How does one begin to tell the story of Thermopyles? There have been so many volumes written about this moment in history that anything I try to write in this little blog seems almost superfluous.
Ok….forget the word “almost”…anything I write IS superfluous. All I can really do is offer my personal take on the whole event and try to describe what I saw and felt when visiting this most sacred of Greek historical sites.
As always with historical events the key to understanding them is “context”. In this case we have a King of an ancient Greek city-state, namely Sparta. This was no ordinary city-state by any stretch…this was the warrior state…the state that prided itself on its fighting prowess, the abolition of frivolous pleasure and the mental and physical preparation of its males & females…from birth.
Each Spartan knew his or her duty, as well as the obligations that came with being a free citizen of this nation. There were no ambiguities in Spartan society. There was no room for “interpretation” of their laws, nor was there room for anyone who couldn’t obey and serve them. Males were virtually born into the Spartan army (or literally discarded if in any way unable to serve it). Their entire existence was based on the mental discipline and the fighting arts of war. Fighting and dying for their state was the highest honour….only those that died in battle were given headstones.
Obviously being the king of such a nation carries expectations “beyond the ordinary”. King Leonidas by all accounts epitomised the Spartan ideal, but his actions also demonstrate an incredibly strategic mind and an understanding of the human psyche “beyond the ordinary”.
The statue of king Leonidas as it stands today at Thermopyles
Lets look at events as they unfolded. He receives word that the greatest army ever assembled was marching relentlessly towards southern Greece…. conquering everything in its path. He also learns that the Athenians will not march towards the advancing Persians for at least a fortnight because their constitution forbids them to field an army during the running of their sacred games (If there was ever a time to override the constitution I would’ve thought this would’ve been it…. there are a million enemy soldiers heading your way and you worry about a festival? ).
The Spartan king…in his laconic way (a word derived from Laconia – the greater region around Sparta) devises a plan that is Spartan in its very essence. He knows the Persians have to be stopped, he also knows that the rest of Greece needs to be inspired and that the Spartans need to demonstrate clear leadership. His plan is as simple as it is devilishly clever, multifaceted and nothing if not daring. He chooses the location of battle (ensuring that all conditions will favour his army – an Athenian general also suggested this location). He also asks for “volunteers”…no man can be forced to fight with such odds, they either choose to be there or they don’t.
In my mind he also inspires his selected men by opting to take only 300…the implied message to them being that in his evaluation it will only take 300 Spartans to stop a million Persian barbarians. It’s like hypnotising his own men, all fighting men of Greece and probably all the Persians, in believing that a Spartan soldier is worth 1000 others…if not more (historians will argue that 300 was all he was allowed to take… but somehow I think there was a message he was sending).
By all accounts he talks in short “laconic” quote-style phrases, the Spartan way of ensuring that their few words, backed by their actions, remain memorable…
An old man wandering around the Olympic Games looking for a seat was jeered at by the crowd until he reached the seats of the Spartans, whereupon every Spartan younger than him, and some that were older, stood up and offered him their seat. The crowd applauded and the old man turned to them with a sigh, saying “All Greeks know what is right, but only the Spartans do it.”
They 300 walk the distance to Thermopyles (probably more than 400 kms), which is a feat in itself considering their full armour and they set up camp at the narrow pass. Given that it would’ve taken almost a week to walk there….what was going through their minds? What do you think about when you are walking towards a battle where the enemy numbers against you are at least 1000, if not 2000 or even 3000 to one? What did Leonidas say to his men? What did the individual soldiers think as they walked towards their date with destiny?
The Spartan army’s reputation had long preceded them in the Persian minds. The Leonidas plan was surely aimed at reinforcing the perception that the Persians would’ve already had of the Spartans. There is strength in numbers…no doubt, but there can also be fear in crowds. There must have been some interesting dicussions taking place in the Persian ranks as they marched towards the Spartans. The mind can play funny games regardless of numbers….who are these people that think they can stop a million strong army with 300 men? Is it true what they say about Spartans? What makes them think they have a chance?
Regardless of exactly how many Persians there were…. 300,000 or several millions (depending on who you believe) the uneveness of this battle was staggering (records tell us there were also 400 Thespians and another 300 men from Thebes…but there was no doubt that the 300 Spartans were the main fighting force). Whilst the plan to block a narrow pass was clever, the sheer numbers meant that psychology was always going to play a major role in the outcome of this battle. One was an army of free men, fighting to maintain their freedom… who had trained since birth to fight for their state…the others were essentially a conglomerate of dozens of nations, mostly mercenaries and slaves from conquered lands. The personal motivation of the individual soldiers of the two armies could not have been more different.
Although today Thermopyles looks quite different to what it did in 480BC it is clear why Leonidas chose this spot to fight the Persians.
