The Battle of Thermopylae: The Heroes & The Villain (Best Stories of Herodotus)

The Battle of Thermopylae: Who, Where, How (Part I) 
The Battle of Thermopylae: The Fight in the Pass (Part II) 

First the heroes, of course… the villain can wait!


Leonidas, whose name means ‘son of the lion’, was one of the few Spartan kings who went through the same education as other Spartan boys: he completed the agoge, the notoriously harsh military training that enabled a Spartan boy to become a Spartan citizen and would have been flogged at the temple of Artemis – a gruesome ritual that some boys didn’t survive. All Spartan males had to go through this if they were going to obtain citizenship, apart from the immediate heirs of the kings. Which Leonidas wasn’t:

VII. 204. ….Leonidas [was the] son of Anaxandrides, son of Leon, son of Eurycratides, son of Anaxander, son of Eurycrates, son of Polydoros, son of Alcamenes, son of Teleclos, son of Archelaos, son of Hegesilaos, son of Doryssos, son of Leobotes, son of Echestratos, son of Agis, son of Eurysthenes, son of Aristodemos, son of Aristomachos, son of Cleodaios, son of Hyllos, son of Heracles; who had obtained the kingdom of Sparta contrary to expectation.

205. For as he had two brothers each older than himself, namely Cleomenes and Dorieos, he had been far removed from the thought of becoming king…

His fellow Spartans of course were well aware of this. The story goes that one of them once remarked to Leonidas: “”Except for your being king, you are no different from the rest of us.” To which Leonidas replied, “But if I were no better than you others, I should not be king.”

“He was not destined by birth to become king at all, and did so only because his older half-brother Cleomenes I died without male issue. The fact that he was married to Gorgo, Cleomenes’s only daughter, making him Cleomenes’s son-in-law and indirect heir as well as half-brother, will have eased the succession, presumably. But Leonidas is likely to have felt that he had a lot to live up to, and quite a lot to prove besides.”
(Thermopylae: The Battle That Changed the World by Paul Cartledge)

Leonidas’ succession to the throne was as sinister as it was unexpected: his predecessor Cleomenes – who had previously plotted to have Demaratus exiled and fled when his lies came to light – died in mysterious circumstances. Having been arrested by his half-brothers (the elder being Leonidas), he was found dead in his cell one morning. The official version was that he committed suicide, but as Ernle Bradford wrote:

“Some complicity between his half-brothers, even if not outright murder, seems more likely. It is possible that when Leonidas led out his small force to Thermopylae – to his eternally remembered death at the Hot Gates – he had something on his conscience to expiate.”
(Thermopylae: The Battle for the West by Ernle Bradford)

There is a line of thought – indeed, beginning with Herodotus, reinforced by Plutarch and endorsed by respectable historians – that when Leonidas set out from Sparta, he went to die.

205. …He [Leonidas] then at this time went to Thermopylai, having chosen the three hundred who were appointed by law and men who chanced to have sons…

The first hint for this being the line quoted above: that Leonidas deliberately chose men who already had sons – so that even if they died, their blood line would continue. Even at the height of her powers (around this time, in fact), Sparta could only field a maximum of eight to ten thousand men in battle and eventually, the declining number of Spartiates was the reason for the collapse of Spartan hegemony.

And then there was of course that unfortunate prophecy of Delphi too: that Sparta was to lose a king or be sacked by the Persians.

Temple of Apollo, Delphi

220. …because Leonidas perceived that the allies were out of heart and did not desire to face the danger with him to the end, he ordered them to depart, but held that for himself to go away was not honourable, whereas if he remained, a great fame of him would be left behind, and the prosperity of Sparta would not be blotted out: for an oracle had been given by the Pythian prophetess to the Spartans, when they consulted about this war at the time when it was being first set on foot, to the effect that either Lacedemon must be destroyed by the Barbarians, or their king must lose his life. This reply the prophetess gave them in hexameter verses, and it ran thus:

“But as for you, ye men who in wide-spaced Sparta inhabit,
Either your glorious city is sacked by the children of Perses,
Or, if it be not so, then a king of the stock Heracleian
Dead shall be mourned for by all in the boundaries of broad Lacedemon.”

In the Sayings of Spartans – part of his Morals –, Plutarch tells the story that when Leonidas left Sparta for Thermopylae with only the traditional royal guard of three hundred men, the ephors were wondering if he was taking a sufficient force:

When the Ephors said that he was taking but few men to Thermopylae, he said, “Too many for the enterprise on which we going.”

And when again they said, “Hae ye decided to dae aught else save to keep the barbarians from gettin’ by?” “Nominally that,” he said, “but actually expecting to die for the Greeks.”

Upon which his wife, Gorgo, believing she would never see him again, asked him what she should do. Leonidas told his queen:

“Marry good men and give birth to good children.”

