Thermopylae and the Laws of Sparta The defeat of the Persians at Marathon saved the

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Thermopylae and the Laws of Sparta

The defeat of the Persians at Marathon saved the cities of Greece, but only temporarily. When Darius died, his son Xerxes (ZERR-ksees) tried to conquer Greece again. Ten years after Marathon, in 480 B.C., Xerxes marched into Greece with the largest army the world had ever seen. The only things the Greeks had were brains and spirit. This story, told by Herodotus, shows what 'spirit' means:
After Xerxes set out on his march, a few Greek deserters came in. These were men who had nothing to live on and wanted money. They were taken to Xerxes and questioned about what the Greeks were doing. Xerxes was told that the Greeks were celebrating the Olympic Games where they were watching athletic contests. When he asked what the prize was, the Greeks told Xerxes about the crown of olive-leaves which it is our custom to give. This drew from Artabanus (art-ah-BAHN-us) a remark which proved his true nobility of character even though it made Xerxes call him a coward; when Artabanus learned that the prize was not money but an olive crown, he could not help crying out in front of everybody, "Good heavens, Xerxes, what kind of men are these that you have brought us to fight against--men who compete with one another, not for money, but only for honor!"
But spirit was not enough: the Greeks also needed brains. Outnumbered by the Persians, the Greeks had only one chance: fight the Persians in a narrow place where numbers would not be important.

They chose a place called Thermopylae (ther-MOP-ah-lee), which means 'hot gates'. (See map) They sent the best soldiers in Greece to hold this gateway to Greece. The soldiers were from the city of Sparta. The battle of Thermopylae is the story of the Spartans. Herodotus tells what happened there:

The Persian army was now close to the pass, and the Greeks, doubting their ability to resist, held a meeting to consider whether to retreat. It was proposed by the Peloponnesians generally that the army should fall back upon the Peloponnese and hold the Isthmus of Corinth. But when the Phocians (FOE-kee-ans) and Locrians (LOCK-ree-ans) became angry at this suggestion, Leonidas (lee-ON-i-dass), the Spartan, decided to stay where they were and to send for reinforcements because they were too few to stop the Persians.

During the meeting, Xerxes sent a man on horseback to find out the strength of the Greek force and to find out what the soldiers were doing. He had heard about a small force, led by the Spartans under Leonidas. The Persian rider approached the camp and took a survey of all he could see--which was not, however, the whole Greek army; for the men on the further side of the wall were out of sight. He carefully observed the troops who were outside the wall. At that moment these happened to be the Spartans, and some of them were stripped for exercise, while others were combing their hair. The Persian spy watched them in astonishment; nevertheless he made sure of their numbers, and of everything else he needed to know, as accurately as he could, and then rode quietly off. No one tried to catch him, or took any notice of him.

Back in his own camp he told Xerxes what he had seen. Xerxes was puzzled; the truth, namely that the Spartans were preparing to kill and to be killed, was beyond his understanding, and what they were doing seemed to him merely absurd. Accordingly he sent for Demaratus (de-MAR-ah-tus), the son of Ariston (a-RIST-on), who had come with the army, and questioned him about the spy's report, in the hope of finding out what the strange actions of the Spartans might mean. "Once before," Demaratus said, "when we began our march against Greece, you heard me speak of these men. These men have come to fight us for possession of the pass, and for that struggle they are now preparing. It is the common practice of the Spartans to pay careful attention to their hair when they are about to risk their lives. But I assure you that if you can defeat these men and the rest of the Spartans who are still at home, there is no other people in the world who will dare to stand against you. You are now dealing with the finest city in Greece, and with the bravest men."

Xerxes, unable to believe what Demaratus said, asked how it was possible that so small a force could fight with his army. "My Lord," Demaratus replied, "treat me as a liar if what I have said does not take place." But still, Xerxes was unconvinced.

For four days Xerxes waited for the Greeks to escape; then, on the fifth, when still they had made no move and their continued presence seemed reckless stupidity, he became angry and sent his army with orders to take the Spartans alive and bring them into his presence. The Persians charged, and in the struggle which followed many fell; but others took their places, and in spite of terrible losses, they refused to be beaten.

