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New York Review of Books
Monday, December 17th, 2007
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Thermopylae: The Battle That Changed the World

by Paul Cartledge

East vs. West: The First Round

A review by Jasper Griffin

The early history of Europe is a history of constant invasions from the East. The peoples which think of themselves nowadays as quintessentially European -- the French, the Germans, the Anglo-Saxons -- all came into what we now call Europe, originally, from what we now call Asia. It was only later that invasion and conquest began to move in the opposite direction, and that Europe, an increasingly precocious and disrespectful heir to the ancient civilizations of Asia, began to march eastward, and to conquer the progenitors of its own upstart culture.

The rise of Greece, in this perspective, was made easier -- perhaps was made possible altogether -- by a rare intermission in the succession of great powers which usually dominated what we now call the Middle East. The polis, the city-state, the typical form of Greek society in the classical period, grew up in the position, a rare and privileged one, of freedom from the immediate shadow of an overwhelming power. Such empires, like that of Assyria, were based somewhere further east than Hellas. A power of that kind would inevitably, sooner or later, invade and conquer the Greek cities of Asia Minor, where philosophy and the scientific attitude were beginning to take their first tentative root.

As it was, the eastern Greeks encountered, in the sixth century BCE, only the rather well disposed and Hellenophile kingdom of Lydia, based in what is now northwestern Turkey, and surprisingly open to Greek art and to Greek cultural influences. The stories about the kings of Lydia go to show how close they really were to the ways, and to the ideas, of Greece. There was King Midas, of the golden touch, and King Croesus, who claimed to be the happiest man in the world, but who misunderstood an oracle and came to grief, an example for all mankind. Along with these tales we have the solid evidence of enormous Lydian offerings, in gold, at the great Greek shrine of Delphi.

The stories show how keen was the interest taken by the Greeks in these spectacular, opulent, and ultimately vulnerable Eastern neighbors. For Greeks in the sixth century BCE, King Croesus was the greatest king they knew of, and his kingdom of Lydia was the richest power. Then, out of the blue, came astonishing news. Lydia was defeated and conquered (traditional date, 546 BCE); Croesus had perished, burned alive on a great pyre -- or, in the defensive propaganda version spread by the priests of the Delphic shrine (Delphi had clearly expected Croesus to win), snatched away from the fire by their god Apollo and carried off, along with his slender-ankled daughters, to a happy existence at the back of the North Wind. That, of course, was because his offerings to Delphi were greater than any other man's. The moral was explicit: if you know what's good for you, give generously to Delphi!

The Great King Cyrus, the conqueror of Lydia, founded the latest, the most formidable, and, as it turned out, the last in the long succession of great Middle Eastern powers: the last at any rate, for a good many centuries to come. The King of the Medes and Persians, normally referred to by the Greeks simply as "the King," or -- even more impressively -- as "King," had appeared from nowhere and smashed the familiar and established powers of Babylon and Assyria and Lydia. Until very recently, the Persians had been a nomadic and pastoral people, but they took without difficulty to a more settled life. The ruins of their great palace of Persepolis still impress the traveler -- although many of its surviving statues and columns are to be seen, nowadays, in one or another museum of Europe or North America.

Persians were tall, dignified, impressive. Admiring Greeks said the Persian code was simple: Ride, and shoot, and tell the truth! We recognize recurrent types: the public school Englishman of the Victorian era, the straight-shooting frontiersman of the American West. Truth-telling was a supreme religious duty for the Persians. It was a contribution, in fact, to the ongoing cosmic struggle between the good power, Ahura-Mazda, and the evil power, Ahriman. The Zoroastrians of the modern world are the inheritors of this dualist worldview. It already existed in the time of Cyrus.

The Greeks were impressed by the Persian Empire. But it was not long before relations became difficult. Soon the King had conquered the Greek cities of Asia Minor and installed hand-picked Greek agents to govern them. These men were quislings, in the view of their fellow Greeks; "tyrant" was the title (itself an Asiatic borrowing) which they applied to them. Originally, that word had no hostile overtones. But it very soon acquired them, and "tyrant" became a term for rulers who were oppressive and irresponsible.

