300 Spartans, Ancient Greece, Assassin's Creed, Assassin's Creed Odyssey, Churchillian, Ernle Bradford, Fallout 4, Greece, Herodotus, history, Hot Gates, Leonidas, Michael Fassbender, myth, Overly Sarcastic Productions, Persia, Persian Wars, Plataea, Salamis, Thermopylae, Thermopylae: The Battle for the West, Xerxes
It probably has something to do with Assassin’s Creed, though in fact, it might actually have something to do with YouTube.
Part of my job is working regularly in the Local History room at the public library I work at, and this entails a lot of time that is, simply put isolation. The room very rarely receives visitors, and if it does many of them rarely require much assistance. In fact, many people simply enter the room, grab some books off the shelf, and spend a few minutes or a few hours doing their research in relative quiet. This is fine for me as I usually have somewhere around eight or ten tasks to perform that usually involve excel spreadsheets or the electronic card catalog. And if I’m not doing that then I’m typically re-shelving books and microfilm boxes. What this amounts to is long periods of isolation that would be ungodly boring were it not for YouTube.
I resisted as long as I could, but I’ve observed as of late that most of my internet time is watching videos on YouTube, but because I’m a nerd I don’t YouTube (is that a verb? Fuck it, I’m making it one, someone call OED) like most people probably do, so I wind up finding channels and videos about ancient Greeks, the Ottoman Empire, Medieval Weaponry, or TED Talks. While this has lead me to some excellent books that I’ll hopefully have time one day to review, it’s also lead me to arguably my favorite channel on the internet, which has, in turn, rekindled a deep passion for history: Overly Sarcastic Productions.
It’s a young man and woman (everybody is starting to feel young to me, or at least younger than me) named Red and Blue who in turn make video “lectures” about history, the classics of literature, the various tropes of narrative arcs, and every now and then historical accuracy reviews of video games (I’m still waiting for Assassin’s Creed II, one day, one day). It’s fair to say I’ve become fairly obsessed with this channel, having watched several of the videos multiple times, and I don’t apologize for this because it has, in turn, lead me to pick up books and at the end of the day as long as reading is taking place is that really so bad?
I finished 1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West, having pretty much devoured the book in under a week. And in my mania to hop into another classic book I observed the stack of history books in my office and found one that has a bit of an embarrassing history for me. Thermopylae: The Battle for the West by Ernle Bradford, is a book I had literally started and stopped five different times. I don’t like stopping books, it feels like a cop-out to me, but I have embraced the philosophy that if you’re not enjoying something you should stop doing it. When it comes to a book I’ve started and stopped multiple times, however, there’s a bit of ego there. The book was beating me, and damn it I wanted to win this time, and I wanted to learn about a battle I’d seen and read so much about, but only ever in quasi-mythic terms.
I grabbed my paperback copy with the Hoplite flanked on both sides by spears and set to work, finishing it in about a week and a half. I beat the damn book, and the satisfaction was only slightly better than the book itself.
Bradford’s book is pretty dated having been published in the year 1980. The writing style itself is not terrible, in fact, often Bradford demonstrates his ability as a historian and author by being able to craft a functional and interesting narrative as he lays out the facts of the Greco-Persian war while trying to steadily establish the larger cultural lesson of such a conflict. There were beautiful sentences in this book that actually left me laughing, smiling, and reaching for my mechanical pencil so that I could underline them later either for this inevitable review or else so that I could simply go back later and read them. Bradford is a great writer, but he’s not always a great historian in this book.
For starters, his book has no real list of sources apart from a very simple bibliography in the back filled with a few “up-to-date” sources and many works of classical antiquity. There’s also the issue that Bradford only has a few actual chapters dedicated to the Battle of Thermopylae, and I know I sound whiny and pedantic as I write this but titles really do matter. A title is a way to communicate goals, themes, and purpose behind the text and I expected going into this book a focus on the Battle itself. Instead, Bradford attempts to cover the entire war covering Thermopylae, but also the battles of Salamis, Artemisium, and Platea. This isn’t bad, but when I finished Thermopylae and discovered I had another 100 pages to read I was confused and slightly annoyed. Granted, Bradford does say at the start in Preface that he wanted to balance the text with a larger narrative of the Persians as well Greeks but it just worked on me.
And finally, two more things needs be said. The first is that Bradford uses the adjective “Churchillian” twice in this book and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing he also employs the deplorable adjective “oriental” to describe the Persians and other Asian society and peoples. I understand that the man was living in a different time with a different set of cultural mores, and it’s a bad policy to judge someone with a contemporary hindsight and set of values, but it just became a bit galling when the man is using the word to describe the quality of an unashamed imperialist and then using a now racially insensitive term to describe Middle Easterners.
It just, it just started to make me groan.
Though I suppose at this point my reader is probably wondering what the ultimate significance of this book actually is or why I’m bothering with it.