They made it plain enough to anyone, and not least to the king himself, that he had in his army many men, indeed, but few soldiers.

All day the battle continued; the Persians, after their rough handling, were withdrawn and their place was taken by Hydarnes (hi-DAR-neez) and his Immortals - who advanced to the attack in full confidence of bringing the business to an easy end. But they were no more successful. All went as before, the two armies fighting in a small space, the Persians using shorter spears than the Greeks and having no advantage from their numbers.

On the Spartan side it was a memorable fight; they were men who understood war. Among the tricks they used was to turn their backs and pretend to be retreating in confusion. When the enemy, supposing the battle won, would advance with a great shout, the Spartans showed their skill. Just as the Persians were on them, the Spartans would turn and face them and inflict numberless casualties. The Spartans had their losses, too, but not many.

At last the Persians, finding that their attacks upon the pass were all useless, broke off and retreated. Xerxes was watching the battle from where he sat; and it is said that in the course of the attacks, he jumped to his feet three times in terror for his army.

Next day the fighting began again, but with no better success for the Persians, who renewed their attack hoping that the Greeks, being so few in number, might be badly enough disabled by wounds to prevent further resistance. But the Greeks never weakened; their troops were divided according to their cities, and each city's division took its turn in the line except the Phocian's, which had been posted to guard the track over the mountains. When the Persians found that things were no better for them than on the previous day, they once more retreated.

Xerxes had no idea how to deal with the situation his army was. While he was still wondering what his next move should be, a man from Malis (MAL-is) came to him. This was Ephialtes (e-fee-ALL-teez), the son of Eurydemus (you-ree-DEE-mus), and he had come, in hope of a rich reward, to tell the king about the track which led over the hills before Thermopylae--and the information he gave was to prove the death of the Greeks who held the pass.

Xerxes found Ephialtes' offer most satisfactory. He was delighted with it, and promptly gave orders to one of his generals to carry out the movement with the troops under his command. They left camp at dusk. By early dawn they were at the summit of the ridge, near the spot where the Phocians, as I mentioned before, stood on guard with a thousand men, to watch the track and protect their country. The Phocians were ready enough to undertake this service, and had, indeed, volunteered for it to Leonidas, knowing that the pass at Thermopylae was held as I have already described.

The march of the Persians had been hidden by the oakwoods which cover this part of the mountain range, and it was only when they reached the top that the Phocians became aware of their approach. There was not a breath of wind, and the marching feet made a loud rustling in the fallen leaves. Leaping to their feet, the Phocians were in the act of arming themselves when the enemy was upon them. The Persians were surprised at the sight of troops preparing to resist; they had not expected any opposition--yet here was a body of men in their way. The Persian general asked Ephialtes who they were, for his first thought was that they might be Spartans; but on learning the truth he prepared to attack them. The Persian arrows flew thick and fast, and the Phocians, thinking themselves to be the main object of the attack, withdrew to the highest point of the mountain, where they made ready to face destruction. The Persians, however, paid no further attention to them, but passed on along the descending track with all possible speed.

[See Illustration of Thermopylae]
The Greeks at Thermopylae had their first warning of the death that was coming with the dawn from men who had come running from the hills. At once a conference was held, and opinions were divided. Some urged that they must not abandon their post, others took the opposite view. The result was that the army split: some dispersed, the men returning to their various homes, and others made ready to stand by Leonidas.

There is another story which says that Leonidas himself dismissed a part of his force, in order to spare their lives, but thought it unbecoming for the Spartans under his command to desert the post which they had come to guard.

I myself believe that he dismissed them when he realized that they had no heart for the fight and were unwilling to take their share of the danger. Honor prevented him from leaving. And indeed by remaining at his post he left a famous name behind him.

Thus it was that the other Greek soldiers, by Leonidas' orders, abandoned their posts and left the pass, all except the Thespians (THESS-pee-ans) who remained with the Spartans. There were 300 Spartans and 100 Thespians.

