One of the most common misconceptions about Sparta today is that the Spartan army had a tradition of “do or die,” that is, that it was against Sparta's laws to retreat. This myth has its roots in Leonidas’ stand at Thermopylae, and the most important piece of evidence is the memorial that the Spartans themselves erected at Thermopylae after the Persians had been driven out of Greece. This famous monument had a dedication that in one common translation ran: “Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here, in obedience to the laws, we lie.”
This simple epitaph is widely interpreted to mean that the 300 Spartans who died at Thermopylae had no option of retreating. Allegedly, these men lay buried in the Pass at Thermopylae, so far from home, because Sparta’s “laws” forbade retreat or surrender regardless of the odds or the certainty of death.
|Modern Monument at Thermopylae|
But as I have pointed out elsewhere, Spartan forces both retreated and surrendered in a variety of other engagements over the centuries (e.g. Hysiai, Sphakteria). The Spartans didn’t seem to think there was a “law” against retreat even under far less threatening and less hopeless situations than that presented to Leonidas at Thermopylae. Are we to believe Leonidas and his 300 were the only Spartans who lived and died by Sparta’s laws? Or could there be another explanation of the epitaph?
The answer, I believe, can be found in the fact that there were, according to Herodotus, in fact three separate monuments erected to commemorate the men who fought at Thermopylae. First, there was a collective monument which read: Four thousand here from Pelops’ land, Against a million once did stand. This clearly referred to the other Peloponnesian allies that fought with the Spartans at Thermopylae on the first two days. (The Thespians appear to have erected their monument only at home, or a separate monument to the Thespians had disappeared by the time Herodotus visited the site of the battle.) Second there was the monument referred to above, and third there was “a stone lion in memory of Leonidas.”
|No -- unfortunately not the monument to Leonidas which is lost, but possibly inspired by description: the Lion of Lucern commemorating the loss of the Swiss Guard.|
In short, there were two Spartan monuments: the one to Leonidas and the one to the other Spartiates. If we separate the two, then we see the glimmer of an answer because it suggests that the “law” that the 300 obeyed may not have applied to Leonidas at all.
Leonidas had an option. Leonidas could have decided to pull-out of the Pass as soon as it became indefensible. Leonidas would not have broken any “law” if he had done so, because there was no law that required Spartans to fight until death rather than retreat or surrender.
But there was a law that required obedience to Sparta’s kings as long as they were beyond the borders of Lacedaemon in command of Sparta’s army. This law is documented and was widely respected. Sparta’s kings could be charged, tried and exiled once they were at home, but not during war, not while campaigning abroad. As long as they were commanding the army in a military engagement outside Lacedaemon, their troops were bound to obey them, and for the most part did.
What this means is that once Leonidas decided to stay and die – as he no doubt believed was his destiny based on the oracle from Delphi – his body guard had no option but to stay with him. There is anecdotal evidence recorded by Plutarch that Leonidas tried to save some of his companions by asking them to deliver dispatches, but the “older men” saw through him and refused. This is consistent with a king determined to face his destiny, but distressed by the knowledge that his decision will drag three hundred of Sparta’s finest with him.
The erection of two separate monuments and the epitaph makes sense in this context as well. Leonidas was the lion, who decided to go down fighting defiantly rather than live to fight a another day. After he had made that courageous decision, however, his bodyguard had no choice and for them, therefore, they lay buried in a foreign pass not as particular heroes but simply “in obedience to the laws.”
Experience Spartan Society more closely in my Leonidas' Trilogy:
Buy Now! Buy Now! Buy Now!