Episode Twenty-One: The Hot Gates
In today’s episode, we’ll get into the tactical blood-and-guts scenario of the battle of Thermopylae … three days of “hell in a very small place.”
Let’s return from our last episode about the Amazons, the legendary race of warrior women, to the paragon we’ve been citing as the ultimate expression of the warrior code of honor—the stand of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae.
What actually happened in that clash?
How exactly did the battle unfold?
First, let’s set the stage. Recall that …
1. An invading force numbered by Herodotus at two million men is advancing out of Persia, accompanied by a fleet of a thousand ships. The only feasible route for a force of that size into central Greece is via the narrow pass at Thermopylae, between the mountains and the sea.
2. The Spartans and their allies (about four thousand armored infantrymen from other Greek states) arrive first and occupy the pass. The Spartans rebuild the ancient stone “Phokian Wall,” which had fallen into disrepair. They and their allies prepare themselves physically and mentally to make their stand against the foe.
The Persians arrive in force. Their army makes camp a mile or so down the trail from the pass. Xerxes sends a messenger to demand that the Spartans lay down their arms. Leonidas replies, Molon labe. “Come and take them.”
3. Day One, the Persians attack. Wave after wave, nation after nation is hurled at the Greek position. The defenders resist with spectacular courage, killing massive numbers of the invaders and suffering heavy casualties themselves. The day ends with the Greeks as yet unbroken but realizing they can’t stand up forever against the unlimited numbers of the enemy.
4. The defenders’ greatest fear is that they will be outflanked and enveloped from the rear. The sea protects their right flank. Is there a path around the mountain that shields their left? Yes, they learn. Leonidas sends a detachment to defend this.
5. Day Two. The Persians again attack in wave after wave and again are repulsed. But a traitor of the Greeks, named Ephialtes, which today in Greek means “nightmare,” has divulged the existence of the path around the mountain. Word reaches the Greeks that the Ten Thousand “Immortals,” Xerxes’ elite guard and his finest fighters, are on their way via this path. Their approach should take all night.
6. Spartans raid the Persian camp. In desperation a night attack is launched by a small party of Spartans, hoping to penetrate the Persian camp in darkness and kill the king. The attack reaches the camp and even penetrates it, but ultimately fails.
7. Day Three, morning. The Persian Immortals have overwhelmed the defenders guarding the mountain pass. They are advancing rapidly. Within an hour they will have encircled the Greek position, cutting off all escape, and will be preparing to attack from behind. Leonidas is faced with a fatal decision: pull out or stand and die.
Leonidas releases the allied Greeks and sends them home, to fight another day. The surviving members of his Three Hundred will stay and fight to the finish. Leonidas in a pre-battle speech explains why — to buy time for the rest of the Greek states to rally … and to inspire these with their valor and their sacrifice. One detachment of allies from the city of Thespia volunteers to stay with the Three Hundred. So do many of their own servants of the battle train, the squires and armor-bearers of individual Spartan warriors.
8. Persians attack from front and rear. Spartans retreat to “the Knoll.” They die to the last man. Xerxes finds Leonidas’ corpse among the heaps of the fallen. He orders the king’s head to be cut off and mounted on a pike. Persians march on through the now-open pass into the central part of Greece.
9. Persians burn Athens to the ground (but don’t try to take Sparta.) The population of Athens has abandoned their city and taken to their ships. The situation appears hopeless. But two final battles are fought, one at sea — the battle of Salamis — and one on land, at a city called Plataea.
The Greeks win both. The Athenian fleet routs the Persians. The full Spartan army is present at Plataea and, with their allies, defeat the forces of Xerxes. The surviving Persians withdraw. Greece and Western civilization are saved.
10. A single memorial stone is erected on the site of the battle at the Hot Gates. Its verses by the poet Simonides are composed in the clipped Spartan style, with no mention of the battle or the date or the war or the enemy and no inscription of the names of the fallen.
Ō xein’, angellein Lakedaimoniois hoti tēde
keimetha tois keinōn rhēmasi peithomenoi.
Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,
that here, obedient to their laws, we lie.
From a writer’s point of view, this is the fantastic raw material. It’s unbeatable stuff. But how to tell the story? What comes first? What’s the middle? How do we deal with the climax, when every reader will know it already?
And the most important question of all: what is the story’s THEME? What is it about?
How do we structure these true events so that it delivers the most powerful narrative and emotional impact?