Like I said before in the 1453 review I want to just start reviewing history books period, but also to see whether or not they still have a lasting cultural value, which, if my regular reader has been paying attention, has ultimately been the goal of this blog since day one. Thermopylae is a book which attempts to narrate one of the most mythic battles in all of human history, and that estimation is not too bold. Even if a person knows nothing of ancient Greece or classical history, they probably at least know the general story of the “300 Spartans.” Much like a fairy tale, the origins of Superman, or the plot line of Footloose, Western civilization has digested the story of King Leonidas and his men and it has become the kind of mass knowledge that “everybody just knows.” Bradford then tries in his book to balance the story then, by narrating not just about King Leonidas and his men, but also about King Xerxes, Themistocles, and the alliance of Greek city-states that eventually repelled the Persians and brought about a kind of national consciousness to the cities of Greece.
Looking at one passage, Bradford is able to demonstrate Xerxes ability as a strategist as well as describe the powerful players of this conflict
Xerxes and his advisors knew that, if it was intolerable to send heralds to Sparta, it was equally pointless to send them to Athens. The essential core of Greece which had to be destroyed was composed of these two small, even so dissimilar, city-states. The one was the military muscle of Greece and the other provided by far the greater part of its Naval Arm. Many of the other Greeks had already “medised’, as the term was: they had, that is to say, shown their willingness to co-operate with the Persians. This was hardly surprising, since to many an intelligent citizen, whether of an Aegean island, or of a city on the mainland, it must have seemed more than clear that, even if all the Greeks were united(which was far from true), they would stand no chance against the massive army and navy that was coming against them out of the East. (32).
Bradford’s writing can be a bit clunky in this passage, but it’s important to see how he is setting up his final assessment of what the lasting significance of this war would be. The end-results of the conflict with Persia created a lasting sense of identity among the Greeks. It might be difficult for a contemporary reader to understand this conflict since we are so used to the concept of nationalism and national identity, but ancient Greece was largely a collection of city-states: independent towns that acted, in essence, as their own county and nation. Because of this, conflict between cities such as Thebes, Athens, Sparta, and Corinth wasn’t entirely unheard of, and was, actually, pretty damn common-place. To a citizen of the United States, this probably is not that unheard of. Being from Texas I tend to recognize that there really isn’t anything like a Texan. The manners and customs of my state wouldn’t hold water in New York, nor would they hold in Oregan, Hawaii, or Delaware. Each of these states tends to, whether they realize it or not, have their own sort of regional identity which is eventually assumed by the larger national collective.
But now I’m starting to sound painfully academic so let me shoot straight.
Bradford is attempting to demonstrate to his reader how the threat from Persia was not just a threat to a collection of individual city-states, it ultimately threatened the entire Greek identity which thus allowed for the recognition by these cities that they might just be one people after all.
He says in a later passage, noting the difficulty faced by the leader of the Greek defense Themistocles:
Part of Themistocles strategy was inevitably dictated by the very natural Athenian suspicion that the Spartans might let them down, might rely on the defense of the Isthmus, might (for whatever given reason) procrastinate and turn up late—as they had done at Marathon. If the worst came to the worst, the Spartans might come to the conclusion that they could stay secure in the Peloponnese. They and the other allies had to be convinced that, on this occasion, it was all or nothing for every state which had declared to hold their ground against the might of the invader. For the first time in their history, the Greeks had to co-operate with one another. In only one respect did the Athenians have an advantage over the Spartans. If Attica fell and Athens was overrun, they would—even if worsted in a sea battle—still have some ships left. The survivors could ‘do a Dunkirk’ and (after collecting women and children from Troezen), they could abandon Greece, sail south and then west across the Ionian Sea, and plant a new colony in Sicily or Italy. The Spartans, with their small fleet, were condemned to fight on the land—with no escape. (90).
Alright, I’ll admit it, I only included the latter part of that quote to point out that Bradford was clearly once again falling back upon his English conservatism (or perhaps romanticism?) but in my defense that “Dunkirk” reference was too easy to pass up, and Dunkirk was, for the record a really amazing movie.
At this point though my reader is probably ready to object. So what? So what if the ancient Greeks hated each other and it took a potential invader from Asia to unite them? I work a crappy retail gig at Target and I only get so many hours in the day to play video games and watch Game of Thrones. What relevance does this war, or this old and possibly outdated book have to my life?
This is a fair point, and as usual, I don’t have an immediate rebuttal to it. Reading a book about the 5th century Persian Wars is something you really, really have to want to do and the sad fact is many people simply don’t. They’d rather do their jobs and then enjoy their free time watching arguably great fantasy series on HBO and/or playing Fallout 4 (seriously how great is Liberty Prime? #advictorium, #fucktheinstitute). This decision is not something I’m faulting anyone for. I work a full-time gig and by the end of the day, I don’t always feel like writing, in fact often I putter away my time watching YouTube and straightening books in my office before it’s time for bed.
What I would say to my reader, is that while this book may not have any sort of immediate relevance, great history is about observing the trends of humanity in the past and finding some sort of lesson from it. While Bradford’s book has become dated, he is enormously successful in demonstrating to his reader the significance of Xerxes effort to expand his borders into Europe and the effect this had on the Greek population who had, up to that time, seen each other as separate peoples rather than an ethnic or political people overall.
