I wondered whether someone would pull me up over Thermopylae. I don’t mean it doesn’t resonate with us. Obviously it is one of those stories that raises the hairs on our neck, particularly the whole ‘Go, tell the Spartans, thou who passest by…’ thing of Simonides’ poem. My father told me the story when I was about four and I remember the sensation as I heard the words. (I also remember being worried I’d have to keep quiet while a wolf cub gnawed through my chest if I weren’t careful, before I realised Lacedaemonian values were generally no longer de rigeur).
But just as I’m not sure we, as a culture, see the value of exposing children on the hillsides or suffering unto death to keep casual theft quiet, I am not sure we understand the cultural mind set behind the action of the 300. Yes you can map a modern sense of unit loyalty and personal honour onto it, but whether we ever really get close to the mind set of those involved, as you say, in an action half a millennium before the birth of Christ, is moot.
I suspect there is a Venn diagram that encompassses all my picky concerns about intentions, timings and outcomes and reveals true ‘last stand’ status – but as you say it is probably an appeal to emotion that counts.
(I think that may be one of the reasons I am uncertain – it doesn’t seem to necessarily be the actual events that appeal – it is the emotional tweaking by poets, artists and film auteurs. Roncevaux – is it the actual ambush and massacre by Basques we remember or the romantic Song of Roland? -blow the ******* horn man! Rorke’s Drift – the somewhat scrambled actual defence and the 5’6″ Frank Bourne or Nigel Green and the endless singing? Horatius at the bridge is Macaulay’s triumph, and Horatius, Lartius and Herminius all survived).