Go tell the Spartans, passerby.
That here, by Spartan law, we lie.
Those words on the plaque near the Hot Gates at Thermopylae have always intrigued me. And it was years before I understood the true meaning.
With the Spartans attempting to thwart the mighty Persian army and refusing to surrender under any circumstances, the Spartan warriors knew word had to be sent back to those in their main town, Sparta. But, having declared their intentions to fight to the last man, the Spartans couldn’t be sure a lone scout would live to tell those awaiting news back home. Thus the plaque was there for anyone to see and act upon. Herdsman, traveller or nomad should ride to Sparta and deliver the bad news.
The battle commenced but the fighters at the Hot Gates were soon betrayed by a local shepherd. Showing the invading Persians a secret path the death of the Spartans was certain.
Outflanked, Leonidas ordered most of the Greek army to retreat; to ready themselves for another battle. Leaving 300 hundred Spartans, many Thespians and others to hold the pass, Leonidas knew he would likely die but at least he could give the rest of Greece time; precious time to prepare for the next confrontation.
The sacrifice the 300 made at the Battle of Thermopylae soon became enshrined in folklore. Led by Leonidas, the finest Greek warriors of their age were eventually slaughtered to the last man on the orders of Xerxes, the leader of the massive Persian army. Xerxes, in a rage, ordered the decapitation of the head, and the crucifixion of Leonidas’s body. Normally, valiant warriors fighting against the Persians were treated with great honour, but not this time.
From the age of 7, Spartan boys were put through a punishing regime of fighting. Swords, spears, bows and knives; they were expected to fight with any weapon or even bare hands. Some died adhering to a system where showing pain was a sign of weakness and victory was all that mattered. The Spartan way of life was incredibly hard and their loyalty to each other, total, for they would readily give their lives to protect each other.
There is no doubt the Spartan army contained the finest soldiers of that era. They were both feared and respected for they never understood the word, defeat. But, at the Hot Gates, they could never have held their position indefinitely against so many Persians and too many arrows.
After the Persians departed, the Spartan dead were buried on a nearby hill and a stone lion was erected in honour of Leonidas. Some scholars believe it was 40 years before his bones were returned.
On the move, the Persian army sacked two towns and occupied a deserted Athens. Sometime later, The Greek navy won a decisive battle in the Straits of Salamis. Fearing his troops would be cut off at the Hellespont, Xerxes retreated to Asia. Many of his men died of starvation and disease on the journey home.
The invasion of Greece was almost over but a few years later, the Persians attacked once more. This time, the Greek army was victorious and the Persians never returned.
Over time, the Thespians, and the others fighting alongside Leonidas, have been forgotten.
Whereas, the name of Leonidas and the 300 Spartans have become, forever, the stuff of legends.
A legend brought to life in the film, 300, by the director, Zack Snyder it stared, Lena Headey, Gerard Butler, Dominic West, David Wenham and Michael Fassbender. On a tight budget and using CGI, computer- generated images, an unlikely film soon became a massive hit at the box office.
Due to my fascination with the Greek gods and the Trojan wars - maybe I’m a bit biased - the film was exactly how I saw it inside my head. It was brilliantly done.