Tuesday, August 9, 2016

A Shady Day in Thermopylae

By some accounts, King Leonidas and the Spartans began a doomed fight against a Persian army many times larger than they on this day in 480 B.C.

Struggling to hold a narrow pass at Thermopylae, the Spartans lasted until a traitor exposed a hidden trail in the hills to their rear. The Persian army was able to bring twice the strength against the small Greek force as before, which proved enough to whittle down its numbers and eventually overwhelm it.

The battle has helped spawn a lot of legends, some of which are probably more exaggeration than truth. King Xerxes' offer to spare the outnumbered band if its soldiers lay down their arms was probably really met with the response, "Molon labe," or, "Come and take them." And the Persian claim that their arrows would blot out the sun -- Persian battle strategy was to use long-distance weaponry to cripple enemy formations before attacking directly -- probably really did draw the rejoinder, "Good. Then we will fight in the shade."

But the 300 Spartans were not the only Greeks in the battle, and King Xerxes did not lead any of his troops or participate in the assault.

Still, the record of the battle set down by the historian Herodotus and the prominence of Greek and Latin literature in classical education has kept the memory of the stand at Thermopylae prominent in our culture, helping define the courage shown by those who decide to stand to the last against what they call evil. And by showing that for some, death and defeat are not nearly so fearsome as capitulation to that evil.

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