War Classics – Thermopylae: The Battle for the West

Fred Chiaventone recalls one of the great works of military history

For the historiographical pedant, this is most certainly a book to eschew, for they will find not a single footnote, end note, or exhaustive bibliography. However, for the avid historian, Thermopylae: the battle for the West is an absolute must-read. The research is indeed impeccable, the insights piquant, and the pace breathtaking. The author, Ernle Bradford, was not the prototypical historian with the usual panoply of degrees amassed; rather he was largely self-educated, driven one might well suspect by an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and understanding.

An enlisted seaman during the Second World War, he rose to the rank of First Lieutenant serving on a Hunt-class destroyer in the Mediterranean, where he would later spend 30 years as a yachtsman and researcher. Bradford became a noted broadcaster for the BBC and wrote a number of books on diverse topics ranging from antique furniture and jewellery to historical figures and episodes. His work on Thermopylae, and, in truth, the entire second Greco-Persian War, was published initially in 1980 and remains a classic work on the subject.

In some ways, the title of the book is misleading, for while the epic battle at Thermopylae is indeed addressed thoroughly, this book goes much deeper, plumbing the depths of the Greeks’ struggle with a massive and exceptionally aggressive Achaemenid Empire. The author traces the roots of the war back to the first attempt by the Persians under Darius to suppress and absorb Greece, which ended disastrously for him in 490 BC at the Battle of Marathon, where the Persian forces were routed by the Athenians. Darius’ son Xerxes was determined to fulfil his late father’s ambitions, and by 479 BC had begun assembling a large force with which to thrash the fractious Greek city-states that defied him – especially Athens and Sparta.

Xerxes’ preparations for the war were quite thorough and seemed almost superhuman. Over the course of four years, he assembled a large military force, which, according to the Greek historian Herodotus, was drawn from some 46 different nations. He then proceeded to have constructed a massive pontoon bridge across the Hellespont over which to move troops, animals, and all the needful war materiel from Asia to Europe. Preparations included the establishment of numerous supply dumps to provide for his forces en route. Despite the obvious inevitability of conflict, the separate Greek states remained seemingly incapable of recognising the danger and cooperating against the looming Persian threat. While a number of cities submitted to the invading forces rather than face Xerxes’ wrath, the more stalwart entities, including the Spartans, Athenians, Corinthians, Thespians, and Phocians, among others, began cooperating to form a workable, if still fractious, alliance. Throughout the coming war, the Athenian general and politician Themistocles would play a prominent role in crafting the strategy and maintaining the fragile Greek alliance which would ultimately defeat the Persian invasion. While the battle at Thermopylae is, of course, the centrepiece of this book, Bradford goes on to put that fight in context as he follows the Persian invasion from its beginnings all the way through to the ultimate frustration of Xerxes’ efforts at conquest.

Discerning eye

The subsequent war and its outcome are well known or easily discovered in countless historical accounts. But the mere facts and retelling of the tale are not what make this particular volume so valuable. The peripatetic Bradford casts a discerning eye over the sources for our understanding of the second Greco-Persian War and tempers legendary accounts with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the theatre of war, the arms, armour, organisation, and leadership of the contending forces, as well as logistical constraints, the impact of tides and weather, and the religious factors that influenced events.

What Bradford proceeds to do is to analyse the standard historical references in light of practical considerations. For example, where ancient Greek texts account that Xerxes’ forces numbered as many as three million men, Bradford considers the management and movement of such a force, taking into account the logistics required to equip and sustain it as well as the terrain that had to be traversed and the water sources available for both men and animals. Citing the observations of more recent military observers, he concludes that the ancient Greeks grossly overstated the size of the Persian invasion force. Even at its best, ancient Persian logistics would have been hard pressed to sustain a force much larger than 250,000 men.

While Xerxes’ bridging of the Hellespont was indeed a remarkable achievement of engineering, nowhere in the ancient texts is allowance made for how the number of vessels required to support the pontoons reduced the overall number of vessels available to the Persian naval force. Thus Herodotus’ claim of the Persian fleet numbering over 3,000 ships was likely three times in excess of its actual size. The vagaries of tides and inclement weather in the Aegean Sea, combined with repeated clashes with Greek warships, had so reduced the Persian fleet that by the time of the battle at Artemisium it only slightly outnumbered that of the Greeks. Grecian historians were apparently not loathe to exaggerate the Persians’ numerical superiority, thereby magnifying the glory of their ultimate victory.

Throughout this work, Bradford does an exceptional job of carving away the fat from legendary accounts of the conflict. This is indeed a gargantuan and challenging task as there are truly few ‘first hand’ accounts of the events described herein. The great Greek tragedian Aeschylus of course served in the war, at the battles at Salamis and Platea, and wrote of the experience in his play The Persians. But that drama, rather than describing the details of the war, is set in the Persian court and focuses more on the morally ambiguous nature of conflict.

Herodotus, frequently cited as the premier historian of the age, was but four years old at the time of the battle for Thermopylae, and while he may well have had access to veterans of the campaigns, their memories were naturally subject to nostalgia and possibly contemporary social and political considerations. Other Greek historians such as Didorus Seculus and Plutarch, also cited in this work, would not write about the war until some three hundred years after the fact and had distinctly Athenian leanings. Sparta, for its case, had no contemporary records of the events in question. While future chroniclers such as A R Burn, G B Grundy, and Arnold Toynbee produced marvellous appraisals of the war, its causes, and resolution, their efforts were, of course, hampered by the availability of written records. The historiography is thus problematic in the extreme.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Inspirational message

If I have any criticisms of Bradford’s truly exceptional work, besides those mentioned above concerning notes, references, etc, it would be on the relative paucity of the maps available to the reader. There are several, of course, but they tend to be oversimplified and lacking in specific detail. The reader is thus well advised to have on hand an ample supply of supporting reference works for geographical guidance and to better understand the flow of the conflict. A few additional references will help the reader to appreciate the arms, armour, and tactics of the competing sides as well as the various naval vessels that figured decisively.

It is interesting to note that the fame of the Spartan last stand at Thermopylae derives not from its ultimate effect on the outcome of the war but rather from the inspiration derived from the self-sacrifice of the Greeks who fought and died there. This inspirational message has rung down the centuries to the present day, such as when Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak cited its example in resisting the Russian invasion of Ukraine: ‘Eighty-three days of Mariupol defence will go down in history as the Thermopylae of the 21st century.’ In any event, despite its obvious flaws, this is a marvellous account of the second Greco-Persian war and as a war classic is highly recommended.

Ernle Bradford

Born: 11 January 1922 – Died: 8 May 1986
Nationality: British

Born in Norfolk, Ernle Bradford was educated at Uppingham School in Rutland. Outside of his service in the Royal Navy during the Second World War, he was a keen yachtsman, and spent 30 years sailing the Mediterranean – voyages which were later to be the subject of some of his many books. A sometime broadcaster for the BBC, he wrote regularly on history, too, publishing biographies of Nelson, Caesar, and Hannibal, among others. In his later years, Bradford lived on Malta, where he died in 1986.  A street on the island, in the village of Kalkara, is named in his honour.