Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Farwell to Lacedaemon - An Excerpt from "A Heroic King"

In remembering the stand of Leonidas, the Three Hundred and the Thespeians at Thermopylae, we often forget the impact of their loss on those who loved them. 
In this excerpt from “A Heroic King” Leonidas’ daughter and wife face his impending departure.



Agiatis was sitting at the end of the pier, clutching her knees and holding her face down on top of them. Gorgo eased herself down beside her daughter and pulled Agiatis into her arms.

“Why?” Agiatis burst out instantly, coming up for air, then burying her face again, this time in her mother’s lap to wail like a little child.

Gorgo held her close. Agiatis’ sobbing shook her whole body and her tears soaked through Gorgo’s skirts. Gorgo started to rock back and forth in an age-old gesture of motherly love. “Hush, sweetheart, hush.”

“But why does he have to do it? Doesn’t he love us even a little? Why does Sparta always have to come first? Why?”

“Oh, sweetheart! Do you really not see?” Gorgo was genuinely surprised by her daughter’s misunderstanding. “This isn’t about Sparta at allit is about us.”

“Then let Leotychidas die! No one would even miss him!”

“Of course not, but no one would follow him, either,” Gorgo reminded her daughter.

“The army has to!” Agiatis spat back furiously. “He’s a king, too!”

“Many of our citizens think he’s not. They think Demaratus is the rightful king. And even if they obeyed Leotychidas out of respect for our laws, the Confederation would notand so everyone would fight alone and would be defeated alone, and then the Persians would keep coming, unstoppable, to destroy us.”

Agiatis sat upright, revealing her puffy, red face. She wiped her running nose on the back of her armas if she were four rather than fourteenand argued, “But if Leotychidas were killed fighting up north, then Dad could lead the defense here successfully, because the prophecy would already be fulfilled.”

“Oh, sweetheart, why do you think Leotychidas would die just because he went north? He is far more likely to accept a Persian bribe or just run away. And if he’s not Sparta’s rightful king, then even his death would not appease Zeus. Either way, your father would be left to rally what is left of our forces in a hopeless situation, and his life would still be forfeitor we would be destroyed. Maybe both. Surely you see that he needs to make his sacrifice militarily meaningful to ensure his death brings us safety and freedom?”

Agiatis stared at her mother stubbornly, unwilling to admit that she could see her mother’s point. Gorgo understood her silence, and pulled her daughter back into her arms to hold her. They clung to each other for a few moments in silence; then Gorgo loosed her hold a little to stroke her daughter’s soft, slender arms and comb her tangled, tear-wet hair out of her face. “Agiatis, you have to apologize to your father.”

Agiatis didn’t answer, but she squirmed defiantly in Gorgo’s arms and shook her head. She pressed her face into Gorgo’s lap again.

“You have to,” Gorgo insisted gently but firmly, “not for his sakehe knows how much you love him, and he will forgive you whether you ask it of him or not. You have to go back and tell him how much you love him because if you don’t, you will hate yourself for the rest of your life.” Agiatis went dead still and Gorgo continued, “You do not want to live with the memory that the last words you said to your father before he died for you were, ‘I hate you.’”

“My last words were, ‘I’ll never forgive you. Never,’” Agiatis corrected her mother.

“Is that better? Is that what you want to remember as your last exchange with your father? Do you want your last memory of him to be his wounded face when you flung those words at him?”

Agiatis sat up again and looked straight at her mother. Tears were brimming in her eyes. “Oh, Mom, it’s not fair!”

That was too much for Gorgo. Her own throat was already cramping from trying to hold back tears, and suddenly she couldn’t anymore. She pulled Agiatis back into her arms and surrendered to her own emotions, sobbing almost as hard as her daughter had only a few moments earlier.

Gorgo’s self-indulgence did not last long. After a little while she drew back, wiped the tears from her face, and turned Agiatis to face her. “We have to pull ourselves together and make sure that your father’s last memories of us are comforting onesimages to warm and cheer him not only as he marches into battle, but into the darkness of the underworld itself.”

This time Agiatis nodded. In fact, she took a deep breath and announced, “You’re right, Mom. We will. We will be better than Andromache for Hektor, because there are two of usand Dad’s going to win. Sparta isn’t going to fall like Troy. You will never be a foreign prince’s slave, and no Persian will rape me and make me serve him like a whore! And no one would dare mutilate Dad’s corpse, because the Guard will defend it and bring it home, and he will be buried right here on the banks of the Eurotas he loved. And we’ll put up a monument to him, like the one over Kastor’s grave, and we’ll visit him there, and talk to him, and tell him how happy we are. How good Lakrates is to mehe is a good man, isn’t he?”

“He’s a delightful young man,” Gorgo assured her. “With a wonderful sense of humor, as well as being a brilliant armed runner and javelin thrower.”

Agiatis nodded, satisfied. “All right. Then we’d better go fix ourselves up so Dad can’t tell we’ve been crying.”

“Exactly,” Gorgo agreed. They helped each other up and, hand in hand, walked down the pier and headed back for the house.

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Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Come and Take Them!

