Sir John and the Knights of the Long Table

Eleven of us live here at beautiful Schamelot, and we have a small 20 acre farm of chickens, emus, two dogs, 13 or so cats and a cockateil named Sassafrass.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

The Battle of Thermopylae

It was in 480 B.C. at the pass of Thermopylae, the “Gates of Fire” along the Aegean coast of Greece that the famous 300 Spartans and 6,700 other Greek soldiers held off a massive Persian army of 210,000 ground forces for 7 days. Nothing in military history has ever even come close to such an extraordinary feat. Although all of the Spartan soldiers that fought at Thermopylae were killed, they took with them 20,000 enemy soldiers as well as the mighty Persian Empire’s pride.
The Hellenistic world in 480 B.C. was composed of approximately 150 independent city states, or polis in Greek. The ancient Greeks did not consider themselves as Greek, but Athenian or Spartan, or Corinthian, etc. Before the 2nd Persian War there was no unity among the Hellenistic people, but they all had one thing in common when Xerxes came marching up to the “Hot Gates” at Thermopylae: their freedom and way of life was being threatened by a power hungry, half mad Persian king, who considered himself a god.
Xerxes, the king of Persia ascended to the throne in 586 B.C. after his father; Darius was killed in a siege. The first Persian War didn’t turn out too well for Darius. Xerxes, learning from his father who attempted a similar campaign, with 25,000 troops, concluded that this was an insufficient number to conquer mainland Greece, and fulfill his and his deceased fathers’ dream of what would have been world domination. He didn’t take any chances, so he took the time and spent 4 years mustering troops from every corner of his oversized empire. Bistonia was used as Xerxes’ rally point for his army, and all the provisions that were to be used for a very long and bloody fight with Sparta and the rest of the Hellenistic people.
Sparta was renowned throughout all Greece for her excellence in warfare. War was a way of life. Boys at the age of 7 were taken from their families to start their training, which was the equivalent of a 12 year navy seal boot camp. A Spartan youth was taught how to excel with the sword and spear as well as making a perfect phalanx. It was so shameful to lose a battle and live that the mother of every Spartan soldier would hand her son’s shield to him saying “come back with it or upon it.” This indicates that she would rather have him die than retreat and lose a battle.
The most commonly used battle formation among the Greeks was the phalanx: a very compact formation of hoplites overlapping their shields to create an impenetrable wall of bronze, bristling with 21 foot spears. A phalanx could be any number of men deep and any number of men wide. All the men would push on the man in front of him making the phalanx an unstoppable metal porcupine. This is what Xerxes was up against when he confronted the Corinthian League at Thermopylae.
The Corinthian League was made up of all the city states that were willing to help preserve Greece’s independent way of life. The most ironic thing about this is that the city state that resisted Persian influence the most was Sparta, the least liberated city state. Such was the Hellenistic passion for freedom that when the Persian couriers came to Athens, Sparta and Thebes, they were all brutally killed. While Athens and Sparta threw the intruding bearers of irritating tidings off of cliffs and into spiked pits, Thebes cut out the tongue of the translator for insulting the Greek language, and then stabbed the Persian messenger to death, throwing his remains over the precipice of the nearest cliff. This is the same hospitality that Leonidas and his 300 showed to the “Barbarians” when they came pouring up to the Phocian Wall.
The order was given and Leonidas led his small army to the pass of Thermopylae where the Phocian wall lay in ruins, the aftermath of another war. They rebuilt the wall and prepared for a bloody fight. When Xerxes (already close to Thermopylae) sent his scouts to see all of Greece positioned to hinder his progress at the narrow defile, they came back with words that made the god king laugh. All the Spartans were combing their hair. A Spartan traitor explained that it was Spartan tradition to comb one’s hair before going into battle. He also mentioned that all the Spartans would be dead before they let the army of Xerxes pass through the wall.
Xerxes, after waiting 4 days for the Greek patriots to abandon their posts grew very impatient and sent a message to Leonidas offering him kingship over all Greece. Leonidas answered him saying “"If you knew what is good in life, you would abstain from wishing for foreign things. For me it is better to die for Greece than to be monarch over my compatriots.” Xerxes now very angry sent another message saying “Abandon your arms.” Leonidas laconically replied “Come and get them.” Xerxes, done talking with Leonidas, sent the first wave of men. 10,000 Medes were the first to taste the wrath of Greece. The Spartans, already familiar with how to win a battle, used a tactic perfect for the situation. First they advanced out into the open where they would fake a retreat back to the wall, then turn suddenly, making their formation, utterly destroying the Medes. Greek morale was so high during the first day of conflict, that when Dienekes, a Greek officer was informed that the Persian arrows would blot out the sun, he happily replied “So much the better, we shall fight in the shade.” Finally someone got smart enough to persuade Xerxes to use his elite crack troops known as the Immortals on the stubborn Spartans. It didn’t work too well either. They were soundly beaten back. The first day concluded with tremendous losses on the Persian side while the Greeks lost only about 10. The second day was just as fruitless for the Persians. 50,000 men, all the troops that could fit in the narrow pass were whipped by their officers over the wall of dead Persian soldiers that accumulated the day before. Having to climb over the body of your mutilated buddy while your officer is whipping you is not too good for your morale. But those Spartans were having a good time, experiencing minor casualties……….Until the 3rd day. While the Greeks slept that night, Ephialtes a Spartan traitor, led all the Immortals over a small goat pass that the Phocians were supposed to be guarding. The night guard fled and the Greeks woke for the last time to shouts of betrayal from the scouts who knew what was happening. Leonidas immediately gave the order to all non-Spartan men to retreat back to southern Greece to fight another day. But Sparta along with Thebes and Thespis, who decided to stay, would fight to the death this day.
As 210,000 Persians surrounded the 300 and their comrades, Leonidas recalled the oracle “Either Greece will fall or Sparta will lose her king.” And Leonidas preferred the latter. So it wasn’t long before the fate of Greece was sealed and the king of Sparta was slain. 211,000 men fought for the remains of the king, until it was recovered by the Greeks. The Thebans, losing heart immediately surrendered. Abandoning their arms they fled to the Persians. But they were not fast enough to outrun the spears of the still standing Greek soldiers. The Spartans and Thespians, still in the fray, retreated to a nearby hill only to make their last stand. The Persians, filled with hope, followed the Greeks to the hill and surrounded them. Xerxes, who followed to watch, spoke, offering them for the last time peaceful surrender. The Spartans answered “We return to Sparta with our shields or upon them.” The Persian reply was not in words, but with arrows that blotted out the sun. Every last Greek that stood there, fell fighting for their beloved Hellas. Thus ended the battle that would change the fate of western civilization forever.
The Greeks at Thermopylae bought enough time for the rest of Greece to organize and defeat the Persians at the battle of Salamis. Then finally, in the spring of 479 B.C., the Persians were driven out of Greece forever when they lost the battle of Plataea.
If you go to Greece today, to Thermopylae, you will see a statue of Leonidas erected on the spot at which he fell with an inscription saying:
“Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.”

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