When I first read Xenophon’s Ten Thousand several years ago, about six months later I happened to be reading a Conn Iggulden novel, and I realized about a quarter of the way into it that it was describing the same events. When I reached the end, I found that Xenophon’s Ten Thousand was, in fact, the primary source Iggulden used. It was a neat experience having read the primary source, and then seeing how the story was interpreted by a historical fiction author, so when I discovered that Iggulden had recently written a novel about the Greco-Persian wars based on Herodotus’s Histories, I was interested to make a similar comparison.
Maybe it’s because Herodotus is so aptly referred to as “history’s screenwriter,” but I was less impressed by Iggulden’s interpretation of the events in The Gates of Athens than I was with his interpretation of Xenophon’s adventures. Where the story he told of Xenophon’s exploits was very faithful to the history, The Gates of Athens seemed to include a lot more supposition on Iggulden’s part, mostly to add interpersonal drama. Yet he is telling a story about some of the most dramatic moments in recorded history, and I wonder if added drama is really necessary.
Even so, I enjoyed the story, especially Iggulden’s main protagonist, with whom I found myself frequently identifying (more so than I do with most characters). There is something natively sympathetic about the Greeks to a modern, Western audience, in no small part because the ideas of Greece, and especially of Athens, are so central to our modern civic environments. In fact, there are some who say that the moments described in The Gates of Athens are defining moments in the history of western civilization, that had the Persians prevailed on the fields of Marathon, or the later battles, our civilization could look very different today.
Yet for all that the battles at Marathon and Thermopylae loom large in the Western imagination, their real consequence is debatable. The scene where the Persian king asks to be reminded to “remember the Greeks” is recorded in many places, but there are some historians who think he had to be reminded so often because the Greeks were such a small and inconsequential pest to an Empire like that which Darius and later Xerxes controlled. The Acheminid Persian Empire’s domain stretched more east than west, and in truth we do not fully know its greatest eastern extent – it may have stretched well into modern India. In other words, from the Persian perspective, the Greeks and their grand stand for freedom were just pests.
Plus, the period that follows the battles depicted in The Gates of Athens (and which I imagine Iggulden will cover in his sequel) was not a noble one for the Greeks. Athens is conquered, and even when the Persian military eventually departs, the Persians do what they do best: divide and conquer. They ultimately end up playing Greek politics, funding one Greek state to pursue a rivalry with another whenever things start to get too copacetic for comfort. And the Greeks are never reluctant to get involved in such inter-city strife.
What I’ve long thought Iggulden does best is the thought and historical realism that he seeks to inject into his battle scenes. The further back in history you go, the less we know about how battles were actually fought. Dan Carlin talks about this a bit in his Hardcore History, as well, that there is a sense in which ancient battles are a mystery to us, and will probably remain so. People of the time did not write about them in the detail we would like today, because it was just something everyone knew. When the front lines met, what was that like? Was it all momentum and grinding flesh on flesh? Did people tend to pull back at the last moment, and create a sort of chaotic no-man’s land between the two forces? There are some historical accounts that refer to the front lines calling insults to each other and having conversations, but we have no way of knowing if this is affectation, or reality. Although Iggulden doesn’t fully explore these ideas, he does strike a different balance for these battles than he does in some of his other books.
This was not my favorite Iggulden book, but it was an interesting read, especially in light of my recent studies of this period of history. Whether or not you read along with my tour of the ancient world’s literature, I encourage you to give The Gates of Athens a try.