Thermopylae: The Battle That Changed the World (by Paul Cartledge: Nonfiction) c. 2007

Summary: In 480 BC, the great Persian King Xerxes led a vast army into Greece, intending to add the city states there to his empire. Squabbling among themselves even as Xerxes approached, the Greek polities mustered only a small contingent of 300 Spartan soldiers (supported by several thousand allies) to make a stand in the narrow pass of Thermopylae. The battle that followed, while a Persian victory tactically, would prove to be a rallying cry that would not only turn the war in the Greeks favors but echo down through history.

Review: Cartledge does a reasonable job summarizing the Greek and Persian worlds and world views in the first stages of his book. Beyond that, he falters. The description of the battle itself is woefully brief, and virtually no description of the effect of the battle on the rest of Greece or on the subsequent course of the war is offered. No more than a sentence on the great battles at Plataea and Salamis is offered. Instead, after the brief description of the battle, Cartledge offers many chapters following the effects of the battle on art, culture, and society throughout the world and through the ages. He thus provides excellent examples that the battle ‘changed the world’, while doing virtually nothing to document how or why this was the case. For readers interested in Greek history or the Persian Wars, there are much better and more balanced books available. The audio version of the book is, at least, beautifully read by John Lee.

Read-a-likes: For those more interested in action than strict fact, the movie 300 remains the most recent and popular portrayal of Thermopylae. For fiction readers, Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield is a stirring and largely accurate rendering of the battle. For those interested in a better examination of why the Greeks and Greek civilization echo through western history, I would recommend Sailing the Wine Dark Sea by Thomas Cahill.

Availability: This book is available from the Lake Bluff Public Library as an eAudiobook, downloadable through My Media Mall.

Review by Eric.


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