Find Out More

Find out more about Helena P. Schrader's Sparta novels at:

Saturday, August 15, 2020

"Come and Take Them!" - An Excerpt from "A Heroic King"

The Battle of Thermopylae took place at roughly this time of year 2,500 years ago. 

It ended in a complete rout of the Greek forces defending the pass and the slaughter of the rear-guard. Among the dead was a Spartan king, Leonidas, and his closest friends. Altogether 300 Spartans and 700 Thespians died so that their comrades could withdraw.  

The latter lived to fight and defeat the Persians at the Battle of Plataea roughly one year later. 

This excerpt from A Heroic King describes that moment when Leonidas gave notice to the Persians that he intended to fight to the last man.

As Alkander made his way back to Leonidas’ tent, he recognized scores of other attendants moving about awkwardly and a little dazed in their new, if tattered, finery. His own man was not among them. Alkander’s man had a young wife and two small children. He had hesitated a seemly moment, but Alkander’s sincerity in urging him to go home had overcome his scruples. It gave Alkander a small sense of victory to know he had saved at least that young life, and he had taken the opportunity to send a last message, scratched on a shard of broken pottery, for Hilaira and his sons. That, too, was a comfort. With the departure of his attendant and that message, he had taken leave of home. All he had to face now was the short future that remained― starting with Leonidas.

He reached Leonidas as the latter emerged from his tent, jamming his helmet onto his head. Alkander knew Leonidas was angry with him for insisting on coming to Thermopylae and for insisting on staying. He knew he had miscalculated. His heart ached for Hilaira. He was sorry he could not be the surrogate father to Agiatis and Pleistarchos that Leonidas wanted him to be. But he could not regret his decision. His place was here. He met his friend’s eyes, bracing for the fury he expected to see in them, and was taken aback by a look of sheer affection. Leonidas had forgiven him. Alkander felt his tension dissolve in the morning air. They had no need for words.

They walked together through the abandoned camp and mounted the wall. Leonidas called the commanders to him: Demophilus and Leontiades, and the Spartiates Diodoros, Dienekes, and Kalliteles. They formed a little circle, and he searched their earnest faces. The shock of what had happened was wearing off, and reality was sinking in. These men were starting to think about what their death would mean, not just to them but to their families, their friends. It was good that the Persians were mustering at last, because waiting could be far more demoralizing than fighting.

“We need one phalanx inside the East Gate, facing east to meet the Immortals whenever they arrive.” He paused and then looked at Leontiades. “Would you and your Thebans assume that position?” Leontiades nodded, glancing back toward the East Gate. It was quiet now. Empty. No bodies rotted on that side of the wall. The earth had been torn up by thousands of men passing to and fro, but not by fi ghting. It did not stink. At the moment, theirs was the easier task. But the Immortals were Persia’s elite troops. When they came, it would be a brutal fight―and an honorable death.

“Good. Then between us, Thespiae and Sparta, we have just short of a thousand men. What I propose is to―”

A commotion behind him made Leonidas stop and look over. Hobbling up the rear ramp, supporting one another, were seventeen wounded Spartiates and Eurytus, his eyes bound, led by his helot. Aristodemos was notably absent from the little group.

The sight of the walking wounded made Leonidas forget what he was about to say. He scowled. “I ordered you to return to Sparta with the perioikoi!” he growled.

“No one―not even a Spartan king―has the right to order a Spartiate to dishonor himself,” Pantesiadas replied calmly, leaning heavily on Exarchus’ shoulder. “Have you forgotten the answer you gave to me when I was serving in your syssitia as a boy?” Leonidas couldn’t remember the incident at all, but Pantesiadas reminded him, quoting: “Life is a gift of nature, and a natural death overtakes even the vilest creature. An honorable death, on the other hand, is something only an honorable man can choose.”†

There was no answer to that, and no time, either. A chariot was rushing toward them. It was a magnificent one, pulled by two matching bays groomed to gleam in the morning sun. The charioteer was dressed in tight-fitting striped trousers and a striped long-sleeved tunic, over which he wore a quilted corselet. The stitching of the corselet was gold, and the diamonds of the quilting were alternately yellow and green. He wore a tall turban of matching colored cloth embroidered with gold, which also covered his mouth―apparently against the stink. Beside him was a man in a tall headdress, wearing armor over bright purple and yellow cloth that was much baggier, looser, and finer. He wore gold bracelets on his wrists, gold cuffs on his arms, and a belt encrusted with coral. He had a long, curly beard and a staff of some sort. Unfortunately, with both Sperchias and Bulis dead, Leonidas had no one with him who might have cast more light on who he was or where he came from.

The charioteer pulled up and shouted: “King Leonidas of Sparta!”

