History of Thermopylae
You might want to open up this window to a youtube video in order to play it in the background. It helps sets the mood, I think. [Edit or you can play the second move up above this post]
When scouts initially informed Xerxes of the size of the Greek force,
and of the Spartans who were performing preparations which included naked calisthenics and combing their hair, Xerxes found the reports laughable. Not understanding the ritual significance of the Spartan preparations
as the actions of men with the resolution to fight to the end,
he expected the force to disband at any moment and waited four days for the Greek force to retreat. When they did not, he became increasingly frustrated by what he perceived as foolish impudence on the part of the small Greek force, and on the fifth day Xerxes ordered his troops into the pass.
After the second day of fighting, a Greek, Ephialtes, defected to the Persians and informed Xerxes of a separate path through Thermopylae, which the Persians could use to outflank the Greeks. The pass was defended by the other 1000 Greeks, from Phocis,
who had been placed there when the Greeks learned of the alternate route just before the battle, but they were not expecting to engage the Persians.
Surprised by the Persian attack, the Phocians offered only a brief resistance before retreating higher up the mountain to regroup. Instead of pursuing them, however, the Persians simply advanced through the pass unopposed.
King Leonidas realized that further fighting would be futile. On August 11 he dismissed the Greek force, except the surviving Spartans, who had already resigned themselves to fighting to the death, and the Thebans who he kept as hostages. However, a contingent of about 600 Thespians, led by Demophilus, refused to leave with the other Greeks. Instead, they chose to stay in the suicidal effort to delay the advance. The significance of the Thespians’ refusal should not be passed over. The Spartans, brave as their sacrifice indubitably was,
were professional soldiers, trained from birth to be ready to give their lives in combat as Spartan law dictated. Conversely, the Thespians were citizen-soldiers (Demophilus, for example, made his living as an architect)
who elected to add whatever they could to the fight, rather than allow the Spartans to be annihilated alone.
Though their bravery is often overlooked by history, it was most certainly not overlooked by the Spartans,
who are said to have exchanged cloaks with the Thespians and promised to be allies for eternity.
The fighting was said to have been extremely brutal, even for hoplite combat.
As their numbers diminished the Greeks retreated to a small hill in the narrowest part of the pass.
The Thebans took this opportunity to surrender to the Persians. After their spears broke, the Spartans and Thespians kept fighting with their xiphos short swords, and after those broke, they were said to have fought with their bare hands and teeth. Although the Greeks killed many Persians, including two of Xerxes’ brothers, Sparta Leonidas was eventually killed, but rather than surrender the Spartans fought fanatically to defend his body.
To avoid losing any more men the Persians killed the last of the Spartans with flights of arrows. When the body of Leonidas was recovered by the Persians, Xerxes, in a rage at the loss of so many of his soldiers,
ordered that the head be cut off, and the body crucified. The mutilation of a corpse, even one of the enemy, carried a great social stigma for the Persians, and it was an act that Xerxes was said to have deeply regretted afterwards. Leonidas body was later cut down and returned to the Spartans, where he was buried with full honours.
This more or less covers all the points people need to know.
When truth is both weirder and more dramatic than any tale or myth.
Honor contrasted with treachery. Courage contrasted with cowardice. Loyalty contrasted with betrayal. The story of citizen-soldiers standing by professional soldiers, through choice even though they were ordered to retreat. The recognition that Spartans had to stand and fight because of duty, and because of the laws of Lycurgos. But that the Thespians chose to stay, and that choice was its own virtue. That is why the Spartans gave the Thespians their red cloaks, while the Thespians gave the Spartans their grey cloaks to be worn. It was the recognition that theirs was the greater valor, by the Spartans.
The Spartans like all elite military organizations had their own unique haircut. So doing the “hair” while seen as feminine by us, was simply the way it was back then.
The festival of Carneia was what made Sparta miss out on the Battle of Marathon, and almost made them miss out on the battle of Thermopylae.
The Carneia began on the seventh day of the month of Carneios (the Athenian Metageitnion) and lasted nine days. Nine tents were pitched near the city walls, inhabited by nine men who lived like soldiers, obeying the commands of a herald. The priest conducting the sacrificies was known as the Agetes; thus, the festival was sometimes known as Agetoria or Agetoreion. From each of the Spartan tribes, five unmarried men (Karneatai) were chosen as the Agetes’ ministers, an office they held for four years, during which they were not allowed to marry. Some of the Karneatai were called staphylodromoi (“grape-cluster runners”). During the festival, the staphylodromoi chased after a man wearing a garland; to catch him meant good luck in the coming harvest.