In the morning Xerxes waited till about the time of the full market-place when he began to move forward. This was according to Ephialtes' instructions, for the way down from the ridge is much shorter and more direct than the way up. As the Persian army advanced to the attack, the Greeks under Leonidas, knowing that the fight would be their last, pressed forward into the wider part of the pass much further than they had done before; in the previous days' fighting they had been holding the wall, but now they left the confined space and battle was fought on more open ground. Many of the invaders fell; behind them the company commanders used their whips, driving the men on. Many fell into the sea and were drowned, and still more were trampled to death by their friends.

No one could count the number of the dead.

The Greeks, who knew that the enemy were on their way round by the mountain track and that death was inevitable, fought with reckless desperation, exerting every ounce of strength that was in them against the invader. By this time most of their spears were broken, and they were killing Persians with their swords.

In the course of that fight Leonidas fell, having fought like a man. Many Spartans were killed at his side--their names, like the names of all the three hundred, I have made myself acquainted with, because they deserve to be remembered. Amongst the Persian dead, too, were many men of high distinction--for instance, two brothers of Xerxes.

There was a bitter struggle over the body of Leonidas; four times the Greeks drove the enemy off, and at last by their courage succeeded in dragging it away. So it went on, until the fresh troops with Ephialtes were close at hand; and then, when the Greeks knew that they had come, the character of the fighting changed. They withdrew again into the narrow neck of the pass, behind the walls, and took up a position in a single compact body on the little hill at the entrance to the pass, where the stone lion in memory of Leonidas stands today. Here they fought to the last, with their swords, if they had them, and, if not, with their hands and teeth, until the Persians, coming on from the front over the ruins of the wall and closing in from behind, finally overwhelmed them.

Of all the Spartans and Thespians who fought so valiantly on that day, the most single proof of courage was given by the Spartan Dieneces (die-enn-EEK-eez). It is said that before the battle, he was told by a native of Trachis (TRACK-iss) that, when the Persians shot their arrows, there were so many of them that they hid the sun. Dieneces, however, quite unmoved by the thought of the terrible strength of the Persian army, merely remarked: "This is pleasant news that the stranger from Trachis brings us: for if the Persians hide the sun, then we shall fight in the shade."

They were buried where they fell. The dead, of course, included the Greeks who had been killed before Leonidas had stayed behind with only the four hundred. In honor of the whole force, the following inscription is placed over their graves:
Four thousand here from Pelops' land

Against three million once did stand.

The three hundred Spartans have a special epitaph; it runs:
Stranger! Go tell the Spartan

That we lie here

Obedient to their laws."

The Laws of Sparta
"The laws of Sparta". What were they? The story of Sparta's laws begins with a Spartan named Lycurgus (lie-KUR-gus). His legislation is described by a man called Plutarch (PLOO-tark). Plutarch's masterpiece, The Parallel Lives, will be one of the most important sources for Three Democracies. In this lesson, our source will be Plutarch's essay The Constitution of Sparta
Lycurgus the lawgiver, wishing to lead the Spartans to a more disciplined way of life, and to make them good and (for they were living a soft life), raised two puppies of the same litter. One he accustomed to dainty food, and allowed it to stay in the house; the other he took outside and trained to hunt. Later he brought them both into the public assembly and put down some bones and dainty food and let loose a rabbit. Each dog did was it was accustomed to do, and, when one of them had caught the rabbit, he said, "You see, fellow-citizens, that these dogs belong to the same stock, but because of the training which they have received, they have turned out differently. You can also see that training is far more effective than natural ability."

Another version of the story is that he did not bring in two dogs which were of the same litter, rather one was a house dog and the other was a hunting dog. He trained the house dog for hunting, and the hunting dog he accustomed to dainty food. At the public assembly, as each dog did what it was trained to do, Lycurgus made it clear how much instruction contributes for better or worse. "So also in our case, fellow-citizens, noble birth, so admired by the masses, does not bring any advantage, unless we learn and practice what is good our whole life long."

