Sparta: Leonidas and the Brave 300

Spring always reminds me that it’s almost summer and summer reminds me that I should be getting into some sort of acceptable shape for the hiking, swimming, and suitcase hauling that lie ahead.

I was raised an athlete and ran sprints for as long as my crooked feet would carry me. I continued to work out in some form or another long after I stopped running sprints, but five years ago it all abruptly and completely stopped.

Was it all those years spent in the gym and on the track?  Was it boredom?  Probably both, but these days my workouts consist solely of weekly yoga classes, and a few laps in the pool every now and then.

I’m loathe to return to the gym.  Endorphins-enshmorphins, I’d rather read a good book.  But even if I read Dickens until the cows came home, the most it would do is give my sore eyes a workout.  Exercise, I must.

To get my work-out mojo flowing, I’ve been channelling the Spartans to lead the way.  If you ever feel like you need guidance in discipline, I suggest a good read on the Spartans.  You’ll wonder what the hell you’ve been doing with your life.

So I thought I’d do a post on the Spartans to remind myself that every path requires sacrifice, in one form or another.

I had a hard time motivating myself to even write this post, because I knew that a work-out would be waiting for me at the end of it—that’s how bad it is.

To kick things off, I’ll begin with everyone’s favorite Spartan, Leonidas, and the 300 men who followed him in search of a beautiful death in history’s greatest last stand: the Battle of Thermopylae.

The Road to Thermopylae

In August or September of 480 BC, Leonidas, leader of Sparta, set off with 300 Spartans to meet an invading Persian army at Thermopylae, translated as “Hot Gates” and named after the sulphurous hot springs that still percolate in the area.

The 300 men who accompanied Leonidas were hand picked by him to serve in an elite unit known as Hippeis, the king’s personal bodyguards. The unit was comprised of the best Spartan warriors, held in the highest esteem by their fellow citizens. The Hippeis was usually made up of battle-hardened veterans in their 20’s and 30’s, but for the rendezvous with the Persians, Leonidas ordered that only men with living sons would accompany him, thereby guaranteeing that their bloodline would not be extinguished with death on the battlefield.

The Oracle of Delphi had prophesied that Sparta would be conquered and left in ruins or that one of her two hereditary kings, descendants of Hercules, would have to sacrifice his life to defend her. Since Leonidas could not take enough men to ensure a victory, he was convinced they were marching into certain death.

At this time of year the Spartans—de facto military leaders of the Greek alliance—were celebrating the festival of Carneia. During the Carneia, military activity was forbidden by Spartan law. The Spartans had arrived too late at the Battle of Marathon because of this requirement. It was also the time of the Olympic Games, and therefore the Olympic truce, and thus it would have been doubly sacrilegious for the entire Spartan army to march to war. On this occasion, the ephors (Spartan officials) decided the urgency was sufficiently great to justify an advance expedition to block the pass at Thermopylae. This expedition was to try and gather as many other allied troops along the way as possible, and to await the arrival of the main Spartan army.

En route to Thermopylae, the Spartan force was reinforced by contingents from various cities and numbered more than 5,000 by the time it arrived at the pass. Leonidas chose to camp at, and defend, the narrowest part of the pass, the middle gate  where the Phocians had built a defensive wall against invaders from Thessaly. Upon arrival, the Greek forces began reconstructing the wall, which was in a state of disrepair.

News also reached Leonidas, by locals from the nearby city of Trachis, that there was a mountain track which could be used to outflank the pass.  In response, Leonidas stationed 1,000 Phocians on the heights to prevent such a maneuver.

Perhaps the greatest controversy concerning the Battle of Thermopylae surrounds the number of warriors in the Persian army.  Herodotus put the number at 2.5 million, other historians have suggested numbers between 200,000 to 4 million.  The confusion stems partly from decimal points, but one thing is certain—the Greeks were vastly outnumbered.  The pass at Thermopylae was chosen as the battle site because, at only 50 ft. wide, it would allow a small contingent of fighters to hold off a vastly greater army.

