Jacques-Louis David [French. 1748-1825] Leonidas at Thermopylae, 1814. _____
The subject concerns Leonidas, King of Sparta, who in 480 BC held the pass at Thermopylae against the invading Persian army of Xerxes. Vastly outnumbered, Leonidas and his 300 handpicked volunteers were killed, but only after their heroic defense had ensured the safe retreat of the Greek fleet.
In the final painting, as the sentinel trumpeters sound the call to arms, on the right two soldiers rush to gather their weapons that are hanging from the branches of an oak tree. Leonidas sits on a rock facing out at the viewer, contemplating his and his soldiers’ fate. Seated at his right is Agis, his wife’s brother, who looks to his commander for orders. To emphasize the fervent patriotism of the Spartans, David once again includes an oath, and behind Leonidas three young soldiers lift up wreaths above two altars dedicated to Hercules and Aphrodite.
On either side of Leonidas are two very young warriors, hardly more than boys, one of whom ties his sandal, while the other bids a last farewell to his aged father. Leonidas had tried to send the two young men away from the battle under the pretext of carrying a message, but they had refused to go. It is perhaps this undelivered scroll that is partially visible at Leonidas’ feet; it reads in Greek, ‘Leonidas, son of Anaxandrides, King to the Gerousia (Spartan Council of Elders). Greetings.’ The final sacrifices having been made, all these men are ready to die for the glory of Sparta and in the background the baggage train departs with the possessions they will no longer need in this world. At the top left the soldier climbs the rock to inscribe the poignant message with the pommel of his sword.
Sparta with its combination of Warrior Ethos, cutting edge technology, and iron discipline turned it into the military powerhouse of the age.
Sparta was unique amongst the other city states however, while its main focus was on martial prowess, it was also rather progressive. Spartan women enjoyed considerably more rights and equality to men than elsewhere in the classical world. With the only mandated female education of the time, with women being allowed to own property, and death in childbirth being on par with death in combat.
Spartiates are perhaps most famous for the rigorous public training in the agoge from the age 8 on up. And for the battle of Thermopylae where 300 Spartan warriors laid down their lives in a holding action so that the rest of their coalition forces could retreat and regroup. Ending in the inevitable defeat of Persian forces.
Okay, so in Lone Rat and Cubs Splinter said something during his big final battle with The Kraang that I didn’t quite understand at first. “This would be our philosophy” “This would be our theocracy”… But apparently what he said was “This would be our Thermopylae”
Thermopylae was a famous piece of land in northern Greece that followed a narrow mountain pass along the coast of a river, making it a choice location for multiple battles… most notably The Spartans’ last-ditch defense against the invading Persians in 480 BCE. The victory was was mythologized over time and became the subject of many stories and paintings, most notably the work of Jacques-Louis David (post-renaissance)
Jacques-Louis David - ‘Leonidas at Thermopylae’, the Louvre, Paris
The Battle of Thermopylae was undoubtedly a defeat for the Greeks, which allowed the Persians to continue their march into Greece. They eventually reached and sacked Athens. Nevertheless, the defeat at Thermopylae had turned Leonidas and the men under his command into martyrs. This boosted the morale of the surviving Greek soldiers, who went on to defeat the Persians in the Battles of Salamis and Plataea, which effectively ended the Second Persian Invasion. Moreover, the battle left a legacy that lasted for millennia, demonstrating the courage of a small number of warriors, who in the face of a much larger enemy, stood their ground until the bitter end.
The Battle of Thermopylae was fought between an alliance of Greek city-states, led by King Leonidas of Sparta, and the Persian Empire of Xerxes I over the course of three days, during the second Persian invasion of Greece. It took place simultaneously with the naval battle at Artemisium, in August or September 480 BC, at the narrow coastal pass of Thermopylae (“The Hot Gates”). The Persian invasion was a delayed response to the defeat of the first Persian invasion of Greece, which had been ended by the Athenian victory at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. Xerxes had amassed a huge army and navy, and set out to conquer all of Greece. The Athenian general Themistocles had proposed that the allied Greeks block the advance of the Persian army at the pass of Thermopylae, and simultaneously block the Persian navy at the Straits of Artemisium.
A Greek force of approximately 7,000 men marched north to block the pass in the middle of 480 BC. The Persian army, alleged by the ancient sources to have numbered over one million, but today considered to have been much smaller, arrived at the pass in late August or early September. The vastly outnumbered Greeks held off the Persians for seven days (including three of battle) before the rear-guard was annihilated in one of history’s most famous last stands. During two full days of battle, the small force led by Leonidas blocked the only road by which the massive Persian army could pass. After the second day, a local resident named Ephialtes betrayed the Greeks by revealing that a small path led behind the Greek lines. Leonidas, aware that his force was being outflanked, dismissed the bulk of the Greek army and remained to guard their retreat with 300 Spartans, 700 Thespians, 400 Thebans, and perhaps a few hundred others, most of whom were killed.
At Artemisium, the Greek navy, under the command of the Athenian politician Themistocles, received news of the defeat. Since the Greek strategy required both Thermopylae and Artemisium to be held, and given their losses, it was decided to withdraw to Salamis. The Persians overran Boeotia and then captured the evacuated Athens. The Greek fleet—seeking a decisive victory over the Persian armada—attacked and defeated the invaders at the Battle of Salamis in late 480 BC. Fearful of being trapped in Europe, Xerxes withdrew with much of his army to Asia (losing most to starvation and disease), leaving Mardonius to attempt to complete the conquest of Greece. However, the following year saw a Greek army decisively defeat the Persians at the Battle of Plataea, thereby ending the Persian invasion.
Both ancient and modern writers have used the Battle of Thermopylae as an example of the power of a patriotic army defending its native soil. The performance of the defenders is also used as an example of the advantages of training, equipment, and good use of terrain as force multipliers and has become a symbol of courage against overwhelming odds.
Leonidas at Thermopylae, (Jacques-Louis David, 1814, oil on canvas, 395 cm × 531 cm, Louvre)