Leonidas and the 300 at Thermopylae (Mosaic)

From Herodotus. The History of Herodotus. trans. George Rawlinson (New York: The Tandy-Thomas Company, 1909), 67-75.

In the summer of 480 B. C., an alliance of Greeks, led by Sparta and known as the Corinthian League, was at war with Persia. Under the Spartan king Leonidas, a small, mostly Spartan army met a considerably larger Persian force, led by King Xerxes (son of Darius the Great) at the narrow mountain pass of Thermopylae. A battle ensued. After three days of indecisive fighting, a Greek traitor led the Persian contingent around the Spartans. When Leonidas learned that his men were to be attacked from the rear, he sent the greater part of his contingent away, leaving only a small band of 300 Spartans, Thespians, and Thebans to fight. The entire force, including Leonidas, was killed. The Persians, who had already marched successfully through Thrace and Macedonia, were now free to continue their expedition into Attica, but the time consumed by the fighting at Thermopylae gave the Athenians time to mount a naval force in defense against the Persian force. The historian Herodotus' (ca. 485-425 B.C.) Histories (written ca. 435 B.C.) reveals a great deal about his opinion of the Spartans' legendary tenacity in battle. Furthermore, Leonidas' actions, the historian tells us, were guided by an oracle, consulted before the battle, which foretold that the Spartans had to lose either their king or their city to the Persians; Herodotus' account divulges his conviction that Leonidas sent the greater part of his force away because he knew that either he or Sparta must perish.

219. The Greeks at Thermoplyae1 received the first warning of the destruction which the dawn would bring on them from the seer Magistias, who read their fate in the victims as he was sacrificing. After this deserters came in, and brought the news that the Persians were marching round by the hills: it was still night when these men arrived. Last of all, scouts came running down from the heights, and brought in the same accounts, when the day was just beginning the break. Then the Greeks held a council to consider what they should do, and here opinions were divided: some were strong against quitting their post, while others contended to the contrary. So when the council had broken up, part of the troops departed and went their ways homeward to their several states; part however resolved to remain, and to stand by Leonidas to the last.

220. It is said that Leonidas himself sent away the troops who departed, because he tendered to their safety, but thought it unseemly that either he or his Spartans should quit the post which they had especially sent to guard. For my own part, I incline to think that Leonidas gave the order, because he perceived the allies to be out of heart and unwilling to encounter the danger to which his own mind was made up. He therefore commanded them to retreat, but said that he himself could not draw back with honor; knowing that, if he stayed, glory awaited him, and that Sparta in that case would not lose her prosperity. For when the Spartans, at the very beginning of the war, sent to consult the oracle concerning it, the answer which they received from the Pythoness was, “that either Sparta must be overthrown by the barbarians, or one of her kings must perish.” The prophecy was delivered in hexameter verse2 and ran thus:

O ye men who dwell in the streets of broad Lacedaemon!
Either your glorious town shall be sacked by the children of Perseus,
Or, in exchange, must all through the whole Laconian country
Mourn for the loss of a king, descendant of great Heracles.
He cannot be withstood by the courage of bulls nor of lions,
Strive as they may; he is as mighty as [Zeus]; there is nought that shall stay him,
Till he have got for his prey your king, or your glorious city.

The remembrance of this answer, I think, and the wish to secure the whole glory for the Spartans, caused Leonidas to send the allies away. This is more likely than that they quarreled with him, and took their departure in such unruly fashion.

221. To me it seems no small argument in favour of this view, that the seer also accompanied the army, Megistias, the Arcanian—said to have been of the blood of Melampus3 and the same who was led by the appearance of the victims to warn the Greeks of the danger which threatened them—received orders to retire (as it is certain he did) from Leonidas, that he might escape the coming destruction. Megistias, however, refused, and stayed with the army; but he had an only son present with the expedition, whom he now sent away.

222. So the allies, when Leonidas ordered them to retire, obeyed him and forthwith departed. Only the Thespians and the Thebans remained with the Spartans; and of these the Thebans were kept back by Leonidas very much against their will. The Thespians, on the contrary, stayed entirely of their own accord, refusing to retreat, and declaring that they would not forsake Leonidas and his followers. So they abode with the Spartans, and died with them. Their leader was Demophilus, the son of Diadromes.

223. At sunrise, Xerxes made libations, after which he waited until the time when the forum is wont to fill, and then began his advance. Ephialtes had instructed him thus, as the descent of the mountain is much quicker, and the distance shorter, than the way round the hills, and the ascent. So the barbarians under Xerxes began to draw nigh; and the Greeks under Leonidas, as they now went forth determined to die, advanced much farther than on previous days, until they reached the more open portion of the pass. Hitherto, they had held their station within the wall and from this had gone forth to fight at the point where the pass was the narrowest. Now they joined battle beyond the defile, and carried slaughter among the barbarians, who fell in heaps. Behind them, the captains of the squadrons, armed with whips, urged their men forward with continual blows. Many were thrust into the sea, and there perished; still a greater number were trampled to death by their own soldiers; no one heeded the dying. For the Greeks, reckless of their own safety and desperate, since they knew that, as the mountain had been crossed, their destruction was nigh at hand, exerted themselves with the most furious valor against the barbarians.

