As a youngster I was quite taken by “Swallows and Amazons”, the children’s adventure series by Arthur Ransome. It instilled in me a love of sailing, and, to a somewhat lesser extent, of history, as the kids in the books were always concocting imaginary play battles with bad guys with names like Xerxes and Darius.
This is no longer just a childhood memory, it is now a memory from another century, of a yet much older time when “world wars” were fought in a known world not much larger than today’s modern Europe. Click the map below for a larger version at the Wikipedia entry for the world of Herodotus.
I went on to take four years of Latin, and absorbed (and forgot) an amazing amount of history and lore of ancient Rome. But the exposure to the history of ancient Greece never came, and, until this week’s issue of the New Yorker, I never knew who this King Darius person was, or why military men study his defeat to this day, or how greatly the Persian wars shaped the future of the Western World.
The April 28 New Yorker review is Arms and The Man, by Daniel Mendelsohn. It is a masterpiece of expository writing in its own right, and reviews in detail The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories, (Pantheon) edited by Robert B. Strassler. In case you are never going to get around to ordering and reading this work (Amazon, $29), I highly recommend you follow the New Yorker link while it is still active, and read what you can of this world of Herodotus, circa 450BC. I read the review twice and ordered the book.
Mendelsohn promises Herodotus will tell us as much as we could ever want to know about King Darius, and his son Xerxes, and possibly more. I expect to learn why the Persians’ two military campaigns to subjugate the city states of Greece both failed catastrophically, despite overwhelming military superiority (“shock and awe”). I expect insights into why it is said that the totalitarian power of mindsets like Xerxes cause peaceful democracies to lose sleep to this day.
And I look forward to reading the full story of how a Greek leader said, when told the Persian armies blacken the skies with arrows, “This is good, then. We will be able to fight in the shade.”
My take, based on the New Yorker review: this isn’t just a first-rate history classic, written by Herodotus, whom it is said gave the first modern meaning to the concept of “History”. It’s an epic adventure, on a relative and heroic scale that would remain equally immortal in prehistory or in Star Wars.
Hardcover. 1024 pages. Lavish illustrations, maps, annotations and cross-references.
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