The sad truth of what we did wrong.
There are several ways to tell the story.
Like trying to explain that Sam Houston beat Santa Anna not at San Jacito but in England because Wellington defeated Napoleon not at Waterloo but years earlier on the playing fields of Eaton. This will be only the briefest of stories, with more left out than included and an understanding of rugby would help. In the end I will tell them the way I learned them at my mothers knee. I should note that she learned them as I did, as a child from her father who was also Dr Mylonas.
Grandfather has said in lecture that one of the biggest errors in judging the founding Greeks is our unwillingness to except them at face value. We cling to some Edwardian/Darwinian view that we must be at the peek of everything and it all gets simpler and worse and smaller as we move back in time until we end with stone age workers in caves. An exception we somehow accept that maybe Pythagoras could have invented geometry, and perhaps Aristotle may have laid the basis for all the divisions of modern science, but we balk at the possibility that Greek generals could have developed sophisticated tactics or that Greek historians could count. Okay, so the Golden Age could provide geometry and apply it to demonstrate the earth was a sphere and approximate it's size, but the tactics at Marathon must be luck and Thermopylae could never have been two and a half million held off by three hundred. I'll tell the stories the way Greek children have for generations with pride in the heroes that shaped the future and knew their place in it. Achilles was told that he could stay home and live to a ripe old age and die in peace with his descendents around him or he could go to an almost pointless war against Troy, be critical in the destruction of that civilization, die in glorious battle and be spoken of in awe for all of history. Achilles went to war and his name is still legend. OK so this story started with a conversation on a train. My conductor's son was given an assignment at school that did not sit well. the ,and I hope well meaning, young man's teacher (and this was shortly after 9/11) had assigned the students to write on what we as Americans had done to so offend the Moslem world that they wanted to destroy us. This sat poorly with the family as it implied that it was our fault that mass murders were committed in our skies and streets. I was at the time working on an explanation of the Spartans at Thermopylae for my own son so I explained that the problem started long ago but had a dramatic and pivotal experience in the 492 to 480 BC (and incidentally per Moslem) time frame. The unique social and philosophical activity that was the golden period of Greece. The spin off of the creative maelstrom was pouring out all over the world. Greek math, geometry, science, biology, modal logic every thing from the basis of scientific method to the subjection of religion from poetry and prose through the theater and politics The reaction in the ancient world was mixed as to the new inventions of intellect and culture (then as now). From the envy in Rome that would end in carrying off the remaining teachers to Rome. To the heart of our problem. The Persians were so offended that Greek language, math even the very basis of thinking logic were Greek and displacing Persian way of life all over the world even to intruding into the royal courts. The jealousy of the dominance of Greek culture (and all Western culture today) due to its superior format for progress became a driving force in a movement to dominate Greece and suppress its cultural expansion and influence. One cannot assert that ones culture and religion are dominant if there are bigger and better in the world. When Athens helped the revolts in Asia minor( Turkey to those who do not understand the Greek\Turkey thing) Darius is so affronted that he orders a slave assigned to interrupt him three times at every meal with 'Sir remember the Athenians.' Darius sends his nephew to carry out the kings vengeance with some 200000 soldiers under arms plus entourages. The first Persian army of genocide\culture erasure carefully records its travels as it moves toward Athens, records that come in handy after their failure for the second army's attempt at cultural erasure. The path was well trodden. Not only did it follow well established trade routes but in the first case if we assume only one for one support to warriors the first movement was almost half a million people on the march and the latter approached seven million. Xerxes would have, describing his army of extermination/retribution, his historians state that this number had previously been applied to the size of nations and races but never before to an army. Historians both Persian and other, record the massive movement that drank rivers dry. They made lakes disappear and removed whole cities that were en route. A city of fifty thousand was large by ancient standards but you cannot walk seven million people through/over a city and expect anything to remain . 2500 years later satellite images of the route show the road with its bed cut wide to admit the massive movement.
