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Paul Cartledge on ‘After Thermopylae’ and Heffers Classics Festival

April 28, 2013

ISBN: 9780199747320 - After Thermopylae

It’s so exciting that Heffers, thanks to the indefatigable Martin Brown, is running a second year of its brilliantly innovative Classics Festival, following the highly successful inaugural event held last year in the congenial surroundings of the Cambridge Union Society. Every bookseller should go and do likewise!

It so happens that I have another book coming out this year with the Oxford University Press – which will in fact be launched at Heffers (in conjunction with a spellbinder by my Cambridge colleague Carrie Vout) in mid-October 2013, on the Ides to be exact…

The new book is called *After Thermopylae. The Oath of Plataea and the End of the Graeco-Persian Wars*. It’s called that for a number of reasons – it comes after an earlier book of mine, on the battle of Thermopylae (summer 480 BC), and it focuses on what the O.U.P. series calls an ’emblem’, in my case the oath of Plataea that was supposedly sworn by the Greeks before the battle of Plataea in summer 479 BC. These Graeco-Persian Wars were wars that never ended – symbolically speaking.

I wrote ‘supposedly sworn … ‘. Ancient literary texts (by Lycurgus the Athenian orator and statesman and others) had long been known which make reference to such an ‘oath’; and then, in 1932, an Athenian farmer working his fields in the region of ancient Acharnae literally hit upon a rather nice piece of inscribed Pentelic marble containing not only a text of the Oath of Plataea but also a text of the Oath of the Athenian Ephebes. The stele (pillar) was shaped in the form of the facade of a temple and originally dedicated in or near a temple, that of Ares at Acharnae, by his priest, Dion son of Dion. The date of the document, to judge by its letter-forms, falls somewhere in the third quarter of the fourth century BC (c. 350-325).

Now, so far as the Oath of the Ephebes goes, that’s all fine and dandy – the reference of that oath is contemporary, and it was in 335 or thereabouts that the whole system of ephebic training at Athens was reorganised for the 18- and 19-year-olds performing a sort of national service at a time of grave crisis for Athens (following the Athenians’

heavy defeat by the Macedonians of Philip and Alexander at Chaeronea in 338). But the supposed Oath of Plataea, if genuine, would have been sworn almost 150 years earlier – so why inscribe it now, round about 335 perhaps?

If, that is, it was genuine?

Those were the two main questions I set out to answer. And my answers led me to the conclusion that the Oath is inauthentic and best interpreted in a context of typically ancient Greek cultural rivalry for ownership of the Graeco-Persian Wars of 480-4709, and more specifically for ownership of their memory: who did the most to defeat the Persians? Was it Us, the Athenians, or Them – that is, the Spartans? An unbiased reading of Herodotus Book 9 unequivocally awards the palm in historical actuality to the Spartans. But, as often, it was the Athenians who proved far more adept at the propagandistic commemoration business.

The document in question resides now at the French School of Archaeology in Athens, where it is actually concreted into the exterior wall of the Director’s office. It is well worth the journey, and richly merits a detour, to inspect it.

Tickets are now on sale for Heffers Classics Festival. Please see the Festival tab on this blog for full details.


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