Polity of the Lacedœmonians

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31.

The Battle at the Pass of Thermopylæ

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Xerxes sent a mounted spy to observe the Greeks, and note how many they were, and see what they were doing. He had heard, before he came out of Thessaly, that a few men were assembled at this place, and that at their head were certain Spartans, under Leonidas, a descendant of Heracles. The horseman rode up to the camp, and looked about him, but did not see the whole army; for such as were on the further side of the wall . . . it was not possible for him to behold. However, he observed those on the outside, who were encamped in front of the rampart. It chanced that at this time the Spartans held the outer guard, and were seen by the spy. Some of them were engaged in gymnastic exercises, others combing their long hair. At this the spy greatly marveled, but he counted their number, and when he had taken accurate note of everything, he rode back quietly. No one pursued after him, or paid any heed to his visit. So he returned and told Xerxes all that he had seen. . . .

Four whole days Xerxes suffered to go by, expecting that the Greeks would run away. When, however, he found on the fifth day that they were not gone, thinking that their firm stand was mere impudence and recklessness, he grew wroth and sent against them the Medes and Cissians, with orders to take them alive and bring them into his presence. Then the Medes rushed forward and charged the Greeks, but fell in vast numbers. Others, however, took the places of the slain, and would not be beaten off, though they suffered terrible losses. In this way it became clear to all, and especially to the king, that though he had plenty of combatants, he had but very few warriors. The struggle, however, continued during the whole day.

Then the Medes, having met so rough a reception, withdrew from the fight; and their place was taken by the band of Persians whom the king called his "Immortals." They, it was thought, would soon finish the business. But when they joined battle with the Greeks, it was with no better success than the Median detachment had met. Things went much as before — the two armies fighting in a narrow space, and the barbarians using shorter spears than the Greeks, and having no advantage from their numbers. The Spartans fought in a way worthy of note, and showed themselves far more skillful in fight than their adversaries. They would often turn their backs, and make as though they were all flying away, on which the barbarians would rush after them with much noise and shouting. Then the Spartans at their approach would wheel round and face their pursuers, in this way destroying vast numbers of the enemy. Some Spartans likewise fell in these encounters, but only a very few. At last the Persians, finding that all their efforts to gain the pass availed nothing, and that, whether they attacked by divisions or in any other way, it was to no purpose, withdrew to their own quarters.

During these assaults, it is said that Xerxes, who was watching the battle, thrice leaped from the throne on which he sat, in terror for his army. Next day the combat was renewed, but with no better success on the part of the barbarians. . . .

At sunrise Xerxes made libations, after which he waited until the time when the market is wont to fill,1 and then began his advance. . . . So the barbarians under Xerxes began to draw nigh; and the Greeks under Leonidas, as they now went forth determined to die, advanced much further 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; a still greater number were trampled to death by their own soldiers; no one heeded the dying. The Greeks were reckless of their own safety and desperate, since they knew that, as the mountain had been crossed, their destruction was nigh at hand. Accordingly, they exerted themselves with the most furious valor against the barbarians.

By this time the spears of the greater number were 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. . . .

. . . And now there arose a fierce struggle between the Persians and the Spartans 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. 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 of which 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. Those who still had swords used them, and the others resisted with their hands and teeth. At length 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 beneath showers of missile weapons the remnant which was left.

Thus nobly did the whole body of Spartans and Thespians behave. 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 engaged the Medes, remains on record. One of the Trachinians told him, "Such was the number of the 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." . . .

1 Herodotus, vii, 208, 210–212, 223–226.

1 About ten o’clock.

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Chicago: "The Battle at the Pass of Thermopylæ," Polity of the Lacedœmonians in Readings in Early European History, ed. Webster, Hutton (Boston: Ginn and Company, 1926), 77–79. Original Sources, accessed May 24, 2019, http://omegasources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8ZGJ2RCRGVYT9BJ.

MLA: . "The Battle at the Pass of Thermopylæ." Polity of the Lacedœmonians, Vol. vii, in Readings in Early European History, edited by Webster, Hutton, Boston, Ginn and Company, 1926, pp. 77–79. Original Sources. 24 May. 2019. omegasources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8ZGJ2RCRGVYT9BJ.

Harvard: , 'The Battle at the Pass of Thermopylæ' in Polity of the Lacedœmonians. cited in 1926, Readings in Early European History, ed. , Ginn and Company, Boston, pp.77–79. Original Sources, retrieved 24 May 2019, from http://omegasources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8ZGJ2RCRGVYT9BJ.