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A History of Ancient Greece

Spartans and Thermopylae

Rollin's Ancient History: History Of The Persians And Grecians

Author:      Rollin, Charles


Go Stranger and to Sparta Tell Faithful to Her Laws,  Here, We Fell

Amongst the greatest and most loyal soldiers in human history where the Spartans.  Never was this better demonstrated then at the battle of Thermopylae.  Several hundred Greeks, led by King Leonidas of Sparta and his personal body guard of three hundred Spartans, made a brave and gallant stand against a vastly larger Persian force.  Only after an act of treason by a Greek, were the Persians able to surround and destroy the Spartans.  Ordered to stand firm and hold the pass of Thermopylae against the Persians, the Spartans refused to retreat and were eventually defeated.  But true to their orders and loyal to their king, the Spartan stand at the pass is one of the bravest accounts of men in battle.

Section IV And V.


Section IV: The Laced Aemonians And Athenians Send To Their Allies In Vain To

Require Succors From Them.


The Command Of The Fleet Given To The Laced Aemonians.


     Lacedaemon and Athens, which were the two most powerful cities of Greece,

and the cities against which Xerxes was most exasperated, were not indolent or

negligent while so formidable an enemy was approaching. Having received

intelligence long before of the designs of that prince, they had sent spies to

Sardis, in order to have a more exact information of the number and quality of

his forces.  These spies were seized and as they were just on the point of

being put to death, Xerxes countermanded it, and gave orders that they should

be conducted through his army and then sent back without any harm being done

to them.  At their return, the Grecians understood what they had to apprehend

from so potent an enemy. ^176


[Footnote 176: Herod. l. vii. c. 145, 146]


     They sent deputies at the same time to Argos, into Sicily, to Gelon,

tyrant of Syracuse, to the isles of Corcyra and Crete, to desire succors from

them, and to form a league against the common enemy.


     The people of Argos offered a considerable succor, on condition they

should have an equal share of the authority as either of the two kings of

Sparta.  This was granting them a great deal: but into what errors and

mischiefs are not men led by a mistaken point of honor, and a foolish

jealously of command!  The Argives were not contented with this offer, and

refused to enter into a league with the Grecians, without considering, that if

they suffered them to be destroyed, their own ruin must inevitably follow.



[Footnote 177: Idem. c. 148-152.]


     The deputies proceeded from Argos to Sicily, and addressed themselves to

Gelon, who was the most potent prince of the Greeks at that time.  He promised

to assist them with two hundred vessels of three benches of oars, with an army

of twenty thousand foot and two thousand horse, two thousand light-armed

soldiers, and the same number of bow-men and slingers, and to supply the

Grecian army with provisions during the whole war, on condition they would

make him generalissimo of all the forces both by land and sea.  The

Lacedaemonians were highly offended at such a proposal.  Gelon then abated

somewhat in his demands, and promised the same, provided he had at least the

command either of the fleet or of the army.  This proposal was strenuously

opposed by the Athenians, who made answer that they alone had a right to

command the fleet, in case the Lacedaemonians were willing to give it up.

Gelon had a more substantial reason for not leaving Sicily unprovided with

troops, which was the approach of the formidable army of the Carthaginians,

commanded by Amilcar, which consisted of three hundred thousand men. ^178


[Footnote 178: Idem. c. 153-161.]


     The inhabitants of Corcyra, now called Corfu, gave the envoys a more

favorable answer, and immediately put to sea with a fleet of sixty vessels.

But they advanced no farther than to the coasts of Laconia, pretending they

were hindered by contrary winds, but in reality waiting to see the success of

an engagement, that they might afterwards range themselves on the side of the

conqueror. ^179


[Footnote 179: Herod. l. vii. c. 168.]


     The people of Crete, having consulted the Delphic oracle, to know what

resolution they were to take on this occasion, refused to enter into the

league. ^180


[Footnote 180: Idem. c. 169-171.]


     Thus were the Lacedaemonians and Athenians left almost to themselves, all

the rest of the cities and nations having submitted to the heralds that Xerxes

had sent to require earth and water of them, excepting the people of Thespia

and of Plataeae. ^181 In so pressing a danger, their first care was to put an

end to all discord and division among themselves; for which reason the

Athenians made peace with the people of Aegina, with whom they were actually

at war. ^182


[Footnote 181: Idem. c. 132.]


