16 - OVER THE MOUNTAIN

At ‘about the time that the lamps are lit’ Hydarnes and the Immortals moved out with their guide from the camp. They had an all-night march ahead of them and the reason they delayed until nearly dark was most probably to ensure that their movements were unseen by any of the watchful enemy. There are almost more theories as to their approach route to the saddle of Kallidromos than there are possible approaches. The simplest, and therefore as so often in ancient history perhaps the best, was that they crossed the River Asopus early in their march and took the shorter but harder way up the mountain than that offered by a longer but easier route. While the men were fresh it would have seemed wise to take a more taxing route for, once up in the narrow plain along the mountain’s top, the going would have been relatively easy to hardened soldiers who were, it must be remembered, inhabitants of a mountainous country. (The words of Cyrus come to mind.) The steepness of the track that leads up by this route will almost certainly have been less so over two thousand years ago. As all over Greece, the soil erosion during the centuries has changed many a contour, and the oak-forests which once lay up this way will themselves have contributed to hold earth that is now long since gone.

‘By this path, then,’ Herodotus continues, ‘having crossed the Asopus, the Persians marched all night. They had on their right the mountains of the Oeitians and on their left those of the Trachinians. By the time they reached the top of the mountain dawn was just breaking.’ All this, of course, is just reconstruction - and certainly, by the evidence of his words, Herodotus never came this way himself. He did, as others have pointed out, clearly come to Thermopylae and examine the site of the battlefield and he certainly - as always - went to the best possible source of information that he could find. There can be little doubt that it would have been round about dawn that the Persians, moving at a good disciplined pace, will have put the hard climb behind them and have entered on the relatively easy part of their passage over the mountain along its spine. At some point along here (and speculation is endless) the Phocians were encamped, detailed off by Leonidas for this very purpose, to guard the approach route and to make sure that no one got through without a struggle. Unfortunately, the Phocians, like many citizen armies of that time, seem to have been ill-disciplined soldiers - compared, that is, to professionals like the Spartans or the Immortals.

Despite the fact that the battle had raged in the pass for two days, the Phocians seem to have set no sentries and to have been taken completely by surprise. They had volunteered for this duty ‘to watch the track and protect their country’, and Leonidas must be forgiven for not anticipating that such volunteers would not have shown the slightest traces of professionalism. The first thing apparently that the Phocians knew of the approach of the Persian force was the sound of ‘the marching feet which made a loud rustling and swishing sound in the fallen leaves’. The oak-trees will have become somewhat dry by this time in August, and the recent gales will undoubtedly have sent down thousands of leaves to join the detritus that already covered the mountain track. It was a windless night, we are told, and this vivid description contains all the elements of truth. The Phocians were asleep with no outposts to their position, no guards set, and, of course, without their armour on. (The expression ‘caught with their trousers down’ might serve as their monument.)

‘When the Persians caught sight of men in front of them seizing their arms they were amazed, for they had not expected any opposition. Now they seemed to have run into an armed body of men. Hydarnes, afraid that they might be Spartans, asked Ephialtes who they were; and on hearing the truth, prepared to engage them.’ There is something a little curious in this part of the story about ‘the dog that did not bark in the night-time’. If it was only dawn or early light how could Ephialtes have been so sure that they were not Spartans - except by their sheer incompetence? Hoplite armour throughout Greece was very similar, no distinguishing signs would have been readily visible, and even if the alarmed men were shouting out to one another in a dialect of Greek other than Doric one does not imagine that Ephialtes was an expert in linguistics. Again, the phrase ‘on hearing the truth’ suggests that Ephialtes or others had been scouting up this way before, seen the Phocian camp, recognised them for whom they were and had kept to himself the confident knowledge that the Persians would be more than a match for them. But, if this had been the case, surely he would have told Xerxes, and Hydarnes would have been forewarned and forearmed? There is an element of mystery here.

The Phocians, in any case, seem to have behaved in a most incompetent and even cowardly manner. True, there were only one thousand of them and this body of men who were now advancing were clearly far greater in number, but an organised and determined resistance in a comparatively narrow area was what had been expected of them if the worst should happen and the enemy find their way through by the ‘secret’ of Kallidromos. As the Persians drew up in battle order, knelt and began to open fire on this surprised enemy, the Phocians fled under the hail of arrows and made for the safety of a nearby peak. ‘They thought themselves’, writes Herodotus, ‘the main object of attack.’ How could they ? They had been placed to keep watch and ward over this mountain passage so that the main body of the Greeks below should not be surprised and taken in the rear. Perhaps, with over two millennia intervening, one tends to think in too sophisticated a manner. It is somewhat like the modern astonishment that a full-moon festival could have delayed the movement of the body of the Spartan army at this time when their country was threatened. (Over sixty years later, a sophisticated Athenian general was to lose his army in Sicily through failing to move at the right time because there was an eclipse of the moon.) In any case, the Phocians find, and have found, no credit. They clung to the safety of their hillside while the Immortals, having driven off this undisciplined party of Greeks, passed almost contemptuously on their way through the mountainside.

