Against stupidity the very gods themselves contend in vain. — Friedrich Schiller

Pictures from Greek Life and Story - Alfred J. Church

The Three Hundred

My next chapter will tell the story of how Greece was finally saved from the Persians: this will be devoted to a narrative of the first attempt to stop the advance of the invader, an attempt that was not less noble because it was unsuccessful. The isolated Greek communities, always jealous of each other, and often hostile, had been coerced into something like union by the danger that threatened them. A congress met at the Isthmus, and it was determined to make a stand at the northern boundary of Greece. This was the range of Olympus, dividing Thessaly from Southern Macedonia, and penetrable, through part of the year, only by the pass of Tempe. The Thessalians strongly urged the taking up of this position. They promised to assist in the defence of it with their whole available force, declaring, that if it was not done, they would be compelled to provide for their own safety by submitting to the Persian King. A force of ten thousand heavy-armed was accordingly sent northward, and for a short time actually occupied the pass. But their stay was brief. They discovered that the position was untenable. There was another pass some little distance to the westward, impracticable indeed, owing to its altitude, in winter, but at that time—it was early summer—perfectly available. The Greek force retreated southward, leaving the greater part of Northern Greece at the mercy of the invader. The position which it was now resolved to take up was the Pass of Thermopylæ, the "Hot Gates," so called from the hot springs which rise in the neighbourhood. The "Gates" were not a pass in the ordinary sense of the term, i.e.  a narrow defile between two closely—approaching mountains. There was a mountain on one side, and an impassable marsh on the other, reaching to the sea. This was the case at both the western or outer and the eastern or inner "Gates," the road at both being so narrow that only a single vehicle could travel on it. The intervening space, about a mile in length, was much wider. It was here that the springs rose from the ground.

Thermopyle offered to the defending force an advantage which Tempe did not possess. In its near neighbourhood the strait, dividing the island of Eubœa from the mainland, was so narrow that it could be easily blocked. It was hoped, therefore, that the advance of the invader could be simultaneously stopped by both sea and land. The fleet accordingly took up its position at a spot called Artemisium. It numbered two hundred and eighty ships, under the command of the Spartan Eurybiades, the Athenians, with patriotic self-denial, forbearing to press a claim to which their superior skill and the magnitude of their contingent, a hundred in all, would have given great weight. At the same time Leonidas, one of the Spartan kings, occupied Thermopylæ with a force which numbered about four thousand heavy-armed. How many other troops were present we do not know. The three hundred Spartans were doubtless attended by armed Helots. But it is difficult to suppose that many more than four thousand could have found camping-room in the limited space within the "Gates."

The movements of Xerxes do not belong to my story. It will suffice to say that, arrived at the outer end of the pass, he waited four days before ordering an attack, in expectation, Herodotus tells us, that the defenders would fly. A horseman whom he sent to reconnoitre, brought back as his report that he had seen the Spartans engaged, some in martial exercises, some in carefully combing their hair. The King asked an explanation from one Demaratus, himself an exiled king of Sparta, who was accompanying the expedition. Demaratus repeated what he had often said before, that Xerxes could not expect to make his way without a desperate struggle "These men," he went on, "are preparing to fight for the pass; they have a custom of carefully combing their hair when they know that they will have to fight to the death." He did not convince the King, who waited for a submission that never came. On the fifth day he sent a force of Medes and Persians with orders to bring these presumptuous men into his presence. They attacked the position—it was by this time fortified by a wall built across the pass—but failed utterly. From morning to evening they renewed the assault, fresh troops continually coming up, but only to meet with the same disastrous repulse. The following day the Persian Guard, known as the Immortals, took up the fighting, but to no better purpose. They suffered even more heavily, for a feigned retreat on the part of the Greeks drew them on to a spot where a frightful slaughter was inflicted on them. Thrice did Xerxes leap up from his seat as he watched the conflict, in fear for his army. A third day's fighting ended in the same way.

At this point an act of infamous treachery helped the King out of his perplexity. A Melian, by name Ephialtes, came to him and offered to show him how he might outflank the defenders of the pass. There was a path over the hills which brought out the traveller beyond the inner "Gate." Leonidas knew of this path before he had taken up his position at Thermopylæ. The Phocians, however, had undertaken to guard it, and he felt secure. But the Phocians failed him. Apparently they neglected to place any outposts. Anyhow the Persians were close upon them before they knew of their approach. It was only by the crackling of the dead leaves under foot, as the invaders made their way through the oak forest that clothed the mountain side, that they became aware of their danger. They hastily armed themselves. The Persians, surprised to see an armed force where they expected no opposition, halted. "Who are these?" said Hydarnes, the Persian leader, to the traitor who was guiding them. He was afraid, Herodotus tells us, that they were Spartans. He had found out what manner of men these were two days before, for it was he who led the Immortals. "They are Phocians," replied Ephialtes. At once Hydarnes ordered an attack. The difference between Spartans and Phocians was soon evident. A shower of arrows sufficed to send the guardians of the path in headlong flight.

The Greeks at Thermopylæ were by this time informed of the fate that was approaching. The seer Megistias had seen in the sacrifices the signs of impending death; and soon more certain information was brought by deserters from the Persian army; finally the scouts came hurrying into the camp, with the news that the enemy were in sight. Leonidas acted at once. His allies he sent away; they were willing, probably anxious, to save themselves; and he would not hinder them. But he and his Spartans elected to stay. Honour forbade them to fly from an enemy; as for Leonidas, he had the still stronger motive, that his death, if the oracles spake truly, would save Sparta. The city must perish, or one of its kings; and he gladly chose the alternative so glorious to himself. The seer, though not a Spartan by birth, refused to depart; but he sent away his only son. The Thespian contingent, seven hundred strong, also elected to stay. Four hundred Thebans were kept, it was said, against their will.

Up to this time the defending force had fought, for the most part, behind a wall which had been built across the western end of the pass many years before by the Phocians. They had found it in ruins, and had repaired and heightened it. Now that they had resolved to die, the Spartans were bent on selling their lives as dearly as they could, and advancing beyond the wall, assumed the offensive. The Persians gave way before them; urged on though they were by the scourge, they could not resist the furious valour of the Greeks; many were slain, many thrust into the sea, many trampled down by their own countrymen. One writer declares that the Spartans actually penetrated to within a short distance of Xerxes. Still, to a conflict fought at such tremenous odds, there could be but one issue. Early in the day Leonidas fell. There was a fierce struggle for his body; four times the Spartans were borne back by overpowering numbers, four times they rallied, succeding at last in carrying off the body of the king. As the day passed, their spears and swords were shivered by incessant use, and they were driven to use their hands and even their teeth. At last, almost unarmed, they withdrew to a hillock which stood at the eastern end of the pass. Here they were surrounded by the Persians, and overwhelmed with showers of stones and arrows. Not a man survived; but the Thebans pleaded the treacherous submission of their state, and though personally of the patriotic party their plea was allowed, and their lives were spared. But they suffered the ignominy of being branded, as cattle are branded, with the king's mark. The slain were buried where they fell, the Spartans lying by themselves. A pillar surmounted the mound which covered their remains, bearing this inscription:

"Go, tell at Sparta, thou that passest by,

That here obedient to her laws we lie."

Another monument commemorated in general terms the valour of the whole force which had attempted to stay the Persian advance.

"Four thousand warriors from the Apian land

Did thrice a hundred myriads here withstand."

Both these epigrams were the work of the famous Simonides of Ceos. It was he also who paid this tribute to the memory of his friend the seer who scorned to leave his Spartan patrons:

"Beneath thy feet the wise Megistias lies,

Skilled to discern the warnings of the skies;

From swift Spercheius came the Mede, and slew

The blameless prophet. Well his fate he knew;

Yet scorned to fly, choosing to share the doom

Of his dear Spartan friends. Behold his tomb!"

Above Leonidas the "lion king" the piety of his countrymen erected a tomb, which bore the appropriate semblance of the king of beasts. For this also Simonides composed an inscription. It runs:

"Bravest of beasts am I; of men most brave

Who lies below, and now I watch his grave.

Lion he was alike in name and heart,

Else had I ne'er endured this watcher's part."