Battle of Thermopylae: Go tell the Spartans
Posted on 24th December 2020
"Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here obedient to their laws, we lie."
So wrote the poet Simonides of Ceos about the Greek defenders of the pass at Thermopylae who by their courage and sacrifice acquired a place among the Pantheon of Heroes, none more so than Leonidas, the King who led them.
Sparta, that isolated outpost of the Peloponnese shrouded in myth whose peculiarly regimented way of life has fascinated and inspired philosophers and dictators alike, from Plato to Rousseau and beyond. For on a swelteringly hot day in August 480 BC King Leonidas commanding a small force of Spartan Warriors stood in defiance of the mighty Persian Empire. What followed appeared to vindicate everything that Sparta stood for.
The City State of Sparta, dismissed by its critics as no more than an armed camp, was situated in the far south of the Greek peninsula in an area known as Laconia where, surrounded by mountains on either side it was isolated from much of the rest of Greece. It was this isolation that allowed it to develop as a society free of outside influence, but its founding had not been an easy one.
Many years earlier Sparta had fought a series of long and bloody wars against its neighbour Messenia, wars which the Spartan's had very nearly lost. The First war was the result of the Spartans wanting to break out of their Laconian isolation and into the Peloponnesian hinterland, but Messenians stood in their way and they were to fight long and hard to retain their independence. When their resistance was finally broken the Spartans were unforgiving with all the surviving Messenians were absorbed into Sparta as Helots, or slaves.
According to the rules laid down by Lycurgas the Law Giver Sparta was still developing as a society when the Helots rebelled against their enslavement. In this Second Messenian War Sparta again came perilously close to defeat and had to call upon allies to help quell the rebellion. Indeed, at one point so desperate were the Spartans they even requested help from their old enemy Athens.
The Athenians were only too happy to oblige thereby throwing a light upon their great rival’s humiliation but when the time came permitting Athenian troops on Spartan soil was to prove a step too far - when the Athenian Army arrived it was at once ordered to leave.
This snub strained relations between the two City States almost to breaking point and the Messenian Slave Revolt was to have a profound effect upon Spartan thinking for the rest of its existence. The Spartans convinced they were surrounded by enemies also lived in fear of their slaves. It determined both their domestic and foreign policy.
The enslaved Helots who constituted 80% of Sparta's population were harshly treated, and their repression constant and unrelenting. For a far as a Spartan was concerned there was no such thing as a good Helot. As such, they were regularly beaten regardless of any wrongdoing. Indeed, it was not uncommon for a Helot to be executed for showing too much vigour which was considered dangerous or too little vigour considered worthless.
Humiliation of the slave was also considered essential for public order. One such ceremony was to get them drunk and behave in ridiculous ways as an example to Spartan children of the perils of alcohol.
Once every year the Spartan's would also declare war upon the Helots. This was when the graduates of the Agoge or Military Academy under the influence of the mysterious ritual known as the Krypteia were obliged, once the sun went down, to hunt and kill as many Helots as they could find. It was little wonder then that the Helots hated their masters and minor slave revolts were part and parcel of the fabric of Spartan life.
Spartan society was strictly regimented, and every aspect of life clearly defined and controlled. All male citizens were expected to be professional soldiers and were to remain so from the age of seven when they were removed from their families for military training until the age of sixty when they were forcibly retired. As such, they did not work which provided the women of Sparta with a freedom unknown elsewhere in ancient society.
It was the women of Sparta who owned the businesses, ran the family estates, and dominated civil society; they also had social responsibilities however, and like the men of the city were obliged to attend the gym where they were trained not in the art of war but to dance and to compete with one another in sports. They were also expected to sing and recite poetry. Indeed, the exploits of Spartan women made other Greeks blush, and condemn their activities. Even so, their athleticism was much commented upon and not always disapprovingly.
There was also a second tier in Spartan society known as the Periokoi, literally those who live around, who were not Spartan citizens but enjoyed limited rights and provided the city with its artisans and tradesmen. All manual labour in Sparta was carried out by the Helots.
Sparta was also unique politically in having not one but two Kings who were also not Kings in the usual sense. They did not rule Sparta. Instead it was governed by the Gerousia or Council of Elders, men aged over sixty who had retired from military service and been elected by their peers.
King was a hereditary title held jointly by the two greatest families of Sparta which though they didn’t rule, did head the priesthood, hold judicial powers and command the army.
