for knowing the death which was about to come upon them by reason of those who were going round the mountain, they displayed upon the barbarians all the strength which they had, to its greatest extent, disregarding danger and acting as if possessed by a spirit of recklessness.
So wrote the Greek historian Herodotus, our main source as to what happened at the Battle of Thermopylae, clearly impressed by the bravery the Spartans showed in making a stand against multitudes of invading Persian warriors.
Even down to the present time, this legendary battle continues to capture our imagination, and my guest today will go beyond pop culture depictions of it, to describe what really led up to Thermopylae, how the epic clash that happened in a narrow coastal pass in Greece unfolded, and why it matters. His name is Paul Cartledge, and he’s an ancient historian, professor of Greek culture, and the author of several books on Sparta, including Thermopylae: The Battle That Changed the World. At the start of the show, Paul describes Sparta’s martial training system which allowed it to become a dominant power in Greece, the Spartans relationship with other city-states, and how they ended up partnering with their sometimes enemy, Athens, in repelling a second Persian invasion. We discuss who made up the famous 300 Spartan warriors who would defend the Grecian pass to the death, how they armed and prepared for combat, and what happened over three days of battle. We end our conversation with the importance of the Spartans’ courageous stand at Thermopylae not only in the outcome of the Greco-Persian Wars, but the course of world history.
If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.
- What was the Spartans’ educational and training system like?
- What was Sparta’s relationship like with other city-states?
- Why did Sparta get an inkling to take over Greece?
- What led to the Battle of Thermopylae?
- How many soldiers were the Spartans really up against?
- How Spartans equipped themselves, both with weapons and wit
- The intense topography of Thermopylae
- Why did the Spartan’s have so much success at first?
- What led to Leonidas’ downfall?
- What were the lasting impacts of the battle?
- What can modern men take away from this ancient battle?
Resources/Articles/People Mentioned in Podcast
- The Spartan Regime
- Courage vs. Boldness: How to Live With Spartan Bravery
- The Spartan Way series
- The Two Halves of the Warrior’s Life
- Battle of the Fetters
- 43 Books About War Every Man Should Read
- Herotodus’ Histories
- Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield
- The Cambridge Illustrated History of Ancient Greece
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. “For knowing the death which is about to come upon them by reason of those who were going around the mountain, they displayed upon the barbarians all the strength which they had to its greatest extent, disregarding danger and acting as if possessed by a spirit of recklessness.” So wrote the Greek historian Herodotus, our main source as to what happened at the Battle of Thermopylae. He was clearly impressed by the bravery the Spartans showed in making a stand against the multitudes of invading Persians. Even down to the present time, this legendary battle continues to capture imagination, and my guest today will go beyond pop culture depictions of it to describe what really led up to Thermopylae, how the epic clash that happened in a narrow coastal pass in Greece unfolded, and why it matters. His name is Paul Cartledge, and he’s an ancient historian, professor of Greece culture, and the author of several books on Sparta, including Thermopylae: The Battle that Changed the World.
At the start of the show, Paul describes Sparta’s martial training system, which allowed it to become a dominant power in Greece, the Spartans’ relationship with other city states, and how they ended up partnering with their sometimes enemy Athens in repelling a second Persian invasion. We discuss who made up the famous 300 Spartan warriors who would defend the Grecian pass to death, how they armed and prepared for combat, and what happened over three days of battle. We end our conversation with the importance of the Spartans’ courageous stand at Thermopylae, not only in the outcome of the Greco-Persian wars, but in the course of world history. After the show’s over, check our our show notes at aom.is/thermopylae.
Paul Cartledge, welcome to the show.
Paul Cartledge: Thank you very much for having me.
Brett McKay: So you are a professor of ancient history, and you’ve written several books about the Spartans. You’ve got The Spartans, The World of the Warrior Heroes of Ancient Greece, and then you have a book about the battle that made them legendary. It’s called Thermopylae: The Battle that Changed the World, and we’re gonna talk about that battle today, but before we get into it, let’s talk a little bit about the Spartans in general, and how they ended up in such a critical position in the Greco-Persian War. Their leadership and dominance of the Peloponnese really rested on their military prowess. So let’s start there. What was the Spartans’ education and martial training system like?
