Ancient History & Civilisation

Drawing a Line

At around the same time as Xerxes was leaving Sardis, a delegation from Sparta was heading north to attend a congress of the allies at the Isthmus. Its mood would have been a good deal less cheery than the Great King’s. Spartans tended to be bad travelers at the best of times, and the spring of 480 BC was decidedly not the best of times. The news that almost two million barbarians were making for their city might have been thought sobering enough. Yet not even the ultimate in invasion scares could entirely eclipse for the Spartans a more traditional source of paranoia. Crabbed and provincial in their anxieties as in so much else, their supreme dread remained, as it had always been, revolt in their own backyard. The helots, kept ignorant of anything beyond the brute facts of their serfdom, could be counted upon to have heard little, even by that spring, of the Great King’s approach; but few others would have been similarly oblivious. In cities long subordinate to Sparta, and resentful of it, the prospect of swapping a local superpower for a global one was prompting gimlet-eyed calculations. Even en route to Corinth, the Spartan delegation to the congress at the Isthmus would have passed cities darkly rumored to be rife with medizers. One of these, just inside the border with Tegea, was Caryae—a town so intimately linked to the rest of Lacedaemon that girls from Sparta would regularly travel there to go dancing. Tegea herself, in recent years, had also shown a worrying tendency toward insubordination—even going so far as to indulge on occasion “in open spats with Sparta.”64 These, however, were mere pinpricks of concern compared to the city that remained Sparta’s bitterest and most poisonous foe, crippled, maybe, since the slaughter at Sepeia, but hungry still for revenge and for what she saw as her ancient birthright: dominance of the Peloponnese. The Spartan delegates, as they headed north for Corinth, could hardly have failed to cast an uneasy sideways glance in the direction of Argos.

Admittedly, the Argives, playing hard to get, had not yet openly committed themselves to the cause of the Great King. Nor, however, as the Spartans were all too painfully aware, had they pledged themselves to the allies. When representatives from Sparta, arriving in Argos that winter, had invited them to do so, the Argives had responded with what they knew were impossible demands: a thirty-year truce and a share of the command. The negotiations had collapsed on the spot. The Spartan ambassadors, frog-marched to the border, had been warned that any repeat of their mission would be interpreted as a hostile act. “For rather than concede so much as an inch to them, the Argives would actively prefer barbarian rule.”65

A statement of neutrality that appeared, to the Spartans, quite as menacing as a threat. Even before the allies’ first conference at the Hellenion, they had suspected the worst of Argos—and with good cause. While the Argives, in justification of their inglorious fence-sitting, could brandish a warning from Delphi advising them to “look after yourselves and keep your spears locked away,”66 the Spartans, “at the first stirrings of the war,” had also applied for a long-range forecast from Apollo. The Pythians, returning from the oracle, had brought their royal masters, Leonidas and Leotychides, a most alarming message.

Your fate, O inhabitants of the broad fields of Sparta,

Is to see your great and famous city destroyed by the sons of Perseus.

Either that, or everyone within the borders of Lacedaemon,

Must mourn the death of a king, sprung from the line of Heracles.67

Food for thought indeed. It was not merely that either Leonidas or Leotychides appeared to have been given a death sentence; there was also, in the description of the apocalypse that would otherwise overwhelm Sparta, a sinister, and typically Delphic, ambiguity. Who precisely were the “sons of Perseus”? The Persians? The Argives? Both? That the allies’ spring conference was being held at the Isthmus, midway between the Peleponnese and northern Greece, would only have served to make the question more alarming and pressing yet. Ahead of the ambassadors, far distant on the frontiers of Asia but drawing ever closer by the day, the Persians; behind them, eyes presumably fixed brightly on their backs, the Argives: sons of Perseus both. It was scarcely surprising that the Spartan delegates were jumpy.

Whether Leonidas and Leotychides were among them, we do not know. It was not normally the practice of Spartan kings to act as their own ambassadors, but Leonidas, in particular, as representative of the senior royal line and therefore the allied supreme commander, would surely have wished to keep track of new intelligence in person. If he did attend briefings at the Isthmus, however, he would have found it a singularly discouraging experience. Despite the high hopes of the previous autumn, no new allies had committed themselves. Just as Argos had done, many of the states that had been approached had explained that Apollo was advising them to keep their heads down. The biggest disappointment of all was the man who had attracted the giddiest hopes: the tyrant of Syracuse. Gelon, who desperately needed every last ship and soldier for his own looming showdown with Carthage, but did not wish to lose face by admitting as much, had extricated himself from his commitments to the old world by trumping even the Argives for impudence. First, he had demanded exclusive command over all the Greek forces; then, making a great show of compromise, over either the army or the fleet. When the allied ambassadors, just as they were meant to, had refused these terms indignantly, Gelon had snorted in contempt: “You seem to have no lack of leaders, my friends—all you need now is to find some men for them to lead.”68

A withering put-down—and one that appeared to have dealt a fatal blow to any notion the Greeks might have had of staging an amphibious holding operation. While an army of hoplites, if they could find a suitable mountain pass to blockade, might still conceivably hope to keep the barbarian hordes at bay, most delegates felt the allied fleet, deprived of Gelon’s two hundred triremes, had no hope now of engaging the Persians on equal terms. Themistocles, of course, profoundly disagreed; but he was having trouble, that spring, in keeping even his own fellow citizens on board. The Spartans were not the only people to have passed a twitchy winter. The Athenians, having spent a fortune on their new fleet, and much time and effort, were having second thoughts about their whole strategy. Many were steeling their nerves for the ordeal ahead with a renewed nostalgia for Marathon. The closer the Great King drew, the more the veterans who had triumphed in that celebrated victory—the doughty, obdurate, conservative hoplite class—itched to smash their oars over Themistocles’ head and have another crack at the barbarians on land. Themistocles himself, who had hoped this particular chimera had been slain with Aristeides’ ostracism, had almost been dismissed from his command. Only by bribing his rival for office to stand down had he scraped through in the annual elections to the board of generals. His authority was ebbing—and his enemies in Athens knew it. So too did his fellow delegates at the Isthmus. Themistocles, for the moment, was in no position to throw his weight around.

Instead, amid all the drift and despondency, it was left to a posse of cattle barons, sun hat–wearing bull-wrestlers from Thessaly, to seize the initiative. Arriving unexpectedly at the conference, they urged the downcast allies to look to the north. Alarmingly flat and spacious though Thessaly was, and therefore ideal for the Persians’ cavalry, its rolling fields were surrounded on every side by mountain ranges, superlative natural bulwarks looming upward from the dusty plain. Of these, the most imposing by far lay to the north, along the border with Persian-held Macedon. Here, the Thessalian barons urged, the allies should make their stand. The delegates were intrigued. To many of them, instinctively parochial as most Greeks were, Thessaly was terra incognita, not merely remote but positively sinister, as famous for its witches as for its livestock or corn—yet everyone had heard of Mount Olympus, of course, and its immediate neighbor, Mount Ossa, two of the mountains that defined its northern border. Many delegates would also have heard of Tempe, the narrow five-mile pass that separated Olympus from Ossa, its walls so sheer that only Poseidon’s trident, it was generally assumed, could possibly have shivered the cliffs apart. The Thessalians assured the allies that any army heading south would have to pass through this gorge: all the Greeks needed to do to halt the Great King in his tracks was dispatch a force to Thessaly and stopper Tempe up. It appeared a foolproof argument. Even the Spartans were convinced; and this despite the fact that the plan would oblige them to send troops perilously far from their comfort zone of the Peloponnese. Ten thousand hoplites, from a variety of cities, were marshaled for the journey: the same number, perhaps significantly, as had seen off the barbarians at Marathon. A Spartan, naturally, one Euainetus, was put in overall command. The Athenian contingent was led by Themistocles.

A few weeks later and the whole expedition had been humiliatingly aborted. The smooth-talking Thessalians who had persuaded the allies to embark upon it had, it proved, skated over a number of inconvenient details. First: a rival faction in Thessaly had already signed up to the Persians. Second: Tempe was not in fact the only pass through the northern mountains. Third: the whole area was already swarming with enemy agents, and had been for years, ever since the dominant faction in Thessaly, looking to finish off their rivals for good, had first made contact with Xerxes’ spy chiefs and suggested their master launch an invasion. The allied task force, far from securing an impregnable position for itself, had walked into a trap. With a civil war brewing in their rear, and no chance of securing all the mountain passes into Thessaly, Euainetus and Themistocles had no sooner dug themselves in at Tempe than they were deciding to cut their losses and make a dash for it back home. It was undoubtedly the correct decision, and one that saved the lives of ten thousand men—but the ignominy of the withdrawal could hardly help but send a shudder through the rest of Greece. All the rival factions in Thessaly, now that they had been abandoned to the barbarians, began to medize frantically; collaborators in cities further south felt confirmed in their own view of themselves as realists; those still committed to the fight sank into a paralyzed despair. Before the rising tide of menace, growing darker by the day, it appeared that the allies had only one policy: retreat. Whisperings that the Persians were invincible grew louder. Such was the talk even in those cities committed to resistance when, in late May, news that the Great King and his army had safely crossed the Hellespont broke like a thunderclap over Greece.69

