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Monday, July 20, 2009

Ruminations of an Old Goat

I hadn't meant to delve into ancient Greek history for this column. But, as I tried to write on another subject, the words just weren't there. Meanwhile, a book I recently finished reading -- a history book on Xenophon and the March of the 10,000 -- put Greek history back on my mind. No, I'm not going to write about Xenophon a second time. I'm going to write about a battle everyone knows about, or at least thinks they know about -- the Battle of Thermopylae.

Even before the movie 300 was released, many people thought they knew about Thermopylae. They knew that three hundred Spartans held off a Persian army numbering a million men for three days, losing the pass of Thermopylae only through treachery. In other words, what they knew was wrong and the movie didn't do anything to change that. In fairness to the movie, it was based on Frank Miller's graphic novel of the same name, which did not claim to be an accurate retelling of history. I read and enjoyed the graphic novel, just as I watched and enjoyed the movie.

What I'm going to try to do is set the record as straight as possible -- there are no first hand accounts of the battle -- and then explain why I consider the Battle of Thermopylae to be the most important battle in the history of western civilization.

First, let's get a little background. In 490 BC, the Persian emperor Darius sent an expedition to Greece with the express intent of punishing Athens for supporting Ionian cities who had rebelled against Persia. Outnumbered approximately two to one, the Athenian army met the Persians on the plains of Marathon. Brilliantly utilizing the terrain to his advantage, the Athenian general Miltiades negated the Persian army's size advantage and routed the Persians. Darius was not pleased at this result but died before he could attempt another invasion. It fell to his son, Xerxes, to bring Greece under Persian rule.

While Xerxes didn't come close to bringing a million men with him when he invaded Greece in 280 BC, the army he brought was huge by ancient standards. Estimates vary, but the prevailing opinion puts Xerxes army at about 250,000 men. Marching in from the north, the Persians demanded and received the surrender of all northern Greek city states in their path.

The southern Greek city states scrambled to throw some troops in front of the Persians to stop, or at least slow, their advance. The Greeks decided to stage their defense in narrow pass of Thermopylae. For various reasons, only 7000 hoplite warriors were on hand to defend the pass. Among those were three hundred Spartans led by one of the Spartan kings (the Spartans had two kings), Leonides. The other Greeks may have wished for more Spartans, but there was no doubt in their minds who should be in command of the defense -- Leonides.

As Miltiades had done ten years earlier, Leonides made superb use of the terrain, choosing to defend a narrow pass that negated the Persian army's much greater numbers. Meanwhile, out at sea, the 270 ships of the Athenian navy, under the command of Themistocles, prepared to defend the Straight of Artemisium against the 1200 ships of the Persian navy.

On land, the Greek forces held the pass of Thermopylae for two days. Wave after wave of Persian soldiers crashed into the Greek line. Always, the Greeks held, inflicting huge casualties on the invaders. The Persian losses were so great, soldiers had to be whipped from behind before they would advance on the Greek line.

The Persians couldn't match the Greeks in any way. The Greek armor was bronze, with a large shield made of wood and reinforced with bronze. The Persians had leather and padded armor with wicker shields. The Greeks fought with a long spear which easily penetrated the Persian shields and armor. The Persians fought with a much shorter spear and were rarely able to get close enough to even attempt an attack. The Greek citizen soldiers trained regularly, allowing them to fight as a disciplined unit. Many of the Persian soldiers were poorly trained conscripts or even slaves. The vast Persian army usually fought armies similar to themselves, armies much smaller than the Persian army. The Persians had never fought anyone like the Greeks before and they simply weren't prepared for it.

As Xerxes watched his soldiers charge the Greek line and die, a lesser known part of this battle took place at sea. In the Straight of Artemisium, Xerxes navy was attempting to move troops past the pass at Thermopylae to surround the defending Greek forces. Out numbered six to one, Themistocles led the Athenian navy into battle against the Persian ships. The Greeks were aided by storms during the first day of battle and were easily able to keep the Persians bottled up in the straight. The second day passed with little fighting as the Persians repaired their ships. On the third day, the two fleets actually joined in battle.