The problem with empire building, of course, as the Persian monarchs duly learned, is the difficulty of finding a line at which it is possible, and convenient, and dignified, to stop: of deciding a limit, defining a frontier, and writing off whatever obstinately remains outside. The British, in their time, had difficulty in setting and maintaining the North West Frontier of their Indian dominions; things were always shading off, at the edge, into cattle rustling, and brigandage, and anarchy.

The Persians, at the western edge of their empire, came up against the Greek cities of Asia Minor and the Aegean coast. Of course, those cities had to be included in the Empire of the Great King! Otherwise, it would all look sloppy and incomplete; and, besides, official Persian rhetoric spoke of the King ruling "all the lands which the Sun beholds, from his rising in the East to his setting in the West." That grandiloquent claim would be made, in the future, by other imperialisms, as yet unborn and awaiting, in the womb of time, their turn (in another phrase of Oriental hyperbole) to have the sun never set upon them. Now, however, along came these irritating Greeks: rebelling, and conspiring, and invoking their friends and relations from mainland Greece, across the Aegean Sea, to help them in their misbehavior.

So it came to seem necessary, for those familiar reasons of prestige, and of security, and of manifest destiny, and of one thing and another, to march on that European Hellas, and to reduce those European Greeks to the status of a proper tribute-paying part of the Persian Empire, which, according to different lists, already numbered some twenty or, perhaps, thirty large provinces ("satrapies"). In 490 BCE, the Great King Darius sent a choice and sufficient force to conquer Greece. It failed. Paul Cartledge, professor of ancient history at Cambridge, gives a good account of this memorable expedition and its unforgettable failure.

Ten years later, the Persian Empire struck back, with a full-dress invasion on an enormous scale, and the King himself -- Xerxes, Darius' son -- in command. That resulted, as every schoolboy knows, in a far more catastrophic defeat: by sea, off Salamis; and by land, at Plataea. But before those extraordinary victories, which astonished the world and sent King Xerxes scuttling back to Persia, there came the affair of Thermopylae ("the Hot Gates").

Xerxes' army was huge, drawn from every part of his vast and cosmopolitan empire. Actual figures are hard to reckon. Exaggeration, in later Greek writers, knew no bounds; they talk happily of millions of men; but we can be sure that this was an army on a very different scale from any yet seen in Greece, or by Greeks. The most skeptical critics bring the numbers down to some 80,000; perhaps too low a figure. The King, after all, was present in person. The stage was set for what would be, and would long remain, an archetypal showdown between the Eastern hordes, subjects of a despotic ruler, driven on into battle by men with whips, and the forces, much smaller but resolute, of free men, fighting freely in defense of their freedom. These events have, consciously and irreducibly, a representative aspect.

As we all know, more or less vaguely, an attempt was made to block the Persian advance. A small force of Spartan warriors held the narrow pass of Thermopylae, on the northern approach to Greece. The three hundred, plus some seven hundred allies and subordinates, stood firm, in the face of overwhelming numbers. Cartledge recounts how they fought and died to the last man; and their fight, and its ending, gave to Hellas, and indeed to many later fighting men with no claim to be Hellenes, courage and inspiration. Overwhelming odds could, after all, be faced and resisted! Numbers are not everything! Cartledge does full justice to these events, which even the most pacific or unmilitary reader must find soul-shaking.

Thermopylae, writes Cartledge, is a tapered plain extending some five kilometers from west to east, with mountains to the south (including Callidromus) and the sea to the north, in the shape of the Gulf of Malis. Disregarding the area's changed topography, we must imagine in 480 a narrow pass between mountain and very nearby sea, scarcely wide enough for two chariots or wagons to pass each other comfortably, and punctuated by a series of three "gates." It was at the so-called Middle Gate, a stretch of the pass some fifteen to twenty meters long where the cliffs rose unnegotiably sheer on the landward side, that the loyalist Greek defense force took up its position.

Like all those who write about this war, Cartledge must depend heavily on the Father of History: Herodotus. Like them, at moments he chafes under that necessity. Rather ungratefully, perhaps, he complains of Herodotus' "undoubted shortcomings as a 'scientific' historian of the best modern type." Well, we perhaps murmur, if Herodotus really were one of that very familiar type, should we be reading him today with quite such interest, or with anything like such enthusiasm?

