Xerxes looked on while his soldiers fought at the entrance to the pass. And they did their best, for they were unwilling that their king should see them beaten back by men who had spent their days in games or in bedecking their hair. But they could not stand against the fierce attacks of the Spartans, and at length, when many of their number had been slain, they withdrew.
The king then ordered his own chosen bodyguard, the ten thousand famous Immortals, to advance against the gallant defenders of the pass.
Even at the approach of these renowned warriors, the Spartans did not waver. They pretended to flee, only to turn and slay the barbarians who had followed them into the pass. At length after a furious conflict, the Immortals were forced to give way and return to their camp.
Three times as he watched the Immortals, Xerxes sprang from his throne, thinking that all was lost. But the next day he sent them against the foe once more, for now he believed that the Spartans would be too weary to fight.
But Leonidas was careful of the little band he commanded. It was easy to hold the pass with only a small number of men. As each company grew tired, the king ordered it to withdraw and sent a fresh one to take its place. Soon the entrance to the pass was choked with the dead bodies of the barbarians.
Some of the most valiant of Xerxes' warriors were next sent against the enemy. But they were cowed by the bravery of the Spartans, and as they saw their comrades falling around them, they turned to flee. Then their officers drove them back with lashes.
For two days, the terrible slaughter never ceased, and Xerxes was almost ready to leave the pass to its brave defenders, so hopeless seemed the task of taking it.
But that night, a Greek named Ephialtes came to the great king, and for a large sum of money, he offered to show the Persians a path which led over the hill down to the pass of Thermopylae. The path was the tiny track that was guarded by the Phocians.
The offer of the traitor was at once accepted, and at midnight Xerxes sent his officer Hydarmes, at the head of his Immortals, to follow Ephialtes.
"All night long they followed the path with the mountains on the right and on the left. The day was dawning when they reached the peak of the mountain, and there the thousand Phocians were keeping watch and guarding the pathway. While the Persians were climbing the hill, the Phocians knew not of their coming, for the whole hill was covered with oak trees, but they knew what had happened when the Persians reached the summit. Not a breath of wind was stirring, and they heard the trampling of their feet as they trod on the fallen oak leaves."
No sooner had they heard than the arrows of the Immortals were pouring in upon them. They fell back, leaving the pathway free, while they hastily put on their armour and prepared to fight to the death. They did not dream that the Immortals had no wish to fight with them. But so it was, for the Persians took no more notice of them, but finding the hill path free, they sped downward to the pass to take the Spartans in the rear. The Phocians were left along on the heights almost before they were aware.
Leonidas had heard of the treachery of Ephialtes soon after the traitor left the Persian king. He knew that to try to hold the pass now that he would be attacked in the rear was certain death. Yet the brave king did not hesitate, for his orders had been to hold the pass at all costs.
Nor did he waver as he remembered the ominous words of the oracle, "Sparta must be overthrown or one of her kings must perish." It seemed that he was the king who was doomed to die, but what of that if his country was saved?
He resolved that to Sparta alone should belong the glory of the defence of Thermopylae. So while there was still time, he sent away all his allies, keeping with him only his three hundred Spartans, seven hundred Thespians who refused to leave him, and four hundred Boeotians, lest they should join the enemy.
Then "when the sun arose, Xerxes poured out wine to the gods and the barbarians arose for the onset, and the men of Leonidas knew now that they must die." But they would die fighting, and before they were attacked in the rear they would do great deeds.
Fierce and desperate was their defence, and before the fury of their blows the barbarians fell in heaps. Once again, the Persian officers, armed with whips, had to drive their men forward to face the small but undaunted band.
In the confusion many of the great host of Xerxes were pushed into the sea while many more were trampled to death by their comrades.
So furious was the struggle, that at length the spears of the Spartans were broken in their hands. In a moment, they had seized their swords and hundreds of the Persians fell before their terrible thrusts.
But now the worst that could befall the Spartans happened. Leonidas, their brave king Leonidas, was slain where he fought in the forefront of the battle. A terrible struggle at once began for the body of the king.
Four times the Spartans drove back the Persians, and then with one tremendous effort they carried away the body of their king.
It was at this moment that the Immortals, led by the traitor, Ephialtes, reached the pass. The Spartans hastily withdrew behind the wall, which had been repaired by the order of their king. Here, on a hillock, "they defended themselves to the last, such as had swords using them, and the others resisting with their hands and teeth; till the barbarians, who had in part pulled down the wall and attacked them in front, in part had gone round and now encircled them upon every side, overwhelmed and buried the remnant which was left, beneath showers of missile weapons."
As you read the story of the brave defence of Thermopylae, you do not wonder that Leonidas and his three hundred Spartans have won for themselves immortal fame.
On the hillock where the little band took their last stand, a stone lion was placed in honour of king Leonidas, while in the pass itself a pillar was erected on which were written these words:—
"Go, tell the Spartans, thou that passest by,
That here obedient to their laws we lie."
When the battle was over, Xerxes ordered his men to search for the body of Leonidas. When it was found he ordered the head to be cut off and the body to be hung upon a cross.
It was the custom of the Persians to honour the bodies of those who had fallen fighting bravely against them. This unusual and cruel treatment was but a proof of the fear the brave Spartan had inspired in the heart of Xerxes. Nor could the king forget that he had been on the point of leaving the pass in the hands of its brave defenders.
Demaratus could not look at the slaughter of his countrymen unmoved. He had seemed to be a friend of the great king, yet now he longed to warn the Spartans who had stayed at home that the Persians were ready to march against them.
But how could he send a message unknown to the Persians. He soon thought of a strange and less cruel way than had Histiaeus, who, you remember, branded his secret on the head of his slave.
The exiled king took a writing tablet and scraped away the wax on which letters were usually engraved. On the wood beneath he scratched the message he wished to send. He then poured melted wax on the top of what he had written, and the tablet looked as any other tablet looked.
When it reached Sparta, the people studied it with amazement. There was a tablet, but where was the message? They turned it this way and that, they peered at it now on one side, now on another—nothing was to be seen.
Then Gorgo, whom you heard of last as a little maiden of eight years old, gave the people advice as wise as she had given to her royal father long before. She was grown up since those days and had been married to brave king Leonidas.
"Scrape off the wax," she said to the people, "and see if the message lies on the wood beneath."
And when this was done, there stood the warning words of Demaratus, so that all might read.