The story of the 300 Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae was recorded by the Greek historian Herodotus in his Histories, written around 440 BC. The entire escapade began when the Persian king Xerxes I sent messengers to all the Greek cities, offering enticing proposals if they would submit to Persian rule, and asking for “earth and water” as a token of submission. Many of the small cities, seeing no alternative and unable to defend themselves, took the Persian offer… however, the messengers to Athens were promptly thrown into a pit… while those who came to Sparta were thrown into a well, with this response to the ‘earth and water’ request: “Dig it out for yourselves!”
In the fall of 481 BC, a congress met at Corinth to discuss an alliance between the Greek city-states and what they should do about the advancing Persian army. After several encounters with various Greek forces, word came to Sparta about the route being taken by the Persian army. The alliance then determined that the next strategic ‘choke point’ where the Persian force could be stopped was at Thermopylae, which means the ‘Hot Gates’.
In an attempt to slow down the invasion, the Athenians first sent a naval fleet to Artemision to cut off any supplies and reinforcements that would come to the Persians by sea. However, hoping to ensure divine favor from the gods, Herodotus claims that Sparta first consulted the oracle at Delphi before launching their own campaign. Unfortunately, the oracle did not have good news…
“O ye men who dwell in the streets of broad Lacedaemon!
Either your glorious town shall be sacked by the children of Perseus,
Or, in exchange, must all through the whole Laconian country
Mourn for the loss of a king, descendant of great Heracles.
He cannot be withstood by the courage of bulls nor of lions,
Strive as they may; he is mighty as Jove;
there is nought that shall stay him,
Till he have got for his prey your king, or your glorious city.” (7.220)
In other words, should Sparta choose to fight, the people would either see their king or their city destroyed. Unsatisfied with simply standing back and letting others do the work, the Spartan king – Leonidas I – ignored this warning, and assembled a unit of 300 Spartans… and marched to Thermopylae. According to Herodotus, Leonidas knew he was heading toward certain death, and took only those men whose sons could assume the family responsibilities when their fathers did not return. In his treatise on Spartan sayings, the Greek philosopher Plutarch said that after encouraging her husband to show himself worthy of Sparta, Leonidas’ wife Gorgo asked him what she should do if he did not return – his reply? “Marry a good man, and bear good children.”
And thus, the Spartans headed to meet the Persian army…
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Tomorrow: The battle begins!