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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!