Having watched the chariot’s approach, Leonidas turned back to his commanders and ordered, “Demophilus, deploy your Thespians to the left; we’ll stand on the edge of the cliff to the sea. Kalliteles, your company to the far right. Diodoros, your company next to the Thespians.”

“Leonidas of Sparta! Are you still there? Or has the Spartan king run away?”

“Follow me down onto the field,” Leonidas ordered his troops. Then he turned and started down the central ramp onto the field before the Middle Gate.

The field had, as usual, been cleared of the dead during the night, by pushing the bodies of the enemy off the cliff into the sea and burying the allied dead. The vultures and other scavengers had followed the feast to the shoreline below. Nevertheless, Leonidas had to tread carefully because broken pieces of equipment littered the earth. Broken spear and arrow shafts, broken swords and body parts, and―most dangerously―arrowheads and spearheads made the footing treacherous, although much improved since yesterday morning.

About a hundred paces ahead of the wall, Leonidas stopped and waited with his hands on his hips. “I’m Leonidas of Sparta. What does your master want now?”

“You have been betrayed. You will soon be surrounded. You have squandered any opportunity for an honorable place among the Great King’s subjects. But the King of Kings is benevolent beyond measure. While your cause is lost, your lives need not be. The Great King offers you your naked lives, if you surrender your arms.”

Come and take them!”‡ Leonidas flung back at him―loud enough for the words to reverberate beyond the Pass and into history.

†A saying to this effect is attributed to Leonidas in Plutarch’s collection of “Sayings of Spartans.”

‡ This is probably Leonidas’ most famous line. It is recorded in Plutarch, but it probably has a much older and wider tradition. Its popularity is reflected in the modern monuments to Leonidas. In modern Sparti, the monument to Leonidas does not consider it necessary to identify him by name—only by this one phrase.


                    Coming Soon!


Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Leonidas the Soldier - An Excerpt from "A Peerless Peer"

At the start of the month I discussed Leonidas long career in the Spartan Army prior to Thermopylae. Leonidas was probably already a mid- to senior-ranking officer by the time his brother Cleomenes attacked Argos in 494 BC. 

In the below excerpt, the Battle of Sepeia is described from Leonidas' perspective. 

The enemy was still apparently adjusting their lines—trying to strengthen the center, perhaps? Or perhaps some men were just losing their nerve. As on Kythera, some of the Argives started to shout insults. Leonidas could see their open mouths, red and black holes framed by bared teeth between the bronze of their cheek-pieces. Their eyes were lost in the dark holes cut in their helmets. Their noses were protected by the bronze hanging down between the eye sockets. The open mouths were the only part of their faces that was still human. Shouting like this, however, made them look bestial. 

Meanwhile, the Argive rear ranks were beating their spears against their shields, creating what they evidently thought was a threatening clamor. It reminded Leonidas of the chattering of giant teeth—and suggested that the rear ranks were not pressing in as closely as they should. 

“Ready spears,” Leonidas ordered. The first three ranks reversed the grip on their spears and raised them to shoulder height. 

The Argives could take no more. With a wild roar they started rushing the Spartan line, screaming inarticulately with rage and to give themselves courage. 

Although running robbed the Argives of their cohesion, a body of heavily armored men could still run over almost anything in their path. To stop from being bowled over, Leonidas ordered his own men to pick up their pace and lean into the attack. After that order, it was up to the front ranks. He dropped back to advance with the fifth rank, and it was from here that he heard the crash of shield on shield in an uneven, ragged crunching noise that staggered many men on both sides. 

The Spartans recovered first. They put their weight behind their shields, thrusting their left shoulders forward as they drew their spears back, and then started jabbing downward at the enemy’s second line. The length of the spears meant that men in the front rank aimed for the enemy’s second or third rank, while the men in the second and third ranks aimed for the men in the enemy’s first and second ranks. Three deep, the spearheads sought eyes and throats, while the Argives pushed back, grunting and thrusting their spears, likewise seeking Spartan flesh. 

The clash had ended all forward momentum, and the supporting ranks pressed up close behind the front ranks, the entire formation compressing. Here and there a man went down, and the man behind had to step into the gap, over the dead or wounded body of the man ahead. Elsewhere spears broke. When this happened in the Spartan ranks, the disarmed man defended himself with the splintered remnants until the man behind could hand forward his own spear. This man, in turn, received a spear from the man behind him, all the way to the back, where the man in the last rank could shout to the helots for a spare. 

The Argives did not seem to have a similar system. When their spears broke, they tossed them away and drew their swords. Argive swords were longer than Spartan swords, but this only encouraged false hopes of reaching the enemy. One after another Argive hoplite was killed trying to use his sword, and in so doing dropping his shield guard enough to allow Spartan hoplites to spike him fatally. 

