History is full of ‘ifs’ and the Spartan story fuller than most. If the 300 had not made their famous stand against a vast Persian army at Thermopylae in 480 BC, or if Helen of Troy, originally from Sparta, had not been abducted, we might not remember them today. If their young men had not been brought up so strictly the word ‘spartan’ might not have entered our vocabulary; nor, had they not valued brevity in an age that revered oratory, the word ‘laconic’ — from Laconia, a Spartan province. And if the Spartans had not remained such an enigma, there would be no need for this book.
It is Thermopylae that speaks loudest to us. The heroism of Leonidas and his Spartan holding force, prepared to give their lives to save their people from Persian servitude, remains a model of sacrifice, as Byron recognised when, writing of the Greeks’ 19th-
century struggle for independence, he longed for ‘A remnant of our Spartan dead’ to make ‘a new Thermopylae’.