A condensed version of this review appeared in the November 2021 issue of The Historical Novels Review.
Conn Iggulden has already established himself as a master of military fiction. In his Conqueror series—a five-tome epic about the rise of the Mongol Empire—he proved he can rival Bernard Cornwell’s skill in recreating battles on land. But in Iggulden’s new Athenian series, he demonstrates he can also do a credible impression of Patrick O’Brian’s vivid portrayals of conflicts at sea.
Protector picks up where the first book left off: in 480 BCE, with the second Persian invasion of Greece threatening to overwhelm the Hellenic peoples who chose not to submit to King Xerxes and the sprawling forces of the Achaemenid Empire. After making a valiant stand at Thermopylae and Artemisium, the Greeks have retreated to Salamis, an island west of Athens. And the Persians have followed.
Iggulden plunges us into the action, detailing how the surrounding waters become “a slick of splinters and corpses” as Greek triremes—nimble warships crewed by three rows of oarsmen and tipped with a ship-killing bronze ram—do their best to survive against a vast fleet of Persian galleys as Athens burns in the distance. Protector isn’t just a naval affair, though. The book also details the subsequent clash at Platea, a dusty turning point featuring the Greek phalanxes and their formidably long dory spears made from “great lengths of Macedonian ash. Some were older than the men who bore them, but cared for, oiled, sanded, the heads kept free of rust.”
The details are evocative, and the stakes are high throughout: Greece’s fate hangs in the balance, and with it, perhaps, the ensuing course of Western civilization. (In his afterword, Iggulden notes that, “The philosopher John Stuart Mill once described Plataea as more important to history than the battle of Hastings.”)
There’s more to Protector than just fight scenes, though. Iggulden can write intrigue too, as he does in chronicling how Athenian maneuvers eventually force Sparta to take the field against Persia. Along the way, he weaves in themes of sacrifice and the costs of war. Most of the principal Greek characters are older (having seen off the first Persian incursion at Marathon ten years earlier). Many of them have children, some of whom are of fighting age. But keeping them out of harm’s way isn’t an option. For the Greeks to have a chance, they can’t hold anything back. As one character notes, “no one keeps a reserve in a fight with a bear. It was all or nothing, for a future as free men or slaves.”
Iggulden also touches on the hypocrisy of that sentiment. The Greeks saw bending the knee to Persia as an unacceptable form of subjugation, yet they thought little of owning slaves themselves. The martial culture of Sparta depended on the practice: “No Spartan ever built a wall ... or shaped a pot, or cut wood for the fire. Their helots did every bit of manual labour in Sparta. All the while, Spartiates trained, in skill and fitness, for all the hours of light, from the age of seven to the age of sixty, when they finally laid down their weapons.” And despite the egalitarian spirit suffusing Athenian democracy, the city in which it flourished was sustained by the efforts of men and women whose lack of liberty belied that noble ideal.
But while I appreciate that Iggulden brings this issue to light, I wish Protector had investigated it further. Most of the point-of-view characters in the book are generals and kings, men with power and status. It might have been illuminating to see some of the story through the eyes of an Athenian slave who earned his freedom by rowing in the bowels of a trireme during the engagement around Salamis, or one of the helots who fought at Platea, or even a Persian soldier forced to fight in a strange land for a king who could order his death on a whim. The book gestures at this type of bottom-up perspective, but infrequently and never firsthand. (I also wish the lone female character—the wife of one of the Greek notables—had more agency. For the most part, we only spend time with her when she’s a refugee waiting for Persian soldiers to stop despoiling her home so she can rebuild it.)
These quibbles aside, I found Protector to be a compelling, informative read. And I especially enjoyed Iggulden’s tantalizing hint about where the series (or a future one) might end up: at one point, two Persian generals are laughing about the boastful claims made by the first King Alexander of Macedonia. “You believe the man’s prophecy was wrong, then?” one of the generals asks. “Who knows,” the other answers. “I think if his family is destined to rule all Greece, this is the wrong year … Or he is the wrong Alexander of Macedon.”
If Iggulden decides to tell that tale—of how the third Alexander from Macedonia’s royal family came to be known as “the Great”—I will absolutely devour it (top-down storytelling or not). Especially if Iggulden relates it with the same deft blend of pacing and politics he showcases in Protector.
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