Paul Cartledge: One of the unique features of Sparta was that it had an educational system for all citizens, that is all males, and to some extent all females, whereas in most other Greek cities, there was virtually no public provision for education. In other words, there were private schools, which depends on your wealth, whether or not a father is prepared to pay a teacher, etcetera, etcetera, but in Sparta, from the age of seven, boys were removed from their homes… Their sisters were not, so this is a gender differentiation and grouped in… Well, I’m not sure quite what the right word would be, but barracks, something like that, in accordance with their age grade. So people born between notable points in a year, and I imagined it’s a particular festival that would have been taken as the central point, so if you’re born between this year’s celebration of that festival and the next year’s celebration, you’re in the same cohort as everybody else born between there. And then you move through the grades from seven through to 18 in lock step, so long of course, as you’re up to it.
And the goal, the ultimate goal of the educational system, was to make Spartans fighting fit, so to imbibe the values of collective collaboration and daring, but above all, obedience in a collective mode, such that you don’t run unnecessary risks, such that if you’re given an order by an officer, you instinctively behave in accordance with that order and so on. This is the Spartan mode. Now, the educational program is very poorly understood. No ancient source sets out what it involved at any particular point, except in the most general terms, and we imagine that it was quite largely consistent of as it were being in training, in military training, in different stages, different types of training, different times of the year, different age grades and so on, but it’s not the case that the education was exclusively military, that it was totally if you like Philistine, because they were taught reading and writing, and they did learn poetry, which native Spartans had produced, and so the Spartans were not totally uncultured as non-Spartans liked to present the Spartans, as if they were just brutes.
Brett McKay: And because of the Spartans’ unique economic system in which they used Helots, who were sort of like serfs or slaves, who had more rights than your typical Greek slaves. The Helots did all the work so the Spartan men could spend most of their time on military training. But what else did they do with the rest of their time? What else did they focus on outside of that?
Paul Cartledge: Well, it was a kind of leisure society, and the sources… And I’ll mention an Athenian called Xenophon… He actually spent quite a lot of time in Sparta, and two of his sons were put through as foreigners the Spartan educational system. But the point about leisure really is that there was only one legitimate form of work, and this was war, and Xenophon actually calls the Spartans craftsmen, that is skilled practitioners of war, but not so much because of their military skills or the particular discipline, particular maneuvers, and so on. He mentions all those, but he oddly to us says that was because they knew how to manage relationships between the gods and themselves better than any other Greek city. So they had an elaborate set of rituals for finding out what the God’s will was and following it. The relations between men and the gods were… As already Herodotus had said… Very, very important. So, religion, piety… We might call it superstition… Was a key part of being Spartan.
Brett McKay: So what was the state of relations between… Of Sparta with other Greek city states, before the Greco-Persian war? Was there… Were they butting heads with other city states?
Paul Cartledge: Very much. By the early fifth century, Sparta’s already been in major conflicts, in order to first of all, establish its own territory, because in addition to the bit of Southern Peloponnese where Sparta lies, there is another bit, it’s roughly 50/50. On the other side of a very tall 8000 foot mountain chain, Mount Taygetus runs down the middle of Sparta’s territory, and on the west is the Messenian land, and that’s where the majority of Helots worked, ’cause the land is slightly more fertile. Both sides are quite fertile, and so the Spartans had first of all, to defeat whoever was living in that part of the world. They then wanted to expand their territory and this… We’re now in the sixth century BC, in the 500’s BC, but they came up against an obstacle they couldn’t overcome, namely the men of Arcadia, immediately to the north.
And there’s a famous battle that they actually lost, and it’s called the Fetters battle, because Spartans went up North and they attacked the Arcadians, carrying… They had with them, iron chains to put the people they assumed would be their defeated captives in. But the Arcadians won and the Spartans were put in those chains and they were eventually released, but the chains were supposedly left behind and dedicated to the gods by the Arcadians, as a symbol of how the gods had helped them keep free from becoming slaves of the Spartans. The other major power of the Peloponnese, however, Argos up in the North East, was eventually defeated. There were a couple of encounters, but one major pitched battle in the middle of the sixth century. So from about 550 BC, Sparta is number one in the Peloponnese, and as such, it’s one of the two most powerful cities in mainland Greece, and that remains the case really, down into the fourth century, for another 150, 200 years.