When the Persians entered the pass, they sent a mounted scout to reconnoiter. The Greeks allowed him to come up to the camp, observe them and depart. When the scout reported to the Persian leader, Xerxes, the size of the Greek force and that the Spartans were indulging in calisthenics and combing their long hair, Xerxes found the reports laughable. Seeking the counsel of an exiled Spartan in his employ, Demaratus, Xerxes was told not to underestimate them—the Spartans were preparing for battle and it was their custom to adorn their hair beforehand.

Xerxes remained incredulous. According to another account, he sent emissaries to the Greek forces. At first, he asked Leonidas to join him by offering him the kingship of all Greece. Leonidas answered: “If you knew what was valuable in life, you wouldn’t covet what is not yours. For me it is better to die for Greece than to rule over my compatriots.”

Then Xerxes asked him more forcefully to surrender their arms. To this Leonidas gave his famous answer, “Come and get them.”

Despite their extremely disproportionate numbers, Greek morale was high. Herodotus writes that when Dienekes, a Spartan soldier, was informed that Persian arrows would be so numerous as to blot out the sun, he remarked with characteristically laconic prose, “So much the better, we shall fight in the shade.”

Day One

Xerxes waited four days for the Greek force to disperse. On the fifth day he ordered the Medes and the Cissians to take the Greeks prisoner and bring them before him.  According to Ctesias, the first wave numbered 10,000 soldiers.

The Medes soon found themselves in a frontal assault. The Greeks had camped on either side of the rebuilt Phocian wall. That the wall was guarded shows that the Greeks were using it to establish a reference line for the battle, but they fought in front of it.

The Greeks deployed in a phalanx, a wall of overlapping shields and layered spearpoints spanning the entire width of the pass. Herodotus says that the units from each state were kept together and that Leonidas rotated the fighters so that fresh troops would always be at the forefront.  The Persians, armed with arrows, wicker sheilds, and short spears, could not break through the long spears of the phalanx, nor were their lightly armoured men a match for the superior armour, weaponry, and discipline of the Spartans.

The Greeks also used a maneuver in which they pretended to retreat in disorder only to turn suddenly and attack the pursuing Medes. In this way they killed so many Medes that Xerxes is said to have started up off the seat from which he was watching the battle three times. According to Ctesias, the first wave was “cut to ribbons” with only two or three Spartans dead.

The king eventually withdrew the Medes. Having taken the measure of the enemy, he threw the best troops he had into a second assault: the Immortals, an elite corps of 10,000 men.  The Immortals were the Spartans heralded counterparts in the Persian army.  As the name implied, an aura of invincibility surrounded this unit.

As frightening and disciplined as the Immortals were,  they found, as had the Medes and others before them, that in the confines of the pass their numbers were a hindrance rather than a help.  Strategically speaking, the width of the pass was of paramount importance since it negated the strength of the Persian army.  Once again their shorter spears could not penetrate the formidable bristling line of the Greeks, nor their arrows pierce the great bronze shields.

As countless wars have shown, courage is not enough.  Against superior weaponry even the bravest fall, and when those better weapons were wielded by men whose whole life had been nothing but a preparation for war, the outcome was inevitable.

Xerxes had to withdraw the Immortals and the first day of battle probably ended there.

Day Two

On the second day, the Persian assault failed again. Bodies lay everywhere and the battle took place over the dead and dying. The wall of bodies must have broken up the Persian line and detracted from their morale. Climbing over the bodies, they could see that they had stepped into a killing machine but were prevented from withdrawing by the officers in the rear. Xerxes at last stopped the assault and withdrew to his camp, totally perplexed. He now knew that a head-on confrontation against Spartan-led troops in a narrow pass was the wrong approach.

Late on the second day of battle, as the king was pondering what to do next, he received a windfall: a Malian Greek traitor named Ephialtes informed him of the mountain path around Thermopylae and offered to guide the Persian army through the pass.

Last Stand at Thermopylae

At daybreak on the third day, the Phocians guarding the path above Thermopylae became aware of the outflanking Persian column and retreated to a nearby hill to make their stand (assuming that the Persians had come to attack them). However, not wishing to be delayed, the Persians gave them a volley of arrows before passing by to continue with their encirclement of the main Allied force.