According to tradition, the army was not allowed to leave the Spartan territory during this festival. The Spartan rulers were not permitted to lead any kind of military campaign or declare war, and all male citizens had to be purified. Because of this it occurred that the Athenians had to fight the Battle of Marathon alone.
Spartans being Spartans, they obviously wanted a piece of the action 😉 They were tired of arriving at the end of important battles. This is an irony of course, although not the personal reason of Leonidas.
It would have seriously be interesting to see pankration practiced on Xerxes’ enemies. Given that bit about “fighting with hands and tooth”.
Whoever believes that martial arts were born and raised in the Far East is, it seems, mistaken. As in almost every aspect of history, the Greeks got there first, this time proudly proclaiming to the world their place as the first to practice martial arts. The Greek version of karate is called Pankration, a name that has existed since 648BC. It’s a blend of wrestling, boxing, strangulation, kicking, striking techniques and joint locks. Fast forward to 2006 and this particular martial art is alive and kicking, literally, in over 30 countries.
It is just dramatic in a way because a man without his weapons and armor tends to look weak and vulnerable, if we saw him as a fighting machine with arms before. And then the audience becomes surprised when unarmed man kills armed man. In a sense I’m talking about the movie 300, of course. But I am also refering to simple visualization and imagination, imagine what had to happen at the end of the battle. Leonidas is surrounded. Instead of allowing himself to be smashed by the hammer and the anvil from front and fear, he ordered the advance, to attack. While most men would be thinking of running away, Leonidas kept his stand. When most men would be scared shitless at the sight of enemies hordes surround you, Leonidas ordered them to Advance…
And advance they did. Leonidas led the charge and was cut down, but even then his Spartans did not give up, but rallied to the fallen body of their leader, pushing the Persian horde back by the sheer fury of their attack. And there they stood, and fell. Spears were broken, or lodged in the bodies of their enemies. Short swords broke from impact and the force required to cut through a human limb. A lot of romanticists, bards, and poets may speak of fighting to the death, but they are simply artful expedience. They do not really know what fighting to the end means, if only because at some point people can visualize a surrender. The Japanese for all their claims, did not fight to the death. They would have done so, if not for Emperor Hirohito’s actions. There have been very few instances of combat units fighting to the last man, and holding until they are all dead. But those that are… are lauded and respected by the armed forces community precisely because they understand the fear, the oppressive despair, that comes in battle and in war. They understand because they have been there. If you cannot visualize that which I describe, then please go here and see the youtube videos of a 10 minute dogfight where despair could easily have broken the pilot’s will to fight, as he was outnumbered more than 4 to 1.
It is easy to give up. In this war or any other. But to those who faced absolute annihilation… giving up wasn’t an option. Whether you died fighting or you died running away with an arrow in your back, none of the options on the table will save your life. When given such options… if you have the fortitude, then you will make your stand count. You may lose the battle, but your stance may motivate and encourage others with your example, the risk you took, to reach the same heights of valor in the war. And win it.
It is not enough to simply beat the foe. You must destroy him psychologically, by making the defeat so horrendous, so stunning, so awe horrifically devastating, that the next one to attack your side will be half defeated in his own mind. To do so you must destroy all of the enemy, at once, in a decisive battle. But such battles have high casualties, and sometimes the leaders themselves lose their lives holding the line. Leonidas proved what kind of king he was. And he set the standard for the people of Sparta to follow, to be worthy of their King. And they fullfilled that challenge and debt, at the
. Humanity has always respected and followed leaders, leadership from the front, not in the back safe and comfortable. Seeing people they respect and love charging forward in the face of terror and unfavorable odds… inspires the same courage in others. Therefore the duty of a king or of any leader, is to inspire his nation, to fortify his nation’s courage, in the battles to come. It is why so many Americans complain that Bush isn’t a good communicator, even when they agree with Bush’s position on the war if not his conduct.
A more detailed account of the battle may be found here. The music in the youtube link is so appropriate, the musicality fits quite well with the events as I read them.