The news that the Persians were already in Pieria and were building roads for the mass movement of their army was enough to break up the last conference of the Corinthian League at the Isthmus. The allied fleet, following the plan of Themistocles, made ready to sail for the north to tackle the Persians in the vicinity of Artemisium. The largest part of this fleet, as we know, was provided by the Athenians with their one hundred new triremes, plus over forty older vessels which had been recommissioned and refitted during the intense dockyard activity of recent months and years. Including their Peloponnesian allies the whole fleet which moved up to hold the sea line between Artemisium and Thermopylae was about two hundred ships, against which the Persians could bring down something to the amount of 650.
In the meantime, despite the fact that the most holy Spartan festival, the Carneia, was due to take place in the third week of August the Spartiates recognised the gravity of the situation and agreed to send out a portion of their army. It was no more than a token force, designed to conduct a holding action with the aid of allies whom they would pick up on their way. Although the numbers were small, the fact that it was meant to be representative of the most formidable military power in Greece and that it was the clear intention of Sparta - once the Carneia was over - to commit herself totally to the struggle, was proved by the fact that (unlike at Tempe) one of her kings went out at its head. Leonidas was now a man in his early fifties and, as had been seen, had previously been involved in the grim power-struggle around the kingship of his land. A torso statue of a Greek hoplite, wearing a Corinthian-style helmet with cheek-pieces shaped like rams’ heads, has been considered by many authorities to have formed part of the memorial statue that was later erected to the memory of the king. Even if it is not of him, it is the kind of head that one would expect to find on a Spartiate warrior of the ruling caste. Bearded” and broad-faced, it looks out at the world from deep-socketed eyes with defiant aggression. This was certainly the face of Sparta.
It was now late July, the fertile valley around the unwalled city shaking with heat, as the king assembled his small, picked task-force. Three hundred Spartiates in all formed the core, but there is no doubt that with them went something approaching one thousand other soldiers - either Helots who had been emancipated (certainly used in later wars), or possibly perioikoi, ‘friendly neighbours’. Xenophon, although writing at a later date, tells us the Spartan procedure when one of the kings set out for war. Because of the innate conservatism of this strange Greek state it is unlikely that this would have changed very much, if at all, since the time of Leonidas:
First of all he [the King] offers up sacrifices at home to Zeus the Leader and to the other gods associated with him. If the sacrifice seems propitious, the Fire-Bearer takes fire from the altar and leads the way to the borders of the land. [Fire, needed for cooking, heating or light had to be conveyed in iron cauldrons.] There the King offers sacrifice again to Zeus and Athene. Not until the sacrifice proves acceptable to both of these deities does the King cross the borders of the land. The fire from the sacrifices goes ahead and is never quenched; behind come animals of all sorts which are to be sacrificed. Whenever he offers a sacrifice the King always begins the ceremony before dawn… . Gathered together at the sacrifice are the colonels, captains, lieutenants, leaders of foreign contingents, commanders of the baggage train as well as any general from the states who wishes to be present…. When the sacrifices are over the King summons everyone and gives out the orders of the day. If you could but watch the scene you would come to the conclusion that all other men are mere amateurs at soldiering, and that the Lacedaemonians are the only artists in warfare.
On this subject of‘artistry’ Kitto has the very pertinent comment:
The Laws of Lycurgus were, to the Spartans, a pattern of ‘Virtue’, that is to say of arete, of human excellence regarded strictly from within the citizen-body. It was a narrower conception of ‘virtue’ than the Athenian, and it offends modern humanitarians almost as much as its demands would scare them, but though cruel in some aspects and brutal in others, it has a heroic quality. No one can say that Sparta was vulgar. Nor would a Spartan have admitted that Sparta was artistically barren. Art, poiesis, is creation, and Sparta created not things in words or stone, but men.
To this one could add that modern humanitarians, as such, might well not exist had it not been for the heroic and ‘Spartan’ qualities displayed by men like these and those other Greeks who, nearly two and a half thousand years ago, defended the Pass of Thermopylae.
It is evidence of the awareness of Leonidas that this holding action was likely to be suicidal that (probably with the words of the Delphic oracle in his mind) he was careful to select as his kingly corps d* elite only men who had sons living: he had no intention of seeing any Spartiate family line extinguished. His concern here is obvious when one realises that the Spartiates could never at any time field an army of the ruling caste larger than about 8000. It was from the lack of fresh blood into the Spartiates that this small unique nation would ultimately perish.
