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.”
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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?
Always grateful for this story, and the way Steve told it.
I dug around and found some photos of the site…
Joe: Altho my copy of “Gates’ is marked-up and highlighted, Steve’s 10-point outline makes me want to read “Gates” yet again. Other versions, such as 2007’s trashy “The 300” movie not so much…
Andrew… yes, rereads are something I get a lot out of. The last time, I reentered the scene where Arete had compelled Dienekes to help save the life of Rooster’s infant by claiming the lad as his own. The chill at the moment Medon spoke:
“You have a son now, Dienekes,” he said. “Now you may be chosen.”
My master regarded the elder quizzically, uncertain of his meaning.
“For the Three Hundred,” Medon said. “For Thermopylae.”
Feeling that slam of emotion, as if for the first time.
Dienekes, on their last night: “Forget country. Forget king. Forget wife and children and freedom. Forget every concept, however noble that you imagine you fight for here today. Act for this alone; for the man who stands at your shoulder. He is everything and everything is contained within him.”
The theme? In one word: “Brotherhood.” In three words “Honor-Courage-Commitment.”
I truly cannot get enough of this. My inspiration cup must be a sieve, because it needs to be continually refilled. When I read “Gates of Fire”, or listen to Steve talk about it, or read the comments of other aficionados, it is like reading it for the first time.
When I was a young Soldier, I didn’t think much of my fellow troops. Many, if not most, were uneducated, and were uninterested in improvement. They had to be prodded to do PT. We spent all our money getting drunk on the weekends. In fact, I separated from the Army in 1997 because I didn’t want to stay in an organization that was so filled with mediocrity. I thought, the Army is simply a reflection of the US; no better, no worse.
To be clear, it was never going to be a career-it was a way out of town and college money.
I ended up staying in the Guard and finishing OCS to simply maintain my foreign language and ‘join a club’ as I ventured out to the corporate world to be a ‘Business Man’. It was what I had studied at night to finish my undergrad and grad school while enlisted to become. To get rich. (I’m ashamed that my values were so venal, but it is true.)
One Monday I was at the DMV to get my Commercial Drivers License. I was managing a propane business, and needed to had the license with endorsements. I had been in the Guard for about 3 years by this point, a 1LT on the weekends, and a District Manager Mon-Fri. It was the Monday after drill when I looked around at the DMV. Frankly, it was gross. It looked like some of the ‘Walmart America’ photos. 90% of the crowd was overweight. Most people didn’t appear to have showered. There was one guy standing off to the side in a starched shirt, looking like an alien.
If finally dawned on me that the US Army was the best possible reflection of our country. Yes, many of the young troops spend their treasure getting drunk–not unlike most undergraduates. Yes, many of those troops must be prodded to get up and do PT. Yes, if left to their own devices–they’d sit in their rooms playing video games—but, they did PT, they conduct hygiene, they do the work–and eventually the values of the Army slowly seep into the veins of most of us. We leave different than we joined.
As I sat there in the DMV, I was so grateful for my membership into an organization with such great people. That gratitude exists to this day. There is something about knowing someone served that not only connects us, but also immediately engenders a trust that doesn’t exist outside. Like Andrew said above, “Brotherhood”.
Brian – what a perfect example! It’s easy to do the right thing in combat; the challenge is getting a group of disorganized knuckleheads to realize that it’s training, training, and training that will get them through the rough times together. And that’s what makes them better than when they joined //
Good thoughts, Brian.
One thing I still don’t understand is that why do we talk about the 300 while there were way more actual fighters during the battle. Did the other not really fight or did their role was too minor?
The Spartans get the credit because the other Greek citi-states (Corinthians, Mycenians, Teagates, Lokrians. Philaiasians, others) participating fought under their control. But on the final day, when Leonidas released them, the Thespians stayed with the Spartans and fought until the end. Remember it was the same for the Persians; while they get the credit for defeating the Spartans, Xerxes actually commanded an army that consisted of Armenians, Indians, Egyptians, Macedonians, Medes, Assyrians, Bactrians, Babylonians, Ethopians, and many others. Who remembers them?
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