Treachery at Thermopylae
The brave and noble Leonidas scanned the horizon and witnessed the sun’s warm rays, partially blocked at the highest point of the day. The smoke from the scores of enemy campfires hid the noonday sun from those who were to meet in battle and decide the fate of an entire country. He was dismayed; nevertheless, he had an obligation to his men and his country to reach deep into his soul and find the words that would motivate his soldiers to fight bravely to defend their country in the face of such overwhelming odds. He took one last deep breath and left behind the sanctity of his tent to meet with those who were prepared to fight for their lives and for the honor of Greece.
“Oh, brave and courageous warriors of Sparta, the chosen ones who are entrusted with the sovereignty of our mighty homeland; tomorrow, we shall either live victoriously or we will die nobly. When the sun sets upon our shoulders and when it rises again, we shall find that we will rest comfortably with our shields or we shall die gallantly upon our shields. We made that solemn oath to our wives or our mothers, and we will stand by that commitment in order to save the next ten generations of our fair lands. The choice rests with us, and we must uphold that honorable choice for our beloved country, families, and friends.”
“Great King Leonidas of the righteous Lacedaemonians, we shall conquer the Persians and push them back into the sea, where such creatures belong right, men?”
“Thank you, Zoticus; that is nothing less than what I have come to expect from the bravest soldiers that the wise gods have ever created from their sacred loins. We must prepare ourselves mentally and physically for the battle that will decide the fate of our country, our wives, our children, and our children’s children. Do you want our wives and children enslaved by this foreign pestilence? Do you want us to die in vain as the invaders rip our families apart and keep them in servitude for the next untold number of generations? Do you want our aging mothers and fathers fed to their beasts?
“That is the unpleasant scene that shall happen to our loved ones if we do not fight with every ounce of strength and cunning that the compassionate gods have given to us on this fine day. We must use every technique that we have learned over our lifetime to defeat this enemy, as our forefathers did a decade ago. Do this for the glory of Greece. Fight valiantly for the safety of our families. We will die bravely, if we must. If we perish, we have the full knowledge that we did not supplicate ourselves like dogs in the eyes of a force that vastly outnumbered us. We would rather die and be brought back on our shields to rest through eternity itself along the banks of the peaceful Eurotas than to ever bow our heads in shame to our enemies. What say ye, virtuous men of the Peloponnese?”
“Noble Leonidas, every soldier standing before you this day shall fight with his last breath for king, country, and family. You should have full belief that the Spartans who hear your voice this day are the bravest and noblest of all warriors that our lands have ever produced over the long history of our mighty culture. We’re prepared to live in victory or die in defeat. No man shall abandon his brother when the battle begins. Count on our valor and our cunning to annihilate the scourges that have landed on the back of our noble land. A thousand, two thousand, no, three thousand years from this very day, our ancestors will still be honoring the bravery of the men who are assembled here today at Thermopylae. Our courageous deeds will never be forgotten in time, as so many others have been.
“Mark my words, men we are the symbols of courage in the face of insurmountable odds. We shall live through eternity as the ones who stood tall and fought magnificently, even though we were outnumbered by hundreds to one. Our future generations shall be in awe as they read about one of our soldiers being as gallant as one hundred, five hundred, or even one thousand of theirs. We can’t escape our fate; we can just live it this day and know the merciful gods wouldn’t abandon us or let our deeds die upon the tongues of our brave countrymen today or every day until eternity itself shall end.”
“Brave and courageous Elpis, I willingly place my life in your hands, and I know it is safe, since your words are an inspiration to every soldier here today. When my warring days are over, you shall wear the crown that our honorable citizens have entrusted me with. You shall lead the brave Lacedaemonians to victory when my time has come to return to the benevolent gods who have created me. When I am standing in our sacred meadow of serenity and wisdom throughout eternity, I shall gaze down upon you and your brave soul and smile, knowing that you are a wise and compassionate leader of our people.”
“Thank you, sire. My life is also yours, brave Leonidas, as is every life that breathes the vital vapors that are here amongst us today. It’s with the caring gods’ help that we shall breathe the sweet smells of success in the upcoming battle with those who wish to supplicate us and our way of life.”
“May the benevolent gods be with us and cast a long shadow over each of us to protect and guide us in battle. As your leader I must say; men, go to your tents and sleep the night away, knowing that we shall engage an enemy who was severely beaten last time they made war with the noble Greeks. Darius was defeated at Marathon on that infamous day over a decade ago, and tomorrow his son shall also feel the sharp point of our spears. It appears that the son is like the father and does not learn from history that the Greeks are a force to be reckoned with. Once again, our lands will send the unwelcomed invaders cowering and racing back across the seas to forever remember how we, a small band of courageous warriors, defeated a force that was a thousand times larger in number, yet a thousand times smaller in heart.”
