Those of us who enjoy dabbling in history have found a delightful diversion in the grim affairs of Iraq and the larger conflict in the Middle East.
Oh, yes, our civilization is imperiled.
No doubt about it (unless, of course, you’re a Democrat in Congress or perhaps Annie Liebowitz’s newest dapper subject, James A. Baker).
But the historical parallels, while quite frightening, are nevertheless fascinating. Shall we laugh, or at least, make delectable historical comparisons, through the Apocalypse?
A review of a book on the battle fought at Thermopylae in the New York Sun indulges in this penchant. It is headlined “Round One in the Clash of Civilization.”
Reviewer Brendan Boyle sets the stage:
“In a review of George Grote’s magisterial “History of Greece,” John Stuart Mill wrote that the ‘battle of Marathon, even as an event in English history, is more important than the battle of Hastings. If the issue of that day had been different, the Britons and the Saxons might still have been wandering in the woods.’ This can’t be right, not least because Persians, whom a small band of Athenians defeated at Marathon in 490 B.C.E., were not given to wandering in the woods. They much preferred idling in gardens. Paul Cartledge, however, seems to think Mill mostly right. He only got the battle wrong. It was not Marathon, but Thermopylae, 10 years after Marathon, that kept him and the rest of the West out of the woods. And this, as he announces in the subtitle of his new book, “Thermopylae: The Battle That Changed the World” (Overlook, 376 pages, $30), was probably the least of its accomplishments.?
“Our” side, the Spartans (I always root for the West and am pro-Spartan, except when the boys are fighting Athens), lost. Boyle poses the interesting question:
“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. They were defending Freedom against Persian Slavery — again, capital ‘S.’ Round one in the ‘clash of civilizations.'”
Boyle is dubious about Cartledge’s reasoning, but he does set up the situation in a way that feels — well, very familiar:
“In the early 5th century, the Persian empire was a massively complex organism that included Pakistan and Kashmir in the east, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq in its middle, and Egypt, the Levant, Turkey, and bits of Macedonia at its edges. It was ruled from three capitals in what is now Iran, but with a light touch. [The Persians seem, on the whole, nicer than the mad mullahs.] An extensive administrative system, coupled with a network of ‘royal roads,’ ensured that taxes, tribute, women, and slaves got where they needed to go — to the King, naturally — but otherwise subject peoples were left to do mostly as they pleased.
“Greeks helped some of these subject people revolt, and this turned out to be, in the words of Herodotus, the ‘beginnings of the misfortunes for both Greeks and Persians.'”
While surrender was out of the question, nobody could say those Spartans lacked an exit strategy:
“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.”