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Thermopylae: The Battle That Changed the World [Paperback]

Paul Cartledge
3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

Nov. 6 2007 Vintage
In 480 B.C., the mighty Persian king Xerxes led a massive force to the narrow mountain pass called Thermopylae, anticipating no significant resistance in his bid to conquer Greece. But the Greeks, led by Leonidas and a small army of Spartan warriors, took the battle to the Persians and nearly halted their advance.
 
Paul Cartledge's riveting, authoritative account of King Leonidas and the legendary 300 illuminates this valiant endeavor that changed the way future generations would think about combat, courage, and death.

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From Booklist

The stand by 300 Spartans at the pass of Thermopylae in northern Greece is one of the most revered foundation stories of Western civilization. In 480 BCE, the Spartans heroically delayed the advance of a massive Persian invading force. Thus, so the story goes, the blossoming culture of a "free" Greece was rescued from the domination of oriental despotism and "barbarism." Cartledge, a Cambridge professor of Greek history, reveals a far more complex story. Much of mainland Greece refused to embrace the emerging free and democratic culture associated with Athens. Persians were hardly barbaric, and their imperial control generally left subject peoples, including the Ionian Greeks, considerable latitude. Still, as this beautifully written and stirring saga asserts, the history of Western civilization would almost certainly have been fundamentally different had the Persians prevailed. When describing the actual military conflict, Cartledge's account has a special urgency and poignancy. An outstanding retelling of one of the seminal events in world history. Jay Freeman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Review

“Impeccable...Enthralling...Vividly reconstructs [the Spartans’] finest hour.”
The Independent

“Briskly written...Offers a fresh look at the battle and the complex events leading up to it.”
Forbes

“In the annals of heroism, the Battle of Thermopylae is an archetype, a classic.”
–Noel Malcolm, The Telegraph (UK)

“The real passion of Thermopylae lies in the author’s sudden discovery that his subject is exciting to other people again.”
The Wall Street Journal

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Informative, But A Little Dry Oct. 14 2008
By Patrick Sullivan TOP 100 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
The battle between the Greeks and Persians, is one of the greatest in military history. Cartledge does a good job laying out the details. However, the entire book itself, tends to be a little dull. I believe there are better picks regarding Thermopylae.
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Amazon.com: 3.1 out of 5 stars  46 reviews
101 of 110 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Spartan Suicide Hypothesis Jan. 17 2007
By R. A Forczyk - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The epic stand of King Leonidas and his 300 Spartan hoplites against hordes of invading Persians at the pass of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. is one of the most dramatic and mythologized events in military history. For well over two millennia, the main source on this battle was the works of the ancient Greek historian Herodotus. Now, Cambridge historian Paul Cartledge - an expert on Greek history and the Spartans - uses Herodotus as well as a limited number of other sources to reconstruct the battle and its subsequent historiography in his book entitled, Thermopylae: the Battle that changed the world. The author's central hypothesis is that the 300 Spartans deliberately chose a suicidal course of action at Thermopylae but this was done for a higher good - freedom - which still benefits us to this day. Overall, this book is well-organized and well-written but it does not necessarily convince.

Thermopylae is organized into nine chapters, beginning with several introductory sections that describe the ancient world of 500 B.C., the Persian Empire, the Hellenic World and Sparta. In discussing Sparta, the author is clearly torn between admiring their ascetic military-based ethos and despising their treatment of the down-trodden Helot slaves; the author's inability to discard his 21st Century prejudices and viewpoints appears again and again throughout the text as an annoying distraction. The campaign proper begins in Chapters 5 and 6, with the description of the mobilization for battle of both sides. Readers will be disappointed to see that the battle proper is only cover in the 14 short pages of Chapter 7 - barely 5% of the book's entire length. The author then spends another 50 pages in a rather rambling discussion of the development of the Thermopylae legend from ancient times right up to 2007 and he is not beyond adding pop-culture references from film and comic books. I thought these final chapters would never end.

