“GO TELL THE SPARTANS”
THE BATTLE OF THERMOPYLAE (480 B.C.)
It is the fons et origo of the history of Western military superiority, fortitude, self-sacrifice, and heroism, a fight against impossible odds that was won in the losing of it. Had not the three hundred Spartans—and several thousand other Greeks—held the Hot Gates of Thermopylae for a numerologically portentous three days, the West might never have developed as a contentious but politically and spiritually potent counterweight to Eastern despotism, conformity, and submission.
For more than two thousand years, historians ancient and modern have located the origins of Western civilization at this narrow pass, threaded between the mountains and the sea, which an invading Persian army needed to traverse in order to annihilate Eve’s most rebellious of progeny and reduce them to mere spokes in the wheels of a million soul-crushing chariots. For three days, a small army of Greeks, led by the Spartans, blocked the way not only into Greece but the nascent West itself: the land that would give birth just a decade later to Socrates, and then to Plato and Aristotle. Even as the crows feasted on the carrion of Greek and Persian bodies, Thermopylae defined once and for all what it meant to be Greek, Western, human.
What a contrast they offered, these two armies. In the clash between the massed might of the Achaemenid Persian Empire and the quarrelsome, contentious Greeks of the young city-states, we have the most dramatic expression of the differences between Oriental collectivism and Occidental orneriness. An army of conscripts versus a small force of free men. Between men who were poked and prodded and speared by the slave-drivers of the Aryan king lest they think of turning back from the fight, and men for whom it was second nature to take their part in the phalanx and move to the front. Just ten years earlier, the Athenians and the Plataeans had doubly enveloped the Persian army under Darius and crushed it at Marathon. Owing to the sacred festival of Carneia, the Spartans had not participated in that battle; now, ten years later, it was their turn to win the glory.
On the morning of the battle, the Persians sent a scout toward the Greek encampment at the narrow pass of Thermopylae to ascertain its state of readiness for the attack that was on its way. Writing around 440 B.C., Herodotus—the Father of History—tells us:
The Persian rider approached the camp and took a thorough survey of all he could see—which was not, however, the whole Greek army; for the men on the further side of the wall which, after its reconstruction, was now guarded, were out of sight. He did, none the less, carefully observe the troops who were stationed on the outside of the wall. At that moment these happened to be Spartans, and some of them were stripped for exercise, while others were combing their hair. The Persian spy watched them in astonishment, nevertheless he made sure of their numbers, and of everything else he needed to know, as accurately he could, and then rode quietly off. No one attempted to catch him, or took the least notice of him.
—The Histories, translation by Aubrey de Selincourt
In a dazzling display of logistical expertise, Xerxes, the commander of a mighty army that had crossed the Hellespont (the Dardanelles, south of present-day Gallipoli) and moved north and west through Thessaly before heading south to launch his conquest of Greece—and thereby succeed in 480 B.C. where his father, Darius, had failed ten years earlier at the Battle of Marathon—could not believe the report: how could men facing certain death at the hands of his Mede archers and his ten thousand Immortals, just a fraction of his total strength of half a million or so men,1 be so calm and relaxed?
A Greek defector—Demaratus, a former king of Sparta—had the answer:
Once before, when we began our march against Greece, you heard me speak of these men. I told you then how I saw this enterprise would turn out, and you laughed at me. I strive for nothing, my lord, more earnestly than to observe the truth in your presence, so hear me once more. These men have come to fight us for possession of the pass, and for that struggle they are preparing. It is the custom of the Spartans to pay careful attention to their hair when they are about to risk their lives. But I assure you that if you can defeat these men and the rest of the Spartans who are still at home, there is no other people in the world who will dare to stand firm or lift a hand against you. You have now to deal with the finest kingdom in Greece, and with the bravest men.2
And so the Spartans3 at Thermopylae calmly went about their ablutions in the teeth of the Persian horde, flexing their limbs and combing out their long hair. The three hundred Spartans, who spearheaded a total force of some seven thousand Greek soldiers, may have thought they were defending a fragmented and contentious Greek people, with whom they were—and would be again—often at odds on the battlefield. In reality, they were defending the young civilization of the West from what we once called “oriental despotism,”4 a term for the top-down tyranny of the East in contradistinction to the early Greek self-governing city-states. They were citizens, husbands, sons, and fathers united in a common purpose against a polyglot, largely mercenary or slave force being driven by a hereditary megalomaniac with no worlds left to conquer in the East, but great ambitions in the West.
Though their ideas of what constituted freedom 2,500 years ago may not be precisely ours, the foe they battled is recognizably the same today. Like his spiritual and even ethnic progeny, Xerxes demanded submission, obeisance, and the surrender of the Greeks’ weapons. Their answer, like their sacrifice, has echoed down the ages: Μολων λαβε!—“Come and take them!”
As Wellington said of Waterloo,5 it was “the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life.” So also was Thermopylae and its aftermath. Had Xerxes succeeded in his conquest of Greece, how different the history of the European West would have been and, given the history of Persia since, how much poorer the world would be.
Unlike Waterloo, which was inevitable the moment Napoleon returned from Elba, Thermopylae was something of a miracle. The proximate outcome, the annihilation of the Spartans and the temporary Persian occupation of much of Greece, including an evacuated Athens (which was burned), matters little. The Persians were defeated later that same year at sea at Salamis and beaten on land by a coalition of Greek city-states at Plataea in 479, ending the Achaemenid Persian threat.
A century and a half later, the Hellenistic armies of Alexander the Great swept east across Mesopotamia and routed the Persian forces of Darius III, demonstrating the superiority of Western arms and, more important, tactics against the god-kings and nomads of the East—a superiority that would last with some notable exceptions6 for nearly eight hundred years, until the arrival of the Huns in Europe in 441.7 After extracting tribute from the Eastern Empire, the Huns under Attila sets their sights on Roman Gaul, but were finally stopped in the Western Empire’s last gasp at the Battle of Châlons in 451.
But that was all far in the future when the Greek city-states first got word of the impending Persian invasion in the fifth century B.C. Many of the Greeks at that time were of the opinion that to submit to the Persians would not be such a bad thing, and many of them did. But they were lesser players: the real power lay with the Spartans on land and the Athenians at sea. Athens held the balance of power in the debate. As Herodotus notes,
If the Athenians, through fear of the approaching danger, had abandoned their country, or if they had stayed there and submitted to Xerxes, there would have been no attempt to resist the Persians by sea; and in the absence of a Greek fleet, it is easy to see what would have been the course of events on land.… Thus the Spartans would have been left alone—to perform great deeds and to die nobly. Or, on the other hand, it is possible that before things came to the ultimate test, the sight of the rest of Greece submitting to Persia might have driven them to make terms with Xerxes. In either case, the Persian conquest of Greece would have been assured …
Copyright © 2020 by Michael Walsh