Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.05.43 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.05.43

Christopher Matthew, Matthew Trundle (ed.), Beyond the Gates of Fire: New Perspectives on the Battle of Thermopylae.   Barnsley:  Pen and Sword Military, 2013.  Pp. xii, 228.  ISBN 9781848847910.  $32.95.  


Reviewed by Michael J. Taylor, University of California, Berkeley (mjtaylor@berkeley.edu)

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The title of this volume contains a notable mistranslation: Thermopylae are not “gates of fire” (these would be pyropylai), but “hot gates.” The editors and contributors know this, referring to the “hot gates” throughout their pieces (the title is taken from the 1986 best-selling novel by Stephen Pressfield). Beyond the Gates of Fire is a hybrid work, aiming to be accessible to a wider audience, while still maintaining a scholarly form. The balance is not perfect: some of the essays are too basic for scholars interested in the topic, while they simultaneously fail to make for page-turning reading. Those interested in a straight military history may be disappointed to find that few chapters actually deal with the battle itself. Nonetheless, it is very good to see scholars reaching out to satisfy keen popular interest in what is quite possibly the most famous battle in ancient history.

Christopher Matthew, one of the editors of the volume, opens with a narrative of Greek history leading up to the battle, a serviceable summation mostly culled from Herodotus. Matthew concludes by emphasizing the superiority of Greek hoplite equipment and tactics. It is true that by the 4th century BC Greek heavy infantrymen, especially when sufficiently supported by cavalry and light infantry, racked up an impressive record against Achaemenid forces; the Persians acknowledged as much by increasingly hiring Greek mercenaries. In 480 BC, however, a military observer would be hard-pressed to proclaim the superiority of the hoplite. After all, the Persians had trounced Greek armies in Ionia, most notably at a set-piece battle near Ephesus in 498 (Herodotus 5.102). The Athenians had won an improbable victory at Marathon, but it was unclear whether or not this was a fluke. The Greeks themselves in 480 BC were far less convinced of the supposed superiority of their armor and tactics than some moderns, given that they consistently sought to fight controlled engagements in confined terrain such as the Vale of Tempe or Thermopylae. This caution may be contrasted with the confidence of Alexander the Great who, trusting in the superiority of his troops, routinely sought out direct engagements with Darius’ forces.

Matthew Trundle, the other editor of the volume, next describes the historical traditions of the battle, including the divergent stories about whether the Spartans fell while holding their defensive position (Herodotus), or while engaged in a “kamikaze” mission into the Persian camp (Diodorus). He goes on to provide an overview of Greek commemoration of the battle—not the last time this issue will be dealt with in the volume, as four out of eight chapters deal at least partially with commemoration and memory.

The chapter by George “Rip” Rapp is perhaps the most significant contribution from an academic standpoint. Any visitor to the site today will be instantly disappointed to see that the narrows of Thermopylae are completely gone, as the recession of the Malic gulf has created a broad plain which even 300,000 Spartans could never hope to block. Rapp argues, against the topographical interpretations of Kendrick Pritchett, that the battlefield itself is not visible today, but has been largely buried by limestone accreting from the calcified waters of the namesake hot springs.1 His conclusion that almost all topographic markers in Herodotus have been lost to time is an important, if disappointing, consideration for anyone hoping to better understand the battle from a topographical perspective.

In his second contribution, Matthew argues persuasively against assertions that Thermopylae was a “suicide mission.” He notes that while the Spartan contribution was quite small, a mere 300 picked hoplites, the overall land forces posted in the land corridor of Thermopylae combined with the naval forces at Artemision represented a substantial allied commitment of perhaps 75,000 men.

Matthew’s discussion is sensible, but a few of his subsidiary points are quite dubious. Firstly, he repeatedly suggests that the Persian force numbered 300,000-400,000 men. It is, of course, a quirk of Greek historiography to tell the tallest of tales about Persian military numbers, and thus Herodotus claims that Xerxes had at least 1.7 million troops. Yet even 400,000 is an absurdly high estimate. If it were true, it would mean that Xerxes had more soldiers bottlenecked at Thermopylae than were in the entire Roman Army of the early and high empire. The Seleucid Empire, which controlled much of the same territory as Xerxes and adapted many Achaemenid institutions, was never able to field more than 72,000 troops in one place (Livy 37.37.9). While any estimate of Persian strength is highly speculative, I would be very surprised if Xerxes had more than 75,000 soldiers with him. Secondly, Matthew argues that the Persians suffered from hunger because of starvation rations of one choinix of wheat a day. The figure is Herodotus’ estimate, but such a ration is in fact quite adequate; Roman soldiers managed to conquer the Mediterranean on an almost identical daily portion (Polybius 6.39.13).

