Thermopylae: The Battle That Changed the World Paperback – Nov 6 2007
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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.
“Impeccable...Enthralling...Vividly reconstructs [the Spartans’] finest hour.”
“Briskly written...Offers a fresh look at the battle and the complex events leading up to it.”
“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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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.
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.
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.
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.