A great many distinguished scholars have devoted intensive research into all and every aspect of the Greco-Persian wars. Many seem to have been writing for other scholars, or only for those fortunate enough to have enjoyed a classical education. But in twentieth-century Britain when, with a few notable exceptions, a knowledge of Greek is almost totally absent from members of the House of Commons (and where even a simple Latin quotation would fall on stony ground) the memory of the classical world is fading. We do not live in the age of Pitt or of Gladstone. We have progressed in technological terms, but we have forgotten the roots of our culture. Behind the surface appearance of our everyday world there lies always the image of classical Greece; from the seed of whose mathematicians, architects and scientists even our most remote modern machinery and artefacts are ultimately derived. In terms of the arts there has never been any doubt, at least among the practitioners of them, of the contribution that the Greeks made in triggering off Western European culture. ‘The Glory that was Greece’ would never have come to flower, let alone fruit, but for the astonishing events of 480 B.C., when a handful of men defeated what was then the greatest empire in the known world.
My first acquaintance with Greece, the Aegean, and the Near East was over a period of three and a half years during the Second World War. At a later date I was able to return at leisure several times at the helm of small boats, and come to know intimately these seas and lands once fought over by the warring armies and fleets of the Greeks and the Persians. It may not help to have sailed around Salamis, to have circumnavigated Euboea, or to have felt the lash of an Aegean storm, but it did serve to shed a new light upon the classics, and to make the great struggle between Greece and Persia comprehensible in geographical and nautical terms. It is
true that, over two millennia, many geographical features have changed - the Pass of Thermopylae is the most obvious instance -but, by and large, the land, especially when approached in a small boat, remains timeless. The Turkish coast, and even the mainland, has changed least of all, and it is not too difficult to recapture the feel of ancient Ionia.
While researching the history of this momentous year I found that, among the numerous scholars who had published full-length works and many a learned treatise, nearly all seemed to share one thing in common. This was a natural and, to my mind, inevitable pro-Athenian bias. I say ‘inevitable’ because the great result of the Persian defeat in Europe led to the shining fifty years (or less) in which Athens transfigured the whole of the West through her architecture, her drama, her poetry, her sculpture, philosophy, and her whole attitude towards man’s predicament in this temporal world. On the other hand, the Spartans - those strange and remarkable people, whose virtues the West would do well to emulate in our time - are somewhat absent from the records. They are there, certainly enough, but their presence is obscured by the fact that they abstained from literature. The fact that a Spartan admiral, Eurybiades, was in command at the naval battles of Artemisium and Salamis is somewhat glossed over. (He remains, as in some British accounts of the Second World War, a figure rather like General Eisenhower: a man who had never fought a battle, but who could achieve some kind of stability between unstable allies.) ‘I fear the Greeks, even when bearing gifts …’ and the gifts of the great Athenian poets, dramatists, and historians must always be a little suspect in terms of Truth.
The last stand of King Leonidas and the Spartans was told as a golden story in my youth. Since then it would seem to have been downgraded, perhaps because their military outlook and stubborn courage have made them unattractive to a hedonistic society. Without courage, Man is nothing. Without the Battle of Thermopylae, that pass held against all odds, there would never have followed Artemisium, Salamis and Plataea. Distasteful though it may have been to later historians, preoccupied with Athens, it was very largely the generalship of the Spartan Pausanias that made the victory of Plataea possible.
I have ended this brief account with the battle of Plataea itself.
The subsequent Ionian revolt against the Persians was inevitable* The destruction of the Persian fleet at Mycale was, although a story in itself, equally inevitable. Plataea closes the door.