Thermopylae |
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In Chapters 201-234 of Book VII of his “Histories”, Herodotus gives an account of the heroic stand made by Leonidas, the King of Sparta, and three hundred of his fellow-countrymen against the huge Persian army of King Xerxes, which was invading Greece, at the narrow mountain pass of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. The self-sacrifice of Leonidas and his men is one of the most renowned military exploits of ancient history, and served to inspire future generations of Greeks to courageous deeds. A dramatic account of the events at Thermopylae was provided by the film “Three Hundred” (2007). Herodotus’ works have recently been translated by Tom Holland (Penguin Classics 2011), as an addition to the translation of Aubrey de Selincourt (Penguin Classics, first published in 1954). The text for this translation is taken from “Herodotus, the Persian Wars”, Volume III (Loeb Classical Library, first published 1922), with an English translation by A.D. Godley. This text and translation is also available on the Perseus website. In this translation, in accordance with his usual practice, Sabidius seeks to keep as close as possible to the structure of Herodotus’ sentences and to the words which he employed.

1) A description of Thermopylae and its neighbourhood (Chapter 201).

201. King Xerxes, then, was encamped in the territory of the city of Trachis, which belonged to Malis, and the Greeks (were encamped) in the pass. This place is called Thermopylae (i.e. The Hot Gates) by most of the Greeks, but Pylae (i.e. The Gates) by the natives and their neighbours. Then each lay encamped in these places, while the former was master of everything which extended from Trachis northwards, and the latter of (all) those (places) lying towards the south and on this part of the mainland.

2) Composition of the Greek force at Thermopylae; his decision to remain at Thermopylae (Chapters 202-207).

202. The Greeks who were awaiting the Persian in this place were these: of the Spartans, three hundred hoplites (i.e. men-at-arms), and a thousand Tegeans and Matineans, half from each (of these places), a hundred and twenty from Orchomenus in Arcadia, and a thousand from the rest of Arcadia; besides the Arcadians (there were) four hundred (men) from Corinth, and two hundred from Phlius and eighty Mycenaeans. These had come from the Peloponnese, and from the Boeotians (there were) seven hundred Thespians and four hundred Thebans.

203 (1). In addition to these, the Opuntian Locrians in full force, and a thousand Phocians were summoned. For the Greeks, themselves, had called upon them, saying through messengers that they themselves had come as an advance guard of the others, and (that) the rest of the allies were expected every day, and the sea was being carefully watched by the Athenians and the Aeginetans, and by those who had been enrolled in the naval force and (that) for them there was nothing to be afraid of. (2) For the invader of Greece was not a god, but a man, and there was no mortal, nor (ever) would be, on whom, at his birth, (some element of) evil had not been commingled (with other things) from the beginning, and with the greatest of them (receiving) the greatest (number of these). The (man) who was marching against (them), as he was a mortal, was surely bound to fall from glory, When they heard this, they came to the assistance of the Greeks at Trachis.

204. Now all these had their own generals, each with regard to his city, but he who was admired the most and who was the leader of the whole army was Leonidas, the (son) of Anaxandrides, the (son) of Eurycrates, the (son) of Polydorus, the (son) of Alcamenes, the (son) of Telechus, the (son) of Archelaus, the (son) of Hegesilaus, the (son) of Doryssus, the (son) of Leobotes, the (son) of Echestratus, the (son) of Agis, the (son) of Eurysthenes, the (son) of Aristodemus, the (son) of Aristomachus, the (son) of Cleodaeus, the (son) of Hyllus, the (son) of Heracles, who (i.e. Leonidas) had acquired the kingship in Sparta unexpectedly.

205 (1). For, since he had two elder brothers, Cleomenes and Dorieus, he had excluded (from his mind) any thought of the kingship. But, when Cleomenes died without male issue, And Dorieus was no longer alive, as he had died also in Sicily, so indeed the kingship fell to Leonidas, because he had been born before Cleombrotus (for he was Anaxandrides’ youngest son) and what is more he had married Cleomenes’ daughter (i.e. Gorgo). (2) He then came to Thermopylae, having picked, in accordance with the law, three hundred men (i.e. his “ἱππεῖς”, the 300 chosen men who formed the royal bodyguard), who also happened to have sons . And he came bringing also those Thebans, (whom) I mentioned when reckoning up the total, of whom Leontiades, the (son) of Eurymachus, was in command. Leonidas took pains to bring these (Thebans) alone among the Greeks for this reason, (namely) that they had been regularly accused of favouring the Medes. He summoned them to the war, as he wished to know whether they would send (their men) with (him), or whether they would plainly reject the Greek alliance. They sent the men, but with other thoughts in their minds.

