Gateway to the Classics: Historical Tales: Greek by Charles Morris
Historical Tales: Greek by  Charles Morris

How The Spartans Died At Thermopylę

When Xerxes, as his father had done before him, sent to the Grecian cities to demand earth and water in token of submission, no heralds were sent to Athens or Sparta. These truculent cities had flung the heralds of Darius into deep pits, bidding them to take earth and water from there and carry it to the great king. This act called for revenge, and whatever mercy he might show to the rest of Greece, Athens and Sparta were doomed in his mind to be swept from the face of the earth. How they escaped this dismal fate is what we have next to tell.

As one of the great men of Athens, Miltiades, had saved his native land in the former Persian invasion, so a second patriotic citizen, Themistocles, proved her savior in the dread peril which now threatened her. But the work of Themistocles was not done in a single great battle, as at Marathon, but in years of preparation. And a war between Athens and the neighboring island of Ęgina had much to do with this escape from ruin.


The Place of Assembly of the Athenians.

To make war upon an island a land army was of no avail. A fleet was necessary. The Athenians were accustomed to a commercial, though not to a warlike, life upon the sea. Many of them were active, daring, and skilful sailors, and when Themistocles urged that they should build a powerful fleet he found approving listeners. Longer of sight than his fellow-citizens, he warned them of the coming peril from Persia. The conflict with the small island of Ęgina was a small matter compared with that threatened by the great kingdom of Persia. But to prepare against one was to prepare against both. And Athens was just then rich. It possessed valuable silver-mines at Laurium, in Attica, from which much wealth came to the state. This money Themistocles urged the citizens to use in building ships, and they were wise enough to take his advice, two hundred ships of war being built. These ships, as it happened, were not used for the purpose originally intended, that of the war with Ęgina. But they proved of inestimable service to Athens in the Persian war.

The vast preparations of Xerxes were not beheld without deep terror in Greece. Spies were sent into Persia to discover what was being done. They were captured and condemned to death, but Xerxes ordered that they should be shown his total army and fleet, and then sent home to report what they had seen. He hoped thus to double the terror of the Grecian states.

At home two things were done. Athens and Sparta called a congress of all the states of Greece on the Isthmus of Corinth, and urged them to lay aside all petty feuds and combine for defence against the common foe. It was the greatest and most successful congress that Greece had ever yet held. All wars came to an end. That between Athens and Ęgina ceased, and the fleet which Athens had built was laid aside for a greater need. The other thing was that step always taken in Greece in times of peril, to send to the temple at Delphi and obtain from the oracle the sacred advice which was deemed so indispensable.

The reply received by Athens was terrifying. "Quit your land and city and flee afar!" cried the prophetess. "Fire and sword, in the train of the Syrian chariot, shall overwhelm you. Get ye away from the sanctuary, with your souls steeped in sorrow."

The envoys feared to carry back such a sentence to Athens. They implored the priestess for a more comforting reply, and were given the following enigma to solve: "This assurance I will give you, firm as adamant. When everything else in the land of Cecrops shall be taken, Zeus grants to Athené that the wooden wall alone shall remain unconquered, to defend you and your children. Stand not to await the assailing horse and foot from the continent, but turn your backs and retire; you shall yet live to fight another day. O divine Salamis, thou too shalt destroy the children of women, either at the seed-time or at the harvest."

Here was some hope, though small. "The wooden wall"? What could it be but the fleet? This was the general opinion of the Athenians. But should they fight? Should they not rather abandon Attica forever, take to their wooden walls, and seek a new home afar? Salamis was to destroy the children of women! Did not this portend disaster in case of a naval battle?

