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Jacob Abbott

The Battle of Thermopylae

T he pass of Thermopylæ was not a ravine among mountains, but a narrow space between mountains and the sea. The mountains landward were steep and inaccessible; the sea was shoal. The passage between them was narrow for many miles along the shore, being narrowest at the ingress and egress. In the middle the space was broader. The place was celebrated for certain warm springs which here issued from the rocks, and which had been used in former times for baths.

The position had been considered, long before Xerxes's day, a very important one in a military point of view, as it was upon the frontier between two Greek states that were frequently at war. One of these states, of course, was Thessaly. The other was Phocis, which lay south of Thessaly. The general boundary between these two states was mountainous, and impassable for troops, so that each could invade the territories of the other only by passing round between the mountains and the shore at Thermopylæ.

The Phocæans, in order to keep the Thessalians out, had, in former times, built a wall across the way, and put up gates there, which they strongly fortified. In order still further to increase the difficulty of forcing a passage, they conducted the water of the warm springs over the ground without the wall, in such a way as to make the surface continually wet and miry. The old wall had now fallen to ruins, but the miry ground remained. The place was solitary and desolate, and overgrown with a confused and wild vegetation. On one side the view extended far and wide over the sea, with the highlands of Eubœa in the distance, and on the other dark and inaccessible mountains rose, covered with forests, indented with mysterious and unexplored ravines, and frowning in a wild and gloomy majesty over the narrow passway which crept along the shore below.

The Greeks, when they retired from Thessaly, fell back upon Thermopylæ, and established themselves there. They had a force variously estimated, from three to four thousand men. These were from the different states of Greece, some within and some without the Peloponnesus—a few hundred men only being furnished, in general, from each state or kingdom. Each of these bodies of troops had its own officers, though there was one general-in-chief, who commanded the whole. This was Leonidas the Spartan. He had brought with him three hundred Spartans, as the quota furnished by that city. These men he had specially selected himself, one by one, from among the troops of the city, as men on whom he could rely.

It will be seen from the map that Thermopylæ is at some distance from the Isthmus of Corinth, and that of the states which would be protected by making a stand at the pass, some were without the isthmus and some within. These states, in sending each a few hundred men only to Thermopylæ, did not consider that they were making their full contribution to the army, but only sending forward for the emergency those that could be dispatched at once; and they were all making arrangements to supply more troops as soon as they could be raised and equipped for the service. In the mean time, however, Xerxes and his immense hordes came on faster than they had expected, and the news at length came to Leonidas, in the pass, that the Persians, with one or two millions of men, were at hand, while he had only three or four thousand at Thermopylæ to oppose them. The question arose, What was to be done?

Those of the Greeks who came from the Peloponnesus were in favor of abandoning Thermopylæ, and falling back to the isthmus. The isthmus, they maintained, was as strong and as favorable a position as the place where they were; and, by the time they had reached it, they would have received great re-enforcements; whereas, with so small a force as they had then at command, it was madness to attempt to resist the Persian millions. This plan, however, was strongly opposed by all those Greeks who represented countries without  the Peloponnesus; for, by abandoning Thermopylæ, and falling back to the isthmus, their states would be left wholly at the mercy of the enemy. After some consultation and debate, it was decided to remain at Thermopylæ. The troops accordingly took up their positions in a deliberate and formal manner, and, intrenching themselves as strongly as possible, began to await the onset of the enemy. Leonidas and his three hundred were foremost in the defile, so as to be the first exposed to the attack. The rest occupied various positions along the passage, except one corps, which was stationed on the mountains above, to guard the pass in that direction. This corps was from Phocis, which, being the state nearest to the scene of conflict, had furnished a larger number of soldiers than any other. Their division numbered a thousand men. These being stationed on the declivity of the mountain, left only two or three thousand in the defile below.

From what has been said of the stern and savage character of the Spartans, one would scarcely expect in them any indications or displays of personal vanity. There was one particular, it seems, however, in regard to which they were vain, and that was in respect to their hair. They wore it very long. In fact, the length of the hair was, in their commonwealth, a mark of distinction between freemen and slaves. All the agricultural and mechanical labors were performed, as has already been stated, by the slaves, a body which constituted, in fact, the mass of the population; and the Spartan freemen, though very stern in their manners, and extremely simple and plain in their habits of life, were, it must be remembered, as proud and lofty in spirit as they were plain and poor. They constituted a military aristocracy, and a military aristocracy is always more proud and overbearing than any other.

