Herodotus refers to three separate monuments erected before his time to commemorate the men who fought at Thermopylae. There was a collective monument which read: Four thousand here from Pelops’ land, Against a million once did stand. There was “a stone lion in memory of Leonidas,” and a special monument erected by the Spartans with 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 has, I believe, been the source of much confusion about Sparta down the ages. It 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 regardless of the odds or the certainty of death.
But as I have pointed out elsewhere, Spartan forces both surrendered and retreated in a variety of other engagements over the centuries. 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, in fact, 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 one step.”
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 armies. 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 abroad. As long as they were abroad on campaign, 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.
Leonidas the King, his companions and their stand at Thermopylae is the subject of: