Cartledge, Professor of Greek History at
Cambridge University, presents the battle of Thermopylae sandwiched
between a portrait of the combatants' nations and the Afterlife of
this one battle in the Wars between the Aggressive Empire of the
Persians and the (few resistant) Disunited City-States of Hellas. It
intends to engage a popular audience; footnotes and discussion of
the many problems are few. There is no thesis to sustain.
Professional auctoritas carries laypersons through the
narrative. No innovation in method, viewpoint (the Opuntian
Locrians', say), or evidence interferes with a clearly told
foundational story to cheer remaining adherents of Western
Civilization in a dark culture-clashing era.
written useful detailed studies on many aspects of Laconian society
and economy. His books appear in two classes. First, from his
dissertation (Oxford 1975) onward, he has produced specialized
studies of Laconians—the unique and peculiar populations of ancient
Lakedaimon, a polis and its nearby but vast conquered territories
(including Messenia) popularly known as "Sparta." Therein dwelt full
Spartiates, Helots (indigenes, believed racially distinct, who were
tied to the land and without rights), and the perioikoi or "dwellers
around"—a peculiar class of farmers and soldiers freer than slaves
but far below the rank of citizens). Second, he has published for a
public interested in history, e.g., The Greeks: Crucible of
Civilization (NY: TV Books, 2002—a book connected to a BBC
television series) and a biography of Alexander. It is difficult to
write one book to satisfy both scholarly colleagues and popular
audiences who learn history from the History Channel.
The name Thermopylae
excites the pulse of all students of military history. This
strategic location was in 480 BCE a narrow pass (15 yards?) between
rock cliffs and the sea, but one notoriously capable of being turned
by an enemy accessing a nearby mountain pass (cf. Hdt. 7.216). It
was the site of several recorded "turnings" in antiquity after the
strange one described in this volume (the Gauls in 279, the Romans
under Cato the Elder in 191, etc.).
force of the suicidal but strategic Spartan mission with allies
(7,000 men in all) stopped King Xerxes' summer and autumn invasion
of Greece for seven days. The bold and unexpected non-surrender
committed various mainland poleis to battle and set an undeniable
example of courage for cities still wavering—most had already
indicated submission to the imperial oriental juggernaut (whose
forces included numerous eastern and northern Greeks). Soon after,
their political steadfastness unto death produced Simonides' most
famous epigram (153, a feeble translation). Then, centuries long
after, that epigram served as grist for one of Cicero's poetic
attempts. Long after that, the Napoleonic artist Jacques-Louis David
made the Laconian preparations for death the subject of a curiously
The momentary victory and defeat in the north gave the Hellenes time
to rally more local support in the south (even if "delaying action"
was not the intent)
and to show that a small defense force of Greeks could halt and
flummox, not to mention gouge out the elite of, a very much larger
Persian army. All they needed, it seems, to hold the pass were the
lethal hoplite weapons of offense and defense, the best infantry
training in the world, and a position dug into a good, defensible
spot. Not much later that year, in late autumn 480, off the island
of Salamis near the Saronic Gulf harbor of the Peiraieus, the
significantly outnumbered Hellenic fleet, positioned in a convenient
strait by the Attic strategist Themistokles, would replicate that
careful identification of a defensible position in a naval conflict.
prose few authors have ever surpassed, tells both these heroic
stories. Nothing in his Histories is more epic, Homeric, and
heroic than his account of this brief holding action at Thermopylae.
This disciplined last stand, principally designed and then
mythicized by a notably self-important and self-serving community,
quickly became the Panhellenic moment of pride. It retained that
position fifty years later when Herodotos collected accounts (but
from whom, who would know?) and visited the monuments. The defeat at
Thermopylae trumped the previous victory at Marathon for the Greeks,
excepting always the Athenians and their doughty Plataian allies who
fought there. Herodotos presents the Spartan glorified version
complete with oracles, seers, and ascertained self-sacrifice. The
act of the 300 Spartiate contingent obliterates in this ancient
account the equal bravery of others. From Herodotos' facts, we
excavate 700 stubborn Thespians (their entire hoplite force) who
refused to go home, untold Helots (cf. 8.25) and perioikoi who had
to remain, perhaps 80 Mykenaians (cf. Pausanias 10.20.2), and even
the 400 Thebans who stayed. These men, more likely in these parlous
circumstances drawn from the anti-Persian "loyalists" than medizers
staying under compulsion (Hdt. 7.222), have had their reputations
successfully blackened—despite Plutarch's energetic defense (The
Malice of Herodotos 31-33).
Herodotos is no
dependable Laconophile, or at least an often skeptical one, but in
his account the Spartiates get nearly all the heroic credit for this
avant-garde shared achievement.
Herodotos' dramatic narrative has the defects of having no written
accounts to lean on, of his age's deficiencies in civic and personal
records, of the weaknesses of ancient military narratives in
general—which are often long on speeches and short on details and
statistics of engagement. "There was no Herodotos before Herodotos,"
as Arnaldo Momigliano aphoristically wrote.
The nature of
hoplite warfare remains a notorious black hole or scholarly snake
pit in modern historiography.
The Spartans trained the best hoplites, but this battle was not a
typical open-field, fixed line, hoplite engagement. Although
Herodotos reports an example of the hoplite battle-line shove
(7.225; cf. p. 145), neither this nor the reported feigned retreats
and turnabouts are likely to have occurred in the very narrow
quarters. Military history, including tactics, numbers, and
logistics, we can summarize, is not Herodotos' strongest suit, so
Cartledge's book has certain a priori justifications. As in
his amazingly recent Alexander the Great (Woodstock & New
York, NY: Overlook Pr, 2004), he has chosen a subject for
reconsideration where many gaps exist in the historical record.
Unlike in that book, however, here his story competes with one of
history's greatest narrative prose-writers.
This raises the question whether the modern author will step back to
allow his only dependable ancient source to present the original,
unimprovable version. His accounts of the heterogeneous wealth of
the Achaemenid Empire, the bizarre organization of Spartan lives,
and the modern legends related to the ancient battle are cogent and
The book begins with
a useful timeline, an Achaemenid Royal Persian stemma, and six maps,
five of which unfortunately do not indicate elevations. The sixth,
of the west end of the Malian Gulf, indicates incomprehensibly land
"contours." Three Appendixes puzzle the reader. One translates
Herodotos' colorful and controversial Persian "Muster Lists" for the
campaign of 480 BCE. But why
translate this passage and not others? Another describes the extant
ancient sources. It justly praises the historical value of
Herodotos, despite referring to his Homeric "blatantly fictitious"
stories (220). Cartledge concludes, however, as he must: "we either
write a history of Thermopylae with him, or we do not write one at
all" (222). Since he has written such an account, we conclude that
he respects his source. (See below for the third Appendix.)
nine chapters and an epilogue. The first eighty pages consider the
worlds the antagonists lived in: four chapters survey the ancient
southern Euro-Asian continent, the Persian Empire, the Hellenic
city-states, and the unique Spartans, haughty, relentless, and
ruthless, as the chapter epigraph describes them. He might have
extended his account of Sparta and its eighty small towns, given his
unique expertise and his book's focus on the Spartiates at
Thermopylae. He alleges that the Spartans would only murder Helots
with impunity if they rebelled, but this contradicts Thoukydides'
chilling account (4.80) of their killing thousands in the later
fifth century whose only crime was to think they had served
Lakedaimon well. Their sorry fate was unknown despite Thoukydides'
best efforts at investigation. No reader of this Review,
including me, would last long among the soldier class or want to
dally in their daily drills and gruff messes.
The next three
chapters replay Book 7 of Herodotos' Histories. These three
chapters of Thermopylae are entitled "Thermopylae," of which
one actually describes the eponymous battle of Thermopylae. The
Spartans headed the ad hoc Hellenic coalition, because of both their
leadership role in the Peloponnesian League (which furnished half
the states in the coalition, as the mutilated Delphic Serpent Column
still attests), and their acknowledged military prowess. Cartledge
argues that Thermopylae had several quasi-religious advantages for
its choice as the point of resistance. Mount Oita nearby was the
Spartan-beloved Akhaian Herakles' site of suicide by immolation and
nearby Doris was the mythistorical Dorian homeland. More
speculatively, nearby, to the west of Thermopylae, anxious
hierophants of Delphi were not propitious to forces counseling
resistance to the Great King, but King Leonidas,
may have coaxed out an oracle demanding the leadership and sacrifice
of a king, namely himself.
Since the Spartiate
element of the force was chosen on the basis of having existing male
issue as well as being young and fit, Cartledge reasonably concludes
that they already knew that they constituted a "suicide squad"
(130). He compares these soon-to-be-dead Spartiates to Japanese
kamikaze pilots and the Samurai's bushido code of honor.
He explains Spartan warriors' long hair as a function of the
inversion at Sparta of many Hellenic customs. Cartledge's account of
the battle is flat, but all would concede that none can compete with
the deft Ionic touch of Herodotos' presentation. Hellenic morale
received a remarkable jolt from these Hellenes' contribution.
Cartledge cuts away from the seamless story, right after the battle,
cuts from the closely coordinated naval campaign at Artemision and
the consequences for the war, constrained as he is by his title's
The final two
chapters discuss the Thermopylae (read Spartan) legend in the
ancient and post-ancient worlds. The photographs of places and
things are welcome additions. Cartledge retells the complicated
disgrace of the Spartiate Aristodamos, the "trembler," afflicted by
a severe eye-inflammation. Leonidas ordered both him and another
sufferer among his 300 to return home, and home he went (alone, or
with his Helot; Hdt. 7.229-32).