As all of this was taking place, the Persian army had received a major boon. A Greek by the name of Ephialtes went to Xerxes with news of a goat path around the Greek line of defense. Xerxes sent a detachment of his professional soldiers, the Immortals, to follow Ephialtes through the goat path. Leonides had known of the path and had set 1000 Phocian soldiers to guard the trail. The Phocians were less than vigilant and the Immortals were within a few hundred yards before the Phocians even realized they were under attack. Thinking the entire Persian army was attacking them, the Phocians retreated back to Phocis, their city-state, to help defend it.

When Leonides learned of this on the night of the second day of battle, he ordered the rest of the Greek soldiers to retreat from Thermopylae. His Spartans would stay and cover their retreat. Even here, the 300 did not stand alone. A force of about 400 Thebans and 700 Thespians volunteered to stay with the Spartans. With the retreating men, Leonides sent word to Themistocles that their position was lost and there was no longer any reason for the navy to hold the straight. Unfortunately, that word did not reach Themistocles in time to stop the sea battle.

At sea, the two navies met in a day long battle that saw the Greeks hold their own against the numerically superior Persians. In the end, the Athenians lost half of their ships; ships they could ill afford to lose. The Persians lost about the same number of ships, though they could absorb the losses more easily.

On land, the Greeks did not wait for the Persians to attack. As they were already surrounded, they took the battle to the Persians, intent on fighting to the death. Leonides was killed in that initial round of battle and his body became the focal point of the fiercest fighting through out the day. In the end, the Spartans were killed to man. The Thespians surrendered after being completely surrounded. Nearly all of the Thebans died in the battle, as well. Finally victorious, the Persian army marched into southern Greece and lay waste to all who stood before them, including the sacking and burning of an abandoned Athens.

About a year after the Battle of Thermopylae, an army of 40,000 Greeks met the Persian army at the Plains of Plataea. The Greeks were out numbered three to one and fighting on terrain that allowed the Persians to use their cavalry and superior numbers to great effect. It didn't matter. In one of the bloodiest battles of the ancient world, the Greeks, led by the 10,000 man Spartan army, dealt a devastating loss to the Persians, killing over 80,000 Persian soldiers during the course of the day long battle.

Battered and defeated, the remnants of the once great Persian army retreated back to the empire. Never again would Persia attempt to invade Greece.

Back at the beginning of this column, I said I was of the opinion that the Battle of Thermopylae was the most important battle ever fought in the history of western civilization. That's kind of a strange thing to say about a battle in which the westerners lost, isn't it? Yes, if you don't consider the overall effects of the loss, which were two-fold.

First, the Battle of Thermopylae showed just how superior the Greek hoplites were to the average Persian soldiers. Estimates place Greek losses during the battle at about 4000 men. Persian losses were well in excess of 20,000 men. The Greeks had gone toe to toe against the Persians and shown themselves to be the superior warriors. This had to embolden the southern city-states.

Second, the Spartan self sacrifice, refusing to surrender and dying to a man, stirred the hearts of the rest of the Greek city-states. Many of those same city-states had been ready to surrender to the Persians without a fight. Instead, they rallied around the 300 Spartans and chose to fight. That fight was the battle at the Plains of Plataea.

Without these two effects of the battle, all of Greece would certainly have fallen under Persian rule. Ancient Greece's great philosophical experiments in democracy would never have occurred. Without those experiments to show the way, Rome would never have developed as a republic. Without both Greece and Rome, it's doubtful Europe would have eventually developed their democratic governments. God only knows what the United States would have become, had it come into existence at all.

Dramatic? Yes. I'll be the first to admit it. But the decades that followed the Persian attempt to conquer Greece were decades during which the great Greek experiments in democracy and individual rights took place. Had the Persians conquered Greece, none of those experiments would have been allowed by the empire. Had the Persians conquered Greece, we can only imagine how different the history of western civilization would have been.
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