[Footnote 182: Idem. c. 145.]


     Their next care was to appoint a general: for there never was any

occasion wherein it was more necessary to choose one capable of so important a

trust, than in the present conjuncture, when Greece was upon the point of

being attacked by the whole force of Asia.  The most able and experienced

captains, terrified at the greatness of the danger, had taken the resolution

of not presenting themselves as candidates.  There was a certain citizen at

Athens, whose name was Epicydes, who had some eloquence, but in other respects

was a person of no merit, was in disrepute for his want of courage, and

notorious for his avarice.  Notwithstanding all which, it was apprehended,

that, in the assembly of the people, the votes would run in his favor. ^183

Themistocles, who was sensible that in calm weather almost any mariner may be

capable of conducting a vessel, but that in storms and tempests, the most able

pilots are at a loss, was convinced that the commonwealth was ruined, if

Epicydes was chosen general, whose venal and mercenary soul gave them the

justest reason to fear that he was not proof against the Persian gold. ^184

There are occasions, when, in order to act wisely, I had almost said

regularly, it is necessary to dispense with and rise above all rule.

Themistocles, who knew very well that in the present state of affairs he was

the only person capable of commanding, did for that reason make no scruple of

employing bribes and presents to remove his competitor: and having found means

to satisfy the ambition of Epicydes by gratifying his avarice, he got himself

elected general in his stead.  We may here, I think, very justly apply to

Themistocles what Titus Livius says of Fabius on a like occasion.  This great

commander finding, when Hannibal was in the heart of Italy, that the people

were inclined to make a man of no merit consul, employed all his own

influence, as well as that of his friends, to be continued in the consulship,

without being concerned at the clamor that might be raised against him, and

succeeded in the attempt.  The historian adds, "the conjuncture of affairs,

and the extreme danger the commonwealth was exposed to, were arguments of such

weight, that they prevented any one from being offended at a conduct which

might appear to be contrary to rules, and removed all suspicion of Fabius's

having acted upon any motive of interest or ambition. On the contrary, the

public admired his generosity and greatness of soul, in that, as he knew the

commonwealth had occasion for an accomplished general, and could not be

ignorant or doubtful of his own singular merit in that respect, he had chosen

rather in some sort to hazard his own reputation, and perhaps expose his

character to the reproaches of envious tongues, than to be wanting in any

service he could render his country." ^186


[Footnote 183: Plut. in Themist. p. 114.]


[Footnote 184: Quilibet nautarum vectorumque tranquillo mari gubernare potest:

ubi orta saeva tempestas est, ac turbato mari rapitur vento navis, tum viro et

guberna tore opus est. - Liv. l. xxiv. n. 8.]


[Footnote 186: Tempus ac necessitas belli, et discrimen summae rerum,

faciebant ne quis aut in exemplum lexquireret, aut suspectum cupiditatis

imperii consulem haberet.  Quin laudabant potius magnitudinem animi, quod cum

summo imperatore esse opus reip. sciret, seque cum haud dubie esse, minoris

invidiam siam, si qua ex re oriretur, quam utilitatem reip. fecisset. - Liv.

l. xxiv. n. 9.]


     The Athenians also passed a decree to recall all their citizens who were

in banishment.  They feared that sides would join their enemies, and influence

a great many others to side with the barbarians. But they had a very false

opinion of their citizen, who was infinitely remote from such sentiments.  Be

that as it might, at this extraordinary juncture they thought fit to recall

him, and Themistocles was so far from opposing the decree for that purpose,

that he promoted it with all his credit and authority.  The hatred and

division of these great men had nothing of that implacable, bitter, and

outrageous spirit, which prevailed among the Romans in the latter times of the

republic.  The danger of the state was the means of their reconciliation, and

when their service was necessary to the preservation of the public, they laid

aside all their jealousy and rancor: and we shall see, hereafter, thattides

was so far from secretly thwarting his ancient rival, that he zealously

contributed to the success of his enterprises, and to the advancement of his

glory. ^187


[Footnote 187: Plut. int. pp. 322, 323.]


