Sparta at war shows what is best about the city, the ability to field an extraordinarily disciplined army at any time, in defense of the city, under the command of one general. One suspects that, beyond maneuvers & tactics, Spartan men are educated to obey commands – it is not individual excellence that leads them to victory, but the mind of the army, the staying together of the phalanx in battle.
The sangfroid of the army is what shows it to be civilized. Quiet men are able to hear orders & to give their attention to executing orders rather than the passions of war. Self-control in this case is absolutely necessary for any common good. Nobility does not show in the terrible beauty of the motion of the warriors, but in their ability to devote themselves in life & death to the city. What other city lived so fully on its reputation for war?
But the best thing about Sparta is the man Leonidas, who shines above the others both because he was born to the kingship & because he did not lose his authority. Only Spartan education at its height shows this ability in one man – to understand the city, its needs, & how to help the laws & the men. He is living proof that man is not a tool, useful in the hands of the influential, but is in fact the irreplaceable help all cities need.
Leonidas laid down his life because he did not think it is possible for a man both to earn the greatest praise & to enjoy the awe he arouses in men in a long, peaceful life. Glory is obviously choiceworthy only against death. But acting with justice, doing what is right, is a somewhat different matter. Leonidas could reasonably hope that victory would perpetuate his family & his way of life.
In these ways, he had something in common with Spartans, & all Greeks. His example, however, was absolutely necessary if Greeks were to fight. Cities bowed before the Persians. Later, Athens would be burnt. But Thermopylae showed not only the might of Greek arms, but also the indomitable character of the free Greeks. The reputation of Leonidas would lead Sparta to war even in his death.
Dishonor might well have doomed Greece. Who again would have dared to fight? Asiatic Greeks had surrendered. Many Greek cities in Europe also surrendered. But after Thermopylae, who would have dared not to fight? It would seem that sacrifice binds the living & the dead such that private interest looks like impiety. Perhaps only this sort of faith makes a city possible & can promise eternal gratitude to a hero.