leonidas at thermopylae

In 480 B.C. the forces of the Persian Empire under King Xerxes, numbering according to Herodotus two million men, bridged the Hellespont and marched in their myriads to invade and enslave Greece.

In a desperate delaying action, a picked force of three hundred Spartans was dispatched to the pass off Thermopylae, where the confined between mountains and sea were so narrow that the Persian multitudes and their cavalry would be at least partially neutralized. Here, it was hoped, an elite force willing to sacrifice their lives could keep back, at least for a few days, the invading millions.

Three hundred Spartans and their allies held off the invaders for seven days, until, their weapons snagged and broken from slaughter, they fought “with bare hands and teeth” (as recorded by Herodotus) before being at last overwhelmed.

The Spartans and their Thespian allies died to the last man, but the standard of valor they set by their sacrifice inspired the Greeks to rally and, in that fall and spring, defeat the Persians at Salamis and Plataea and preserve the beginnings of western democracy and freedom from perishing in the cradle.

Upon the modern memorial at Thermopylae, called the Leonidas monument in honor of the Spartan king who fell there, is engraved his response to Xerxes’ demand that the Spartans lay down their arms. Leonidas’ reply was two words, “Molon labe”. “Come and get them.”

The Persians
In the west our view of ancient history is based upon a Greek point of view and more particularly an Athenian point of view. We all learn about the Greeks and the Egyptians but we don’t hear much of the Persians, in what is now Iran, aside from their defeat in a couple of key battles by the Greeks and ultimate conquest by Alexander. When we do read about them they are portrayed as an autocratic, vain and effete oriental people.

The fact is that the Persians were the greatest empire of the ancient world prior to Alexander. They were an Aryan people, the name, “Iran” means Aryan and closely related to the Greeks. They practiced Zoroastrianism also called Magianism as their wise men were known as “Magi” where our word for magic originates. These were the three “Magi” from the East in the New Testament.

Moreover, Alexander, from the Greek backwater of Macedonia, was the invading barbarian. The Persians were far more civilized in every aspect of culture than the Macedonians aside from war. Their capital Persepolis was far grander than Athens much less Sparta or the wood and brick villages of Macedon. Alexander, only in his twenties while in a drunken stupor, burned ancient capital at the urging of a Greek prostitute. He later came to regret his actions and set about rebuilding. Sadly he died before he could do much aside from rebuilding the tomb of Cyrus the Great.

The Persians could field huge armies and conquered a tremendous empire with unimaginable wealth. It was Persia that financed Sparta’s victory of Athens. It was Xerxes king Persia who outwitted and defeated the great Spartan king Leonidas at Thermopylae killing the Spartan 300 to a man.

It was Cyrus the Great who rescued the Israelites from their Babylonian captivity and rebuilt the Second Temple. It was Cyrus who financed the writing of the first Hebrew bible. He is the only foreign king referred to as “The Great” in that holy book and is still revered in Judaism today. These are the anscestors of today’s Iranian people who speak, not Arabic but a Persian language. It is my hope that the West never repeats the mistakes of Alexander. ๑ Samsaran ๑

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.