Peter Jones reviews
Why do academics have to apologise for their subject-matter? Thermopylae is a war-story. Get on with it. Instead we have to endure pages of liberal breast-beating about how horrible war is before Cartledge cuts to the chase. But how horrid was it for the ancients? It was endemic, and slaughter an entirely routine exercise. There is a book to be written about precisely why killing people has become, almost overnight, so shocking to the 20thC Western mind.
Cartledge argues that Persian expansion in the 6thC BC into western Asia (modern Turkey) and parts of northern Greece was not primarily motivated by a desire to expand into the Greek mainland or Europe; there were few, if any, economic or security advantages to be gained from it. But when Greeks who had been living in Asia for centuries engineered various revolts against Persia and were helped by mainland Greeks including Athens, the Persian king Darius took it personally and thought it worthwhile showing who the boss was. When his assault was famously thrown back by a mainly Athenian force at Marathon (490 BC), Darius’ son and successor Xerxes, with revenge in mind, launched a massive second attack ten years later.
Most Greek states in the north took one look and capitulated (it is worth remembering here that Greece, or rather Hellas, did not exist as a political entity, let alone unity, at that time; ‘Hellas’ consisted of hundreds of autonomous ‘city-states’, united only by the dialect of Greek they spoke, many of them fighting each other like snakes in a sack). But thirty one states, loosely united under Spartan leadership, took oaths under a ‘mutual defence’ pact. They eventually agreed to try to halt the Persian advance at the narrow pass of Thermopylae – with a contingent so small that Cartledge likens it to the state-sanctioned suicide squads of Japanese kamikaze pilots. As he points out, the Spartans, reared in the expectation of dying young in battle anyway, had the same sense of a glorious death as the ultimate career move. The heroic Greek resistance, led by a crack Spartan force under Leonidas, lasted three days and was finally ended by treachery. All but two were slain on the field. They lived in ignominy thereafter.
Cartledge is no Tom Holland or Robert Harris, but he is Professor of Greek History at Cambridge: he lays out the background clearly and, combining thorough scholarship with easy readability, draws the Thermopylae story to a fine conclusion. That story in fact ends half-way through the book. The second half is taken up with the resonances of the tale down the ages, reflections on the ‘meaning’ of the image of Sparta for us, and a variety of appendices on Herodotus, the main source for the story. I suspect an element of padding in all this (the somewhat repetitious, lecture-like epilogue and appendices often stray from the subject), but the uses to which later generations have put classical examples (‘reception’) is a hot topic these days, and Cartledge finds much of interest, e.g. that that great freedom-fighter Hitler in his bunker appealed to the spirit of Leonidas.
However, I am still not quite convinced that Thermopylae ‘changed the world’. It held up the Persians briefly and may have boosted the morale of the Greek resistance, but the real work was done at the subsequent battle of Salamis, when the Persian fleet was destroyed, and at Plataea in 479BC when the Persian army was defeated. Only then could the Greeks, freed from the Persian menace, raise the curtain on their ‘golden age’.