How, then, could the Spartans, originally the allies of the Athenians against the Persian king, but now their bitterest rivals, possibly compete with the Parthenon? Not by raising monuments of their own, to be sure, for it was their custom to scorn masonry as pompous and marble as frivolous. It did not necessarily require great architecture, however, to commemorate a victory—or even a defeat. “Go tell them in Sparta, O passer-by / That here, in obedience to their orders, we lie.” These lines, carved on a simple stone memorial, were to be read on the site of the most famous engagement of the entire Persian Wars, an engagement that had ended, not in triumph, but in heroic failure. Teeming hordes of Asiatics, driven forward into battle by the whip; a Spartan king, Leonidas, resolved to fight or die an exemplary death, as he and some three hundred of his countrymen made a suicidal last stand—the story of Thermopylae had it all. Already, even as Herodotus embarked upon his researches, it had begun to take on the force of myth. Some evidence suggests that the historian, when he came to write his account of Thermopylae, was consciously attempting to avoid sensationalizing it and to purge it of Spartan spin. If so, he did not altogether succeed. His description of the battle has an indisputably epic, even Homeric, glow. Describing the aftermath of Leonidas’ death, for instance, Herodotus has the Spartans and the Persians fight over the corpse, precisely as though they were combatants on the plain of Troy. So strong is the force of his narrative that even today, two and a half millennia after Leonidas fell, Thermopylae stands supreme as the paragon of heroism in war. When Hollywood wishes to dramatize the Persian invasions, it is not to Marathon or to Salamis, those incomparable victories, that it turns. If glory, as the Greeks believed, is the truest immortality, then it is the Spartans who have had the last laugh.
But if the Athenians would be infuriated to know this, then how much more so, of course, would be the Persians. As the outraged response in Iran to the movie 300 suggests, sensitivities about Thermopylae can still run high. And well they might, for the battle eulogized by the Spartans as a defeat so splendid as to outshine many a victory would no doubt have appeared to the Persians as a truly thumping military success. To flush out a pass held by heavy infantry, to take a mere two and a half days to achieve it, and to kill a Spartan king—these, by any reckoning, were splendid achievements. Doubtless a Persian would have been quick to point out as much. Except that no Persian is known to have written about the battle. Indeed, no Persian is known even so much as to have mentioned the invasion of Greece. Revisionists have deduced from this silence that perhaps the war which the Greeks themselves regarded as the most momentous of all time was seen by their opponents in a slightly less dramatic light, as a peripheral border skirmish, nothing more. Maybe. Yet it is important not to mistake the nature of the evidence. That the Persian sources opted to ignore a defeat is hardly surprising, but that they are no less silent about all their empire’s many glorious victories does appear truly astounding. And this not least because chronicling the triumphs of imperial warlords was a venerable tradition in the ancient Near East. Scribes at the Assyrian court, in particular, had competed with one another to describe the gallons of blood shed by the their royal masters, the cities stormed, the palaces looted, the prisoners enslaved or impaled. Yet the Persian kings, who in almost every other respect were assiduous borrowers from the traditions of Mesoptamia, chose not to borrow from the example of these sanguinary chronicles. Far from broadcasting the details of all their many victories, they seem rather to have turned their backs upon the very subject of war.
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