It was in Athens that the shock was felt most keenly—and there that the impasse over strategy appeared most ominous and fateful. Facing the prospect not merely of defeat, like the citizens of other cities, but of obliteration, the Athenian people, in their extremity, turned for guidance to Apollo.70 Leaving Attica, skirting warily past Thebes, climbing the foothills of Mount Parnassus, the Athenian emissaries were soon on the winding and increasingly lonely road that led between jagged peaks and past walls of fissured rock to Delphi. Once they had arrived there, they were led first through the cluttered gaudiness of the shrine to the Castalian spring, and then, having purified themselves in its freezing waters and offered up a sacrifice before the flames of the eternal fire, back to the temple itself. At the far end of the inner sanctuary, obscured by a jumble of ancient treasures, the Pythia waited for them, sunk within deepest shadow. Compared to the net-covered stone of the Omphalos, or the sacred laurel tree, or the lyre of the god, all of them crammed into the tiny chamber alongside her, the Pythia, an old woman in a young girl’s dress, appeared almost a thing of grotesquerie, ill suited, certainly, to be the vessel of golden Apollo. Already, however, as vapors from the cauldron she was perched upon caressed her parted thighs and curled beneath the skirt of her virgin’s tunic, she was shuddering with mantic ecstasy: the trance had come upon her. The Athenians, guided by the priests, took their seats beside the doorway; and at once the Pythia, without even waiting to hear their question, began to spasm with the urgency of her possession by the god. “Why sit down, you wretches?” she cried, her accent distorted and terror-stricken. “Get out of here, flee, flee, flee to the ends of the world!” Words spewed out in horror soared and stumbled in a savage rhythm, conjuring up images of carnage, and fire, and annihilation. The god of war was coming, the wheels of his Syrian chariot rattling, towers crumbling in his wake. The temples of Athens would burn. Black blood would drown the city. “Go, go, leave the sanctuary, surrender to your grief!”71

Tottering out weakly into the sunlight, the Athenian emissaries found themselves with little option but to do as the Pythia had instructed, and slump down in despair. So all was settled, then: the hour of their city’s doom was at hand. Or was it? A priest, seemingly as shocked by the Pythia’s vision as the Athenians themselves had been, hurried after the emissaries, and urged them to approach the oracle a second time. To a skeptic, this might have seemed suspiciously like bet-hedging. And so indeed, perhaps, it was; the priesthood, after all, had to consider its own future. While understandably anxious not to antagonize the Great King, it could not afford to stake all its chips on a Persian walkover. Every eventuality—even one as improbable as a Greek victory—had to be covered. It would have been only politic, then, for the priests to have allowed their Athenian guests at least a glimmering of hope.

Yet cynicism, as the fatal example of Cleomenes had demonstrated, might well be pushed too far. Not every ambiguity uttered by the oracle could be dismissed as mere calculation. To sneer at Delphi was to sneer at the divine. The assumption behind the priest’s advice to the Athenians—that Apollo, having delivered them a forecast of unmitigated pessimism, might somehow be persuaded to temper it with a rosier one—was not necessarily far fetched. A god’s wisdom, by its very nature, was something mysterious and infinite. Matters were rarely, with Apollo, altogether as they seemed. If Delphi, as most Greeks took for granted, did indeed open a portal to the supernatural, then the glimpses of the future that this afforded might well appear to flicker and change like fire.

The Athenians, then, following the priest’s advice, were not wholly nonplussed when the Pythia, seeing them a second time, did indeed fall into a renewed frenzy and start chanting fresh prophecies. “Athena cannot mollify the power of Olympian Zeus,” she warned, “although she begs him with all her eloquence and subtlety.” So far, so depressing—but then, abruptly, a flash of hope: “And yet,” the Pythia moaned:

And yet—this word I give you, adamant, a promise:

Everything within the borders of Attica shall fall,

Yes, and the sacred vales of nearby mountain ranges,

But the wooden wall alone, the wooden wall shall stand,

That much Zeus grants to Athena, as an aid to you and all your children.

