March 2007

It Could Be Worse: The Spartans at Thermopylae

Author: Craig Hysell

This month, Frank Miller (of Sin City fame) brings 300 to a theater near you—a movie loosely based on the events that transpired in Greece nearly 2,500 years ago. People who stand up to impossible odds are often inspirational, but marching into the teeth of a bitter death is, quite possibly, when your job couldn’t get any worse.

The Spartans at Thermopylae

In September of 480 B.C., King Xerxes I of Persia decided to invade Greece. His expansive navy transported approximately 1.7 million soldiers (roughly the population of Philadelphia) to the shores of the Greek’s motherland. The city states of Greece formed an alliance to thwart the awesome force of invaders.

Thermopylae, also known as the Hot Gates due to numerous thermal springs in the area, was the pass through which the Persian army chose to march. With mountains on one side and cliffs falling away to the gulf on the other, the pass at Thermopylae was tight. It would be a good place to minimize the strength of Persia’s numbers. For awhile the Hot Gates would become hell on earth.

A Greek contingent of 5,000 men (give or take a few) held the pass against an army of nearly 2 million people for as long as they could. The rest of Greece used the time to prepare for war. The odds for Greek success at Thermopylae were about as probable as Napoleon Dynamite getting invited to The Playboy Mansion (or 340 to 1 if you did the math). Then again, if Napoleon had the Spartans, he might be living it up with Hef right now.

The Spartans were the elite of the Greek military. They either trained for war, went to war or made babies to train for or go to war. When the King of Sparta, Leonidas, was asked to lead a force of Spartans to Thermopylae, he chose 300 men with sons old enough to carry on the family responsibilities at home. The Spartans had no illusions about coming back alive. When Leonidas’ wife asked what she should do when the king didn’t return, he simply said, “Marry a good man and have good children.”

When Xerxes forces came upon the 5,000 Greeks standing stoically in the pass at Thermopylae, the king ordered them to lay down their weapons. Leonidas, apparently a man of few words and unfazed by odds, told Xerxes, “Come take them,” and then stood at the front of his troops. Xerxes took a seat in the rear of his army and ordered an attack. When one nervous Greek soldier remarked that the Persians had so many archers their arrows would block out the sun, a Spartan responded, “Good. We shall have our battle in the shade then.”

The Greeks fought in phalanx fashion (imagine a machine of shields and spears marching forward like a giant combine and plowing a bloody field of human crops without stopping); and the Persian army’s short swords and fragile shields were no match for the Greeks. It went on like this for two days. The pass was stacked with cleaved bodies waist high. Persia now had to climb over piles of their mutilated dead only to die themselves. It was psychologically devastating.

On the third morning, a Greek traitor, Ephialtes, led the Persians along a secret mountain pass and came in behind the Spartans and their allies. Upon learning of this deception, Leonidas and his Spartans, along with a contingent of Thebans and 700 Thespians, volunteered to cover the rest of the Greek army’s escape and charged the Persian army.

Persia was simply unprepared for the ferocity of the battle. The Greeks killed with their hands and teeth when they had no weapons left. The remaining sons of Greece were driven onto a hillside. Arrows were rained down upon them from a safe distance away until every single man was dead. The remaining Persian army and its navy were driven out of Greece not long after. It is said that Thermopylae made Persia lose all taste for battle.

There are two monuments to the amazing display of self-sacrifice at Thermopylae today. One is a small plaque which reads “Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here, obedient to their laws, we lie.” The other is a statue of Leonidas. It simply says, “Come take them.”

The name “Ephialtes” became the word for “nightmare” in Greek.

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