His dismissed fellow trooper, Eurytos, stayed to fight on, even
though blind (his Helot rationally departing), and so sealed
Aristodamos' unpleasant fate on his return home in a closed and
unforgiving society. The Spartans blackballed the survivor (no talk,
no shared fire). In his imposed isolation, he went berserk the next
year against the Persian foes in the battle of Plataiai and died
bravely. Aristodamos distinguished himself for battle valor at
Plataiai, but, as Cartledge neatly explains, "for the wrong reason,
with the wrong motivation, at the wrong time and in the wrong way"
(159). Thus, he did not gain the official Spartan commendation for
battle excellence (aristeia).
The chapter on
Thermopylae from the Renaissance to our day pauses to quote and
discuss, among others, Montaigne, Fénelon, J.-L. David's painting,
Cavafy's caustic, deflationary "Thermopylae," and Housman's jaunty,
celebratory "The Oracles." The use and abuse of Sparta by Hitler's
Nazis offers bemusement—although the Spartans might puzzle equally
at democratic ideologues claiming their heritage descends from
Spartan "freedom fighters." The epilogue is insufficiently cautious.
Cartledge claims for the extended and never fully ended wars against
Persia an "eventual total Greek victory." He states that this
suicidal stand showed that "the Persians should and could usefully
be resisted" (204). The "should" cannot hold. All Greeks (including
the Helots but somehow not inhabitants of Anatolia or the Punjab)
somehow have a "birthright of freedom" (207), but Cartledge points
to the (once again) pious oppressors as "our Spartan ancestors."
totalitarian and racist ideal is not one that inhabitants of
multi-cultural and multi-ethnic democratic cities of the United
Kingdom, the United States, or France can or wish to endorse.
distinguishes the Spartans from Persians as men "not compelled by
sheer terror" and avers that their society—once, of course, we
remove infanticide and Helot-unfreeness (perhaps add women's lack of
political participation, soul-destroying psychological abuse of the
disinclined, general dearth of non-religious spiritual nourishment,
etc., etc.)—"might not be the worst place on earth to find
ourselves" (211). A qualified, litotic Amen.
We surmise the
intended audience from page one: it is up-to-date, recognizing the
Bushian phrase "shock and awe" from the war in Iraq; it is
post-modern and deconstructive, appreciating the view that the
"Spartans' (de)feat was absolutely crucial"; and it relishes
Britannic meiosis and litotes,
admiring the description of the motley Hellenic detachments sent to
hold the pass as "a smallish Greek force of some seven thousand or
so." Both the "some" and the "or so" seem redundant; the "smallish"
might well be replaced by "largish," given the size of most Greek
field armies and the reported and geo-archaeologically reconstructed
dimensions of the pass in 480. Could King Leonidas have done more
with these original thousands than he did with his "dead-ender" few
hundreds? Indeed, he probably sent the others away—"quislings" and
dubious slackers, impressed hostages, and supernumeraries, since
some men's lives did not need to be sacrificed—because they would
interfere with what the "token if elite force" (7) might accomplish.
Trivial errors sometimes result from hasty writing,
such as the Achaemenid survey placing Iran to the west of Iraq
(19-20), but I am worried more by Cartledge's relapse into
conventional, knee-jerk expressions such as the Greeks who "first
felt the lash of the Persian whip" (16). The following phrase
baffles me: "what the Greeks rather hopefully called ‘India'" (17).
Should they have been more familiar with what the British imperial
designation included? When Cartledge claims, "the encounter at
Thermopylae was only a matter of time" (17), he fudges a major
problem that all historians face and falls into the circular trap of
believing that the war was inevitable because—because it happened.
We need to know why this war or any other, this empire or that
imperial thrust, was inevitable. Herodotos wants to know, as he
tells us ab initio, why and how conflicts begin, and (we can
surmise from other narratives of his) why sometimes they do not.
Readers need to know when and what it was that made this campaign
and conflict inevitable—if indeed it ever was. Others argue that it
was more thaumatic—miraculous, improbable, or at least
some fine analyses and analogies: he compares Leotykhidas' foolish
proposal of trans-Aegean population exchanges and transfers to the
1923 Treaty of Lausanne (11). He elegantly describes King Demaratos'
dubious regal situation: "there was a question-mark over his
legitimacy that Cleomenes was eventually to turn into a full stop"
(67). An armed Aphrodite, however, is not unique to Sparta (79), and
not surprising, considering her many connections with Near Eastern
battle-goddesses, viz. Ishtar and Astarte. Demaratos stole
Leotykhidas' fiancée Perkalos—not the other way around (83; see Hdt.
