Do you lead by example, or follow one?
If you ever go to the Cliffs of Thermopylae today, you will see inscribed on the mountain stone
Three million foes were once fought right here
By four thousand men from the Peloponnese
Last week we discussed the Greek’s plan to fight the Persians at Thermopylae.
This week we’ll get to see if it worked.
The Spartans–in the lead of the other Greeks at Thermopylae– prepared for battle. Herodotus (the guy who wrote down the entire history of the Greco-Persian wars) wrote that “Xerxes let four whole days elapse, all the while expecting the Hellenes to run away. But when, on the fifth day, they had not gone away but instead were holding their positions in what seemed like a display of reckless impudence, he fell into a great rage and ordered his men out against them.” (Herodotus Histories. VII.210)
The Persians charged headlong into the Greeks, believing their vastly superior numbers would ensure their victory, but after an entire day’s battle, the Greeks hadn’t suffered any losses, and vast numbers of the Persians had fallen.
“The Hellenes made it clear to everyone, and especially to the king himself, that although there were many in his army that day, there were no real men.” (H.VII.211)
Now, since the Persians were suffering such heavy losses, Xerxes sent out The Immortals, basically the ancient equivalent of the Navy SEALs.
The Greeks just dug their heels deeper into the sand and destroyed the Immortals with the same ease as they dealt with the prior, weaker Persians.
The Spartans in particular at this point were just absolutely kicking ass. “The Lacedaemonians fought incredibly well, proving they were experts in battle facing those who were amateurs.” (H.VII.211)
The Greeks fought like this for days, suffering very few losses themselves, and inflicting such damage “that three times did Xerxes jump out of his throne, fearing for his army.” (H.VII.215)
They were proving that when you have something worth fighting for, and when you have aptly prepared yourself for the fight, you can do anything.
The Greek warriors were doing the impossible right in front of Xerxes’ eyes.
And this is where the story takes a tragic turn.
Remember the choke-point the Greeks were occupying that we learned about in the last Examined Life? Well, that choke-point was in between two mountains. Basically, during the night after a day’s battle, one of Xerxes’ commanders discovered the footpath that led around the mountain to that choke point, so they could now attack the Greeks from behind.
The Greeks heard about this in two ways. First, the prophet Megistias inspected the divine sacrifices and predicted they would all meet death at dawn (what a fun prophet).
Second, a bunch of scouts came sprinting down the mountain, screaming that the Persians were on their way towards them. (I probably would’ve taken this as more believable evidence)
Picture that moment: the light of a young dawn shining upon the faces of men; some young, some old. Men who know that all of them will die that day. Every. Single. One.
Imagine what it would have been like to be sitting among them; quietly awaiting your destiny.
Finally, the Greeks broke this funerary silence and asked: “what are we to do?”
All eyes fell upon Leonidas.
And this is when the incredible happened.
It is written that when Leonidas looked into the eyes of his fellow Greeks, he saw fear.
The Spartan king then stood up and ordered them to return to their homes.
All of them.
He refused to place the burden of what lay ahead onto the shoulders of these men.
It is also written that Leonidas had heard an oracle that had declared either the Spartan King would be destroyed, or Sparta would.
He chose to save Sparta.
Somberly, the Spartans’ allies thanked the king and went away. After the dust had cleared, only the 300 Spartans and the old prophet Megistias, who refused to leave no matter what the Spartans said, remained.
As the sun rose over the Aegean Sea, the Spartans charged up the mountain to meet their doom.
They clashed headfirst with the Persians, who had not expected the Spartans to climb up the mountain to face them. Herodotus writes that the Spartans attacked with such viciousness and ferocity, that they pushed some members of the Persian army off the side of the mountain!
At one point, the Spartans even forced the Persians to route, causing them to trample over their own men.
“There was no counting the number of the Persian dead.” Wrote Herodotus. “The Spartans fought now to claim their destiny, so they held no regard for their own lives.”
The Spartans fought for so long that they broke all of their spears.
Then they unsheathed their swords and charged a second time!!!
This was highly successful as they killed several commanders of the Persian army, even two of Xerxes’ brothers!
Then Leonidas fell.
His warriors screamed in anger and dismay. They would route the Persians Four times trying to save the body of their king. They finally managed to drag the body of Leonidas away from the crowd, and retreated to a narrower part of the road and would fight for so long that they broke their swords. They then pulled their daggers if they had one, or raised their fists in one last act of defiance.
The sun set on the men from Sparta who had proved they were the noblest of all, as the force of Xerxes army fell upon them.
And that, my friends, is the story of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae.
Though the Greeks technically lost the battle of Thermopylae, they had instilled in Xerxes a holy fear of the Greeks’ capability in battle. After another year of warring, the Greeks would finally free themselves from the Persian threat at the battle of Plataea, wherein the Persians finally fled from Greece.
The Greeks then erected a victory Column to commemorate how they all came together to defend themselves from the Persians.
The column still stands today, defying the decay of time and nature, as if to say to us “Remember what these brave people sacrificed for freedom and for the ones they loved. Would you do the same?”
Now, declare yourself a Spartan, make Leonidas proud, and go kick some ass today.
The Golden Scribe
“The unexamined life is not worth living.”
Herodotus, The Histories, VII