Story of the Persian War - Alfred J. Church

Of the Battle of Thermopylae

King Xerxes pitched his camp in the region of Trachis, and the Greeks pitched their camp in the Pass. (This Pass is called Thermopylæ, that is to say, the Hot Gates, by the greater part of the Greeks, but the inhabitants of the country call it Pylæ, that is to say, the Gates.) Here then the two armies were set over against each other, the one being master of all the country from the Pass northward, and the other having that which lay to the southward. Now the Greeks that abode the coming of the Persians in this place were these—three hundred Spartans, heavy-armed men; and men of Tegea and Matinea a thousand, from each five hundred, and from Orchomenus one hundred and twenty, and from the rest of Arcadia a thousand. From Corinth there came four hundred, and from Phlius two hundred, and from Mycenæ eighty. So many came from the Peloponnesus; of the Bœotians there came seven hundred from Thespiæ and four hundred from Thebes. Besides these there had come at the summons the Locrians of Opus with all the men that they had, and a thousand Phocians. For these the other Greeks had summoned to their help, saying to them by messengers, "We all that are here are come but as the vanguard of the host; as for the others we look for their coming day by day. The sea also is in safe keeping, being watched by the men of Athens and the men of Ægina, and such others as have been appointed to this work. Remember also that he who now comes against Greece is no god, but a man only; nor is there any mortal, nor ever will be, with whom from the very day of his birth misfortune is not always close at hand, and the greater the man the greater also the misfortune. Wherefore it may be believed that he who now comes against us, being but a mortal man, may fail of his purpose." When the Phocians and Locrians heard these words, they came to the help of the Greeks at Trachis. All of these had commanders of their own, for every city one; but he that was most admired and had the chief command of the army was a Spartan, Leonidas by name, being the twenty-first in descent from Hercules, and having obtained the kingdom in Sparta contrary to expectation. For he had two brothers that were older than he, to wit, Cleomenes and Dorieus, and so had no thoughts of the kingdom. Nevertheless, when Cleomenes died without male offspring, and Dorieus also was dead, having perished in Sicily, the kingdom came to Leonidas, for he was older than Cleombrotus. (This Cleombrotus was the youngest of the sons of Anaxandrides.) This Leonidas had to wife Gorgo the daughter of Cleomenes; and now he went to Thermopylæ, taking with him three hundred men according to the custom of the kings of Sparta. These three hundred he had chosen from such as had male children. On his way he took with him the four hundred men of Thebes, their commander being Leontiades. Now the cause why Leonidas made much account of taking these men rather than any other of the Greeks was this. It was commonly laid to the charge of the Thebans that they favored the cause of the Persians. For this cause he summoned them to the war, seeking to know whether they would send the men or would plainly refuse the alliance of the Greeks. And the Thebans, though they wished otherwise, nevertheless sent the men. The Spartans indeed sent on Leonidas and his company beforehand, purposing themselves to follow. For they thought that when the allies knew that these were already gone, they would also make ready; and they feared lest these should favor the Persians, if they themselves should be seen to linger. And they purposed, when they should have kept the feast—for it chanced to be the feast of the Carneia—to leave a garrison in Sparta, and to follow with their whole force. And the rest of the allies were minded to do the same thing; and it so befell that the festival of Olympia was being kept at this time. But when they sent these men before them, they had no thought that matters at Thermopylæ would be brought to an end so speedily.

Now the Greeks that were at Thermopylæ, when they saw that the Persians were now near to the mouth of the Pass, were sore afraid, and took counsel together whether they should not depart. The Peloponnesians, for the most part, desired to return to the Peloponnesus and guard the Isthmus; but Leonidas, seeing that the Phocians and Locrians were greatly vexed at this counsel, gave his sentence that they should remain, and should send messengers to the cities of the Greeks, bidding them send all the help that they could, for that they were over few to stand up against so great a host.