In honor of those who died at Thermopylae

Modern Monument to Leonidas at Thermopylae
The following is an excerpt from a longer poem written by Simonides about the Battle of Thermopylae in English translation:



Of those who died

at Thermopylae,

glorious is the fortune,

fair is the fate.

Their grave is an altar.

Instead of lamentation,

they have remembrance,

for pity they have praise.

Such a shroud

neither mold

nor all-subduing time

can make obscure.

This shrine of noble men

chose the good reputation of Greece

as its inhabitant.

Leonidas also bears witness,

king of Sparta,

who left behind a great adornment

of valor and ever-flowing fame.

The Hot Springs Today


 The Monument to the Thespian 700



The Pass as it is Today

The Battle of Thermopylae is described in detail in "A Heroic King":

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Saturday, July 15, 2017

Marathon - An Excerpt from "A Heroic King"



There is a tendency to forget that, while Marathon was a great Athenian-Platean victory, it was in fact only half a victory: half the Persian army and fleet had already departed Marathon when Miltiades made the brilliant decision to attack the rest. It is likewise usually forgotten that Eukles ran the original "Marathon" from Marathon to Athens not merely to bring word of a victory but to warn about the other half of the Persian army that was approaching Athens by sea -- while all her fighting men were miles away, victorious but exhausted, at Marathon. That Athens was not seized by the Persians is one of those little, forgotten mysteries of history.

In the excerpt below, the only fighting men left in Athens -- the ephebes (youths not yet citizens) and old reservists -- prepare to defend Piraeus against the massive force aboard a Persian fleet. Among them is Kimon, son of Athen's commander at Marathon, Militiades.



Persian ships were clogging the narrows at the mouth of the harbor. "And something is going on out there too! A trireme arrived from the west, and now there is activity aboard every ship. They are preparing something. Look!" Kimon's commander pointed to the coastline to the west. "Do you see?"

Kimon shook his head.

"Something's moving along the coastal road. Either the Persians have landed troops to our west -- or the Spartans are coming."

"It's too soon for the Spartans," Kimon protested.

"Well, I sure the hell don't like the alternative!" the old man snapped back. "Instead of just sitting there on that fancy horse of yours, why don't you take your ass over there and find out?"

Kimon drew a deep breath to protest such language, but the man had already turned away. Kimon swallowed his protest and turned his colt around to start working his way through the maze of streets toward the western road.

Finding his way occupied so much of his attention that it was only after he'd left the congested part of the port that Kimon could focus on his task. Since there was no way the Spartans could be here in less than three days, he was pre-occupied with the idea of riding to warn his father that the Persians had landed to the west.

He drew up and looked along the coast, squinting in an effort to see better. He could see nothing -- except the sunlight glittering on the blue waters of the bay, heat waves shimmering upward from the nearest fields, and dust drifting off to the north. The dust must have been stirred up by men on the road.  He better find out more before he reported back to his father, he decided, and kept riding. After another quarter hour, he was convinced that a large body of troops was indeed approaching. Wasn't that enough information? How much further should he go?

With shock, Kimon recognized that he was afraid. He did not want to go any closer. He wanted to gallop in the opposite direction, and it was precisely this realization that made him urge his colt forward, his lips pressed together unconsciously. He kept his eyes on the coastal road until they watered from the strain. Then he blinked and wiped sweat from his eyes with the back of his naked arm. Keep riding, he ordered himself, reminding himself that his colt was the direct descendant of one of the four mares with which his grandfather won the Olympic chariot race three times. The colt would bring him to safety. 

But what if the colt stumbled? Or was killed by an arrow?

Or could it really be the Spartans?

It penetrated Kimon's terrified brain that there were no mounted officers with the approaching troops. Persian noblemen never walked. These troops could be neither Persian nor Mede. Ionian allies of the Persians? But how could the Persians trust them not to join the Athenians? Certainly if they were Ionains, it would be worth appealing to their patriotism. Kimon urged his horse forward a little more hopefully.

Abruptly he caught a wisp of what sounded like singing. He pulled up and held his breath, his ear cocked. When the wind fell away, it came again: men's voices raised in song. The approaching troops were singing as they marched.

Spartans! Only Spartans sang as they marched!

He started cantering forward in relief. 


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Saturday, July 1, 2017

Marathon and Sparta




Marathon was an Athenian-Plataean victory.  Although Athens fielded her maximum force and the Plataeans sent every available man, the Persians still significantly outnumbered their combined strength. Yet when Miltiades finally led the assault, the victory went to the Athenians and Plataeans.  According to Herodotus, 6,400 Persian soldiers lost their lives on the plain of Marathon, at the price of just 192 Athenians and an unnamed, but certainly smaller, number of Plataeans. The Spartans were nowhere to be seen.

And yet, Marathon is a significant chapter in Spartan history.  First, the Athenian request is an indication that they believed halting Persian incursions in Greece was sufficiently important to Sparta to override any other considerations arising from their less than harmonious past relations. Second, Sparta agreed to send help -- despite the fact Persian wrath was directed exclusively at Athens and Eretria at this point in time. .In short. Sparta would have been perfectly justified in telling the Athenians to face the consequences of their support for Aristagoras’ revolt alone.  Yet Sparta did nothing of the kind.  

