Amazon Deals

New at Amazon

Monday, August 8, 2016

August 9th is the anniversary of the battle of Thermopylae

If you want a quick and dirty understanding of the battle of Thermopylae (wiki), the movie The 300 (or the comic version on which the movie was based) will do in a pinch, and the History Channel videos posted below do a pretty good job.

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,
mors et fugacem persequitur virum.
nec parcit imbellis iuventae
poplitibus timidove tergo.

~ Quintus Horatius Flaccus (Horace, 65-27 B.C.) (Carmina, III, ii, 13)

(To die for the fatherland is a sweet and admirable thing.*
Death is at the heels even of the runaway, nor spares the haunches and back of the coward and malingerer.)

Go tell the Spartans, thou, that passeth by, that here, according to their laws, we lie.

~ Simonides of Ceos (556-458 B.C.) (epitaph for the Spartan dead at Thermopylae)

Leonidas at Thermopylae, by Jacques-Louis David, 1814.
Today is the anniversary of the battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. Thermopylae is a pass in east central Greece between the cliffs of Mount Oeta and the Malic Gulf, and in ancient times, it was a principal entrance into southern Greece from the north.

It was there that the Greeks confronted the third Persian expedition of the Persian Wars - an army of as many as a half-million men under Xerxes. When they found that their position had been turned, however, the Greeks retreated precipitously - all except for a 300-strong Spartan contingent under their king, Leonidas, and 700 Theban allies. (The latter are often overlooked in references to the battle.)

The pass of Thermopylae today - the road to 
the far right is built on land reclaimed from the sea
Leonidas and his men fought a delaying action in the narrowest part of the pass until they were overcome by the Persians and slaughtered to a man. In book VII of his The Persian Wars, the Greek historian Herodotus (484? - 425? B.C.) wrote,
"...they defended themselves to the last, such as still had swords using them, and the others resisting with their hands and teeth; until the barbarians, who had in part pulled down the wall and attacked them in front, also had gone round and now encircled them on every side, overwhelmed and buried the remnant left beneath showers of missile weapons."
Thermopylae has ever since been celebrated in song and story as one of the legendary battles of western history, although George William Curtis (1824-1892) places it in a larger context:
"Every great crisis of human history is a pass of Thermopylae, and there is always a Leonidas and his three hundred to die in it, if they cannot conquer."
Here's a rather well-done History Channel documentary, broken into 3 pieces:

* N.B. Two contrary views:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) ("Dulce et Decorum Est")

I was the first fruits of the battle of Missionary Ridge.
When I felt the bullet enter my heart
I wished I'd stayed home and gone to jail
For stealing the hogs of Curl Trenary,
Instead of running away and joining the army.
Rather a thousand times the county jail
Than to lie under this marble figure with wings,
And this granite pedestal
Bearing the words, "Pro Patria."
What do they mean, anyway?

~ Edgar Lee Masters (1868-1950) (Spoon River Anthology, "Knowlt Hoheimer")

This whole discussion reminds me of the Patton quote, “The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other bastard die for his.”


  1. "Tomorrow is the 2,494th anniversary of the battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C."

    There was no year 0--the calendar went from 1 B.C. to A.D. 1--so, unless my math fails me, Monday actually was the 2,493rd anniversary of the battle.

    And as for the size of Xerxes's army, it probably wasn't as high as half a million, but it certainly was a huge number.

  2. Don't give the Thebans credit. They were there as Spartan hostages since Thebes had gone over to the Persians. See Herodotus, Book 7.