Here I am, an old man in a dry month,
Being read to by a boy, waiting for rain.
I was neither at the hot gates
Nor fought in the warm rain
Nor knee deep in the salt marsh, heaving a cutlass,
Bitten by flies, fought.
The main event in Book Six in the Battle of Marathon, which of course was an Athenian victory. The Spartans must have been envious that they didn’t share in the glory, and nervous that their rival city-state got all the credit.
But Sparta gets its own back in Book Seven. The main event of Book Seven, of course, is the battle of Thermopylae, during which an elite force of 300 Spartans, accompanied by Thespians (fighting voluntarily) and Thebans (fighting involuntarily), hold off the mighty Persian army at a narrow coastal pass just south of Thessaly on the Greek mainland. The narrow pass at Thermopylae negated the Persian numerical advantage, but more importantly the Spartans had greater bravery and greater fighting skill, allowing them to repel wave after wave of Persian attacks. Only when the Persians discovered a way around Thermopylae were the Spartans encircled and defeated. But even knowing this, the Spartans never retreated, and died to a man. So Thermopylae represents a defeat, but a very inspiring one. Tactically the Spartans delayed the Persian advance so that other Greeks had time to dig in, so some tangible good, and not just inspiration, did come out of it.
From Herodotus’s description, we can tell that this battle meant a great deal to the Greeks. Such details as the recitation of King Leonidas’s extensive genealogy, the Spartans combing their long hair in preparation for battle, and Pantites’ committing suicide out of shame, because he had missed the battle while he was delivering a message, all suggest that this was something special, even sacred. The epigram ascribed to Simonides:
Go, tell the Spartans, stranger passing by
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie
further helps to cement the place of this battle in Greek history. (“Go tell the Spartans,” I discover, is the title of a 1978 Viet Nam war movie.) Even the witty contribution of Dieneces was deemed worthy of inclusion in The Histories: Dieneces is the Spartan who, when told that the Persian arrows were so numerous, that they blocked out the sun, replied that “If the Medes hide the sun, we shall fight them in the shade.” Herodotus claims that Dieneces made many such sayings, and if this is the case it would make him especially Spartan, for the Spartans valued the Laconic phrase – dry wit, expressed in as few words as possible. (In Book 3, Herodotus tells of the arrival of a Samian embassy to Sparta. The Samians give a long speech. The Spartans say that they have forgotten the beginning and can’t understand the end. So the Samians return with a sack, saying “the sack needs grain.” The Spartans reply that the word “sack” is redundant.)
The archetypical Laconic phrase is a reply to Xerxes’s demand that the Spartans give up their weapons. The Spartan King Leonidas replied simply with “Come and take them” (μολὼν λαβέ). Alas, this gem of a riposte does not appear in The Histories. But it does appear in Plutarch’s Moralia, and it is inscribed on the base of the statue of Leonidas that we find at Thermopylae today.
This expression echoes down the ages: it has resonance in American gun culture for obvious reasons, and one sees it as a decal on cars. It’s a slightly classier way of saying “You can have my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers.” The Michigan State Spartans also use it in their marketing, as though to reply to the opponent’s request to give up the football.
Book Seven reminds me of our visit to Texas this past summer, when I discovered the existence of the Gonzales Flag, an artifact of the opening salvo in the Texas Revolution. In 1831, the Mexican government had given the Anglo residents of Gonzales a cannon for their defense. In 1835, however, as it became clear that Anglo loyalty was highly questionable, the Mexicans sent a force to take it back, and the Gonzalans replied with a suitable Laconic phrase, embroidered on an improvised flag. The Battle of Gonzales was the first military engagement in the Revolution, and inspiring for Texans, as the Mexicans were forced to retreat without their cannon. An even better known episode in the Battle of the Alamo, when, following a 13-day siege, the Mexicans under Santa Anna stormed the Mission San Antonio de Valero and killed all of its defenders. This defeat served precisely the same purpose as the Battle of Thermopylae 2300 years earlier – to inspire other Texans to keep fighting. (Although the number of deaths at the Alamo was about a third lower than the number of Spartans killed at Thermopylae, I was pleased to discover that the street address of the Alamo is 300 Alamo Plaza – a nice classical reference there.)
To return to Sparta: why did they act this way? The Spartan king Demaratus, exiled to the court of Xerxes, is a very useful literary device for Herodotus, who can use Demaratus to explain Spartan motivation. In 101, Demaratus presciently claims that the Spartans will fight no matter what the odds because, as he tells Xerxes:
fighting singly, they are no worse than any other people; together, they are the most gallant men on earth. For they are free – but not altogether so. They have as the despot over them Law, and they fear him much more than your men fear you. At least they do whatever he bids them do; and he bids them always the same thing: not to flee from the fight before any multitude of men whatever but to stand firm in their ranks and either conquer or die.
This contrasts utterly with the Persian custom of forcing their soldiers forward by whipping them. In a similar vein, in 135, the two Spartan hostages, Sperthias and Bulis, who volunteer to travel to the Persian capital Susa and offer themselves as compensation for the Persian herald whom the Spartans have earlier killed, meet Hydarnes, the Persian satrap of the Asian seacoast. He asks why the Spartans won’t seek the friendship of Xerxes, because the king knows how to honor good men, and suggests that the Spartans might hold an important position in a Persian administration of Greece. Their reply is that:
Your advice with relation to us comes from something less than an equality of position. You counsel us as one who has tried one condition but knows nothing of the other. You know what it is to be a slave, but you have no experience of freedom, to know whether it is sweet or not. If you had had such experience, you would bid us fight for it, not with spears only, but with axes as well.
It’s a nice detail that Sperthias and Bulis refuse to bow to Xerxes when they arrive in Susa.
So yes, Thermopylae matters, as does the Greek conception of freedom and the rule of law. More than Marathon, Salamis, or even Plataea, Thermopylae is the battle that people remember. Of course it does help that the Greeks ultimately won, validating and justifying Thermopylae, and it helps that the Spartans inflicted huge numbers of casualties prior to their own defeat. It is true that a tactical retreat is often a better option than a noble sacrifice: In IDS 305 today, we talked about the French Order of the Star, founded in 1351 and severely weakened the next year at the Battle of Mauron, when ninety members, sworn not to turn their backs on the enemy or retreat more than four steps, consequently lost their lives, to no useful purpose.
But sometimes it isn’t.