Brett McKay: All right. So Sparta was the top dog, pretty much. They formed the Peloponnese league. What I thought was interesting is, it was an alliance, but not really. All the other city states swore an oath to come to the defense of Sparta, but Sparta… It wasn’t reciprocal. Sparta could come if they wanted to.
Paul Cartledge: Exactly. It wasn’t what you and I would call a league, because the allies did not have to be allied with each other. On the other hand, they needed some sort of decision-making framework that was collective and under it apparently, every ally, regardless of its size and there were about 15-20 of them, had one vote. So majority decisions were binding as normal, in Greek, the question is, “Who is entitled to vote, who counts as equal?” And a couple of times, one of the major allies of Sparta, within this organization, Corinth, actually was able to persuade enough of the other allies to go against the Spartan’s decision, but the Spartans could never be committed by a majority vote of the allies. So Sparta always was asking the allies to follow it, and that actually was the phrase used, to follow the Spartans with or so ever they may lead. That is what being a member of the Peloponnesians was.
Brett McKay: Alright. So they worked together, but Sparta and other city states, they kinda looked at each other with a stink eye, always ’cause this guy could be an enemy, but they had to come together, because the Persians decided to invade the Peloponnese. Tell us about the Persians. Why did they decide… Where was Persia? And why did they decide, “Well, we also wanna take over Greece.” What happened there?
Paul Cartledge: Right. Herodotus begins his account in what we would say, is the middle of the sixth Century BC, why, because that is when the Persian empire grew, it started its life under Cyrus, in Greek, Kairos, in Persian, Kairos. And he’s actually Cyrus the second, but we don’t worry about that. Cyrus the great. So in southern Iran, these people, the Persians, first of all, came to dominate their northern kinsfolk, the Medes, the Medean people. So they conquered the whole of Iran, and then from that, beginning in around about 550 BC, they spread out first West, then East until by 520 or so, they had Egypt, the northern bit of Egypt, the Nile Delta part of Egypt. They had a foothold in European Greece, that is roughly what’s today, Bulgaria and Romania, up there on the Western shores of the Black Sea. They had all of Asia, of course, they had a restricted view of Asia, they didn’t know about China. Some of them knew about India, but they didn’t know about China.
And so, for them, Asia meant everything from Afghanistan and the Indus Valley in North West India, Pakistan today, as far to the west as the Aegean Sea. So encompassing all of Turkey and part of the Levant. So absolutely massive, it’s the biggest oriental empire yet, it’s the fastest growing, and it’s unified not by culture, but by power. In other words, the Persians put garrisons in key points, they established governors and the subjects have to pay tribute and they have to serve militarily, if the Persians tell them they have to. Herodotus was born at the very far western edge of the Persian Empire, in a place called Halicarnassus, which is today, in Turkey, Bodrum. So he’s born actually within the Persian Empire, which gives him his very interesting perspective, because though he’s not viciously hostile to the Persian Empire, unlike some other Greeks, who Persians couldn’t do anything right. Herodotus is actually quite respectful of the Persians. Nevertheless, what he values most, is what he calls freedom, and freedom has two dimensions, it’s freedom from, so that you’re not conquered by or at the mercy of a foreign power, and secondly, internally, you’re free to do things.
And Herodotus is very political, and so he’s very interested in democracy and other modes of political organization, oligarchy, the Spartan way of doing things, and he believed that they were free states in that they chose their own laws, they administered their own laws, they made their own political decisions without being dictated to from the outside.
Brett McKay: I think there’s something to note too of that idea of that they were really fighting for freedom, like the Spartans and the other Greeks, they were fighting for their idea of freedom, and that was foreign to the Persians, ’cause the Persians, they would say, “Well, we’re gonna come in. We’re not gonna really take away. Everything is gonna be pretty much the same. You guys can still worship your gods. You don’t have to worship our gods. You guys can still run things the way you typically do. All you gotta do is just pay us taxes.” And for a lot of Greek city states that are sort of on that periphery of the Persian Empire, they’re like, “Yeah, that sounds good. We’ll do that.” But the Spartans and the Athenians are like, “No, that’s not freedom. It might feel like or look like freedom, but it’s really not freedom.”
