December 4, 2006


Thermopylae: Round One in the Clash of Civilizations: a review of Thermopylae: The Battle That Changed the World by Paul Cartledge (BRENDAN BOYLE, December 4, 2006, NY Sun)

In a review of George Grote's magisterial "History of Greece," John Stuart Mill wrote that the "battle of Marathon, even as an event in English history, is more important than the battle of Hastings. If the issue of that day had been different, the Britons and the Saxons might still have been wandering in the woods." This can't be right, not least because Persians, whom a small band of Athenians defeated at Marathon in 490 B.C.E., were not given to wandering in the woods. They much preferred idling in gardens. Paul Cartledge, however, seems to think Mill mostly right. He only got the battle wrong. It was not Marathon, but Thermopylae, 10 years after Marathon, that kept him and the rest of the West out of the woods. And this, as he announces in the subtitle of his new book, "Thermopylae: The Battle That Changed the World" (Overlook, 376 pages, $30), was probably the least of its accomplishments. [...]

When the Persian Emperor Darius, whose forces had been defeated at Marathon, died, the mantle passed to his son Xerxes, who marched his enemy over the Hellespont into northern Greece and down the eastern coast of the Greek mainland. Thermopylae was a mountain defile, scarcely 20 meters wide in some places, and it was here that 300 Spartans, commanded by their king Leonidas, took their stand against Xerxes's troops. Herodotus numbers them at 5 million, but the real number was closer to 100,000. The 300 Spartans held off the Persians for two days. A saboteur named Ephialtes betrayed them — his infamy survives in modern Greek as the word for "nightmare" — and, on the third day, the Spartans were outflanked and destroyed.

Two Spartans survived. One, who missed the encounter at Thermopylae because he was on a diplomatic mission, hanged himself in disgrace upon his return home. The other, who missed the battle because of an eye infection (not much of an excuse for a solider, never mind a Spartan), went on a suicide mission in the next major encounter with the Persians. When Spartans said that the only way to return from a battle was with your shield or on it, they meant it.

How, then, was Thermopylae the battle that changed the world if the Greeks lost? It did seriously weaken the Persian forces and spelled their ultimate defeat. But Mr. Cartledge has something grander in mind. For him, Thermopylae was a triumph of "reasoned devotion to, and self-sacrifice in the name of, a higher collective cause, Freedom." The strange capitalization is Mr. Cartledge's and it is a measure of just how seriously he takes the Spartans' stand. They were defending Freedom against Persian Slavery — again, capital "S." Round one in the "clash of civilizations."

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 4, 2006 8:23 AM

"How, then, was Thermopylae the battle that changed the world if the Greeks lost?"

Sad that Mr. Boyle has to (correctly) assume such historical ignorance & analytical incompetence from his readers.

To give a contemporary analogy, which battle was more important: The Alamo, or San Jacinto?

Posted by: b at December 4, 2006 12:15 PM

Did those battles make much of a difference? I suspect the biggest difference is that a Persian satrap might have treated Socrates more tolerantly than the Athenian democracy.

Posted by: Joseph Hertzlinger at December 4, 2006 1:17 PM

This was good on Thermopylae - Tom Holland's "Persian Fire"
Especially good on the sheer strangeness of the Spartans

Posted by: mike at December 4, 2006 3:17 PM