From the day they were born all future citizens of Sparta belonged to the State. A new-born baby would be presented before the members of the Gerousia who would decide upon its health. If the baby was declared healthy then it would be returned to its mother for rearing, if not it would be taken to the Tagus Valley and tossed from the cliffs to its death. Once the decision to do this had been made there was no further discussion, no right of appeal.
At the age of seven the male child was removed from its mother to begin military training in the Agoge. Here they were taught physical toughness and mental discipline. They were also taught to play music and to dance with each other. They would also be clean shaven, not just on their face but their entire bodies. They grew their hair long and were expected to tend to each other’s deportment and personal hygiene,
A Spartan man was also expected to speak little and respond to questions in a terse and abrupt manner. This was a style of speaking that had long ago been perfected by the women of Sparta who used it with wit to chastise their men to great effect. It is the genesis of the term laconic.
At the age of twelve each Spartan boy was presented to an older male who would serve as their mentor. He would also be the boys tutor, guardian, and lover, it being felt that a soldier would always fight harder for his lover.
Always undernourished the Spartan soldier was expected to be able to survive on very little. On the rare occasions he did eat he was encouraged to do so in the Communal Dining Halls with his male comrades where the staple diet was bull's blood soup, a noxious potion that was no more or less than its name implies.
At the age of eighteen the boy would graduate from the Agoge as a fully-fledged soldier of the Spartan Army. As recognition of their graduation, they were presented with a knife and ordered to go into the countryside at night, survive off the land, and dirty the blade with the blood of as many Helots as they could.
It wasn’t until the age of thirty that the Spartan Warrior was ordered to marry. They had no say as to whom they would marry their future wife was chosen for them. But then the marriage wasn't intended to create bonds of affection (intensity of feeling was to be saved for their male comrades) but was deemed necessary for reasons of procreation and social stability only.
There would be no warning of an impending marriage, instead the women of Sparta would abduct one their own. The bride would then have her head shaven, be stripped naked, and dressed in a male cloak. She would then be made to lie on a mattress in the dark to await the arrival of her future husband. He would have a final meal with his comrades in the Dining Hall before being led to the room where he would then carry off his bride to bed. This ritual would continue for some time, and it could actually be months before the bride and groom actually saw one another.
Even though men and women lived largely separate lives and affection between them was discouraged family life in Sparta prospered. Before their men went off to war Spartan women would present them with their shield and demand that they return: "With this, or on this."
This was the society created by Lycurgas, the society that made the 300 Spartans who would die at Thermopylae.
Hardly surprising then that for many Greeks, Sparta was a place to be both admired and feared. While some were in awe of its stability, of the assertiveness of their women, and of the discipline and courage of their soldiery others viewed Sparta as a politically stagnant, economically backward and morally bankrupt cultural desert. And it is true that they left no great literature or art to posterity. Sparta both attracted and repulsed in equal measure. But Greece would need Sparta.
Darius I, Emperor of Persia who had recently conquered Thrace and Macedonia, the lands bordering Greece, now greedily eyed the neighbouring Greek City States as a means of further expanding his Empire. The fact that both Athens and Eritria had recently supported the Ionian Revolt against Persian rule provided the excuse he needed to demand from the Greek City States a "Gift of Earth and Water" as a sign of their submission to his rule. Most of them complied but in Athens his emissaries were murdered and thrown into a pit for their gift of earth while in Sparta his ambassadors were thrown alive down a well to receive their gifts of water. This was tantamount to a declaration of war, and Darius took it as such.
In 491 BC, Darius, with an army some 100,000 strong landed at the Bay of Marathon 25 miles from Athens. The Athenian Government dispatched the fastest runner in Greece, Pheidippides, to go to Sparta and elicit their support. In the meantime, the Athenian Army, some 10,000 men advanced to confront the Persians and bar their way to the city.
Pheidippides returned to Athens with the news that Sparta would indeed support them but that it was the Spartan religious festival of Carneia. The festival was sacrosanct, and they could do nothing until it was over. The Spartan Army then, could not be at Marathon for another ten days. So, the Persian and Athenian armies faced each other at Marathon for five days with neither side willing to begin hostilities. This suited the Athenians who greatly outnumbered knew the Spartan Army was on its way but then the Persians knew this too.
On 12 September, 490 BC, the Athenians could see that the Persian Cavalry were being re-embarked onto their ships and believing this meant an imminent attack on Athens from the sea they were forced to take the offensive; with their Plataean allies they formed a tight phalanx and attacked as a unit straight at the centre of the Persian army who taken completely by surprise by the fury of the assault collapsed like a pack of cards fleeing back to their ships in desperation and panic.
