Thermopylae: The Battle for the West

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'The three-day battle for the pass at the "Hot Gates" of Thermopylae was a critical contest in the Persian king Xerxes's massive invasion of Greece. The bloody stand made there by Leonides and his small Spartan army in 480 BC has since become the very emblem of patriotism, courage and sacrifice.' This great story found a great storyteller in Ernie Bradford when it was first published in 1980. In covering a range of subjects and approaches to this period of Greek history, Bradford looks at the background to each side, the Persians, Athenians and
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'The three-day battle for the pass at the "Hot Gates" of Thermopylae was a critical contest in the Persian king Xerxes's massive invasion of Greece. The bloody stand made there by Leonides and his small Spartan army in 480 BC has since become the very emblem of patriotism, courage and sacrifice.' This great story found a great storyteller in Ernie Bradford when it was first published in 1980. In covering a range of subjects and approaches to this period of Greek history, Bradford looks at the background to each side, the Persians, Athenians and the Spartans that were to prove crucial in repelling the Persian advance. Tactics, strategy and decision-making are part of this review of the events of Thermopylae which culminated in the battle of Plataea in 479 which signalled the end of the Greek achievements.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Ancient Warfare, Vol VII, Issue 5

“Accessible to a wider audience.”

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780306813603
  • Publisher: Da Capo Press
  • Publication date: 3/29/2004
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 351,144
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.96 (h) x 0.73 (d)

Meet the Author

Ernie Bradford served in the Royal Navy during World War II. His many books include The Great Siege, Ulysses Found, The Shield and the Sword, Paul the Traveler, and The Sultan's Admiral.

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The Battle For The West

By Ernle Bradford


Copyright © 1980 Ernle Bradford
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4976-1736-0



The whole of the East was on the move. So indeed it must have seemed to some peasant, looking up bewildered from his patch of land, as the army surged past like a river in spate. Day after day, as if driven by the hunger that sometimes forces great masses of the human race to migrate in search of new pastures, thousands upon thousands of men had been passing through the lowlands of Asia Minor. They were men of many races: Persians, Medes, and Bactrians, Arabs on camels, mountain men from Caucasus, Libyans driving chariots, and horsemen from central Iran. There were even primitive Ethiopians painted in savage style, whose Stone Age weapons contrasted strangely with the sophisticated armour and swords of the immaculate Persian royal guard. It was the year 480 B.C. and Xerxes had given the order for the invasion of Europe.

The King's writ had gone forth, and when he himself went to war, every nation, tribe and race within the vast Persian Empire was expected not only to furnish its due contingent of men, but those men must also be led by their own kings, leaders, or princes. All were vassals of the Great King, who had described himself in an inscription at Persepolis: 'I am Xerxes, the King, King of Kings, King of the lands ... son of Darius the king, the Achaemenian; a Persian, son of a Persian, an Aryan, of Aryan stock.'

The eldest son of Darius by the elder daughter of Cyrus, Xerxes was thirty-eight years old. Although the picture of him that was subsequently drawn by Greek historians and dramatists shows us a traditional Oriental tyrant, it is noticeable that Herodotus himself concedes a number of virtues to this archenemy of his people. Xerxes, as he depicts him, is capable of compassion as well as of regal munificence. He had, as was natural for a Persian of his rank and breeding, not only a love of the chase but also a rich appreciation of the natural beauties of the world. A deeply religious man, he was a Zoroastrian. While the great achievements of Greece in philosophy, science, and speculation about the nature of the universe largely lay in the future, the amoral Gods of the Homeric world were still dominant in the religious conceptions of most Greeks. Xerxes, however, believed in the inspired message that Zoroaster, the prophet, had left behind many centuries before. What distinguished the religion of the Persians from that of the contemporary Greeks has been summed up by H. Humbach, the translator of verses which are ascribed to Zoroaster:

It is really the knowledge of the directly imminent beginning of the last epoch of the world, in which Good and Evil would be separated from one another, which he gave to mankind. It is the knowledge that it lies in every individual's head to participate in the extirpation of Falsehood and in the establishing of the kingdom of God, before whom all men devoted to the pastoral life are equal, and so to re-establish the milk-flowing paradise on earth.

An inscription at Persepolis made early in the reign of Xerxes records the ruler's dedication to his religious faith: 'A great god is Ahuramazda, who created this earth, who created man, who created peace for man; who made Xerxes king, one king of many, one lord of many.'