206 (1). These, Leonidas and his men, the Spartans sent first, so that the rest of the allies would see them and march, and (so that) they would not take the side of the Medes as well, (as they might) if they perceived that they were delaying; for at that moment the Carneia (i.e. the national festival in honour of Apollo, held in September) was in their way, but, once they had celebrated the festival, they intended to leave a garrison at Sparta and march quickly to the rescue with their whole force. (2) So, the rest of the allies were also minded to act similarly themselves; for the Olympiad was due to fall at the same time as these activities; so they sent their advance guard, certainly not supposing that the war at Thermopylae would be concluded so quickly.

207. Indeed, they had been minded to act in this way; but the Greeks at Thermopylae, when the Persian drew near to the entrance (to the pass), became afraid, and began to think about quitting their posts. Now, it seemed good to the rest of the Peloponnesians to return to the Peloponnese and keep the Isthmus under guard; the Phocians and the Locrians were greatly angered by this suggestion, and Leonidas voted that they should remain there, and that they should send messengers to the cities demanding that they should come to their assistance, as they were too few to ward off the host of the Medes.

3) Persian scouts and the Greeks; Xerxes’ conversation with Demaratus (Chapters 209-210).

208 (1). While they debated these (matters), Xerxes sent a mounted scout to see how many they were
and what they might be doing. While he was still in Thessaly, he had heard that a small army was gathered there, and that their leaders were Lacedaemonians, including Leonidas, who was a descendant of Heracles. (2) When the horsemen rode up to the camp, he gazed at, and looked down on, the camp, yet not (on) all (of it); for it was not possible to see who had been stationed inside the wall, which they had repaired and (which) they were now guarding; but he did take notice of those (who were) outside, whose arms were laid in front of the wall; and it happened that at that time the Lacedaemonians had been posted outside. (3) There he saw some of the men exercising, and others combing their hair. When he saw these things, he was amazed, and made a note of their number. Having made an exact note of everything, he rode back at his leisure; for no one pursued (him) or paid much attention (to him); when he returned, he told Xerxes about all the things he had seen.

209 (1). When Xerxes heard (these things), he could not understand the truth, (namely) that they were preparing to kill to the best of their ability, or to be slain; as what they were doing appeared laughable to him, he summoned Demaratus, the (son) of Ariston, who was in his camp; (2) when he arrived, Xerxes asked him about each of these matters), as he wanted to understand what was going on with regard to the Lacedaemonians. But he said, “You heard me before concerning these men, when we were setting out for Greece, but you subjected me to laughter for saying how I saw these things would turn out. For it is my greatest concern, (O) King, to express the truth in your presence. (3) Now, hear (me) once more: these men have come to fight us over the pass, and for this they are preparing themselves. For their custom is as follows: whenever they are about to endanger their lives, they arrange (the hair on) their heads. (4) But know that, if you overcome these (men) and the force which remains behind at Sparta, there is no other nation among men which will resist and withstand you; for you are now coming face to face with the finest kingdom and city and the most valiant men among those in Greece.” (5) What he was saying seemed wholly incredible to Xerxes, and he then asked in what way they would fight against his army, as they were so few. He replied, “O King, treat me as a liar, if these things I am telling you do not turn out in this way.”

4) The fighting at Thermopylae and the repulse of the Persians Chapters 210-211).

210 (1). Although he said these things, he did not persuade Xerxes. Indeed, he allowed four days to pass, all the time expecting that they would take to flight; but, when on the fifth (day) they were (still) not withdrawing, but seemed to him to be remaining (there) through their arrogance and folly, he became angry and sent the Medes and the Cissians against them, telling (them) to take (them) captive, and bring (them) into his presence. (2) When the Medes bore down upon and attacked the Greeks, many (of them) fell, but others attacked as well, and were not driven back, although they suffered grievous losses, but they made (it) plain to all, and not least to the King himself, that there were many men but few warriors. The battle went on all day.

