Monday, 10 March 2014

What was at stake at Thermopylae in 480BC

What was at stake at Thermopylae in 480BC

This book is the story of perhaps the most famous military campaign of the ancient world. It has everything that a writer could want: action, adventure, mystery and much more. As a story, it is thrilling. As an exercise in military history it is fascinating.

The Greeks later claimed that the entire future history of the world hinged on this one campaign. As they saw things, the vast and powerful Persian Empire was a brutal dictatorship in which nobody had any rights except by favour of the monarch – the King of Kings or Great King. All individuality was stamped out by the autocratic system which stifled trade, the arts and freedom. In the Greek city states, the arts and sciences flourished as individual freedom was celebrated and allowed its full rein. Each of the many small states was free to choose its own system of government. This Thermopylae campaign was a war between the Free World and a Slave World.

That, at least, is how the Greeks saw it. It was an apocalyptic vision in which the stakes were high and the world trembled on the edge of an abyss. Many modern writers have followed the Greek lead and viewed the wars of which the Thermopylae Campaign formed a part as being a struggle for freedom.

As ever, of course, things were not quite that simple. Slavery was an accepted part of life in all Greek states: the much vaunted freedoms were reserved for the privileged citizens. Nor was the Persian system of government quite as brutal as the Greeks liked to maintain. Subject peoples were often allowed to run their own affairs according to their own laws, so long as they paid their taxes on time and caused no trouble. And the war was very definitely not a conflict between Greeks and Persians. Many Greek states were already within the Persian Empire, or owed allegiance to it, and their men fought on the “Persian” side in the conflict. Many other Greek states, cowed by the awesome might of the King of Kings surrendered promptly rather than fight.

But in many ways the old, Greek view of this conflict does hold true. The issues may not have been as black and white as they pretended, but this was very definitely a war between rival and incompatible cultures. It was a war in which there could be no compromise peace or diplomatic fudge. Either Persia would conquer Greece or it would not.


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