Against all the odds the mighty Persian Army had been defeated and Pheidippides now ran all the way back to Athens to bring news of the Miracle of Marathon which he barely managed to do before dropping down dead of exhaustion.
The Battle of Marathon had indeed been a miracle, but with the Spartans unable to participate because of a religious festival it had been an Athenian one. Greece had been saved by Athens and with scant help from elsewhere. But everyone knew the Persians would be back.
It would not fall to Darius to avenge Persian humiliation however, but to his son Xerxes I who succeeded to the Peacock Throne following his father’s death. He had reformed the army and now like his father before him sent emissaries to the Greek City States demanding Gifts of Earth and Water, but not this time to Athens and Sparta. These he would crush regardless of any tribute paid.
In the meantime, under the leadership of Themistocles, Athens too had been preparing for war. Confident it could defeat the Persians at sea it had undertaken to build a massive fleet of Triremes, but it did not have the resources to man both its galleys and put an effective army in the field. It needed allies from among the other Greek City States, it once more needed Sparta.
A Coalition of Resistance was formed but Greece was far from united.
Some Greeks positively welcomed the coming of the Persians including the powerful City State of Thebes meaning Spartan support would be needed more than ever. A delegation was sent south but though it was received with civility it was treated with suspicion.
The Spartans remained reluctant to become involved fearing as they always did slave rebellion at home. They were also still smarting from their embarrassment at Marathon. It was pointed out by the representatives of the Coalition that should the Persians emerge victorious Sparta’s much cherished isolation would lend them little protection. Still the Spartans demurred, and it wasn't until they were granted military control of all the Coalition land forces that they finally relented.
Yet again, the Persian invasion of Greece coincided with the Spartan religious festival of Carneia, the only time of the year when all military activity was forbidden. This time however, such was the danger facing Greece they decided to seek guidance from the Delphic Oracle.
The Delphic Oracle located on the slopes of Mount Parnassus was the most prestigious Oracle in the Ancient World, where delivered by the Chief Priestess, the Pythia, the prophecies were believed to come directly from the God Apollo himself. Her prophecy delivered to the men of Sparta was to be both dark and doom laden:
"O ye men who dwell in the streets of broad Lacadaemon! Either your town will be sacked by the children of Perseus, or in exchange, must all in the Laconian country mourn the loss of a King, descendant of great Heracles."
Spartan Kings were held to be the descendants of the God Heracles and so it seemed either Sparta must oppose the Persian invaders and sacrifice a King, or she would be destroyed. The Spartans relented and they would send King Leonidas and 300 warriors.
Leonidas was the third son of King Anaxandridos and as such was not expected to inherit the throne. Therefore, he was not excused attendance at the Agoge and so was one of the few Spartan Kings to undergo full-military training. He also had combat experience fighting in the Spartan victory over the Argons at the Battle of Sepeia in 494 BC.
His service as a common soldier was to prove problematic upon his elevation to King. The Roman historian Plutarch was to write that confronted by a comrade with the assertion “except for being King you are not superior to us”, he replied, “But were I not better than you, I should not be King.”
Leonidas inherited the throne in 490 BC after one of his brothers was killed and the other, Cleomenes, went insane and was exiled. Around the same time he married his brother Cleomenes daughter, Gorgo.
Gorgo, was a typical Spartan woman, she was trim, athletic, and sarcastic in her speech, and as Queen set the example for all other Spartan women to follow. She was also not expected to display emotion and aware that her husband would not return from battle alive she asked Leonidas what she should do? He replied, "Find a husband, be a good wife, and live a decent life.” There was to be no kiss, no embrace, and no tears were shed.
The Persian Army, numbering around a 100,000, began disembarking on the Peloponnesian Isthmus but for them to advance any further they had to move through the narrow Pass at Thermopylae. The Greek Coalition rushed 7,000 Hoplites to block the pass where they were joined by Leonidas who took command.
Meanwhile, to prevent the Persians from by-passing Thermopylae by sea the Athenian Navy blocked the narrow Straits of Artemisium.
For five days the Emperor Xerxes waited for the Greeks to come to their senses and surrender, but even after numerous promises they would be well treated, even rewarded, they still stubbornly refused to do so. Finally, angered by their obdurate denial of reality he ordered his army to attack. He expected a swift victory.