Xerxes, as his conduct shows, was prepared to concede that other variants of religious belief were recognised in various guises by other nations. In his conquest of 'rebellious lands', primarily Egypt, he had done his best to uproot the polytheism that he had found rampant everywhere. But the one thing that the Greeks, against whom he was now to wage war, could not ever accept was the fact that Xerxes, like all Eastern potentates, claimed for himself the divine right of kings—'one lord of many'.

The invasion of Greece, which was about to take place, was in no sense a religious war: such a concept had hardly evolved, except, perhaps, among the Jews, who saw themselves as God's chosen people destined to bring the light of their knowledge of God to the heathen by whom they were surrounded. No, what the Greeks resented above all—though almost every small area and city-state was at variance with the other—was the assumption that any man could call himself the God-appointed ruler of all other men. What, on the surface, almost united Greece in the struggle that was to follow was the simple survival instinct. The invasion of Greece made the turbulent, brilliant people of this mountainous and largely inhospitable land aware that they shared one thing in common: a belief in the individual human being's right to dissent, to think his own way, and not to acknowledge any man as a 'monarch of all I survey'. Curiously enough, the state of Sparta, which was to play a large part in the campaign, was the only one where men had evolved a constitution in which the individual was trained and disciplined to be totally subordinate. The difference was that the Spartans were indeed subject, although not to a 'Great King', but to the concept of the State itself. Perhaps Demaratus, the exiled king of Sparta, who actively helped Xerxes in his campaign, put it best: 'Even though the Spartans are free, still they are not wholly free. The law is their master, and they fear this more than thy people fear thee.'

Xerxes in his great proclamation at Persepolis, after recording how he had put down a rebellion in what one presumes was Egypt, had it inscribed that:

Within these lands there were places where formerly the Daevas had been worshipped. Then by the will of Ahuramazda I uprooted the cult of the Daevas, and made proclamation: The Daevas shall not be worshipped. Where formerly the Daevas had been worshipped, there did I worship Ahuramazda according to Truth and with the proper rite. Much else that was ill done did I make good. All that I did, I did by the will of Ahuramazda. Ahuramazda brought me aid until I finished my work. Thou who shalt come after me, if thou shalt think, 'May I be happy while alive and blessed when dead,' have respect for the law which Ahuramazda has established, and worship Ahuramazda according to Truth and with the proper rite.

The false gods (Daevas) whose worship Xerxes had forbidden were, in this case, the vast pantheon of Egypt. It is significant that there are no statues of Xerxes in Egypt. Where the great Darius had been tolerant in his treatment of foreign religious practices, Xerxes would seem to have taken the commands of Zoroaster more literally. It was not without some crusading zeal that he now set in motion the invasion of Greece. With the aid of Ahuramazda he would avenge his father's defeat at the hands of the Greeks, and bring these dissident worshippers of false gods within the divine rule of Persia and its monarchy.

He had set out from Susa in the spring of 481. On 10 April of that year there had been an eclipse of the sun (Herodotus wrongly assigns this to the year 480). Not unnaturally, in view of the immensity of the preparations, and the fact that Darius himself had suffered defeat on a similar expedition, this eclipse caused considerable concern, if not consternation, in the court and among the people.

However, the Magi (the wise men who watched the stars and attended to religious rituals), primed with knowledge of the Universe that had been largely acquired from the absorption of Babylon into the Persian Empire, hastened to reassure the Great King. It is possible that, from the Babylonian astronomers, they had learned that the moon is the eclipsing body. Their explanation of the event was completely consistent with this. The sun, they said, symbolised the Greeks and the moon the Persians. The eclipse was not an ill omen therefore. It showed that the Greeks were destined to be overshadowed and conquered by the Persian moon.

Having spent the winter in Sardis, while all the contingents of his army assembled ready for their march north in the following spring, Xerxes could certainly reflect that he and his advisers, his ministers and his overseers of the various work-forces had done all that was possible to obviate any obstacles in their path. His invasion of Europe was so well planned that one is astonished at such efficiency and logistical preparation at such an early date. When one compares the inefficiency of the Crusades many centuries later, or even the relatively poor comprehension of the necessity for long-scale planning and forethought in major wars and campaigns right up to the twentieth century, one can only marvel at the organisation and bureaucratic competence of the Persian Empire. While the Greeks were inclined to see in the preparations made by Xerxes no more than that hubris or megalomania which they associated with all despots and Oriental monarchs, there is—to modern eyes—nothing to show that Xerxes and his staff were anything other than magnificent planners, on a scale undreamed of at that period in history.

