August 10, 2011


Earth! render back from out thy breast
A remnant of our Spartan dead!
Of the three hundred grant but three,
To make a new Thermopylae!

These lines from Byron's Don Juan are justifiably famous. They conjur up how Byron and others saw the cause of Greek independence in the 1820s, the chance to reawake the soul of European civilisation and to vindicate in its homeland the cause of freedom. The moment that they commemorate is equally famous. Thermopylae has been remembered again and again in story and in song and probably will be remembered long after everyone who reads this will be forgotten. Part of the reason for this is that the story itself is so evocative: 300 Spartans facing, according to Herodotus, several thousand Persians. The world could be seen to take a different turn on those days when the Greeks through a glorious defeat helped cement a future victory. Paul Cartledge's book about Thermopylae is an interesting guide to the battle and its importance and I think its worth reading- if like me your Persian and Greek history are rusty. Most of what Cartledge argues is based upon the ancient historian Herodotus: Herodotus wrote about 50 years after the events of the Persian war that he chronicled and wrote them by talking to people in Athens who knew about the war. Cartledge tells a conventional story: the Spartans were outnumbered, but assisted- the world forgets Thespians and others who fought with Leonides and his men. The battle was significant because it helped to inspire the Greeks to fight back against Persia.

Lets think about those points. The presence of others on the battlefield, particularly the greater proportional effort of some cities who dispatched their entire army to the field (not as in Sparta's case 300 alone) means that many popular accounts of the battle miss something important. What they miss isn't important in the sense that it should change our judgement of the Spartans, its important in that history in part functions as Herodotus tells us in the first lines of his history, we must remember great deeds because that is what is due to those deeds. We have an obligation not to forget. But this points us on to something that is very important. Herodotus on whom Cartledge bases his account is one of our only sources for events at Thermopylae, we have the odd scrap of poetry (which I'll come on to) but we must remember the fragile nature of the thread that binds us to our past.

Secondly the battle inspired the Greeks to fight against the Persians and victor at the battles of Salamis and more importantly at Plataea. Its tempting to suggest that therefore Thermopylae is a crucial moment in the history of the world: and it is probably so. But its worth also considering whether actually it did matter as much as we argue. The problem with history is that we can never replay the tape with an item altered. Greek history may have been very different- but Greek intellectual life survived Alexander's empire and it may have survived a Persian empire. Though Cartledge assumes that Thermopylae helped the Greeks later- it reinforced a Spartan theology of suicide- there is no evidence to suggest it was decisive. Nor is there neccessarily evidence to suggest the Persians were the evil freedom hating monsters of films like 300, the Bible sees Cyrus in Palestine as the refounder of Israel!

Thirdly there is Thermopylae as an idea. Here the poetry left at the monument to the dead is fascinating- 'Go tell the Spartans, passerby/ That here obedient to her laws we lie' is the wonderful epitaph composed by Simonides. Perhaps most importantly, the epitaph says all the things that we would want it to reaffirm for ourselves and Byron- it restates the Stoic suicide commited by the 300. Its worth reading again though- if one is ever tempted to consider the Spartans or Greeks fought just for freedom then that line should be an answer. Spartan law was unique and the Spartan command to fight was unique- the principle of the line though, and the principle in part of Plato's Crito are the same: Greek politics was based on obligation as well as freedom, duty to law as well as freedom from law.