In 480 BC, after the disaster at Thermopylae the Greek states were for a time in danger of being overwhelmed by the sheer rolling war machine that were the Persian-led forces. But in 479 BC all that changed, with the Battle of Plataea. The Persians were so decisively beaten by a combined Greek and Spartan army that they retreated out of the peninsula altogether.
What happened, why and how? And why is it that Thermopylae, Marathon and Salamis are so well remembered today, but Plataea is not so well known to the general interested public? The author, who has written extensively on ancient Greece and Sparta has, in this book dissected Thermopylae and its aftermath to give an indepth discussion on these matters and more. Because the book is part of the `Emblems' series, the discussion centres firstly around the `emblematic' aspect of Plataea - the stele erected at ancient Acharnae with texts of the Oath of the Ephebes and the Oath of Plataea.
This book is aimed first and foremost at nonspecialist readers with a keen interest in the ancient Greek world and its legacy. It does not have pages cluttered with obscure footnotes or references, but does, for the reader eager to find out more, have a very comprehensive section of further reading suggestions under the following headings:
1. Primary sources
2. Secondary sources
3. The battle itself
4. Religion, Greek and Athenian
6. Clash of Civilisations?
There is also a very comprehensive bibliography with further material.
There are also very clear maps of the larger, and more defined areas of interest from the narrative at the front of the book for those not familiar with the territory, and some wonderful black and white photos throughout the book.
This is not a large book (around 200 pages) and it covers a fairly short, but vitally important period in ancient Greek and Persian history. As such, it does a very good job of introducing and narrating the key theme (i.e. around the Oath, battle and aftermath of Plataea) in a concise manner and offers many opportunities for readers to find out more in other publications. A most worthwhile, interesting and informative read - definitely recommended.
The purpose of this book, which is part of the "Emblems of Antiquity" Series (just like The Throne of Adulis from G. Bowersock), is to present and discuss the so-called Oath of Plataea, which, together with another oath, was engraved on a stele in Attica. Paul Cartledge makes a very convincing case for this stele being dedicated sometime during the third quarter of the fourth century, more precisely after the catastrophic defeat of Chaeronea against Philip, King of Macedonia (and the young Alexander).
Accordingly, it is not a genuine commemoration set up shortly after the victory of Plataea. Its purposes are quite different and have more to do with hype, politics, propaganda and spin. It is part of the competition between Athens and Sparta that had been going on for almost a century and a half to be seen as the main contributor to and guarantor of the freedom of the Greeks. It also needs to be set within the context of the fourth century, shortly after 338 BC, when the Athenians could do with a bit of morale boasting. The author even goes as far as to see the "hidden hand" of Lycurgus, the Athenian statesman who did so much to rebuild the finances and the navy of Athens after Chaeronea. This meant re-writing history. It also required quite a bit of myth-building and gliding over a number of unpleasant "episodes" during which the behaviours of one or the other city had not exactly been what could be expected from such PanHellenic "freedom fighters."
A second level of analysis is a discussion on the real significance of the victory of "the Greeks" at Plataea in the context of the "Persian Wars" (as the Greeks called them) and to whom the credit for this remarkable victory should go.
Interestingly, he shows to what extent the PanHellenic alliance that grouped together those fighting against the Persian invasion was a (small) subset of "the Greeks", with some 30 cities taking part out of perhaps a total of seven hundred. The others were either neutral (such as Argos, because it was so bitterly "anti-Spartan") or "medizing", meaning that they had in fact sided with the invader (such as Thebes and almost all of the Beotian League, with the exceptions being Thespiae and Plataea, both cities being destroyed by Thebes for having sided against it and against the Persian invader). At times, however, Paul Cartledge can become prone to exaggeration and over-reaching a bit to get his point across. One example here is his claim that there were actually more Greeks fighting at Plataea on the Persian side than on the "Greek" one. This does not seem to have been the case, at least according to the author's own estimates of the two opposing armies (20000 "medizing" Greeks for some 70000 "loyalists", as Cartledge calls them).