“Alalalalalalalal!” A unanimous cry of approval arose immediately from the soldiers who heard the inspiring message of their glorious leader and king. If the battle had started at that moment, the Persians would be, indeed, in trouble.
“Men of the Spartan hegemony, go in valor and prepare your sacred armor for the upcoming battle. As you speak your allegiance to our compassionate gods, shine your breastplates so that they blind the eyes of our enemy; sharpen your dories so that they easily cut through the bone and sinew of our enemy; and polish your greaves so that they deflect the arrows and spears of our enemy. If they escape our first round of destruction, our malevolent xiphos shall inflict great casualties upon enemies who are soft and used to luxuries unknown to our culture. Having prepared for battle, sleep soundly, and be ready for the dawn, which will soon be calling us to an infamous day in history.”
The morning sun rose over the Greek homeland like any other day however, this was a day that was unlike any other the people of the land had ever experienced before. There were a million nasty bees ready to deliver their deadly sting to a small band of noble soldiers, whose valor would be unquestioned to the end of time itself.
Leonidas, refreshed after a peaceful night, addressed his men one last time before the battle. “Men of Sparta, protectors of Greece, fathers of our unborn children; I see that you are fully prepared to assume the responsibility that has been thrust upon us by the benevolent gods. Because of their compassion, we are willing and able to deliver a deathblow to the plague that has crossed the seas to our fathers’ and their fathers’ land. Our cause for freedom is greater than their cause for extermination of the noblest and bravest people that the all-knowing gods have placed on this hallowed land. Men, pick up your dories, grasp your aspises, and wear your greaves as proudly as the fathers of your fathers’ fathers boldly wore them for countless generations.”
A loud cheer erupted from the men of valor, the men who were the best of the best.
“Leonidas, the valiant three hundred are ready and waiting your command. Your words have inspired us to fight the fight of our lives, and we accept the final verdict of the kindhearted gods on this gallant day. We follow you to victory, or we follow you to death we have only two choices, and both are noble endings to this day.”
“Men, listen to my plan and follow every word, since our very lives and the lives of our children depend upon how we execute the strategy for today’s encounter with the enemy. You, brave Nicanor, and you, the wise Cleitus, assemble the men at the narrowest point where the sea and the land embrace each other. Lock your mighty shields together as a man and wife who have been reunited after a long winter campaign. Our promachoe will stand bravely, as our shoulders rest upon our brothers’ shoulders to create an impenetrable wall of human flesh and metal that no foreign spear or arrow may penetrate. Sing our paeanes as loudly as your lungs can, in order to drown out the orders from their commanders, make our alalagmoe the last sound they will ever hear upon the soil that is foreign to them.”
“Sire, your battle plan shall be carried out as you have said; each and every soldier shall tightly embrace his brother and make a wall of bravery that shall repel any attack by the foreigners who have dared to encroach upon our sovereignty and our lands and put our families’ lives in danger.”
“Brave and noble Lacedaemonians, go, make war, and let the kind gods favor us today.”
A loud cheer signaled that three hundred brave warriors were ready to do battle with a far superior number of soldiers. The Spartans quickly made their stand at the narrows and, to a soldier, were brave and unrelenting in their desire to engage the single beast with a million heads that day.
Hundreds of meters away stood an ominous enemy in full battle regalia, seemingly just bidding its time before making its charge. The air was full of tension, full of anticipation of what was to follow. The wave of humanity never flinched; it stood still. The minutes turned to hours, and still no attack.
Suddenly, a solitary soldier burst through the Persian ranks and made his way to the Spartan line. He stopped just twenty meters short of his adversaries and dropped his weapons. “My Greek brothers, I am Phraotes, son of Shahab, from the bustling city of Arachosia, which sits alongside the peaceful Tarnak River. Although we now stand facing each other with our sharpened spears and swords in our hands, in our hearts, you, my friends, are like me and thousands of others gathered here today. Each of us wishes to return to our mighty Tarnak, as you desire to return to your beautiful Eurotas. Every heart wants to rejoin its loved ones, to hear its children laughing and playing while its wife comforts its parents.”
“Persian, get to the point, since the sun is racing across the sky and wants to join his wife when the night falls upon us. Waste not a single moment, for this sacred reunion is getting nearer with every word you speak. What do you want of the Spartan army? It is clear that we are greatly outnumbered this day; do you wish us to grovel as domesticated beasts at your feet because the odds are in your favor? Do you ask the benevolent gods for the noble Lacedaemonians to lick your silk boots?”
