Book Reviews


 

 

Thermopylae

"Go tell the Spartans, passerby
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie"

By Paul Cartledge

A War Like No Other

"It's all 'Grik' to you?

By Victor Davis Hanson

Reviews by Richard Sheppard

 

If you discover and nurture an interest in ancient Greek history, you are going to encounter lot of warfare, along with the triumphs and follies that accompany these murderous struggles. Ancient Greek civilization glorified war, and two Greek master historians, Herodotus and Thucydides, wrote volumes covering the Greeks' titanic clashes. Two books, Thermopylae, by Paul Cartledge, and A War Like No Other by Victor David Hanson are fine works to consult for a first foray into that long ago, deeply human Greek civilization. Cartledge and Hanson borrow heavily from their classic predecessors, Cartledge from Herodotus, and Hanson from Thucydides. Both authors deeply explore ancient Hellenic culture to validate or challenge their two classic predecessors. Hanson goes further still in A War Like No Other, drawing parallels with contemporary conflicts to demonstrate man's deeply ingrained insistence on settling differences through violence. Cartledge draws some parallels, including a puzzling one about the similarities between the Spartan 300 and the 9/11 hijackers. 

Both Books Are Rich in Period Details

The sometimes brutal, history-altering rivalries described in these works encompass the ever-present Persian threat to Greece from without (Thermopylae), and the deadly, internecine struggles among the Greeks themselves, epitomized in the twenty-seven year Peloponnesian War between Sparta and Athens (Hanson's A War like No Other). Both books are rich in period details, and provide a reader curious about ancient Greece comprehensive accounts of these long-ago events. Hanson is a Classics professor in the Cal State university system, and his sweeping appraisals of the culture and consequences of war find ready contemporary media outlets, skewing conservative. Mr. Hanson's erudite style and straightforward explanations are evident in A War Like No Other. Cartledge is a Professor of Greek History at Cambridge and his scholarship permeates Thermopylae.

Chronologically, Thermopylae kicks off in 480 B.C, with the account of "300" (298 actual) picked, top-flight Spartans warriors under the general Leonidas, forming the nucleus of about 4-7,000 hoplites (armored infantry) from various Greek city-states. These vastly outnumbered infantry delayed scores of thousands, if not over 100,000, invading Persians, arriving to subjugate Greece under the Persian king Xerxes. (A contemporary movie, "300," is a film version of a graphic novel of the same name. It has predictably generated some controversy over its exaggerated violence and fey, tyrannical depiction of the Persians, particularly Xerxes). Though these heroic Spartan-led warriors didn't prevent the entry of the Persians into Greece, the Spartans' valiant last stand (all died, Leonidas' remains were desecrated in the fashion of those brutal times) inspired previously wavering Greek resistance. This belated resistance, combined with the Greeks' stunning naval victory at Salamis shortly after Thermopylae, prevented the Persians from ever gaining a conquering foothold in Greece. Even a casual reader can acknowledge that Thermopylae/Salamis is a key turning point in Western history. Who knows how different the two-and-a-half millennium since might have turned out had Greek civilization been snuffed by the Persian/Asian hordes?

Following the Persian repulse, Greek city-states coalesced into two alliances, one led by the Spartans on the Peloponnesian peninsula. Athens, in Attica on the shores of the Aegean Sea led the other. Sparta was an oligarchic land power, while radical democratic Athens was a sea power. Athens had a protected harbor, an unchallenged trireme fleet, and a vast, tribute-generating eastern Mediterranean empire. In 431 BC, Athens looked west towards the Spartans on the Peloponnesian peninsula, and initiated what would turn into a nearly three-decade war of attrition that would culminate in Sparta's victory in 404 BC. Ironically, the city-state (Sparta) which had inspired the Greek victory over the Persians at Thermopylae used Persian money and triremes to wear Athens down and gain supremacy. Athens was clearly superior "on paper," but couldn't survive poor leadership and wavering allies. It also didn't help that in 416 BC, during a tenuous truce with Sparta, Athens decided to invade Syracuse on Sicily, a massive re-direction of military resources 800 miles across the Ionia Sea.

Thermopylae

Thermopylae, a battle of two-and-a-half days, had wide repercussions within Greek society and culture, proving once and for all that the hundreds of myriad city-states shared values that transcended language and borders. Cartledge focuses on these effects, including illustrations of Greek art and Persian architecture which enhance his explication of the competing mindsets. Where Cartledge falls short is in the nitty-gritty of the battle itself; don't expect detailed military analysis in Thermopylae.

A War Like No Other

Hanson, describing decades-long events, focuses on the practical processes and evolving strategies and tactics as war fortunes waxed and waned across that long war. He details the tactics of the hoplite phalanxes (armored, spear-armed infantry), Athens' practically impregnable walls and harbor, and cavalry and trireme warfare. Hanson's specialty is drawing worthy parallels of strategic thinking among the ancient Greeks and contemporary warfighters, proving in effect that while warfare is a consistent human activity, it's nearly impossible, once violence unfolds, to predict an outcome.

Reading either or both of these rich, detailed histories offers a slightly beyond introductory glimpse of classic times and events that resonates, because those ancient struggles encompass the human condition we triumph and struggle with today.