Apart from the campaign and the battle itself, where the author shows rather brilliantly that it was "a damn close run thing" than "the Greeks" could certainly have lost, another very interesting (and controversial) discussion is about the significance of this victory. The case made by Paul Cartledge is that Plataea was the decisive victory that "liberated" Greece and that most of the credit for it goes to the Spartans, including their rather inexperienced Regent Pausanias (Was he really that "inexperienced", by the way? Did he have no previous military experience at all? This is another point that is stated, rather than demonstrated by the author). According to the author, the reason why one hears much more about Marathon, Thermopylae and Salamis, with the latter presented as THE decisive victory, and too little about Plataea, has to do with the more successful Athenian propaganda which managed to eclipse the war's most decisive - but mostly Spartan - victory and to over-emphasise a glorious Spartan defeat (but a defeat nonetheless) and two resounding triumphs where the Athenians very much played the main and leading role.
The case is well argued, but not entirely convincing. The opposite case (the real decisive victory was Salamis) can (and has) also be made just as convincingly, although this is not something that the author fully acknowledges. The problem here, as the author is honest enough to mention, is that there would have been no battle at Plataea if the victory at Salamis had not taken place before. So while it was clearly because of the victory of Plataea that the Persians evacuated Greece (and not because of Salamis alone, contrary to what the Athenians claimed and wanted other Greeks to believe afterwards), never to return, it simply would not have happened if the Persian Empire's fleet had not been defeated before-hand. The reason for this, which the author does not explicitly mention, is that the Spartans and the Peloponnesians were extremely reluctant to move north and help the Athenians as long as there was a risk than the Persian Empire's fleet could cut off their retreat and land forces behind them. They even had to be pressured by the Athenians to do so (after Athens had been taken a second time, and this time destroyed, by the Persian army) when these threatened to accept Mardonius' terms, to quit the PanHellenic alliance and leave the Peloponnesians on their own.
A related point - that the Persians never invaded again - was assured by the other Athenian victory of Mycale where another part of the Persian Empire's fleet was destroyed. Paul Cartledge, a bit naughtily, dismisses this as a "mopping-up" operation without any further explanation. In particular, by the time the amphibious attack took place at Mycale, the Phoenician squadrons, that is the most experienced and most feared part of the Persian fleet, had already left for home. Even if the engagement was not as important as Herodotus depicts it to be (and this would be, by far, the first of his exagerations), its aftermath - the revolt of Ionia - certainly was of huge consequence since it prevented the Persians from invading Greece again. Incidentally, however, the battle of Mycale also does show that only a fraction of the Persian fleet had been destroyed at Salamis, therefore also somewhat limiting the claim that this was the "decisive" victory.
Another well-made, but not entirely convincing point is the author's discussion of the rivalry between Sparta and Athens. He shows quite brilliantly how quickly it dissolved after the war (within a couple of years). The myth building and commemoration of Plataea and the rivalry between the old Greek Hegemon (Sparta) and its "new" upstart power (Athens - the "new kid on the block") is also superbly presented. What is less convincing, perhaps, is the impression that this rivalry only emerged after the war was won. In fact, it seems to have preceded the war, with the growth of Athens (in terms of population and richness) and of its democratic regime (which was "anathema" to the "law and order" Spartans, as Cartledge puts it so aptly) and was also present during the conflict. This created an atmosphere of distrust and mutual suspicion during the whole conflict that the Persians tried to benefit from several times. Perhaps even more than giving credit where credit is due, the most amazing feature is that the whole war between what was the Superpower of the time and a small collection of bitterly divided cities ended in the victory of the later.
To conclude this over-long review of a fascinating, but perhaps too short book, this is certainly a "must read". Written in an engaging style, it is a book for classicists but also for non-specialist readers, provided they have a fairly good knowledge about the Persian Wars, classical Greece and historiography. For those who might not have this kind of background, what is in a way a "pro-Spartan" read should be completed by the "pro-Athenian" interpretations that can be found in Peter Green's "the Greco-Persian Wars". Four solid stars, but not quite five...
