T HERE was only one road by which Xerxes, the Persian king, could march his great army into the heart of Greece. That road lay through the Pass of Thermopylae.
This was a narrow passage, only wide enough for a single carriage to travel. On one side was a steep mountain, on the other a broad marsh which could not be crossed by men or beasts. Then the valley opened for some distance and in this broader space were hot springs. When a traveler had passed these springs he found that the road became narrow again, and the way out was no wider than the way in. This place was called "Thermopylae," which means, "The Gates of the Hot Springs."
The Greeks agreed that Leonidas, king of Sparta, should lead their soldiers against the mighty army of Xerxes. But only eight thousand men could be spared for this purpose; the rest were busy in keeping the festivals, which were a part of their religion.
Leonidas led his little band to the Pass of Thermopylae and there, behind an old wall which his men had rebuilt, he waited for the attack. Xerxes who had so many men was surprised to see so few of the Greeks gathered to fight him. He sent an officer who said, "O foolish Greeks! what can you do against the great army of our glorious king? Surrender! Give up your swords and spears."
Leonidas only said, "Come and take them."
The officer saw that some of the Spartans were at their gymnastic games while others were combing their long hair. He told king Xerxes who said, "Why, those men must be insane." But one who knew the Spartans said, "O king, they do that to show that they are not afraid of death. When they comb their hair before a battle, it means that they intend to fight until they die."
Xerxes sent another messenger who said to the Greeks, "Why should you try to stand against us? When we shoot our arrows they will darken the sun."
"That will make it cooler," answered Leonidas. "We shall fight you more comfortably in the shade."
The Persian king waited four days, then gave the order to advance. His soldiers crowded toward the narrow opening of the pass. They had short spears and shields of basketwork. The Greeks had long spears and shields of bull hide; and their muscles were like iron. The Persians fell by hundreds, by thousands, yet hardly a Greek was touched.
Xerxes had a company of picked soldiers, strong and brave, who were called the Ten Thousand Immortals. He ordered them to march against the Greeks. They went to the pass, but many never returned. The ground was heaped with the foreign dead.
Many of the Persian soldiers then refused to go to certain death. Their officers drove them forward with whips as if they had been dogs.
All day the battle raged and the Persian loss was very great. Then Xerxes was told that a Greek traitor would lead a part of the Persian army over the mountain, so that they could get into the pass in the rear of the Greeks. Soldiers were sent with him and began their march in the night.
Leonidas heard of this. He gathered his soldiers around him and said that those who chose could go home, but that he must stay and die; and that whoever stayed with him must also die. All left him except three hundred Spartans and some Thespians and Thebans, altogether about a thousand men.
He called two of his relatives, and said, "Carry letters from me to Sparta, then your lives will be saved."
One answered, "I am not a letter carrier, but a fighter. I will stay and die."
The other replied, "My actions will tell Sparta all she cares to know."
Leonidas did not wait to be caught in a trap. He led his soldiers out against the center of the Persians and tried to fight his way through to the tent of the king. Two brothers of Xerxes were killed, but Leonidas also fell dead upon the plain. His few remaining soldiers picked up his body and, fighting all the way, carried it with them into the pass. There they took their stand upon a little hill and fought to the last. When their spears were broken they used their swords. When those were gone they took their short daggers. Some, when they had nothing else, fought with their naked hands.
The Thebans surrendered, but all the Thespians and Spartans fell. Not one escaped. Xerxes cut off the head of Leonidas and marched on into Greece. But the people buried all the heroes in the pass, and afterwards placed over the grave of Leonidas a marble lion. His name means, "The Lion's Son;" and the world honors him and his three hundred Spartans, braver than lions, who died fighting for Greece at the "Gate of the Hot Springs."