“Come and take them (Molon labe).”
At Thermopylae, king Leonidas’ response to the Persian demand that the Spartans lay down their weapons.
Herodotus, The Histories
2500 years ago this August, a detachment of 300 Spartans and their allies, led by the Spartan king Leonidas, defended the narrow pass at Thermopylae in northern Greece against an invading Persian army under king Xerxes, said by the historian Herodotus to number two million men. The Spartans died to the last man, as they knew they would. But by their sacrifice, they bought time for the other Greek cities to rally and, in the end, to repel the Persians and preserve Western civilization.
The epitaph of these Three Hundred, composed by the poet Simonides, is perhaps the most famous in history:
Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,
that here, obedient to their laws, we lie.
I think of this battle, beyond all others in history, as the purest essence of the Warrior ethos and the Warrior Archetype. Why? First, because it was a “good” battle if there is such a thing. The Spartan and allied fight was entirely defensive. It was against overwhelming odds. And it was for a just and honorable cause. But most of all I consider the Spartans’ actions here to the highest expression of warrior honor because these men who defended the pass knew in advance that they were going to die and they fought their fight anyway.
How did the Spartans fight? Were they supermen? Their exiled king Demaratus was asked once by the Persian king Xerxes if one Spartan could defeat ten Persians. “No,” said Demaratus, “but ten can defeat a hundred. And a hundred can overthrow a thousand.”
The Spartans fought not in a wild melee, like we see in the movies, of each man for himself, hacking away with his sword. They fought instead as a densely-packed cohesive unit—the phalanx. The Spartans, like the warriors of other Greek cities, fought on foot in heavy armor. The front they presented to the enemy was constituted of three-foot-broad shields—big enough to protect a man from his neck to his knees—of inch-thick oak faced with bronze. Each shield was overlapped with the shield next to it so that each man’s shield protected both him and the man on his left. The Spartan fighting formation was eight men deep. They struck with eight-foot spears, overhand so that both the first and second ranks could strike the foe.
We spoke in an earlier episode about the very short Spartan sword, the xiphos. Remember the mother telling her son, “Add a step to it?” Meaning move closer to the enemy.
The reason the Spartan sword was so short was that in the crush of the othismos, the scrum in which both armies were pushing forward, seeking to drive the other to the rear till his ranks broke … in this shoving match, inevitably the shafts of the eight-foot spears would shatter and break. Men had to fight in an overwhelming crush, chest to chest, helmet to helmet. Hence the short thrusting sword.
Two factors are critical in understanding this Greek style of fighting, because our Western concept of honor, even today, derives directly from it.
First, in order for a warrior to kill his man he had to get so close to him that the foe had an equal chance of killing him.
There’s a story of a Spartan commander, who was shown a new type of weapon, a catapult that could fling a projectile a hundred yards. The Spartan began to weep. “Alas,” he cried. “Valor is no more.”
The second key aspect of the phalanx was that it depended not so much on skill as on cohesiveness. The bond between brothers-in-arms. If one man faltered, the whole formation could be broken.
When we think of Spartan training, or training today in any army in the world, its chief objective to bind the individuals together into an unbreakable unit.
The group is more important than the individual.
Why did the Spartans and their allies choose to make their stand against the invading Persians at Thermopylae? Because of these specifics about the way the Greeks fought.
In the narrow confines of the pass at Thermopylae (barely two wagon-widths wide, according to Herodotus), the Persians’ vast numbers would be neutralized. The invaders’ greatest strength was in their cavalry. At Thermopylae, horse warriors could do nothing.
In addition, the Persians unlike the Spartans did not fight in heavy armor. The invaders’ primary weapon was the bow. The shields of many of their units were wicker, designed to be anchored to the earth as a bulwark, from behind which the Persian archer could launch his arrows. Against a front of Spartan armor, the enemy’s huge advantage in numbers became, if anything, a liability.
Several other aspects of this type of ancient warfare are worth noting, in comparison to armed conflict today. First, there was no subterfuge. No such thing as an ambush or an attack from hiding. Each side entered the battlefield in full view of the other. The armies faced off across an open field or a plain and marched, in the open, toward each other. When they came to grips, it was shield to shield, man to man.
How were the Spartans and their allies defeated at Thermopylae?
The Persians discovered a remote track that crossed the mountain above the pass. Xerxes sent his elite corps of ten thousand, called the Immortals because as soon as one man retired he was replaced by another, via this path into the Spartan rear. The invaders could never break the Spartan line but they could, in the end, get around behind them.
On the final morning at Thermopylae, when the Spartans knew they would soon be enveloped by the Persian Immortals in overwhelming numbers, Leonidas released the Spartans’ allies—about four thousand troops in all, from other Greek city-states—permitting them to return to their homes, to fight another day. He and his Three Hundred chose to remain, along with the warriors of the city of Thespia, and the servants of the Spartan battle train who also volunteered, to their immortal credit.
“Now eat a good breakfast, men,” Leonidas said to his remaining few, “for we’ll all be sharing dinner in hell.”
Thanks for doing this series. Great stuff!
Joe Biden has issued forth another demand for another assault weapon ban. To him I would say, “Come and take them!” The son of a bitch, safe behind a wall of gun-toting secret service agents, has the gall to tell Americans he wants to ban their property—-firearms. Bans usually lead to “turn ‘em in” edicts. After all, California senator, Diane Feinstein, said this after she got her 1994 assault weapons ban pushed through:
If I could have got fifty-one votes in the senate if the United States for an outright ban, picking up every one of them—-Mister and Missus America, turn ‘em all in—-I would have done it, but I couldn’t. The votes weren’t here”.
The concept of “Honor – Courage – Commitment” is as true today as it was in 383 BC as the fights at Thermoplyae, Tarawa, Iwo Jima, and Fallujah demonstrate. It’s this combination of small unit leadership and the warrior-brothers who understand ‘shared sacrifice’ brings enduring honor those who fought.
But today? Drone Operators, sitting is an air-conditioned office 10,000 miles from the battlefield demand a Combat Action Medal, and going un-masked is a perverted form of macho pride as responsibility is a concept best passed to others? There is little valor today and those dozens of thousands of Americans who volunteered on Dec 8, 1941 would not recognize the society some 410,000 of them died to save. While not everyone is born to be a warrior, there’s no dishonor in being a medic, logistics guy, Admin, or supporting them from the homefront. That’s shared sacrifice; 2020-style.
With the novel built around this epic battle, it’s easy to see why so many USMC commandants have selected “Gates of Fire” for inclusion on their Commandant’s Professional Reading Lists over the years. I’ve gifted many copies to young friends heading off to serve.
Well done on the video.
‘Molon Lobe’…That is all – that is it.
It is a mentality.
Keep em coming – great work.
I love this series, but this episode in particular was excellent. Thank you!
Thanks, Steve, I really enjoyed this.
When General Santa Ana demanded that the citizens of Gonzalez, Texas turn over their canon, they replied “Come and Take It” a cry that was often repeated in the Texas war for independence in 1836.
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