Monday, October 23, 2006

Was the Battle of Thermopylae a real event?

Recently, while browsing the net for information about the upcoming movie “300”, I found a message written by a guy, claiming to be a history professor from Russia, who went as far as to question whether the Battle of Thermopylae was an actual event!! He did admit that there was some kind a conflict between Greeks and Persians, at which the Greeks eventually prevailed, but he considered the specific event as largely exaggerated and, as he said, possibly forged as part of the “Hellenic propaganda”. He therefore refuses to teach it and remains very critical towards the generally accepted approach of the Greco-Persian Wars. Well, I really feel sorry for his students and the history they are learning...

The Battle of Thermopylae (literary meaning: “Hot Gates”) is undoubtedly one of the best and most accurately recorded conflicts of ancient times. There are not only ancient texts describing it by also archeological evidence to support it. The names of all Spartans who fell on the side of their King were recorded and are well know today. The exact conditions of the battle and the number of casualties suffered, quotes from Greeks and Persians before the battle begun, even the negotiations between the army leaders have been written down and saved for future generations. Testimonies from contemporary Greeks and Persians have been recorded and monuments dedicated to those who sacrificed their lives for the survival of their country have been excavated in both Thermopylae and Sparta. Furthermore, the battleground of Thermopylae because of the tactical advantage it offers to an outnumbered defending army has been the site of a number of battles throughout history. Most recently, the Greek Chef of staff during the World War II was planning to delay the advancing German forces fighting a desperate battle at the exact same place where Leonidas and Sparta’s finest shed their blood 2,500 years ago (fortunately he changed his mind considering the air supremacy of the Germans which cancelled any tactical advantage of the retreating Greeks and British).

Our main source of the Greco-Persian Wars is no other than the father of history, Herodotus of Halicarnassus. As his name indicates, he was born in the Greek city of Halicarnassus in Asia Minor (modern-day Bodrum on the Southern coastline of the Aegean Sea in Turkey) around 484 B.C. and lived until the age of 60, witnessing first hand the classical era of ancient Greece with Athens and Sparta at the peak of their glory. He was an enlightened man, a true scholar as people in the renaissance characterized him when they re-discovered his texts. He traveled around the entire known world trying to uncover historical events by interviewing eye-witnesses and fellow historians. He also recorded his trips to exotic destinations as far as Babylon or Egypt. He wrote nine books titled “Istories” or “The Histories” (simply meaning “stories” is Greek). The word was later borrowed by the Romans and ended up in all Western languages with its current etymology.

As I mentioned in my introduction, the Battle of Thermopylae took place in 480 B.C., when Herodotus was only about 4 years old, which, logically, makes his account of the events less credible. However, the scientific method he used to record his stories, secure to the maximum degree that his descriptions are as objective and as close to the actual events as possible. He went around the Greco-Persian world trying to find survivors of the recent Great War and talk with them about the events, with as much detail as possible. He interviewed Greeks and Persians, Greeks who fought with the Persians, allies of the Persians, such as Egyptians and Babylonians, even the personal biographers of the Persian Kings. Actually in his first six books Herodotus deals almost exclusively with the growth and expanse of the Persian Empire, providing more details about his contemporary superpower than any Persian historian. In his texts one can clearly observe that although a Greek himself, and an admirer of Athens and its Democracy, he treats the Persians with the outmost respect and tries to be objective in his judgment and the way he presents the story to his reader. Many may say he is biased or inaccurate, especially in the figures he provides about the size of the Persian armies. Herodotus is not only trying to collect stories from all available resources but also to balance them and come up with a realistic and objective account of events that happened years before he even begun his research. In some cases he gives more than one version of the same event, in order to avoid giving a false story. I strongly recommend to everyone to read Herodotus’ original texts and create a personal opinion about his credibility.

The accounts of Herodotus are confirmed by all his contemporary scholars, including Greeks and Persians. Their main disagreement concerns the size of the armies which took part in the various campaigns. From the Battle of Marathon run by Darius to the massive expedition of Xerxes, each historian and each witness give a different figure. However, this is not important since they all agree that in all battles the Greeks were heavily outnumbered, and their eventual triumph was a result of their superior battle tactics and the motivation of their cause. The Greeks were fighting to “liberate your motherland, your children, your women, the altars of the Gods of your fathers and the graves of your forebears”.*

The Battle of Thermopylae was a historical event. It did happen and it marked history forever. It continues to inspire men who fight for a righteous cause, even when desperately outnumbered by an invincible enemy. It was the turning-point of probably the most important war of ancient times. A war which literary saved the Greek world, and let it flourish for centuries to come. The Greco-Persian Wars gave birth to classical Greece and, therefore, the ideas of Freedom, Democracy, Individual human rights and Humanism as we understand them today. Scientific thinking, Medicine, Physics, Mathematics, Philosophy, Theology, the foundations of Western civilization were invented in classical Greece. All these would have never happened if a handful of brave men had not stood on the “Hot Gates” in a summer day, 480 years before Christ, and sacrificed their lives to unite the Greeks and eventually halt the Asiatic hordes from invading and conquering the whole of Europe.

* verse from the “Paean” (war song) the Greeks were singing at the dawn of the Naval Battle of Salamis (more about it on this blog soon).


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!

8:46 PM  

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