Speaking of Thermopylae, I just finished Tom Holland’s Persian Fire, a history of the Persian war… the war that invented history.  One Herodotus was moved soon after the war to make some enquiries– ἱστορίαι– which became our word ‘history’ (and ‘story’). 

Holland tries a little too hard to reach for contemporary significance, positing the war as the first conflict between European freedom and Oriental despotism.  There’s no need for that; it’s a fascinating story all on its own: two Greek city-states (by today’s standard town-states) of colossally different temperaments, Athens and Sparta, stand up to the superpower of the day and win.

I’d never really grasped the history of Athens, so the book was worth it for that alone.  Athens was a revolutionary state; its newfangled ‘democracy’ was created around 510, just 30 years before the main war.   And before the war it was a decidely minor power.  Oversimplifying, Athens was plagued by feuding aristocrats with an inclination toward tyranny; one of them, Cleisthenes, reorganized the state and gave ultimate power to the assembly.  Curiously, Sparta had undergone its own revolution about a century before, one which also devolved power from aristocracy to a larger citizen class. 

The great Greek vice was factionalism, both between and within cities.  Not even Sparta was unified– the king Demaratus squabbled with his co-king Cleomenes and was forced out… and went over to the Persians, where he advised Xerxes.  The Greek systems scaled badly; the individual cities could create alliances, but not a nation.

The Athenian leader Themistocles emerges as remarkably prescient.  I’d thought somehow that Athens was always a sea power, but it wasn’t; like any Greek state it trusted in land armies, which had won the battle of Marathon.  It was Themistocles who convinced Athens to switch to naval power, building 200 ships in a matter of years– a cheeky move when Xerxes had the squadrons of Tyre and Sidon, the premier shipbuilders of the day– and not only that, but to evacuate Athens and trust entirely in the fleet.  And yet, after the war, we find Themistocles too switching to the Persian side.

Holland also answers the main question I had after seeing 300: why didn’t Xerxes pursue his advantage– what did he do with his army after Thermopylae?  The answer is, the resisting Greeks barricaded themselves in the Peloponnese, behind a five-mile-wide wall near  Corinth.  Xerxes counted on the fleet to get past it, and that was defeated at Salamis.  It was also late in the year– too late for a major operation.  He went back home in disgust, leaving a general to take care of the problem the next year.