The fate of Athens now hung upon a thread. Had its people fled to a distant land, one of the greatest chapters in the history of the world would never have been written. But now Themistocles, to whom Athens owed its fleet, came forward as its savior. If the oracle, he declared, had meant that the Greeks should be destroyed, it would have called Salamis, where the battle was to be fought, "wretched Salamis." But it had said "divine Salamis." What did this mean but that it was not the Greeks, but the enemies of Greece, who were to be destroyed? He begged his countrymen not to desert their country, but to fight boldly for its safety. Fortunately for Athens, his solution of the riddle was accepted, and the city set itself diligently to building more ships, that they might have as powerful a fleet as possible when the Persians came.

But not only Athens was to be defended; all Greece was in peril; the invaders must be met by land as well as by sea. Greece is traversed by mountain ranges, which cross from sea to sea, leaving only difficult mountain paths and, narrow seaside passes. One of these was the long and winding defile to Tempe, between Mounts Olympus and Ossa, on the northern boundary of Greece. There a few men could keep back a numerous host, and thither at first marched the small army which dared to oppose the Persian millions, a little band of ten thousand men, under the command of a Spartan general.

But they did not remain there. The Persians were still distant, and while the Greeks awaited their approach new counsels prevailed. There was another pass by which the mountains might be crossed,—which pass, in fact, the Persians took. Also the fleet might land thousands of men in their rear. On the whole it was deemed best to retreat to another pass, much farther south, the famous pass of Thermopylę. Here was a road a mile in width, where were warm springs; and at each end were narrow passes, called gates,—the name Thermopylę meaning "hot gates." Adjoining was a narrow strait, between the mainland and the island of Eubœa, where the Greek fleet might keep back the Persian host of ships. There was an old wall across the pass, now in ruins. This the Greeks rebuilt, and there the devoted band, now not more than seven thousand in all, waited the coming of the mighty Persian host.

It was in late June, of the year 480 B.C., that the Grecian army, led by Leonidas, king of Sparta, marched to this defile. There were but three hundred Spartans in his force, with small bodies of men from the other states of Greece. The fleet, less than three hundred ships in all, took post beside them in the strait. And here they waited while day by day the Persian hordes marched southward over the land.

The first conflict took place between some vessels of the fleets, whereupon the Grecian admirals, filled with sudden fright, sailed southward and left the army to the mercy of the Persian ships. Fortunately for Greece, thus deserted in her need, a strong ally now came to the rescue. The gods of the winds had been implored with prayer. The answer came in the form of a frightful hurricane, which struck the great fleet while it lay at anchor, and hurled hundreds of ships on the rocky shore. For three days the storm continued, and when it ended more than four hundred ships of war, with a multitude of transports and provision craft, were wrecked, while the loss of life had been immense. The Greek fleet had escaped this disaster, and now, with renewed courage, came sailing back to the post it had abandoned, and so quickly as to capture fifteen vessels of the Persian fleet.

While this gale prevailed Xerxes and his army lay encamped before Thermopylę, the king in terror for his fleet, which he was told had been all destroyed. As for the Greeks, he laughed them to scorn. He was told that a handful of Spartans and other Greeks were posted in the pass, and sent a horseman to tell him what was to be seen. The horseman rode near the pass, and saw there the wall and outside it the small Spartan force, some of whom were engaged in gymnastic exercises, while others were combing their long hair.

The great king was astonished and puzzled at this news. He waited expecting the few Greeks to disperse and leave the pass open to his army. The fourth day came and went, and they were still there. Then Xerxes bade the Median and Kissian divisions of his army to advance, seize these insolent fellows, and bring them to him as prisoners of war. Forward went his troops, and entered the throat of the narrow pass, where their bows and arrows were of little use, and they must fight the Greeks hand to hand. And now the Spartan arms and discipline told. With their long spears, spreading shields, steady ranks, and rigid discipline, the Greeks were far more than a match for the light weapons, slight shields, and open ranks of their foes. The latter had only their numbers, and numbers there were of little avail. They fell by hundreds, while the Greeks met with little loss. For two days the combat continued, fresh defenders constantly replacing the weary ones, and a wall of Persian dead being heaped up outside the wall of stone.

