Gateway to the Classics: Greek Gods, Heroes, and Men by Caroline H. and Samuel B. Harding
Greek Gods, Heroes, and Men by  Caroline H. and Samuel B. Harding

How the Spartans Fought at Thermopylae

W HEN the Greeks heard that King Xerxes was marching against them with so large an army, they were greatly frightened. Some of them made peace with the king, and sent earth and water to him, as he bade them, to show that they gave up their land to him. But the Athenians and the Spartans said that they would die before they would give up their land, and become the great king's slaves.

In the northern part of Greece there was a narrow pass, called the pass of Thermopylae, where the mountains came down almost to the sea, leaving only a narrow road between Through this pass the king's army must go to reach Athens and Sparta; and since it was so narrow, the Greeks thought that by sending men to guard it, they might stop the king's army, and so save their country.

It was decided that while the Athenians, who were the best sailors in Greece, should fight the king's ships on the sea, the Spartans should fight the king's army at Thermopylae. But just at that time there was a great festival among the Spartans in honor of the god Apollo; and although King Xerxes was already marching against their land, they did not wish to slight the worship of their god. The result was that they sent to Thermopylae only three hundred Spartans, under their leader, Leonidas, telling him that they would send more when the festival was over With these three hundred men and a few hundred more that he got elsewhere, Leonidas had to face the hundreds of thousands that Xerxes had, for the other Spartans did not come until after the battle was over.

When Xerxes came in sight of the pass he found the Spartans amusing themselves with gymnastic exercises, and combing their long hair. When he sent to them, and ordered them to give up their arms, they sent back word for him to "come and take them" One of the Spartans was told that the number of the Persians was so great that when they shot their arrows into the air they hid the sun like a cloud "So much the better," he said, "for then we shall fight in the shade."

After waiting four days for the Spartans to surrender, King Xerxes at last sent some of his men to make prisoners of them, and bring them to him. But this they could not do. All that day and all the next day the king's army fought against the Spartans; and though some of the Spartans and many of the Persians were killed, the Spartans would not let the king go through the pass.

At the end of the second day, however, a Greek traitor told King Xerxes of a path which led over the mountain and around the pass.

By this he would be able to send some men behind the Greeks, and attack them from both sides. This he decided to do. On the third day the Spartans fought as bravely as they had done before, but soon the Persians who had been sent over the mountains came in sight behind them. Then Leonidas knew that the end had come. He sent away the men who were not Spartans. But he and his men fought on, for it was considered a disgrace for a Spartan to surrender; and it was only after the last Spartan in the pass was killed that King Xerxes could lead his army safely through.

After the war was over, the Greeks placed a marble lion, in honor of King Leonidas, on the little mound where the Spartans had made their last fight. Near by another monument was set up in honor of his followers, and on it these words were cut:—

"Go, stranger, and to the Spartans tell

That here, obeying their commands, we fell."

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