Two hundred thousand men at arms on the move to Athens, not that her army or citizens were not terrified of there fate but they would not live on if the price were slavery. The plane of Marathon would hold the Persian army encamped at the north eastern side south of a swamp and on the down hill side. The Persians did not have the ideal location, however they had no worries as they out numbered the Athenian army who held the high ground and blocked the passes needed to move south and expunge the offence.Herodotus tells us the Athenian commander Miltiades the younger was well versed in Persian tactics of a strong center and of the lead troops being first to the plunder. The Greek army formed up at dawn every day in a pattern that seemed born for the Persian army. Two wings with reserves that moved together with what appeared to be a weak center. the Persians formed a spear head, best in the center deepest reserves behind them. On the fifth day the bottled up Persians see the Greek army form up. At dawn they do the unthinkable they attacked the Persians, not only attacked, but the charge was at a run. As the wave crashed into the Persians. The strength of the Persians pressed forward and forced its was through the week center the path clear to the now undefended pass and 23 miles to plunder Athens. The army rejoiced looked forward to plundering the city and took off at a spirited pace without looking back at the mop up operation the reserves would engage in whilst they sacked the wealth of Athens in glorious pillage. Had they looked back they would have seen three things happen at once, the wings closed cutting the army in two. a runner, Phidippides by name, was singled to run ahead of the Persians and tell the citizens the plan had worked and to send the reserve troops to guard the port and ignore the pillagers, the third and most dangerous was a special force loosed on the backs of the expectant would be pillagers. Special to the reserves were two groups of troops. The record says they were dressed as Olympic athletes (the games were held as a male only events with the participants nude) made up of men who were fathers of children living in the city. Armed only with a sword and knowing that the safety of their children was in there hands. We are told that as the bulk of the army pushed the Persians into the swamp and slaughter. These reserves comprising two groups of two hundred fell on the backs on the happy hapless spearhead at a run! The desperate fathers caught and killed the ten thousand some pride of Persia, even as the lead messenger, having fought in the initial feint, then discarded his weapons and ran ahead of the would be sackers with news that the plan had worked, then to die of his exertions and go on to join Achilles in Hades and history. When the remnant of the Persian army swung in on the port it found Greek solders on the walls and docks and turned back to home mostly empty and humiliated in defeat. The Greek army left behind drove those who had not panicked into the swamp and death, or into the sea where the navy was missing as it had gone off to assist in the pillaging . death everywhere , Greek death, heroes in glory, and opponents in humiliating slaughter. The swamp, the sea, screaming naked sword wielders running them down and long spears and archers on the formidable docks. It was the Greek way heroes and slaughter. Do I digress and tell you an old wives tale here, as the victorious runners are carried into the city, one of the mothers waiting is given the news, her son died on the field, in reaction she takes her life. a tragedy you say in your non Greek way. In the temple of Athena it is said that those who die as heroes go to Hades and on their first night dine at a table with all the other heroes of Greece, and at this meal they are served their victorious dinner by their mothers. She took her life so as to go to hell and have the honor of serving her son his first dinner there. These are the mothers that bore and raised the free men who stood outnumbered before the whip driven and bounty pulled slaves of Persia. These are the stories shared by the teenagers who would be the men at Thermopylae. Let lady Macbeth cry "Unsex me now that the deed may be done", she had never known a Greek mother; these are the stories shared around the campfires at night in ancient Greece oh that we had run the fields of Marathon.Another caution, Who the gods hate they first drive mad. Possibly had the humiliation not been so overwhelming the revenge planned might not have been so huge. The historians tell us the story my mother passed on as a caution, the gods hearing Xerxes brag of his god like power over so much of the earth sent him dreams of the sweetness of his revenge on the Greeks and so in his hubris revenged themselves by driving him mad so that he would so over play his move that the fated failure would destroy his empire. The stage now set, Persia mounts the largest armed movement fittingly launched with total eclipse of the sun.
