Tuesday, January 03, 2006

We Shall Fight In The Shade

For some reason, my brain is wired to find strength and resolve in the heroic actions of warriors. For the time being, I'll spare you the tactical of genius of William Wallace. The Classics major in me -- that law school hasn't beaten into submission -- woke up thinking of Spartan valor. I guess this is what happens when finals loom and your Mom's two year survival rate is a coin flip.

This inspirational moment in history is brought to you by Herodotos:

At Thermopylae, in the August of 480 BC, an army of Greeks, led by 300 Spartans, stood to receive the full force of the Persian army, numbering perhaps some forty times its size.

Xerxes did not believe such a small force would oppose him, and gave the Greeks three or four days to retreat. The Persians were initially astounded upon seeing the Spartans oiling themselves and performing calisthenics, not understanding its ritual significance, performed by men with the resolution to fight to the end. The Persian army was growing restless, and Xerxes sent his troops into the pass with hellish results.

The Persians, with arrows and short spears, could not break through the long spears of the Greek phalanx, nor were their lightly armed and armoured men a match for the vastly superior armour and weaponry of the better trained and equipped hoplites. Enormous casualties were sustained by the Persians as the disciplined Spartans orchestrated a series of feint retreats, followed by a quick turn back into formation. Because of the terrain, the Persians were unable to surround or flank the Greeks, thus rendering their superior numbers almost useless.

Greek morale was high. Herodotus wrote that when Dienekes, a Spartan soldier, was informed that Persian arrows blotted out the sun, he remarked with characteristically laconic prose, "So much the better, we shall fight in the shade." The Greeks defending the pass slew the Persians in a similar manner on the second day of battle, fighting in a relay manner. After watching his troops fall before the Greeks, Xerxes decided to send his legendary Immortals, so named for their fierce fighting and impenetrable line. Whenever one would fall, another would quickly fill the gap in the ranks. However, even the Immortals lacked the power to break the Spartan phalanx and they were forced to retreat, their numbers decimated.

Leonidas realized that further fighting would be futile. On August 11 he dismissed all but the 300 Spartans, who had already resigned themselves to fighting to the death. After their spears broke, the Spartans kept fighting with their xiphos short swords, and after those broke, they were said to have fought with their bare hands and teeth. Although the Greeks killed many Persians, including two of Xerxes' brothers, Leonidas was eventually killed, along with all 300 of his men. The last Spartans were killed by a barrage of arrows after fighting fanatically to recover their king's body, having been driven back into the narrowest part of the pass onto a small hill.

When the body of Leonidas was recovered by the Persians, Xerxes, in a rage at the loss of so many of his soldiers, ordered that the head be cut off, and the body crucified. Leonidas' body was later cut down and returned to the Spartans, where he was buried with full honours.

While a technical victory for the Persians, the enormous casualties was a significant blow to the Persian army. Likewise, it significantly boosted the resolve of the Greeks to face the Persian onslaught.


At 10:19 PM, Blogger Trevor said...

Always big fans of allusion, Bungie (the makers of Halo) included a level in Marathon 2 called My Own Private Thermopylae".


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