211 (1). Since the Medes were (so) roughly handled, they then withdrew (from the fight), and the Persians, whom the King called Immortals, and whom Hydarnes led, attacked in their place, (thinking) that they would make easy work (of the Greeks). (2) But, when they too joined battle with the Greeks, they fared no better than the army of the Medes, but the same (happened), because they were fighting in a narrower place and were using shorter spears than the Greeks, and could not make use of their numbers. (3) The Lacedaemonians, however, fought in a memorable manner, showing themselves (as) experienced fighters among inexperienced (ones), as when they turned their backs (and) apparently fled in a mass, and the barbarians, seeing (them) fleeing, would pursue (them) with a shout and a clash of arms, and they, allowing themselves to be overtaken, would turn around and cast down a countless number of Persians; and a few of the Spartans fell there too. When the Persians, making an attempt on the pass, and attacking in every kind of manner, could gain no (ground) at all, they drew back.

5) Flank movement by a Persian force, guided by Ephialtes, over the hills (Chapters 213-218).

212 (1). During these assaults in the battle, it is said that the King, as he watched, jumped up from his throne, fearing for his army. In this way, then, did they contend (in battle), and on the next (day) the barbarians fought with no more success. They joined battle, anticipating that, because they had suffered so many wounds, they would be so few that they would no longer be able to resist. (2) But the Greeks had been drawn up by rank in accordance with their nation, and each (of these) fought in turn, except the Phocians. They had been stationed on the mountain to guard the path. So, when the Persians found that nothing (was) in any way different from what they had experienced the (day) before, they withdrew.

213 (1). The King being at a loss as to how to deal with the present difficulty, Ephialtes, the (son) of Eurydemus, a man of Malia, came to speak with him; he, thinking that he would receive a great reward from the King, pointed out the path that led over the mountain to Thermopylae, and (thereby) caused the destruction of those Greeks remaining there. (2) Later, in fear of the Lacedaemonians, he fled to Thessaly, and, while he was in exile, a price was put on his head by the Pylagori, when the Amphictyons had assembled at Pylae. Then, some time after that, he returned to Anticyra, (where) he was slain by Athenades, a man of Trachis. (3) This Athenades slew Ephialtes for another reason, which I shall explain later in this history, but he was no less honoured by the Lacedaemonians.

214 (1). Thus Ephialtes died after these (events), yet there is another story told, (namely) that Onetes, the (son) of Phanagoras, a man of Carystus, and Corydallus of Anticyra, are the ones who spoke these words to the King , and led the Persians around the mountain, but to me (it is) not credible at all. (2) For, in the first place, one must form a judgment for this (reason), (namely) that the Pylagori of the Greeks put a price on the head, not of Onetes and Corydallus, but on (that of) Ephialtes the Trachinian, doubtless having learned the exact truth by every possible means; and, secondly, we know that Ephialtes fled for this reason. Certainly, Onetes might have known about this path, even if was not a Malian, if he had frequented the country many times. But, as Ephialtes was the (man) who guided (them) along the path around the mountain, I record him as guilty.

215. Since Xerxes was pleased at what Ephialtes had undertaken to accomplish, he became overjoyed at once, and sent out Hydarnes and the (men) whom Hydarnes commanded; he set out from the camp at around (the time of) the lighting of the lamps. Now the native Malians had also discovered this path, and, after they had found it, they guided the Thessalians to Phocis, at the time when the Phocians, by fencing in the pass with a wall, were sheltering from invasion. For so long, indeed, had the Malians acknowledged that the path was not beneficial (to them).

216. This path runs in the following way: it begins at the Asopus river, which flows through the gorge, and the same name Anopaea is fixed on this mountain and on the path. This Anopaea stretches across the ridge of the mountain, and ends at Alpenus, which is the city of the Locrians nearest to (that) of the Malians, and at the rock called Blackbuttock and at the seats of the Cercopes (i.e. legendary knavish dwarfs), and here is its narrowest (part).