224. By this time the spears of the greater number where all shivered, and with their swords they hewed down the ranks of the Persians; and here, as they strove, Leonidas fell fighting bravely, together with many other famous Spartans, whose names I have taken care to learn on account of their great worthiness, as indeed I have those of all the three hundred. There fell too at the same time very many famous Persians: among them, two sons of Darius, Abrocomes and Hyperanthes, his children by Phratagune, the daughter of Artanes. Artanes was brother of King Darius, being son of Hystapes, the son of Arsames; and when he gave his daughter to the king, he made him heir likewise of all his substance; for she was his only child.

225. Thus two brothers of Xerxes here fought and fell. And now there arose a fierce struggle between the Persians and Lacedaemonians over the body of Leonidas, in which the Greeks four times drove back the enemy, and at last by their great bravery succeeded in bearing off the body. This combat was scarcely ended when the Persians with Ephialtes approached; and the Greeks, informed that they drew nigh, made a change in the manner of their fighting. Drawing back into the narrowest part of the pass, and retreating even behind the cross wall, they posted themselves upon a hillock, where they stood all drawn up together in one close body, except only the Thebans. The hillock whereof I speak is at the entrance of the straits, where the stone lion stands which was set up in honor of Leonidas. Here they defended themselves to the last, such as still had swords using them, and the others resisting with their hands and teeth; till the barbarians, who in part had pulled down the wall and attacked them in front, in part had gone round and now encircled them upon every side, overwhelmed and buried the remnant which was left beneath showers of missile weapons.

226. Thus nobly did the whole body of Lacedaemonians and Thespians behave; but nevertheless one man is said to have distinguished himself above all the rest, to wit, Dieneces the Spartan. A speech which he made before the Greeks enraged the Medes, remains on record. One of the Trachinians told him, “Such was the number of barbarians, that when they shot forth their arrows the sun would be darkened by their multitude.” Dieneces, not at all frightened at these words, but making light of the Median numbers, answered, “Our Trachinian friend brings us excellent tidings. If the Medes darken the sun, we shall have our fight in the shade.” Other sayings too of a like nature are reported to have been left on record by this same person.

227. Next to him two brothers, Lacedaemonians, are reputed to have made themselves conspicuous: they were named Alpheus and Maro, and were the sons of Orsiphantus. There was also a Thespian who gained greater glory than any of his countrymen: he was a man called Dithyrambus, the son of Harmatidas.

228. The slain were buried where they fell; and in their honour, nor less in honour of those who died before Leonidas sent the allies away, an inscription was set up, which said:

Here did four thousand men from Pelops’ land
Against three hundred myriads bravely stand.

This was in honour of all. Another was for the Spartans alone:
“Go, stranger, and to Lacedaemon tell

That here, obeying her behests, we fell.”

This was for the Lacedaemonians. The seer had the following:

The great Megistas’ tomb you here may view,
Whom slew the Medes, fresh from Spercheius’ fords.
Well the wise seer the coming death foreknew,
Yet scorned he to forsake his Spartan lords.

These inscriptions, and the pillars likewise, were all set up by the Amphictyons, except that in honour of Megistias, which was inscribed to him (on account of their sworn friendship) by Simonides, the son of Leoprepes.4

229. Two of the three hundred, it is said, Aristodemus and Eurytus, having been attacked by a disease of the eyes, had received orders from Leonidas to quit the camp; and both lay at Alpeni in the worst stage of the malady. These two men might, had they been so minded, have agreed together to return alive to Sparta; or, if they did not like to return, they might have gone to the field and fallen with their countrymen. But at this time, when either was open to them, unhappily they could not agree, and took contrary courses. Eurytus no sooner heard that the Persians had come round the mountain, than straightaway he called for his armour, and, having buckled it on, bade his Helot5 lead him to the place where his friends were fighting. The Helot did so, and then turned and fled; but Eurytus plunged into the thick of the battle, and so perished. Aristodemus, on the other hand, was faint at heart, and remained at Alpeni. It is my belief that if Aristodemus had only been sick and returned, or if both had come back together, the Spartans would have been content and felt no anger; but when there were two men with the very same excuse, and one of them was chary of his life, while the other freely gave it, they could not but be very wroth with the former.

230. This is the account which some give of the escape of Aristodemus. Others say, that he, with another, had been sent on a message from the army, and, having it in his power to return in time for the battle, purposely loitered on the road, and so survived his comrades; while his fellow messenger came back in time, and fell in the battle.

231. When Aristodemus returned to Lacedaemon, reproach and disgrace awaited him; disgrace, inasmuch as no Spartan would give him a light to kindle his fire, or so much as address a word to him; and reproach, since all spoke of him as “craven.” However, he wiped away all his shame afterwards at the battle of Plataea6.

232. Another of the three hundred is likewise said to have survived the battle, a man named Pantites, whom Leonidas had sent on an embassy to Thessaly. He, they say, on his return to Sparta, found himself in such disesteem that he hanged himself.

1Narrow mountain pass controlling the only road between Thessaly and central Greece.

2A rhythmical style of classical poetry. Homer’s two epic poems and Virgil’s Aeneid are written in hexameters.

3A famed visionary, who, it was believed, could communicate with birds.

4Simonides was a contemporary lyric poet.

5A member of the slave class of Sparta.

6The name of a subsequent Persian War battle in 480 B.C.; Herodotus describes this battle in Book 9 of his Histories.