Let's first address my irritation with this subtitle: "the battle that changed the world." Cartledge does make a good case for why the Battle of Thermopylae had a huge impact on the development of Western civilization and its ideas about courage and freedom, but really, doesn't everything "change the world"? I mean, aliens suddenly landing on Earth- now that would change the world. But the Spartans and their desperate stand against the Persian king Xerxes in 480 BC were part of and helped drive the evolution of the Western worldview, not something that popped out of nowhere. </rant>
Anyway, Cartledge gives us a detailed background of the circumstances leading up to the battle, including the history of Spartan ideology and the circumstances that united most of the Greek city-states in a stand against Persian aggression (the second Persian invasion). King Leonidas, the head of the Greek alliance army, helped the bulk of his soldiers successfully retreat when the Persians were close, holding the pass at Thermopylae with 300 Spartans and several hundred others, resulting in most of their deaths.
Not knowing much about ancient Greece and Persia, I was at first overwhelmed by the flood of new information and very difficult-to-pronounce names- this was also because I was listening to the audiobook version, and can usually retain information better when I read the printed page. Nonetheless, I started to understand how Persia under Xerxes and the Greek city-states of the ancient world developed such different worldviews and perspectives on democracy/authoritarianism, martial skill, religious custom, and more. Cartledge also charts the impact of Thermopylae on modern popular culture, noting references to the 300 in books, films, and tv shows, suggesting that the Spartans have been turned into symbols of bravery, perseverance, and selflessness- willing to die for their freedom.
What we learn from Cartledge's book, though, is that the Spartans were far more complicated than we think, enslaving others so that they could have the time to build up a martial society. His discussion of ancient Persia also piqued my interest in that time and place, and sent me looking for more books on the subject. Overall, Thermopylae was a good introduction to the ancient world and one of the most well-known battles in history.