     The alarm increased in Greece, in proportion as they received advice that

the Persian army advanced.  If the Athenians and Lacedaemonians had been able

to make no other resistance than with their land forces, Greece had been

utterly ruined and reduced to slavery.  This exigence taught them how to set a

right value upon the prudent foresight of Themistocles, who, upon some other

pretext, had caused a hundred galleys to be built.  Instead of judging like

the rest of the Athenians, who looked upon the victory of Marathon as the end

of the war, he, on the contrary, considered it rather as the beginning, or as

the signal of still greater battles, for which it was necessary to prepare the

Athenian people; and from that very time he began to think of raising Athens

to a superiority over Sparta, which for a long time had been the mistress of

all Greece.  With this view he judged it expedient to make the Athenian power

entirely maritime, perceiving very plainly that, as she was so weak by land,

she had no other way to render herself useful to her allies, or formidable to

her enemies.  His opinion herein prevailed among the people in spite of the

opposition of Miltiades, whose difference of opinion undoubtedly arose from

the little probability there was, that a people entirely unacquainted with

fighting at sea, and who were only capable of fitting out and arming very

small vessels, should be able to withstand so formidable a power as that of

the Persians, who had both a numerous land army, and a fleet of above a

thousand ships.


     The Athenians had some silver mines in a part of Attica, called Laurium,

the whole products and revenue of which used to be distributed among them.

Themistocles had the courage to propose to the people, that they should

abolish these distributions, and employ that money in building vessels with

three benches of oars, in order to make war upon the people of Aegina, against

whom he endeavored to inflame their ancient jealousy.  No people are ever

willing to sacrifice their private interests to the general utility of the

public: for they seldom have so much generosity or public spirit, as to

purchase the welfare or preservation of the state at their own expense.  The

Athenian people, however, did it upon this occasion: moved by the lively

remonstrances of Themistocles, they consented that the money which arose from

the product of the mines, should be employed in building a hundred galleys.

Upon the arrival of Xerxes they doubled the number, and to that fleet Greece

owed its preservation. ^188


[Footnote 188: Plut. in Themist. p. 113.]


     When they came to the point of naming a general for the command of the

navy, the Athenians, who alone had furnished two-thirds of it, laid claim to

that honor as appertaining to them, and their pretensions were certainly just

and well grounded.  It happened, however, that the suffrages of the allies all

concurred in favor of Eurybiades, a Lacedaemonian.  Themistocles, though very

aspiring after glory, thought it incumbent upon him on this occasion, to

sacrifice his own interests for the common good of the nation; and giving the

Athenians to understand, that, provided they behaved themselves with courage

and conduct, all the Grecians would quickly desire to confer the command upon

them of their own accord, he persuaded them to consent, as he himself would

do, to give up that point at present to the Spartans. ^189 It may justly be

said that this prudent moderation in Themistocles was another means of saving

the state.  For the allies threatened to separate themselves from them; if

they refused to comply; and if that had happened, Greece must have been

inevitably ruined.


[Footnote 189: Herod. l. vii. c. 213.]


Section V: The Battle Of Thermopylae.  The Death Of Leonidas.


     The only thing that now remained to be discussed, was to know in what

place they should resolve to meet the Persians, in order to dispute their

entrance into Greece.  The people of Thessaly represented that as they were

the most exposed, and likely to be first attacked by the enemy, it was but

reasonable that their defence and security, on which the safety of all Greece

so much depended, should first be provided for; without which they should be

obliged to take other measures, that would be contrary to their inclinations,

but yet absolutely necessary, in case their country was left unprotected and

defenceless.  It was hereupon resolved that ten thousand men should be sent to

guard the passage which separates Macedonia from Thessaly, near the river

Peneus, between the mountains of Olympus and Ossa.  But Alexander, the son of

Amyntas, king of Macedonia, having given them to understand that if they

waited for the Persians in that place, they must inevitably be overpowered by

their numbers, they retired to Thermopylae.  The Thessalians finding

themselves thus abandoned, without any farther deliberation, submitted to the

Persians. ^190


[Footnote 190: A. M. 3524.  Ant. J. C. 480.  Herod. l. vii. c. 172, 173]