In his latest book, Paul Cartledge turns to an epigraphic `document', the Oath of Plataea, inscribed sometime between 350-325 BCE on a stele in Attica. Written for a non-specialist audience (though I think it takes quite a lot of knowledge for granted), this allows Cartledge to problematise ideas of the `Persian' wars, epigraphy, and the very concept of historical and literary documents.
As the introduction lays out, the battles of Marathon (490 BCE) and Salamis (480 BCE) have overshadowed Plataea, an essentially Spartan victory. This epigraph, Cartledge shows, written almost 150 years after the Persian wars, is evidence for Athenian `propaganda' from the 4th century BCE, showing us what the Athenians believed - or wanted readers in the future to believe - about the history of the wars and the Athenians' role in them.
This is an excellent book for classicists and non-specialist readers with a fairly good knowledge about classical Greece and historiography. Concerned with methodological issues as much as with the interpretation of historical sources, this is nuanced and subtle - and opens out current scholarly approaches to a public audience.
(This review is from an ARC courtesy of the publisher)
I greatly enjoyed this book and found the way it took its point of departure not from what happened at Plataea, but from why Plataea looms so much less in the Western imagination than its siblings at Thermopylae and Salamis. I found the way it regularly adduces analogs for events to show their significance very helpfukl in opening up new avenues for thought: for instance in discussing ara or miasma (religious pollution) the discussion of burial and the Aigintans was fascinating (and I have pinched a chunk to discus with my class studying the Antigone).
I would have liked more direct reference to texts and to authors: there is a brief discussion of various themes at the end with references to the key secondary texts, but I have always preferred seeing these in the context of a book's argument (perhaps as footnotes); I can accept that this can be off putting to a the wider readership these texts are looking for.
On the whole I thought this was a splendid book with insights for all including specialists(Cartledge draws attention to areas where what he is saying goes beyond the standard academic knowledge and references alternatives or prior thoughts - he notes his focus on religion is much more intense than Rhodes and Osborne's).
'Division within a kindred people is as much worse than a united war against an external enemy as war is worse than peace.' - Herodotus, 'Histories,' 8.3.1., (p. 53)
Paul Cartledge's style of writing is easy to read, fluid and lucid; this is a volume for the general reader as well as the student, although I would emphasise 'After Thermopylae' does require a certain degree of familiarity with ancient Greek history and / or Classical studies.
To take Cartledge's final chapter first, 'The Greeks invent the Persian Wars,' which deals with the mythology and commemoration of Plataea, he addresses the Greek art of memory. As he has stated elsewhere, 'The past is neither dead nor certain,' to remind us the ancient Greek word for 'truth,' mnemosynē, meant, literally, 'not-forgetting.'** He also quotes Peter Green's translation of a little-known ode by Simonides (p.141) - lines which Binyon's echo on our Remembrance Day -and unjustly neglected in favour of the Thermopylae two-liner epigram.
This little book goes a long way to redress the role of an important conflict which may well have saved the West. On the other hand, it does require quite a lot of background knowledge: about the history of Greece, its literatures, politics and very different 'take' on religion.
Good follow-up notes, nearly 12 pages of suggested further reading, and an excellent bibliography and index. The only disappointments were the maps and illustrations - but they serve.
In 1932, in the area of ancient Acharnae, an Athenian farmer discovered a large piece of marble in his fields. The artefact was an inscribed pedimental stele (pillar, with a decorated triangular-shaped gable top). The stele contained not only an epigraphic text of the Oath of Plataea but also that of the Oath of the Athenian Ephebes (young men, ca. eighteen and 19-year-olds). Shaped in the form of the facade of a temple, it was originally dedicated in or near the Acharnaean temple of Ares (ancient Greek god of war). To judge by the majuscule Greek letter-forms, the date of the 'document' falls somewhere in the third quarter of the Fourth century BC (ca. 350-325). The temple was eventually removed to Athens, stone by stone, by the Roman emperor Augustus.
The puzzles Prof Cartledge set out to answer were: (i) was the stele a genuine historical and religious document, and (ii) IF the Oath of Plataea is genuine, why was it written in stone 150 years later than the battle it purports to memorialise?