Ultimately, Matthew does present a plausible picture of Leonidas and his force planning a substantial blocking position; even after most of the other Greeks had been sent away, Leonidas and his men might have fought as a rearguard hoping for seaborne evacuation. It was only in the last few hours, perhaps, that the fighting truly became a “suicide mission.”

Amelia Brown next discusses how the Greeks went about commemorating the battle of Thermopylae, discussing the evidence for monuments erected on the battlefield, as well as the fragments of surviving poetry, both epigrams inscribed on the war memorials and subsequent poems commissioned to honor the dead of various contingents. She concludes with brief discussions of the literary sources (overlapping with that provided by Trundle), the commemoration of the battle in Sparta (or lack thereof), and a page on the reception of the battle in antiquity.

Moving from Archaic commemoration to the “Father of History,” Peter Gainsford discusses Homeric echoes in Herodotus’ histories. Much of the discussion is taken up with a listing of such echoes, some of which are quite explicit (in particular the back and forth fight over Leonidas’ body), while others are minor flourishes at best. He provides a useful cross-reference between Homer and Herodotus’ Book Seven.

Delving into some 2500 years of ancient and modern history, Peter Londey provides a fine overview of other battles fought at Thermopylae. Given the geographic realities of the region, and even after the retreat of the Malic gulf reduced the location’s usefulness as a choke point, it has remained a major passage from northern to central Greece, evidenced by the modern freeway that runs past the position even today. Londey notes, following the topographic conclusions of Kase and Szemler, that Thermopylae is not the only passage from north to south.2 An army could force its way south from the site of Herakleia Trachinia to Amphissa, for example. But this alternative route does not have the proximity to the sea that made it attractive to Xerxes and to other armies deriving a large part of their logistical support from seaborne supply lines. Londey is skeptical, perhaps too skeptical, that many of the other ancient battles of Thermopylae were actually fought in the narrows, wondering if any battle fought in the general vicinity of the Malic gulf was conflated into yet another rehash of the famous struggle between Xerxes and Leonidas. The final topic discussed—appropriate for a volume with contributors predominantly from Australia and New Zealand—is the defense of the Thermopylae region by the Australian and New Zealand Army Corp (ANZAC) forces during the German invasion of Greece in 1941. Here the defenders were not surrounded by flying columns using goat paths, but beaten down by superior firepower, and finally withdrawn when the British high command abandoned the ill-fated strategy of defending the Greek mainland.

Trundle closes the volume with a discussion of the motif of “glorious defeat” that has made Thermopylae more celebrated in both ancient and modern times than the engagements at Salamis and Platea (which the Greeks actually won). He concludes with a discussion of Victorian era media coverage of the defense of a Maori stronghold against British attackers. Trundle notes that the British reporters, and even some of the officers leading the assault, readily identified the recalcitrant Maori with the defiant Spartans under Leonidas, which of course had the effect of linking their colonial enterprise to the despotic Xerxes. The educated journalists and officers showed off their erudition by making classical comparisons, but there is little evidence that they processed the deeper implications of the Maori-as-Greeks or ever wavered from their imperial mission: the fort was reduced and the Maori displaced. Nor did the comparison to Thermopylae seem to evoke any military humility. That battle was Xerxes’ only victory before the major defeats of Salamis and Plataea. The confident British knew that the war would end victoriously once they defeated this Maori “Leonidas.”

In general, the book is a competent presentation of issues pertaining to this famous battle and its subsequent memory, even if it fails to offer particularly new perspectives. The book’s main audience will probably be those looking for a “guts-and-glory” military history, and its greatest benefit may be introducing such readers to a more nuanced view of how the memory of the battle was shaped and transmitted.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: “Towards the Hot Gates: the Events leading up to the Battle of Thermopylae” by Christopher A. Matthew
Chapter 2: “Thermopylae” by Matthew Trundle
Chapter 3: “The Topography of the Pass at Thermopylae Circa 480 BC” by George “Rip” Rapp
Chapter 4: “Was the Defense of Thermopylae in 480 BC a Suicide Mission?” by Christopher A. Matthew
Chapter 5: “Remembering Thermopylae and the Persian Wars in Antiquity” by Amelia R. Brown
Chapter 6: “Herodotus’ Homer: Troy, Thermopylae, and the Dorians” by Peter Gainsford
Chapter 7: “Other Battles of Thermopylae” by Peter Londey
Chapter 8: “The Glorious Defeat” by Matthew Trundle

Notes:


1.   K. Pritchett. “New Light on Thermopylai.” American Journal of Archaeology 62 (1958), 203-213.
2.   E. Kase, G. Szemler, N. Wilkie and P. Wallace (eds.) The Great Isthmus Corridor Route: Explorations of the Phokis Doris Expedition Vol. 1. (Dubuque, 1991).

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