A reader writes that she did see Leonidas in the sky.
That’s wonderful! I hope you had as much luck. I’m afraid I didn’t.
A slip of the finger, of course: she saw at least two of the Leonids, the meteors of two nights ago: But it would have been even more remarkable to see Leonidas.
He was a Spartan king of long ago, a hero. Heroes are all too often military, and he was, but he lives on as a sort of pure hero (of the military kind), nothing but hero. By making a hard decision he sacrificed himself and saved Greece, perhaps European civilization. It is not right to say that Leonidas alone was the hero; he and his small troop of men were the collective hero. As so often, the name of the leader stands for the nameless pawns – “Jackson stood like a stone wall,” “Rommel tried to outflank Montgomery,” “Blücher saved Wellington by attacking Napoleon from the rear.” But it can’t have been easy, despite Spartan discipline, for Leonidas to make his men agree to die. The pleasantest scenario I can imagine is that they together saw the situation and there was a murmur, “We should stay,” followed by Leonidas’s “We shall stay.”
You may know the story, it’s famous enough. The world of 480 BC consisted mostly of the Persian empire, stretching from Libya to the Crimea, central Asia, and India. On one of its fringes were the Greeks, a sprinkling of tiny city-states, usually quarreling with each other. Some were in what we now call Greece, across a small sea and therefore outside the empire, others had colonized the coast of what we now call Turkey, so they were reluctantly inside the empire. A couple of those outside (Athens and a smaller town called Eretria) had interfered by sending help to the conquered and rebelling Greeks, so the Persian emperor, Dareius, had sent armies to punish them. These armies overran much of Greece, and put Eretria to death, but were, to their surprise, defeated by the tactics of a smart Athenian (Miltiades) at the battle of Marathon. The emperor vowed to mop up Greece once and for all, but died, so it was left, some years later, to his son and successor, Xerxes. The army that Xerxes himself led was the largest ever: two million, according to the Greeks; maybe a quarter of a million anyway. The Greeks started to pull themselves together into a coalition, and appointed as its leader the Spartan king.
One of the two Spartan kings, that is. Another whole subject is why conservative and militaristic Sparta not only had kings, long after the other city-states had gone on to a chaos of other systems including chaotic forms of democracy, but had two. There was a double line of them, cousins called the Agiads and Eurypontids, supposedly descended from Hercules. Leonidas, an Agiad, was one of the few kings who had had to undergo the harsh boarding-school upbringing by which Sparta hardened its citizens, male and female; kings were exempted from it, but Leonidas was not, because as a third son he was not expected to become king. But he just now had, both his brothers having died (one was a warlike king who went mad and died in prison, the other an angrily disappointed and equally aggressive man who went off to fight and die elsewhere).
The vast Persian army matched around the sea and into northern Greece. The route along the coast was narrowed by mountains at a point called Thermopylae (“warm gates,” because of a spring). Leonidas took the rather long march north in order to stop the Persians there. He had only three hundred Spartans, the picked “knights” or royal bodyguard, and a few thousand other Greeks. They repaired a defensive wall which had stood between mountain and water, and stood behind it, combing their hair, as was their custom before battle. Xerxes waited four days, expecting the Greeks to melt away; he couldn’t believe they would be so stupid as to throw away their single best fighting force. His herald invited Leonidas to surrender by handing over his weapon, to which the reply was: “Molôn labe – come and get it.” For two days, regiments of Medians and Cissians and others of Xerxes’s subject nations, some having to be driven forward with whips, were thrown against the Greeks, who killed thousands of them, including two of the emperor’s brothers.
But there’s always someone who will take a bribe. A local Greek named Epialtes offered to show the Persians a path around. A Persian force started up it at nightfall, wound over two passes between forested ranges, in one of which they surprised and scattered a camp of Locrian Greeks who were hoping merely to defend their own territory. As day broke, someone came running to tell Leonidas that an army was coming down a valley behind him.
There was a hurried council. Spartans did not quit battlefields, and preferred (like Achilles) death with glory. Leonidas told the other Greeks to get away while they could. They did, except for the Thebans, who went over to Xerxes, saying “We are your men, the Spartans were forcing us”; and seven hundred from a small city called Thespiae (near Thebes), who refused to leave. And it must be mentioned that there were another nine hundred who did not or could not leave. They were helots: semi-slaves, members of a pre-Spartan population who lived as subjugated peasants, growing the Spartans’ food. (Pure Spartans were a tightly ruling minority, outnumbered seven to one by their helot serfs.) I’m not sure whether the helots Leonidas had brought were just cooks and camp-makers, or fought. But it was a force of fewer than two thousand that fought on two desperate fronts, using, after their spears were broken, swords, fists, and teeth – that’s what battle is like – and died to a man.
Well, except for two, who happened to have been sent away on errands, thus becoming exceptions who proved the rule: back in Sparta, they lived in disgrace until one hanged himself and the other redeemed himself at a later battle. The bravest of all, it was said, was a Spartan named Dieneces. What, braver than Leonidas? Yes, because when told that the foes were so numerous their arrows would darken the sky, he said it would be nice to fight in the cool. He made light of it all with a joke. Sense of humor was perhaps one of the many things the Greeks invented, and we’re pleased to know that even a Spartan was capable of it.
The action was only a delaying action, it did not win the war. The Persians came on, the Athenians had to evacuate their beautiful city, which was burnt, but another brainy Athenian (Themistocles) persuaded them into tactics by which they lured the Persian fleet to destruction in a narrow strait into the bay of Salamis, and further victories at Plataea, on land, and Mycale, at sea, ended the Persian Wars.
On a column over the body of Leonidas in Sparta were engraved the names of his three hundred companions. And commemorating the “Lion’s Son” at Thermopylae was a stone lion, inscribed with two lines by the poet Simonides of Ceos, in the appropriate elegiac meter with a halt like a sob in the middle of the second line. (I wish I could insert here a picture of Herodotus, the first historian, peering at this inscription and recording it in his notebook; it was in a book I had and can’t find.)
Ô xein’, angellein Lakedaimoniois hoti têide
keimetha tois keinôn rhêmasi peithomenoi.
Tell them in Lacedaemon, passer-by,
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.
Lacedaemon was another name for Sparta; another, or rather for the Spartan territory, was Laconia, from which we get our word laconic. The Spartans didn’t waste words.
So I for once will resist prating on into the side-topics (at least nine of them) that the story brings into my head.