A history lesson from Thermopylae

Today I spent the day at the hot gates, Thermopylae. This is a place I’ve wanted to visit for quite some time now. It was strange coming up on the train yesterday, for even though I was on the other side of the mountain range, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of nerves for what I was going to see.

Now for those who do not know, Thermopylae is the location in Greece of a number of pivotal, world altering battles. It gets its name from the natural hot spring that bursts out of the side of a mountain, which is heavy with the smell of sulphur. The battle that I am more significantly aware of was between the Greeks and invading Persian army.
It is significant because of the price, or rather the willingness of the Greek soldiers to pay the price, which was their lives, in order to hold the advance of the massive Persian army. It is the battle of the 300 Spartans, under their King Lionidas, against the god King Xerxes and his multi-ethnic hordes from three continents. The story is a tragedy, in that all of the “heroes”, the Greeks, die. And yet, it is because of that point, the story has lived on, to be venerated, celebrated and romanticised to no end.
Why am I interested in this story, well for one, it’s an ancient battle, that’s one point, it has one side up against insurmountable odds, thats another, and well, Spartans. They are the bad ass warriors of the ancient and classical world.
So yes, I kinda like this stuff, and so to go there and walk the fields, splash in the waters and climb the hills it’s all quite moving.
I read a book called “Gates of Fire” by Steven Pressfeild, a good 12 years ago, which painted such an amazing picture of not just the Battle, but Spartan life, be that a watered down Spartan life. Be that as it may, I found the book incredibly moving. I remember just sitting there on the couch once I had read past the climax of the story, just sitting there contemplating life, for like half an hour. I could bring myself to move, as I was so absorbed in that moment, in the moment of an ultimate and glorious death. I just wanted to stay connected to it. I’ve never read anything like it since.
It sounds morbid really, but it’s not meant to be, nor did it feel that way. I think it was rather the willingness of those men to stand and fight and die, for a cause much bigger than their own lives or the lives of their comrades beside them. And by comrade I mean lover. You see Spartans felt that homosexual relationships between the warriors would encourage a closer bond of unity within the ranks, where they would be more instep, and fight harder for the man next to them. It takes mateship to new but old level.
So the story begins with Cyrus the great, being awesome, as he was apt to do. He had recently just sorted out parts of ancient Western Turkey, where there happened to be colonies of Ionian Greeks scattered over the coastal areas. The Ionians had chosen to support the wrong side when Cyrus came to town and appealed to their Greek brethren back in Athens and Sparta for help. True to form, the Athenians sent 20 ships and the Spartans sent one man. Now that one Spartan fella managed to get an ordinance with the Great Cyrus and so requested he desist from threatening the Ionians as they were under the Spartan protection and they would not stand for it. If you were unaware, Cyrus the great was the one who united the Medo-Persian Empire, smoked the impenetrable city of Babylon without even a fight, and created one of the biggest and best running empires the ancient world ever saw. Historically Cyrus is regarded as pretty darn cool, and kind of a big deal. So, naturally, he was taken back by the Spartan request, asking who the devil are these Spartan folk and are the many of them? Of which there were few and they were far away.
Anyways time goes on and the Ionian Greeks once again rebel against another Persian king, Darius, who decided to sort them out, as well as the Greeks in Greece.
So he invades in 490BC, but his attempt failed miserably at the battle of Marathon. Yes, that’s where we get our modern 42km run from. As one guy after the battle ran that far to deliver the news of victory back in Athens, then he died.
Darius then made room for Xerxes, who had the same bright idea, “lets expand our already massive empire and squash those pesky Greeks once and for all”. Herodotus, writing 40 years after the fact reports the Persian army crossed into Greece with an army of 2.5 million men. Modern estimates put it at around the 250,000 size, which is still huge.
The Greeks it must be said were not a united state, they were more accurately a group of competing city states. They shared the same language and religion, but they were often at war, a state that continued long after the Persians. But for this situation, they realised they needed to come together in some form to stop the hugely intimidating invading army, which was said to be able to drink rivers dry… or another was, their archers when shooting their volleys of arrows could blot out the sun.
So it’s 480BC, August and probably stinking hot. The Spartan King Lionidas, had consulted the Oracle at Delphi but received poor tidings, either Sparta would loose a King or itself. They conclude to send a sacred force of 300 men. This action spurs the courage of their allies and the Greek force to face the Persians is 5000-7000 men. They hurry north to the Hot Gates, Thermopylae, the place where Xerxes vast numbers count for nothing. I noticed this yesterday on the train up from Athens, the Greek mountains are just amazing, and there ain’t no way to pass an army through there. The only way to get down into the significant parts of Greece, in those days, was to take the coastal route either by boat or on foot. So the Greeks planned to meet them in both avenues.
