June 5, 2005


Go Tell The Spartans: At Thermopylae a king and three hundred of his soldiers set the standard for battle to the death against overwhelming odds. (Barry Strauss, MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History)

Stripped of its helmet, Leonidas' head is framed by his long hair. The lean skin of the warrior's face, its color gone, stands out all the more against a short and pointed beard. The dirt of battle is probably still upon Leonidas, and there is a dark purple bruise on his chin from the pooling of what little blood is left. Ragged bits of tissue and bone hang from his severed neck, and flies and beetles have landed on his skin. If the dead Spartan king's eyes could see, they might look 140 miles to the south -- all the way to Athens, the road to which now lies open for Persia.

The time is August 480 b.c.; the place, Thermopylae, Greece; the occasion, the aftermath of a great battle. A vast army of Persians was on the march to conquer Greece. A small force of Greeks had been all that stood in their way. And yet, in a pass that narrows to a space smaller than a baseball diamond, the impossible almost happened. For three days, just over seventy-one hundred Greeks, spearheaded by an elite unit of three hundred Spartans, gave a savage beating to a Persian army that outnumbered them by perhaps 20-to-1. About 150,000 men willing to die for the glory of Xerxes, the Persian Great King, came up against the most efficient killing machine in history.

Leonidas son of Anaxandrides, commander in chief of the Greek resistance to Persia at Thermopylae, died in a heroic last stand. After the battle, as Xerxes son of Darius toured the battlefield, he came upon Leonidas' body and ordered the beheading of the corpse and the impalement of the severed head on a pole. One of those who no doubt saw Leonidas' severed head was the former king of Sparta, Demaratus son of Ariston, a refugee who was now allied with the Persians.

In the slaughtering pen at Thermopylae -- as the narrow killing fields might be called -- a king died and a legend was born. Led by Leonidas, the three hundred Spartans stood and fell and took the pride of the Persian Empire down with them. Sparta the steadfast and self-sacrificing, Greece unflagging in its fight for freedom, Xerxes the flummoxed, Demaratus the traitorous: These are the images left in the summer heat. Thermopylae is the prototype of many a last stand, from Roncesvalles to the Alamo to Isandlhwana to Bastogne. [...]

Xerxes' men cleared the pass in the end, but the image of Leonidas' head loomed over it. In the pitiless Greek light of high summer it was a reminder of Persian weakness. Since the Persians normally took pride in treating their enemies with respect, they would not have insulted the body of a fallen foe like Leonidas unless he had enraged them by the force of his resistance. Leonidas' head was a reminder that the butcher's bill for the three days of killing four thousand Greeks (the others escaped) was twenty thousand Persians. Any more such victories and the Persians were ruined.

The naval battles at Artemisium, which took place around the same time as the land battles at Thermopylae, proved even costlier for Persia. A combination of Greek boldness and disastrous weather (the gods of the winds, it was said, favored Greece) reduced the Persian fleet by nearly half. The rump Persian navy of about 650 triremes still outnumbered the Greeks, who could not muster more than about 350 triremes. But the Greeks had the advantages of home water, short supply lines, and maritime expertise.

At Thermopylae, Xerxes had stayed close enough to the fighting to inspire the men but far enough away to limit his danger. Surrounded by royal guards, he sat on a high-backed throne, where he is said to have jumped to his feet three times in horror at the mauling inflicted on his troops. Not that Xerxes' position was risk free. The Greeks claimed afterward to have sent raiders into the Persian camp at night who penetrated even the royal tent before they were repelled. The story is so improbable that it might be true. In any case, it highlights the risks that real leaders take.

After the Battle of Thermopylae, a chastened Xerxes summoned Demaratus again. The Spartan had correctly predicted Sparta's tough stand, so Xerxes asked Demaratus for information and advice. How many more Spartans were there? And how might Persia defeat them?

Demaratus might have been thrilled at these questions because they opened the door for revenge on the Spartan homeland that had exiled him. He told Xerxes that Sparta had eight thousand soldiers, all as good as the men who had fought at Thermopylae. In order to beat them, he advised the Great King to change his strategy. Xerxes should force the Greeks to divide their armies by sending a seaborne force to attack Sparta's home territory and thereby compel the Spartan army to return home. This force would be carried by half the Persian fleet; the rest of the fleet would stay with the bulk of the Persian army in central Greece. These main Persian forces could defeat the rest of the Greeks.

It was a bold plan, but a bad one because it would have allowed the outnumbered Greeks to even the odds and attack a divided Persian fleet at will and in two stages. After furious debate, the plan was rejected. This was a key moment in the war. Like most military decisions, the choice was made not on military grounds alone but in the heat and dust of the political arena.

One Spartan king had died trying to stop Persia's march southward and another had put his life on the line in an endeavor to deflect it. Leonidas would be remembered as a Greek hero, Demaratus as a traitor, but neither won any more success in keeping Xerxes from his determined course. Whether it was the will of the gods or the stubbornness of the Great King, the Persians would not be denied their appointment in Athens.

One day after his men had finally broken through at Thermopylae and Artemisium, Xerxes gave the order. The mighty force began to march, sail, and row its way south. All eyes now turned toward Athens. But they never quite lost their focus on Thermopylae.

In the coming months of drudgery and blood, the sacrifices of the Greeks at the Middle Gate no doubt buoyed up the national spirit. Within less than a year, in great victories at sea at Salamis and on land at Plataea, the Greeks smashed the forces of the invader and drove out the surviving Persians. Afterward, memorials were set up at Thermopylae for the dead, none with an epigram more memorable than this, in John Dryden's translation:

Go tell the Spartans, thou who passeth by, That here, obedient to her laws, we lie.

Mr. Strauss's Battle of Salamis is a terrific read and Steve Pressfirld's Gates of Fire a wonderful novelization of Thermopylae.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 5, 2005 12:51 PM

This is Leo's son?

Posted by: at June 5, 2005 5:08 PM

My third grade history textbook had a healthy dose of Plutarch's Spartan Sayings and Spartan Institutions. It was part of what it had meant to have been educated as a man of the West. Do you think that the creeps who bombed that test at Darthmouth have ever read any of this?

BTW, that Richard Widmark flick, 300 Spartans, was closely enough drawn from Plutarch to rate a top spot in a DVD collection.

Posted by: Lou Gots at June 5, 2005 7:12 PM

Widmark isn't in 300 Spartans.

Posted by: oj at June 5, 2005 7:32 PM

Richard EAGAN. Sorry people--it's been a long, hot day.

Posted by: Lou Gots at June 5, 2005 8:16 PM

Egan, perhaps?

Posted by: obc at June 5, 2005 10:02 PM

This is Leo's son?

No Leo did not have a son. His daughter teaches Classics at UVA.

JENNY STRAUSS CLAY, Professor of Classics, is the author of The Wrath of Athena: Gods and Men in the Odyssey, and The Politics of Olympus: Form and Meaning in the Major Homeric Hymns, and has published numerous articles on Greek and Roman poets. She is currently working on a book devoted to Hesiod.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at June 5, 2005 10:30 PM

P.S. there is a lot to be said for skipping the intermediaries and going straight to Heroditus.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at June 5, 2005 10:33 PM