‘In other states,’ to quote their admirer, Xenophon, again,all men, I imagine, make as much money as they can. One is a farmer, another a shipowner, another a merchant, and others live by various different handicrafts. But at Sparta freeborn citizens were forbidden by Lycurgus to have anything to do with business. He insisted that they should regard as their only concern those activities which make for civic freedom. How, indeed, should wealth be considered seriously there since he also insisted on equal contributions to the food supply and the same standard of living for all, thus removing the attraction of money for indulgence’s sake?
The sheer professionalism of the Spartan army was what distinguished it from the other citizen armies of Greece, since all its men (aged between twenty and sixty) had been trained for nothing but the military art since they were boys. Their arms and armour did not differ from that of other Greek hoplites but the Spartan warrior was distinguishable from his fellows because he wore a scarlet cloak; this again because Lycurgus had decreed that its colour was suitable for war and because it bore the least resemblance to any clothing worn by women. Men past their first youth were also encouraged to wear their hair long since the sage reckoned that it would make them look both more dignified and more frightening. The soldiers were organised into files (enomotia) each commanded by an enomotarch or junior officer; the files then being linked to form ‘fifties’ (pentekostyles) under the command of a senior officer. Xenophon adds the further comment that they ‘carry out with perfect ease manoeuvres which instructors in tactics think very difficult’. When marching in column, section followed section as they would have done now as they passed northwards through the Peloponnese, but ‘if an enemy in battle array were to make an appearance they would on the orders of their officers deploy into line to the left, and so on throughout the columns until the battle-line stands facing the enemy’. It would be different at Thermopylae because of the restricted nature of the terrain, but the iron discipline was ever unchanged. When camping en route they formed into a circle, with their arms and other impedimenta stacked in the centre. Sentries were placed looking inwards so as to keep their eyes at all times on the military equipment, while scouts took up their positions on any elevated features of the landscape round about to see that the camp was not surprised.
As he passed north through the small cities of Tegea and Mantinea, and then through Arcadia, on his way towards the Isthmus, Leonidas gathered in other small allied contingents to the total of 2120, Arcadia itself providing the bulk of these. He now, it would seem, had a little more than 3000 men, hardly enough even for a delaying action in the pass. However, as Burn points out, tradition has it that he reached the Isthmus with 4000 and the only conclusion to be drawn is that the additional 1000 were ‘emancipated Helots, armed as hoplites …’. We know that the bulk of the Spartan army would not march until after the Carneian Festival, which occurred at the third moon after midsummer - towards the end of August in 480. Why the other Peloponnesian allies despatched such small forces can only be guessed at, but the most reasonable conclusion seems to be that they still felt that to fight so far forward was not in their interests. They still clung, in fact, to the strategy which Themistocles had set his face against - that of holding a line across the Isthmus. Not even the fact that a Spartan king was on the march could drag them from their ‘Maginot Line’, or even isolationist, policies.
Putting the Isthmus behind him Leonidas marched north through Boeotia, where he may have hoped for some larger reinforcements, but only the small township of Thespiae came to his support with 700 hoplites. The important city of Thebes, somewhat grudgingly, sent no more than 400 men - a trivial amount and, as Herodotus suggests, ‘their sympathy was secretly with the enemy’. The Locrians of Opus sent him all the men they had (some hundreds?) while the people of Phocis despatched 1000, and these of Malis possibly a further 1100. The entire force which he took with him to Thermopylae was probably a little more than 7000 men.
A Spartan king on the march, with the immense reputation of his city behind him, must have been a strong inducement to these small places to put their limited manpower under his command. The other Greeks, furthermore, and presumably Leonidas himself, told them that this was merely an advance force, and that the main body would soon be joining them. The sea, these northerners were informed, was strongly held by the fleet of Athens, Aegina, and the other allies, and there was no cause for alarm. ‘The invader,’ they were reassured, ‘was after all not a god, but only a man. The greater the man, the greater the misfortune. Xerxes was no exception. He too was human, and could expect to be humbled in his pride.’
While the nodding horsehair-crested helmets and the scarlet cloaks marched north, picking up these reinforcements on their way, the allied fleet under a Spartan admiral, Eurybiades, had rounded Cape Sunium and was on its way up the Euboea Channel. A reserve fleet of some zoo ships had been left behind to guard the southern positions from Attica to the Argolid. There seems little doubt that the finest new ships were sent up to defend the position off Artemisium and even they, with presumably the best crews, will have made hard work of it. Under the blazing midsummer sun the oarsmen had to toil against the fast current which whips down between Euboea and the mainland, speeded at this time of the year by the fact that the northerly winds have been blowing for many weeks. Ahead of them had been sent a fast cutter with a well-known Athenian aboard, to act as liaison officer between the fleet at sea and the army under Leonidas. Sweating under the high sun, that small force made its way to a point of human destiny.