Are there, in fact, so many modern "scientific" historians (we note the hedging of his bets which is, rather touchingly, implied by Cartledge's quotation marks) whose works we read with as much interest and satisfaction as we read the History of Herodotus? It might be nice, one reflects subversively, to be told some of their names. But elsewhere Cartledge pays generous tribute to "our first and best historian of what I shall call the Graeco-Persian wars."

Herodotus spends six books -- two thirds of his work: 433 pages in the English translation by David Grene -- on the preparations for the great Persian invasion, and a review of the past and present state of Greece and of the Eastern powers up to that time. His last three books deal with the successive expeditions of King Darius and King Xerxes. For subsequent historians, of course, the problem is that Herodotus' narration is so good.

I pick out a single example: Herodotus is a writer whom it is difficult to stop quoting. Xerxes has assembled his huge army and fleet, and is on the march for Greece. Crossing the Hellespont, the narrow strait that separates Asia from Europe, he holds a review of his enormous army and fleet:

When he saw all the Hellespont covered with ships, and all the shores and plains of Abydos full of men, then Xerxes declared that he was a happy man; but soon he burst into tears.

Artabanus, his uncle -- the man who at first gave his judgment freely against Xerxes' invasion of Greece -- saw him weeping. He said, "My lord, this is very different from your mood a little while ago! For then you were congratulating yourself, but now you are in tears."

Xerxes answered, "Yes, I am; a feeling of pity stole over me, as I thought about the shortness of human life. Of all these thousands of men, not one will be alive in a hundred years' time."

"Life gives much deeper occasions for tears than that," replied Artabanus; "short as human life is, there is no man so happy that he does not wish himself dead many times, while he lives...."

Such reflections, so very different from the straightforwardly triumphalist style of the chronicles of Eastern kings, are doubtless Greek rather than Persian. They convey Herodotus' own thoughts, rather than what he imagined Xerxes actually saying, and the tragic background which was always there, behind even the most impressive of human actions and aspirations.

Cartledge is enthusiastic about his author: "Herodotus in my view remains as good as it gets." What can the modern historian add? Cartledge sees, rightly, that the Persian invasion and its defeat are still on people's minds. They are a chapter, and a crucial one, in the long and continuing history of the relations of Asia and the West, a story which is older than Christianity or Islam:

The events of "9/11" in New York City and now "7/7" in London have given this project a renewed urgency and importance within the wider framework of East–West cultural encounter.

In real history, of course, the ideological contrast between East and West has not always been so clear. The Spartans were indeed "equals" -- their own title -- among themselves, but their entire society rested on the agricultural labor of a permanently enslaved class of Greeks: the Helots. Cartledge, while not denying all that, glides into a rather more enthusiastic endorsement, speaking of "Sparta's promotion of freedom," and of the "obedience and freedom" of the three hundred Spartan fighters.

The point is not an empty one: the King of Persia referred officially to his most exalted officials and soldiers, the governors of great provinces ("satrapies"), as "X, my slave...." Greeks commented that, in the Persian system, "all men were slaves but one." But we should not forget that Sparta was a slave-owning and highly military society; all over Hellas, Sparta opposed the rise of democracies. After the great Peloponnesian War of 431–404 BCE, Spartan commanders did in fact put down the democracy of Athens -- but not for long.

Cartledge adds some reflections on the subsequent course of events. Rather surprisingly, perhaps, he is not interested in the fact that Alexander the Great, planning the invasion which would destroy the Persian Empire and bring the Macedonians as conquerors all the way to the Punjab, made it a justification, in his propaganda, that he was avenging the Persian invasion of Greece more than 150 years earlier. The Macedonians, we recall with a certain sense of irony, had in fact medised (taken the Persian side) and fought alongside the Persians at the Battle of Plataea.

Perhaps the claim of a link with September 11 may look a little insecure, but something like it was worth saying; and it falls into place, when we consider these events as part of that long series of return matches, in which East and West have in turn invaded and conquered each other. That has regularly meant some rewriting of history.

Xerxes, King of Persia, invades Europe; then Alexander, King of Macedon, conquers Asia. The Romans extend their empire eastward to Arabia; then the Arabs, in the seventh cen-tury, advance westward and over-run Rome's eastern provinces, taking most of Eastern Christendom into the sphere of Islam, and seizing Spain and part of Gaul. The Crusades are an attempt to reverse that verdict, initially successful but, in the long run, a failure. In 1453 the great Christian city of Constantinople finally falls to the Turks and is lost to the West. Islam and the Turks conquer and hold much of the Balkans, from which Turkish rule is expelled only after World War I.