Paul Cartledge: Well, now you are quite right in the way you put it, and I like the way you put it, but actually already before the Spartans and the Athenians get together in the late 480s to resist a massive Persian invasion, all the Greek cities within the Persian Empire, including Herodotus’s Halicarnassus, and the Greeks living on the island of Cyprus, had already decided that freedom and being within the Persian Empire were incompatible. So in about 499 BC, in Greek, we call it the Ionian Revolt. It actually included some non-Greeks who joined in this desire to be freed from the Persian imperial constraints, so when the Persians put them down, that revolt… They had to put it down because it challenged the Persians’ alleged as it were natural right to dominate the entirety of the Middle East… When the Persians put it down, they were quite careful not to be too viciously vindictive, with one exception.
The city that had started the revolt, a place called Miletus, it was utterly destroyed and was not occupied again for a considerable period. So that is just a sign of how the so-called iron fist in a velvet glove… Well, mostly they wore the velvet glove, but occasionally they tore it off, and that was one occasion. So because the Athenians had supported that rebellion, the Persians’ first attempt to intervene in mainland Greece was a punitive expedition, 490, to punish the Athenians, the point being not so much to conquer the Greeks of the mainland, but to say, “Look, do not interfere in our sphere. Yes, those Greeks are your in a sense cousins, but tough. They’re ours. You’ve just gotta admit that the Aegean Sea is an impassable barrier.” Well, the Athenians didn’t. They won the Battle of Marathon, 490. That meant the Persians were bound to come back, and when they came back, this is the big, massive armada that Herodotus really is most interested in, 480, 479 BC.
Brett McKay: And this is… Now the leader of the Persians is Xerxes. They cross the Hellespont, and this is where… This kind of leads up to Thermopylae. Why was Thermopylae such a key battle, and what was the Spartans’ role in that? What did the Battle of Thermopylae look like?
Paul Cartledge: Okay, there would have been no resistance of any significant kind but for the Spartans and the Athenians agreeing to fight together, even though they had actually fought against each other within living memory. And they agreed on this basis, that because most of the allies coming to this really tiny alliance were actually in the Peloponnesian League we talked about early, Sparta, therefore, was treated as a senior member of this alliance. What Sparta didn’t have, or personally didn’t have, was a decent fleet, and since the invasion was going to be by land and by sea, the Athenians who had the biggest Navy were able to put themselves forward as almost equal to the Spartans in terms of their absolute role. So they come together, they have to formulate a strategy. How do you resist a land and sea invasion?
Well, obviously by land, by sea. And though Thermopylae wasn’t the first point, the first choke point in northern Greece chosen by the resistance to resist… It was actually the second… It was the most viable as a place where you could at least hold up the Persian advance. Probably you couldn’t hold it up forever, but you might so hold it up that the fleet could have a good chance of doing whatever it could against the Persians’ fleet, and that is actually what happened. So there was another battle going on at exactly the same time as Thermopylae at sea, and that was much more even. Thermopylae is a heroic defence, and one of the reasons it’s so famous is that it involved an elite force, specially selected for that particular mission by the leading Spartan King Leonidas or Leonidas, consisting of men, all of whom were already married and had a son. So it’s not that they necessarily were the 300 absolutely top crack Spartan fighters. They were clearly all pretty hot, but their sons, when their fathers died, as was a very likely occurrence, would have a terrific example to follow and a real desire for revenge when they grew up, knowing how their fathers had fought and died. So one of the parts of the legend of Thermopylae is that this was not exactly a suicide squad, not exactly a kamikaze squad, but one that knew that it couldn’t possibly win, and that the best it could do is lose magnificently, heroically, which is exactly what they did.
Brett McKay: So there were 300 Spartans. There were some other soldiers from other city states there, but it was outmatched. How many Persians were there to Greeks at Thermopylae?
