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One of the strange aspects of studying military history is that fact that many of the most famous battles in history celebrate the loser of the battle. From the final Charge of the Light Brigade, Custer’s Last Stand or countless others, the mythos of history seems to celebrate the courage the vanquished showed in their defeat. Arguably the most famous and well-known example of this phenomenon is the famous Battle of Thermopylae, also known as the Last Stand of the 300 Spartans.
First off, forget the movies and graphic novel, those are awesome and great entertainment, but the true story of the 300 didn’t quite go to Hollywood’s script. The movie would have you think that the Persians were bumbling incompetents under the command of an androgynous King Xerxes who was more concerned with his face piercings getting caught on passing trees to form a battle plan. This could not be further from the truth, the Persian Army under Xerxes was one of the most formidable fighting forces in history.
The Battle of Thermopylae pass was not the first encounter between the Persians and the Greeks. Ten years prior, in 490 B.C. the Persians were defeated by a coalition of Greek forces on the plains of Marathon, sowing the seeds for Xerxes’ invasion ten years later. In 490, the Greeks were in shambles, you see, the Greeks were not a nation, they were a collection of city-states with vastly different governments and cultures, who spent just as much time fighting each other as they did outside invaders. One thing most Greeks could agree upon was the fact that the Spartans were badasses and were the best soldiers to lead the army in this coming threat. The King of Sparta, Leonidas, was tasked with leading the entire coalition.
Leonidas knew that the cards were stacked against him, it is believed that Xerxes had somewhere in the ballpark of 300,000 soldiers at his disposal, while Leonidas had roughly 7,000 Greeks. The Persians were confident as the two sides met, Leonidas though had a surprise for the attacking army. Leonidas chose fantastic defensive ground at a small mountain pass. This pass forced the Persians to funnel their attacking forces into the pass and attack the Greek phalanx head on. A phalanx was like a massive wall of stabby death that was nearly impossible to defeat in head-on charges. With no flanks to worry about, the Greeks slaughtered wave after wave of Persians during the first two days of battle.
Eventually, though, the Persians found an old goat path along the mountain and could flank the Greeks. On the second night, Leonidas knew that his army was dead, so he sent most of his army back to spread the word to the city-states and attempt to hold off the onslaught. On the morning of the third day, Persian scouts reported to see the Greeks bathing and doing each other’s hair and made a joke about them being feminine, the Persian officer he reported this to chided the scout telling him, “don’t you know, they are preparing their bodies for death.”
And die they did, Leonidas and the soldiers that remained behind (more than 300 remained but Hollywood likes nice, even numbers apparently) were cut down in a hail of arrows as the Persian forces closed in on both sides of the phalanx. The last stand of the 300 bought time for the Greek city-states to prepare for the Persian onslaught, but that didn’t stop Xerxes from reaching Athens and destroying portions of the city.
So why celebrate these famous “last stands”? I feel that it is the epitome of who we think and hope that we are. I think all men hope that they would have the guts and fortitude to make the decision that the men of the 300 had to make, but we will never know until we are forced into that proverbial phalanx in life ourselves.