To die for Freedom

To Die for Freedom:

How important was Thermopylae? A new book considers the question (h/t Arts & Letters Daily).

The author says it was more important than Marathon, because it established a principle:

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.
I will say two things about the review. First, the author is correct to note that it's hard to see the Spartans as the ancestors of the West -- spiritual or otherwise -- given how different Spartan culture was from anything else before or since. The closest thing I can think of to the Spartans was the Jomsvikings, or perhaps the orders of the Church Militant. Neither of those, however, proposed to engage the whole civilization in the business -- women, children, families, slaves, and a subject people to pay for it all -- as did the Spartans.

The second is that suicidal displays were apparently more common in the period than they are today, outside of course of Islam. The second review on the page -- of what sounds like a better book, Xenophon's Retreat -- makes clear that whole villages sometimes wiped themselves out to make a point. Nor was this unique to the Greek world, as we know from the later episode of Masada. Indeed, the fact of Masada probably undermines the conclusion that Thermopylae was a Western thing. While the Jewish civilization later became very important to the West, even as late as Masada's mass suicide, Jews were a small and apparently unimportant minority whose culture was not resonant through the Roman Empire as a whole. It was only the conversion of the Empire to Christianity that made old Jewish stories and ways of thinking an area of interest in the larger West.

That said, Thermopylae was and remains a great symbol. The Spartan spirit -- my favorite example being the reply 'Good! We shall fight in the shade! -- has its high qualities.

When the news of the stand at the Alamo became widely known, it was declared by American newspapers to be a Thermopylae. Indeed, the Alamo is a better example of what the author was seeking -- men dying for, if not "Freedom," certainly independence and self-determination. That shows the importance of Thermopylae as a symbol to the 19th century American.

My sense is that, in the 20th and 21st centuries, we have replaced Thermopylae in our culture with the Alamo. It is now the symbol that Thermopylae was, and it is more plainly ours. It's hard to think of yourself as a Spartan, but we can readily understand Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie.

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