When Things Got Tough

Peter Green

  • Athens Burning: The Persian Invasion of Greece and the Evacuation of Attica by Robert Garland
    Johns Hopkins, 170 pp, £15.00, February 2017, ISBN 978 1 4214 2196 4

In 413 bce, outside Syracuse, the Athenian general Nicias, old and mortally ill, tried to rally the spirits of his defeated troops before their final retreat. A city, he told them, consists of its men, not of its walls or its empty ships. He had in mind their own city of Athens. In 480-79 bce, about a decade before Nicias was born, Athens had been systematically sacked and burned, not once but twice, by Xerxes’ invading Persian army; yet its citizens survived, against apparently insurmountable odds, to inflict crushing defeats on the invaders, first by sea off Salamis, and the following year by land at Plataea in Boeotia. There have been many occasions in recent months, watching grim scenes of other cities being reduced to rubble, to reflect on Nicias’ words. Coventry, Dresden, Warsaw and Hiroshima rose again, phoenix-like, from their ashes; might Aleppo and Mosul, despite all the suffering and destruction, one day recapture some of their former splendour? Such thoughts were very much in my mind while reading Robert Garland’s retelling of Athens’s tribulations during those two fraught years of Persian invasion. It is a story that has been told countless times, but never before has the narrative concentrated primarily on the Athenians’ wholesale evacuation of Attica, considered as a historical and social phenomenon.

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