Last week The Examined Life took us to the ancient land of Lacedaemon, where we discovered that the Spartans were a robust, complex, egalitarian group that were also some of the most badass people the planet has ever seen. This week we will discuss the Spartan conviction.
In his book of Histories, published 440 BCE, Herodotus recounts the story of Xerxes, King of the Persians, speaking to his advisors before continuing his reinvasion of the Hellas (antiquity’s word for Greece) around 480 BCE. The battle that will take place after this conversation will be in Thermopylae. One advisor was a former Spartan: Demaratos. Demaratos was Sparta’s co-king for two decades before he fled Sparta after another king was found more favourable by the people. Demaratos then migrated to Persia and worked with Xerxes in the invasion of Hellas. If anyone in Xerxes’ army knew Greece, it was this guy!
As Xerxes was preparing to invade Hellas with his army, he sought a council with Demaratos.
Do you think that the Hellenes will stand their ground and use force against me? For I believe that even if all of the Hellenes were united together, and even if they joined the peoples who live west of them, they still could not match me in battle, and therefore they will not stand their ground when I attack them–unless that is, they should unite.
To this Damaratos replied “Sire, shall I tell you the truth or shall I say what will please you?”
(I love that line!)
Xerxes, of course, demanded that he speak the truth.
In Hellas, poverty is abundant, while excellence is something acquired through intelligence and the force of strict law. It is through the exercise of this excellence that the Hellenes ward off both poverty and despotism. Now while I commend all the Hellenes, what I shall next tell you applies only to the Lacedaemonians. First of all, there is no way they will accept your intention to enslave Hellas; next; even if all the other Hellenes bend their knee to you, the Spartans will surely oppose you in battle. And you need not ask their number in order to consider how they could possibly do this, for if there are 1000 of them marching out, they will fight you, and if there are more or less than that–it makes no difference–they will fight you all the same.
At Thermopylae, the Spartan army did truly amount to 300, mind you, they had helot forces numbering around 2000-3000 assisting them, as well as many other Greek forces numbering the same as the Spartans. (Next week’s blog will focus on Thermopylae). Now on the opposing side, The Persian army as recorded by Herodotus was 5,283,220 men. That’s absolutely insane! Also probably wrong. Modern estimates are around 600,000 to 1,780,000.
Three-hundred Spartans leading the battle with six-thousand other Greeks in support. Versus:
ONE MILLION PERSIANS.
If that’s not badass, I don’t know what is.
To face your enemy head-on, despite impossible odds; to stare at death, knowing there is no chance for victory, yet still standing your ground! If you are like me, this is unbelievable. The way these people have conditioned themselves and their minds to think in such a way and to follow through with it. There is an ineffable integrity to their actions.
The lesson that can be learned from our Lacedaemonian friends transcends the cliche “never give up!” theme that one could take away from this. No, the lesson that can be learned is to live your life in such a way that you are willing to defend what you love and what you’ve worked for, no matter the odds. To take such a pride in your work, your family, your community and your way of life that you will defend it to flesh and bone (as the Spartans would in their phalanx). When you have something worth living for proudly, then you also have something worth dying for nobly.
Next week we’ll get to see how the battle of Thermopylae really went down; (The 300 movie might be a little inaccurate).
The Golden Scribe
“The unexamined life is not worth living.”
Herodotus, The Histories