In honour of our now 300 followers, here’s a short post on the legendary 300 Spartans and their King Leonidas, who fought and died at Thermopylae.
In 480 BC the Persian Army, lead by King Xerxes was advancing towards Greece. Why? For the fullest answer see Herodotus’ account, however after the Ionian Revolt by the Greeks living in Asia Minor (in Persian territory) the Greeks were seen as a people who needed to be conquered by the Persians. Darius had attempted this ending in defeat at Marathon, however his son Xerxes gladly took up the cause and raised a huge army for the expedition.
On hearing this the Greeks consulted the Oracle at Delphi, to the Athenians she gave the famous “wooden walls” prophecy and to the Spartan’s she said:
“O ye men who dwell in the streets of broad Lacedaemon! Either your glorious town shall be sacked by the children of Perseus, Or, in exchange, must all through the whole Laconian country Mourn for the loss of a king, descendant of great Heracles”
The King of Sparta, Leonidas decided that he would go and face the oncoming Persian attack in defence of Sparta and to prevent the city falling. With he took a 300 strong contingent of Spartiates, his elite bodyguards. Each of these had living sons and were prepared to die for their cause. They even held their own funeral games in Sparta before they left, watched by their parents and children.
They were joined by c.700-1000 other Lacedaemons, and c.3000 other Greek troops. They marched to the pass at Thermopylae to hold off the huge Persian army which numbered c.70000-300000 (by modern estimates). Thermopylae was also known as the “hot gates” because of the thermal springs that issued from the base of the mountains.
On the first day of battle, Xerxes sent those troops who had lost relatives at Marathon into the fight first. The Greeks held their position. After 2 full days of battle a traitor named Ephialates lead Xerxes to a hidden path around the Greeks. Leonidas learning that he was outflanked ordered the rest of the Greeks to depart and fight another day. Only the Thespians and the Thebans stayed to fight with the Spartans.
The remaining force advanced towards Xerxes’ forces and fought to the last. Leonidas was killed and the Spartans fought to maintain his body. They moved to the hillock, where they were eventually wiped out by the Persian arrows. Some of the Thebans were said to have surrendered to Xerxes and he branded them with the royal seal (the truth of this is questioned by scholars).
In differing account to Herodotus, Diodorus describes a daring night raid on the Persian camp, rather than a last stand. Leonidas and his remaining force are said to have advanced through the camp slaying many Persian warriors and even entering the royal tent of Xerxes himself. However the king was absent from the camp that night and so the assignation failed.
Those who fell were buried in a mass grave with 5 stelai and a stone lion raised on top. In 440 BC Leonidas’ bones were returned to Sparta. A stele was set up with all the names of the Spartans who had died and an exclusive Spartan games were held annually in honour of the “Heroes of Thermopylae”
Several famous phrases are linked to this last stand, including:
When Leonidas was told to lower his weapons by the Persian Embassy he said in typical Spartan style “Come and take them!”
One Persian messenger told the king that “Our arrows will block out the sun!” to which the King’s general replied “Then we shall fight in the shade!”
A famous epitaph written by Simonides was erected at Thermopylae bearing these words:
Ὦ ξεῖν’, ἀγγέλλειν Λακεδαιμονίοις ὅτι τῇδε
κείμεθα, τοῖς κείνων ῥήμασι πειθόμενοι.
“Stranger, tell the Spartans that here
We lie, obedient to their orders”
The 300 Spartans chose to preserve the laws of their state rather than their own lives