Lycurgus made a redistribution of the land, and assigned an equal share to all the citizens; and next undertook to divide equally all household furniture, so as to do away completely with all inequality. Because of this, the people would have all things in common, and would take care of them as if they were theirs. Lyrcurgus decreed that gold and silver coin should in future have no value, and that the people should use iron money only. He allowed no gold and silver coins to circulate among them, but limited the coinage to iron only, which in weight were over a pound and a quarter, and in value not quite a penny. When this had been done all wrongdoing was eliminated. Nobody was able to steal or to accept a bribe or rob any more, since the iron money could not be hidden. Nor was it valued elsewhere.

As an added measure, he legislated the banishment from Sparta of everything not absolutely necessary. And, by reason of this, no merchant, no public lecturer, no fortune-teller, and no maker of fancy things ever came to Sparta.

In answer to the man who suggested that he establish a democracy in Sparta, Lycurgus said, "First create a democracy in your own household."

The young men were required not only to respect their own fathers and to be obedient to them, but to obey all the older men, to make room for them on the streets, to give up their seats to them, and to keep quiet in their presence. As the result of this custom, each man had authority not only over his own children, but also over his neighbor's.

When a boy was punished by anybody, if the boy complained to his father, it was a disgrace for his father upon hearing about it, not to give him another beating; for as a result of their laws, the Spartans had confidence in each other that no one had ordered their children to do anything disgraceful.

In war they used red garments for two reasons: first, they thought red was a manly color, and second, blood-red causes more terror in the minds of the inexperienced. Also, if anyone of them received a wound, it was an advantage to hide it from the enemy and remain invisible by reason of being the same color.
One of the noble and blessed privileges which Lycurgus appears to have secured for his fellow-citizens was abundance of leisure. In fact it was not permitted them to take up any business at all; and there was no need whatever of making money, because of his having made wealth unimportant, unenvied and unhonored.
It was forbidden them to be sailors and to fight on the sea. Later, however, they did engage in such battles, and, after they had made themselves masters of the sea, they again stopped, since they observed that the character of the citizens was degenerating.


Once a year, the boys in Sparta were beaten with whips during the entire day, sometimes to the point of death, and they bravely endured this, cheerful and proud, competing with one another about which one of them could endure being beaten for the longer time and the greater number of blows. And the one who was victorious was honored."

Although Plutarch lived long ago (between 46 and 120 A.D.), he is not our primary source for the laws of Lycurgus. That distinction belongs to Xenophon (ZEN-oh-fon) the Athenian. What follows are some passages from his essay, The Constitution of the Spartans.
I wish to explain the educational system of Lycurgus, and how it differs from other systems. In the other Greek cities, parents who want to give their sons the best education place their boys under the care of a teacher as soon as they can understand what is said to them, and send them to a school to learn letters, music and the exercises of the wrestling-ground. Moreover, they soften the children's feet by giving them sandals, and pamper their bodies with changes of clothing; and it is customary to allow them as much food as they can eat.

Lycurgus, on the contrary, instead of leaving each father to find a teacher, gave the duty of controlling the boys to a well-respected citizen, called a "Warden". He gave this person authority to gather the boys together, to take charge of them and to punish them severely in case of misconduct. He also assigned to him a staff of youths provided with whips to punish them when necessary; and the result is that modesty and obedience are inseparable companions at Sparta.

Instead of softening the boys' feet with sandals he required them to harden their feet by going without shoes. He believed this would make them able to climb hills more easily and descend steep slopes with less danger, and that a youth who had accustomed himself to go barefoot would leap and jump and run more easily than a boy in sandals. And instead of letting them be pampered in the matter of clothing, he introduced the custom of wearing one garment throughout the year, believing that they would thus be better prepared to face changes of heat and cold. As to food, he required the Warden to bring with him such a small amount of it that the boys would never be full and would know what it was to be hungry; for he believed that those who had this training would be better able to continue working on an empty stomach, if necessary, and would be capable of carrying on longer without extra food, if the word of command were given to do so: they would want fewer sweets and would eat anything put before them, and at the same time would enjoy better health.

