To Die For? The Spartans at Thermopylae

Paul Cartledge sees ancient Spartan society and its fierce code of honour as something still relevant today.

The events of September 11th, 2001, jolted many of us into rethinking what was distinctive and admirable – or at least defensible – about Western civilisation, values and culture. Some of us were provoked into wondering whether any definition of that civilisation and its cultural values would justify our dying for them, or even maybe killing for them. Those of us who are historians of ancient Greece wondered with especial intensity, since the world of ancient Greece is one of the principal taproots of Western civilisation. As J.S. Mill put it, the battle of Marathon fought in 490 BC between the Athenians with support from Plataea and the invading Persians was more important than the Battle of Hastings, even as an event in English history. So too, arguably, was the battle of Thermopylae of ten years later. Although this was a defeat for the small Spartan-led Greek force at the hands of the Persians, it was none the less glorious or culturally significant for that. Indeed, some wouldsay that Thermopylae was Sparta’s finest hour.

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