“Go tell the Spartans” – The Battle of Thermopylae

12 August (or 20 August according to other sources) 480 BCE, the Battle of Thermopylae began at the “Hot Gates”, 120 miles northwest of Athens, a narrow coastal passage named after the sulphur springs nearby.  

“Hooper was no romantic. He had not as a child ridden with Rupert's horse or sat among the camp fires at Xanthus-side; at the age when my eyes were dry to all save poetry – that stoic, red-skin interlude which our schools introduce between the fast-flowing tears of the child and the man – Hooper had wept often, but never for Henry's speech on St Crispin's day, nor for the epitaph at Thermopylae. The history they taught him had had few battles in it but, instead, a profusion of detail about humane legislation and recent industrial change. Gallipoli, Balaclava, Quebec, Lepanto, Bannockburn, Roncevales, and Marathon – these, and the Battle in the West where Arthur fell, and a hundred such names whose trumpet-notes, even now in my sere and lawless state, called to me irresistibly across the intervening years with all the clarity and strength of boyhood, sounded in vain to Hooper.” (Evelyn Waugh, “Brideshead Revisited”)

Bronze helmet of the Corinthian type from the late 6th century BCE, the type of headgear commonly worn by most Greek hoplites around the time of the Battle of Thermopylae.

Sparta was different. There is an old story about the Hungarian ambassador who was hailed in the States during a diplomatic reception after the Great War with: “Long live the Hungarian Republic!” and he smiled and answered: “Hungary is a kingdom.” – “Oh, what is the name of your king?” – “We aren’t allowed to have a king.” – “So you have a pretender to the throne?” – “No.” – “Just a president of the state then?” – “No, His Excellency Ritter von Horthy is Regent.” – “A general, is he?” – “No, he is an admiral.” – “An admiral? Are you a naval power?” – “No, we do not own a fleet.” – “But you are a costal nation?” – “No, Hungary is completely landlocked” – “But, how is… this… called then?” - “Hungarian.” Sparta was celebrated for defending Greek freedom and nascent democracy during the Persian Wars and making the ultimate sacrifice at Thermopylae, but actually, the place was ruled by not one but two kings. They had not much of a say, though, and reported to a Council of Elders, the five Ephors, a board described by Plato, Xenophon and Aristotle as worse than any tyrant or despot, but they were elected on an annual basis. A nice democratic trait of the Spartan political system, albeit with a flaw. Of the hundred thousands living on Spartan territory, only about 8,000 of them, an elite known as Spartiates, were eligible to vote. Then there was a middle class, known as Perioeci, “those who lived around”, and a huge mass of enslaved population, the Helots, with no rights at all. Since the Helots did all the manual labour and a true Spartiate was not supposed to work, he’d even lose his status and was demoted to Perioecus if he did, the elite had all the time in the world to become the best drilled soldiers in the world. And while Sparta has often been compared the Frederick the Great’s Prussia, sick and pale Prussian children were at least allowed to become poets or philosophers, while Spartan boys who showed signs of weakness were killed at birth. And since the Spartiates lived in constant terror of a Helot uprising, every citizen was allowed to kill one per year without fear of repercussions or as many as he wanted to during training to keep the rabble in line. But they were the sharpest sword of Greece and were pushed a bit in the background when their rival Athens repulsed the first Persian invasion attempt alone in 490 BCE and, holiday season or not, King Leonidas famously marched his 300 Spartiates to the Pass of Thermopylae to stop Xerxes’ army, half a million strong, from destroying Greek democracy and taking away Greek freedom. Or so the story goes.

A contemporary bust of a warrior wearing an Attic helmet, found near Sparta

“Xerxes moved by a spirit of magnanimity replied that he would not be like the Lacedemonians; for they had violated the rules which prevailed among all men by slaying heralds, but he would not do that himself which he blamed them for having done“, the King of Kings sent the two Spartans back home who were ordered by the Ephors to go “to the Medes to be put to death”, since the gods seemed to be a bit angry with the Spartans about the Persian ambassadors who had been thrown in the well. Even Herodotus, the only contemporary Western source we have for the Second Persian invasion of Greece, had to admit a streak of barbarian generosity in the demonised adversary of the Greek way of life. Actually, Xerxes, ruler of a well-ordered and rather civilised empire, the largest the world had ever seen, would have turned up his nose at most of the Spartans’ customs or simply refuse to understand them and he was quite well informed about their ways, since he had several former Lacedemonian grandees in his pay, but the large army he had assembled, maybe not exactly 500,000 men but rather between 50 – and 70,000, was undoubtedly bent on conquest. And Xerxes planned to take revenge on those who had humiliated his father Dareios ten years before, chiefly Athens, but whether a conquest of Greece by the Persians would have nipped Western civilisation in the bud is somewhat questionable. Be it as it may, Spartans, Athenians and their allies from the other city states certainly fought to preserve their way of life and their independence, including the time-honoured custom to be at each others’ throats and oppressing and humiliating each other on a regular basis. 

Jacques-Louis David's allegoric idea of "Leonidas at Thermopylae" (1814)

Themistocles’ famous “wooden walls of Athens” were supposed to stop Xerxes’ strategic option to land troops where he wanted by countering his huge navy, while the Spartans actually would have preferred to defend the access to their territory on the Peloponnese at the Isthmus of Corinth west of Athens and thereby leaving most of their allies to the mercy of the Persians. But since the defence only made sense without Xerxes being able to circumvent the easily defendable bottleneck by sea, they grudgingly admitted Leonidas’ advance party to support Themistocles up north. And while the weather won two battles at sea for the Greek allies and Xerxes had to watch storms disperse his fleet, first off Magnesia where he lost allegedly a third of his ships and then off the island of Euboea, almost in sight of Thermopylae, when the 200 vessels dispatched to bottle up the allied fleet in the Straits of Artemisium, sunk in a Hellesponter, a violent summer gale. And then Xerxes’ huge army arrived at the pass of Thermopylae while the fleet still guarded Leonidas’ flanks from any Persian naval landings. Leonidas himself, his 300 Spartiates and his other 7,000 Hoplites, heavily armed and armoured, now blocked the advance and Herodotus passed down all the Spartan punch lines, from fighting in the shade under the hail of Persian arrows that would obscure the sun to the eternal answer of defiance when Leonidas was asked to lay down his arms, molon labe, “come and get them”. The allies held for two days, but when the traitor Ephialtes of Trachis led Xerxes’ men around the pass on a small path between the Malian Gulf and the Trachinian Cliffs, the allied position at Thermopylae became a death trap. Leonidas ordered all but his surviving Spartiates to abandon the position, but 700 Thespians theatrically asked to die with him and about 1,000 men charged into Xerxes forces and were finally cut to pieces and Herodotus’ last quote, eternalised in an engraving on a stone on the battlefield and misused by later generations, more often than not, was the Spartan closing remark of the event:

"Stranger, report this word, we pray, to the Spartans, that lying    
Here in this spot we remain, faithfully keeping their laws.”

And more about the Battle of Thermopylae on: