Archive for April, 2007

The Battle of Thermopylae… or, the ‘300 Spartans’ – Part 3 of 5 (480 BC)

By: The Scribe on April, 2007

XerxesWhile readying themselves for battle, the Spartans had rebuilt an old Phocian wall, which sat at the most defensible position in the pass – here, the cliffs squeezed the land to less than 20 yards across. Xerxes sent in the Medes to gather Greek prisoners, however because the Spartans were using the wall as a reference line for battle, it was said that the Greeks killed so many Medes during this wave of assault that Xerxes stood up from the seat where he was watching the battle three times, startled.

What battle tactics were used are not quite as well known, however it is likely that the Spartans led the rest of the Greeks in a phalanx formation, which is a wall of overlapping shields with spear points in between. This likely spanned the width of the pass, making the army’s front lines impenetrable. Since the Persians fought with short spears and arrows, there was no way for them to move past the points of the long spears. Some scholars have argued that in order for even one Greek soldier to be killed, it would have taken three Persian warriors working together.

It was then that Xerxes realized that his reserve unit of elite forces was needed: the Immortals. This was an elite corps of 10,000 men, but when Xerxes realized that almost the entire force had been cut down, he sent in another 20,000 men – and these also failed to get through the pass, even though many were whipped by their own generals in order to make certain they kept attacking. As for his own forces, Leonidas had arranged a shift-like system, whereupon fresh troops would spell each other on the front lines after a set period of time.

Realizing that not even his elite forces could break through the Greek lines, Xerxes recalled his army. The following day, another 50,000 soldiers were sent, and again met with failure. Considering the amount of Persian bodies on the battlefield by this point, it is highly likely that the mountains of corpses may have detracted from the Persian morale.

Indeed, it seemed as though the campaign of Xerxes against Greece seemed to be heading to a close, in favor of the Spartans and the other Greek allies…

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Tomorrow: The final stand

The Battle of Thermopylae… or, the ‘300 Spartans’ – Part 2 of 5 (480 BC)

By: The Scribe on April, 2007

pushing the Persians off a cliffWhile on the way, the Spartans were joined by several thousand soldiers from the Greek allied states. When they reached Thermopylae, the Spartans were soon visited by a Persian scout. They allowed the scout to enter their camp and observe the troops, and then take his report back to Xerxes. Herodotus writes that upon hearing about the size of the Greek army, and what they were doing to prepare for battle – mainly, combing their hair – he laughed… and then became incredulous when he realized that this small Greek force intended to actually fight against his hundreds of thousands of warriors.

Another account of the story describes how Xerxes sent emissaries to the Greek camp, offering Leonidas the kingship of all Greece, if only he would submit and ally himself with Persia. Leonidas refused, responding that for him “it would be better to die for Greece than to be monarch over my compatriots.”

Unsatisfied, Xerxes gave the Greek forces a second chance, asking them to surrender their weapons. To this, Leonidas responded: “Come and get them.”

The morale of the Spartans was extremely high, even though their force numbered thousands less than the Persian army. Herodotus tells of a Spartan soldier named Dienekes, who upon hearing that the Persian arrows were rumored to be so numerous as to “blot out the sun”, he quipped back “so much the better, we shall fight in the shade.”

Xerxes sent his first wave of forces against the Greeks, numbering around 10,000 soldiers, and commanded by General Artapanus. Unfortunately for the Persians, this wave was literally cut to pieces… with only two or three Spartans lost.

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Tomorrow: Immortals attack!

The Battle of Thermopylae… or, the ‘300 Spartans’ – Part 1 of 5 (480 BC)

By: The Scribe on April, 2007

“Leonidas at Thermopylae” by Jacques-Louis David, 1814]

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!

Mohenjodaro – India’s Vanishing City (ca. 2600-1700 BC)

By: The Scribe on April, 2007


Built around 2600 BC, the city of Mohenjodaro was home to people of the Indus Valley Civilization until around 1700 BC, when it was mysteriously abandoned. Mohenjodaro, the Harappan people, and their entire civilization vanished without a trace until an archaeologist stumbled across the city’s remains in 1920.

During its height, Mohenjodaro was the most advanced city in South Asia; its planning and engineering were unsurpassed, and the city itself may have housed around 35,000 people. City planning was impeccable: the streets were laid out in a grid pattern, and workers managed to create uniformly-sized mudbricks to build the houses.

The great bath

One of the most impressive areas at Mohenjodaro was the public bathhouse (shown below), which consisted of a brick-lined pool inside a colonnaded courtyard. The pool was even lined with a layer of tar to prevent water leakage. The city’s water system was highly sophisticated, with a network of wells to provide fresh water to each house, and a sanitation structure that directed waste through different pipes into a drainage system.

Although it did not have city walls, Mohenjodaro was well-fortified through a network of towers to the west of the city, and defensive fortifications to the south. The lack of obvious defenses within the city may suggest that the town was being used as an administrative or political centre, however this is still under debate due to the extensive amount of city that remains unexcavated. Either way, Mohenjodaro clearly possessed a high degree of social organization – a large, central granary was identified with bays for farmers to bring in their crops from the countryside; beneath the granary air ducts had been constructed for air circulation, in order to allow stored grain to stay dry.

Unfortunately, the ancient name of the city remains unknown, as the language of the Indus Valley people has yet to be deciphered; the current name ‘Mohenjodaro’ is Sindhi for ‘Mound of the Dead’. The city was destroyed and rebuilt at least seven times, and on each occasion, the new city was rebuilt directly on top of the old remains. While flooding is thought to have been the cause of its final abandonment, this has yet to be proven with conclusive evidence.

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Tomorrow: A series on the history behind the movie 300 begins!

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