Hydarnes could afford the luxury of a smile. This Greek Ephialtes had shown them the correct way over the mountain (none of that Greek duplicity), or it would not have been guarded at all - however inefficiently. If all the Greeks were like the Spartans, even the Great King would have had to consider the wisdom of his advance.

But this body of men who had been caught unprepared, and had then been unwilling to stand and fight, must have given him considerable confidence. Possibly the majority of the Greeks were as undisciplined and as incompetent as these? The Persians passed on, ‘going fast’. They knew that it could not be long before the news that they were up on the mountain would reach the defenders of the pass. But in any case, whatever happened now, the Immortals could feel in the morning air the dawn of triumph. They were through.

The news, it would seem, had already reached Leonidas. ‘The Greeks at Thermopylae heard from their seer Megistias that death was coming with the dawn.’ He had been taking the omens and saw their fate written in the sacrifice. Deserters also came in during the night with the news of the Persians outflanking them over the mountain. One of these Ionian Greeks, who had developed a conscience about being in the Great King’s ranks, is named by Ephorus as Tyrrhastiadas of Cyme and, since this was also the birthplace of Ephorus, the story may well represent the genuine and proud tradition of a local family that their ancestor had been the man who brought the news to Leonidas. By then the Spartan king had become a hero for all time, and such associations will have been treasured. Diodorus and others also tell a tale, which most authorities have considered suspect, that Leonidas, knowing all was lost, personally led a suicidal attempt on the Persian lines to try to kill Xerxes. We can be sure that this is untrue, for we know that Leonidas stayed to the last at Thermopylae, as was his duty and as befitted a Spartan king. It is most probably no more than one of the many accretions of legend which came to surround that last day. On the other hand, it is just possible that a small group of Spartans were sent forward by their king to try to locate the tent of Xerxes and assassinate him. Green makes the good comment: ‘To dismiss the tradition out of hand is perhaps a little rash. How credible are historians a thousand years hence likely to find the Long Range Desert Group’s attempt on Rommel’s life in 1942?’

A last council of war was held and it seems clear that opinions were divided. There are two versions of what took place at this meeting and Herodotus gives them both.

Some urged that they must not abandon the post, others the opposite. The result was that the army split, with some contingents returning to their various states while others prepared to stand by Leonidas. It is said that Leonidas himself dismissed them in order to spare their lives. As for the Spartans it would be not in their code for them to desert the post which they had been entrusted to guard.

There can certainly never have been any possibility of the Spartans having been undecided as to their course: they had been sent to hold the pass to safeguard the fleet at Artemisium and they would do so to the end. It is clear enough that there was some dissension, and that the Thespians and Thebans stayed with Leonidas of their volition, but that the confederate troops from the Peloponnese, who had possibly fallen back upon that old strategical concept of defence of the Isthmus, were sent home. Some have argued that Leonidas sent them back so that they could live to fight another day, others that he dismissed them with contempt because they were unwilling to stand and die. There can be nothing but speculation. One thing is certain: if Leonidas did not order them back against their will, they would always afterwards have said that it was only at the king’s express command that they had left him.

The force that stayed is unlikely to have numbered more than 2000 out of the original strength of 300 Spartiates, some 900 Helots, 400 Thebans and 700 Thespians (2300). Over the past two days of savage fighting it would be reasonable to assume that some 200 to 300 of these must either have been killed or too gravely wounded to stand any more in the line. Leonidas most certainly had in his mind that response which the Delphic oracle had earlier given at the outset of the Persian campaign:

Hear your fate, O dwellers in Sparta of the wide spaces;

Either your famed, great town must be sacked by Perseus’ sons,

Or, if that be not, the whole land of Lacedaemon Shall mourn the death of a king of the house of Heracles,

For not the strength of lions or of bulls shall hold him, Strength against strength; for he has the power of Zeus,

And will not be checked until one of these two he has consumed.

Some indication that Leonidas would have been prepared to receive volunteers from the departing men is proved by the case of the seer Megistias whom he expressly ordered back. Megistias from Acarnania, said to be a descendant of Melampus (who understood the langauge of all creatures), outrightly refused to obey the king but instead sent back his son with the other Acarnanians. If a seer, a holy man who was not expected to stand in the front line and fight, was allowed to volunteer and die, one suspects the later tale of the confederate allies that they only returned because that was the king’s command. But they were withdrawing now, contingent by contingent, marching homeward down along the track southward - on to which, later in the day, would debouch Hydarnes and the Immortals. Was it with jeers or with indifference that those who stayed watched them go? With both perhaps, and also a little envy, however deep-concealed. In the light of the early morning the last of the defenders made ready to eat. The Spartans no doubt, their great helmets laid aside until the first attack came on, found time to comb their hair. Leonidas looked at them with the dour affection of all last-ditch commanders: ‘Have a good breakfast, men, for we dine in Hades!’

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