Back in the day, the coast of Thermopylae was right up close to the base of the mountains. Which meant it was the perfect place for a small force of highly trained killers to lay in wait to kill some fellas. When Xerxes and his army turned up at the wide plain around the settlement of Lamia, he sent some scouts to check out what was going on in the narrow path. They reported back to Xerxes that they saw a bunch of men, doing their hair, or working out, doing press ups, star jumps and such around the hot pools. Naturally this relaxed behaviour was a little hard to take. So Xerxes waited 5 days, to give the Greeks a full amount of time to be intimidated by the size of the army they were up against.
It didn’t have the desired effect and so battle ensued.
The first day saw the Persians kick things off at dawn, with a band of the unluckiest buggers being pressed to take on the Greeks in close confines. A key difference in this battle other than the small area was the armour of the opposing armies. The Greeks, were covered from head to foot in Bronze, they carried a large round wooden and bronze shield, their spears were 9ft long made from hard wood, with bronze heads and iron spikes on the bottom called a lizard killer. They also had a scary looking short sword for a bit of up close stabby stabby. The Persians by comparison, wore leather, carried a light wicker shield, held a much shorter spear, and knife, and they also carried their bow with them, as they were awfully fond of archery.
So yes, things didn’t go terribly well for the Persians, not even, at the end of the day, when Xerxes sent his most elite fighting unit in, the Immortals. They were met by the 300 Spartans, and after the Spartans feigned a retreat, closed the trap and slaughtered a bundle of the said Immortals. Herodotus said only a few Spartans were lost.
The Greek strategy had been to keep rolling the fighting men, where Hoplites would fight in rows, often 8 deep, so the first couple of rows would switch out and new ones would step in. The Spartans were 100% soldiers, their society allowed for them to focus on this one thing from the age of 7. There allies, were probably more 50%, part timers. They were still trained and deadly, just not as fricken awesome as the Spartans.
Day 2 had the Persians attempt the tactic of wearing the Greeks out. Where Xerxes sent wave after wave of men and units into the fray. This too, didn’t work as the Greeks had now developed what people today would call bloodlust, where they refused to be replaced so often, instead choosing to seek as many “honours” as they could upon the foe. In my mind its hard to move past the fact that in any battle of this nature, what happens to the bodies? Well the Greeks started the day as far up the pass as possible and gradually moved back, not giving land, instead they created a rather horrifying set of obstacles to climb over in order to do what the fresh Persian troops had been commanded to do. From which I’m sure a different odour would have mixed with the already powerful smell of battle… excrement.
Day 2 evening must have been an interesting one, as Xerxes, tired after commanding thousands of men to die a painful death, finally found a local who was willing to guide some of his men through a goat trail for some measly silver coins. Word of this reached the Greek camp, which resulted in the majority of the men deciding to head home before they would be trapped, only the Spartans and 400 Thesbian allies would stay to see the job done.
Speculation says that perhaps it was also during this evening when the Spartans attempted a covert night attack upon Xerxes. It’s just a theory, Herodotus doesn’t mention it, but a Roman historian who studied the Spartans, and new how proficient they were in night attacks. Coupled with the horrifying fact that back in Sparta, they had a whole bundle of slaves (Greek slaves) to do all of their manual labour. And the way by which the Spartans insured the Hellots (what their slaves were called) didn’t rise up, they would keep them living in fear. Night time would bring murderous bands of silent young trainee Spartan warriors killing random slaves in the wrong place at the wrong time or forever silencing those making noise of revolt. So yeah, its not such a ridiculous idea that something potentially went down that night. Strike the head, and the rest will flee… something like that.
Either way Day 3 brought at end to the proceedings. Lionidas led his men right out into the plain to meet the by now tired Persians, his goal was to inflict as much damage as possible. And so he did, and died doing so.
The death of Lionidas only served to inspire the remaining Greeks, who fought with a new level of ferocity. However, with the emergence of the enemy behind them, the remaining Spartans and Thesbians, now fighting with broken spears, their fists and teeth, or with whatever they could get their hands on, retreated to a fortified hill called Kolonos. It was here where their glorious but brutal resistance came to an undignified end under a hail of Persian arrows.
And thus the battle of Thermopylae was a Persian victory, but not one they celebrated.
So what’s the point of this? What, apart from the obvious colourful history lesson do you gain from making it all the way down to this point?
Well I guess perhaps it’s to join me on the couch, when I first heard of the sacrifice of the Spartan 300. The thing that made me remain there, was a questioning of what, in my life would I die for?
The Spartans knew, and the Thesbians too. But what would make me do such a thing, and could I?
It is a question I continue to ask myself to this day. Sometimes I think yes, most certainly I would lay down my life for Jesus, or for my family, or even my friends. Being a single guy, one doesn’t have as many dependents. So, greater love has no one than this: to lay down ones life for one’s friends. But do I possess such a love? Do you?
I suspect the only time you or I would come to any conclusion on these matters is the moment of ultimate conclusion.
An interesting thought, on such an interesting day.

Quite a place

One Reply to “A history lesson from Thermopylae”

  1. Well! Deep question for a sunny Saturday morning in god zone after a history lesson from the nonchalant bouncer. I’ve never considered it before but may do so now during one of my mostly sleepless nights. Thanks, Joey.

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