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Monday, December 3, 2012

“Thermopylae: The Battle That Changed the World”, by Paul Cartledge

313 pages, Overlook Press, ISBN-13: 978-1585675661

I wondered whether this book was necessary in light of Ernle Bradford's excellent book Thermopylae: Battle for the West or Peter Green's The Greco-Persian Wars, but being a history junkie, I bought it. I could have saved my money. Cartledge's book is long on describing the context and short on describing the conduct of the battle. It is very unfortunate that such an expert as he would write a book which displays such a lack of focus. I know that there isn't that much to write about a battle where everyone died and we therefore have no witnesses, but to spend only one short chapter on it is ridiculous. I've read better summaries of the battle in books dealing with the entire war. The first half of the book is about the Spartans, which is pretty interesting except that Cartledge already wrote a book about them, The Spartans: The World of the Warrior-Heroes of Ancient Greece. Why repeat what you already wrote? Then there's the chapter on the battle itself which is brief and undetailed. The final third of the book spent on how the battle was viewed throughout history an interesting topic, but not in a popular history, please!

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. Allow me to 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. 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 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.

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