Greco-Persian Wars - Sources


Almost all the primary sources for the Greco-Persian Wars are Greek; there are no surviving historical accounts from the Persian side. By some distance, the main source for the Greco-Persian Wars is the Greek historian Herodotus. Herodotus, who has been called the "Father of History", was born in 484 BC in Halicarnassus, Asia Minor (then part of the Persian empire). He wrote his 'Enquiries' (Greek—Historia; English—(The) Histories) around 440–430 BC, trying to trace the origins of the Greco-Persian Wars, which would still have been recent history. Herodotus's approach was novel and, at least in Western society, he invented 'history' as a discipline. As Holland has it: "For the first time, a chronicler set himself to trace the origins of a conflict not to a past so remote so as to be utterly fabulous, nor to the whims and wishes of some god, nor to a people's claim to manifest destiny, but rather explanations he could verify personally."

Some later ancient historians, starting with Thucydides, criticised Herodotus. Nevertheless, Thucydides chose to begin his history where Herodotus left off (at the Siege of Sestos) and felt Herodotus's history was accurate enough not to need re-writing or correcting. Plutarch criticised Herodotus in his essay "On The Malignity of Herodotus", describing Herodotus as "Philobarbaros" (barbarian-lover) for not being pro-Greek enough, which suggests that Herodotus might actually have done a reasonable job of being even-handed. A negative view of Herodotus was passed on to Renaissance Europe, though he remained well read. However, since the 19th century his reputation has been dramatically rehabilitated by archaeological finds that have repeatedly confirmed his version of events. The prevailing modern view is that Herodotus did a remarkable job in his Historia, but that some of his specific details (particularly troop numbers and dates) should be viewed with skepticism. Nevertheless, there are still some historians who believe Herodotus made up much of his story.

The military history of Greece between the end of the second Persian invasion of Greece and the Peloponnesian War (479–431 BC) is not well supported by surviving ancient sources. This period, sometimes referred to as the pentekontaetia by ancient scholars, was a period of relative peace and prosperity within Greece. The richest source for the period, and also the most contemporaneous, is Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War, which is generally considered by modern historians to be a reliable primary account. Thucydides only mentions this period in a digression on the growth of Athenian power in the run up to the Peloponnesian War, and the account is brief, probably selective and lacks any dates. Nevertheless, Thucydides's account can be, and is, used by historians to draw up a skeleton chronology for the period, on to which details from archaeological records and other writers can be superimposed.

More detail for the whole period is provided by Plutarch, in his biographies of Themistocles, Aristides and especially Cimon. Plutarch was writing some 600 years after the events in question, and is therefore a secondary source, but he often names his sources, which allows some degree of verification of his statements. In his biographies, he draws directly from many ancient histories that have not survived, and thus often preserves details of the period that are omitted in Herodotus and Thucydides's accounts. The final major existing source for the period is the universal history (Bibliotheca historica) of the 1st century BC Sicilian, Diodorus Siculus. Much of Diodorus's writing about this period is drawn from the much earlier Greek historian Ephorus, who also wrote a universal history. Diodorus is also a secondary source and often derided by modern historians for his style and inaccuracies, but he preserves many details of the ancient period found nowhere else.

Further scattered details can be found in Pausanias's Description of Greece, while the Byzantine Suda dictionary of the 10th century AD preserves some anecdotes found nowhere else. Minor sources for the period include the works of Pompeius Trogus (epitomized by Justinus), Cornelius Nepos and Ctesias of Cnidus (epitomized by Photius), which are not in their original textual form. These works are not considered reliable (especially Ctesias), and are not particularly useful for reconstructing the history of this period.

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