Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

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!


Saturday, August 1, 2020

A Hero's Legacy - Leonidas and Thermopylae

Leonidas is remembered, admired and adulated because of his stand -- and death -- at Thermopylae. 
Oddly, despite dying in defeat, he is remembered better and more widely than the commander of the Spartan army that actually beat the Persians, Pausanias, or the Spartan that defeated Athens after the gruesome thirty-years war, Lysander.  Lycurgus and Chilon are familiar names only to classical scholars; Leonidas is a cult and comic-book hero -- not to mention there is a chocolate company named for him. 
Today I want to reflect on why.

Leonidas was, of course, a legend in his own time. The Spartans built him a monument at Thermopylae, notably separate from the monument to the rest of the 300, and a second monument was built to him at home in Sparta as well. His body was brought home after the Persians had been driven out of Greece.  But, unless it is an accident of archeology, larger monuments were built to the victors Pausanias and Lysander than to Leonidas.  In short, Leonidas’ appeal appears to have been greater in the modern world than the ancient. This might have many explanations -- starting with the political agenda of his successors (or those who controlled his immature son) or discomfort with commemorating a devastating defeat.  The modern world, perhaps influenced by the Christian tradition of honoring sacrifice, is impressed by Leonidas’ defiance and devotion to duty more than his defeat.

However, less understandable, is a modern tendency to assume that Leonidas’ behavior was “typical,” that he was indeed only doing what Spartan society expected of him, or acting “in accordance with the law.” This assumes that Spartans were “never” allowed to retreat and always chose death over retreat or surrender.  The Spartans, of course, knew better. 

Sparta had suffered many severe defeats before Thermopylae, and in no other battle did an entire fighting force die to the last man for a lost cause. For example, there is good reason to believe that Sparta lost the First Messenian War, and it was the ensuing economic and social dislocation that led to unrest and revolution.  Certainly, Sparta was given a resounding thrashing by the Argives at Hysiai in 669 BC, but even so the Spartans retreated rather than die to the last man.  Roughly one hundred years later, Sparta again over-reached herself in an attempt to conquer Tegea, and again there were survivors; they were enslaved in Tegea and forced to do agricultural labor for Tegean masters. In 525 BC, a Spartan expedition against Samos likewise ended in humiliating defeat, but not the extermination of the expeditionary force.  Finally, in the reign of Leonidas’ half-brother Cleomenes, a Spartan force under Anchimolius was attacked by Thessalian cavalry 1000 strong at Phalerum, and, according to Herodotus, “many Lacedaemonians were killed…and the survivors driven back to their ships.”  Note, again, the survivors were driven back to their ships, which they presumably boarded and used to return to Lacedaemon. There is not a word about dying to the last man.

Nor did “death rather than surrender” become the standard for future Spartan commanders after Thermopylae. The history of the Peloponnesian War is littered with Spartan defeats; none were massacres.  Even in the infamous case of 120 Spartiates trapped on the island of Sphakteria, the record shows that they surrendered and were taken off into (brutal!) Athenian captivity.  Nor were they written off by an indignant population as cowards, "tremblers" or otherwise disgraced as worthless.  Had they been so viewed, Sparta would not have sued for peace and made serious concessions to Athens to have them returned. Even their collective degradation from full-citizen status on their return is not indicative of disapproval of surrender. On the contrary, it more likely reflects fear that men who had been in Athens for almost four years might have become subverted (brainwashed, is the Cold War term) by Athenian democracy.  After an unknown period, they were collectively reinstated, and some even ran for public office. That would not have been possible if the majority of Spartans had felt they should have committed suicide rather than surrender.

Leonidas’ legacy was not one of blind, mindless self-sacrifice. His example was one of devotion to duty, even unto death, for a good cause.  Leonidas did not die for the sake of dying -- much less take his comrades with him to a senseless death.  He had clear military objectives that he hoped to achieve by his last stand: 1) giving the other Greek contingents time to withdraw and live to fight another day, and 2) increasing Persian respect for/fear of Spartans.  Once the pass at Thermopylae was turned, Leonidas knew the Persian army would advance unopposed into Central Greece. He could not know where it would next be confronted by land-forces, but he must have feared that it might sweep through Central Greece to the Isthmus of Corinth. He must have feared that Sparta might find herself virtually alone facing the onslaught.  Anything he could do to make Xerxes hesitate to take on a Spartan army must have seemed worthwhile.  That is a legacy worth preserving.

Last but not least, as a devout Spartan, Leonidas undoubtedly believed he had to fulfill the Delphic Oracle. He knew he had to die, if Sparta was to be saved. In that sense, he was from the start a sacrificial lamb, but not until the position at Thermopylae was betrayed, did his sacrifice inherently encompass defeat as well.  He probably hoped when he set out for Thermopylae that he could die in a victorious battle – or at least an indecisive one. He certainly hoped and expected that alive or dead his advance force over 6,000 strong could hold the Hot Gates until Sparta’s full army could reinforce the advance guard. 

When it became clear he would die in a hopeless situation, he tried to minimize the losses by ordering the withdrawal of the allied contingents (and almost certainly all the Perioikoi troops that would have been with him).  He even tried to save some of the Spartiates by giving them dispatches for delivery somewhere. They saw through him and refused. They refused out of loyalty, out of friendship, out of personal affection for Leonidas, both the man and the king. They did not act for military reasons but for personal ones. Yet their legacy too is worth honoring.