Cambridge classicist Paul Cart- ledge has spent more than three decades studying the civilization of ancient Greece, lately focusing on the unique culture of Sparta. He considers the Spartans’ “last stand” at Thermopylae a pivotal clash of East vs. West. In his latest book, Thermopylae: The Battle That Changed the World, Cartledge argues that this one brief battle continues to resonate in world history.
Thermopylae has been thoroughly covered, so why write a book about it?
I wanted to focus on one episode that brought out what was most distinctive about the ancient Spartans and most revealing of the Spartan tradition—Sparta’s influence from antiquity to the present.
Why choose a battle in which the Spartans were defeated?
The French essayist Montaigne said some defeats are more memorable than victories because of what they come to mean. I took Thermopylae to mean two things: Though it was a defeat, it was a heroic defeat, and it helped to bring about victory (at Plataea, the following year). The larger point is that this defeat became emblematic of what it is to be Spartan, to be Greek and to be Western: to die for a cause that you believe to be absolutely overridingly important. Freedom.
Why did Xerxes want to conquer the Greek mainland?
One reason was some unfinished family business: His father, Darius, had sent a force that suffered a major defeat by the Greeks at Marathon. [But] having been defeated in Greece didn’t mean that Xerxes’ empire completely unraveled. The heartland of the Persian Empire was a long, long way to the east, in what’s now Iraq and Iran. You couldn’t have a Persian Empire without Iraq and Iran and Afghanistan, but you could have it without what is now western Turkey.
If Thermopylae was such an epic battle, why did so few Greeks participate?
At that time the Greeks had to perform various religious rituals. Now you could say that was just an excuse, [as] many Greeks were terrified of the Persians. They weren’t going to resist at all. The most they could do was to hold them up, and key to that was linkage between the fleet and the army. So they sent not only the 7,000 to Thermopylae but also many more thousands in ships to Artemisium. Their fleet inflicted serious losses on the Persian fleet, which was the crucial prelude to the battle at Salamis.
Now Salamis is quite like Thermopylae in that it’s a terribly narrow passage. Xerxes would have been much better advised not to go in. But partly I think because he forced Thermopylae, he thought, “Oh, well, the Greeks are going to be disunited, there’ll be some treachery, and I’ve got more and better ships.” It’s true his ships were better made, and the Phoenicians (from what is now Lebanon) were actually better sailors than the Greeks. So he could have reasonably thought, “They’ll wipe out the Greeks, and then the rest of my fleet will pile in.” Of course, it was a terrible miscalculation; Salamis was a major Greek victory.
Although greatly outnumbered at Thermopylae, the Greeks held off the Persians for three days. How?
Thermopylae was a very unusual location for a battle, a narrow defile. It’s about a kilometer long, running east to west, and the sea is just a few meters to the north. At the very narrowest bit, where the Spartans defended, they found an existing wall. They refurbished it and dug in. So that nullified the huge numerical advantage that the Persians had. We think it was something like 150,000, 200,000 on Xerxes’ side against something like 6,000 to 7,000 Greeks, of which the Spartans contributed 301—the king plus his 300 specially picked force. The Spartan and other Greek infantry equipment was infinitely superior to anything the Persians had for close, hand-to-hand combat. Also, the Greeks had complete body armor. Their helmet rendered them practically deaf but was wonderful protection. They had longer, sturdier spears and were better trained than the Persians. Finally, the Greeks fought much better: They were defending their country against invasion, so they probably fought with extra spirit. That’s one reason the battle took as long as it did. On the other hand, it would have taken more than three days had the Greeks not been betrayed.
Was the Spartan attitude toward death unusual among the Greeks?
Yes, first of all, those 300 Spartans were sent to their death. The point was to die there memorably, as a morale booster. I believe this was a suicide squad, and I base that view on something Herodotus tells us: Why were these 300 men chosen? One criterion was that they all had to have a living son. Spartan men generally married in their late 20s, so by no means would all have had a living son by the time they were 30. Leonidas said, “I want people who are going to die, and their sons are going to avenge their fathers’ death. They’re going to have role models: their amazing fathers who died at Thermopylae.”
Was the Persians’ attitude anything like that?
What we know is mainly from non Persian sources, because Persians did not produce historians—people who reflected on what it was like to be Persian. If we believe Herodotus, Xerxes had to have some of his men whipped into battle. The Greeks make a big thing of this, because you don’t whip free men, only slaves. The fact that Xerxes had to whip troops into battle suggests that they weren’t all gung-ho about dying for Xerxes.
Do you consider this battle a turning point for Western civilization?
It would not have been, had the Greeks lost everything. But soon after the Battle of Thermopylae, they won a great naval victory at Salamis, and the following year the Spartans led them to victory in the decisive land battle of Plataea. So, what the Greeks understood to be democracy and freedom continued to develop. Had Persia conquered main land Greece, I don’t believe you would have had Sophocles and Socrates.
Was this battle an example of what some historians later defined as “a Western way of war”?
Yes. The notion is that somehow we in the West are solitary and fight hand to hand. We look the enemy in the eyes, whereas Orientals tend to fight at a distance or from horseback, so they distance themselves from the actual physicality of war. Now guns transformed the-notion of courage straightaway, so you have to look quite hard to find this Western tradition of courage persisting beyond the 17th or 18th century. But there’s still something to it.
Are any modern nations analogous to Sparta in terms of having a standing army?
Not really, because citizenship and militarism—being a soldier—was a Spartan adult male’s identity. There was no separation between being Spartan and being a Spartan soldier. In the 19th century, the Zulu nation in southern Africa militarized itself to resist both the Boers and the British. They achieved amazing successes over a couple of generations, but Sparta maintained this military lifestyle for centuries.
What do you mean when you say the Spartans were not exactly “friends to freedom”?
For at least 300, 400 years, the Spartans based their power and wealth on enslaving fellow Greeks. All free Greek citizens were completely comfortable with slavery. But they thought, ideally, you should not enslave other Greeks. But that’s actually what the Spartans did. Sparta here represents the liberation of many Greeks from Persia, but it also brought about the enslavement of many thousands of Greeks in Greece.
Was the Greeks’ attitude toward warfare similar to ours?
They all, apart from the Spartans, seem to have shared the view that war is all hell, as Sherman put it. That goes right back to Homer and his Iliad. He doesn’t disguise the awfulness of wounding and death. On the other hand, there is heroic glory. The Greek word for bravery or courage in battle literally means “manliness.” So being a man means being a warrior and being brave. Where the Spartans were distinct is their extremism: They took that one virtue, and made it the virtue.
Originally published in the April 2008 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.