And yet, for all their might, both Persian expeditions came to grief. The first, after a series of military and natural disasters, was defeated at the Battle of Marathon, where a fabulously outnumbered coalition of Athenians and Plataeans held the day, losing only a hundred and ninety-two men to the Persians’ sixty-four hundred. (The achievement was such that the Greeks, breaking with their tradition of taking their dead back to their cities, buried them on the battlefield and erected a grave mound over the spot. It can still be seen today.) Ten years later, Darius’ son Xerxes returned to Greece, having taken over the preparations for an even vaster invasion. Against all odds, the scrappy Greek coalition—this one including ultraconservative Sparta, usually loath to get involved in Panhellenic doings—managed to resist yet again.

It is to this second, far grander conflict that the most famous Herodotean tales of the Persian Wars belong; not for nothing do the names Thermopylae and Salamis still mean something today. In particular, the heroically suicidal stand of the three hundred Spartans—who, backed by only a couple of thousand allied troops, held the pass at Thermopylae against tens of thousands of Persians, long enough for their allies to escape and regroup farther to the south—has continued to resonate. Partly, this has to do with Herodotus’ vivid description of the Greeks’ feisty insouciance, a quality that all freedom fighters like to be able to claim. On hearing that the Persians were so numerous that their arrows would “blot out the sun,” one Spartan quipped that this was good news, as it meant that the Greeks would fight in the shade. (“In the shade” is the motto of an armored division in the present-day Greek Army.)