217 (1). The Persians, having crossed the Asopus, marched all night, the mountains of Oeta being on their right and those of Trachis on their left. As dawn appeared, they came to the summit of the mountain. (2) In this (part) of the mountain, a thousand hoplites of the Phocians were on guard duty, as I have stated previously, defending their own country and keeping watch over the path. The lower (part of the) pass was guarded by those (of whom) I have spoken; and the Phocians were guarding the path across the mountain, as they had volunteered to undertake (this task) (in discussion) with Leonidas.

218 (1). The Phocians realised that they were on the summit in this way: the ascent of the Persians was concealed as the mountain was covered entirely with oak-trees. There was a stillness in the air, but a loud noise occurred like leaves being trodden under foot, whereupon the Phocians sprang up and began to don their armour, and at once the barbarians were there. (2) When they saw the men putting on their armour, they were amazed. For they had expected that no one would appear to oppose them, (and now) they were met by an army. Then Hydarnes, fearing that the Phocians were Lacedaemonians, asked Ephialtes what country this army was from, and, when he learned the truth, he drew up the Persians for battle. (3) When they were assailed by a thick shower of arrows, the Phocians went in flight to the top of the mountain, supposing that they had set out against them in the first place, and made ready to perish (there). This was their intention, but the Persians with Ephialtes and Hydarnes paid no attention (to them), and went down the mountain with all speed.

6) Withdrawal of part of the Greek force by Leonidas’ order. Final battle; annihilation of the Lacedaemomians and Thespians (Chapters 219-225).

219 (1). The seer Megistias, having examined the sacrificial offerings, was the first to warn the Greeks who were at Thermopylae that death would be awaiting them at dawn, and then afterwards deserters came who reported the circuit made by the Persians. These (men) gave their signals while it was still night, and the day-watchers, running down from the heights, (were) the third (to give this report) when daybreak was already appearing. (2) Then the Greeks held a council, and their opinions were divided; some would not allow that they should leave their post, but others wanted to free themselves, and dispersing each (band of men) took itself to its own city, but others among them got ready to remain there with Leonidas.

220 (1). Now, it is said (that) Leonidas himself sent them away, as he was concerned that they would be killed: but in his (view) it was not fitting for those among the Spartans who were there to abandon the post (that) they had come to guard at the outset. (2) In this (matter) I am rather strongly of the opinion that Leonidas, when he perceived that the allies were weak-spirited and unwilling to meet danger together with (him), bade them depart, but for him it was not honourable to go back; but, were he to remain there, he would leave (a name of) great renown, and the prosperity of Sparta would not be utterly destroyed. (3) For it had been foretold by the Pythian priestess to the Spartans, who were consulting (her) about this war right from the start after it had broken out, that either Lacedaemon would be laid waste by the barbarians or their king would be killed. She proclaimed this to them in hexameter verses, speaking as follows:

(4) “For you, O dwellers of wide-wayed Sparta, either your great and glorious city must be sacked by the sons of Perseus (i.e. the Persians), or (if) not that, then the whole land of Lacedaemon, as it pines, will mourn for a king from the line of Heracles (i.e. Leonidas). For neither the might of bulls, nor (that) of lions, can withstand this (foe) face to face; for he has the might of Zeus; I declare that he cannot be checked until he utterly tears asunder one of these (i.e. the city or the king).”

Considering this and wishing to lay up a store of glory for the Spartans alone, Leonidas sent the allies away, rather than that those departing should go away in such a disorderly manner because of a difference of opinion.

221. The strongest proof I have of this (is) the fact that it is quite clear that Leonidas, lest he be slain with (the rest of) them, tried to dismiss Megistias, the Acarnanian, said to be a descendant of Melampus, and (who was) the seer who followed this expedition, the one who, from the sacrificial offerings, told (the Greeks) what was going to happen to them. But he, although he had been dismissed, did not himself leave, but he did send way his only son, who was serving in the army.

222. Now, those allies who were sent away went off, and, in going, they were obeying Leonidas, and only the Thespians and the Thebans remained with the Lacedaemonians. Of these, the Thebans were remaining unwillingly and against their wishes. For Leonidas was holding them, and keeping (them) in the condition of hostages; the Thespians, however, (stayed there) most willingly, and they refused to abandon Leonidas and his companions, (and) to be freed (from his command), but stayed and died with (him); Demophilus, the (son) of Diadromes, was in command of them.

