Leonidas at Thermopylae
Leonidas was a son of one of the kings of Sparta. As a boy he was trained in the gymnasium and excelled in all manly sports. As a man he fought in the Spartan army. After the death of his father and his half-brother he became king. Eleven years later he led the Greek army against the Persians, who a second time were threatening Greece. The second invasion of the Persians came about in this way:
The defeat at Marathon had made Darius only the more determined to conquer the Greeks. But four years later, in the midst of his preparations, he died and Xerxes, his son, came to the throne.
Xerxes after a while decided to carry out his father's plans and spent four years in collecting men and horses and ships. His army and fleet were the largest that the world had ever heard of.
The land forces met at Sardis, a city in Asia Minor, and marched to the shore of the Hellespont, which you have already learned is the narrow strait between Europe and Asia. Xerxes ordered his engineers to make two bridges of boats across the strait for the passage of the army. This was done, but the bridges were not strong enough and a storm destroyed them. The loss of his bridges made the king very angry, and it is said that he had the strait scourged with three hundred lashes and a set of chains thrown into it, to teach the water that he was its master.
Two new bridges, stronger than the first, were built and Xerxes then marched his army over them to the European shore of the Hellespont. Here his fleet of twelve hundred war ships and three thousand smaller vessels had already arrived. On a hill overlooking the strait a throne of marble was built, and upon it Xerxes sat and reviewed his land forces drawn up along the shore, and his ships sailing in the strait. It took the army seven days and seven nights to cross the bridges.
After crossing, the land force made its way southward until it reached a high and almost impassable mountain range. Between this range and the sea the roadway at two points was so narrow that there was room for only a single wagon. There were hot sulphur springs near-by, and therefore the Greeks called this narrow part of the road Thermopylae, which means the "Gates of the Hot Springs." We usually speak of it as the "Pass of Thermopylae."
The Persians intended to march through the Pass, but they were stopped by a Greek force under Leonidas, king of Sparta. His band numbered only about four thousand men, of whom three hundred were Spartans, the rest being from several different states.
The Greeks took their stand at the narrowest part of the Pass. Against them Xerxes sent one division of his army after another, but all were defeated and driven back. For two days the fighting went on with great loss to the Persians, while the Greeks lost hardly a man.
At last, when it seemed impossible to overpower the Greeks, a traitor showed a band of Persians a path that led over the mountain. This path was poorly defended by Greeks from one of the northern states. It was easily taken by the Persians, who then marched round behind Leonidas.
Leonidas learned of their approach in time to escape. Some of his army did retreat; but he, with three hundred Spartans and seven hundred men of Thespiæ, a little town some distance from Athens, refused to do so. Greece had trusted the Pass to them to hold and they preferred to die rather than leave their post. When some one said that the arrows of the Persians would come in such showers as to conceal the sun, one of the Spartans replied, "So much the better; we shall fight in the shade."
Leonidas was now penned in between two divisions of the Persian army, one at each end of the Pass. Instead of waiting to be attacked he led his men forward against the Persians. The Greeks fought desperately, but they had no chance against such vast numbers. All were slain save one man.
A monument was afterward raised to their memory. It bore the simple inscription, "Stranger, tell the Spartans that we lie here in obedience to their commands."
After the battle Xerxes marched to Athens. He found it almost deserted. All the Athenians had fled save a little band who held the Acropolis. They hurled rocks upon the attacking Persians and for a long time resisted them. At length however the Persians found a place where no guard had been stationed, because the rocky wall was so steep that it seemed impossible to scale it. Here they climbed up and rushed in upon the brave defenders.
The struggle was soon over. Some of the Athenians hurled themselves headlong down the rocky slopes. The rest were put to death and the city fell into the hands of the Persians, who plundered and burned it. Even the sacred olive tree, which had sprung up at Athene's touch, was burned to the ground.