Men on horses, men on foot, sweeping they come from Asia:

Retreat, for soon enough you will meet with them face to face.

Divine Salamis—you will be the ruin of many a mother’s son,

When the seed is scattered, or the harvest is gathered in.72

And with these final, cryptic phrases, the Pythia woke abruptly from her trance; and all fell silent in Apollo’s shrine once again.

What on earth had she been talking about? The Athenian emissaries, without really having the faintest idea, were just relieved that her second batch of verses sounded cheerier than the first, and gratefully took the transcript back to Athens. There it was exhaustively dissected. Debate and perplexity were general. One phrase, in particular, served to polarize opinion: “the wooden wall.” Themistocles’ opponents, displaying a prodigious capacity for lateral thinking, proposed that this was a reference to the wattle fence that in the time of Erechtheus had ringed the summit of the Acropolis. Themistocles himself, with more plausibility, argued that it referred to ships. Why else, he argued, would the Pythia have mentioned the island of Salamis? Yes, retorted his opponents, but she had failed to mention which mothers—Greek or barbarian—would mourn their sons. True enough, Themistocles hit back: but had not Salamis been hailed by her as “divine”? And so the arguments raged on.

Only the votes of the Assembly could ultimately serve to settle them. Such was the wisdom of Apollo: to have given Athens an oracle that did not merely hold up a mirror to her innermost doubts but obliged her to resolve them on her own. It was as the citizens of a democracy that the Athenian people were facing their supreme test; and it was as the citizens of a democracy that they would decide how best to meet it. A date was set in early June for the formal debate on the oracle, which would also, of course, serve to determine once and for all how they were to fight the looming war. With the Great King now only weeks away from their city, the Athenian people could no longer afford to prevaricate. At long last, they would be obliged either to back Themistocles and his strategy, or to reject them both for good.

Venue for the momentous debate was that first and most imposing of monuments raised by the democracy to itself: the great meeting-place hollowed out two and a half decades previously from the hill of the Pnyx. As they took their seats there amid the dust and scent of thyme, the voters could see before them an unrivaled panorama of their city, and of that blessed landscape from which, in the beginning, the first Athenians had sprung. In the distance, almost bleached of color by the purity of the Attic light, the outline of Mount Pentelikon and the roads that led to Marathon. In the foreground, the Agora, with its great twin nudes of the tyrannicides and its gleaming new civic monuments. Rising just to its right, and most imposing of all, the holy rock of the Acropolis. Cluttered as its summit still was with the detritus of aristocracy—family shrines, statues, votive shields and bronzes—there were, even on this most sacrosanct of sites, imposing marks of the new order. The venerable but shabby temple of Athena Polias, for instance, once a showcase for Boutad exclusivity, was long gone, replaced, during the first decade of the democracy, by an imposing structure infinitely better suited to the dignity of the goddess, and of the Athenian people themselves. The flamboyantly decorated sanctuary raised by the Alcmaeonids midway through the previous century had also been demolished, torn down even as ostracism was destroying the family’s political base. In its place, work had begun on a magnificent new temple, conceived as a celebration of Marathon and an expression of gratitude to Athena for her protection. Looking across from the Pnyx, the voters could see the scaffolding that covered its half-finished shell. Such a labor of love, on such a site, in such a city: this could not be abandoned, surely? Not to the barbarians. Not to their impious fire.

Yet abandonment of the city, on that fateful day of the most decisive debate in Greek—and perhaps all European—history, was precisely what Themistocles was indeed proposing. No longer, if they ever had been, could the implications of his naval policy be whitewashed. Even if every able-bodied citizen were to take his place upon a rowing bench, the Athenian fleet would still be seriously undermanned. No man of fighting age could be spared to garrison a “wooden wall” on the Acropolis, or anywhere else in Athens come to that. Women, children, old men, all would need to be evacuated, and the city itself entrusted “to Athena, the mistress of Athens, and to the other gods.”73 It was possible, of course—as Themistocles would no doubt have argued—that the barbarians might be fought to a standstill north of Attica. That, however, with every Athenian committed to the fleet, would require the Spartans and their allies to hold the line by land. Whether the Peloponnesians could be persuaded to venture beyond the Isthmus a second time, far from their own cities, only time would tell. Yet the Athenians, if they were to have any hope of convincing the Spartans not to abandon Attica, had little choice but to show themselves prepared to do so. Themistocles could certainly offer blood, toil, tears and sweat to his fellow citizens. What he would not give them was any promise to fight the invaders on the beaches. Surrender Athens but pledge themselves never to surrender: such was the policy, bold and paradoxical, that Themistocles urged on the Athenians.

