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.