Story of the Persian War - Alfred J. Church

Of the Battle of Thermopylae (continued)

So soon as the sun was risen Xerxes made libations; and about the time when the market begins to fill he commanded that the army should advance. This he had been bidden to do by Ephialtes, because the way for them that descended the mountain was shorter by far than the way for them that ascended. Now when the Persians were seen to approach, Leonidas and his companions, as knowing that their end was near, went further than they had gone on the days before into that part which is broader. For before they had been wont to guard the wall, and advancing therefrom to fight in the narrows of the Pass. But now they joined battle with the barbarians in the open space, slaying great multitudes of them. As for these indeed the captains of their companies standing behind them and having great whips, drave them forward. And many were thrust into the sea by the press and so perished; and many were trodden down by their companions. Nor did any one take any count of them that perished. And the Greeks, knowing that death was at hand, now that the barbarians had come round over the mountains, recked not of their lives, but fought with rage that was beyond all measure. By this time the spears of the greater part were already broken, so that they smote down the Persians with their swords. While they thus fought King Leonidas was slain, having done many deeds of valor; and there fell many other Spartans with him, men of renown. Many famous Persians also were slain at this time, and among them were two sons of Darius. And there was an exceeding fierce fight between the Spartans and Persians concerning the body of Leonidas; but in the end the Spartans prevailed, so great was their valor, and carried it away, and they drave back the Persians four times. But when the Greeks perceived that the Persians that followed Ephialtes were at hand, they returned to the narrows of the Pass, beyond the wall, and gathered themselves together in the company on the mound that is at the entering in of the Pass, where in aftertime there was set a lion of stone over the grave of King Leonidas. Here such as had swords yet remaining to them unbroken, defended themselves with them; and the rest fought with their hands and teeth, till at the last the barbarians, some pulling down the walls and assailing them in front and others surrounding them on every side, overwhelmed them with stones and arrows and the like.

All the Spartans and Thespians showed themselves right valiant; but the bravest of all was Dieneces a Spartan. It was this Dieneces that spake a very noteworthy saying before the Spartans joined battle with the Persians. And the saying was this. A man of Trachis affirmed that when the Persians shot off their arrows the sun was darkened by the number of them. But Dieneces was not one whit astonished at the matter, but, taking no heed at all of the multitude of the Persians, made answer, saying, "This is good news that the stranger from Trachis brings us, for if the Persians so hide the sun then shall we fight in the shade." Many such like sayings did this Dieneces speak. Next after this Dieneces were two brothers, Alpheus and Maron; and of the Thespians the bravest was one Dithyrambus.

All these were buried even where they were slain. On them that died before that Leonidas had sent away a part of his army, there was written this epitaph—

"Four times a thousand men from Pelops' land

Three thousand times a thousand did withstand."

But over the Spartans by themselves there was written—

"Go, tell the Spartans, thou that passest by,

That here, obedient to their laws, we lie."

And over the soothsayer was this—

"Here lies the great Megistias, whom of yore

The Persian host, from swift Asopus shore

Ascending, slew. The seer his doom could read,

Yet left not Sparta's chieftains in their need."

The other columns indeed and that which was written upon them did the Amphictyons set up; but the column of Megistias the seer and the inscription thereon Simonides set up for friendship's sake.

Of the three hundred two, Eurytus and Aristodemus, were absent from their companions on the day of the battle. Now these two might, if they had been willing to agree, either have returned both of them to Sparta, for Leonidas had sent them away from the army and they lay at Alpeni, grievously afflicted with sickness of the eyes, or if they were not willing so to return, have died along with the others. As for Eurytus, when he knew that the Persians had come round by the path, he called for his arms and put them on him, and bade his helot lead him into the battle. So the helot led him to the battle, and then turned and fled, and Eurytus thrust himself into the press of the battle, and so perished. But as for Aristodemus his courage failed him, and he tarried at Alpeni. Now if Aristodemus only had been sick and so returned alive to Sparta, or if they two had so returned together, it may well be believed that the Spartans would have had no indignation against them; but seeing that, both being in the same case, one perished but the other was not willing to die, it could not but be that they should have great indignation against him that still lived.

Such is the story that some tell about Aristodemus; but others say that having been sent as a messenger from the army, when he might have returned before the battle, he lingered on the way of set purpose, but that his fellow messenger returned and was slain. This Aristodemus, going back to Sparta, was held in great shame and dishonor. For no Spartan would give him fire, nor would any talk with him, but they called him "Aristodemus the Coward." Notwithstanding at the battle of Platæa he did away with all his disgrace.

As for the Thebans that were with Leonidas, for a while they fought together with the other Greeks against the Persians, doing this by compulsion. But when the barbarians prevailed, and the Greeks gathered themselves together at the mound, then the Thebans separated themselves from them, and stretching forth their hands came near to the barbarians, and cried, speaking indeed the veriest truth, that they had yielded themselves to the Persians, and had given earth and water to the King, none sooner, and that they had come to Thermopylæ under compulsion, and were without guilt for the loss that had befallen the King's army. Thus they were saved alive, and indeed they had the Thessalians to witness for them that they spake the truth. Nevertheless they were not altogether fortunate, for some of them were slain by the barbarians as they approached, and the others were branded with the King's mark, for such was the command of Xerxes. The first that suffered this was their general Leontiades. The son of this Leontiades, Eurymachus, was afterward slain by the men of Platæa when he came with four hundred other Thebans seeking to take their city.

