More than two thousand years ago, a Chinese strategist known as Sun Tzu wrote one of the enduring classics of military theory. Most likely written during a period of Chinese history referred to as the ‘Warring States’ period, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War has continued to be studied by military strategists for millennia. Even today, The Art of War is required reading for Naval Officer Candidates. At nearly the same time in the fourth century B.C., the Greek city-states were facing invasion from the mighty Persian army. Vastly outnumbered, the Greeks eventually triumphed by defeating their enemies at Plataea, but not before fighting one of history’s greatest military stands at Thermopylae. By using Sun Tzu’s classic text to analyze the battles of Thermopylae and Plataea, it is possible to gain a better understanding not only of the battles themselves, but also of the reasons why The Art of War has remained such an influential and respected text over the centuries.
Whether or not Sun Tzu existed and actually wrote The Art of War is still a debate among scholars. There is very little solid evidence that can be used to place Sun Tzu in a specific time period or to independently verify details of his life. Scholars have most often been forced to rely on analysis of The Art of War itself, studying its depictions of battle strategy in order to determine when its author lived and worked. The types of armies depicted in The Art of War tend to support the theory that Sun Tzu’s strategy was developed during the Warring States period of Chinese history and that the text was written by a single author who possessed a large amount of personal and professional experience in military matters.
The Warring States period was, much as the title given to it suggests, was a time full of strife and battle in Chinese history. The Chou dynasty and its kings were weak and the eight powerful states in China fought viciously amongst each other for power. For some hundred and fifty years (roughly between 450 and 300 B.C.) Chinese armies clashed all across the country. During this time, war became “fundamental occupation” and while scholars fell out of favor with the courts of the kings, military strategists gained great respect. Sun Tzu was most likely one of these strategists, or perhaps a general, who gained the patronage of one king or another, allowing him to gain the practical knowledge needed to produce the seminal study of martial affairs that is The Art of War. Sun Tzu writes of a time when armies were growing larger, generals more skilled, and battles both more coordinated and more decisive. The brute melees of earlier China were being replaced with battles that required sophisticated strategy and a skilled mind for planning. Sun Tzu’s experience with war during this time period comes through in his work, depicting the mind of a clever and highly skilled military mind.
In 480 B.C. Xerxes, emperor of Persia, crossed the Hellespont with an army that...