Tuesday, August 16, 2011


ON THIS DAY in 480 BC, Leonidas reaches Thermopylae with 300 Spartans and 700 Allies.

King Leonidas and the Spartans before the famous "Wall of Bodies" on the third day of their heroic stand.

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.

The site of the battle today - the road to the right is built on reclaimed land and approximates the 480 BC shoreline.

Two monument mark the spot of this historic clash between the cultures of East and West:

The modern monument at Thermopylae.

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 commemorative stone marking the last stand of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae.

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"



  1. The most significant thing is "led by King Leonidas of Sparta" - who leads from the front nowadays? Not the politicians anyway!

    The Spartans were not mollycoddled welfare scroungers, when they went into battle they were told by their mothers to "come back with your shield or on it".

  2. It was a very important battle, if the persians had destroyed them the first day or if they surrendered, the cradle of Western Civilization would have been destroyed, and our world as we know it would have been much different.

    1. It already is different since the end of 1945, post modernism of multiculturalism is destroying the western world as we know it.

  3. The classic line Spartan mothers told their sons is: "Come back carrying your shield, or being carried on it, but don't come home without it."

  4. Excellent post! It is a real glimpse into the history of the event. I have linked it to Old Retired Petty Officer and Among The Joshua Trees. Also shared at Facebook and Google+. Too good not to get out there!

  5. Very interesting historical post. Oh, and I am sooo scarfing that cool Molon Labe graphic.

  6. May i correct that the "Three Hundred Lie" in the translation is wrong.. that sentence does not exist in the quoted (or the original) ancient greek text..

  7. A little known fact, which very few people speak about is that the Spartans had a democratic element in their constitution way before Athens. The Apella (the assembly of all Spartiates) voted for the five Ephors who would govern them. It was not just an oligarchic system, but a government much more complex. Sparta has often been portrayed as a "fascist" state and it is a lie. Yes, they had the helots, but the other Greek city states had slavery and in Athens before Solon's seisachtheia, fellow Greeks were held as "debt slaves." The Athenian accusation that Sparta's holding of the helots was immoral because they were fellow Greeks is hypocrisy of the first order.

  8. Talk about Spartan mothers, When I was shipping off to the war, standing at the airport, the last thing my own mother said to me was "Either come back with it, or on it." Thats a mother.

  9. The Greek doesn't translate into the text given, I'm afraid. What you have written:

    Ὦ ξεῖν', ἀγγέλλειν Λακεδαιμονίοις ὅτι τῇδε
    κείμεθα, τοῖς κείνων ῥήμασι πειθόμενοι.

    Ó xeín', angéllein Lakedaimoníois óti tíde
    keímetha, toís keínon rímasi peithómenoi.

    —translates into English as:

    'Out of the way', the Lacedaemonians said no
    we are very convinced.