Leonidas: History and memory of a sacrifice

The book is co-written by Jacqueline Christien, Doctor in Ancient History and specialist in the history of ancient Sparta and by Yohann Le Tallec, in charge of the digitization steering committee at the BNF. Through these some 400 pages which are teeming with various information, the reader is invited to carry out a long reflection from Antiquity to the present day. Short summary in immersion at the heart of the book dedicated to Leonidas.

Leonidas, King of Sparta

At first glance, the very title of the book may seem misleading, because it is not strictly speaking a complete biography of the king of Sparta, Leonidas. The first chapters paint a portrait of Greece in the fifth century BC. The context of the Persian wars is of course mentioned there and constitutes the basis of the reflection which follows. Another chapter of importance for the historian, that devoted to the "father of History", Herodotus.

At first glance, the reader may feel a little lost. He certainly expects more to be painted the heroic portrait of Leonidas, and now the first part of the book is devoted to wars and Herodotus. Strange you say? Certainly not, and we will demonstrate why. Indeed, the early days of the book lead us little by little to the historical event that interests the authors, namely the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC. We are then in the middle of the Persian wars and know this confrontation thanks to the account of it by a man, Herodotus. You will now have understood the logical sequence of the work, which combines history, historiography, archeology and analysis with great intelligence.

The hero of Thermopylae

Thereafter, Jacqueline Christien dwells more particularly on the battle of Thermopylae and all the characteristics that compose it, namely the geographical location, the protagonists and the fight itself. It is therefore a very precise analysis that the authors offer us and which allows us to understand the event as a whole.

After the detailed description of the facts, the authors are interested in the repercussions that the battle provoked within these Greek worlds, sometimes allied, sometimes enemies. Thus the relationships between the different cities are examined, as is the formation of the Peloponnesian League. It is therefore once again the global and universal meaning that the two authors attempt to highlight.

Then comes the third and last essential part of the work, namely that of memory and myth through different eras. It is mainly from this part that the book draws all its specificity. The authors strive to analyze the perception of the battle of Thermopylae and its construction to the rank of myth. Different moments of history are analyzed. The reader, through numerous erudite demonstrations, will realize to what extent a historical event can be the object of various forms of reappropriation and above all, of reinterpretations. To do this, the authors use different themes through different media, such as the reinterpretation of the myth through painting, sculpture or even film production. The authors, true researchers, uncover in the Great History the facts which were justified with the help of the character of Leonidas and the battle.

Throughout the book, we understand how a historical event and a character slowly transform into symbols. Above all, we see how the meaning of this symbol is not universal and that it depends on those who use it. Thus, we understand that Napoleon's Leonidas is not the same as that of Hitler, which in turn differs from the vision that one might have had in the 16th century.

If the present work teaches us one thing, it is that contemporary visions of past facts are always constructed according to the elements available to historians, but not only, they are built above all according to the symbolism attributed to such or such event. A must-read book for anyone who wants to understand the very essence of history.

Jacqueline CHRISTIEN and Yohann LE TALLEC, Léonidas: History and memory of a sacrifice, Ellipses, 2013 ,.