Book Review: Thermopylae by Paul Cartledge

So, after watching  the 300 sequel the other day and deciding that I wanted to read a bit more about general history, but the Spartans in particular, so I downloaded this for my Kindle and added a bunch of history books to my wishlists.

I have to say I was very impressed with this book, Cartledge writes about the battle but also explains the build up to it, the political motivations at work, the differences in the two cultures that clashed so spectacularly in the Greco-Persian war and the intense internal rivalries and feuds that threatened the shaky Greek coalition force.


It was fascinating to learn that the Spartan’s tough, honour obsessed culture was at odds with many of the other Greek states and that in particular they clashed with Athens ideologically, even though Athens recognized the importance of getting the most organized and skilled of the armies on board before standing up to Xerxes.

Xerxes doesn’t resemble the movie version, there are no delusions of divinity, but there is a painful naivety and misunderstanding of Spartan culture and customs, which led to the glorious defeat the Spartans earned in the eponymous battle.

Cartledge writes with a delicate touch which means it’s never overly complicated, but in a manner that doesn’t feel like he talks down to his audience. He paints a vivid picture of the world at the time and what was at stake, his admiration for Leonidas and his men’s sacrifice clear, but he doesn’t shy away from Sparta’s shadows. They may have fought for freedom against a tyranny but their freedom and devotion to martial arts came at the cost others who were used as serfs and slaves.

They were also caught up in their own little rivalries and prone to mistakes, but not the stand at Thermopylae, until finally being undone by a traitor’s revelation of their weak point (one of several moments where Frank Miller’s story doesn’t stray too far from the historical account, although it must be noted that at others it veers into fantasy and hyperbole). With their Greek allies fleeing, Leonidas and his men stand and face certain death.

It’s hard not to admire such courage in the face of death and Carltedge explains how the heroic fall boosted morale and has continued to inspire throughout the years. The image of the Spartans is of an honourable, if flawed people governed by superstition and custom who paid the ultimate price to defend their borders. Cartledge touches on how different European and global history may have been had the Persians crushed Greece, and this makes for an interesting “what if..” scenario.

Cartledge also discusses how the East vs West image of the conflict has continued, and different groups who have looked to the Spartans for inspiration. Written after 9/11 Cartledge also discusses how we view deliberate death in the name of a higher cause and the impact martyrdom can have. It all lends itself to the argument that history is always relevant and continues to influence the world of today.

My interest in history has been reignited and I’ll definitely check out more of Cartledge’s work as he’s a very accomplished writer who avoids dryness with verve and wit.

Verdict: A surprisingly entertaining account of the battle, along with both background and aftermath, all written about with a light, easy touch from Cartledge. Fascinating and filled with interesting bits of information and historical anecdotes. 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


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