Friday, May 10, 2013

Great Battles Lecture: Thermopylae: The Battle for Europe?

(From the YouTube description) Dr. Jeremy McInerny [sic], Professor of Classical Studies, examines the tactics and strategy of the Battle of Thermopylae (in present-day Greece) in 480 BCE. Why was the battle fought at this location and was it, as it is often portrayed, a turning point in the confrontation of East and West? This lecture puts the Battle of Thermopylae into the context of the Persian Wars, and examines the battle's significance for the Greeks as well as for Europeans in later periods, in art and poetry.

Professor Jeremy McInerney of the University of Pennsylvania may be familiar to some of you since he has done a few series for The Great Courses. His lecture on Thermopylae is perfect timing for me since it’s a good precursor for Paul Cartledge’s new book After Thermopylae: The Oath of Plataea and the End of the Graeco-Persian Wars (which I hope to post on next week). Since I seem to highly recommend videos that aren't exactly popular (I was viewer 148), this post will combine a semi-summary of his lecture with some occasional fleshing out of the topics he raises.

His talk attempts to put the Battle of Thermopylae in context for what it meant to the Greeks as well as what it meant going forward for the West. He jokingly starts the lecture showing the who, what, when, and where of the battle. He mentions there is a need to “unpack” the battle since so many people have the view that “Western civilization as we know it would not have come about had the Greeks not been victorious at Thermopylae.” He obviously includes much tongue-in-cheek when claiming a Greek victory at Thermopylae. Because of the resonance to the imagination that the battle engenders, though, I don’t think he’s far wrong in turning what was a disaster into a propaganda-like victory. One of the important topics is the “battle of images” that arose after the fact.

Something that stood out in his lecture I don’t think I’ve mentioned in previous posts is that the Greeks try to have it different ways in their characterization of the wars with Persia, depending on what point of comparison is emphasized. The Greeks, though outnumbered by some inflated factor, are often portrayed as an equal to Persia. In looking at the battle of ideas or ideals, Greece is portrayed as far superior. While it’s an obvious point, McInerney shows a map of Persian territory as compared to the combination of Greek city-states around 490 B.C. Greece is the equivalent of a rounding error when compared to the Persian empire. So which is it? Superior, underdog, or equal? Maybe a mix of each?

McInerney raises a point about the Persian empire’s expansion that could apply to other empires of the ancient world:

“We are so conditioned in modern history to look for complex causes, for imperial expansion, economic motives, religious motives and so forth, that we often ignore the brutally simple fact that in the ancient world empires expanded because they could. They simply took more territory when it was available to them.”

The same could be said for many of the Greek cities in the years and conflicts following the Persian wars. McInerney provides a quick overview of the clashes between Persia and Greece, but also notes the cooperation and intermingling between the two, providing detail to support his comment that “The contact between Greeks and Persians culturally goes much deeper than we would often like to admit.” After providing some background on Persia during the time of Darius, McInerney looks at several points of conflict between Athens and Persia, focusing on the Ionian Revolt and the help the Athenians provided. He also goes into detail on the different modes and techniques of warfare between the Greeks and the Persians.

McInerney presents a useful graphic of the Battle of Marathon, highlighting the keys of Greek success. The importance of the victory was great, while the fallout and effects could be seen as out of proportion. “To have defeated that army [of the vast Persian empire] was an accomplishment of superhuman proportions. And it triggered in Athenian culture an astonishing degree of confidence in what they were able to do.”

A decade later when the Greeks learned of the invasion of Xerxes’ army (at least two years in advance), the strategic chokepoint of Thermopylae was the obvious place to slow the Persian advance. Mcinerney looks at Herodotus 7.206 for the purpose of Leonidas and the Spartans (in conjunction with naval engagements). He then reads Herodotus’ account of the third day of battle, after Ephialtes of Trachis betrays the Greeks. Thermopylae was a military disaster while Salamis and Plataea were the victories that stopped the Persian invasion. Why does Thermopylae capture the ancient and modern imagination so much? Calling to mind the celebration of ANZAC day (and he could have mentioned many other examples), he notes “a national identity can be built around a defeat.” What arose, as shown in Herodotus’ account, was a framework pitting East against West, freedom versus slavery. The mythological aspects of the battle began almost immediately.

McInerney presents a slide capturing some of the changes flowing from the battle beyond the celebration of the heroes. Eleutheria [freedom] enters the political discourse where previously it was used only to differentiate between a free man and a slave, Barbarian becomes a term of abuse instead of commenting on how someone spoke or their being non-Greek. Greek confidence leads to a cultural flowering. And while the loss led to a feeling of triumph, it also produced a less-than-attractive triumphalism.

As an example of the last point—whose Xerxes do we talk about? The noble ruler? Or an “eight-foot tall Brazilian metrosexual with more body piercings than you’ll see on South Street on a Saturday night?” In the 2006 movie version of Thermopylae the subtext is so forward that it becomes the text itself—there is a threat coming from the East, and that threat goes beyond the stated freedom versus slavery. The Eurymedon vase, from the 460s B.C. captures what the movie hints at—who buggers who? Herodotus’ noble, heroic account quickly becomes vulgarized and represented by the worst stereotypes.

McInerney looks at the triumphalism of Athens. While mentioning the good things flowing from the triumph, it’s important to keep in mind the people celebrating these heroics would turn allies into enemies. Their assemblies would vote to slaughter all the men of a city revolting against their tyranny. Empires are empires, with all their accompanying traits. Even though Athens helped defeat Persia it effectively becomes an empire, with many of the same traits they portray in their vanquished enemy. This is part of the complicated story of Thermopylae, where things aren’t always black and white.

The lecture ends with the reading of C. P. Cavafy’s poem “Thermopylae”, which chooses to highlight what Athens should have done and been after the battle, not what they did:

Honor to those who in the life they lead
define and guard a Thermopylae.
Never betraying what is right,
consistent and just in all they do
but showing pity also, and compassion;
generous when they are rich, and when they are poor,
still generous in small ways,
still helping as much as they can;
always speaking the truth,
yet without hating those who lie.

And even more honor is due to them
when they foresee (as many do foresee)
that in the end Ephialtis will make his appearance,
that the Medes will break through after all.

A quick note on playing the video: it initially cut off for me at the 46:53 point despite showing a length of 53:23. Upon reloading the page and advancing to the 46 minute mark I was able to see the final minutes. I’m not sure if that glitch was on my end or YouTube’s, but I did want to mention it in case it happens to others. Despite the mention of a Q&A session, it was not included in the video.

Another note: while there is much to look at regarding Thermopylae, I focused on the aspects of Homeric epic in my post from The Histories.


Miguel said...

This is a thoughtful post. The sad thing is, most people will only known the Battle of Thermopylae from watching the mediocre 300.

Dwight said...

Thanks Miguel. I really like Professor McInerney's lectures--he takes a very balanced approach. Several years ago I listened to his series of lectures on the Hellenistic age after Alexander the Great and enjoyed them quite a bit. The events and politics are very complicated so it's easy to see how things get simplified.

Regarding 300, I think I'm a little more forgiving. Since it's more an impressionistic take on Frank Miller's graphic novel it doesn't claim to be historically accurate--it's goal is to that surrealistic base to entertain. But it does get the overall message right as well as many details straight from Herodotus. Take all of this with a grain of salt since I had a huge crush on Lena Headey.

While I'm sure it will be a very small fraction of one percent of the viewers, hopefully it inspired a few people to go to some of the ancient sources.


War is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

Your article is very well done, a good read.