Has it been 2,500 years already?
It was in August or September of 480 B.C. that King Leonidas of Sparta and his 300 elite soldiers (with some allies) held off more than 100,000 Persian soldiers for three days at Thermopylae, a narrow mountain pass into the Greek peninsula. Their valiant sacrifice (they eventually fell to a shower of arrows) bought the rest of the Greeks enough time to rally and, supposedly, save Western civilization from disaster before it had even fully gotten started. Hollywood immortalized their story in the 1962 film The 300 Spartans and more recently in 300, a blockbuster with almost half a billion dollars in box office receipts.
Why should we care about Leonidas’ stand at Thermopylae?
Is it standing up for freedom? Surely that’s part of the appeal – the Spartans resisted the attempts of Xerxes, the Persian King of Kings, to add Greece to his vast empire. Yet if that were the case, we would be equally dismayed at Alexander’s conquest of Persia and its holdings, about 150 years later, the same empire-expansion story in reverse. In both cases, those of us in the English-speaking world have been taught to take the Greek point of view. It’s “our” side, even though the majority of us have no Greek ancestors at all. Our affinity for Leonidas is more partisan than principled.
Is it the awe-inspiring Spartans? For some of 300’s fans, especially, this could be true. Its cinematic style certainly glorified the Spartan world – where, ironically, freedom was not valued. Ancient Sparta could serve as a prototype for militaristic fascism. Newborns not meeting government standards were killed, and those who survived weren’t allowed to live with their parents, nor could young married couples live together. Plutarch tells us that once a year, some of the men who had inherited Spartan citizenship were allowed to freely murder any of the vast majority who had not. Adolf Hitler praised Sparta for its eugenics program and bloodline purity, and Spartan training methods inspired the curricula of elite Nazi schools. Sparta is shocking – but of course, that sells movie tickets.
Is it the “saving of Western civilization”? Most likely. In several important ways, classical Athens is a foundation of our modern world. We are indebted to them for the first great philosophers, the roots of Western science, and a political worldview that values input from individuals.
Today, many today are skeptical about the value of Western civilization. However lofty our ideals, we have a poor track record in practice. Europe and the countries established by European colonists have economically exploited virtually all of the rest of the world, and in some cases even destroyed other civilizations in the name of our own cultural superiority. The headlines of America’s newspapers – Black Lives Matter, climate change – still echo the mistakes of the Western world.
I would say that the main value of Thermopylae comes from the life of a man born about ten years later. Socrates, the philosopher later called a “gadfly” by his pupil Plato, taught people to question assumptions, think carefully about the implications of our beliefs, and seek Justice and a higher Good. Late in life, Socrates was arrested and imprisoned (freedom of speech not being a feature of Athenian democracy). He was charged with the crimes of teaching the young people of Athens to think critically about its beliefs and values, that is, “corrupting the minds of the youth” and “failure to acknowledge the gods of the state.” He refused an opportunity to escape and accepted his execution by drinking poison hemlock.
Had the Spartans not held back the Persians at Thermopylae, the entire course of Socrates’ life would have been different. Even if he’d had the same temperament and teachings, he would have found himself protesting the injustices of Persian occupiers, not his very own people. His lessons would have been far less radical.
On the occasion of this extraordinary anniversary, we can reflect that the Spartan victory gave us something we can truly treasure – the example of a man whose life’s work was to interrogate the beliefs of his own people and the actions of his own government. That, I would say, is the real merit of Western civilization, the idea that each and every one of us has the responsibility to question authority and to carefully consider our beliefs and values – even, and especially, when they’re at odds with the examples our leaders set for us.