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
“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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The Battle of Salamis: The Naval Encounter That Saved Greece -- and Western Civilization by Barry Strauss. I learned a lot more about Thermopylae with Strauss' book plus a TON about the naval counterpart. Extremely well written and engaging. It was hard to put Strauss' book down.
I found this a moving and thought-provoking look at why Thermopolyae, a defeat to almost the last man, is almost more famous that victories elsewhere these past 2,500 years or so. Cartledge provides resonant reasons. I had not known that, prior to going to Thermopolyae, the Spartans chose only men (including one of their kings) with living sons, supporting Cartledge's suggestion that, for a Spartan warrior, death was not to be feared and could sometimes be welcomed. I had learned to dislike many aspects of the Spartan autocratic state, but I had not learned to appreciate their courage or learned to slightly understand how they thought and believed. Nor had I quite understood that their semi-suicide mission united the fractious Greek city-states against Persia as, perhaps, nothing else could have. It arguably allowed them, later, to defeat first the Persian Navy at Salamis, then its army at Plataea. Cartledge suggests, and one could argue, that without death at Thermopolyae, Xerxes might have conquered Greece, with its resonant impact on future world history.
I'm sure I have read these ideas in other, more detailed studies of the battle, but somehow the ideas did not make sense as they do when Cartledge ponders them. As Cartledge notes, the pass at Thermopylae was one of the first great clashes between the cultures of East and West, and he devotes some time to that conflict, even as it continues down to the present. He also reminds us that, under the leadership of the Spartans, citizen soldiers of other Greek cities died to a man defending the Pass: a defeat that partook of a morale victory, as he calls it.
There are many, many books about the Persian Wars of the early 5th century, but I believe this one deserves a place among them for helping us to understand why, as its subtitle asserts, Thermopylae was a battle that changed the world.
First, there are some very useful maps that help one understand the gegoraphy of the battle, as well as the pathway taken by Xerxes in his invasion of Greece.
Second,the book begins by looking at the world scene before the battle even began. He outlines the ancient world at about 500 BC, including the development of the Persian Empire (and the Achaemenidean dynasty, featuring kings such as Cyrus the Great, the unfortunate Cambyses, Darius, and Xerxes). He also describes the dynamic and unsettled nature of the Greek city-states and the colonies that they planted throughout the Meditteranean. A considerable emphasis, of course, is placed on the culture and polity of Sparta, explaining, in part, why the 300 were ready to die. The book argues that Leonidas and the soldiers under him knew that they were to die. He likens them to others who fought, knowing that death was inevitable (e.g., kamikaze pilots).
Third, the battle itself. It is somewhat disconcerting to have him depend so much on Herodotus' rendering of the story. However, he weaves in much detail on the actual geography of the battle site, the cultural background, and so on.
Fourth, and an interesting effort in itself, he discusses the impact of the battle on history and culture, including a listing of movies related to the battle and the political side of some of these movies. The final chapter returns to his theme that the battle--and the entire Persian-Greek War--represents a "turning-point in world history" (the subtitle of the chapter). He concludes with a quotation from William Golding, Nobel laureate, who, after having visited the battleground, said (page 211): "A little of Leonidas lies in the fact that I can go where I like and write what I like. He contributed to set us free."
Again, I am not sure how strong that case is, since Thermopylae was a defeat; it would appear that subsequent naval combat at Salamis and a disastrous defeat of the Persians by the Greeks at Platea were more important events (and one wishes that the author had discussed even briefly that battle as well as Salamis, to understand better the totality of the war). All in all, though, a nice volume on the Greek world of its time.