“Brother, there’s no need to be angry as a nest of wasps, since my intent is an honest one and one that can save the lives of many here today. My words shall not humiliate the noble faces of the men that form your battle lines. No, it’s just the opposite, I’m here to save men not destroy them. Hear me out; countless lives shall be saved from your army and saved from ours as well. As you say, and rightfully so, your men are few, while ours are many. However, there’s no need for the slaughter of such brave and courageous warriors on either side. You see, I’ve come as a messenger of peace with a request from our king. The brave and noble Xerxes, wisest of the wise, great leader of the Persians, requests an audience with the fearless Spartan Leonidas. Can you convey my message to your courageous leader while I await his decision?”
Unbeknown to the Persian, the noble Leonidas mingled among his men about five meters from their front line and clearly heard every word of the unusual appeal that Phraotes had spoken. Without a word, the men parted, as the seas, to allow their king to advance beyond the line and speak directly to the intrepid messenger.
“Prescient messenger, I have heard each word that you have spoken, and I believe it is worthwhile to meet your king and hear his words. However, I have certain terms that must be met: first, there will be no one but your leader and myself, to meet fifty meters from my warriors and fifty meters from your soldiers. And second, we leave our weapons on the ground five meters away from where we shall face each other. Do you understand my demands, and as such, will the noble Xerxes fully agree to them?”
“Dear King Leonidas of the mighty Spartans, thank you for hearing my most kind offering and making such a wise decision. I know in my heart that our brave and noble Xerxes agrees to your request. He foresaw your acceptance of his wishes, and it’s already arranged that he shall step forward from our lines ten minutes after I have returned to our men. As you shall see, he shall carry no weapons, since he rules our people with kindness and wisdom and not by force and cruelty. He has no heart for such things. He lives by the creed that his words are stronger than forged metal. Now, I take your leave, most noble Lacedaemonian, and wish you continued good health and long life.”
As the Persian made his way back to his men, the newly appointed ouragos, Theodoros, questioned his leader’s judgment to meet the Persian king. “Leonidas, do you make a wise decision, meeting with the man whose only desire is to destroy our country, take away our freedom, and make our families slaves? We beat his father, and his taste for vengeance must not have evaporated like water from a rose – we made his father grovel as a beast, and he shall get revenge upon those who have brought shame and disgrace upon his father and culture.”
“My dear Theodoros, you have spoken rationally, and I must agree that shame cannot and does not wane over time, especially since it has been but a decade since we had them turn tail like wild dogs back to their women’s arms. But, as there are two sides to a coin, so there are two sides to my decision this morning. By the grace of the benevolent gods, I have walked our lands for six decades and fought against many armies for more than half of those years. What I have learned is that it is best to know the enemy before you engage the enemy. What better way to know your opponent than to meet him and look him straight in the eye? It is impossible to enter the mind of your enemy unless you can talk freely with the man.”
“My king, you’re right.”
“This man has held a personal grudge against our nation since we defeated his father; can you imagine holding hatred in your heart for over a decade? At least he should have an opportunity to meet with me, the leader of the army that shall inflict great losses upon his soldiers, the commander of the warriors who shall send him scurrying back across the Hellespont with his tail tucked between his legs, as we did to his father. Do not worry, since my heart and mind shall be closely guarded so that he cannot get to know me and take advantage of us in battle. Look, it must be time, because I see a lone figure approaching the meeting point. I must go and meet our destiny. Be brave, my soldiers of freedom.”
The two leaders slowly walked up toward each other, and when they were a meter away from the mightiest foe that they would ever meet in their lifetime, they bowed and extended a hand in a show of respect. What a sight to behold: Leonidas wore his shiny bronze armor and a short red tunic for the ensuing battle. His long black hair billowed behind him in the cool breeze of the morning, and his straggly beard hid the battle-worn features of a legend that had lived for over six decades. By contrast, Xerxes was around twenty years younger and wore the finest silk garments, with untold meters of gold chains around his neck and his arms. His beard was immaculately trimmed, and his curly hair neatly cascaded down to his shoulders.
It was evident these two great leaders represented different cultures with different views upon what attire was befitting of a king in battle. The Lacedaemonians were no-nonsense and avoided the usual signs of the accoutrements of the wealthy, while the Persians were about pomp and displayed their sumptuous wealth. If it was a fashion show, Xerxes would have won first prize, but this was war, and fashion played no part in the battle between two armies that took center stage this morning.
They stared at each other for several minutes; Leonidas spake first. “Great leader of the noble Persians, we finally meet. It is only fitting that we are face-to-face before a battle that shall determine the very existence of our country and the legend of your kingship and country. Noble Xerxes, why do you wish to have an audience with me?”