Virtual Bourgeois

Just An Analog Guy Trying to Upgrade For a Digital World

Thermopylae and the Alamo

Posted by Gerald on June 26, 2008

At long last, I’ve finished reading Tom Holland’s Persian Fire.  I really enjoyed the book, but I kept starting it and stopping it.  Part of the reason was that it seemed that every few pages were giving me things I wanted to figure out how to add into my class lectures.  I also found myself rereading several chapters each time I came back to the book.

Holland has a great prose style and, like his book Rubicon, feels almost like a novel.  From a purely scholarly viewpoint, there are some minor problems.  He uses a novelist’s touch when discussing motivations.  What give the account such immediacy is his willingness to get inside a historical figure’s head.  The problem for me as a sort-of-historian reading it is that I know the sources won’t bear that weight.  It is rare that we know what any specific historical figure actually thought, unless we are lucky enough to have things like private journals or letters.  We have no such sources for the war between Persia and the Greek poleis.  Most of what we have is Herodotus, who was willing to make conjectures that would get a modern monograph rejected out of hand.  I’m reminded of the whole debate over Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre.  She took heat for moving beyond the sources.  I think that sort of thing is an absolute necessity at times, depending on audience.  At times the historian must be a social scientist – answerable to strict analysis and logic.  But I think the historian also needs to be an artist sometimes, moving beyond strict data to bring the past in touch with the reader through prose.

Holland does that well.  This book was well researched.  He was upfront about when he was departing from more traditional views of events and used his endnotes to point the reader in the direction of both sides of a given scholarly debate.  This isn’t a work of new scholarship, but it is a well-written work of synthesis.  Holland is also very good a bringing the subject matter to life.  He uses his own travels to the locations he is discussing as well as archaeological work to engage all of the reader’s senses – the heat of the day at Marathon, the stench of the corpses at Thermopylae, the thirst of the Greeks at Plataea.

Looming over this book is Herodotus.  This is inevitable in that his historia is our major written source about the war as well as being the generally acknowledged foundation of western historical study.  More than this, there is a similarity of structure.  Like Herodotus, Holland places the war in a context of the meeting of Asia and Europe.  Also like Herodotus, Holland begins his account among the Persians.  This was the most interesting part of the book for me and it set up what I see as one of its strengths.  Given the lack of Persian literature from this period (we’ve got inscriptions on walls and that’s about it) every account I’ve ever read of this battle has been inevitably hellenocentric.  Holland’s book keeps moving from one side to the other.  I’ve left the work with a deep desire to learn more about the Persians.  In fact, I’m planning on using them extensively in the World Civilizations course I’m starting in the fall.  His account of the Greeks is also refreshingly honest, both in their strengths and in their weaknesses.

I’d highly recommend this to anyone interested in a work for a general audience.  I also think it should be required of anyone who saw the movie 300.  My next foray into this subject will be Paul Cartledge’s recent book on Thermopylae.

As I read Persian Fire I kept thinking about mythology.  Not classical mythology, but the mythology surrounding Thermopylae itself.  The fact is, we don’t know WHY the battle happened the way it did.  I know that when I first learned about it, the battle was described by my teacher in terms of another great moment of myth-making – The battle of the Alamo.  There is a myth that has the Spartans standing alone and holding the pass in order to win precious time for the rest of Greece to prepare in defense of “freedom”.  This is nonsense.  Whatever they hoped for, there were no preparations going on.  Several major poleis were openly supporting the Persians and others were firmly on the fence.  Both Spartan helots and Athenian slaves (and any Greek woman) could comment on the whole “freedom” thing.  Also, the Spartans weren’t alone – they brought helots, periokoi, and hoplites from other poleis.  Almost forgotten is the simultaneous naval engagements by the Greek fleets.  Still, there has been this romantic vision of the Last Stand of Leonidas.

Again, I see all of these echoes of the Alamo myth (and I’m sure I’m not the first – if anyone reading this could point me in the direction of folks who’ve written about this similarity, I’d appreciate it.)  This same vision of a desperate last stand in defense of freedom.  This has to be part of a broad pattern.  It is obviously about the west and its sense of identity, and in particular the American variety.  We Americans do seem to love a last stand – Alamo, Little Big Horn, Corregidor, and lots more if you include the narrowly won victories alongside the sacrificial stands.  I’ve got to think that when accounts of the Alamo first appeared in the US that there were references to Thermopylae (or maybe Livy, given the early republic’s love affair with the Romans).  I wonder if the accounts of these battles were twisted around each other and fed back into each other into a grand narrative of dying for freedom.  Then comes Custer and that painting – the messiah of the West.  All of this seems to me part of the ongoing rhetoric in America about the justification for military adventurism and the cultural sense that real men become Marines.*

Thomas Pakenham wrote in his introduction to The Boer War about how every upper class Victorian home had a painting of the Last Stand and how every young man took his commission waiting for that moment.  He then contrasted that with the failure of the Jameson Raid, but I wonder if there isn’t a bigger point here about cultural identity (maybe gender?) in imperialistic societies like the US and Britain in the 19th century?

Somebody has got to have already written this up.  Can anyone point me to work about this?

* To be honest I should confess that I’ve been indulging my addiction to military porn – i.e., JAG, NCIS, etc… – as of late; my perceptions might have been altered.  Bellesario as LSD.

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2 Responses to “Thermopylae and the Alamo”

  1. bridgett said

    Richard White gave a hilarious lecture at UI when you were there about the American cultus of ass-kicking…remember the Maine! (ass kicking) Remember the Alamo! (ass-kicking) Remember Custer’s Last Stand! I would guess he wrote that up somewhere (probably in his Smithsonian intro essay.) A huge gory artwork of Custer’s Last Stand, thanks to Anheuser-Busch, was behind every bar of any size in the continental US — the Sioux all decked out in their Zulu gear. (Some hot cross-imperial action…)

    But actually the Alamo wasn’t really all that much written about in US papers, as it didn’t involve US troops per se and it didn’t take place on US soil. There was a paper in Austin (Telegraph and Register) that is the most important account — it makes some vague reference to the dead men as demi-gods but I don’t remember any other classical refs. The real intense Alamo interest (not accidentally) comes directly out of ex-Confederate Lost Causers (speaking of ass-kickings that a certain segment of the population just can’t let go of). There’s an Alamo reader by Todd Hansen, but I’ve never used it in class and so I can’t say much about it other than noting that it exists. The actual invasion of Mexico by Winfield Scott and the actions of the Army of the West got a lot more play in the 1840s — the steady worrisome drumbeat in news from Texas prior to the US invasion was the problematic behavior of Comanche raiders and former US citizens importuning someone, anyone to help them fend off these light cavalry troops. (No accident that we sent our own “flying artillery” and cavalry — arguably, we declared war against Mexico but made war against the Comanche, since they were in control of North and West Texas. )

    Gerald Linderman wrote Embattled Courage, about the transition from the celebration of heroic suicidal “manly bravery” charges at the beginning of the US Civil War to the less celebrated but necessary reality-facing of hunkering down and wising up to the changes in technology in the mid-19th century.

  2. Gerald said

    I remember talking with you about that lecture, but I couldn’t remember who gave it. Thanks.

    There is a nice discussion of that bar painting in “Son of the Morning Star”. I remember it because reading that part of the book was the first time I thought about how popular, and even commercial, cultural artifacts can shape historical consciousness.

    I’m looking forward to checking out the Linderman book you mentioned. I wonder if he gets into how those same lessons seem to have been lost between 1865 and 1917?

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