Then comes the irresistible return to the region of British and French imperialism, followed by their eventual ejection; the establishment of Israel; the Suez fiasco of 1956 and the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979; the rise of militant Arab nationalism, in constant conflict with the power of the West; the seizure of Western oil companies; the Gulf War; the hijacking of Western airliners; the American invasion of Iraq, and suicide bombers attacking Western cities; then the hot air, and the propaganda, and the growing conviction that Kipling was right, after all. Yes, Emily, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet; though Kipling, of course, was not thinking primarily about the Middle East, or about Middle Eastern oil, but about a Farther East: the more distant lands of India, and Burma, and Tibet.

Cartledge gives a good, lively, and reliable account of the great Persian invasion of Greece and its historic defeat: events which, though now so far in the past, still cast a long shadow in the present. He does justice to the genius of Herodotus, but he is not afraid of the occasional controversial modern parallel. Discussing the motivation of King Xerxes' decision to invade Hellas in order to avenge the failure of his father, King Darius, he cannot resist adding:

If that motive of revenge recently weighed (as it surely did) with an elected President of the non-monarchical, democratic United States, how much more so will it have weighed with an absolute monarch motivated by personal as well as imperial considerations of revenge, security and prestige?

To deprive the study of the past of any relevance to the present and the future: that would indeed be a sad loss. The problem is that the past has so many possible models, in any particular context, for us to choose from. Was Nasser in 1956, as Anthony Eden came to believe, a reincarnation of Hitler in 1938? Was this, in fact, a second opportunity for a heroic defiance of a sinister dictator? Or were the events really something quite different: a brave stand, by a third-world country, against bad old European imperialism and exploitation? Again: Are the Western powers in the Middle East repeating, at the expense of innocent Muslims, the exploits of the medieval Crusaders? Or is that simply not the point at all?

Clio, the Muse of history, is a terrible tease. She seems to offer us all sorts of answers to questions about the present which themselves, she ensures, are constantly changing; which both are, and are not, the questions that she posed to us, or to our predecessors, on apparently similar occasions in the past. Now, the past, as we are all forced to learn, is at best a slippery and equivocal guide to the future. Unfortunately, there is no better guide to the future available; and some wisdom, surely, and some guidance can be gleaned from reflection on such momentous events, and on such thoughtful works of history.

Some readers may feel that Cartledge goes rather far in the direction of Hellenophilia: of open partisanship for the Greeks, and particularly for the Spartans. He is the author of a book on Sparta, and its stern and undemocratic constitution receives from him the kind of praise that not all his readers will unreservedly accept. He talks of "Sparta's promotion of freedom" and of her warriors' "obedience and freedom." Against that, we must surely set Sparta's inveterate hatred of democracy, and its successful and permanent reduction of a free Hellenic people, the Messenians, to quasi slavery, as helots, or serfs.

Thermopylae was, as Cartledge says, Sparta's "finest hour"; but the Athenians had some fine hours, too, in the Persian invasion. They abandoned their city and evacuated to the island of Salamis; Xerxes destroyed Athens and, by a pleasing irony, prepared a Ground Zero, on which Pericles could erect the Parthenon and the other great buildings that would bring Athens the admiration of the world. The Athenians proved themselves, as Pericles proclaimed, to be not softened or debauched by their high culture, but at least the equal in battle of any other Greeks, however uncultivated or Philistine they might be; and in addition (in strong contrast with the Spartans) they also produced great works of art, both visual and literary.

Nor was that all. They created and cherished, for the first time in human history, that astonishing and momentous innovation, never perfect, always desirable: democracy. The Greeks had a word for it; no other society had needed one, because democracy is a Greek invention. The defeat of King Xerxes and his enormous armies meant not only that Europe would remain separate and independent from Asia, but that democracy, faced with the threat of despotism, could find the strength to survive and to prevail.

Jasper Griffin is Emeritus Professor of Classical Literature and Public Orator at Oxford and a Fellow of Balliol College. His books include Homer on Life and Death.


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