Paul Cartledge: We differ. Herodotus thinks there were five million Persians. It’s just they couldn’t stand up together or it’s just utterly beyond the range of possibility. Modern scholars think in the order of between 100,000 and 200,000 altogether, by land. That’s separate from the fleet, where you have up to 600 or maybe more ships, each of whom has 200 men, so you’re talking about 120… Thousands. And so altogether, you’ve maybe got going on for 400,000 on the Persian side. But at Thermopylae, waiting outside the pass, could have been as many as 100,000, not all of whom, of course very few of whom, could fight in a very narrow space at any one time. But what Xerxes has is a sort of limitless reserves. So the Spartans were the front line in resistance, and they did extremely well, extremely bravely, but they could only… They, it’s thought, may have killed as many as 20,000, as many as 10% of Xerxes’ land forces.
Brett McKay: Can you talk about the difference in fighting styles between the Spartans and the Persians?
Paul Cartledge: Well, there are two points to make. There’s no such thing as it were The Persians. There are Persians, there are Medes, there are Assyrians, there are Egyptians, and they’re all differentially equipped. They had their different cultures, their different customs. What differentiated all of them was that none was as heavily armed or armed in the same mode, that is with a very heavy wooden shield, a meter across, all embracing head, chest and to some extent leg armor, one or two thrusting spears, and men who are accustomed, who are trained to fighting in what later is called a phalanx. So in other words, not as individuals but in serried ranks. So it very much matters that you know who is the man on your left, the man on your right, the man in front of you, the man behind you, and there’s an esprit de corps. So the Spartans leading the resistance were just very difficult to get at, and it’s very significant how far the Persians relied on archers, who of course reached their enemy at a distance, not hand-to-hand, face-to-face. And in fact, the very end of the Spartan resistance, famously on Little Hillock on day three, was brought to a conclusion by a shower of arrows, not by hand-to-hand slaughter by infantrymen on infantrymen.
Brett McKay: And that’s where that famous saying came from, like, “Oh, we’ll get to fight in the shade.” Or something like that.
Paul Cartledge: It was. [chuckle] Now, there’s an issue there. How on Earth did anybody know if almost all the Spartans died, and many of the others, the other 6000-7000 Greeks also either died or they weren’t with the… Anyway, it’s a wonderful saying. Spartans were famous for their, as it were, gallows humor. Leonidas is said to have made one of these. “Men,” he said on the morning of the last day, when it’s all over above the shouting, he says, “Have a hearty breakfast because this evening we’re going to dine in Hades.” Now Hades is the Greek underworld, and actually, you’re not a body under there. You’re a kind of spirit, flitting around. There’s not much eating and drinking going on down in Hades.
Brett McKay: So the Spartans, they were well equipped. Do we know how much their armor and swords and weapons, how much it weighed approximately?
Paul Cartledge: Yeah, modern scholars differ, but let’s say between 30 and 50 pounds weight with bronze breastplate, helmet, the spear, which is mainly of course wood with an iron tip and a bronze butt, and then the wooden shield basically with bronze facing and maybe greaves, that shin-guards and maybe thigh-guards, maybe abdominal guards. So of the order of 30-50 pounds.
Brett McKay: And the other thing too, I think the way Herodotus describes it, Xerxes really underestimated the Spartans. I remember there was a scene where they see the Spartans dancing. They think they’re dancing, like doing each other’s hair, and they’re like, “Man, these guys are weirdos. Like right before this big battle, they’re doing each other’s hair and dancing around.” But they’re like, “No, you don’t understand. This means they mean business. You better watch out.”
Paul Cartledge: Yeah, it’s not doing each other’s hair, it’s doing their own. And like all Greeks, free, male, adult, citizen Greeks, they exercised, so wrestled, or ran on the spot, or did whatever exercise they did, naked. And our word, “gymnasium,” comes from the ancient Greek word “gymnós,” which means “stark naked.” So what Xerxes’ scout saw was the aftermath of the 300 Spartans… This is before the actual battle starts… Who had been exercising stark naked, and then they’d had a wash in the springs or somehow else, including washing their long hair. Spartans uniquely in Greece grew their hair long. Instead of cutting it short as most adult male Greeks did, they went the exact opposite way, and there’s a lot of ritual and a lot of myth about why they did. No one really knows for sure. But anyway, there they were, like women is what a scout would have thought, ’cause it’s only women who have long hair, which they have to spend a lot of time dressing.
Brett McKay: So, you’ve touched on a few of the details of what happened at Thermopylae but let’s dig into more of how the battle itself, which lasted three days, how the battle took place. So you mentioned the Greeks were consolidated in a small space, so what was the topography of Thermopylae?
Paul Cartledge: Okay, so the pass of Thermopylae, which takes its name from the hot sulphur springs, is about a kilometer long. It runs east-west, and it’s one of the choke points in North Greece, so any army such as the Persians invading Central and Southern Greece, coming from the north, has to go through or at any rate nearby to the Pass of Thermopylae.
Brett McKay: Okay, and how wide again was it, the pass?
Paul Cartledge: It was only about room enough for two chariots to pass, in some parts. I mean, it varied in width as the pass went along, but altogether it was very close to the sea. If you go there today you’re about a kilometer away from the coast because of coastal aggradation, crustal movements since 480 BC, but there, the army would be very conscious that if you’re the Persians, you’re coming as it were from the west, the sea is on your left, if you’re Greeks, you’re facing to the west and the sea is on your right, and you’re in the center of this kilometer long very narrow pass, you’re very conscious that the sea is not very far away and therefore there’s not any real room for maneuver at all.
Brett McKay: So what happened that first day of battle?
Paul Cartledge: Okay, first day, Xerxes actually waits with his, what shall we say, maybe up to 200,000 troops from all parts of his empire, especially the west but consisting of different ethnic groups. So he has two really crack forces. One of them are the Medes, that is Northern Iranians. The second of them are the 10,000 Immortals, as the Greeks called them, because they thought that when one of them was killed, he was immediately replaced, but there were 10,000 and these are Persians so they’re from Southern Iran. He starts off by sending in, on day one, having waited three days, in the expectation that Leonidas would give in, realize that the game was up. He then sends in his Medes and they get mauled because the Spartans are very well entrenched. They’re also extremely better equipped. The Median equipment, both offensive and defensive, was less strong, less long spears, weaker defensive armor and so on and so on, and quite a few thousands on the Persian side on day one are lost. And so Xerxes has a rethink and he sends in his Immortals, and they too get a bit of a bloody nose. And so this is day one. He realizes that frontal assault is well, it’s gonna take alot of time and it’s gonna take a lot of men, and therefore he’d better just expect great losses.
And the Spartans take relatively few losses. They have a few allies, as I’ve said, up to 7000 of them. The Spartans, there are only 301 of them, maybe a few hundred other people from the same district as the Spartans, but by and large, the force that’s sent up there is a token one because it’s thought to be a holding operation, but it probably won’t eventually succeed, but it will give time for the Athenians to evacuate the city, to get their Naval defenses ready, so it’s a holding operation. Day one is very bad for Xerxes.
Brett McKay: And then what happens on day two?
Paul Cartledge: Day two. During the day, he is approached by a local man who is from what the Greeks called Malis, and he is therefore from a people who are at odds with one of the Greek forces that are supporting Leonidas in resisting the Persians, the Phocians. So in order to both feather his own nest, in other words to get a good deal of money as well as to do damage to the enemy Greek side, the Phocians and Leonidas, he approaches Xerxes and his entourage with information which he, because he’s a local, realizes that Xerxes clearly doesn’t have, and it is this, that behind the Spartans… So if the Persians go south and then turn left eastwards, and then come up behind the Spartans at the other end of the pass, the eastern end of the pass, they will kettle the Spartans and the other Greeks who are resisting, who are in the center of the pass. And on the night therefore of the second day, Xerxes agrees to the suggestion of this local… As the Greeks see him, traitor… He’s called Ephialtes, and he sends his crack troops, that is the 10,000 Immortals under their commander, Hydarnes, via this back over the mountain pass called the Anopaea Pass.