On the other hand, so that they should never be too hungry while not giving them the chance of eating whatever they wanted, he allowed them to steal food. Obviously a man who intends to steal must spend sleepless nights and lie in ambush by day, and if he means to make a capture, he must have spies ready. There can be no doubt that this education was planned by him in order to make the boys more able to get supplies, and better fighting men.

Someone may ask: But why, if he believed stealing to be a fine thing, did he have the boy who was caught beaten with a whip? I reply: Because in all cases men punish a learner for not carrying out properly whatever he is taught to do. So the Spartans punish those who get caught for stealing badly.

In order that the boys might never lack a ruler even when the Warden was away, he gave authority to any citizen who chanced to be present to require them to do anything that he thought right, and to punish them for any misconduct. This had the effect of making the boys more respectful; in fact boys and men alike respect their rulers above everything.

For those who had reached the prime of life he showed by far the deepest care. For he believed that if these were good, the state would be good too. He saw that where the spirit of competition is strongest among the people, there the choruses are most worth hearing and the athletic contests are the best. He believed, therefore, that if he could match the young men together in a competition in virtue, they too would reach a high level of manly excellence. I will proceed to explain, therefore, how he instituted matches between the young men.

The Ephors (EE-fors), then, pick out three of the very best men among them. These three are called Commanders of the Guard. Each of them enrolls a hundred others, stating his reasons for preferring one and rejecting another. The result is that those who fail to win the honour are at war both with those who did not pick them and with their successful rivals; and they are on the watch for any lapse from the code of honor in their rivals.

Here then you find that kind of competition that is political--the competition that sets the standard of a brave man's conduct; and in which everyone tries never to fall below the best, and that, when the time comes, everyone will support the state with all his might. And they are bound, too to keep themselves fit, for one effect of the competition is that they fight whenever they meet; but anyone present has a right to part the combatants. If anyone refuses to obey the mediator, the Warden takes him to the Ephors; and they fine him heavily, in order to make him realize that he must never yield to a sudden impulse to disobey the laws.
While Xenophon had actually visited Sparta, indeed had lived there, Plutarch lived and wrote long after the greatness of Sparta was a thing of the past. For his knowledge of what Sparta had been, he was largely dependent on Xenophon. For his knowledge of what Sparta had become he needed only his own eyes. What follows are two passages from Plutarch's Constitution of the Spartans.

This was the purpose of the starvation diet: It was to insure that the youth would get used to not being full, but were able to go without food. In this way, the Spartans thought, the youth would be more useful in war if they were able to carry on without food, and they would be more self-controlled. They allowed only the plainest diet, so they would be able to eat anything and they thought this made the youths' bodies more healthy owing to the lack of food, and they believed that this practice prevented fat and caused them to grow tall, and also to make them handsome; for a slim body they felt served to produce agility, while an over-fed condition, because of too much weight, did not.

As long as the Spartans obeyed the laws of Lycurgus, they held the first place in Greece for good government over a period of five hundred years. But, little by little, as these laws were broken, and greed and love of wealth crept in, the elements of their strength began to dwindle also, and their allies on this account began to hate them. Even so, after the victory of at Chaeroneia (ky-roe-NAY-ah), when all the Greeks proclaimed Philip of Macedon commander both on land and sea, and later did the same for his son Alexander the Great, only the Spartans, although they lived in an unwalled city and were few in number because of their wars and had become much weaker and an easy prey, still keeping alive some feeble sparks of the laws of Lycurgus, did not take any part in the battles of these or of the other kings of Macedon who ruled in Greece. So it was, until they ceased altogether to use the constitution of Lycurgus, and came to be ruled tyrannically, preserving nothing of their ancestral discipline, they became much like the rest, and put from them their former glory and freedom of speech, and were reduced to a state of slavery and now they, like the rest of the Greeks, have come under Roman power.
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