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9 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Fine and Thought-Provoking Study, November 17, 2006
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This review is from: Thermopylae: The Battle That Changed the World (Hardcover)
Paul Cartledge, besides his superb studies of the Spartans, is known for writing studies of ancient Spartan and Greek history focused equally between what happened in history, and the implications of what happened. He is interested in understanding "why". Thus, his most recent book, Thermopylae, is perhaps most helpful for those who already know the basic facts of the echoing defense at a pass known as Thermopylae, the "Hot Gates" that barred entry from northern into southern Greece. In 380 AD, a small Greek army, captained and comprised largely of Spartans and their allies, died defending the Pass at Thermopylae against the vastly superior army of Darius, Great King of Persia, the superpower of the day.

I found this a moving and thought-provoking look at why Thermopolyae, a defeat to almost the last man, is almost more famous that victories elsewhere these past 2,500 years or so. Cartledge provides resonant reasons. I had not known that, prior to going to Thermopolyae, the Spartans chose only men (including one of their kings) with living sons, supporting Cartledge's suggestion that, for a Spartan warrior, death was not to be feared and could sometimes be welcomed. I had learned to dislike many aspects of the Spartan autocratic state, but I had not learned to appreciate their courage or learned to slightly understand how they thought and believed. Nor had I quite understood that their semi-suicide mission united the fractious Greek city-states against Persia as, perhaps, nothing else could have. It arguably allowed them, later, to defeat first the Persian Navy at Salamis, then its army at Plataea. Cartledge suggests, and one could argue, that without death at Thermopolyae, Xerxes might have conquered Greece, with its resonant impact on future world history.

I'm sure I have read these ideas in other, more detailed studies of the battle, but somehow the ideas did not make sense as they do when Cartledge ponders them. As Cartledge notes, the pass at Thermopylae was one of the first great clashes between the cultures of East and West, and he devotes some time to that conflict, even as it continues down to the present. He also reminds us that, under the leadership of the Spartans, citizen soldiers of other Greek cities died to a man defending the Pass: a defeat that partook of a morale victory, as he calls it.

There are many, many books about the Persian Wars of the early 5th century, but I believe this one deserves a place among them for helping us to understand why, as its subtitle asserts, Thermopylae was a battle that changed the world.
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