Sparta, according to Herodotus, was “moved by the appeal [for help], and willing to send help to Athens,” but was unable to respond immediately because they “did not wish to break their law. It was the ninth day of the month, and they said they could not take the field until the moon was full.” (Herodotus, 6:107).  Most historians interpret this to mean that Sparta was at the time celebrating the Carneia, a ten-day festival, and could not march until it was over. 

That the promise was not empty is evidenced by the fact that, again according to Herodotus, after the full moon “two thousand Spartans set off for Athens.”  They covered roughly 120 miles of in part very rugged terrain to reach Athens on the third day after leaving Sparta – a notable achievement for an army on foot. They arrived in Athens allegedly on the day following the Battle of Marathon and continued on to Marathon to see the bodies of the slain.

The fact that Sparta delayed responding to the Athenian call for help has occupied historians for generations.  Given the urgency of the request and the evidently genuine desire to help, modern readers find it hard to believe the phase of the moon or a festival would have been allowed to get in the way.  Speculation about a possible helot revolt has been particularly popular. Yet I find it hard to believe a revolt could be of such a predictable nature that the Spartans could know in advance it would be over by the full-moon -- and then in fact be so completely subdued that 2,000 men – the entire active army by some accounts - could march out exactly on schedule. Hints of a revolt prior to the major insurrection of 460 may be credible, but are insufficiently precise to prove a revolt took place at exactly this point in history, in my opinion.

Equally significant but, to my knowledge, less frequently noted, is that Herodotus does not identify the Spartan commander of the 2,000 Spartans that arrived in Athens too late.  Up to this point, Sparta’s armies abroad were commanded invariably by her kings jointly or, after the debacle of Cleomenes and Demaratus quarreling openly while campaigning against Athens at the end of the previous century, by one of the kings.  It seems very odd, that suddenly, for such an important confrontation, no king is mentioned.
The absence of a king is particularly odd given the large numbers involved.  Herodotus speaks of 2000 “Spartans.”  While this need not necessarily mean Spartiates and could, at a stretch, include perioikoi, it certainly excludes Allies. Furthermore, based on the assumption that the force of 5,000 Spartiates sent to Plataea represented the maximum strength of a citizen force including 15-20 age-cohorts of reservists, 2,000 men probably represents the size of Sparta’s standing army, the citizens aged 21-30, at this time. Such a force represented the very flower of Spartan manhood and would hardly be entrusted to anyone less than a king. 

But in the summer of 490, Sparta was in the midst of a dynastic crisis. The Eurypontid Demaratus had been denounced as a usurper and dethroned by a judgment of Delphi only a couple years earlier. After being humiliated by his successor Leotychidas, Demaratus fled Sparta, only for it to then come to light that Delphi’s judgment had been purchased by King Cleomenes. This cast grave doubts on the legitimacy of Leotychidas in the eyes of most Spartans, yet it appears to have been impossible to recall Demaratus.  Meanwhile, Cleomenes himself had gone mad and was in self-imposed exile.  Thus in the summer of 490, the Spartans literally had no king to whom they could entrust their army.

This situation might not have been revealed to the outside world, if the Persians had not chosen to launch their invasion of Attica at precisely this time.  Under the circumstances, the Spartan government recognized the need to confront the Persians, but, without a king to take command, Sparta was in no position to respond at once. The Spartans first had to agree among themselves how to deal with this unprecedented situation by appointing a non-royal commander. The delay in responding can, therefore, best be explained by the time needed to find a consensus candidate, which undoubtedly entailed debating the issue in the Gerousia, drafting a bill for the ephors to present to the Assembly, and calling an extraordinary Assembly. It was possible to calculate how many days that would take, and easier to blame religion than confess to the Athenians that the Spartans had a dynastic/leadership crisis. After all was said and done, the Spartan army marched out under someone other than one of the kings.

Herodotus is silent on who led the 2,000 men to Marathon. We will never know for sure. But one candidate stands out as the most likely commander: Leonidas.  Leonidas was an Agiad. He was heir to the throne. He was a mature man, probably with considerable military experience by this point in time. At a minimum, he would have fought at Sepeia against Argos just four years earlier. It is hard to imagine that anyone else in Sparta at the time could claim equal right to lead the Spartan army in the absence of her ruling kings.

If Leonidas indeed led the Spartan army that arrived in Athens one day too late for the Battle of Marathon, it would have given him the opportunity for him to meet Athenian leaders – and win their trust. This may in turn have been a contributing factor to Leonidas’ election as commander of the joint Greek forces ten years later.  Perhaps equally significant, arriving one day too late for Marathon may have left a psychological scar that made Leonidas determined not to come too late to Thermopylae. In 480, Leonidas refused to await the end of the Carneia and took his advance guard out of Sparta before the end of the festival.  I think Leonidas was determined not to be late again.

Marathon is an important incident in "A Heroic King" 

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