Saturday, May 7, 2011

Dusting off more ancient history

I've already mentioned how little I knew about ancient Rome; now I'll admit to how little I knew about ancient Greece. I knew about the stereotypes of Sparta (warlike) and Athens (democratic), but other than some names and places, that was about it. But that's what books are for, right?

The First Clash: The Miraculous Greek Victory at Marathon and Its Impact on Western CivilizationIn The First Clash: The Miraculous Greek Victory at Marathon and Its Impact on Western Civilization, Jim Lacey describes the world of the Persian Empire in the 5th and 6th centuries BC - how it became the power it was and more importantly how it met its match in a small army of determined Greeks. Ancient Greece, and particularly Athens, contributed much to our current civilization, what we call “Western Civilization.” But the Athenians weren't all the wimpy philosophers we've been told, and had they not triumphed at the Battle of Marathon (490 BC) it's hard to imagine we would have the kind of society we have today.

Darius, ruler of the mighty Persian Empire, sent a large force to deal with some of the upstart Greek territories who refused to bow down and submit. Many others had already acquiesced or been brutally forced into submission, but not Athens and Sparta. In spite of overwhelming odds and being vastly outnumbered, the miraculous occurred - a small Athenian army singlehandedly defeated the Persians even before help from Sparta could arrive. At the end of the brief battle over 6,000 dead Persian soldiers lay on the field while only 192 Athenians had fallen. How, you might ask? Well, Mr. Lacey is very logical and convincing as he explains how (and why) he thinks they triumphed, and the influence it had on the style of Western warfare ever since.

This is a rewarding book to have finished but it wasn't easy to read. Even though it's just under 200 pages there's a lot of names and places that make it a bit confusing for someone new to the history and it's not the kind of book I could breeze through. I had to make an effort to go slower to absorb it, frequently rereading paragraphs and sometimes pages. Scholars and those interested in this particular era will certainly find this book an essential read, but I think others like myself with a strong interest in history will find it appealing as well. Mr. Lacey does an excellent job of interpreting the history from the fragmented and incomplete accounts that have survived the intervening 2,500 years (frequently pointing out where Herodotus was probably lying, and why), and his experience as both a historian and a soldier makes it exceptionally insightful (and his account of the battle is pretty fascinating). I can't attest to the validity of his conclusions but they sure made sense to me! (I received this book from Amazon Vine.)

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