It must be understood, therefore, that these Spartan soldiers were entirely above the performance of any useful labors; and while they prized, in character, the savage ferocity of the tiger, they had a taste, in person, for something like his savage beauty too. They were never, moreover, more particular and careful in respect to their personal appearance than when they were going into battle. The field of battle was their particular theater of display, not only of the substantial qualities of strength, fortitude, and valor, but also of such personal adornments as were consistent with the plainness and severity of their attire, and could be appreciated by a taste as rude and savage as theirs. They proceeded, therefore, when established at their post in the throat of the pass, to adorn themselves for the approaching battle.

In the mean time the armies of Xerxes were approaching. Xerxes himself, though he did not think it possible that the Greeks could have a sufficient force to offer him any effectual resistance, thought it probable that they would attempt to make a stand at the pass, and, when he began to draw near to it, he sent forward a horseman to reconnoiter the ground. The horseman rode into the pass a little way, until he came in sight of the enemy. He stopped upon an eminence to survey the scene, being all ready to turn in an instant, and fly at the top of his speed, in case he should be pursued. The Spartans looked upon him as he stood there, but seemed to consider his appearance as a circumstance of no moment, and then went on with their avocations. The horseman found, as he leisurely observed them, that there was an intrenchment thrown across the straits, and that the Spartans were in front of it. There were other forces behind, but these the horseman could not see. The Spartans were engaged, some of them in athletic sports and gymnastic exercises, and the rest in nicely arranging their dress, which was red and showy in color, though simple and plain in form, and in smoothing, adjusting, and curling their hair. In fact, they seemed to be, one and all, preparing for an entertainment.

And yet these men were actually preparing themselves to be slaughtered, to be butchered, one by one, by slow degrees, and in the most horrible and cruel manner; and they knew perfectly well that it was so. The adorning of themselves was, for this express and particular end.

The horseman, when he had attentively noticed all that was to be seen, rode slowly back to Xerxes, and reported the result. The king was much amused at hearing such an account from his messenger. He sent for Demaratus, the Spartan refugee, with whom, the reader will recollect, he held a long conversation in respect to the Greeks at the close of the great review at Doriscus. When Demaratus came, Xerxes related to him what the messenger had reported. "The Spartans in the pass," said he, "present, in their encampment, the appearance of being out on a party of pleasure. What does it mean? You will admit now, I suppose, that they do not intend to resist us."

Demaratus shook his head. "Your majesty does not know the Greeks," said he, "and I am very much afraid that, if I state what I know respecting them, I shall offend you. These appearances which your messenger observed indicate to me that the men he saw were a body of Spartans, and that they supposed themselves on the eve of a desperate conflict. Those are the men, practicing athletic feats, and smoothing and adorning their hair, that are the most to be feared of all the soldiers of Greece. If you can conquer them, you will have nothing beyond to fear."

Xerxes thought this opinion of Demaratus extremely absurd. He was convinced that the party in the pass was some small detachment that could not possibly be thinking of serious resistance. They would, he was satisfied, now that they found that the Persians were at hand, immediately retire down the pass, and leave the way clear. He advanced, therefore, up to the entrance of the pass, encamped there, and waited several days for the Greeks to clear the way. The Greeks remained quietly in their places, paying apparently no attention whatever to the impending and threatening presence of their formidable foes.

At length Xerxes concluded that it was time for him to act. On the morning, therefore, of the fifth day, he called out a detachment of his troops, sufficient, as he thought, for the purpose, and sent them down the pass, with orders to seize all the Greeks that were there, and bring them, alive, to him. The detachment that he sent was a body of Medes, who were considered as the best troops in the army, excepting always the Immortals, who, as has been before stated, were entirely superior to the rest. The Medes, however, Xerxes supposed, would find no difficulty in executing his orders.

The detachment marched, accordingly, into the pass. In a few hours a spent and breathless messenger came from them, asking for re-enforcements. The re-enforcements were sent. Toward night a remnant of the whole body came back, faint and exhausted with a long and fruitless combat, and bringing many of their wounded and bleeding comrades with them. The rest they had left dead in the defile.