The ancient water line was roughly where the hedge is now….which left a space of 50-75 metres to the low hills on the side and the mountain range beyond that. This is where the Spartans set up their camp and waited for the Persians. Historians tell us that the Persian king Xerxes asked for the Spartans to surrender their arms. The Spartan reply was typically laconic. If you look under the statue photo of Leonidas you will see the two-word reply given by the Spartan king… the exact meaning being “come and take them”. Tough talk by someone with 300 men…facing the largest army ever assembled. But you can almost imagine the impact such a statement had on both sides. The Spartans were there to die for their cause and such words would’ve undoubtedly been the kind of statement they expected from their king. But how would the Persian king and his soldiers have interpreted such a statement? What was going through the minds of the Persians who knew they were to be the first wave of attack against these people?
Historians tell us that Persian spies observed the Spartans almost joyfully preparing for the battle. What kind of men were these? Undoubtedly they would’ve known they were somehow being observed, but how do you manage your thoughts given the task in front of you? How do you keep your mind clear and supress fear? What does a leader say to his men to prepare them for such an event?
The following is a depiction of how the armies were set up prior to the first day of battle:
The Spartan army is depicted by the few dots on the right…Persian army on the far left.
On the first and second day there were wave after wave of Persians attacking the Spartans. Each wave was met with resistance and thousands of enemy soldiers were being killed. The Spartans, although undoubtedly sustaining casualties were managing to hold enemy advances using their well practiced fighting methods and skills. It has been said since those two days that the Spartan resistance during this battle is the “example” used by many military leaders to highlight the need for discipline, practice and use of all available factors for strategic advantage. But the undeniable factor in this battle is the sheer courage shown by the Spartans to hold back literally hundreds of thousands of enemy soldiers.
After the first two days of fighting the Persian army had managed to advance only a few hundred metres. By all accounts the waves of Persian soldiers were being held and finally pushed back in the Greek counterattack. Given the nature of warfare at the time one can only try to imagine what was going on during those two days. Despite training and fitness, what would it have been like for these 300 men fighting hundreds of thousands of fresh soldiers being moved to the Persian front line? This was arm to arm combat… no rapid-fire weapons. The noise alone on that battlefield would’ve been horrifying, let alone the injuries sustained by all those fighting.
The Persians needed a breakthrough and it came through a local man who according to records had asked Leonidas to join the Spartans but was rejected… being an invalid he was considered a possible weak link in the Spartan battle plan formation . Efialtis then proceeded to approach the Persians and offered to guide them through a mountain pass which effectively meant they could encircle the Spartans (the path is shown on the first of the maps above).
It was during the third morning, following the Persian encirclement of the Spartans, that Leonidas was killed in action. The Spartans took the body of their dead king and retreated to the hill of Kolonos where they surrounded him with their shields. The Persians had them completely surrounded and proceeded to finish them, probably through the use of thousands of archers to avoid further casualties. The low hill of Kolonos was the last stand for the 300 Spartans and any other surviving Greek soldiers who were fighting with them. There was no surrender, no dialogue. Every last one of them died on that hill.
The memorial for the 300 Spartans (as well as that for the 400 Thespians) is low key by any standards. In my view if this was in most other countries in the world there would’ve been a lot more for the visitor to see, read and experience when visiting such a site.
Across the road from the memorial there is a path….
The small path leads to the top of Kolonos hill…the very spot where the Spartans died protecting the body of their dead king.
This simple memorial is dedicated to the memory and sacrifice of the 300 Spartans. It doesn’t glorify war nor does it elaborate on what took place on this hill or this battlefield. The memorial stone is engraved with a simple, very Spartan message:
Stranger/visitor… go tell the Laconians (Spartans)
that we lie here obedient to their laws…
No need to say anything more. You stare down at this stone and your mind drifts. Who were these men? What made them what they were? What price freedom?
You can’t help but look around you…trying to imagine what took place on this hill and this entire area….what it would take to do what these men did!
Alessi was strangely quiet on the hill. We had discussed the event many times and he was very aware of where he was. But he is still a kid and all kids dream of being arheologists…
He saw a piece of triangular stone and was convinced it was an ancient arrow head. Being at a place like Kolonos hill it’s not difficult to imagine things…. so many things. The path to his left for example led all the way up to the hills surrounding the whole area…we both decided that it was the “secret path” that the traitor Efialtis showed the Persians.
This is the hill immediately behind Kolonos…probably a logical place for Persian archers to shoot thousands of arrows at the remaining Spartans defending their dead king.
Kolonos hill, the site of the Spartan last stand, is not high… but a visiting philosopher said the following:
“Kolonos hill is the highest mountain in the world…
the deeds of 300 Spartans made it so”
We all have to face incredible odds against us at different times in our lives. We all need to have discipline and purpose. We all need to think about those that sacrificed themselves for us and still are….
No thinking person can walk away from Thermopyles without a flood of thoughts. I know that whenever I find myself in a perceivably “difficult” situation…. I will think of these men. We have all grown to believe that we face daily issues that seem insurmountable. This place puts a different perspective on “insurmountable”. It also gives a whole new meaning to overcomming fear and doing what you believe in !
“Add a step forward to it.”
A Spartan mother to her son when he complained his sword was too short.