If the first army of revenge had been large the second eclipsed it. The slaves of world conquest, elite shock forces and special teams from every culture, every beast ever ridden to war including rhinos, weapon smiths and furriers, cooks and camp followers the total number easily doubling the millions of men under arms. The mad king/god even bringing along a marble throne weighing over a thousand pounds and a pavilion claimed to be the largest the world had seen, a Barnum and Bailey circus over a hundred feet tall and including midgets and other sideshow events to make 'Riply' stand in wonder. Once again the Oracles were consulted and faith exercised by free men. Sparta and Greece could be saved but there was a price, the life of a king and three hundred at arms, a willing Sacrifice ( the old word to make sacred) could hold Persia off until the wooden fence could save their wives and sons. We might need reminded that the Greeks gave us the heavy phalanxes 2 x4 foot shields and a wall of 20 foot lances but she also gave us the Marines and their light attack ships. One force slow to maneuver impossible to defeat head on and the other light and fast trained to sail and fight at sea to swim pull at the ores and to pull bilge plugs and kill another ships crew to leave the sinking\scuttled cargo to drown.
The Oracles play a huge part in the story, revelation from the Gods into the acts of men, I cannot overstress the importance of individual belief and commitment. Sparta's great military might was in the individual commitment to a greater than self reality, the heroes are because they believe in the eternal nature of their actions not just important now but important forever. It is what drives free men to pray and then do great deeds. Leonidas goes to the Oracles to know how to keep alive the torch of freedom and leaves knowing it will cost him his life and he embraces it.
My grandfather took us to Mycenae and stood with us at the Lions Gate and pointed out that a phalanx here could not be flanked and not be defeated, they had built their own pass in which to fight. Imagine what it would be like to arrive at the pass to the gate to face men on the walls and a valley of spear points. There are variations to the Phalanx, depending on where and how it is to be used. In the excavation of the Spartan palace over 20 different shield types are represented, from bucklers used by open field troops to the massive rectangle used in gates and fortifications that legend tells (but not comics or cartoons) were lugged to Thermopylae. The phalanx was a block of solders with heavy shields and lances but that's like saying an American football team is a bunch of guys playing a kids game in plastic armor. This is a rotating mass of highly trained athletes each with special training and skills wielded by brains on the field and off that in its professional field is so far beyond the spectators understanding as to make Invictus a nursery poem ( and then there is football ).The thing moves on whistled commands, a grunt, spears raised, shields raised, the bottom of the shield pushed forward with the knee, the shield drop and the spear thumps to it's resting place, all 300 or so in practiced unison. The beast with a hundred spines advances and the opposition cannot get any closer than a spear length. As the front line tires( about every three min) on single they turn, pass back between the ranks pulling shield and spear to the back, where their personal trainers\servants wait. A drink, sharpen your spear, fresh footwear. Each man spends his time in front then in back and so the mass rotates hour after hour, the opposing troops facing fresh spears without relief there death takes them. One other trick the ever advancing wall of churning spear tips may be pushed. On the whistle, the front line push out the bottom of there shields but do not advance, they grip there spears with both hands and each man behind places his left\shield hand on the right shoulder in front of him. On the next signal they all shove ahead one half step (if ten men push one lance with only 100 lbs each a thousand pounds pushes each spear point), historians talk of stopping chariot charges and all manner of stampeded beasts with this mighty half step. Press forward; this tactic is called the Greek step by the Romans and referred to by Paul admonition to press ever forward
Herodotus the noted father of Greek history as an science tells us that the Persian army came to the shores of Greece with 2.5 million men at arms plus entourages, over 5 million people and I believe him (not to mention that Xerxes says the same thing when he sets out).
Leonidas calls for 300 volunteers they must be fully qualified solders and fathers of 12 year old plus sons so that when they die their names will live on. "With your shield or on it". My mother said this, smiling to me when I went off on my mission and I held my head high. Today the popular theme is return with honor. but it is the same. The heavy full battle shield of a phalanx is ill suited for but two tasks. Advancing in mass and as a litter. It was viewed as impossible to break formation and run away with one. The shield was a rectangle as wide as a mans shoulders and as high as his armpit a wood frame lashed at the borders with rawhide and covered in bronze. When the politically socially correct time came for Gorgo, his wife to make this simple ascertain of honor above all else she took his knife and cut the ends of the loops of rawhide that were used as handles for a litter and kissed his cheek and said loud enough for history; "Don't come back". Leonidas turned to his assembled men in front of there families and says
"Follow me where I leadfight where I fightkill me if I retreat."