He is happy enough regarding the Oath of the Ephebes, stating that was contemporary to its times: ca. 335BC, at a time of disaster for Athens when the system of ephebic training (a type of national service) was restructured for Athens' youths. In 338BC the Greeks had been catastrophically defeated by the forces of Philip of Macedon and his son, Alexander (the future so-called 'Great') at Chaeronea. But the supposed Oath of Plataea, if genuine, would have been sworn almost 150 years earlier - so why inscribe it now, approximately three years after the battle of Chaeronea?
The battle of Chaeronea, and that of Plataea, took place on 'the dancing floor of Ares,' as later described by one Epaminondas and recorded by Plutarch in the 'Marcellus,' 21. This was a fertile area of ancient Boeotia in central mainland Greece, between Attica (the wider territory of Athens) and that of Thessaly to the north. Its geographical position was crucial to its history.
Drawing on the oath, Cartledge set out to investigate what had altered, both in Athens and in Greece generally, in the one and a half centuries between the battle of Plataea and the date of the monument. In the process he also unveils some of the methods the ancient Greeks used to shape how history would be remembered.
It comes down to a form of ancient PR: Marathon and Salamis were celebrated, but the conflict of Plataea has been little referenced outside the works of military historians.
As Cartledge sets out in his Introduction, his primary aim is to illuminate this stele as an emblem - the book is not a history of the Graeco-Persian wars. The stele is an instance of Fourth-century BC 'Athenian identity and propaganda, since it represents [...] what the Athenians [...] wanted to believe and to convince others had been the case in 479BC.'
And the Professor has presented the case very well. Of course, as a Classicist and an historian, AND an expert in ancient Greek, he's highly-qualified to do so!
Not all fragments of marble and stone found by archaeologists are of the same importance as this stele, but it was the norm in ancient Athens to record laws, oaths etc, as 'written in stone.' We say this phrase casually, meaning to convey permanence or un-alterability; for Athenians, it was exactly that - and oaths were sworn in front of the gods and therefore had religious force.
The outline of the background of the stele is summed-up on p.7, and the meanings of its symbols on p. 34 - both being relevant aspects of the manipulation of 'memory.'
Many less-than-democratically-inclined Athenians had an admiration for Sparta and its institutionalised militarism, but by the 330s the Peloponnesians had lost much of the gloss and reputation of their erstwhile glory days - markedly Thermopylae, memorialised forever in Simonides' famous epitaph. However, those glory days were also the era of a Plataea-winning Sparta - and Cartledge makes a cogent case for Athens' attempt to hi-jack or steal Spartan thunder and turn it into inspiration for Athenian youths. Hence the concatenation with the Ephebic Oath - both oaths being sworn under the dual presence of not just warlike Ares but the militaristic aspects of Athena-Areia -looking backwards to the glory days and conveniently 'forgetting' the more recent defeats. It's said that history is dictated by the winners, but the stele displays a masterly grasp of PR. It reminded Greece - and history, one assumes - of the Athenians' self-cast assessment of their place as 'sole champions' of democracy confronting a renewed threat to Greek freedom and independence. Although Athens underplayed the role of Plataean forces at Marathon (the Spartans arrived too late to fight) the stele stamped the Athenian position vis-à-vis Sparta and the Persians as well as reinforcing their ideological-political domestic context in the face of Macedon (p.58) - hence the 'retrospective' Oath of Plataea.
NB: The Plataea stele itself is now at the French School of Archaeology in Athens - it is cemented into the exterior wall of the Director's office. ...
** Cartledge, P. "Playing with the truth." TLS [London, England] 31 Dec. 1993: Times Literary Supplement Historical Archive.
on 8 June 2015
interesting account regarding the oath but very little information about the actual battle.
On the very cusp between history and myth is the war between the Hellenic Greeks and Persia 490-479 BC. Marathon, Salamis, Thermopylae, these Battles have remained famous through the Millenniums. As Cartledge points out "the Graeco-Persian Wars may...be seen as..the crucible [that devised]..a concept of "the West"" and, although Cartledge is not keen on this interpretation, it could be said that the outcome of this clash of cultures determined the course of Western civilisation itself.
