The stand by 300 Spartans at the pass of Thermopylae in northern Greece is one of the most revered foundation stories of Western civilization. In 480 BCE, the Spartans heroically delayed the advance of a massive Persian invading force. Thus, so the story goes, the blossoming culture of a "free" Greece was rescued from the domination of oriental despotism and "barbarism." Cartledge, a Cambridge professor of Greek history, reveals a far more complex story. Much of mainland Greece refused to embrace the emerging free and democratic culture associated with Athens. Persians were hardly barbaric, and their imperial control generally left subject peoples, including the Ionian Greeks, considerable latitude. Still, as this beautifully written and stirring saga asserts, the history of Western civilization would almost certainly have been fundamentally different had the Persians prevailed. When describing the actual military conflict, Cartledge's account has a special urgency and poignancy. An outstanding retelling of one of the seminal events in world history.