Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.
Simonides’ epitaph of the Three Hundred at Thermopylae
What was it about this battle, the stand of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, that makes it different from all other battles, say, Gettysburg or Trafalgar or Cannae or the Battle of the Bulge?
Why is this one particular standstill remembered? Why are movies still being made, and books written about it, 2500 years after it happened?
Here’s my answer:
In almost every other battle or clash at arms that we can name or remember, the individual warriors, entering upon that clash, believed either that they could win or that they could survive. If, in the event they did happen to die, that was bad luck, faulty strategy, an act of God. But the armies entering the fight believed they would survive, if not prevail.
Not the Three Hundred Spartans.
They were chosen by their king Leonidas, all of them, as fathers of living sons. They knew they were going to die. The whole point of the defense of the pass was that they would die.
The role of the Three Hundred was to model valor and self-sacrifice, not with any hope of victory or even survival, but to inspire and to instill courage into the other Greek states who would take on the Persian multitudes in subsequent battles.
And in fact, that’s exactly what happened. A year later in the sea battle of Salamis and the land battle of Plataea, the Spartans, and the allied Greek cities, including Athens, which contributed mightily, defeated the invaders and drove them back into a catastrophic retreat and withdrawal, thus preserving Western civilization and the ideals of democracy.
But the essence of the defense of the pass at Thermopylae, and the reason why the name alone resonates today as powerfully as it did then, was the fact that the defenders knew their fate going in and they embraced it.
Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,
that here obedient to their laws we lie.
A few points to notice about Simonides’ famous epitaph:
No mention of the battle.
No mention of the enemy.
No mention of the war.
No mention of the stakes of the war.
Victory or defeat? We can’t tell from the verses.
No mention of the specific defenders, other than the single word, “we.”
Of course, Simonides knew he could count upon the fact that any Greek reading his lines would know all of the above—who fought there, against whom, and the outcome.
The poet could afford to leave these out.
He could afford to write in the lean, cut-to-the-bone Spartan style.
But what did he leave in?
What the poet chose to express overtly was “obedient to their laws.” Yet even these he did not define. Reading his verses, we might ask, “What laws? Commanding what?”
What does “obedient to their laws” mean in this case? I would translate the phrase as “true to their values” or “faithful to their code of honor.”
In other words, to stand fast and not to yield, no matter what.
To lay down your life willingly.
These were the “laws” the Three Hundred were obedient to. Every Greek reading these verses understood this implicitly.
It was their code of honor too.
And it’s ours, their moral and spiritual descendants, to this day.
But what else did the poet leave out? What did he leave unexpressed, knowing that we, his readers and hearers, would supply it?
He left out the personal stakes for each individual warrior. And the emotion that would precede that ultimate moment.
He left out Fear.
Fear stood over everything.
What were the Spartans’ “laws?” Why were they instituted? To produce what? To stand against what?
We can answer that in one word.
The laws were instituted in an attempt to counteract Fear.
It’s also interesting that the poem begins: “Go tell the SPARTANS.” Not the Athenians, not the World — tell the SPARTANS.
When I read your comment, my first thought was, “Of course, because no one else would understand. Everyone else would criticize, condemn, question and belittle the ‘backward thinking Spartans’. You make a great point.
These videos are like the North Star to me. To be reminded of what true sacrifice, true integrity, true honor looks like is both terrifying and inspiring. I’m not one of your readers who questions the validity of the Spartan culture. Would I want to be a Spartan? Most of the time, not at all. I’d prefer to live in Athens. I’m more of a creative. But I am inspired nonetheless. I have spent some time in pretty stark environments, and the irony is they are some of my best memories. Any military person understands this.
What the story of Thermopylae reminds us is that art and culture would have died without the ‘rough men willing to do violence on their behalf’.
I sat on a panel, 10 or 11 years ago. The convention was for non-profits doing good overseas. The breakout in which I sat on the panel was about Afghanistan. There were two others–3 Cups of Tea educator types, and me–the only military guy in the zip code.
The question was about what happens when the military pulls out. I answered, “Well, more female school teachers will have their heads cut off.”
Went over like a lead balloon, but I stand by the assertion. People do not care about the humanities when they are terrified, starving, or ill. There has to be a sense of safety before learning can happen, and throughout the history of mankind–rough men willing to do violence to protect the tribe are required. Maslow’s hierarchy fits with the individual and with nations. It is why we must allow for wealth accumulation before Senegal, Botswana, Peru, any third world country gives a shit about global warming.
No one cares about the future of the planet when they are more concerned with clean drinking water…
I am so grateful for you doing this. It matters.
Very well said, and astute observations, Brian.
It’s also interesting to me that many overlook the fact that a contingent of Thespians remained behind as well, and died on the field.
Considering “Thespians” is now synonymous with things relating to drama and theater, that’s kind of curious as well.
Indeed, life is a series of choices. Your ‘challenge’ to live by a code – whatever that may be – is among the most profound ideas you have offered.
We are very lucky to know these precious things. Here I know more interesting information, giving me background knowledge. A good website, keep it up, I hope it lasts a long time.
Thanks for this episode and the YouTube video. It’s very interesting to follow each episode. Keep up the good work, you are making very interesting content.
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Although a country with a low level of education, their solidarity and resilience to fight together cannot be underestimated. It was a power greater than even advanced weapons.
I really enjoyed watching Go Tell the Spartan’s 13 episodes. It was a very interesting and exciting story. The main character, Jesus Christ, is a young man from Nazareth who has been called to be the Savior of the world. I personally recommend https://masterbundles.com/templates/presentations/powerpoint/strategy/ source to download free templates.He is not perfect, but he still is able to do great things for others.
Thanks for this episode and the YouTube video.
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We are very lucky to know these precious things
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