The killing had been going on for almost a quarter-hour, and what had been dry earth with sparse, scratchy grass had slowly turned into a morass as blood, urine, and shit soaked into it from the dead, dying, and wounded. Leonidas looked over his shoulder for Kyranios without really expecting to find him. If he’d been here, he would have already given the order. So he nodded once to the piper and ordered the advance. 

At once the rear ranks lowered their heads, leaned forward, and pushed, their shields jammed into the backs of the men in front. They dug in their feet and started shoving forward as if they were pushing a wagon mired in the mud. The impetus from the back moved the front ranks forward without them having to exert a great deal of effort. Leonidas knew. He’d been there. The rear ranks carried them forward much as a wave lifts a ship onto a beach, while the front ranks concentrated on the grim business of hammering down the enemy with their spears. 

The Argives were giving ground at last. Not a lot. They were resisting hard. But their front rankers were shouting again—this time with alarm. Leonidas saw a man at the outside edge of the Argive formation glance back and start to shout something—probably an order for the rear ranks to close up—but a spear pierced his throat, cutting off his words. His head, heavy with the helmet, flopped back, and then the body crumpled. The Spartan who had killed him stepped forward over the body, and the men from the middle and rear ranks, one after another, stabbed downward with their spear butts until the corpse was left behind in their wake as they continued forward, a lifeless, bloody rag.

They had advanced almost ten paces now, and Leonidas moved forward with the line, abreast of the middle ranks, the youngest five cohorts of active-service rankers. He looked left and right. Kyranios seemed to have disappeared into thin air. He noted, too, that the Pitanate Lochos was not recognizable as a body anymore, but the Limnate had clearly pinned down a large body of Argive troops before the woods. Then Leonidas realized that the Amyclaeon and Conouran regiments were also on the field, busy sealing off the flanks and back of the woods, where the bulk of the Argive army appeared to have fled. 

Leonidas turned back to the task at hand. The Mesoan Lochos was slowly gaining momentum. Leonidas sensed more than saw that the Argive rear ranks were starting to break and run. “Keep up the pressure!” he called out once, and the piper repeated the order, condensed to “Harder!” 

Even without orders, the Spartan phalanx sensed the change in the Argive resolve. It was picking up the pace. Soon the Argive rear ranks had thinned so much that the front ranks had lost support. The Argive front ranks started to buckle and go down, not from wounds but from the sheer weight of the Spartan wall of flesh. They screamed not in pain but in terror, knowing what would follow. The Spartan front ranks did not bother with Argives who had fallen; they left these to the middle rankers. The latter jabbed and stabbed into groins, intestines, and bowels as they dispatched the men already knocked down by the front ranks. 

By now the Mesoan Lochos had advanced a hundred paces, leaving a carpet of bleeding, sometimes still writhing and whimpering, bodies behind them. For a split second Leonidas was horrified by the number of Spartans strewn behind—until he realized that the red that dominated the field came not from Spartan cloaks, but blood-soaked Argives. 

A moment later, the Argive line broke. 

“Hold!” Leonidas shouted instantly, halting the instinct to pursue before it could become more than a ripple in the line of bronze. He moved forward to the front rank, which stood absolutely still on his left. He could hear the rasping of hundreds of men gasping for breath. They were dripping sweat so profusely from their exposed limbs that it was a wonder he couldn’t hear it like the trickle of a stream. Here and there the line swayed slightly, probably from men with wounds in their legs or feet. 

He gave the order for the wounded to fall out and the rest to stand at ease. “Catch your breath!” he ordered verbally, not bothering about the pipes, now that the din of battle had paused in their immediate proximity. He prowled along each rank, making sure that his orders had been obeyed and that wounded men had relinquished their places to fit men. He ensured that the rear ranks adjusted for the losses forward so that the depth of the files was roughly equal again. Only then did he return to the front rank and order “ready.” The men dropped helmets and took up their shields and spears again. 


Monday, June 15, 2020

"For Leonidas!" - An Excerpt from "A Heroic King"

At the start of the month I reflected on Leonidas' reign -- and the possibility under Leonidas the helots had enjoyed a period of increasing prosperity and rising expectations. One of the ways in which helots may have been able to improve their status was by serving in Sparta's small but by no means insignificant fleet. Here's what it might have looked like.

When word reached the Spartan fleet at its home base of Gytheon that King Leonidas required a trireme in Corinth, the duty vessel was launched at once. Although this was not the sailing season and merchant vessels kept to the safety of their harbors (if they weren’t pulled up on the beach for repairs and maintenance), triremes were built to take any weather, and the trip along the coastline to Corinth entailed little danger. Because of a heavy east-northeast wind, however, the trireme turned west and set all sail, with the obvious intention of sailing westward around the Peloponnese.