6.65). I would not say that the Athenians "resorted frequently to …
ostracism" (86), since only about fifteen men in all were ostracized
in the institution's only century. These careless errors mar the
that Herodotos "would always automatically plump for the theological
rather than the humanistic or secular explanation" (221). At this
point, he cites Herodotos' multiple accounts of the horrible
(self-slicing) apparent suicide of the captured renegade
Machiavellian Spartan, King Kleomenes (6.75, 84). In these very
passages, however, Herodotos rejects a variety of theological,
ahistorical "explanations"—the majority Hellene explanation (penalty
for Delphic bribery), the Athenian (penalty for devastating
Demeter's shrine at Eleusis), the Argive (penalty for sacrilegious
slaying of prisoners and firing a sacred grove), and the down-home
Spartan propaganda (not divine madness at all, but just severe
alcoholism). He prefers his own explanation of tisis,
"retribution" for fraud and revolution in fixing the deposition (by
oracular ukase) of his rival Demaratos. Such tisis, or
"evening out of disequilibrium," although conceivably divine,
usually is not so in Herodotos' view of the mechanisms of mundane
life, the sequences that he chose to call "history."
The third Appendix
reprints a lecture delivered in Athens.
Cartledge again describes Herodotos as conventional in his piety. He
unexpectedly thinks Herodotos to be an untypical Greek in not taking
"delight in war for war's sake." He nevertheless praises his
"immense act of interpretative charity" (250) in recognizing that
non-Greek or barbarian practices and beliefs, religious (e.g., Hdt.
3.38 on burials) and secular, might be as moral and ethical, as
intelligent and efficacious, as those of the Greeks. Herodotos, of
course, not only believes this, but he rubs in the face of his
Hellenic audiences Hellenic myth, cult, and other borrowings from
the Egyptian and other cultures, as well as needling his countrymen
for native Greek contradictions and inefficiencies. His relativism
in method and his pluralism in ethics (247) oppose him to the
fundamentalism found in many parts of the world today (and to the
"conventional pieties" of then and now, I add). By "fundamentalism,"
Cartledge understands those zealots who think truth is one and
theirs, and feel the need and/or willingness to inflict it on
How often does the
world need to retrace a superb narrative—absent new sources? For the
analysis of a society such as Sparta's, or an empire such as
Xerxes', or a temple frieze such as the Parthenon's, new evidence
such as inscriptions, papyri, topographical identifications, and
sculptural fragments demand a new analysis or synthesis. This
justification does not apply to the book under review. Its author,
like Herodotos, offers the Spartocentric spin. Cartledge courteously
acknowledges the skill and thoroughness shown by predecessors,
but never really explains the need that he hopes to fill or the
previous historiographical misapprehension that he hopes to rectify.
The title is a
current publishers' gimmick: focus on one moment of a rather long
conflict (504-479, expandable on both ends), then explain the odd
civilizations involved and the run-up to your event. Barry Strauss
offers another recent entry exemplifying this anti-longue durée
marketing gambit: Salamis: The Greatest Naval Battle of the
Ancient World (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2004). Roman historians, at
least, would contest this claim. J.S. Mill
tendentiously claimed that the "battle of Marathon, even as an event
in English history, is more important than the battle of Hastings,"
but (A) he was referring to "decisive for England" and (B) he was
not selling books. Come to think of it, battles have often changed
the world, shaken communities with crisis, a fact which explains in
part our interest in legalized mass homicide, so perhaps Cartledge's
title is less pretentious than it sounds. It depends what the "the"
in "the battle" part of the title means. I worry when an author
tells me "it is simply too good a story not to retell," even if he
candidly acknowledges his ancient predecessor's "brilliant narrative
and analytical gifts" (59). Perhaps others will similarly rewrite
Gibbon and even Shakespeare. Putting down this uninspired and
somewhat hasty version, we may supplement Momigliano: "There was no
Herodotos after Herodotos."
succeeds as a responsible, attention-grabbing narrative of an
unexpectedly significant battle. It fails to explain the Spartans' "double game" (Grundy, p. 275) in sending so few Spartiates and to
relate the clash better than, or differently from, its predecessors.
It does not justify its title any more than Herodotos already had by
his account, since there already the battle is become the legend.
This book obscures this point by its chapter divisions. Cartledge
the honorary Spartan admits (12) that the brutal exploitation of the
Helots "must forever tarnish their [the Spartiates'] halo."
Wonderful as the corporation of obedient Spartiate soldiers was,
never, not even in Plato's phantastic make-believe constitutions, do
we find the class of organized killers and terrorizers wearing
halos. The suggested thought-picture, that Leonidas' tired men,
knowing their certain fate, spent their remaining hours not in
combing their splendid locks, but in polishing their halos, has an
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