Now Leonidas, being of course a Greek and defending, had consulted with his local allies, the Phocians, and they had told him about this back pass, and he had posted a picket of Phocian defenders half way up the Anopaea Pass. For whatever reason, and this is one of the big sort mysteries, the known unknowns of this campaign. Why on earth did the Phocian picket fail to pick up on the 10,000 immortals quickly enough? So the immortals were past them, before the Phocians had even realized that they were approaching, the immortals were approaching. And so, they were able, the Phocians, to alert Leonidas, they were able to send runners round the mountain, ahead to the east end of the pass, to say to Leonidas, “Sorry, you’re about to be surrounded,” which is of course what happened at the beginning of day three. So having marched through the night, the immortals reached the east end of Thermopylae Pass, on the morning of day three. Leonidas had a bitter forewarning therefore, and he… Now, this is the account which Herodotus, our main source preserves and it may be being nice to the allies of Leonidas.
Leonidas allegedly offered the allies, apart from the Spartans, the option of retreating in advance, to save their lives. The alternative view, the cynical view is, when these guys heard they were about to be kettled, they simply fled. Leonidas is left therefore, with just two bands of men, one of them his… The survivors from his original 300, plus the survivors from the group of Thebans, from a city which was actually on the Persian side, but the Thebans were divided amongst themselves and these Thebans, it looks as if they were patriots, they thought they should side with Leonidas and the Spartans and the Athenians against the Persian invasion. And so, the end game occurs on the morning of day three of the actual fighting.
Brett McKay: And what happened on day three? What was the battle like?
Paul Cartledge: Not so much of a battle, according to the survivors, of course, and those who were able to report what happened, and there were two Spartan survivors, because they weren’t actually involved in the final fighting, and there were others who ran away, but yet presumably found out enough about what had happened. It seems that even with the disparity between the Persian side and the Greeks who were left at the beginning of day three, resisting, they nevertheless relied not on hand to hand close fighting weapons, but on archers. So they simply released flurries of lethal arrows, which eventually pinned the Spartans down, those few who were surviving and those few Thebans who were surviving. And on a hill, and it’s still there, and today we think we know exactly which hill it was, on which the final stand took place, and there’s a little monument, a little epigram, fairly contemporary. It’s the famous, “Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here, obedient to their laws, we lie.” And that’s now inscribed piece of stone, set into this hill. But remember, the hill is now way about a kilometer away from where the original shoreline would have been. The shorelines moved about a kilometer to the north.
Brett McKay: And descriptions from the war, the Persians relied on archers, but the Spartans, they were hand-to-hand guys, with spears and swords, and the way they described it, they were using spears and those shattered and then they moved to short swords and they even started using their hands to try to fight these guys as well.
Paul Cartledge: Not only their hands, but Herodotus says their teeth, even. So as we say, by the skin of their teeth, they were absolutely determined not to survive, but to go down fighting. And that’s part of the mystique, the myth, if you like, that I’m slightly inclined to believe that Leonidas knew from the start, that there was no real hope of winning, that is of actually deterring the Persian invasion. But the best he could do was make a stand, and make a stand not just militarily, I.e, fight well, but morally, showing that he was gonna lead the resistance and the rest of the Greeks had better live up to his moral example, or they were in trouble. And there is, as we say, a historical question about exactly what the Spartan’s strategy… What Leonidas’ mentality was, because we can’t ask Leonidas, and he was killed, and in fact, he was beheaded in the aftermath of the defeat.
Brett McKay: Alright. So the Spartans lost, but you make the case that this was an important battle, even though the battle was lost, this helped win the war. How so? What would have happened if the Spartans hadn’t stopped, slow down the Persians at Thermopylae?
Paul Cartledge: Well, the Greek fleet would have been overwhelmed too soon, because they couldn’t have held their station, because there would be no link with the Greeks on land at Thermopylae. But though it was a defeat, it was a necessary defeat, in the sense, had the Spartans not committed as they did, and made such a self-sacrifice in a leadership role, the alliance would be seriously weakened, because its main proponent, namely the Spartans, would have done nothing to stop the Persians. Okay. Completely correct. They lost. Xerxes and his men pour through the Thermopylae pass, in pursuit of their main objective, which is not the city of Sparta, because Sparta yet, has not done anything but to be nasty to the Persians in the way that the Athenians have done at Marathon. So as revenge for Marathon, the Persians occupy, under Xerxes, Athens and they simply torch it including the temples, the religious shrines up on top of the Acropolis, and they torch private houses and they torch public buildings and so on, at the foot of the Acropolis, all in central Athens.
