The annals of ancient history contain hundreds, maybe thousands of named battles, and the vast majority of them are unfamiliar to all but the most dedicated students of history. If you mention the Battle of Tegyra to a random sampling of people on a crowded city bus, you're likely to see only blank expressions. But if you mention the Battle of Thermopylae, especially the losers, the Spartans, at least a few heads will start to nod.
This is an extension of what author Myke Cole examines in his iconoclastic new book “The Bronze Lie: Shattering the Myth of Spartan Warrior Supremacy.” The “bronze lie” in his pages is one of the longest-standing and most astoundingly successful PR campaigns in human history, and its roots extend at least all the way back to the “hot gates” of Thermopylae.
That “bronze lie” flourishes in our own era, millennia after the last Spartan strapped on a helmet. In 1998 comic book legend Frank Miller produced his mini-series “300” - the title referring to the mythical number of virtuous, super-athletic Spartan warriors under the leadership of King Leonidas who all died at Thermopylae. Miller's comic book version of the story from Herodotus was baroque and memorably stylized, and director Zack Snyder transformed it into a surreally watchable 2006 movie in which all the Spartans were fresh from the gym's weight room, marching to war in nothing but their underwear. Alongside these was also Steven Pressfield's 1998 novel “Gates of Fire,” an enormously popular book and a particular favorite of U.S. military bases.
Cole asks a disarmingly simple question: was there actually any truth to the hype that's kept the Spartan “brand” alive for all these centuries? And his answer is equivocally simple: no.
History buffs will find it downright thrilling to watch Cole systematically dismantle that PR campaign. The Second Battle of Corcyra (373 BC), the Battle of Lecheum (391 BC), the Battle of Ithome (728 BC), the Battle of Sphacteria (425 BC) … in conflict after conflict, Cole finds not supermen but the same mixture of bumbling incompetents and scattered heroes that existed in all other ancient Greek city states. The Spartans, in Cole's telling, were no better at fighting and heroically dying than the Thebans, or the Corinthians or the Athenians. True, that small band of Spartans was theatrically annihilated by the much bigger Persian army of Xerxes, but as Cole makes clear, the Spartans had plenty of other, less theatrical defeats, often brought on by their own strategic and tactical failures.
And why does it matter? According to Cole, it matters quite a bit, since, as he puts it, modern audiences want the myth, not the reality of ancient Sparta – and that yearning has far wider ramifications than simply clearing up the ancient record. It turns out the Spartan myth, the bronze lie, produces some poisonous social results even in the 21st century. “The common theme is plain – if you want to be victorious at an athletic contest, if you want to win a fight, if you want the grit, discipline and sheer toughness to be victorious in life, you would do well to emulate the Spartans,” Cole writes. “We want to be shown the path to toughness, self-denial and combat excellence precisely because we are so intensely certain that we are lacking in these virtues.” In a coda concerning the Spartan myth and persistent themes running through modern alt-right political sloganeering, Cole ends his fascinating book with a strong implicit warning: believing the bronze lie involves at least in part venerating a death-cult. “What bothers me most about Sparta fans,” wrote a political theorist in the 20th century, “is that you can't get Leonidas without Thermopylae.”