Molon Labe (Come And Take Them)

The words “molon labe” as inscribed on the Leonidas monument at Thermopylae. Source: Wikipedia

Leonidas’ famous reply of defiance to Xerxes does not, in fact, appear in Herodotus. Its source is Plutarch’s Sayings of Spartans.

Xerxes wrote to him [to Leonidas],
“It is possible for you, by not fighting against God but by ranging yourself on my side, to be the sole ruler of Greece.”
But he  wrote in reply,
“If you had any knowledge of the noble things of life, you would refrain from coveting others’ possessions; but for me to die for Greece is better than to be the sole ruler over the people of my race.”

When Xerxes wrote again, “Hand over your arms,”
He wrote in reply, “Come and take them.”

Personally (great as molon labe is) I always liked Leonidas’ snub of Xerxes the best: “if you had any knowledge of the noble things of life, you would refrain from coveting others’ possessions…”  Coming as it was from somebody as relatively poor as a Spartan king to the richest man in the world at the time.

Dieneces: Fighting in the Shade

According to Herodotus, “the Spartan Dienekes is said to have proved himself the best man of all” during the battle. He also made the comment that is probably best known of all the sayings from Thermopylae (apart from “Come and take them!” of course) although few people will remember the name of Dioneces:

226. …the Spartan Dienekes… uttered this saying before they engaged battle with the Medes:—being informed by one of the men of Trachis that when the Barbarians discharged their arrows they obscured the light of the sun by the multitude of the arrows, so great was the number of their host, he was not dismayed by this, but making small account of the number of the Medes, he said that their guest from Trachis brought them very good news, for if the Medes obscured the light of the sun, the battle against them would be in the shade and not in the sun.

Plutarch, incidentally, attributes this comment to Leonidas in the Sayings of Spartans  – but as he wrote much later than Herodotus, I think we’ll take Herodotus’ word for it, and credit Dieneces instead…

…And Some More Heroes

227. This and other sayings of this kind they report that Dienekes the Lacedemonian left as memorials of himself; and after him the bravest they say of the Lacedemonians were two brothers Alpheos and Maron, sons of Orsiphantos. Of the Thespians the man who gained most honour was named Dithyrambos son of Harmatides.

The Code of the Spartans: Eurystos, Aristodemos and Pantites

Not many people know but there were in fact two survivors of the Spartan three hundred: Aristodemos and Pantites. But their story does not end happily.

Aristodemos, together with another man by the name of Eurystos, was left behind by Leonidas at Alpenoi, being ill. But when they heard that the Persians had gone round the mountain, Eurystos chose to return to Leonidas and was killed with the rest of the Spartans, while Aristodemos returned to Sparta:

229. …Eurystos, it is said, when he was informed that the Persians had gone round, asked for his arms and having put them on ordered his Helot to lead him to those who were fighting; and after he had led him thither, the man who had led him ran away and departed, but Eurystos plunged into the thick of the fighting, and so lost his life: but Aristodemos was left behind fainting.

Now if either Aristodemos had been ill alone, and so had returned home to Sparta, or the men had both of them come back together, I do not suppose that the Spartans would have displayed any anger against them; but in this case, as the one of them had lost his life and the other, clinging to an excuse which the first also might have used, had not been willing to die, it necessarily happened that the Spartans had great indignation against Aristodemos.

231. When Aristodemos, I say, had returned home to Lacedemon, he had reproach and dishonour; and that which he suffered by way of dishonour was this,—no one of the Spartans would either give him light for a fire or speak with him, and he had reproach in that he was called Aristodemos the coward.

232. He however in the battle at Plataia repaired all the guilt that was charged against him…

… by fighting like the very devil, apparently, before being killed.

The other survivor was the messenger Pantites; he could hardly be blamed for having been sent away by Leonidas, yet…

232. …but it is reported that another man also survived of these three hundred, whose name was Pantites, having been sent as a messenger to Thessaly, and this man, when he returned back to Sparta and found himself dishonoured, is said to have strangled himself.

The Villain: Ephialtes

213. Then when the king was in a strait as to what he should do in the matter before him, Epialtes the son of Eurydemos, a Malian, came to speech with him, supposing that he would win a very great reward from the king; and this man told him of the path which leads over the mountain to Thermopylai, and brought about the destruction of those Hellenes who remained in that place.

A local man, Ephialtes, came forward, voluntarily, “in the hope of a rich reward“, to show the path across the mountain that would allow the Persians to get behind the defenders of the pass. He was “not only prepared to tell them where to cross the Asopos, so as to begin their climb to the easy ground between the two ridges of Kallidromos, but he was prepared to act in person as their guide. It was this that made all the difference.” (Ernle Bradford: Thermopylae: The Battle for the West)

Afterwards from fear of the Lacedemonians he fled to Thessaly, and when he had fled, a price was proclaimed for his life by the Deputies, when the Amphictyons met for their assembly at Pylai. Then some time afterwards having returned to Antikyra he was slain by Athenades a man of Trachis. Now this Athenades killed Epialtes for another cause… but he was honoured for it none the less by the Lacedemonians.

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