As the story is often told, there’s a bunch of Greeks trying to block the army of the Persians from coming into Southern Greece.
Xerxes¹, the crack of doom, named Persian king, the only truly free person in his whole society—the story would have you believe—rules all of Asia and so many other lands that he is entitled a “King of Kings”. All his people are the equivalent of slaves, who would live or die on his whim, and when he orders them to fight the Spartans in this pass, they obey, and are whipped by overseers unto the spears of the Spartans.
“The Last Stand”—as it is called—at Thermopylae, one of the greatest last stands probably in all human history, was not supposed to be the kind of last stand that it turned out to be.
There were thousands of Greek soldiers at Thermopylae initially, but eventually it became apparent that it was going to be a death trap, and so the Spartan king, a guy named Leonidas², supposedly sent the other Greeks away and kept a, sort of, rear guard.
If you want to stick with the narrative, he kept a rear guard for Greek and Western freedom behind to hold off the Persians.
There were other Greeks who were involved in the so-called last stand of Thermopylae, but it’s the Spartans who get the most attention, about 300 of them. And again, you can understand why; as characters, they were fascinating in their own time. The Spartans were a kind of a cultural experiment.
A better way to put it is, when you think about all of human history put together, there’s enough law-of-averages stuff working where you can see all kinds of little human experiments going on in various communities. In Sparta, it’s whether or not the culture can infuse a certain fighting quality to its human beings if they grow up a particular way, pressured by the culture in certain facets that just make them more likely to be extremely nasty in combat.
Spartan warriors, Spartiates, do nothing but fighting. There is no other job for them.
The entire culture seems to be designed—from much of what we know now—to re-enforce this, including a code of laws and behaviour that tended to make these Spartans enough alike so that “laconic” became a term that described most of them.
There wern’t a lot of chatty Spartans in history, the culture didn’t encourage that.
Listen to the colour though, that has come down from this story. The Great King Xerxes with his army of, reported to be, a million men; so large that it drinks the rivers dry that it passes through, comes to this road, with this pass that has to be crossed, and this small group of Greek hoplites guarding it. And Xerxes—according to Herodotus—doesn’t know what to do, can’t quite believe what he is seeing.
Look at the colour in this story.
According to Herodotus, Xerxes sends a spy to go up to the Spartan lines, and try to figure out what’s going on, and not get caught. Not only that he doesn’t get caught, but he reports back to Xerxes and says that the Spartan warriors couldn’t have cared less that he was there.
They were fine with him looking around, they didn’t care. He said they were doing exercises and combing their hair.
Again, you have to imagine Clint Eastwood with long hair and a beard. Right there, that would be worth the price of admission, right? This, you know, tall sinewy guy, not a big muscle-bound guy doing bodyweight exercises, but callisthenics; push-ups, sit-ups, gymnastics. That’s how they prepped, and combing of their long hair was a Spartan thing.
Xerxes could not get his mind around–Herodotus basically says–the idea that these people, a couple hundred of them were going to try to take on his, reportedly, million-man army. So, he calls in an advisor that he has.
He’s got a Spartan king with him, a guy who fell out of favour, and he hooked up with the Persians, thinking that if they conquer all of Greece, it might be good for him. He’s been the advisor to The Great King of Kings up till now. He had told the king earlier about these people, and they have made fun of him. So now, Xerxes called him back to report on what the spy had said these Spartans were doing.
I’ll let Herodotus, this ancient screenwriter, handle the story from there, writing 2,500 years ago³:
“Xerxes listened, but could not understand that the Lacedaemonians were really preparing to kill or be killed, to fight as much as was in their power, seemed to him to be the height of folly, the action of fools. So, he sent for Demaratus, son of Ariston⁴, who was in the camp. And when Demaratus arrived, Xerxes questioned him about everything that he had been told, trying to understand the meaning behind what the Lacedaemonians were doing. Demaratus answered, “You heard what I said about these men before, when we were just setting out against the Greeks, and you made me a laughing stock when you heard my view of how these matters would turn out, but it is my greatest goal to tell the truth in your presence, so hear me now once again. These men have come to fight us for control of the road, and that is really what they are preparing to do. For it is their tradition that they groom their hair when they are about to put their lives in danger. Now know this, if you subjugate these men, and those who have remained behind in Sparta, there is no other race of human beings that will be left to raise their hands against you. For you are now attacking the most noble kingdom of all the Greeks, and the best of men.” What Demaratus said, seemed quite incredible to Xerxes, and he asked for a second time, how they could possibly intend to fight his whole army, since there were so few of them. Demaratus replied, “Sire, if things do not turn out just as I claim they will, treat me like a liar.””
To lie to The Great King of Kings of the Achaemenid Persian Empire was a capital crime. He was essentially saying, “If this doesn’t turn out exactly like I told you it will, you can kill me.”
That’s pretty darn colourful right there, but it gets even better; The Great King of the Persians was supposed to have sent a messenger to the Spartan lines, to King Leonidas and say basically, “Join us. We’ll make you the overlords of Greece. You’ll have more than you ever had before.”
A lot of nations had done that; joining the Persian Empire was not a bad idea sometimes.
He’s saying, “We can make a deal here; it will be worth your while.” His father Darius was a great deal-maker, and that Xerxes was coming from a position of negotiation here, and the Spartans basically dressed him down morally, saying something to the effect of, “You know, you have all this land already, but you need to bother us. We’d rather die for Greece than own anything.”
It was one of those wonderful Spartan moralistic put-downs. Again, spoken with as few words as possible.
To be continued in the next episode.
¹ Xerxes I, was the fourth king of kings of the Achaemenid dynasty of Persia. Like his predecessor Darius I, he ruled the empire at its territorial apex. He ruled between 486 and 465 BCE.
² Leonidas I, was a warrior king of the Greek city-state of Sparta, and the 17th of the Agiad line; a dynasty which claimed descent from the mythological demigod Heracles.
³ Taken and edited from multiple translated sources.
⁴ Demaratus was a king of Sparta between 510 and 491 BCE, 15th of the Eurypontid line.