The preparations for this massive expedition against their country had been known to the Greeks for years. It was not possible that they could have been kept secret, for they involved an immense task force, and works of so extravagant a nature that they almost rivalled the building of the Pyramids. First of all, Xerxes had no intention of allowing his fleet to be brought to ruin off the stormy peninsula of Mount Athos—as had happened to the fleet of Darius during his invasion of Greece ten years previously. The expedition of Xerxes was four years in preparation, and one of the main projects was the digging of a canal through the isthmus of Mount Athos. The mountain, as Herodotus writes, 'is very well-known and high and stands out into the sea. It is inhabited, and on the landward side where the heights end there is a kind of isthmus roughly a mile and a half wide. All of this is level land or small hillocks.... The inhabitants [of the mountain] Xerxes now intended to turn into islanders.'

He goes on to describe how the canal through the low land was cut. Conscripted Greeks from the neighbouring areas were used for much of the labour, while skilled workmen were also brought over from Asia Minor. Outstanding among them were the Phoenicians (one of the most technologically advanced people of that era, and the nation which also formed the backbone of the Persian fleet). Herodotus makes the comment that, while the other 'nations' engaged on the task of digging the canal had constant trouble with landslips, caused by the fact that they dug their part of the canal like a simple ditch with straight sides, only the Phoenicians realised that the digging must be much wider at the top in order to leave what engineers call an 'angle of rest'. (Centuries later similar difficulties had to be overcome during the digging of the Suez Canal.) 'They proved their remarkable skill,' he writes, 'for, in the section that had been allotted to them, they dug a trench twice the width required for the canal itself when finished. Digging at a slope they narrowed it as they went further down so that at the bottom their section was as wide as the rest.'

Everything was provided for: there was the equivalent of a canteen for the workmen, with grain brought from the homeland, as well as a forum or meeting-place, and an open market—proof in itself that the workmen were paid in coin. Herodotus' conclusion about the gigantic labour of the canal was that the whole thing was no more than yet another example of the ostentation of Xerxes. 'There would not have been any difficulty', he wrote, 'in having the ships dragged across the isthmus on land, yet he gave orders for the canal to be made so wide that two warships could be rowed abreast [down its length].' The historian was thinking, of course, of the practice at Corinth of dragging ships across the isthmus which connects northern Greece with the Peloponnese. His great mistake, however, was to equate the routine passage of merchantmen and warships between the Gulf of Patras and the Aegean Sea with the emergent movement of a large fleet into hostile waters. While waiting to take their turn for haulage overland, they might well have been overwhelmed by one of the sudden and violent storms that quite often afflict the Aegean.

Nothing was left to chance. Dumps of provisions, both for men and for their animals, were sited at regular intervals along the route that the Grand Army was to take. The Persians, unlike the Greeks, were not principally bread- or grain-eaters (as most Mediterranean peoples are to this day). Meat was a staple part of their diet, and 'meat on the hoof' was brought into the principal supply depots long before the army moved. At the same time great quantities of salted-down meat were stockpiled. The army, of course, as it moved across Asia Minor, and later into Greece, was expected to live off the land to a large extent, but Xerxes and his commissariat organisers did not make the great mistake of many later armies in assuming that so large a force could necessarily supply itself in this hand-to-mouth fashion. In Persia and the Greeks A.R. Burn quotes the description of Persian preparations for war by Theopompos of Chios. It is true that Theopompos was writing much later about an expedition against Egypt, but there is little reason to believe that Persian thoroughness had changed since the time of Xerxes. He records the

tens of thousands of stand of arms, both Greek and oriental; vast herds of baggage animals and beasts for slaughter; bushels of condiments, and boxes and sacks, and bales of paper and all the other accessories. And there was so much salt meat of every kind, that it made heaps, so large that people approaching from a distance thought they were coming to a range of hills.

The reference to the bales of paper can only bring a wry smile to the face of anyone who has served in modern wars. Persia was nothing if not a bureaucratic state, and they had learned largely from the Egyptians, with their tradition of meticulous public records, that the organisation of a great country, and more especially an empire, required scribes and civil servants and departmental organisers. They were among the forerunners in the large-scale use of paperwork—under which so much of the world groans today. (Byblos, one of the principal Phoenician cities, which came under the sway of Persia, was credited with having been the inventor of paper—made from papyrus. The word Bible ('Book') derives from Byblos.)

