Thermopylae was a three-day battle, and most accounts focus on the final day and the sacrifice of Leonidas, his three hundred Spartiates and the Thespians, but the first two days, before betrayal, were remarkable for their success. Below is an excerpt from "A Heroic King."
The other allies were wild with jubilation. They were jumping up and down, clapping one another on the back, and singing paeans to the Gods. Some had formed lines, arms on each other’s shoulders, and were dancing despite the rain. They had not only survived the day, they had held the entire might of the Persian Empire to a draw. They had stopped the invincible Immortals in their tracks. The Pass was still in Greek hands, and the Gods were clearly on the Greek side. How else explain that Zeus himself with his thunderbolts had driven Xerxes from his viewing platform? How else explain that when the Greeks were in the moment of greatest danger, the rain and wind had forced the invincible Immortals to withdraw?
Leonidas was too tired to join in the rejoicing. He was far more concerned about bringing their wounded and dead off the field, and anxious that every man still alive was properly treated. Meander was hovering around him, anxious to bind up his wounds, but Leonidas wanted the names of the dead. “Where’s Alkander?” he demanded, abruptly noticing the absence of his closest, dearest, oldest friend. No sooner did he miss Alkander than he felt instantly and helplessly lost. He was a little boy again, in that horrible storm during the Phouxir―only Alkander wasn’t with him. He couldn’t survive without Alkander! It was a moment before he remembered he wasn’t supposed to survive.
Prokles pointed to the bloody field and growled, “He’s out there looking for Sperchias.”
Sperchias? That was almost as bad. He and Sperchias had been together on Kythera…just like Euryleon. Only now did it sink in.
“Sit down, Leo!” Prokles ordered. “Let Meander look after you. You’re losing a pint of your god-damned royal blood, and for all we know it’s the only pint left from Herakles.” As he spoke, Prokles pushed him into the imperfect shelter of his tent to at least get him out of the drenching rain.
As he sat, Leonidas caught sight of his hoplon. With horror, he registered that the beautiful bronze work was torn, bashed, punctured, and clogged with clotted human remains―a hideous wreck. Only one eye of the lion was recognizable for what it had been. The rest, once so lifelike and defiant, was just junk, beyond repair. Leonidas felt a rush of shame. How could he have been so irresponsible as to take a work of art into battle? Why hadn’t he left the shield at home for Pleistarchos? Men were mortal, meant to die, but art ― art was meant to be immortal and transcendent. Something as beautiful as this shield should never have been subjected to this kind of violence! It should never have been violated by war. He wanted to weep for what was irretrievably lost to all mankind.
Prokles’ voice snapped him out of his spiraling grief. “You’ll need one of the spare hoplons,” he commented matter-of-factly, and before Leonidas could even answer, Oliantus ducked into the tent to announce, “Fourteen confirmed dead, sir. Five still missing. Twenty two seriously injured, plus Eurytus and Aristodemos. A total of forty three casualties.”
Leonidas stared at him. “At that rate, we have just five more days before we’re wiped out.” For the very first time since he had arrived at Thermopylae, Leonidas seriously wondered whether they could hold the Pass until the Spartan army arrived.
“Our casualties were disproportionately high today because we took the field against the Immortals. The other allied contingents have less severe casualties.”
“What about the Thespians?”
“I don’t have the exact numbers―”
“Get them. Or wait,” Leonidas tried to stand, but Prokles and Oliantus both shoved him back down. Prokles signaled for one of the helots to fetch Demophilus.
Meanwhile Oliantus continued, “The helots have managed to get a fire going in a long pit behind the hillock and have rigged up canvas covers to protect it from the rain. They are roasting four pigs. The Gods alone know where they found embers and dry wood. As soon as Meander gets you patched up, we should head over. The others won’t start without you.”
“Tell them not to stand on ceremony at a time like this. They can start without―”
“Precisely at a time like this,” Oliantus corrected, “we need to remember who we are and who you are, my lord. At no other time is a Spartan king more important to us than on the eve of battle.”
Leonidas bowed his head in silent acknowledgement, but then asked anxiously, “How badly wounded are Maron and Alpheus?”
This brought a smile to Oliantus’ tired face. “If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t believe it. They swear the Twins appeared and stood on either side of them, fighting with them and protecting them with their divine shields. Alpheus lost an eye, and Maron’s ankles are bloated up like the fetlocks of a plow horse, but they aren’t going to die.”
Demophilus arrived, and Leonidas shook off Meander and Prokles to get to his feet. They gazed at each other silently; then Demophilus put his arms around Leonidas and murmured, “Thank you.”
“Without you, they would have run; they would have let the Persians just flood across Boiotia without even trying to stop them. Now they know it can be done,” he continued, gesturing toward the men singing and dancing around other campfires. “Now I know it can be done. We can beat them!”