Thermopylae: The Battle That Changed the World.
Overlook Press, 376 pages, $30
Thermopylae is legendary, its story is simple: three hundred Spartans stood in a narrow pass, where the mountains came down to the sea, and tried to stop a huge Persian army of invasion. For two days the Spartans savaged the enemy, but on the third day, the Persians surrounded them. The Spartans had advance warning that they would be cut off, but rather than escape they chose to hold their ground and to die to the last man, including their king, Leonidas. Their heroic stand for freedom lit a fire that rallied all Greece to drive out the invader. A year later, after overwhelming victories at Salamis and Plataea, Greece was free.
The reality of Thermopylae was different. The Spartans did not fight alone—they had about 7,000 Greek allies. Their mission was not merely a beau geste; it had a strategic...