The Greek position at Thermopylae, despite being massively out-numbered, was near-impregnable. If the position had been held for even slightly longer, the Persians may have had to retreat for lack of food and water.

None of the Persians’ actions surprised Leonidas. From a variety of sources, he was kept appraised of their movements and received intelligence of the Persian outflanking movement before first light.  When he learned that the Phocians had not held, Leonidas called a council of war at dawn. Some of the Greeks argued for withdrawal, Leonidas and the Spartans had pledged themselves to fight to the death.

After the council, most of the Greek forces chose to withdraw (without orders), or were ordered to leave by Leonidas (Herodotus admits that there is some doubt about which actually happened). The contingent of 700 Thespians, led by their general, refused to leave with the other Greeks but committed themselves to the fight and cast their lot with the Spartans. Also present were the 400 Thebans, and probably the helots that had accompanied the Spartans.

At dawn Xerxes made libations. He paused to allow the Immortals sufficient time to descend the mountain and then ordered the advance.

Knowing that death was imminent, the Greeks gave up the phalanx and charged forth from the wall to meet the Persians in the wider part of the pass in an attempt to slaughter as many as they could before dying. They fought with spears until every spear was shattered and then switched to xiphoi (short swords).  Those who were left without weapons continued to fight with their hands and teeth.

Leonidas was killed in the assault and the two sides fought over his body, with the Spartans taking possession.

As the Immortals approached, the Allies withdrew and took a stand on Kolonos Hill, behind the wall. The Thebans deserted to the Persians and Xerxes later had them branded with his royal mark.

Tearing down part of the wall, Xerxes ordered the hill surrounded, and the Persians rained down arrows until every last Greek was dead.


When the body of Leonidas was recovered by the Persians, Xerxes, in a rage at the loss of so many of his soldiers, ordered that the head be cut off and the body crucified. The Persians normally treated enemies that fought bravely against them with great honor, but Xerxes was given to fits of rage.

Two Spartans survived the battle of Thermopylae: Pantites, who was sent away from the battle by Leonidas on a diplomatic mission to enlist the services of the other Greek city-states. He later hanged himself because of the shame and the dishonor bestowed upon him by his fellow Spartans who thought he had loitered long enough not to engage in battle; and Aristodemus, who suffered a severe eye inflammation that incapacitated him and was ordered back to Sparta with the retreating forces. He was labeled ‘The Trembler’ for not having fought and died with his fellow Spartans. Redemption for Aristodemus came the following year when he stood in the front line of the phalanx at the Battle of Plataea, broke rank, and killed numerous Persians before dying.

With the pass opened, the Persians poured into Greece, burning and sacking cities on their way to the now-deserted Athens, which they burned to the ground.  When the battle moved to the sea, most of the Persian fleet was destroyed at the Battle of Salamis and Xerxes, fearful that his army would be trapped in Europe, retreated back to Asia leaving just a hand-picked force to complete conquest the following year.

Nine months later, the Persians and Greeks, including the entire Spartan army, but still outnumbered 3 to 1, met once again in battle on the open terrain of Plataea, where the Greeks trounced the Persians and finally ended the invasion of Greece.

The Spartans that died during the Battle of Thermopylae were buried on the hill where they fell, including Leonidas. A stone lion was erected to commemorate him, however, the custom was to return Spartan kings home for burial. Forty years after the battle, Leonidas’ body was returned to Sparta where he was buried again with full honors and funeral games were held every year in his memory.

What Victory Means

While the battle was technically won by the Persians, it was a great moral victory for the Greeks. It served to rally many Greek city states which, until that point, were wavering as to which side to support.  More importantly, Thermopylae served to demonstrate Spartan resolve and courage against overwhelming odds.

Throughout the centuries, Thermopylae has served as an inspiring example  of what a small group of disciplined, tenacious free men are capable of accomplishing when country and freedom are at stake.

Some argue that it may have changed the course of western civilization.

At the very least, it begs the question:  What are you willing to sacrifice?

“Go tell the Spartans,

stranger passing by,

that here, obedient to their laws, we lie”

– epigram at Thermopylae

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