Especial provision was made in the way of stores for the army when it should have crossed into Greece. While in Asia Minor they might be expected to feed off the land to a great extent, since all of the area came under Persian rule. Such could not be expected in Greece itself once the army was south of the pro-Persian north. The River Strymon, which empties into the sea to the north of Mount Athos, was bridged for the passage of the army, and in several parts of this region of Thrace great provision dumps were established. The largest of these was at the White Cape on the Thracian coast and another was at the mouth of the Strymon near the new bridge. Yet others were sited to the south, in parts of Macedonia.

So much that Herodotus and later Greek historians considered as evidence of the megalomania of Xerxes and the hubris of a typical Oriental tyrant was no more than evidence of forethought, excellent logistics, and planning superiority over the Greeks of the period. The small Greek city-states could not understand what the organisation of a great empire and the movement of many thousands of men entailed: they themselves thought in terms of hundreds or at the most a few thousands. It would be well over a century until a Greece, unified under Alexander the Great, would have to tackle the problems of Empire. The principal source of amazement, not untinged with some reluctant admiration, was the great bridge of boats which Xerxes ordered to be constructed across the Hellespont at the narrows between Abydos on the Asian side to a point near Sestos on the European side: a distance of about seven furlongs or 1400 yards.


Excerpted from Thermopylae by Ernle Bradford. Copyright © 1980 Ernle Bradford. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Maps 9
Preface 13
Acknowledgements 16
Chronology 17
1 The Great King 21
2 The Glory of the Hour 31
3 The Persians 40
4 The Athenians 53
5 The Spartans 58
6 Arms and the Man 67
7 Ships of War 75
8 Dispositions 80
9 Action and Reaction 86
10 Ultimate Decisions 92
11 March to the North 101
12 Land and Sea 107
13 First Encounters 115
14 Battle 122
15 First Night and Second Day 129
16 Over the Mountain 134
17 End and Beginning 140
18 After Thermopylae 147
19 In Another Country... 154
20 The Advance 163
21 Into Attica 170
22 Sparring for Position 178
23 Eve of Battle 186
24 'Sea-Born Salamis' 191
25 Aftermath 202
26 Winter 208
27 Spring 219
28 The Road to Plataea 225
29 Decisive Round 237
Select Bibliography 246
Index 247
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 5
( 16 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 16 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 16, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    A great telling!

    For a factual account of an historic event written by an economist the resulting book couldn't have been any better! I randomly selected this book to read about the Battle of Thermopylae and I'm not sure that I could have made a better choice if I'd spent time researching. The story telling is very well done and flows nicely througout the book. There were many a night that I stayed up later than I had planned turning pages.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 9, 2008

    A reviewer

    Like many who were enthralled with Frank Miller's '300' [although I experienced it years ago in single-issue comics form and not just from the graphic novel compilation or recent movie adaptation], I came to a great appreciation of and admiration for Leonidas and the 300's sacrifice at Thermopylae. Being a devoted student of history, however, I wanted to know more about the Persian Empire and its eventual thwarting in Greece. Steven Pressfield's 'Gates of Fire,' while adequate, was far from the most satisfying read, and so I wanted to turn to a more nonfictional avenue. The late Ernle Bradford did not disappoint in the slightest, offering a splendid and even-handed perspective on both Spartan and Persian military characteristics, weaponry, philosophy, political beliefs, and so on. However, where Bradford wonderfully did not stop is even more remarkable, going on to explain the naval battle of Salamis and the final land battle at Plataea, placing them in the context of the same aforementioned topics for Athenians and all other Greeks. Despite writing an historical text, Bradford's prose is never dry, keeping the reader's interest while filling in many details one would not have thought important and also explaining away or dispelling many of the historical inaccuracies or errors propagated by '300' or 'Gates of Fire.' For the serious student of Grecian military history, in fact of any military history, this will make a fine addition to one's library.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 14, 2010

    Fantastic Book

    If you would like to gain a more in depth understanding of Thermopylae including the Spartan and Persian mindsets this is a great book. Don't expect the movie "300" as this is historically accurate and includes details that a true ancient history buff will appreciate

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 6, 2009


    This is the definitive book on the topic. It presents all sides.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 20, 2012



    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 23, 2013

    ThiS Is SPARTA!


    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 23, 2015

    Covers Many Battles During Persian Invasion; Many Interesting Tidbits

    This book not only covers Thermopylae, but other battles in the Persian invasion. Other historical tidbits of knowledge, like the inventor of paper was Byblae (I think that is how it is spelled); from that term, bible means "book"--it was a Phoenician city that was taken over by the Persians.
    Cool book!

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