Nudell on Jensen, 'The Greco-Persian Wars: A Short History with Documents'

Erik Jensen
Joshua Nudell

Erik Jensen. The Greco-Persian Wars: A Short History with Documents. Passages: Key Moments in History Series. Cambridge: Hackett Publishing, 2021. Maps. 232 pp. $18.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-62466-954-5; $49.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-62466-955-2.

Reviewed by Joshua Nudell (Truman State University) Published on H-War (February, 2023) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

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Ancient history does not lack for books on the Greco-Persian Wars of 490–479 BCE, many carrying a subtitle asserting that they saved “Western civilization.” Modern histories that subscribe to this vision of civilizational clash tend to be particularly Hellenophilic and hew closely to the narrative found in Herodotus’s history. In the past few decades, however, another tradition has begun to develop in step with a new generation of scholarship on Achaemenid Persia. This reappraisal situates the Greco-Persian Wars within the context of the Persian political system and rejects the Orientalist tropes that are usually deployed to explain the invasions. What emerges from this treatment is a picture of a persistent political conflict that intermittently erupted into violence. Erik Jensen’s The Greco-Persian Wars: A Short History with Documents offers a new introduction to this newer tradition. He justifies another treatment of this material by arguing that “the real legacy of the Greco-Persian Wars in world history is not the heroic legend of stalwart Spartans at Thermopylae but the insight it gives us into the complexities and consternations of an imperial frontier” (p. 33).

Following a chronology and glossary, The Greco-Persian Wars is divided into two main parts. Jensen first offers a brief, synoptic history of the Persian Wars, which concludes with a useful discussion of the sources designed to orient an unfamiliar reader to the kaleidoscope of names and types of evidence. The second consists of eighty-five documents in translation, each with a brief discussion, organized into thirteen categories that range from “Persian ideology” to “Greek relations with Egypt” to “Diplomacy and stability, 450–387 BCE.” The volume concludes with a select, principally anglophone, bibliography and an index.

Jensen’s introduction offers a useful framework for understanding the war as a Persian frontier conflict rather than the heroic defense of Western civilization against an Oriental other. At several points in this section, for instance, he makes the reasonable argument that the actual Persian objective in subduing this fractious frontier was Egypt but that “controlling Egypt required managing Greece” (p. 14). This assertion is broadly grounded in recent scholarship and usefully encourages the reader to look beyond the traditional confines of the war, but he also misses some opportunities in the select bibliography to support it.[1] This pattern repeats throughout the introduction. A “select bibliography” will always contain omissions, but they become less explicable when it leads to leaving out scholarship like Dominique Lenfant on the Greek accounts of Persia or David C. Yates on the memory of the Persian Wars that are natural fits for the project.[2] Gaps like these in the bibliography limit the book’s utility as a resource, but they do not substantially detract from the quality of the discussion. Likewise, while it is possible to quibble at times with Jensen’s presentation of events or definitions, those debates largely lie beyond the scope of this volume, which is designed as a short introduction.

The book’s strongest feature is its collection of primary sources. Jensen’s translations and introductions are well calibrated for a nonspecialist audience, and the source selections work in tandem with the first part of the book. Herodotus is well represented, particularly in the sections on the course of the military operations, and Jensen also includes a refreshing selection of Persian, Mesopotamian, and Egyptian sources that shed light on the events that led up to the war.

However, the same admirable breadth creates challenges in terms of balance. The first section, for instance, presents eight selections from both Achaemenid and Greek sources that offer insight into the social organization of the Persian Empire. Jensen includes two Persian sources on the people under their rule but notably omits the description of Darius’s reorganization of the empire found in Herodotus. This is a subtle distinction but one that leads to the impression that Persia was an unchanging entity rather than an evolving social system, thus making Herodotus an ideal complement to these Persian sources. Other sections avoid this issue by focusing on narrower topics, only to introduce new issues. For instance, Jensen aims, commendably, to offer a wider perspective on the conflict but nevertheless largely replicates the traditional emphasis on the two invasions of the Balkan Peninsula as the key events of the Greco-Persian Wars. Thus, Xerxes’s Aegean campaign of 480/79 (section 10) contains thirteen selections, ten of which are from Herodotus’s History (ca. 430 BC), while the century between the conclusion of that campaign and the King’s Peace of 386 (sections 12 and 13) is covered in just fourteen, only one of which includes an Achaemenid source. Explanations for these choices are easy to divine, but their token inclusion also somewhat limits the book’s potential to fulfill Jensen’s stated objective of evaluating the wars as an ongoing frontier conflict.

The Greco-Persian Wars is ultimately too slim and uneven to stand on its own. To give just one example, Jensen contextualizes ancient Greece in terms of its relationship to the eastern Mediterranean but assumes that the audience will bring with them a familiarity with the Greek world and thus offers no dedicated introduction to it. The book’s value, then, is as a substitute for Herodotus’s History in a class where the instructor will introduce Greece elsewhere but wants to offer the students sources that are not limited to Herodotus’s narrative arc.

My critiques notwithstanding, The Greco-Persian Wars is an appealing book and Jensen ought to be lauded for having produced a valuable introduction to one of the defining events of the ancient world.


[1]. For example, Stephen Ruzicka, “Clazomenae and Persian Foreign Policy, 387/6 B.C.,” Phoenix 37, no. 2 (1983): 104–8.

[2]. For example, Dominique Lenfant, “Greek Historians of Persia,” in A Companion to Greek and Roman Historiography, ed. John Marincola (Malden: Blackwell, 2007), 200–9; Dominique Lenfant, “Greek Monographs on the Persian World,” in Between Thucydides and Polybius: The Golden Age of Greek Historiography, ed. Giovanni Parmeggiani (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 197–210; and David C. Yates, States of Memory: The Polis, Panhellenism, and the Persian War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019).

Citation: Joshua Nudell. Review of Jensen, Erik, The Greco-Persian Wars: A Short History with Documents. H-War, H-Net Reviews. February, 2023. URL:

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