Xerxes was both astonished and enraged at these results. He determined that this trifling should continue no longer. He ordered the Immortals themselves to be called out on the following morning, and then, placing himself at the head of them, he advanced to the vicinity of the Greek intrenchments. Here he ordered a seat or throne to be placed for him upon an eminence, and, taking his seat upon it, prepared to witness the conflict. The Greeks, in the mean time, calmly arranged themselves on the line which they had undertaken to defend, and awaited the charge. Upon the ground, on every side, were lying the mangled bodies of the Persians slain the day before, some exposed fully to view, ghastly and horrid spectacles, others trampled down and half buried in the mire.

The Immortals advanced to the attack, but they made no impression. Their superior numbers gave them no advantage, on account of the narrowness of the defile. The Greeks stood, each corps at its own assigned station on the line, forming a mass so firm and immovable that the charge of the Persians was arrested on encountering it as by a wall. In fact, as the spears of the Greeks were longer than those of the Persians, and their muscular and athletic strength and skill were greater, it was found that in the desperate conflict which raged, hour after hour, along the line, the Persians were continually falling, while the Greek ranks continued entire. Sometimes the Greeks would retire for a space, falling back with the utmost coolness, regularity, and order; and then, when the Persians pressed on in pursuit, supposing that they were gaining the victory, the Greeks would turn so soon as they found that the ardor of pursuit had thrown the enemies' lines somewhat into confusion, and, presenting the same firm and terrible front as before, would press again upon the offensive, and out down their enemies with redoubled slaughter. Xerxes, who witnessed all these things from among the group of officers around him upon the eminence, was kept continually in a state of excitement and irritation. Three times he leaped from his throne, with loud exclamations of vexation and rage.

All, however, was of no avail. When night came the Immortals were compelled to withdraw, and leave the Greeks in possession of their intrenchments.

Things continued substantially in this state for one or two days longer, when one morning a Greek countryman appeared at the tent of Xerxes, and asked an audience of the king. He had something, he said, of great importance to communicate to him. The king ordered him to be admitted. The Greek said that his name was Ephialtes, and that he came to inform the king that there was a secret path leading along a wild and hidden chasm in the mountains, by which he could guide a body of Persians to the summit of the hills overhanging the pass at a point below the Greek intrenchment. This point being once attained, it would be easy, Ephialtes said, for the Persian forces to descend into the pass below the Greeks, and thus to surround them and shut them in, and that the conquest of them would then be easy. The path was a secret one, and known to very few. He knew it, however, and was willing to conduct a detachment of troops through it, on condition of receiving a suitable reward.

The king was greatly surprised and delighted at this intelligence. He immediately acceded to Ephialtes's proposals, and organized a strong force to be sent up the path that very night.

On the north of Thermopylæ there was a small stream, which came down through a chasm in the mountains to the sea. The path which Ephialtes was to show commenced here, and following the bed of this stream up the chasm, it at length turned to the southward through a succession of wild and trackless ravines, till it came but at last on the declivities of the mountains near the lower part of the pass, at a place where it was possible to descend to the defile below. This was the point which the thousand Phocæans had been ordered to take possession of and guard, when the plan for the defense of the pass was first organized. They were posted here, not with the idea of repelling any attack from the mountains behind them—for the existence of the path was wholly unknown to them—but only that they might command the defile below, and aid in preventing the Persians from going through, even if those who were in the defile were defeated or slain.

The Persian detachment toiled all night up the steep and dangerous pathway, among rocks, chasms, and precipices, frightful by day, and now made still more frightful by the gloom of the night. They came out at last, in the dawn of the morning, into valleys and glens high up the declivity of the mountain, and in the immediate vicinity of the Phocæan encampment. The Persians were concealed, as they advanced, by the groves and thickets of stunted oaks which grew here, but the morning air was so calm and still, that the Phocæan sentinels heard the noise made by their trampling upon the leaves as they came up the glen. The Phocæans immediately gave the alarm. Both parties were completely surprised. The Persians had not expected to find a foe at this elevation, and the Greeks who had ascended there had supposed that all beyond and above them was an impassable and trackless desolation.

