Sparta was elected to lead the coalition of Greek cities opposing the Persian invasion in 480 BC not only on land but also at sea. Compared to Athens and Corinth, Sparta’s navy was small, but Sparta’s naval tradition was considerably longer than numbers suggest, and Sparta’s perioikoi marines may have enjoyed a strong reputation for competence since they often fought alongside the Spartans.
Fighting as a marine, however, was a very different skill from fighting in a phalax on land. In the following excerpt from “A Peerless Peer” I describe a completely fictional naval engagement in which Leonidas commands a mixed Spartiate and perioikoi force that is providing marines for a Corinthian fleet bringing grain from the Black Sea. The point of the episode is to remind readers of Corinth’s dependence on imported food, to highlight the fierce fight for the Aegean Sea during the Ionian revolt, and give the reader insight into what such naval actions might look like.
Specifically in this scene, Leonidas and his marines are trying to protect six ships that have been damaged in a storm and are now lashed together like a large float to enable the strong ships to drag the precious cargoes of the disabled ships to port. They are attacked by a squadron of Phoenician triremes under Persian command and manned by Persian marines.
Despite the unusual circumstances, thanks to a lifetime of keeping contact with their rank-mates and endless drill in adjusting their own movements to those of the men left and right, the Spartiates crossed onto the other ship in a line without serious gaps. That proved to be enough. When the Persian archers realized that the wall of bronze was moving toward them, they broke and ran. Only the fastest made it. Anyone who slipped and fell on the bloody deck or tripped over rigging and scattered weapons was stabbed mercilessly by the “lizard stickers” of the Spartan spears.
When the line of bronze shields and scarlet cloaks appeared along the side of the ship, the Phoenician captain shouted furiously and the trireme backwatered wildly, pulling itself free of its victim. As it withdrew, the Corinthian merchantman settled into the water and started to list noticeably. Leonidas turned and led his men up the incline, to get back to the fight that was taking place at the far side of the float.
By the time they were back aboard the “Golden Dawn,” the enemy was pouring over the railing on the far side. There were bodies strewn across the deck of the far ship—Greek bodies for the most part. Arrows were pouring down on them again. It flashed through Leonidas’ mind that he might die right here, along with every Lacedaemonian under his command. He could clearly expect no help from the two Corinthian triremes, which were both fully engaged. The sailors were proving surprisingly poor soldiers—something he hadn’t expected, since they were defending their own ships and lives and had nowhere to escape. But there was no point thinking about it.
He called a halt to dress their lines. They were two men short—the man with the eye wound and someone else. No time to identify the casualties. At least they were on a level deck now and they could advance across it at a steady pace, drawing on their discipline and training.
The second Phoenician hadn’t rammed, but had come alongside. The enemy troops poured over the gunnel along the whole length of the ship. Fortunately, they were the same poorly armed and unarmored men, and were just as undisciplined as their countrymen. Oddly, there seemed to be more of them, and the hindmost men were stabbing the men ahead of them in their backs! They were Greek marines!
At last Leonidas’ brain registered that there was another ship beyond the Phoenician trireme—the Corinthian freighter “Orcelle”!
The fool! But at the same moment, Leonidas felt such a rush of gratitude for the crippled Corinthian [captain commanding her] that it was as if he’d just been reinforced by the Guard. He increased the pace. Step and thrust, step and thrust. The enemy was going down before them with very little chance of defending themselves. The trick was to ignore the arrows, Leonidas decided. Raising his spear arm for the thrust, the man beside Leonidas took an arrow in the armpit and crumpled to the deck with a croaked-off wail. The man behind closed the rank with Leonidas without missing a beat. Step and thrust. They had cleared the deck of the “Golden Dawn.”
Ahead was a confused melee of sailors and an exceptionally large number of marines from the “Orcelle,” mixed with enemy archers and enemy marines. The sun broke over the horizon, and for the first time Leonidas could see that the Persians wore clothes of yellow and purple in bizarre stripes and chains of diamonds. It was the gaudiest sight he had ever seen in his life—all liberally splashed with red. And just beyond, the sun glistened blissfully on a calm and enchanting seascape.
By the time Leonidas made it aboard the Phoenician trireme, he realized that the Greek sailors had gained full possession of her after slaughtering the Phoenician crew. They cheered him and his marines as they crossed the trireme, heading for the “Orcelle.” Lychos was hanging over the side of his ship, clutching the rail. He was dressed in full panoply, and Leonidas knew that it must have half killed him just to put it on.
Leonidas shoved his helmet back and grinned up at the Corinthian from the deck of the captive trireme. “You stupid fool!”
“It worked, didn’t it?” Lychos grinned back at him. “I think the Phoenician captain died of pure astonishment when he realized a freighter was attacking him!”
“It helped that my marines are first-class archers and sent him to Hades with an arrow in his throat.”
Leonidas threw back his head and laughed, then thought to ask, “Just how many marines do you have on board?”
“A lot. My father still won’t let me go anywhere without all the protection he can buy.”
“He’ll wring the marine captain’s neck when he finds out what you did!”
“But it was so beautiful, Leonidas! It was the most beautiful moment of my whole life—coming to your rescue.”