While the Greeks were holding a council on this matter, Xerxes sent a scout, a horseman, to see how many in number they were, and what they were doing. Now the man heard, while he was yet in Thessaly, that a small company of men were gathered together in this place, the chief of them being Spartans, and the leader King Leonidas, of the house and lineage of Hercules. And when he rode up to the place where the army was encamped, he saw a part of the men. The whole army he saw not, for they had built again the wall that was across the Pass, and were guarding it; and they that were within the wall he saw not; but they that were without the wall, having their arms piled beside them, he saw. Now it so chanced that they who had their place at the time without the wall were the Spartans. These the horseman saw busy with exercises and combing their hair. All this he much marveled to see, finding also how few they were in number. And when he had learned every thing for certain, he rode back again in peace; for no one pursued after him, or indeed paid him any heed whatsoever. And when he was come back he told Xerxes all the things that he had seen. But when Xerxes heard these things he could by no means understand that which was indeed the truth; how these men were making ready to slay as many as might be of their enemy, and so perish. Thinking therefore that the whole thing was but foolishness, he sent for Demaratus, for the man was yet with the army. And when Demaratus stood before him he asked him about these things, desiring to know what they signified. And Demaratus said, "Thou hast heard from me, O King, the truth concerning these men before this, even when we were first beginning this war; but when thou heardest it thou didst but laugh at me, though I told thee that which I knew would surely come to pass. For indeed, O King, I strive always with my whole heart to tell thee the truth. Hear, therefore, yet again what I say. These men are come hither to contend with us for the Pass; and this they now prepare to do; and they have this custom among them, that when they are about to put their lives in peril they adorn their heads with exceeding care. Know, also, O King, that if thou canst subdue these men, and such others of their nation as have been left behind in Sparta, there is no nation upon the earth that will abide thy coming or lift up a hand against thee; for this city that thou now fightest against is the most honorable in all Greece, and these men are the bravest."

But these things seemed to Xerxes to be wholly beyond belief; and he asked again the second time, "In what manner will these men, being so few, as we know them to be, fight with my great army?"

But Demaratus answered this only, "O King deal with me as with a liar if every thing fall not out even as I have said." Notwithstanding, he could not persuade the King that it was so in truth.

Four days, therefore, did the King suffer to pass, hoping always that the Greeks would flee away from their place. But on the fifth day, seeing that they were not departed, but were full, as it seemed to him, of impudence and folly, he grew angry, and sent against them the Medes and the Cissians, giving them a command that they should take these Greeks alive and bring them before him. But when these men came up and fell upon the Greeks, many of them were slain. Then others came up into their places and ceased not from fighting, though indeed they suffered a very grievous slaughter, so that it was manifest to all men, and more especially to the King, that though he had very many that bore arms, yet had he but few men of war. And this battle endured throughout the whole day.

The Medes, having been thus roughly handled, fell back, and the Persians took up the fighting in their place, even the Ten Thousand, that had the name of the Immortals, whom Hydarnes commanded. These men thought to finish the matter very speedily. Nevertheless, when they came to deal with the Greeks, they accomplished nothing more than had the Medes, but fared just as ill, for indeed they fought in a narrow place, and their spears were shorter than the spears of the Greeks, and their numbers availed them not at all. As for the Spartans they fought in a notable way, showing themselves more skillful by far in battle than were their enemies. Then they would sometimes turn their backs, and make as though they were all fled; and when the barbarians saw them flee they would pursue after them with much shouting and uproar. Then the Spartans would turn again and stand face to face with the barbarians; and when they turned they would slay such multitudes as could not be counted. Here also there fell certain of the Spartans, but a few only. In the end, when the Persians after many trials could not by any means gain the Pass, neither by attacking in division nor by any other means, they went back to their camp. And twice, while these battles were being fought, did Xerxes leap from his seat in great fear for his army.

The next day also the barbarians fought, but fared no better than before; for they hoped that the Greeks, being few in number, had been overcome with their wounds, and would not be able any more to stand up against them. But these had been ordered in companies, according to their nations, and so fought, the one coming in the place of another. Only the Phocians did not fight, being set over the mountain that they might guard the path. Wherefore the Persians, finding that they prevailed not one whit more than before, turned back to the camp.

