A review of The History Channel's 'The Battle of Plataea - The Spartans Revenge of Thermopylae'
The History Channel's examination of the Battle of Plataea
Greco-Persian Wars of 490-479 BCE have been mentioned, the first battle
that has immediately sprung to mind for many is the defense of the narrow Pass of Thermopylae in 480 BCE led by King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans.
Even though the contingents of several other Greek city-states fought
with these elite warriors of Sparta against the much larger Persian
army amassed by Xerxes the Great, the last stand of Thermopylae has
come to symbolize Spartan valor, grim determination and intransigence.
These virtues have been reinforced over the years by Hollywood, first
with the 1962 20th Century Fox movie 'The 300 Spartans' and most
recently by the Warner Bros. controversial blockbuster '300', which
premiered in 2007. It is the popularity of these movies which have been
instrumental in overshadowing Thermopylae's successive battles, those
of Salamis and Plataea, which many historians feel are much more
Therefore, when it was announced by The History Channel that
an episode in the 'Warriors' series entitled 'Spartan Vengeance' would
premier, it was met with high expectations by the devotees of Sparta's
military. According to the show's description,
the focus of this highly anticipated program was the 479 BCE Battle of
Plataea which was a pivotal, if not the turning point of the
Greco-Persian Wars. While not as celebrated as Thermopylae which
occurred one year earlier, the decisive Greek victory at Plataea
combined with that of the naval campaign of Mykale effectively ended
the hopes of Persia's dominance over Greece. When the first
half hour of 'Spartan Vengeance' was presented, the manufacturing of the Spartans'
weapons and armor along with displays of their effectiveness were
discussed by former Green Beret and host Terry Schappert.Mixed
with an infusion of affability and infectious enthusiasm, the program
integrated Schappert's knowledge with his special forces expertise.
Pankration, the ancient Greek martial arts discipline was also
demonstrated, as was the cooking and tasting of the infamous black
broth soup which was a staple of the Spartan diet. While these segments
were very interesting and informative as they were integral to the
training and diet of ancient Greece's finest warriors, they nonetheless
had very little to do with strategic or tactical considerations of the
Battle of Plataea.
Furthermore, there were several glaring errors in the program and on The History Channel
website which should be addressed for the sake of accuracy and
completeness. For example, according to the historian Herodotus, the
Battle of Thermopylae was fought over a period of three days, not six
as mentioned by host Terry Schappert. Several historians have
calculated and most concur that this iconic battle was fought in August
480 BCE, not September and that the Persian army numbered around
250,000 combatants, not the 500,000 as stated.
Perhaps the most egregious inaccuracy articulated by Schappert was that Cleombrotus and Pausanias were kings of Sparta. Ostensibly, they may have appeared as kings, however, they were regents, not royalty who were selected to spearhead the Spartan army. The death of the Spartan King Leonidas at Thermopylae necessitated their elevation to the rank of regent since Leonidas' sole heir Pleistarchus was too young to lead their troops to Plataea.
Schappert's hoplite charge which he reenacted during the second half
hour of the show seemed more indicative of the Athenian advancement
towards the Persian lines over a decade earlier in 490 BCE during the
Battle of Marathon.
The following factswhich are posted on the History channel's website require revision or clarification as they differ from the writings of
ancient and contemporary historians:
1) 'The battle (of Plataea) marked the end of the Persian threat to Greece'.
While it may be considered a turning point of the Greco-Persian Wars,
the naval Battle of Mykale which was fought concurrently has also been
determined as marking the end of the Persian threat.
2) 'Sparta had no art, literature or architecture'.
While the emphasis was in fact on the military, examples of Spartan
art, literature and architecture have survived, even though much less
prevalent and noteworthy than Athenian accomplishments.
3) 'The boys wore no clothes'. They did wear a tunic which was replaced at age 12 by a single cloak worn throughout the year, irrespective of the weather.
4) 'A popular dinner of Spartan warriors was melas zomos, or black soup, made from boiled pigs' blood, pork and vinegar'.
While part of their diet, it wasn't popular according to Plutarch,
since this meal was so unpalatable to those outside of Sparta, that
when a dignitary ate at a Spartan banquet, he remarked after tasting
it, 'Now I know why the Spartans do not fear death'
5) 'Some Spartans wore
helmets with a horsehair crest, which served both a decorative and
psychological purpose, making the soldier seem taller to his enemy'.
While this is true, the crest also served a protective function by
minimizing the impact of their adversaries' weapons by cushioning any
blows to the top of the helmet.
One of the highlights of any of these History Channel
'documentaries' is the presence of authors and/or members of academia
who have written or taught about Sparta, i.e. Steven Pressfield,
Bettany Hughes, Donald Kagan, Victor Davis Hanson, Barry Strauss, etc.
This program was no exception, as it was enriched by Professor Paul
Cartledge, who enlightened viewers once again with his expertise
relative to Sparta and her military.
What would have to be
characterized as another high point of the program was the appearance
of the Greek reenactment group 'Ares Anax'. Practitioners of living
history such as these in the USA, Australia and Europe are dedicated to
duplicating the weapons and armor of these elite Spartan warriors. For
example, the distinctive shield blazons (emblems) of the members of
'Ares Anax' correctly depicted the designs which identified the
individual hoplite or mora (regiment). This is a much more accurate
representation than the ubiquitous Lamda (Λ)
blazon which didn't appear until several decades after Thermopylae and
Plataea. The Lamda emblem has essentially become de rigueur and while
its inclusion has been pervasive in movies and other documentaries
relative to the Spartans, it ultimately is erroneous in the context of
the Greco-Persian Wars.
In addition, the recreation of the phalanx in the program
by 'Ares Anax' also demonstrated why this formation of massed and
heavily armed hoplites emerged victorious at Plataea. Despite the
numerical superiority of the Persian army which modern estimates number
120,000 vs. Greece's alliance of 40,000 combatants in total, it was
Sparta's elite warriors who reigned supreme during this battle and
during the Peloponnesian War fifty years later.
conclusion, while the show was entertaining, it was obvious due to time
constraints that much had to be omitted. However, what was most
disconcerting was the lack of research which resulted in the
aforementioned omissions and errors. All in all, 'Spartan Vengeance'
served its purpose as an introduction for those who are unfamiliar with
the Battle of Plataea. Hopefully it will inspire the viewers to read
the works of Herodotus and contemporary historians like Peter Green,
Robert Strassler, etc., whose writings have provided a more detailed
and accurate assessment of one of the pivotal battles of Greece's