A masterful account of the causes, preparations for and consequences of the three-day battle in 480 b.c. that claimed the lives of all 300 Spartan defenders of the eponymous pass and those of perhaps as many as 20,000 Persian invaders.
Cartledge (Greek History/Univ. of Cambridge) has published previously on the subject (The Spartans, 2003) and in his latest work emerges as an eloquent apologist of the Spartan way. He notes that among the ancient Greeks—and especially among the Lacedaemonians (aka Spartans)—warfare was not an aberration but an integral part of the culture. Sparta, unlike many Greek cities, had its own standing army, and boys were trained from the cradle to be warriors. (The author also notes that women experienced a parallel form of education that also included physical fitness.) He sees three important Spartan contributions to Western culture: an obsession with competition, a devotion to freedom and a capacity for criticism of the self and others. He acknowledges that the Spartans had no real high culture (art, drama) but that at Thermopylae, their stand inspired allies to rise up and defeat Xerxes’s huge invading army. Accompanied by a chronology and many maps (not seen), Cartledge’s account delays the story of the battle itself until midway—a clear, compelling chapter that describes everything from footwear (the Spartans wore none) to shield-design to flanking strategies. The battle, he argues, was a critical turning point in history. The final chapters deal with the enduring influence of Thermopylae—in poetry (Byron), fiction (Dickens alludes to it), art and cinema (a forthcoming film adapted from 300, Frank Miller’s graphic novel). Cartledge spends some time celebrating Herodotus (whose account of the battle is the most thorough, though not always reliable) and even offers a few thrusts of the sharp auctorial spear at George W. Bush.
A class in Western Civilization that both instructs and entertains.