It is, then, odd that the actual conclusive battle between these titans of the ancient world, Plataea, has not remained well known; Far from resounding down the ages like the other battles, Plataea has been forgotten by non-specialists.
Why would this be ? This would be a fascinating question to consider (although "After Thermopylae" would be an ironically poor name for such a study) but this book doesn't really address this puzzle in any detail. Rather, it is a general study of the Battle of Plataea, particularly the disputed "Oath of Plataea" and, to a lesser extent, of the Greaco-Persian War itself.
This period of history, full of strong characters and mighty feats, laden with the weight of the most extreme ideological clash (highly oversimplified) democracy vs despotism, is endlessly fascinating. Paul Cartledge has concentrated on one of the less well known events of this time and the result is a very interesting book.
The detailed historical treatment is inevitably a little dry, though Cartledge is happy to refer to popular culture (including Frank Miller's excellent "300") and he's even quite complimentary about Wikipedia (p174.)
The photos are all in black and white but, although not beautifully glossy, do illustrate and illuminate. The 6th Century BC bronze figurine (p111) looks unbelivably modern.
Another chapter, addressing directly the question as to why some historical events are remembered while others are forgotten, would have been very welcome, but I suppose criticising a book for been too short isn't too negative.
"After Thermopylae" is about the Oath of Plataea and what it tells us about the Greek world around the time of the battle of Plataea, which was a battle between the Persian army and the Greeks.
The book describes the circumstances in which the oath was written: it was not actually taken by Greek soldiers at the battle. Rather, the Athenians wrote it later for political reasons. The oath tells us more about the Greeks at the time it was written. It tells us about the religious, political and cultural context in the Greek world when it was written. For example, it explains what the oath tells us about the tensions between Athens and Sparta.
This is not I would suggest a casual book. To be plain, to get the most out of it one will need to have a reasonably background in the Persian Wars, the Peloponnesian War, as well as the Greek campaigns of both Philip of Macedon and Alexander the Great. The book is a detailed study of the Oath of Plataea and to some extent the battle of the same name - the battle that really saved the West.
Even with some background, and although I am familiar with all the above I am in no way an expert, I found the going heavy and that's what I mean in my opening paragraph re not a casual book. You have to work at it, it contains some startling statements e.g. page 11 "what mid-forth-century Athenians believed". Bit of a generalisation here I think- we can't possibly know what all mid fifth century Athenians believed... I mention this because there are a few statements, gross generalisations if you like scattered through out the book which give one pause, or ought to. I can understand why the author writes in this way and in fact they do not detracted from the contents or conclusion, but they are not the whole truth.
Primarily the book is an in depth exploration of the "oath of Plataea" the possible reasons for it's existence, the impact the actual battle had on Greece, and to some extent on the Persians. A considerable amount of background to the Persian Wars is given, mostly taken from Herodotus (cause there's no one else?) and it's great to see some honour restored to him after the denigration of the past 20 years. The actual battle is covered off in a few pages with considerable skill.
Speaking of the content it's written in a bang up to date style, one might almost say that the chapters are, or have been, the basis for spoken lectures as they read that way. Whatever, it reads very well and I enjoyed the challenge of working my way through.
It's difficult to say much more about the content of the book than I have because it strikes is a work of considerable scholarship which, if aimed at a general audience, presupposes one that's interested in the more arcane aspects of ancient Greek scholarship (I'm not particularly but the title caught my eye :-) To a point it is very well written, though personally I'm not the greatest fan of the author's style, it is readable with one very jarring exception, the use of B.C.E. rather than B.C.
The book is about A5 in size, contains a few pictures printed on the same paper that the text is printed on, but they are viewable but there are no diagrams (at least the copy I have does not).
There are approximately 167 pages plus a further reading section, bibliography and index, some 203 pages in all. The type is good, very readable.
on 28 March 2015
A very useful book for research into this period of history