Then, as a last resort, the Immortals,—the Persian guard of ten thousand,—with other choice troops, were sent; and these were driven back with the same slaughter as the rest. The fleet in the strait doubtless warmly cheered on the brave hoplites in the pass; but as for Xerxes, "Thrice," says Herodotus, "did he spring from his throne, in agony for his army."

The deed of a traitor rendered useless this noble defence. A recreant Greek, Ephialtes by name, sought Xerxes and told him of a mountain pass over which he could guide a band to attack the defenders of Thermopylę in the rear. A strong Persian detachment was ordered to cross the pass, and did so under shelter of the night. At daybreak they reached the summit, where a thousand Greeks from Phocis had been stationed as a guard. These men, surprised, and overwhelmed with a shower of arrows, fled up the mountain-side, and left the way open to the Persians, who pursued their course down the mountain, and at mid-day reached the rear of the pass of Thermopylę.

Leonidas had heard of their coming. Scouts had brought him word. The defence of the pass was at an end. They must fly or be crushed. A council was hastily called, and it was decided to retreat. But this decision was not joined in by Leonidas and his gallant three hundred. The honor of Sparta would not permit her king to yield a pass which he had been sent to defend. The laws of his country required that he should conquer or die at his post. It was too late to conquer; but he could still die. With him and his three hundred remained the Thespians and Thebans, seven hundred of the former and about four hundred of the latter. The remainder of the army withdrew.

Xerxes had arranged to wait till noon, at which hour the defenders of the pass were to be attacked in front and rear. But Leonidas did not wait. All he and his men had now to do was to sell their lives as dearly as possible, so they marched outside the pass, attacked the front of the Persian host, drove them back, and killed them in multitudes, many of them being driven to perish in the sea and the morass. The Persian officers kept their men to the deadly work by threats and the liberal use of the whip.

But one by one the Spartans fell. Their spears were broken, and they fought with their swords. Leonidas sank in death, but his men fought on more fiercely still, to keep the foe back from his body. Here many of the Persian chiefs perished, among them two brothers of Xerxes. It was like a combat of the Iliad rather than a contest in actual war. Finally the Greeks, worn out, reduced in numbers, their best weapons gone, fell back behind the wall, bearing the body of their chief. Here they still fought, with daggers, with their unarmed hands, even with their mouths, until the last man fell dead.

The Thebans alone yielded themselves as prisoners, saying that they had been kept in the pass against their will. Of the thousand Spartans and Thespians, not a man remained alive.

Meanwhile the fleets had been engaged, to the advantage of the Greeks, while another storm that suddenly rose wrecked two hundred more of the Persian ships on Eubœa's rocky coast. When word came that Thermopylę had fallen the Grecian fleet withdrew, sailed round the Attic coast, and stopped not again until the island of Salamis was reached.

As for Leonidas and his Spartans, they had died, but had won imperishable fame. The same should be said for the Thespians as well, but history has largely ignored their share in the glorious deed. In after-days an inscription was set up which gave all glory to the Peloponnesian heroes without a word for the noble Thespian band. Another celebrated inscription honored the Spartans alone:

"Go, stranger, and to Lacedęamon tell

That here, obeying her behests, we fell,"

or, in plain prose, "Stranger, tell the Lacedęmonians that we lie here, in obedience to their orders."

On the hillock where the last of the faithful band died was erected a monument with a marble lion in honor of Leonidas, while on it was carved the following epitaph, written by the poet Simonides:

"In dark Thermopylę they lie.

Oh, death of glory, thus to die!

Their tomb an altar is, their name

A mighty heritage of fame.

Their dirge is triumph; cankering rust,

And time, that turneth all to dust,

That tomb shall never waste nor hide,—

The tomb of warriors true and tried.

The full-voiced praise of Greece around

Lies buried in this sacred mound;

Where Sparta's king, Leonidas,

In death eternal glory has!"

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