October 26, 2007

Burning inside

Here's the reason I remembered Golding's essay in the post A little of the man. A few days ago I was more or less volunteered (well OK, I was willing too) to visit a school a friend runs and tell a gaggle of 12- and 13-year-olds a story from ancient Greece. It would be their introduction to that civilization. I chose the tale of Leonidas and his Spartans. With plenty of reference to Golding's fabulous essay, to Steven Pressfield's wonderful book Gates of Fire and other sources, and with more than a little licence with history (you're welcome to tell me what you catch), I put together what appears below. And with plenty of butterflies in my tummy -- never having done something like this before -- I stammered it out to the kids yesterday.


Good morning, my young friends in this strange land called India! My name is Ephialtes, and I come from Sparta in Greece, and I have travelled through 2500 years and many more miles to be with you today. And I have come to tell you about a place in my country they call "Thermopylae". "The Hot Gates". 2500 years ago, men fought there, and fought with such valour that they are still remembered today, all over the world.

And I would have fought too, just as valorously. I know. I pleaded with my King to let me fight. And he said to me, "Ephialtes, you have no son! You have no-one to take care of your family when you die! Go till your land, and leave the fighting to us!" I was burning inside, my friends, burning because I longed to fight as I had trained to do my whole life and my King would not let me ... but I am getting ahead of my story.

In 480 BC, the Persian Emperor Xerxes came to our land. Not in peace! He came to conquer, to add Greece to his empire that already stretched from your country in the East to Turkey in the West. He knew of the culture and riches of my country, the beauty of its women and the courage of its men. And he wanted it all.

But he also knew how we Greeks fought among ourselves. We Spartans hated the Athenians, and they hated us. Xerxes thought this made us weak, and he would win an easy victory.

So he came, Xerxes the Great, with his army of 800,000 men, and chariots, and horses, and elephants. He came like the wind blows through a field of tall grass, where everything in its path bends and breaks.

And he sent two messengers to my King, Leonidas of Sparta. You can't win, they said. You can't even resist, they said. Surrender and accept Xerxes the Great as your Emperor, and you can still rule Sparta, in his name. You will have your honour and your life.

But they did not know Sparta. They did not know Leonidas. "Go dig for our surrender!" he said, and kicked them into a well.

So it was to be war!

Now we knew about Thermopylae, a small mountain pass in northern Greece. On one side is the sea, on the other the mountains, and nearby is a hot spring that gives us the name. So narrow is the pass that only one chariot can pass at a time. To reach the rest of Greece, to conquer my people, the Persians -- all 800,000 men and chariots and horses and elephants -- would have to pass through the Hot Gates.

Leonidas, my King, he called us Spartan men together and asked: "My brothers! Who will stand with me to throw back this Persian tyrant? Who will stand with me to defend the way we live, to defend Greece itself?"

He did not have to wait long. Every last man stepped up, shouting "I will! I will!" But Leonidas wanted just 300. And so he chose. He chose the men who had grown sons.

And many like me, we pleaded with our beloved King. We fell at his feet. We begged to fight. Firmly, gently, he turned us away. I was burning inside, but I'm again getting ahead of my story ...

Just before they left Sparta, the 300, my Queen, Leonidas' wife Gorgo, ran up and asked him what she should do after he left. "Marry a good man," he said. "Have good children."

"Go, my husband!" said Gorgo. "Go, my King!"

They both knew. But yet again, I'm getting ahead of myself.

Off to Thermopylae they went, our chosen 300. On the way, people warned them of the huge Persian army, of their enormous beasts and fearful weapons. The Spartans laughed. Someone told my friend Dienekes, one of the 300, that when the Persians fired their arrows, there would be so many that they would block the sun.

"Good!" said Dienekes. "Then we shall fight in the shade!"

And they reached the pass and made their camp. They could see the Persians, the whole vast army, ranged before them. They even met Persian messengers, who came to ask again for surrender. This time, Leonidas did not kick them into a well -- there was no well -- but he was just as sure in his reply. "If Xerxes knew what was good in life," he told them, "he would not wish for foreign things."

The messengers returned to Xerxes in wonder. Not only were the Greeks defiant, not only would they not surrender, they were actually doing exercises -- pushups! And combing their long hair! They did not know. Xerxes did not know. When a Spartan knows he might die, he combs his hair.

Four days like this, and finally Xerxes sent in his men. Ten thousand, in that first wave. The Spartans cut them to pieces, losing just two men.

And here I should tell you how we fight, we Spartans. Our shields on our left arms, our spears in our right, we stand shoulder to shoulder, the men behind pushing their shields into the backs of the men in front, feet planted, we push and we push with all our strength. When we are together like that, no arrow gets through our shields, no enemy escapes our spears, no force can stand before our push. We call it the phalanx, and it has won us more victories than these Persians will know, with their vast army.

And so it was, day after day. Thousands from the Persian army threw themselves on the Spartan phalanx; by the thousand they died, until their bodies themselves became a great wall to protect Greece. The Persians sent their best men into battle, they whipped their men on from behind, and it was for nothing. Like rain on a monsoon day they fell, and the Spartans fought, and laughed, and laughed, and combed their hair again.

Until, until, until ... yes, you see, I had followed my King Leonidas to Thermopylae. I had watched these days of battle, and longed to fight. Oh how I longed to fight. And how I burned inside because I could not. And eventually I burned so much that I could burn no more. And then I went to the Persians, and they took me to Xerxes.

"I know a way around, Great Emperor," I said. "I will take your men behind the Greeks. Because all I want is revenge on Leonidas."

There's not much left to tell, my friends. That night I led many thousand Persians along a goat track through the hills, around and behind my countrymen. In the morning the Spartans saw us. They knew. But they fought and fought, until their spears and swords and shields were smashed into the churning mud, and still they fought with hands and feet and toes and teeth. Leonidas was there fighting too, his long hair like a beacon to his men -- to my men, God help me -- until he too was cut down by Persian arrows and swords. Every Spartan died, but at the end they had each taken a hundred Persians with them. That's how they fought.

And today, there's an inscription in Thermopylae, and it says: "Go tell the Spartans, oh you passing stranger, go tell the Spartans that we behaved as they would wish us to, and are buried here."

And me? I live, though I don't know how. I don't know where, for in Greece they spit on me. And I marvel at two things.

First, how the battle of Thermopylae finally united the Greeks. Before the year was out, they had defeated the Persians and driven them home. Leonidas and his 300 did not die in vain.

Second, Leonidas and his wife, my queen Gorgo, when he left Sparta, when he said to her "Marry a good man", when she said "Go my King."

How did they know?


Anonymous said...

I had read up on this battle following the movie 300 and various reviews. From wiki and a couple of other sources I dont remember:

1. "Dig out our surrender" read very odd.

- The emissaries asked for earth and water the traditional tokens of accepting the rule of their King .
The Spartans asked them to dig it out themselves from the well.

2. Counts: It wasnt really 300 vs 800K, it was ~4000 up against ~240K still extremely vast odds.

3. The 2nd round of talks at the battle site, Leonidas was asked to hand over their weapons, and he retorted "Come and get them!" this has been reused in many battles and is an official motto of the Greek Army.

4. Very real: Much of the history has been traced including the final arrow shower that finished off the Spartans.

PS. At some point in later history Thebans I think turned the phalanx strategy on the Spartans with their columns abt 50 deep against Spartans ~12 deep, smashed them and sent Sparta into permanent decline.

PS2. Small nitpick- have to say the idea of retelling such blood and gore to school kids kind of makes me queasy.

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