A central idea in this book is that the Spartans deliberately chose mass suicide at Thermopylae, but the author's evidence for this is rather weak. For example, he notes that in Herodotus' account, a Persian scout saw the Spartans combing their hair before the battle and Professor Cartledge interprets this as preparation for impending death. However, Herodotus actually said that the Spartans did this whenever they went into battle. The author also states that the 300 men sent to Thermopylae all had to have living sons to ensure the survival of their family, but the author never bothers to ask if this was ever done on other occasions. In fact, since Sparta rarely sent troops far afield, it is difficult to analyze this aspect. Actually, the author seems addicted to the suicide theory and makes some odious comparisons with the 9-11 hijackers. The Spartans were professional soldiers who thought carefully about war and they fought other men, not unarmed stewardesses.

The Spartan suicide thesis is further weakened by two salient points. First, the Spartans did not fight alone at Thermopylae but as part of a Greek force that numbered about 7,000 men. The fact that these men could hold off the Persian horde for several days indicates that as long as their flanks were not turned, the position was defensible. Even if we accept that the 300 Spartans were suicidal, this does not include the other 6,000+ Greek troops at Thermopylae. Deployment of a flank guard to cover the single mountain pass behind them indicates that King Leonidas was there to defend the pass, not just offer his tiny band as a sacrificial offering. The second point is the nearby presence of Themistocles' Athenian fleet at Artesium, covering the seaward flank of Thermopylae. Again, if Leonidas only went to Thermopylae to die in place, there would have been no point in coordinating with the Athenian fleet. Actually, the author rattles around with this suicide thesis, offering obtuse commentary about samurai and 9-11 hijackers, but fails to come to grips with the type of mission that the Greek army was given at Thermopylae. Some better examples that the author might have used include the Texan stand at the Alamo in 1836, various Japanese-held islands like Tarawa in 1943 or the stand of the British 1st Airborne Division at Arnhem in 1944. These types of missions are inherently dangerous but the troops involved are not so much suicidal as they are trapped. The author never bothers to ask what would have happened to the 300 Spartans if they had chosen to retreat from the pass once they were flanked, but it is difficult to see how they could have outrun the Persian cavalry. Rather than suicidal fanatics, the Spartans did what any good rearguard would have done - they fought as long as they could to allow others to escape.

Finally, the idea that Thermopylae was a "battle that changed the world" is pretty far out on a limb. While the author was certainly correct that Thermopylae was a `moral victory' for the Greeks this all would have been meaningless if the Greeks had lost at Salamis and Platea. The idea that Western culture was preserved from Persian "barbarism" is also rather parochial, since this entire area was later overrun by a variety of invaders including Goths, Huns and Turks. If Greece had become a minor Persian province for a century or two, it is difficult to see the long-term harm to Western culture in its entirety; Athens might have had to pay regular tribute but there still would have been thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle. All in all, this book has its value in places, but when you get right down to it, it is not a major improvement over what Herodotus already told us.
160 of 183 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Ancient History & Contemporary Political Agendas Nov. 12 2006
By George R Dekle - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I wondered whether this book was necessary in light of Ernle Bradford's excellent book "Thermopylae: Battle for the West," and Peter Green's "The Greco-Persian Wars," but being an ancient history junkie, I bought it. I could have saved my money. Cartledge's book is long on describing the context and short on describing the conduct of the battle.

Cartledge obviously thinks the battle has some relevance to Iraq and Afghanistan, and strains mightily to find it. One example of how mightily he strains is his comparison of Leonidas with the 9/11 hijackers.

Cartledge can't seem to see the difference between Leonidas' heroic-but-doomed last stand against Xerxes and the 9/11 hijackers' suicidal massacre of innocent people. Let me point out just one minor difference. Leonidas faced, killed, and was killed by men who were trying to kill him. The 9/11 hijackers ambushed and killed noncombatants and killed themselves in the process. Another difference lies in the very real possibility that Leonidas intended to actually survive the battle if he could. Although he took with him only men who had sons, that measure can be seen as precautionary rather than preparatory. As J.B. Bury points out in his "History of Greece to the Death of Alexander," had the Phocians held the pass and frustrated Xerxes' efforts to turn Leonidas' position, and had the Greek fleet at Artimesium held, Leonidas might well have returned to Sparta as the living savior of Greece.

