Christopher Matthew and Matthew Trundle, eds.
(Pen & Sword, 2013) 228 pp. $22.11
Seeking to capitalize on the contemporary appeal of movies like 300 and the general reputation of the Battle of Thermopylae, this book presents a series of coherent and interconnected chapters that provide distinct and critical views of the common understanding and regular portrayal of this battle. As is fitting for a book that seeks to provide critical examination of the portrayal of the Battle of Thermopylae, the volume contains a series of chapters that amount to interconnected essays that discuss aspects of the battle and its larger context that are often ignored or not given a great deal of attention, as well as discussing areas that have received a lot of attention but that are highly controversial. This is not to say that all of the essays agree with each other. As one of the contributors, Peter Londey, notes: “I am indeed somewhat more skeptical than the editors of this volume as to the geographical preciseness of Herodotus’ account of events in 480, but I will leave that aside for another time and focus on events of later periods (138).”
Containing only about 165 pages of material divided into eight essays, Beyond the Gates of Fire examines the following subjects, from the following scholars: “Toward the Hot Gates: The Events leading to the Battle of Thermopylae,” by Christopher A. Matthew, “Thermopylae,” by Matthew Trundle, “The Topography of the Pass at Thermopylae Circa 480,” by George (Rip) Rapp, “Was the Greek Defense of Thermopylae in 480BC a Suicide Mission,” by Christopher Matthew, “Remembering Thermopylae and the Persian Wars in Antiquity,” by Amelia Brown, “Herodotus’ Homer: Troy, Thermopylae, and the Dorians,” by Peter Gainsford, “Other Battles of Thermopylae,” by Peter Londey, and “The Glorious Defeat,” by Matthew Trundle. These eight essays examine the larger strategic goals of the Greeks, who at Thermopylae were engaging in what the authors consider a sound logistic strategy of seeking to deny ground to the Persians and use the size of the Persian mass army against them through the demanding needs of food, water, and forage, aside from the threat of illness as a result of the oversized army’s unsanitary conditions. Other essays tackle the contentious nature of the topography of Thermopyale, as to which pass the soldiers fought over and the extent of their own (and Herodotus’) geographical knowledge of the area, the literary allusions that Herodotus makes to the poetry of the Illiad cycle that allow for foreshadowing and the exploration of the ambiguity of Spartan identity, the larger scope of Thermopylae in historical memory as well as one of a lengthy series of battles extending until World War II, as well as the role of Thermopylae in establishing a model of the glorious defeat that would inspire many future chroniclers of battle.
Readers interested in Medieval history will find the seventh essay, by Peter Londey, of the greatest interest of the collection, which contains the following commentary on later battles at or near the hot gates of Thermopylae: “Bulgars invaded Greece on several occasions in the tenth century, and Uzes in the eleventh; both groups penetrated as far as the Gulf of Corinth, presumably using the southern route from the Malian Gulf. In 1204, after the fall of Constantinople to the Fourth Crusade, a Latin army under Boniface of Montferrat invaded Greece. The attempt by local aristocrat Leo Sgouros to defend Thermopylae against the invader failed because local landowners decided to back the winner and surrendered without a fight; he abandoned the pass and retreated to his base on the Acrocorinth. In 1458 Sultan Mehmed II, the conqueror of Constantinople, passed through Thermopylae as the Ottomans extended their control from northern to southern Greece (146).” Aside from a discussion of Procopius’ account of Justinian’s fortress building efforts in Thermopylae in the 6th century AD, this is the full extent of the material in the book dealing with the history of the Middle Ages whatsoever. While the battle may be of interest to many readers who happen to have an interest in military history, its connection to medieval military history as a whole is slight.
For readers with a broad interest in ancient history and its implications, this book has a lot to offer, even if a reader has no particular stake in the various debates over the accuracy of the account of Diodorus as opposed to Herodotus, or questions over the precise location of the Battle of Thermopylae, areas that are still extremely contentious among scholars of ancient history. For example, Amelia Brown’s essay on the remembrance of the Persian wars in antiquity contains a thoughtful examination of the textual epigrams on grave markers and battle monuments, both in the Greek original, as best as can be determined, as well as in translation. Also of interest for readers with some interest in the history of New Zealand is the lengthy discussion in the essay by Trundle on the tradition of the glorious defeat about the battle of Orakau in the Maori wars, where the literate British officers uncomfortably found themselves in the positions of the Persians in dealing with a tenaciously brave but overmatched Maori foe, and the same author’s discussion of the influence of the Battle of Thermopylae on American historical memory about the Battles of the Alamo and Little Bighorn.
Aside from its interest as a series of mostly collegial revisionist discussions of the Battle of Thermopylae that take many of the contemporary presentations of the battle, including 300, to task for their inaccuracies in topographical detail as well as a failure to explore the larger strategic aims of the Greeks or the post hoc nature of the battle’s role as a glorious defeat that presaged ultimate victory for the Greeks against the massive Persian onslaught, the book has much to offer a historical reader. It is blessed with a large collection of scholarly endnotes and a substantial bibliography to encourage readers who wish to know more about the battle. Those readers who want to examine medieval sources on the military history of Thermopylae would be better advised to read the relevant passages in Procopius’ histories as well as Peter Lock’s book The Franks in the Aegean, 1204-1500 (London, Longman, 1995), pages 68-72.