History records the words of a King and Queen who knew what the Gods demanded was followed into battle with only one outcome they all knew it, the Gods knew it and any other explanation is some whining from academia that knows nothing of victory or the Gods. The thespians ask what to send to help and Leonidas asks for pavers and sand. The pass could use good footing and buckets of sand to soak up the coming gore so that they might not slip on the bloodied field.Games and shaved heads: Leonidas had not lead these men in combat personally (at the whistle as it were) and so on the day before the assault the Persian spies report that the Greeks are running foot races throwing the javelin and shaving each others heads, it is a mystery until a Greek is consulted. They compete so that their captain may know each man's abilities and how to set and relive each man, for it is individuals who will make up the team. They shave their heads and faces so that when the fight comes down to bear hands they will offer no hand grip! They intend to cover for one another strength over weakness and fight not only to the last man but bear handed and clean shaven if necessary to the end. The news shakes the slave leader generals of Persia, what manner of men do they face.
When asked to turn over their spears and surrender and be granted the right as Kings under Persia, the reply , according to Plutarch was made "Molon Lebe" being translated into Texan as come and get em. The motto is also inscribed on both the Texas governors boot and the statue at their graveside in Greece. Wickapeada has a nice explanation of the difficulty in translating this two verb statement often mistranslated too literately as come take.
Day One After an offer of terms of surrender is turned down Xerxes has his archers turn loose with a barrage that the Greeks are told will blot out the sun. "Good," replies Leonidas chief "we shall have shade to fight under". The Greek shields provide enough strength being bronze covered to withstand the arrows and enough size to lean back and under, after the barrage the troops reform so quickly that the running Persian troops find only the spear heads of the tightly formed phalanx.The Persians have learned that when facing long spears all you have to do is hang a body on each spear and then rush the line and overcome the spear holders. At the end of the whips Xerxes sends 1,0000 to overwhelm the line, he has to stand on his throne to see over the piled bodies only to see the churning mass of fresh clean spears still standing, support troops take the field to shove the dead over the cliff and into the sea, the tide turns red on the beach the Persians hold, it is the blood of their dead.
Day Two The Persians having tried every kind of slave troop bring out there own professional shock troops, the immortals, masked professional high endurance troops.The mighty troops take the field, they will bring down the Greeks and kill them in their exhaustion. The phalanx churns, ever advancing, ever refreshed never moving out of the pass, fresh shoes, clean pavers, fresh sand. Mortality claims the shock troops and Xerxes rages.
The story includes the betrayal by a drop out/traitor who tells of a mountain goat trail around the pass and the ambush troops set out on a march around. Leonidas tells his men to eat their supplies that night the battle will be over the next day, the words still ring out; "Eat well of mortal food for tomorrow we dine in hell".
Day Three It should be noted that as the army holds the pass Greece is being evacuated and her fields stripped and wells filled in. The army will find no booty to sack or food to pillage. If that were not enough the Athenian fleet with her unheard of marines is joining the fight when the day is over the Persian supply line is cut, her troop transports scuttled and the un landed supplies feed the fish. The order is given, retreat all support troops before the surround happens, so they can fight another day
The split phalanx fight back to back in a holding action.Persian archers are ordered to fire on engaged troops so Spartans can't use their shielding action. There is a huge kill rate of friendly fire. As the falling arrows strike the unprotected backs of the Persian troops and the helmeted and shielded fronts of the Greeks the Persians die three and four to one from their own arrows, but Xerxes finds joy that at last Greeks die. The Greeks fight like this all day without relief, two groups back to back death raining from above
Look at the difference, leaders vs managers Leonidas and Xerxes both send men to their death, but Xerxes sends his at the end of a whip and Leonidas leads his at the intentional sacrifice of his life. The former with no regard for the lives of his troops, the other making sure there are living descendents, one treats his as a means to an end the other as ends in themselves.
Go tell the Spartans,you who pass by,here lay her sonsfaithful to the end.
The gods are appeased by the sacrifice made freely by free men.
The disheartened unsupplied Persian slave army makes it to the far coast only to meet the fresh vengeful host of Greece. The battles crush the Persians, who fight a disheartened retreat back across a stripped land that now does not even offer firewood. Persian leaders broken by the knowledge that there is no fleet to take them home. Persia will never rise again the only two things left are her 12 hour clock and her hate of western civilization.