What precise heights of oratory he attained, what memorable and stirring phrases he pronounced, we have no way of knowing: not a single account of his speech has been preserved. Only by the effect that it had on the Assembly can we gauge what must surely have been its electric and vivifying quality—for Themistocles’ audacious proposals, when put to the vote, were ratified. The Athenian people, facing the gravest moment of peril in their history, committed themselves once and for all to the alien element of the sea, and put their faith in a man whose ambitions many had long profoundly dreaded. Few Athenians seemed any longer to doubt that Themistocles had “a supreme talent for arriving at the correct solution to a crisis at precisely the correct moment”;74 yet, perhaps it was only on the very brink of catastrophe that they could bring themselves to acknowledge the exceptional quality of his foresight. Under normal circumstances, the democracy had little tolerance of genius. The circumstances of that summer, however, were decidedly not normal; and so the Athenians, rather than punish Themistocles for having been right all along about the Persian threat, decided instead to give him his head. Suspicion of talent, at a moment of crisis such as Athens faced, was no longer an indulgence that she could afford. So it was, on Themistocles’ own insistence, that the various victims of ostracism were summoned urgently back to Attica, “in order that all Athenians might be of one mind in the defence against the barbarian.”75 And Cimon, the son of Miltiades, who was, perhaps more than anyone, the heir to the tradition of Marathon, led a procession of the Athenian jeunesse dorée through the Ceramicus to the Acropolis, and there, with great ostentation, dedicated the bridle of his horse to Athena, before picking up a shield and heading with his companions down to Piraeus. “And this he did to broadcast to the whole city a simple message: that what was needed now was not prowess on horseback, but rather men to fight at sea.”76

With Athens united at last, all that remained was to persuade her allies to play their parts. Themistocles, returning to the Isthmus, did so with his hand immeasurably strengthened; nor did he find the Peloponnesians necessarily hostile, despite the debacle at Tempe, to the drawing of a second forward line. After all, the Athenian fleet was pledged to the defense of their coastline as well as that of Attica; and Themistocles, for whom the expedition to Thessaly had clearly not been a complete waste of time, had already identified the perfect spot for an attempt to keep the Persian fleet at bay. Between the northern tip of Euboea and the mainland there was a narrow strait barely six miles across, ideally suited to being plugged; furthermore, it was only some forty miles east of the even narrower pass of Thermopylae. A fleet and army, operating in tandem, might well hope to hold both the straits and the pass—even in the face of monstrous odds. The Athenians, prompted by Themistocles, had already voted to send a hundred ships to Euboea; and now the allied delegates at the Isthmus—again, no doubt, at Themistocles’ urging—voted to back this strategy. Corinth, Aegina, Megara and other, lesser, naval powers all agreed to dispatch squadrons in support of the Athenian fleet; Sparta to lead a task force to Thermopylae. At last, it seemed, in spite of everything, a resolution had been reached. Now, in the lull before the storm, there was nothing to do but wait for the barbarian.


And to wait—and to wait some more. June turned to July and still the Great King did not come. Rumor fanned prodigious reports of his advance: of how his army was drinking rivers dry; of how all who lay on his path were scurrying to offer him earth and water; of the gilded splendor of his regattas and feasts and entertainments. So far, it appeared, his progress through Europe had been less an invasion than a leisurely procession—and already, as July turned to August, the best conditions for campaigning were slipping away. Soon enough, with the Aegean heated to sweltering levels and colder air turning turbulent to the north, the season for summer gales—northeasterlies, or, as the Greeks called them, “Hellesponters”—would arrive. “Pray to the winds,” the priests of Delphi advised, in a final message to the allies. “For they will prove good friends to Greece.”77 A message that all preparing to sail with the Greek fleet took to heart.