The King, therefore, was greatly perplexed what he should do. But while he considered there came to him a certain Ephialtes, a man of Malea, and desired to talk with him. This man, hoping to receive a great reward from the King, discovered to him the path that led over the mountain to Thermopylæ. Thus did he bring to destruction the Greeks that abode in the Pass. In after time, for fear of the Spartans, this man fled into Thessaly. And when he fled the wardens of the Pass put a price upon his life. This they did when the Amphictyons met at Pylæ. And as time went on Ephialtes came back from banishment and went to Anticyra. There a certain Athenades slew him, not for this treachery, but for some other cause. But the Spartans honored Athenades not the less on this account. This was the end of Ephialtes. As for the other story, that there were two others, to wit, Phanagoras and Corydallus, that led the Persians by this path, it is not to be believed. For the wardens of the Pass set a price not on these two but on Ephialtes, having without doubt a perfect knowledge of the whole matter. Also it is well known that Ephialtes went into banishment for this cause. Let him therefore be named as having done this great wickedness.

The King was greatly pleased at the thing which this man undertook, that is to say, the showing of the path; and he sent Hydarnes and the Ten Thousand that were called the Immortals. These setting out from the camp about the time of the lighting of the lamps, crossed over the river Asopus, and marched all night, having Œta on their right and Trachis on their left. And when it was morning they were found close to the top of the mountain. At the first, indeed, the Phocians that had been set to guard the path knew not of their coming for the whole of the mountain was covered with a wood of oak trees. But when they came near, the morning being calm, there was heard a loud rustling, as indeed could not but be, the Persians treading the leaves under their feet. Then the Phocians leaped up and took their arms, and forthwith the barbarians appeared; and the Phocians, when they saw the armed men, were greatly astonished; for when they had not thought to deal with any enemy whatsoever, lo! there was an army at hand. Hydarnes indeed was much troubled, fearing that the men that he saw were Spartans. And he enquired of Ephialtes who they might be; and when he knew the certainty of the matter he commanded the Persians to make them ready for battle. Then the Phocians, finding that the arrows fell very thickly upon them, and thinking that the Persians were set upon their destruction, fled to the top of the mountain, and prepared to meet their death. But Hydarnes and Ephialtes took no heed of them, and went down the side of the mountain with all the speed they could.

As for the Greeks that were in the Pass, they knew of the doom that should come upon them so soon as the day appeared, first of all from the soothsayer Megistias (for Megistias learned it from the sacrifices). Afterward came in certain deserters with tidings that the Persians had made a compass by the path across the mountains; lastly, when the day was breaking, came the scouts running down from the hills. Then the Greeks held a council, considering what they should do; and they were divided; for some would not leave the post where they had been set, and others were very eager to depart. And when the council was broken up, some departed going each to their own cities, and others made ready to abide in the Pass with Leonidas. Some say indeed that Leonidas sent away them that departed, having a care for their safety; but it did not become him and the Spartans that were with him, he said, to leave their post that they had come to keep at the first. And indeed it seems fit to be believed that Leonidas, seeing that the others were fainthearted and would not willingly abide the peril, bade them go, but that he himself held it to be a shameful thing to depart. For he knew that he should get for himself great glory by abiding at his post, and that the prosperity of Sparta should not be destroyed. For when the Spartans at the very beginning of the war sent to inquire of the Pythia, seeking to know what should befall them, there was given to them an oracle, that one of two things must come to pass, to wit, that Sparta must perish, or that one of their kings must fall in battle.

And that oracle was this—

"Dwellers in Sparta's proud domains,

Hear what the will of fate ordains:

Or falls your noble city low

Beneath the feet of Persian foe;

Or all your borders shall bewail

A Zeus-descended monarch slain;

Nor bull nor lion shall avail

The foe's fierce onset to restrain;

Lo! onward moves his dark array,

Mighty as Zeus, and will not stay

Till King or city be his prey."

Remembering therefore this oracle, and desiring to get for the Spartans all the glory of this matter, Leonidas sent away the others. This is rather to be believed than that they had a controversy in the council, and so departed in an unseemly fashion and without order.

And that this was so is manifest both from other things and also from what befell Megistias the soothsayer. This Megistias was an Acarnanian and of the house, it was reported, of Melampus; and Leonidas would have sent him away together with the others, lest he should perish with them. Megistias indeed would not depart, but he sent away his son who chanced to be with the army; for indeed he had no other son but him only.

The others thereupon hearkened to the words of Leonidas and departed; but the Thespians and the Thebans only abode with the Spartans. This the Thebans indeed did against their will, for Leonidas kept these to be as hostages; but the Thespians remained of their own free will, affirming that they would not leave Leonidas and his companions. Wherefore they abode in the Pass and perished together with the Spartans. Their leader was Demophilus.