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Book Review 302: Thermopylae

November 25, 2013 - Harry Eagar
THERMOPYLAE: The Battle for the West, by Ernle Bradford. 255 pages, Da Capo paperback, $16

For some years now, the rightwing noise machine has run a campaign against liberalism and common sense, claiming that such developments as extending civil liberties to wider and deeper sections of the population or attempting to deal with other societies on a fair basis amounts to “surrendering western values.”

For the most part, the “western values” allegedly being defended, like religious intolerance, are really eastern, the principles of the eastern mystery cult of Christianity having been, for better and worse, welded to whatever were the original western values.

Western values were and are not always worth defending, but there was a time when they really were under attack, real attack, and how that attack was defeated is one of history’s most marvelous events. No question, if it had been dreamed up by a novelist, no one would have believed a word of it.

Among the western values of the Greeks being defended, as Ernle Bradford makes clear in “Thermopylae,” was a culture of political corruption that would appall a Chicagoan. Bradford makes that clear, but he emphasizes the Greek values we think about when we think politically: “patterns of freedom and individual liberty.” He does not mention -- and only a few of us think, when we think of Greece, of the 2-obol whores of Athens, slave girls forced to have sex on the cold stones of cemeteries for about 20 cents a time, until they died, which never took long.

Bradford, an Englishman with at least the rudiments of a classical education, grouses that (as of 1980 when this was written) “we have forgotten the roots of our culture” by failing to learn Greek. Balderdash.

True, few of us know Greek, but there’s not much evidence that the European privileged classes who were taught Greek up to the early 20th century (a late development at that, as Greek had been part of the curriculum for gentlemen for only a few centuries) absorbed the political ideas that Bradford admires so much, though they did display a lot of the less appealing ethos that E.R. Dodds so memorably detailed in “The Greeks and the Irrational.” It is worth remembering that during the young manhood of Ernle Bradford (which he spent at war, a fact he never lets us forget), most of “the West” was controlled by fascists, and many of their leading thinkers had been educated on the Greek classics.

It is also sobering, to a liberal, to consider, as Sam Harris notes in “The End of Faith,” that the largest group that spends time studying Greek in America these days comes from evangelical Christianity, not a group much enamored of “freedom and individual liberty,” although it is also true that Garry Wills (a professor of Greek) found that what many of them were studying was broken Greek. It can rapidly get complicated.

But not as complicated as the situation facing the Greeks 2,500 years ago. The battle at Thermopylae takes up only a few pages of “Thermopylae,” the rest being given to the intense decade leading up to the battle, and the concurrent battle of Himera which repulsed Persia’s allies from Greek Sicily, and the wind-up battles of Salamis and Plataea. The concurrent invasion of Sicily from Carthage was never mentioned when the Persian wars were taught to me in school, so Bradford’s little volume is worth reading just for that.

He does not break new ground with the ancient sources, merely retelling, in graceful prose, what modern scholars make of them; but he does bring something fresh to the oft-told tale. A small boat sailor, Bradford spent much time gunkholing in the Aegean, and his knowledge of the shores and weather bring an immediacy to his retelling that armchair scholars cannot match: plus he corrects some of their misimpressions.

Four things saved the Greeks (or some of them): superior infantry armor; superior ships; superior leadership; and a nearly miraculous run of bad weather. Aegean weather is tempestuous but reliable as to what happens in which seasons. Under Classical conditions, the warfare season lasted just a few short months. Xerxes the King of Kings pressed his luck, and at every decisive point, he got the worst weather that that season offered.

UPDATE: I have not in the past linked book reviews to other reports, but this requires it. Should anybody want to quarrel with my contention that rightwingers don't get "western values," I offer this video of "Leonidas," no longer dead but "just old." He seems unclear on every aspect of the concept, from the horse (Leonidas was an infantryman) to the no-king sentiment (Leonidas was a king).


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