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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.