Eurybiades watched it until it was out of sight, and then called his crew together. His crew now numbered two hundred men; for taking Sperchias and Bulis safely to Persia and back, Eurybiades had been rewarded with command of Sparta’s newest trireme, the Minotaur. In fact, he had been charged with overseeing the construction and with recruiting the crew, at Leonidas’ personal orders and expense. Eurybiades had chosen to use the shipyard at Skandia, and the keel had been laid down only six months earlier. The launch had taken place barely a fortnight ago, and the Minotaur had not yet completed her sea trials.

But Eurybiades was an ambitious and impatient man. He had already hired the bulk of his penteconter crew, and many of the other oarsmen were local men from Kythera. He was willing to take a chance. With the wind whipping his long black braids and trying to drag his himation right out of his hands, he put his proposal to the crew collected in a curious group around him.

“King Leonidas requires a trireme in Corinth. The duty vessel has departed, heading west. It will take two days by that route. If we can row through the Malean Straits, we can beat them by as much as a day and be the first ship to respond to the king’s summons.” Eurybiades did not need to say that rowing against the northeasterly gale would be exhausting; even the least experienced among them knew that. He chose not to stress that it would also be extremely dangerous. They would have a mountainous lee shore licking its chops the whole voyage north, and they would also be crossing the Gulf of Argos, the lair of Sparta’s most tenacious foe. While it was not likely that Argive warships would be prowling around at this time of year, they could not exclude the possibility. A prudent man would not suggest this voyage, not with an untried ship and crew.

Eurybiades was not prudent; he was driven by the desire to prove what he could do. It was the kind of competitive instinct that drove other men to athletic feats or to climb mountains or explore the unknown. But Eurybiades also knew that he could achieve nothing with an unwilling or frightened crew. He knew that he had to sweep them up in his own enthusiasm. With his old crew, that would have been no problem. Even now, his helmsman of nearly a decade was asking rhetorically with a deep growl, “Why are we wasting time? Let’s launch the bloody boat.”

But Eurybiades wasn’t worried about the men from his penteconter, nor about the perioikoi deck hands and marines. They would not bear the brunt of the hardships. It was the 170 men who manned the oars who had to be willing to fight a running gale. And more than half these men were helots.

Eurybiades had initially concentrated his recruiting on Kythera, talking to the sons of fishermen, men often too poor (after surrendering half their catch to their masters) to support a family. But he had not found nearly enough men to man a trireme, so the remaining oar-banks had been filled with country lads who streamed down to Boiai, where he put in with a ship still smelling like a lumberyard and nearly one hundred vacancies at the oars.

Eurybiades focused on Hierox, his bosun or rowing master, the keleustes. Hierox was a burly man with a full black beard that looked permanently salt-soaked. He too was a Kytheran, a perioikoi who had kicked around on foreign ships for half a lifetime before attaching himself to Eurybiades like a barnacle. They had been inseparable ever since, a team that could make even a half-rotten penteconter a dangerous pirate with the help of marines like Prokles.

To this man had fallen the main responsibility for sorting the wheat from the chaff as the country bumpkins, still stinking of the barnyard and literally unable to tell stem from stern, streamed in looking for a berth. To him had fallen the even more difficult task of trying to make seamen of these farm lads. Eurybiades knew that this man would sail into Hades itself with him―but only if he thought the crew was up to it. Eurybiades found himself regretting his own impulsiveness. He should have consulted Hierox first.

Hierox seemed to be thinking the proposition through carefully. He looked up, sniffed the wind, and squinted at the breakers, which were rolling into the bay in stately rows to dissolve with a roar and hiss on the long beach. Then at last he asked dubiously, “What happens once we reach Corinth?”

Eurybiades understood his concerns. Taking such a green crew on this voyage was only half the danger. The other risk was that these eager farm lads, who had never before set foot outside their villages, would find themselves overwhelmed by the charms of a city like Corinth. They might desert (or get kidnapped by unscrupulous foreign captains) and leave the Minotaur short-handed in a foreign port.

“King Leonidas will board almost straight away and we will take him to his next destination, wherever that might be,” Eurybiades answered. He opened his mouth to add that there would be no shore leave, but he didn’t get the words out.

From the crowd of men standing in the blustering wind, a young voice asked, “The king himself will sail with us? King Leonidas?”

“Yes,” Eurybiades confirmed, “so there’ll be no―”

“Then let’s go!” the voice called eagerly.

To Eurybiades’ and Hierox’s surprise, this suggestion was met with a cheer and the shout, “For Leonidas!”

                                  Buy Now!