Thermopylae
Chris Carey
Oxford University Press (Great Battles series)
233pp, 36 black-and-white illustrations
Hardback, £18.99

A neat question posed by Chris Carey during his examination of the battle of Thermopylae (which is part of the Oxford University Press Great Battles series) is whether it was a 'great' battle at all. In terms of numbers and losses Carey points out, the celebrated confrontation between the Greeks and the Persians in 480 BC, was much smaller than the gargantuan battles of modern times and even some of the subsequent battles in ancient Greece. It did not end the conflict between Greece and Persia, nor destroy the capabilities of either. For the Greeks, it was a defeat that preceded the great victories of Salamis and Plataea that came shortly after. Yet the battle passed into legend almost immediately and has remained forever embedded in our minds as one of the great military encounters of the ancient world. But it is the enduring appeal of the battle, rather than its military significance, that has earned it a place in the series.

Professor Carey, who has worked at the University of Cambridge, University of Minnesota, UCL and other institutions, makes an expert guide to the battle. This is no easy task. As he reveals, numerous challenges confront historians who attempt to make sense of it. Chief among these are the almost total absence of
survivors of the last contingent to face the Persians; the reliability of Herodotus who wrote the earliest surviving account of the battle; and obtaining clarity on the number of combatants involved. Then there is the physical transformation of the site over time which has seen the pass disappear and several kilometres of alluvial plain added to the coastline.

Nevertheless, Carey delivers a highly readable and informative account of the central aspects of the battle, including the participants, the site, the historic sources for the fray, the battle itself, and its effect on the political landscape of Greece. But he provides much more than this.

His examination of some of battle's more mysterious and debatable features are compelling. Its mythological appeal he says, springs from a potent range of factors: the Greek's spirited attempt to protect their homeland; the David and Goliath nature of the encounter; the awful betrayal of the Greeks; the courageous decision to leave a small force of men to fight and die in order to temporarily halt the inevitable Persian advance. It is the combined effect of these, he concludes, that has resulted in Thermopylae serving as the eternally moving symbol of heroic resistance in the face of impossible odds.

Carey also critically analyses the perception that Thermopylae – certainly for Leonidas and the Spartans – was a suicide mission from the outset, a view he insists is largely prompted by hindsight. Rather, he argues, the Greeks may well have considered that they could achieve something. Initially they were unaware of the path through the hills that enabled the Persians to outflank them later, and for two days outfought a much larger force, which proved that Persia was not an invincible foe. Only after the Persians were able to encircle the Greeks was the major contingent of the Greek forces sent away. The perception that it was only the Spartans who remained to perish attempting to hold back the Persians on the final day is poignant. The Thespians and the Thebans were there too, but are frequently forgotten in the mythologising of the battle and its appropriation for Sparta.

Today, the iconic status of the battle remains unassailable, but Carey's account of it provides an absorbing exposition of both the facts and the fictions that underlie and surround it.

Diana Bentley

 

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