There was a short conflict. The Phocæans were driven off their ground. They retreated up the mountain, and toward the southward. The Persians decided not to pursue them. On the other hand, they descended toward the defile, and took up a position on the lower declivities of the mountain, which enabled them to command the pass below: there they paused, and awaited Xerxes's orders.

The Greeks in the defile perceived at once that they were now wholly at the mercy of their enemies. They might yet retreat, it is true, for the Persian detachment had not yet descended to intercept them; but, if they remained where they were, they would, in a few hours, be hemmed in by their foes; and even if they could resist, for a little time, the double onset which would then be made upon them, their supplies would be cut off, and there would be nothing before them but immediate starvation. They held hurried councils to determine what to do.

There is some doubt as to what took place at these councils, though the prevailing testimony is, that Leonidas recommended that they should retire—that is, that all except himself and the three hundred Spartans should do so. "You," said he, addressing the other Greeks, "are at liberty, by your laws, to consider, in such cases as this, the question of expediency, and to withdraw from a position which you have taken, or stand and maintain it, according as you judge best. But by our laws, such a question, in such a case, is not to be entertained. Wherever we are posted, there we stand, come life or death, to the end. We have been sent here from Sparta to defend the pass of Thermopylæ. We have received no orders to withdraw. Here, therefore, we must remain; and the Persians, if they go through the pass at all, must go through it over our graves. It is, therefore, your duty to retire. Our duty is here, and we will remain and do it."

After all that may be said of the absurdity and folly of throwing away the lives of three hundred men in a case like this, so utterly and hopelessly desperate, there is still something in the noble generosity with which Leonidas dismissed the other Greeks, and in the undaunted resolution with which he determined himself to maintain his ground, which has always strongly excited the admiration of mankind. It was undoubtedly carrying the point of honor to a wholly unjustifiable extreme, and yet all the world, for the twenty centuries which have intervened since these transactions occurred, while they have unanimously disapproved, in theory, of the course which Leonidas pursued, have none the less unanimously admired and applauded it.

In dismissing the other Greeks, Leonidas retained with him a body of Thebans, whom he suspected of a design of revolting to the enemy. Whether he considered his decision to keep them in the pass equivalent to a sentence of death, and intended it as a punishment for their supposed treason, or only that he wished to secure their continued fidelity by keeping them closely to their duty, does not appear. At all events, he retained them, and dismissed the other allies. Those dismissed retreated to the open country below. The Spartans and the Thebans remained in the pass. There were also, it was said, some other troops, who, not willing to leave the Spartans alone in this danger, chose to remain with them and share their fate. The Thebans remained very unwillingly.

The next morning Xerxes prepared for his final effort. He began by solemn religious services, in the presence of his army, at an early hour; and then, after breakfasting quietly, as usual, and waiting, in fact, until the business part of the day had arrived, he gave orders to advance. His troops found Leonidas and his party not at their intrenchments, as before, but far in advance of them. They had come out and forward into a more open part of the defile, as if to court and anticipate their inevitable and dreaded fate. Here a most terrible combat ensued; one which, for a time, seemed to have no other object than mutual destruction, until at length Leonidas himself fell, and then the contest for the possession of his body superseded the unthinking and desperate struggles of mere hatred and rage. Four times the body, having been taken by the Persians, was retaken by the Greeks: at last the latter retreated, bearing the dead body with them past their intrenchment, until they gained a small eminence in the rear of it, at a point where the pass was wider. Here the few that were still left gathered together. The detachment which Ephialtes had guided were coming up from below. The Spartans were faint and exhausted with their desperate efforts, and were bleeding from the wounds they had received; their swords and spears were broken to pieces, their leader and nearly all their company were slain. But the savage and tiger-like ferocity which animated them continued unabated till the last. They fought with tooth and nail when all other weapons failed them, and bit the dust at last, as they fell, in convulsive and unyielding despair. The struggle did not cease till they were all slain, and every limb of every man ceased to quiver.