These things being finished, the King sent for Demaratus and spake to him, saying, "Demaratus, thou art a good man, as I know by thy speaking of the truth, for indeed all things have turned out according to thy saying. Tell me now how many in number are the Spartans that yet remain? and how many of them are such as they that have now fought against us?"

Then said Demaratus, "O King, there are many Lacedæmonians; but in this country of Lacedæmon there is a certain city, Sparta, wherein are, as near as may be, eight thousand men as brave as them that fought in the Pass. The other Lacedæmonians are not a match for these; nevertheless they are brave men."

Xerxes said, "Tell me now, Demaratus, how shall we best get the mastery over these men? Speak, for thou wast a King among them and must need know all their counsels."

Demaratus made answer, "Since thou seekest counsel of me so earnestly, O King, I will tell thee, as is right, the best thing thou canst do. Send three hundred of thy ships against the land of the Lacedæmonians. Now there lieth over against this land a certain island, Cythera, concerning which island one Chilon, a very wise man that once dwelt among us, was wont to say that it would be far better for the Spartans that it should be sunk under the sea than that it should be above the sea. This he said because he feared always lest some such thing should be done as I am now about to tell thee. And he said it knowing nothing of thy coming against Greece, but fearing all coming of strangers to this place. Send men therefore to this island, and let them harass the Spartans from thence. And it shall be that if they have a war of their own close at home they will not be a trouble to thee, so as to help the other Greeks when thy army seeks to subdue them. And when thou hast subdued the rest of Greece, the Spartans, being left alone, will be feeble. But if thou wilt not follow this counsel then know that there shall come to pass that which I now tell thee. When thou comest to the Peloponnesus thou wilt find a narrow neck of land; and at this neck all the men of the Peloponnesus that are leagued together against thee will be gathered together, and there wilt thou have to fight battles fiercer by far than that which thou hast now seen."

Now it so chanced that Achæmenes, who was brother to King Xerxes, and had command of the fleet, was present when Demaratus thus spake. Fearing then that the King might follow this counsel, he brake in, "I see, O King, that thou listenest to the counsels of a man that envies thy good fortune, and seeks to betray thee. This indeed is ever the manner of the Greeks; they envy good fortune, and hate, that which is stronger than themselves. If now, when we have lost four hundred ships by shipwreck, three hundred more shall be sent away from the fleet to sail round the Peloponnesus, then will our enemies be a match for us. But if we keep our whole fleet together, then will it be such as they will not dare to encounter. Consider also that if that which we have on the land and that which we have on the sea advance together, the one will be able to help the other. But if thou part them asunder, the fleet will not be able to help thee, nor thou to help the fleet. Only order thine own affairs well, and take no thought about thine enemies, whether they will join battle with thee, or what they will do, or how many they be in number. Surely they without us can manage their own affairs and we ours without them. As to the Spartans, if they come out to fight against us, they will in no wise heal this great wound that they have now received at our hands."

To this the King made answer, "This is well said, Achæmenes, and I will follow thy counsel. For though Demaratus saith what he deems the best for me, his judgment is worse than thine. But this I will not believe, that he has not good will for me and my fortunes. So much I know from the counsel that he has given me before, and also from his own affairs. For that a man may envy a fellow-citizen that is more fortunate than he, and may hate him secretly, and if he be asked for counsel will not speak the thing that is best, is to be believed, unless indeed he be of a very rare and excellent virtue. But a friend rejoices in the prosperity of a friend that is of another country, and gives him counsel according to the best of his power. Now this Demaratus is my friend, and I warn all men that hereafter they keep themselves from speaking evil of him."

When Xerxes had thus spoken, he went to see the bodies of them that had been slain. And when he came to the body of Leonidas, knowing him to have been the captain and King of the Spartans, he commanded that they should cut the head from it and put it on a cross, which may be taken for a proof that there was no man that Xerxes hated so much as he hated Leonidas while he was yet alive; for else he had not done this dishonor to his dead body. For the Persians are wont, for the most part, more than other men, to show honor to them that have shown themselves good men in war.

It must yet be told how the Spartans first knew that the King had it in his mind to bring an army against Greece. This Demaratus, of whom mention has been made, was not friendly, it would appear, to them that had driven him forth. Wherefore it may be doubted whether he did this thing that shall now be told from goodwill or from insolence. So soon as Xerxes had fixed it in his mind to march against Greece, Demaratus, being then in the city of Susa, and hearing the matter, desired to send tidings of it to the Spartans. And the way which he devised of sending them was this, for there was great peril lest he should be discovered. This therefore was his contrivance. He took a tablet that had two leaves, and having cleared away from it the wax, he wrote upon the wood the purpose of the King. And having done this he melted the wax again over the writing, knowing that the guards of the road would not trouble themselves about a tablet that was seen to be empty. But when the tablet was brought to Sparta no one could understand the matter, till Gorgo, that was daughter to Cleomenes and wife to Leonidas, discovered it to them, for she said, "Scrape the wax from off the tablet and you will of a surety find writing upon the wood." Thus did the Spartans hear of the coming of the King, and forthwith sent tidings of it to the other Greeks.