223 (1). Xerxes, after he had made libations at sunrise, waited until the time when any market-place (becomes) very full (i.e. mid-morning) and (then) made his assault; for he had been so advised by Ephialtes, as the descent from the mountain is more direct, and the way much shorter, than the circuit and the ascent. (2) So, the barbarians who were with Xerxes attacked, and the Greeks with Leonidas, (knowing) that they were proceeding towards their death, now advanced much further than (they had) at first into the wider (part) of the defile. For on the previous days a wall of fortification was being guarded, and, withdrawing gradually into the narrow (parts), they had fought (there). (3) But now they joined battle outside the narrows, and a large number of the barbarians fell (there); for the captains of their companies lashed every man with whips, urging (them) ever forward. Many of them fell into the sea and drowned, and, yet, many more were trampled alive under foot; there was no regard for who (it was that) perished. (4) For, as they knew that someone among those who were coming round the mountain was about to bring death to them, they displayed to the utmost as much bodily strength as they had towards the barbarians, (fighting) recklessly and with the frenzy of desperation.

224 (1). Now, by that time most of them already had broken spears, and they were slaying the Persians with their swords. Then, Leonidas fell in that struggle, being a most valiant warrior, and with him others famous Spartans, whose names I have learned, as being men of (great) worth, and I have also learned (the names) of all the three hundred. (2) Many other famous Persians fell there too, including two sons of Darius, Abrocomes and Hyperanthes, born to Darius by Phratagune, daughter of Artanes. Artanes was the brother of king Darius and son of Hystaspes, the (son) of Arsames. Now, when he gave his daughter in marriage to Darius, he gave his whole property as a dowry, since she was his only child.

225 (1). Two brothers of Xerxes fell in the battle there, and over the body of Leonidas there was a great struggle between the Persians and the Lacedaemonians, until, through their courage, the Greeks took it and dragged (it) away, and four times put their adversaries to flight. This (struggle) lasted until the (men) with Ephialtes arrived. (2) When the Greeks realised they had come, from then onwards the nature of the battle altered; for they withdrew back to the narrow (part) of the way, and, as they went, they passed behind the wall and took up position crowded together on the hillock, all of them that remained, except the Thebans. The hillock is at the entrance (to the pass), where now stands the stone lion in honour of Leonidas. (3) In this place, as they defended themselves with swords, as many of them as still happened to have them, and (if not) with their hands and teeth, the barbarians, (by) throwing (missiles), overwhelmed them, some pursuing (them) from the front and demolishing the wall of fortification, and others, who had surrounded (them) from all sides, standing round about.

7) Individual instances of bravery; the commemorative inscriptions; the fortunes of the few survivors; Theban surrender to Xerxes (Chapters 226-233).

226 (1). Although the Lacedaemonians and the Thespians bore themselves in such a manner, yet the bravest man (of them all), it is said, was the Spartan Dieneces. They say that he spoke the following words before they joined battle with the Medes, when he had learned from a certain Trachinian, that, whenever the barbarians discharged their bowshots, the sun was hidden by the multitude of arrows; so great was their number. (2) He, not being (at all) disturbed by this, and making light of the multitude of the Medes, said that the stranger from Trachis brought them wholly good news, (for) if the Medes were keeping the sun hidden, (then) the battle against them would be in the shade and not in the sun.

227. This saying, and others of a similar nature, they claim, Dieneces left (behind) as a memorial; after him, two Lacedaemonian brothers, Alpheus and Maron, the sons of Orsiphantus, are said to have been the most courageous. Among the Thespians, (the man) whose name was held in the highest repute was Dithyrambus, the (son) of Harmatides.

228 (1). Over those who were buried there in the very (place) where they fell, and with them those that had died before (those) who had been dismissed by Leonides had departed, there is written an inscription which says this:

“μυριάσιν ποτὲ τῇδε τριηκοσίαις ἔμαχοντο
ἐκ Πελοποννάσου χιλιάδες τέτορες.”
(Four thousand here from Pelops’ land,
Against three million once did stand.)