There were stories in circulation among mankind after this battle, importing that one or two of the corps escaped the fate of the rest. There were two soldiers, it was said, that had been left in a town near the pass, as invalids, being afflicted with a severe inflammation of the eyes. One of them, when he heard that the Spartans were to be left in the pass, went in, of his own accord, and joined them, choosing to share the fate of his comrades. It was said that he ordered his servant to conduct him to the place. The servant did so, and then fled himself, in great terror. The sick soldier remained and fought with the rest. The other of the invalids was saved, but, on his return to Sparta, he was considered as stained with indelible disgrace for what his countrymen regarded a base dereliction from duty in not sharing his comrade's fate.

There was also a story of another man, who had been sent away on some mission into Thessaly, and who did not return until all was over; and also of two others who had been sent to Sparta, and were returning when they heard of the approaching conflict. One of them hastened into the pass, and was killed with his companions. The other delayed, and was saved. Whether any or all of these rumors were true, is not now certain; there is, however, no doubt that, with at most a few exceptions such as these, the whole three hundred were slain.

The Thebans, early in the conflict, went over in a body to the enemy.

Xerxes came after the battle to view the ground. It was covered with many thousands of dead bodies, nearly all of whom, of course, were Persians. The wall of the intrenchment was broken down, and the breaches in it choked up by the bodies. The morasses made by the water of the springs were trampled into deep mire, and were full of the mutilated forms of men and of broken weapons. When Xerxes came at last to the body of Leonidas, and was told that that was the man who had been the leader of the band, he gloried over it in great exultation and triumph. At length he ordered the body to be decapitated, and the headless trunk to be nailed to a cross.

Xerxes then commanded that a great hole should be dug, and ordered all the bodies of the Persians that had been killed to be buried in it, except only about a thousand, which he left upon the ground. The object of this was to conceal the extent of the loss which his army had sustained. The more perfectly to accomplish this end, he caused the great grave, when it was filled up, to be strewed over with leaves, so as to cover and conceal all indications of what had been done. This having been carefully effected, he sent the message to the fleet, which was alluded to at the close of the last chapter, inviting the officers to come and view the ground.

The operations of the fleet described in the last chapter, and those of the army narrated in this, took place, it will be remembered, at the same time, and in the same vicinity too; for, by referring to the map, it will appear that Thermopylæ was upon the coast, exactly opposite to the channel or arm of the sea lying north of Eubœa, where the naval contests had been waged; so that, while Xerxes had been making his desperate efforts to get through the pass, his fleet had been engaged in a similar conflict with the squadrons of the Greeks, directly opposite to him, twenty or thirty miles in the offing.

After the battle of Thermopylæ was over, Xerxes sent for Demaratus, and inquired of him how many more such soldiers there were in Greece as Leonidas and his three hundred Spartans. Demaratus replied that he could not say how many precisely there were in Greece, but that there were eight thousand such in Sparta alone. Xerxes then asked the opinion of Demaratus as to the course best to be pursued for making the conquest of the country. This conversation was held in the presence of various nobles and officers, among whom was the admiral of the fleet, who had come, with the various other naval commanders, as was stated in the last chapter, to view the battle-field.

Demaratus said that he did not think that the king could easily get possession of the Peloponnesus by marching to it directly, so formidable would be the opposition that he would encounter at the isthmus. There was, however, he said, an island called Cythera, opposite to the territories of Sparta, and not far from the shore, of which he thought that the king could easily get possession, and which, once fully in his power, might be made the base of future operations for the reduction of the whole peninsula, as bodies of troops could be dispatched from it to the main land in any numbers and at any time. He recommended, therefore, that three hundred ships, with a proper complement of men, should be detached from the fleet, and sent round at once to take possession of that island.

To this plan the admiral of the fleet was totally opposed. It was natural that he should be so, since the detaching of three hundred ships for this enterprise would greatly weaken the force under his command. It would leave the fleet, he told the king, a miserable remnant, not superior to that of the enemy, for they had already lost four hundred ships by storms. He thought it infinitely preferable that the fleet and the army should advance together, the one by sea and the other on the land, and complete their conquests as they went along. He advised the king, too, to beware of Demaratus's advice. He was a Greek, and, as such, his object was, the admiral believed, to betray and ruin the expedition.

After hearing these conflicting opinions, the king decided to follow the admiral's advice. "I will adopt your counsel," said he, but I will not hear any thing said against Demaratus, for I am convinced that he is a true and faithful friend to me." Saying this, he dismissed the council.