‘To make a new Thermopylae!’ So desiderated Byron’s narrator in the famous ‘Isles of Greece’ portion of Canto III of Don Juan. Chris Carey’s excellent new book, the tenth in Oxford University Press’s Great Battles series, answers the call. Carey, who teaches at University College London, is, however, reflective enough to ask whether the battle was really ‘great’.
The book falls into two halves. The first examines how and precisely where the battle was fought, what actually happened in that pass in northern Greece during the three days or so of conflict in late August 480 BC that (some would say) changed the world, and why. The second considers how it has been perceived and represented over the ages, from the early fifth century BC to our own era. An unexpected bonus is the chapter inserted between those two halves on other ‘Thermopylaes’: battles fought at the pass by a variety of opponents between 352 BC and AD 1941, including in 279 and 191 BC and AD c260, 559, 1204 and 1821.
‘Great battles’, Winston Churchill once wrote, with a nod to his Battle of Blenheim-winning ancestor, ‘change the entire course of events.’ I agree with that sentiment in general and, unlike Carey, in the particular case of Thermopylae too. In my view, it did help crucially to tilt the balance of