But the Pass at Thermopylae was so narrow that a full-frontal assault was the only tactic possible, and Leonidas had blocked it with a shield and spear wall. His phalanx, which was assaulted time and again proved impossible to breach and Leonidas was even able rotate his men to avoid fatigue. On occasion he would feign retreat to draw the Persians in who would then be cut down by his reserves.
Frustrated at his army's lack of progress Xerxes ordered in his Immortals. They were the elite of the Persian Army and the Emperor’s personal bodyguard. They had never before been defeated in battle.
The 10,000 Immortals attacked with great fury but this led only to ill-discipline and unnecessary sacrifice. Decimated because of their own recklessness, Leonidas ordered his phalanx to advance down the pass forcing the Immortals to flee leaving behind a great many dead and wounded.
The humiliation of his Immortals was too much for Xerxes to bear and the atmosphere in the Persian camp was one of mourning and despair. The day had belonged to the Greeks, but the fighting had been hard, and they were exhausted. Even so, they had held the pass and morale was high.
That night, however, a Greek goat-herder, Ephialties, approached the Persians with information he was willing to share, for a reward. He would show them a route down the pass that would enable them to by-pass Leonidas and his Spartans and encircle the Greek Army.
Leonidas had been aware of the path through the mountains and had taken the precaution of sending his Phocians to guard it. Xerxes, meanwhile, was quick to exploit the opportunity sending a powerful force to navigate the rocky path, Upon seeing the advance of this Persian army the Phocians panicked and fled.
Learning of the Phocian’s flight Leonidas held an emergency War Council.
Once surrounded the Greek position at Thermopylae would be untenable and most of the Greek leadership present wanted to retreat while there was still time. Leonidas refused, he would hold the pass, alone with his 300 Spartans if necessary. Not wanting those reluctant to fight to remain he ordered their withdrawal.
Demophilus, the leader of a contingent of 700 Hoplites from the city of Thespiae refused to abandon Leonidas and they along with the Helots who had been forced to accompany the Spartan Army would remain.
That night the Spartan’s spent in a collective embrace of the mourning yet to come, for they knew they were expected to die as they combed each other’s hair, oiled their bodies, and prepared for what would be their final day.
The following morning Leonidas addressed his men as they ate their breakfast telling them, “Eat well, for tonight we dine in Hades.” They cheered him.
Trapped and with no means of escape surely Leonidas would see sense. Xerxes certainly thought so and sent emissaries to negotiate his surrender. He offered generous terms for doing so, money, jewels, land, even the honorary title Friend of the Persian People. But Leonidas would not budge. When the Persian Ambassador angrily demanded the Greeks face reality and lay down their arms, Leonidas merely replied: "Come and get them."
A final confrontation was now inevitable but even so Xerxes still hesitated hoping that the Greeks would fall out amongst themselves and it was only when this didn't happen that he ordered an all-out attack. To his astonishment not only was the attack repulsed but Leonidas led his Spartans in a furious counterattack that left a great many Persians dead. But in the fighting Leonidas was also killed.
A battle now ensued for the retention of Leonidas's body which the Greeks won taking it back to a small hill where they would make their final stand. Now, few with many unarmed they continued to repel the Persian attacks. The historian Herodotus writes that: “Here they defended themselves to the last, those who still had swords using them, others resisting with their hands and teeth."
With the battle as good as won, Xerxes ordered his archers to finish the job and as if in a torrent on vengeance the arrows rained down upon the defenceless Greeks until not one was left alive.
The Persians, who were usually respectful of the bodies of fallen foes mutilated the corpses of the Greek defenders at Thermopylae while Xerxes ordered that Leonidas's corpse be decapitated before having the torso crucified.
But why did Leonidas choose to fight to the death at Thermopylae?
He had already bought the time he had promised and strategically it was never going to be the decisive battle. Those Greek cities in the path of any Persian advance, including Athens, had already been abandoned. Leonidas’s decision to fight on regardless certainly reinforced the reputation of the gallant Spartan as the warrior without peer. Perhaps, aware of the Delphic Oracle's prophesy, that a Spartan King would need to be sacrificed, he felt he had no choice.
Just a few months after Thermopylae the Persian Fleet was destroyed by the Athenians in the Straits of Salamis, and a year later a Greek Army under Spartan command decisively defeated the Persians at the Battle of Plataea – Greece had been saved and the future of Western Civilisation secured.
Tagged as: Ancient & Medieval
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