Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Thespeia and Thermopylae

The reason I made no post last week is that I was in Greece. A sudden change of plans made it possible for my husband and I to get away for almost ten days. With the help of cheap airlines and a willingness to improvise, we took off for Thessaloniki.
On our fourth day, we reached Boiotia and after driving several hours in the blistering summer heat (ca. 100 F), we made the turn-off to Thespeia. We left the flat cultivated fields beside the National Road, with its road-side taverns, furniture show-rooms and telephone lines, and headed into low, rolling hills. The character of the land changed almost instantly. The valleys were golden with the stalks of harvested wheat broken here and there by olive orchards or stands of other trees, and the hills were semi-arid.
Eventually, we came to a T-intersection in an obscure village without signs, but at once a young man got up from the roadside cafe, and offered assistance in educated English. He seemed a little surprised that we wanted to go to “the village” of Thespeia, but when we assured him that was our destination, he told us to turn left and go until we reached the school then turn right and continue six kilometers.

His directions were exactly correct. After six kilometers, we found ourselves facing a marble monument dominated by the larger-than-life statue of a hoplite. Despite my rudimentary Greek, it was possible to decipher enough of the dedication to know the monument was erected to commemorate the 700 Thespians who died with Leonidas at Thermopylae. The dedication included a quote from Herodotus.
We continued into the modern village, which perched on top of a low, but steep, hill with a surprisingly good view of the surrounding countryside. To the east, not far away, was another long, curving hill. To the north the plain, and to the west and south distant mountains almost lost in haze beyond gently rolling, cultivated countryside. The village was surprisingly large – larger than other villages that rated a dot of equal size on my Baedeker map. There were numerous shops and cafes of the type not intended for tourists, churches, of course, and, in a school play-ground surrounded by bright colored children’s carousels, a more human-sized hoplite also commemorating the dead of Thermopylae. Yet, as far as I could see, no other memorials marked Thespeia’s history – no heroic leaders from the wars of independence, no resistance fighters against the Germans, neither statesmen nor novelists, nor men of science. In short, Thespeia appears to have played no role in history worth mentioning even on home-town monuments -- except for those 700 citizens willing to die rather than retreat before the invading army of Xerxes.

We returned by the road we’d come, still perplexed by why this little city had made such an enormous sacrifice in 480 BC. The loss of 700 citizens must have been far more devastating for little Thespeia, than the loss of 300 Spartiates to the powerful state of Lacedaemon, Why did the Thespeians alone voluntarily stay behind with Leonidas on the third day of the Battle of Thermopylae?
Back on the national road, we continued north up the broad central valley of Boiotia. Was this the route Leonidas took north? Having collected troops in Thebes (whether willing nor not) and Thespia, wouldn’t he have followed this easy route through the fertile plane, in the hope/expectation of gathering more troops from the other cities of Boiotia? After all, they were the cities most immediately threatened by Persia, if the Pass at Thermopylae failed to hold.

Certainly, this was the route by which the Athenians, Thebans and other Greeks went forth to confront Philip of Macedon. The “Lion Monument” still marks the spot where the Macedonians prevailed over the Greek alliance, allegedly standing on the spot where the members of Thebe’s Sacred Band were buried. Although like Thermopylae, this monument marks a Greek defeat, unlike the monument at Thermopylae this one is not defiant. The lion is not roaring or fighting, or even lying slain with hundreds of arrows in his corpse as does the Lion of Luzern. This lion is simply sitting like a great cat, his tail curled around his legs, and staring with hate-filled eyes into the distance (at the now vanished mound of Macedonian dead.)

Not far beyond the above monument at Chaironeia, we turned east to cross the Kallidromo before the slopes became too high, believing this would have been Leonidas’ most probable route to Thermopylae. This proved extremely informative because, while the mountains did not appear terribly formidable from the plane on which we had been driving, we soon discovered we were actually on a plateau and a deep gorge and rugged terrain separated us from the coast.

After winding our way on increasingly difficult roads for some time, we came around a curve and suddenly could see the sea in the distance. In Leonidas’ time the coast, however, was much nearer than now, and all the flat, cultivated land had to be imagined away. We continued our descent, but, I confess, we missed a turn or two and joined the National Road just a mile or so south of Thermyplae itself. This was too close to have been the route Leonidas took with his thousands strong force, but the last part may, in fact, have followed the general contours of the route taken by the Immortals when they circumvented the defended pass to fall on Leonidas in the rear. The Persians, of course, would have had to first cross much more difficult terrain to the north before joining the last portion of our drive down to the coastal road.
So we had reached Thermopylae. It was late afternoon, the sun still high and blistering.

The National Highway has been widened at this point to allow tourists to halt. To the right is the official monument with a very nice frieze and the larger-than-life sculpture of Leonidas with raised spear. There are also two boards providing brief historical information about the site including useful diagrams of the three phases of the battle. Beyond, on the same side of the road, is a monument marked by an bronze eagle, to all who have given their lives for Greek democracy.

To the left of the road is the actual site of the battle. Most prominent is the mound or hillock believed by most historians to have been the site of the final stand of Leonidas’ troops after his own death. Hundreds of Persian arrowheads were found in the mound, but apparently no human remains as would be the case if it were the traditional mound raised over a mass grave. (Note: beneath the Lion of Chaironeia the bones of exactly 297 men were found.)
From the hillock one has an excellent view north across three “walls” that clearly post-date the battle and may or may not represent someone’s (more or less informed) attempt to mark the likely position of the ancient walls. Certainly one can gain a feel for the landscape -- if one remembers that the coastline would have run where the national road now forms a concrete and asphalt border to the killing fields.

For me, the mood and my ability to focus on the distant past was slightly impaired by the bizarre activities of a half-dozen young people in red t-shirts and white trousers that had set up an improvised altar with a Corinthian helmet, small replicas of the Leonidas statue and other trinkets. They were harmless enough, but one wonders what and who they were trying to deify? Leonidas? Their gestures seemed a tawdry contrast to the unpretentious but profound nature of Leonidas and his actions.

Not more than 300 yards beyond the last of these walls are the “hot springs” for which Thermopylae is named. These still gush hot, sulfurous water into a small pool. Given the heat and the smell, they were hardly inviting, but we did re-fill our water bottles at the spring in front of the monument on the far side of the road. I hope Leonidas and his troops also had ready access to fresh, drinking water. Just walking to the top of the hillock in the Greek summer sun left me drenched in sweat.

It was a long journey for me to Thermopylae, which lies thousands of miles from Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I was born, and took me almost half a century to reach, but it was worth the trip. I would not have felt right writing the third book of my Leonidas Trilogy without having been there personally – and I’m glad I went in the height of summer. I hope my readers will benefit from this pilgrimage even more than I, and that my books will in part fulfil the adminishment of the ancient monument that urged passers by to tell of Leonidas' obedience to Spartan law.

"Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,
that here, in obedience to her laws, we lie."


  1. You have made the journey that I wish to do. Thanks for recounting your experience and your feelings!

  2. You have taken the journey that I would love to do. Thanks for posting your eperience and your feelings!

  3. First off, I really enjoy your blog!

    Secondly, I believe the Thermopylae (and Europe in general) of antiquity was much cooler than it is today. Contemporary authors mention harsh winters and deep show in places that are quite temperate in our time, so it's quite possible that Leonidas and his compatriots never saw any 100-degree days.

  4. That's an interesting thesis. Certainly the geography has changed, so why not the climate? Still it does snow in Greece some years, so I'm reluctant without further evidence to assume that temperatures were consistently cooler. But thanks for the thought and for following this blog!