Thermopylae: The battle that changed the world, by Paul Cartledge

How the West was lost - and won
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This new look at what might just be the most important battle in Western history - even if "we" lost it - is both an enthralling account of the battle itself, and a fascinating argument about it.

Cartledge is one of the world's acknowledged experts on Sparta, and his understanding of that grim warrior people - the samurai of their day, he suggests - is impressive. He vividly reconstructs their finest hour, first examining mobilisation and preparation, and then the broiling August day when 300 of their finest, under the command of Leonidas, took up their positions at the Hot Gates ("Thermopylae" in Greek) and fought to the death against a numerically vastly superior Persian army under Xerxes.

The tale has been told before, of course, but, where Cartledge really scores is in his subsequent overview of how this crucial confrontation between East and West came to occupy a central place in the West's view of itself, from antiquity right through to modern times. An epilogue and three quite brilliant appendices (which might simply have formed additional chapters in the book) examine in particular the genius of Herodotus, Father of History and chief source for this period. Cartledge shows how Herodotus's invention of a new, would-be objective and fair-minded form of reportage has been so vital to the West and to its capacity, at its best, to tolerate and understand other cultures. It also suggests why certain other cultures are so poor at developing a similar tradition of tolerance. The West's cheerfully magpie approach to the rest is not a recent, multi-culti thing either. Boccaccio drew on Arabian tales, Chaucer knew his Avicenna, Longfellow created Hiawatha...

The defeat at Thermopylae - and it was a total wipe-out, but for one poor man almost blind with an eye infection, who survived, to the utmost contempt of his own people - nevertheless inspired the rest of the Greeks incalculably. It would be interesting to know to what extent this original heroic set-piece (Marathon apart) of freedom-loving Greeks versus tyrannical Orientals inspired European warriors in later clashes: when the forces of Islamic imperialism first made themselves felt in Spain and then in the very heart of France, for instance, to be defeated by Charles Martel; or 800 years later, at the gates of Vienna. Likewise, did Salamis inspire Lepanto? Though his overview of the later mythologising of Thermopylae is interesting, there might have been more.

All is forgiven however, for his devoted analysis of Herodotus. Herodotus wrote his Histories in his own words, in order "that the great and wondrous deeds of both Greeks and barbarians may not lack their due glory", and it might not be over-stating the case to say that in Herodotus, and his express intention here, is the foundation stone of all that is best about the West. True, there is plenty of reason to see much that is worst about the West foreshadowed in the ruthless city state of Sparta. Yet the sins of the Spartans - intense militarism, way beyond any ordinary soldierly valour, or their appalling suppression of their own "helot" underclass - are sins mirrored in many other cultures around the world. The even-handedness and open-mindedness of Herodotus is unique, for its time. You don't get much sense, from the surviving triumphal reliefs and friezes of ancient Persepolis, depicting the King of Kings enslaving and destroying his enemies, that Persia had embraced or could ever embrace anything like the spirit of free enquiry of the Greeks. "There was no Persian Herodotus," says Cartledge, "nor... could there possibly have been one."

Herodotus was no cultural relativist, believing that all cultures are equal. He knew very well that Eating People Is Wrong, though enthusiastically practised amongst the anthropophagous barbarians of Scythia. But all cultures were of interest to him. He was "an ethical pluralist", argues Cartledge, not a relativist. This is the key to the Greeks' "capacity for almost limitless self-criticism as well as unstinting criticism of others". One without the other of these leads either to ferocious intolerance, or ludicrous cultural self-repudiation of the "Dead White Males" variety. Cartledge is also interesting on the role of religion, too glibly equated with intolerance nowadays. Herodotus was able to empathise with the Other not in spite of but "because he was pious".

In sum, Cartledge's unpicking of the way in which the Spartans both won and lost at Thermopylae is impeccable, and he engages in genuinely important historical argument with passion and a rare philosophical clarity. I even like the way he refers to his colleague, Bettany Hutghes, in the acknowledgements, as his "Laconological collaboratrix". Fowler condemns such polysyllabic humour, in his inimitably frosty way, as "a weakness incident to youth". But I've always been a sucker for it myself.