(2) That is inscribed for all of them, but, for the Spartans, (there is one) of their own:

“ὦ ξεῖν’, ἀγγέλλειν Λακεδαιμονίοις
κείμεθα τοῖς κείνων ῥήμασι πειθόμενοι.”
(Go tell the Spartans, O you that passes by,
That here in obedience to their words we lie.)

(3) That (one) was for the Lacedaemonians, and this (one) was for the seer:

“μνῆμα τόδε κλεινοῖο Μεγιστία, ὅν ποτε Μῆδοι
Σπερχειὸν ποταμὸν κτεῖναν
μάντιος, ὃς τότε κῆρας ἐπερχομένας σάφα εἰδώς
οὐκ ἔτλη Σπάρτης ἡγεμόνα προλιπεῖν.”
(Here lies the hero Megistias who died
When the Medes crossed over Spercheius’ tide,
The seer well knew his doom was nigh,
Yet from the Spartan king he scorned to fly.)

(4) Now, except for the seer’s inscription, the Amphictyons are the ones who honoured them with inscriptions and pillars; Simonides, the (son) of Leoprepes, was the (man) who inscribed the (epitaph) of the seer Megistias, in accordance with their guest-friendship.

229 (1). It is said that of these three hundred, Eurytus and Aristodemus could both of them have agreed a common line of action, either to have returned safely together to Sparta, as they had been released by Leonidas and were lying sick in Alpeni with an extreme eye infection, or, if they did not wish to return home, to die with the others. While they could have done either of these things, they could not agree, but had different opinions. Eurytus, having learned of the Persians’ circuit, (and, after) demanding his armour and putting (it) on, bid his helot lead him to the fighting; when he had led him, he (i.e. the helot) then departed after leading (him there), but he (i.e. Eurytus) rushed into the throng and perished; Aristodemus, his heart failing (him), hung back. (2) Now, if either Aristodemus alone had been sick and had returned to Sparta, or there had been a return journey involving both of them together, I do not think that the Spartans would have shown any anger towards them; but, as it was, when one of them had died, and the other, having the same excuse (as his comrade might have offered), yet was unwilling to die, they (i.e. the Spartans) were bound to display great anger towards Aristodemus.

230. Some, then, say that Aristodemus came back safely to Sparta, and with some such excuse as this; others (say) that he had been sent from the camp (as) a messenger, and that, although he could have arrived in time for the battle, he chose not to, but lingered on the way and (so) survived, while his fellow-messenger arrived at the battle and was slain.

231. When Aristodemus returned to Lacedaemon, he met with both censure and disgrace; he was dishonoured (by) suffering as follows: no one among the Spartans would kindle fire for him or speak with (him). And he had to face reproach, being called Aristodemus the coward.

232. But at the battle of Plataea (i.e. where the Spartans under Pausanias defeated the Persians in 479 B.C.) he retrieved all the blame which had been laid upon (him); it is said too that another of these three hundred had survived; his name was Pantites; as he was dishonoured, when he returned to Sparta, he hanged himself.

233 (1). The Thebans, of whom Leontiades was in command, fought against the King’s army, as long as they were for a time with the Greeks under compulsion; but, when they saw the Persian side gaining the upper (hand), and, when the Greeks with Leonidas, were hurrying towards the hillock, they then separated themselves (from them) and stretched out their hands and came nearer to the barbarians, saying the truest of words, that they were on the side of the Medes and had been among the first to give earth and water to the King, that they had come to Thermopylae, while being under constraint, and were guiltless of the harm being done to the King. (2) And so, (by) saying these things, they saved their lives; for the Thessalians bore witness to their words; however, they were not fortunate in all respects; for, when the barbarians captured them as they were approaching, they killed some of them as they drew near, and, at Xerxes’ command, they were branded with the King’s marks, beginning with their commander Leontiades; some time afterwards (i.e. in 431 B.C.), the Plataeans murdered his son Eurymachus, when, leading four hundred Theban troops, he seized the city of Plataea.

8) Epilogue (Chapter 234).

234. Thus did the Greeks contend (in battle) at Thermopylae ….

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