Yet, among the people of one city, the dilatoriness of the Great King was starting to prompt sentiments altogether less enthusiastic. For the Spartans, the prospect that they might have to defend Thermopylae during August was a truly excruciating one. Four years had passed since the previous games at Olympia; now, with the moon already waxing, the new games were destined to start when it was full. So too, to compound the agony, was the Carneia. The conjunction of these two festivals portended a period of more than usually sacrosanct truce. How could the Spartans possibly break it? Haunted already by the specters of the murdered Persian ambassadors, the notion that they might offend the gods with even more impieties was too hideous to contemplate. With the Peloponnese full of potential medizers, and the Argives as ever sniffing the air, the Great King was hardly the only agent of divine retribution ready to hand. No, the Spartans could not possibly march north in August. To do so would be both criminal and lunatic. The Carneian truce could not be broken.

But who were barbarians to respect such scruples? Sure enough, no sooner had August arrived than the news that all Greece had been half dreading and half anticipating duly arrived at the Isthmus: the Persians had begun clearing roads along the foothills of Olympus. The conference broke up at once. In Athens, where the docks were already in turmoil with the demands of the evacuation, any consideration of truces was the last thing on people’s minds. Rather—literally—it was all hands on deck. The city’s fighting men were frantically scrambled. Some ships—the most disposable—were even entrusted to volunteers from loyal Plataea, “whose courage and spirit, it was hoped, might serve to compensate for their total ignorance of the sea.”78 Thus, even leaving behind a substantial reserve fleet to guard their home waters, the Athenians succeeded in dispatching to Euboea, not the 100 ships they had originally agreed upon, but 127. Other cities—Corinth and Aegina prominent among them—sent all they could as well. To anyone watching the allied fleet as it rounded the headland of Sunium on its journey north, trireme after trireme, oars churning the water, flashing in and out, the spectacle would have been a stirring one. There were 271 front-line warships in total sailing for Euboea: no doubt only a fraction of the fleet at the command of the Great King, but a brave effort all the same, and inspirational.

Sent in command of it, as had been agreed the year before at the Hellenion, was a Spartan, an aristocrat named Eurybiades. Here, for his countrymen, was a bitter irony. Haunted although they may have been by their dread of breaking the Carneian truce, the contemplation of what other cities were committing to the war effort could hardly help but serve to prick their sense of honor. To man the land approaches as others were to guard the sea lanes: this was hardly a duty that the Spartans could now shrug aside. Somehow, a compromise had to be found, one that might spare them the fury of the gods while simultaneously enabling them to hold true to their sworn commitments. Why not, then, since it was still clearly out of the question for a full army to be dispatched until the Olympic truce was over, send an advance guard to secure the pass? If other cities, lying on the two-hundred-mile road that wound from Lacedaemon to Thermopylae, could be persuaded to swell it with contingents of their own, then even a small force of Spartans might hope to hold out. Particularly if that force were to be drawn from the very sternest, the very toughest of the elite. And particularly—since the message broadcast to the world of Spartan resolution would then be unmistakable—if it were led by a king.

Leonidas it was who took the perilous commission. As representative of the senior royal line, he would have felt that it was his duty to do so, no doubt—but he may have had a more personal motive, too. The ghosts of the murdered Persian ambassadors were not, perhaps, the only phantoms abroad that summer in Lacedaemon. More than a decade had passed now since Cleomenes, his legs and stomach fretted by a carving knife, had been found twisted in the stocks. What remained mysterious was whether he had perished by his own hand—just punishment for his oracle-bribing, god-baiting impiety—or had been the victim of a brutal conspiracy, one possibly orchestrated by the Spartan high command itself. Either way, Leonidas must have felt himself implicated in his predecessor’s horrific end. Cleomenes had been his own kin, after all. The blood had long since been scrubbed away, but the sense of a curse, oppressive, menacing, as close as the August heat, still lowered over Sparta. Leonidas, preparing for his desperate mission, would hardly have forgotten the menacing terms of the oracle: either his city was to be wiped out “or everyone within the borders of Lacedaemon / Must mourn the death of a king, sprung from the line of Heracles.” It would surely not have escaped his attention either that it was on a peak above Thermopylae that Heracles himself had perished, consigning his mortal flesh and blood to fire that he might then ascend to join the gods. Well, then, might Leonidas have dismissed the Hippeis, that crack squad of three hundred young men who customarily served in battle as the bodyguard of the king, and replaced them with older veterans—“all men with living sons.”79 A ringing statement of intent. Whatever might happen at the pass—whether glorious victory or total defeat—Leonidas would stay true to his fateful mission. One way or another, he would secure the redemption of his city. There was to be no retreat from Thermopylae.

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