In a review of George Grote's magisterial "History of Greece," John Stuart Mill wrote that the "battle of Marathon, even as an event in English history, is more important than the battle of Hastings. If the issue of that day had been different, the Britons and the Saxons might still have been wandering in the woods." This can't be right, not least because Persians, whom a small band of Athenians defeated at Marathon in 490 B.C.E., were not given to wandering in the woods. They much preferred idling in gardens. Paul Cartledge, however, seems to think Mill mostly right. He only got the battle wrong. It was not Marathon, but Thermopylae, 10 years after Marathon, that kept him and the rest of the West out of the woods. And this, as he announces in the subtitle of his new book, "Thermopylae: The Battle That Changed the World" (Overlook, 376 pages, $30), was probably the least of its accomplishments.
In the early 5th century, the Persian empire was a massively complex organism that included Pakistan and Kashmir in the east, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq in its middle, and Egypt, the Levant, Turkey, and bits of Macedonia at its edges. It was ruled from three capitals in what is now Iran, but with a light touch. An extensive administrative system, coupled with a network of "royal roads," ensured that taxes, tribute, women, and slaves got where they needed to go to the King, naturally but otherwise subject peoples were left to do mostly as they pleased.
Greeks helped some of these subject people revolt, and this turned out to be, in the words of Herodotus, the "beginnings of the misfortunes for both Greeks and Persians." The Persians invaded Greece and the Greeks returned the favor. When the Persian Emperor Darius, whose forces had been defeated at Marathon, died, the mantle passed to his son Xerxes, who marched his enemy over the Hellespont into northern Greece and down the eastern coast of the Greek mainland. Thermopylae was a mountain defile, scarcely 20 meters wide in some places, and it was here that 300 Spartans, commanded by their king Leonidas, took their stand against Xerxes's troops. Herodotus numbers them at 5 million, but the real number was closer to 100,000. The 300 Spartans held off the Persians for two days. A saboteur named Ephialtes betrayed them his infamy survives in modern Greek as the word for "nightmare" and, on the third day, the Spartans were outflanked and destroyed.
Two Spartans survived. One, who missed the encounter at Thermopylae because he was on a diplomatic mission, hanged himself in disgrace upon his return home. The other, who missed the battle because of an eye infection (not much of an excuse for a solider, never mind a Spartan), went on a suicide mission in the next major encounter with the Persians. When Spartans said that the only way to return from a battle was with your shield or on it, they meant it.
How, then, was Thermopylae the battle that changed the world if the Greeks lost? It did seriously weaken the Persian forces and spelled their ultimate defeat. But Mr. Cartledge has something grander in mind. For him, Thermopylae was a triumph of "reasoned devotion to, and self-sacrifice in the name of, a higher collective cause, Freedom." The strange capitalization is Mr. Cartledge's and it is a measure of just how seriously he takes the Spartans' stand. They were defending Freedom against Persian Slavery again, capital "S." Round one in the "clash of civilizations."
Mr. Cartledge is right to find something worthy in the Spartans' commitment, but for this to be the battle that "changed the world," these Spartans need to have been defending a way of life that can be said to belong to the world that inherited the Greeks. But by and large, Spartan "Freedom" has not belonged to this world. For this we should be grateful. Mr. Cartledge calls Sparta a "unique culture and society." "Unique" goes a bit easy on a society that was organized, in Mr. Cartledge's words, "as a kind of standing army," an army that helped Sparta satisfy its own imperial ambitions but, more importantly, keep a local, non-Spartan population in perpetual servitude. Unique, too, in its decision to remove each male child, at age seven, from his home and station him in a public dormitory-cumbarracks that served as a schoolhouse. It must have been in one of these barracks that the famous Spartan youth, who had stolen a fox and concealed it inside his tunic lest the theft be discovered by his superiors, stood silently and answered his superior's questions while the fox gnawed away at his intestines.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, according to Mr. Cartledge, was "a huge fan of the wisdom of Sparta's laws" and "an even greater fan of its legendary lawgiver Lycurgus." Mr. Cartledge might have tried harder to enlist Rousseau in Sparta's defense. But this has its dangers, for Rousseau is a tricky case. He admired Sparta because it was so radically unlike any political community of his age. Had Thermopylae really changed the world, Rousseau wouldn't have had time or need to write. He'd have been too busy supervising a barracks in Geneva a job, one suspects, he might have enjoyed immensely, and been uncommonly good at. Rousseau wanted to remake the world in Sparta's image, to replace enlightened self-interest with virtue. Everyman would be like the Spartan Pedaretus. This Pedaretus, Rousseau says in "Emile," ran for Sparta's governing council of 300 and lost. But he went home elated that there were 300 men worthier than he. This, Rousseau concludes, is the male citizen. And the female citizen? She would be like the Spartan woman who, after hearing that she has lost her five sons in battle, "runs to the temple and gives thanks to the gods." Worrying thoughts both.
Mr. Cartledge is a fine writer and, in his fondness for dishy one-liners, shows that there's a bit of the Spartan in him. One only wishes this were true of Xenophon, the hero of Robin Waterfield's "Xenophon's Retreat: Greece, Persia, and the End of the Golden Age" (Belknap, 272 pages, $27.95).Surely the most humorless writer of antiquity, Xenophon found himself, in 401 BC, at the head of some 13,000 Greek mercenaries (erroneously recorded as "the ten thousand"). They had come to fight for Cyrus, the younger brother of the Persian King Artaxerxes II, three kings downstream from the Xerxes of Thermopylae. The upstart Cyrus was killed, and this is when the mercenaries' troubles began. They were stuck in the middle of Persia with no job, money, or idea how to get home.
Xenophon led them on a remarkable march up along the Tigris, into the Caucasus, and then along the Black Sea. Some years later he wrote down the story, which he called the "Anabasis," which means "up country" in Greek. It has the distinction of being the first eyewitness campaign narrative, but also the distinction of being terrifically boring. How Xenophon manages this is something of a mystery since there was nary a dull day on the march. It had the makings of an "Apocalypse Now"for Asia Minor. When the mercenaries weren't skirmishing with local fighters, they were tripping on hallucinatory honey or watching an entire village, in a harrowing gesture of defiance, throw itself off a cliff.
Mr. Waterfield, unlike his ancient source, tells the story briskly and vividly. Reading his account of the march is like hearing a record that used to sound like sludge finally set to the right rpm. But Mr. Waterfield, like Mr. Cartledge, goes easy on his favored Greeks, whom he views as trying to live virtuously in a world that has made it impossible, forgetting somehow that mercenaries like Xenophon's men were the ones who made it impossible. Xenophon had his chance to live virtuously. He had been loosely associated with Socrates and so knew the basic outline of the virtuous life. But Xenophon grew bored and headed east to present-day Iraq, which has never been a good place to go if you're bored or looking to live virtuously.
Mr. Boyle is a writer living in Chicago.