The rest of Cartledge's "modern application" of the lessons of Thermopylae appears as off base as his Leonidas/hijacker analogy. Bradford's and Green's books are far, far better than this offering.
16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not a First Choice Nov. 16 2006
By David A. Wend - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I bought Paul Cartledge's Thermopylae based upon a couple of favorable reviews. However, on reading the book my expectation - that the Greco-Persian War would receive an in depth treatment - was not meet. Dr Cartledge has some good information on the Persian's and Spartans, describing their way of life and their differences, but he does not go into great depth. I did appreciate the comparison of the Spartan's to the Samurai in their attitude toward battle and death. The battle of Thermopylae is adequately described but was lacking the dramatic description that a writer like Peter Green could supply. It seemed that Xerxes' bridge over the Hellespont was a cake walk instead of the awesome engineering feat that the ancients felt it was.

I sometimes found Dr. Cartledge's writing a bit rambling, as if someone had transcribed a lecture with all of the quirks and asides of spoken language included. I agree with Bob Dekle and I also found Dr. Cartledge's comparison of the 9/11 hijackers to the 300 was a bit strained. There was also a remark concerning President Clinton's shocked reaction to the savage death of an American soldier in Somalia as being foreign to the way a Spartan would feel the same event. I could not help thinking that this reflected Dr Cartledge's own political beliefs and had no place in a book about an ancient battle.

I did more skimming as I read toward the end of the book, particularly in the sections dealing with the modern legacy of Thermopylae but I was interested in reading that Dr Cartledge liked the 1962 film The 300 Spartans. The maps and black and white illustration are good and, in general, add to the understanding of the text. Thermopylae, for me, is a decent book but not one that I would want to save as a reference.
24 of 30 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Impact of Thermopylae Nov. 24 2006
By lordhoot - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I always enjoyed Paul Cartledge's works despite of the fact that he's not a very inspiring or engaging writer. His works are usually well researched and his command of the subject proves to be first rate. After reading this book, I realized that the author's intent was not to write an in-depth study of the actual battle but the impact this battle had not only on the contemporary Greek world but how it impacted the history from that point on into our modern era. This book is more about cause and effect of the battle in light of history then the battle itself. The battle narrative proves to be limited to one chapter and its pretty short and sweet.

While one reviewer wrote negatively about what the author included in his appendixs, it is just an appendix for reader's further information. I would think that one would be grateful that the author added appendixs when so many do not.

I would also like to point out that I do not believed that the author was making a literal comparison between Leonidas and the 9/11 hijackers. What the author appears to say is that Leonidas and his Spartans willingness to died in losing battle appears to be a lost military trait among the western nations today while radical Isalmic terrorists like those of 9/11 hijackers still got the desire to kill and died freely for their cause, no matter how despicable it may be. This trait may be the reason why the radical Isalm may be hard to defeat.

In conclusion, I would say this: it would be a mistake to regard this as a military history book. Its closer to being a social and philosphical look at the impact of Thermopylae. I would recommend the book by Ernle Bradford on the same subject but with a very different approach. Bradford's book gears more closely to the military history aspects of the battle then Cartledge's book. In some ways, reading both books will give any reader a very well rounded understanding of Battle of Thermopylae and its impacts in history.
24 of 30 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars 9/11 hijackers and the Spartans? No dice. March 27 2007
By Dick Marti - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
In an otherwise competent but pedestrian rehash of the Thermopylae story, this book would perhaps have deserved 4 stars. But I reached pages 130-131, and read the author's comparison of the defenders at Thermopylae with the 9/11 hijackers. What possible comparison could the author see? The Spartans and their allies were well aware that they were at war, and so were the Persians. Both had weapons in hand and faced each other. Yes, the odds were asymmetrical. But at least it was warrior versus warior, not unarmed and unaware civilian versus armed warriors. And then there is the discussion of the Japanese kamikaze pilots in WW2. Here again, it was soldier against soldier in war. Each had weapons and each had some idea of what he faced. The 9/11 hijackers were murderers pure and simple. There is no comparison to Thermopylae and the author should be taken to task for it. Shame.
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