First, let me just say that I am a huge fan of Paul Cartledge. I devour his books on Sparta because he knows the subject better than anyone else. He's also very friendly. When I consulted him by email on a point of fact concerning King Cleomenes I, not only did he answer my question, but he made sure his answer was in-depth and personable. So naturally when I was given a copy Thermopylae: The Battle That Changed The World, I jumped for joy. Unfortunately, I should have just saved my energy.
Very little of the book is designated to the battle itself. Most of the story is a basic brush-up of the Persian wars, with only a brief description of Thermopylae followed by an an attempt to show the influence of the battle throughout history. The writing is clumsy and littered with many repetitious statements and the author’s attempt at laconic witticisms (which ended up being highly intrusive to the narration). I was especially mystified by the lack of specific detail. After all, this is the same man who brought us the brilliant and exhaustingly detailed Sparta And Lakonia: A Regional History 1300 To 362 BC. So unless he didn’t want to (or was told not to) bog down the average reader with too much logistics, I see no reason why Professor Cartledge couldn’t have included more information about Thermopylae and the events that took place there.
What's even more shocking than the lack of detail is the factual errors I encountered. For example, in one chapter Cartledge claims the falling out between Leotychidas II and his cousin Demaratus was due to the former stealing the latter’s bride. Now, unless I missed a "Historian Staff Meeting," it's actually the other way around. The story of Demaratus making off with his cousin’s betrothed is found in Herodotus, and Cartledge mentions it in his earlier work The Spartans: The World of The Warrior-Heroes of Ancient Greece. The author even claims that that Demaratus was “...showing himself a true son of his tricky father…[and]stole his bride from a distant cousin.” I was baffled by this glaring error and am not sure why it wasn’t caught, unless my suspicion that this work was rushed is correct.
Then there is the claim that the battle changed the world. That’s a fairly lofty declaration, and one that requires more proof than was presented (the argument is not a bad one, but again lack of detail hurt this book). Although Thermopylae influenced men throughout history in some way or another, without the key victories at Salamis and Plataea, the story of Thermopylae would ultimately be one of futility. I also didn’t like the attempts to compare Thermopylae and the events of 9/11 and 7/7. There is nothing to compare. The former was an open war where men chose to fight for freedom. The latter was a surprise attack where religious fanatics used innocent people to kill more innocent people with no warning. Persia wanted to rule the Hellenes, not destroy them.
I adore Paul Cartledge and don’t want to discourage people from getting his other memorable and important works on the Spartans. They’re well-researched and have some great pictures of Sparta and items found there. They also dive into fascinating detail that may help fledgling historical fiction authors get a grasp on the times and events that took place in the 480 BCE. So if you haven’t done so yet, I highly suggest buying the following works: The Spartans: The World of The Warrior-Heroes of Ancient Greece, Spartan Reflections, and The History of Spartan and Laconia.