     Thermopylae is a strait or narrow pass of mount Oeta, between Thessaly

and Phocis, but twenty-five feet broad, which therefore might be defended by a

small number of forces, and which was the only way though which the Persian

land army could enter Achaia, and advance to besiege Athens.  This was the

place where the Grecian army thought fit to wait for the enemy; the person who

commanded it was Leonidas, one of the two kings of Sparta. ^191


[Footnote 191: Herod. l. vii. c. 175, 177]


     Xerxes in the mean time was upon his march; he had given orders for his

fleet to follow him along the coast, and to regulate their motions according

to those of the land army.  Wherever he came, he found provisions and

refreshments prepared beforehand, pursuant to the orders he had sent; and

every city he arrived at gave him a magnificent entertainment, which cost

immense sums of money.  The vast expense of these treats gave occasion to a

witty saying of a certain citizen of Abdera in Thrace, who, when the king was

gone, said, they ought to thank the gods that he eat but one meal a-day. ^192


[Footnote 192: Idem. c. 108, 132.]


     An extraordinary instance of magnanimity was shown on this occasion by

the king of the Bisaltes, a people of Thrace.  While all the other princes ran

into servitude, and basely submitted to Xerxes, he bravely refused to receive

his yoke, or to obey him.  Not being in a condition to resist him with open

force, he retired to the top of the mountain Rhodope, into an inaccessible

place, and forbade all his sons, who were six in number, to carry arms against

Greece.  But they, either out of fear of Xerxes, or out of a curiosity to see

so important a war, followed the Persians, in opposition to their father's

injunction.  On their return home, their father, to punish so direct a

disobedience, condemned all his sons to have their eyes put out.  Xerxes

continued his march through Thrace, Macedonia, and Thessaly, every thing

giving way before him till he came to the strait of Thermopylae. ^193


[Footnote 193: Herod. l. viii. c. 116.]


     One cannot behold without the utmost astonishment, with what a handful of

troops the Grecians opposed the innumerable army of Xerxes. We find a

particular account of their number in Pausanias.  All their forces joined

together amounted only to eleven thousand two hundred men; of which number

only four thousand were employed at Thermopylae to defend the pass.  But these

soldiers, adds the historian, were all determined to a man either to conquer

or die.  And what is it that an army of such resolution is not able to effect?



[Footnote 194: Paus. l. v. p. 646.]


     When Xerxes advanced near the strait of Thermopylae, he was strangely

surprised to find that they were prepared to dispute his passage.  He had

always flattered himself, that on the first hearing of his arrival, the

Grecians would betake themselves to flight; nor could he ever be persuaded to

believe, what Demaratus had told him from the beginning of his project, that

at the first pass he came to, he would find his whole army stopped by a

handful of men.  He sent out a spy before him to reconnoitre the enemy.  The

spy brought him word, that he found the Lacedaemonians out of their

entrenchments, and that they were diverting themselves with military

exercises, and combing their hair, which was the Spartan manner of preparing

themselves for battle. ^195


[Footnote 195: Herod. l. vi. c. 207-231.  Diod. l. xi. pp. 5, 10]


     Xerxes, still entertaining some hopes of their flight, waited four days

on purpose to give them time to retreat.  And in this interval of time he used

his utmost endeavors to gain Leonidas, by making him magnificent promises, and

assuring him that he would make him master of all Greece, if he would come

over to his party.  Leonidas rejected his proposal with scorn and indignation.

Xerxes, having afterwards written to him to deliver up his arms, Leonidas, in

a style and spirit truly laconic, answered him in these words, "Come and take

them." Nothing remained but to prepare themselves to engage the

Lacedaemonians. Xerxes first commanded his Median forces to march against

them, with orders to take them all alive, and bring them to him.  These Medes

were not able to stand the charge of the Grecians; and being shamefully put to

flight, they showed, says Herodotus, that Xerxes had a great many men, but few

soldiers. ^197 The next that were to face the Spartans, were those Persians

called the Immortal Band, which consisted of ten thousand men, and were the

best troops in the whole army.  But these had no better success than the

former. ^198


[Footnote 197: Quod multi homines essent, pauci autem vir.]


[Footnote 198: Plut. in Lacon. Apoph. p. 225.]


     Xerxes, out of all hopes of being able to force his way through troops so

determined to conquer or die, was extremely perplexed; and could not tell what

resolution to take, when an inhabitant of the country came to him and

discovered a secret path to the top of an eminence, which overlooked and

commanded the Spartan forces. ^199 He quickly despatched a detachment thither,

which marching all night, arrived there at the break of day, and possessed

themselves of that advantageous post.


[Footnote 199: When the Gauls, two hundred years after this, came to invade

Greece, they possessed themselves of the strait of Thermopylae by means of the

same by path which the Grecians had still neglected to secure. - Pausan. l. i.

pp. 7, 8]


     The Greeks were soon apprised of this misfortune, and Leonidas, seeing

that it was now impossible to repulse the enemy, obliged the rest of the

allies to retire, but stayed himself with his three hundred Lacedaemonians,

all resolved to die with their leader, who being told by the oracle, that

either Lacedaemon or her king must necessarily perish, determined, without the

least difficulty or hesitation, to sacrifice himself for his country.  The

Spartans lost all hopes either of conquering or escaping, and looked upon

Thermopylae as their burying-place.  The king, exhorting his men to take some

nourishment, and telling them at the same time, that they should sup together

with Pluto, they set up a shout of joy, as if they had been invited to a

banquet, and full of ardor advanced with their king to battle.  The shock was

exceedingly violent and bloody.  Leonidas himself was one of the first that

fell.  The endeavors of the Lacedaemonians to defend his dead body were

incredible.  At length, not vanquished, but oppressed by numbers, they all

fell, except one man, who escaped to Sparta, where he was treated as a coward

and traitor to his country, and nobody would keep company or converse with

him.  But soon afterwards he made glorious amends for his fault at the battle

of Plataeae, where he distinguished himself in an extraordinary manner.

Xerxes, enraged to the last degree against Leonidas for daring to make a stand

against him, caused his dead body to be hung up on a gallows, and made this

intended dishonor of his enemy his own immortal shame. ^200


[Footnote 200: Herod. l. vii. c. 238.]


     Some time after these transactions, by order of the Amphictyons, a

magnificent monument was erected at Thermopylae to the honor of these brave

defenders of Greece, and upon the monument were two inscriptions; one of which

was general, and related to all those that died at Thermopylae, importing,

that the Greeks of Peloponnesus, to the number only of four thousand, had

withstood the Persian army, which consisted of three millions of men: the

other related to the Spartans in particular.  It was composed by the poet

Simonides, and is very remarkable for its simplicity.  It is as follows:


     Die, hospes, Spartae nos te hie vidisse jacentes.

     Dum sanctis patriae legibus obsequtnur.


               Chs. Tusc. Quaest. l. i. n. 102.]


That is to say, "go passenger, and tell at Lacedaemon, that we died here in

obedience to her sacred laws." Forty years afterwards, Pausanias, who obtained

the victory of Plataeae, caused the bones of Leonidas to be carried from

Thermopylae to Sparta, and erected a magnificent monument to his memory; near

which was likewise another erected for Pausanias.  Every year at these tombs

was a funeral oration pronounced to the honor of those heroes, and a public

game, wherein none but the Lacedaemonians had a right to participate; in order

to show, that they alone were concerned in the glory obtained at Thermopylae.


     Xerxes in that affair lost above twenty thousand men, among whom were two

of the king's brothers.  He was very sensible, that so great a loss, which was

a manifest proof of the courage of their enemies, was capable of alarming and

discouraging his soldiers.  In order, therefore, to conceal the knowledge of

it from them, he caused all his men that were killed in that action, except a

thousand, whose bodies he ordered to be left upon the field, to be thrown

together into large holes, which were secretly made, and covered over

afterwards with earth and herbs.  This stratagem succeeded very ill; for when

the soldiers in his fleet, being curious to see the field of battle, obtained

leave to come thither for that purpose, it served rather to discover his own

littleness of soul, than to conceal the number of the slain. ^202


[Footnote 202: Herod. l. viii. c. 24, 25.]


