When compared to some other Osprey publications, this is a rather good summary. The author knows his period well. Most (although a couple are missing) of the main secondary sources are listed in his bibliography. Nic Field also offers the modern and more balanced account of the "Persian Wars" and the Persian Empire.
In military terms, he shows that the Persians were neither cowards, not effeminate and that, man-to-man, they had nothing to envy the Greeks. However, their equipment was not suited for close combat warfare, contrary to that of the hoplites, and the battle of Thermopylae took place precisely in conditions that largely nullified the huge numerical superiority of the Persians and maximized the Greeks' strengths. Persian armed forces had huge advantages, and not only in numbers, over Greek armies that they had consistently defeated in Asia Minor, both because of their missile troops and because of their cavalry.
He also shows that what the Greeks chose to present as an ideological "war for freedom" for somewhat more complicated than this. Many (and perhaps even a majority) of the Greek states and cities choosing to submit to the Persian super-power rather than defy it and side with Athens and Sparta, the two cities which, from the Persian point of view, were beyond the pale for having executed the King of Kings envoys and ambassadors and supported the insurrection of the Ionians.
Another advantage of this book is to show to what extent the Empire was superbly organized, capable of waging wars on a huge scale, contrary to the Greeks who had neither done so before, and with an associated mastery of diplomacy, intelligence and logistics that the Greeks could not match. In additional, the Empire human and financial resources were so huge as to appear limitless, especially when compared to poor small Greece.
The story of the battle itself is well known and well told, with the author insisting quite correctly that the 300 - which, by the time of the third day, had probably lost up to a third of their numbers - were also accompanied by periokoi and helots (some perhaps 1000 initially) and by the survivors of the initially 400 Thebans and 700 Thespians. He also stresses that, in proportion to their total population, the sacrifice of the Thespians was perhaps even greater than that of the Spartans themselves. Although perfectly correct, this sacrifice would not have taken place at all if Leonidas and his Spartans had not chosen to remain.
Another good point of this book is to explain why Leonidas choose to stay. This was no dead whish or glory-seeking on the part of the old battle-king. There are in fact two possible reasons for his decision to stand to the last. The first reason, mentioned by Nic Field, is that only Leonidas and his Spartans could fight such a doomed rear guard action, an action that would buy enough time for the rest of the force to retreat to safety. An additional reason, which is plausible, but not certain, is that there might have been doubts in Sparta itself about whether to commit, and to what extent, against the Persian and beyond the Isthmus, especially since Argos, Sparta's arch-enemy, was in contact with the Great King's envoys and had scores to settle with Sparta.
This leads to a relatively high number of omissions and simplifications that are scattered across the book. These include:
- The mention that the Thebans surrendered on the last day to the Persians. While Nic Field does mention that this probably comes from an Athenian and anti-Theban source of Herodotos and that Plutarch mentions that this Thebans were in fact the anti-Persian faction, he is still not ready to dismiss Herodotos' version as the slander that it probably was
- Another disputable point is the statement that Leonidas could have had a hand in the death of his half-brother Kleomenos. While possible, the point is not very plausible. By the time he died in what were suspicious circumstances, Kleomenos had been deposed and Leonidas nominated to replace him so he did not have a clear motive to kill his half-brother, although the other royal line certainly had, since Kleomenos had engineered the exile and the disgrace of Demaratos, who fled to the Persians
- Another weakness is the discussion of the Greek plan for the campaign, because the author seems to minimize the huge dissensions among the allies, including - but not only - between Athens and Sparta and evacuate this by stating that the plan had to be a compromise. What Nic Field fails to mention is that mutual suspicion among the allies was such that the Alliance was stretched to breaking point more than once.
- A similar point is his view that the Persian King and his Court underestimated the Allies' will to fight. This is a statement that is largely tainted with hindsight. In fact, as Peter Green's old but superb book on the Persian Wars shows so very well, the Persians were past masters at sowing dissension. This was one of the main tools of their diplomacy. It very nearly worked, given that all of Northern Greece and all of the Thebans sided with them after Thermopylae. They could very well believe it would work again at Salamis, and this is where they seemed to have been tricked
- Another point is the military inferiority of the Persian infantry. This was real, but it should not be over-emphasized too much, neither should the absence of body armour among Persian troops be exaggerated. It is likely that the Immortals, for instance, did have both helmets and metal armour, probably scale. We also know that the Egyptians, and possibly other contingents (such as Carians and Phoenicians, but also Babylonians) would have had linen, metal or leather armour as well. On the Greek side, many hoplites could certainly not afford bronze armour and hade to make do with leather...
- There are also a number of other "glitches", such as according too much credit to Lazenby's perfectly gratuitous and superfluous claim that the 300 were selected by lot while the sources state explicitly that they were chosen among those who already had at least one male heir. Another glitch is a failure to reconcile the original huge number of Persian ships - over 1200 - with the numbers lost and the remaining total. As Peter Green shows, the discrepancy can be largely explaining if, in addition to the storms of the coast of Magnesia and Euboea, one accounts for the pontoon bridges of boats across the Hellespont.
- Finally, I was not very impressed by the plates, which are no better than ok, although the photos, maps and illustrations are better.
So, in my view, this Osprey volume, while certainly better than average, is just about worth four stars, but certainly not five. A better and more complete account of the campaign and of the whole war can, I believe, be found in Peter Green's superb Persian Wars which is still my preferred reference, despite its age. However, this book is nevertheless a rather good summary.