Twenty-five centuries ago, in a narrow mountain pass 80-odd miles from Athens, the armies of Iran fought a brutal battle with the armies of Europe. The Iranians were defeated (not that day, but not long thereafter), putting an end to their ambitions to extend their empire into an unwilling West.
The Iranians left, bitterly lamenting the day they had ventured across the Aegean. The Europeans, for their part, erected monuments, one reading, “Here is the spot where once three million men battle against four thousand men from the Peloponnese.” Later, the Spartans, foremost among those Peloponnesians, added a monument of their own to honor the 300 heroes who had borne the brunt of the Iranian assault: “Report to the people of Lacedaemon, o stranger, that here, obedient to their orders, we lie.”
Never mind that there was no Iran then, and certainly no Europe. There was not even a Greece, or Greekness, or Greece-ness. Still, the people whom we call the Greeks felt certain, watching the departing ships of those they called the Medes, that they had fought someone very different from themselves, and with very different views of how men such as they should live: free people under democratic rule, not servants under an autocracy that the phrase “cult of personality” only begins to describe.
That difference is the great, overarching subject of the great book...