     Dismayed with a victory that had cost him so dear, he asked Demaratus if

the Lacedaemonians had many such soldiers?  that prince told him, that the

Spartan republic had a great many cities belonging to it, all the inhabitants

of which were exceedingly brave; but that the inhabitants of Lacedaemon, who

were properly called Spartans, and who were about eight thousand in number,

surpassed all the rest in valor, and were all of them such as those who had

fought under Leonidas. ^203


[Footnote 203: Herod. l. viii. c. 134, 137.]


     I return for a short time to the battle of Thermopylae, the issue of

which, fatal in appearance, might make an impression upon the minds of the

reader to the disadvantage of the Lacedaemonians, and occasion their courage

to be looked upon as the effect of a presumptuous temerity, or a desperate



     That action of Leonidas, with his three hundred Spartans, was not the

effect of rashness or despair, but was a wise and noble conduct, as Diodorus

Siculus has taken care to observe, in the magnificent encomium upon that

famous engagement, to which he ascribes the success of all the ensuing

victories and campaigns. ^204 Leonidas, knowing that Xerxes marched at the

head of all the forces of the East, in order to overwhelm and crush a little

country by his overwhelming numbers, rightly conceived, from the superiority

of his genius and understanding, that if they pretended to place their hopes

of success in that war in opposing force to force, and numbers to numbers, all

the Grecian nations together would never be able to equal the Persians, or to

dispute the victory with them; that it was therefore necessary to point out to

Greece other means of safety and preservation, while she was under these

alarms; and that they ought to show to the world whose eyes were upon them,

what glorious things may be done, when greatness of mind is opposed to force

of body, true courage and bravery to blind impetuosity, the love of liberty to

tyrannical oppression, and a few disciplined veteran troops to a confused

multitude, however numerous. These brave Lacedaemonians thought it became

them, who were the choicest soldiers of the chief people of Greece, to devote

themselves to certain death, in order to impress upon the Persians how

difficult it is to reduce free men to slavery, and to teach the rest of

Greece, by their example, either to vanquish or to perish.


[Footnote 204: Diod. l. xi. p. 9.]


     These sentiments do not originate in fancy, nor do I ascribe them to

Leonidas without foundation: they are plainly comprised in the short answer

which that worthy king of Sparta made to a certain Lacedaemonian, who, being

astonished at the generous resolution the king had taken, spoke to him in this

manner: "Is it possible then, sir, that you can think of marching with a

handful of men against such a mighty and innumerable army?" "If we are to rely

upon numbers," replied Leonidas, "all the people of Greece together would not

be sufficient, since a small part of the Persian army is equal to her entire

population: but if we are to rely upon valor, my little troop is more than

sufficient." ^205


[Footnote 205: Plut. in Lacon. Apoph. 225.]


     The event showed the justness of this prince's sentiments.  That

illustrious example of courage astonished the Persians, and gave new spirit

and vigor to the Greeks.  The lives then of this heroic leader and his brave

troop were not thrown away, but usefully employed; and their death was

attended with a double effect, greater and more lasting than they themselves

had imagined.  On one hand it was in a manner the cause of their ensuing

victories, which made the Persians for ever after lay aside all thoughts of

attacking Greece; so that during the seven or eight succeeding reigns, there

was neither any prince, who durst entertain such a design, nor any flatterer

in his court, who durst propose the thing to him.  On the other hand, so

singular and exemplary an instance of intrepidity made an indelible impression

upon all the rest of the Grecians, and left a persuasion deeply rooted in

their hearts, that they were able to subdue the Persians, and subvert their

vast empire.  Cimon was the first who made the attempt with success.

Agesilaus afterwards pushed that design so far, that he made the great monarch

tremble in his palace at Susa.  Alexander at last accomplished it with

incredible facility.  He never had the least doubt, any more than the

Macedonians who followed him, or the whole country of Greece that chose him

general in that expedition, that with thirty thousand men he could reduce the

Persian empire, as three hundred Spartans had been sufficient to check the

united forces of the whole East.

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