And that is very, very bad news, but how come they had a free hand in torching Athens? Because the Athenians had taken their own major, major decision, which is not intuitively obvious, to evacuate their city totally, men, women and children, and to take to the ships. And so Athens becomes, its navy, that is Athens, which is why the battle that ensues within the months of Thermopylae, the Battle of Salamis, is not just for the Greek alliance, but in particular for Athens, absolutely critical. And so that is the first battle, which if the Greeks who were resisting, lose it, the war is over, and the fact is that the Alliance won in the Battle of Salamis, they really, in a way shouldn’t, but I can’t go into all the mistakes that Xerxes made. But Herodotus, who is our principal descriptor, our source actually passes a judgment, he says, because of that, the Athenians are rightly to be treated, regarded as the saviors of Hellas, that is of the Greek world, from being incorporated in the Persian Empire, not of the Spartans, interestingly.
So you know the Spartans are the dominant leaders of the alliance, well now, actually, Salamis was not finally decisive, because there was still a large Persian army left in Mainland Greece, Xerxes goes back to Iran and leaves behind very substantial force, based on the Greek city of Thebes, which then marches south in the summer, the campaigning season of the next year, 479 and a major battle, where at least 100,000 on each side, is fought at a place called Plataea, and in that battle, the Spartans played the same sort of role as the Athenians at Salamis, the decisive military role in land fighting. That is the finally decisive battle of the Greco-Persian Wars.
Brett McKay: So the Battle of Thermopylae, certainly gone down in history, and I still think it remains today, popular culture, it’s a symbol of heroism and self-sacrifice. As a historian who studied, written about, read about the Spartans your whole entire career, do you think there’s something to admire about the Spartans and their role in that battle?
Paul Cartledge: Well, I don’t think any other Greek states, apart from Sparta, in 480, when almost all Greeks to the north of Athens had gone over to the Persians, when within the Peloponnese, their main enemies, Sparta’s main enemy Argos, was pretending to be neutral, in other words, not joining the Spartan resistance and in effect, being on the Persian side. Herodotus is very rude about such people, who tried to be neutral, in effect, they were on the Persian side. I don’t think any other state would have been up for what happened at Thermopylae. They made that demonstration and then they sufficiently allowed this to run things on the naval side, that that combination worked and then they themselves did the business in the decisive battle. So if Sparta deserves our admiration, and there are an awful lot of features of it that I find pretty distasteful today, but I would say, that had the Greeks, that is the new resisting Greeks lost in 480, 479, had the Persians won, then well, the world would not be the same today, because we somehow look back to the achievements of the ancient Greeks and we speak collectively. Democracy, science, medicine, theater, you name it, but they’re not actually Spartan achievements, they are largely Athenian achievements, but it was because of the Spartans, that the Athenians were able to go on and make those amazing achievements in the fifth… Later fifth and in the fourth centuries.
Brett McKay: Well, Paul, it’s been a great conversation. Where can people go, to learn more about your work?
Paul Cartledge: Well, you mentioned right at the beginning, what is my, I think, most accessible book on Sparta. But I did once edit a collective volume, it’s called the Cambridge Illustrated History of Ancient Greece, very nice paperback. And there, we cover all aspects of ancient Greek, not just Spartan civilization, including war, politics, medicine, gender, family life, religion. So if you want a balanced overall view of what was it like to be an ancient Greek or what was life like in ancient Greece in the classical fifth, fourth centuries, I would recommend that as a one-stop shop, as it were. Thank you, Brett.
Brett McKay: My guest is Paul Cartledge. He’s the author of several books on Sparta. Today, we discussed his book, Thermopylae. It’s available on amazon.com and book stores everywhere. You can check out our show notes aom.is/thermopylae, where you can find links to resources where you delve deeper in this topic.
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