Italy and Sicily excluded). As the story shows rather well, most of them chose a waiting game with some, like Argos, being in fact pro-Persian because they were anti-Spartan (an illustration of "the enemy of my enemy is my ally"). Others were convinced that opposing the Persian King was a hopeless endeavour. Some submitted because they had little other choice, such as the Thessalians which the book shows rather well as being abandoned by their allies when the Greek army failed to hold the Thempe pass and dissolved, with each contingent going home without a fight. In all cases, even in Sparta and Athens, there seems to have been a "peace party" ready to compromise with the Persians. There was always - and would always be, even just before the battle of Plataea - a temptation to "go it alone", cut a deal with the Great King and submit in order to prevent a given city from being destroyed.
The second and third features are about the characters and the battles. Here again, the book is mostly very good, although some things worked better for me than others.
Regarding characters, the wily, unscrupulous but sincere Themistocles and the self-righteous Aristides are drawn rather well, or, perhaps more accurately, the characters fit rather well with what the sources tell us of them. The character of Leonidas is also true to form. The author might have taken some liberties with Gorgo, the wife of Leonidas, shown in the sources to be a rather formidable character, and shown in the book to be a mastermind of the Greek coalition alongside her husband. What is also interesting is the interplay between classes, internal politics and the fight against the common enemy that threatens to conquer all. Another good feature is the picture that the author draws of the Spartan warriors, spoiling for a contest to see who is best in pure "alpha male" fashion. While possible, this kind of "play ground behavior" made me smile a bit. I could not help wondering to what extent it was plausible. The younger warriors may have felt like that. I am not quite sure that the scarred veterans who knew what war was really about, would have been so enthusiastic, although that would not stop a Spartan from going in.
The rivalries in Athens between the democrats of Themistocles (himself an aristocrat, although not from one of the major families) and the conservatives of Aristides and Cimon are also well-shown, as is the major effort that it took and the difficulties that both sides had to bury their political and very personal feuds to unite against the enemy threatening their very existence. Sparta did not escape its own version of "stasis", with bitter rivalry among the Kings. Damaratos, the one in favour of compromise with Persia, was exiled some years before by the rather ruthless Cleomenes, the elder brother of Leonidas, on what seems to have been largely trumped up charges. Here also, there is a not entirely convincing feature inserted in the book with Demaratus, despite his pro-Persian track record, actively helping the countrymen that had exiled him.
Finally, there are the battles of Thermopylae, which is barely mentioned and not described in detail, and the major naval battle of Artemission, which may in fact have been more important, and which is the climax of this book. Focusing on the naval battle, or rather the series of engagements that took place, is perhaps one of the strongest points of this book. This is partly because it is original, as you usually get treated to Thermopylae and the "ultra-heroic" last stand of the Spartans and their King (and quite a few others who did alongside them and which are often barely mentioned). You hear little about Artemession itself.
In purely military and historical terms, Artemession may in fact be the more important of the two for several reasons, although, of course, the glorious defeat of Thermopylae - because it WAS a "heroïc last stand" defeat - earned the Spartans undying fame.
First, as several authors contend, it seems that the Persian King, who was no fool (and may not have been easy to influence and manipulate, contrary to what the book shows) may have intended to break through to the South with the fleet rather than with the land army. This would have made perfect sense as the Greeks' position on land denied his overwhelming superiority in numbers and cavalry whereas a sea battle would on the contrary allow his fleet to make full use of its numbers and its superior seamanship. The weather - a rather ugly storm which caught the Persian fleet but not the Greek one who knew the waters - obliged the Great King to assault the "Hot Gates" under the most unfavourable conditions. The reason for these unplanned assaults may have been about supplies. Supplying both a large army and a large fleet must have been a huge logistical challenge and most of the supplies were probably carried by the fleet that suffered from the storm. Unsurprisingly, the very religious Greeks saw this very timely storm as a mark of Poseidon's favour, especially given the odds that they were against. This must have considerably boosted their morale.
Second, once the storm had abated and the Persian fleet had reorganised, it did try to force a battle on the Greeks, especially since the army was being held up, as expected. The Greeks did their utmost to avoid a confrontation in open waters, using tactics which would be even more successful at Salamis. They offered battle in a narrow channel where the enemy's superior numbers would be somewhat negated and their own lighter and swifter ships would have an advantage when using their ramming tactics. They managed to hold and, as shown in the book, win some very hard fought tactical victories. You get some rather superb naval battle scenes in the book. You also get an interesting (and very probable) insight on the personality of Eurybiades, the Spartan commander of the Allied fleet who, although not a sailor, is shown as being very sensible and knowing a thing or two about commanding such a fractious force. This contrasts with the portrait of a non-entity that Athenian propaganda tried to draw well after the events, when both Sparta and Athens were battling to grab as much credit for the "glorious" deeds from each other.
The Persians got lucky in turn when they discovered the mountain track that allowed them to turn the Greeks' position at Thermopylae. Once the Persians had taken control of the pass, the Greek fleet had no options left: it had to retreat all the way back the coast to Attica, since the main army that should have been gathering on the Theban plain had not arrived (starting, interestingly, with the Spartans themselves). Unsurprisingly, the Greek fleet must have been rather demoralised, especially since all its efforts were in vain, while the death in battle of one of the Kings of Sparta must have been a further blow, however heroic it might have been. This is where this volume finishes. Four strong stars and definitely recommended...
PS (added on 18 February 2014):
For anyone interested in further reading on this period, there are many many books available on the wars against the Persian Empire and I will not even pretend to have read them all. Among those that I have read, however, my personal favorites happen to be Peter Green's "The Greco-Persian Wars", George Cawkwell's scholarly "The Greek Wars: The Failure of Persia, and Paul Cartledge's "After Thermopylae: the Oath of Plataea and the end of the Greco-Persian Wars."