ON THIS DAY in 480 BC, Leonidas reaches Thermopylae with 300 Spartans and 700 Allies.
Thermopylae is one of the most famous battles of the ancient world, of course; it took place in northern Greece during the Persian Wars. The Greek forces, led by King Leonidas of Sparta, managed to hold out for three days against the forces of Persian king Xerxes I, said to have numbered "one million" but probably closer to 200,000. Still, the feat of the Spartans was remarkable. Eventually Leonidas released the other Greek forces and a small Spartan contingent remained behind to resist the advance. The Greeks were only defeated after a traitor betrayed a route by which the Persians were able to outflank them. Leonidas and the remaining members of his original 300 Spartans were killed to the last man.
Leonidas' plan was remarkable for taking advantage of the terrain. At the time of the battle, Thermopylae - which literally means "Hot Gates" due to the presence of natural hot springs - was a narrow neck of land between mountains to the west, and the sea to the east. Leonidas was able to place his forces in this narrow "bottleneck" and thereby wear the Persian forces down in a deliberate delaying tactic, allowing the Greek City-State Alliance to better prepare for a more effective defense deeper within the homeland.
I visited Thermopylae when I was training with Greek Special Forces in the lead up to the 2004 Olympics, which of course were held in Athens. An earthquake in ancient times, and the continuous deposition of sediment from the river and hot springs has substantially altered the landscape during the past few thousand years.
Two monument mark the spot of this historic clash between the cultures of East and West:
The modern monument bears the words "Molon Labe" (ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ) meaning "Come and take them" - the defiant words reportedly spoken by King Leonidas in response to Xerxes' demand that the Spartans surrender their weapons.
The ancient monument was placed on top of the burial mound of the Spartans at Last Stand Hill:
The original stone has not survived the ravages of time, but in 1955, the world's most famous epitaph was engraved on a new stone. The text from Herodotus is:
Ὦ ξεῖν', ἀγγέλλειν Λακεδαιμονίοις ὅτι τῇδε
κείμεθα, τοῖς κείνων ῥήμασι πειθόμενοι.
"Go Tell the Spartans, Oh Passerby,
that here, in accordance with their Laws,
Three Hundred Lie"