As Bradford points out in an early passage in the book:
The invasion of Greece made the turbulent, brilliant people of this mountainous and largely inhospitable land aware that they shared one thing in common: a believe in the individual human being’s right to dissent, to think his own way, and not to acknowledge any man as a ‘monarch of all I survey’. (23).
There is a great wealth of information in Thermopylae: The Battle for the West that I haven’t, and like any great history book Bradford packs his pages with small anecdotes and facts that will hopefully encourage his reader to continue reading. Whether it’s the implication that King Leonidas might have arranged for the murder of a relative who could have inherited the throne, the one Spartan who returned to his home city to be cast as a coward, or the burning and destruction of the Acropolis in Athens, this book contains a wealth of fascinating historical information, but listing them all out would only be pedantic and I’m sure my reader would like me to wrap up so they can get back to playing Fallout (fun fact the Science Bobblehead is located in Vault 75, which is also the place where you help Cait complete part of her character arc, which is great, but then she judges you if you ever take Jet in front of her again).
Bradford’s book is very much of its time (again the “Churchillian” adjective just makes me laugh every time) but I still believe there is a great amount of relevance to it, and not just because I spent a week and a half reading it and I want to make sure it wasn’t wasted time. History is about finding and creating narratives from the events of the past, and so even the most poorly constructed histories are efforts to find meaning. Bradford found a tremendous meaning in the Battle of Thermopylae, and the rest of the Persian Wars.
It was a conflict in which a group of disjointed people found a collective whole in themselves that hadn’t existed before. This isn’t to say that there was thereafter no more conflict in Greece, in fact, it’s fair and accurate to say that the history of Greece pretty much is just conflict among themselves until Roman occupation and even after that. But for a moment the Greeks found an advantage in unity and overcoming their idiosyncrasies for the greater good of their society and way of life, and damn it, I think that’s inspiring. The best examples of humanity are when people work together to create something great and find inspiration in their ideas and exchanges. Thermopylae was a chance for a band of Greeks to work together to help the larger armies of the country fight the future battles that would inevitably lead to the defeat of Xerxes and his army.
And Bradford has a quote in his preface that really says it best:
The last stand of King Leonidas and the Spartans was told as a golden story in my youth. Since then it would seem to have been downgraded, perhaps because their military outlook and stubborn courage have made them unattractive to a hedonistic society. Without courage, Man is nothing. Without the Battle of Thermopylae, that pass held against all odds, there would never have followed Artemisium, Salamis, and Platea. Distasteful though it may have been to later historians, preoccupied with Athens, it was very largely the generalship of the Spartan Pausanias that made victory of Platea possible. (14).
Bradford’s sentiments here, at least in my estimation, haven’t changed all that much. The 300 Spartans is a story that is told regularly in schools now almost as a kind of myth/fact. It’s a story that has become increasingly relevant to contemporary society because it’s become a sort of fairy-tale about the might of individual courage and integrity. People see in the story of the Hot Gates a life-lesson about holding true to one’s principles and not allowing “outside” influence to sway one from your original stance. This in itself demonstrates the lasting importance of books like Thermopylae: The Battle for the West because it allows us to ask the question how we see the conflicts of the past and how we construct meaning from them.
The only point I’ll say about this is that I feel Bradford was definitely not a soothsayer because he believes the Spartans have been “downgraded” because the Spartan warriors were “unattractive.” Clearly, the man never saw Zack Snyder coming down the pike because those leather panties have inspired legions of memes and erections that aren’t going away any-time soon.
Athens might have had an incredible tactician leading them at the battle of Salamis, but they didn’t have Michael Fassbender wearing just a leather speedo and a smile.
All quotes cited from Thermopylae: The Battle for the West were quoted from the paperback Da Capo edition.
In case you haven’t noticed I used one or two images from the new Assassin’s Creed Odyssey in this review. My wife bought it for me for Christmas and I don’t think I’m anywhere near finishing my golden idol of her. This game is the fucking SHIT dude. I’ve met Euripedes, Perikles, Alcibades, Sokrates. I’ve scaled the Parthenon, statues of Zeus, Temples of Apollo. I’ve played as motherfucking, god-damn Leonidas and…Well, I am a happy man.
Oh yeah, I forgot, YOU GET TO MEET GODDAMN HERODOTUS!!!!
I wrote something similar in the description section of my YouTube-Podcast for this book, but I thought I would repeat it here. I know that I write a spirited defense of Bradford here, but, honestly, I really don’t think that this book is good history and that’s largely because Bradford only has a bibliography and not a very substantial one at that. This book, while a pretty approachable and enjoyable read, just doesn’t use enough sources and doesn’t cite the sources that are used properly enough to be considered a “good” history. Bradford’s book is sentiment and mythologization, and while these are not necessarily weaknesses as a narrative, they do hurt it as a functional historial text.
The man wrote a good book, but he needed at least two or three flipping footnotes.