Thermopylae in literature, War and Peace

Maybe it was that I read Stephen Pressfield’s Gates of Fire on the recommendation of my eighth grade social studies teacher, well before I settled on Greek history as a primary field of study and certainly before I had any inkling that graduate school in history was a thing, but Thermopylae has fascinated me for more than half of my life. I have a soft spot for heroism and for desperate last-stands, so the command μολὼν λαβέ (come and take them!) in the right context* gives me chills. As a scholar, the battle perplexes me; I simultaneously don’t believe Herodotus’ version of Leonidas’ sacrifice being at the root of the decision to sacrifice these soldiers and find it the most plausible. Nothing else has convinced me, except that there may be too many levels of myth surrounding the events to ever actually unravel what happened. I don’t mean to get too deeply into Thermopylae, particularly while I am still working on my dissertation in which the battle never comes up, but suffice to say that it is an event that still intrigues me.

*i.e. not when it is a call to arms against gun control.

This background for my interest in Thermopylae is relevant because reference to the battle appeared in a recent non-academic read, War and Peace. What follows is also the first of an occasional series I am going to do talking about instances of classical reception.

The officer with the twin moustaches, Zdrzhinsky by name, grandiloquently described the dam at Saltanov as being a ‘Russian Thermopylae’, and declared the heroic deed of Greneral Raevsky on that dam to be worthy on antiquity…

Rostov looked at him without speaking. ‘To begin with, there must have been such a crush and confusion on the dam they were attacking that if Raevsky had really rushed forward with his sons it could have had no effect except perhaps on the ten or twelve men nearest to him,’ thought Rostov. ‘The rest could not have seen how or with whom Raevsky advanced on to the dam. And then even those who did see could have have been particularly inspired, for what did Raevsky’s tender paternal feelings matter to them when they had their own skins to the think about? And, moreover, the fate of the Fatherland did not depend on whether the Saltanov dam was taken, as we are told was the case at Thermopylae. So what was the use of such a sacrifice?’

There is a lot to unravel about this passage, including how Tolstoy talks about war, which is something I want to explore when I get around to reviewing the novel in the near future. But for now I just want to make two observations.

First it struck me that while the overly-enthusiastic Zdrzhinsky is capable of citing Thermopylae and knows that the battle was important in the final defeat of an invader, he is does not know all of the details. “Thermopylae” is just a symbol for him, pregnant with meaning but devoid of context.

Second, and related, Rostov provides some of that context and I think offers an some insight into Tolstoy’s vision of the interplay between providence and history. His vision of Thermopylae still lacks the Greek cultural context, but gives some broader historical context, namely that the sacrifice was a divine mandate to save Greece, while the battle at Saltanov was an individual moment of foolish heroism of the sort that happens all the time in war but still miss greater purpose. Ironically, I believe that some of the legend and importance of Thermopylae developed out of hindsight, i.e. that since the Greeks won they were able to point at the battle as an important moment. Like Xerxes, Napoleon is defeated, but gone is that glorious moment.

Thermopylae – Problems of Propoganda

Thermopylae was a failure. No really, it was an unmitigated disaster for the Greek defenders, with the only real questions being about what caused this (Leonidas’ generalship, failure of intelligence, sluggishness, indecisiveness, or infighting in the high command such that it existed). Just for a reference point, there were 300 full-blooded Spartans, 298 of whom lost their lives at Thermopylae, while a bit over 50 years later, 175 were captured at Sphacteria and this was enough to precipitate a truce in the Peloponnesian War. 300 was a huge number for Spartans.

Of course the problem with trying to figure out the series of events and why the 300 Spartans and volunteers from other states stayed behind and died is that the truth of the catastrophe is concealed by later propaganda which hails it as a noble sacrifice that helped saved Greece. The saviours who stayed for a suicide mission to hold off the horde as long as they could to allow Athens to evacuate.

The greatest problem with this chain of events is that the force sacrificed thousands of lives for three days, certainly not enough time to evacuate Athens in and of itself. Further, most of the army retreated in advance of the last day, so it seems possible that Leonidas and the volunteers were simply acting as a rear guard action and planned to withdraw themselves; then Leonidas died. Leonidas fell before the flanking force actually cut off the Greeks, but the tradition has a fierce fight over Leonidas’ corpse, and then before the Greeks could possibly disengage or withdraw, the trap was sprung.

Surely the Greeks fought nobly and fiercely, but they died. The survivors and the rest of the coalition remained quite pessimistic after this setback and did so until Salamis or well thereafter, but one effort to encourage them was to spin this disaster as a heroic sacrifice.

As popular media confirms to this day, the story has survived and flourished as a heroic stand of liberty and freedom against oppression, but one must not forget that the overarching message is actually one of complete failure.

The Spartan Myth – Martial Prowess & Invincibility

On the eve of the Persian Wars1 Sparta was undeniably the most powerful military force in Greece. The only true competitor during this period was Argos, but under Kleomenes, Sparta annihilated their army at Sepeia, supposedly killing half of that generation’s military capacity. Athens had a naval component of sorts, but it was not until almost fifteen years later that the first large naval buildup took place after an especially profitable year at the Laurium mines, but I digress.

There is some evidence that suggests that the Ionian rebellion and Croesus of Lydia tried to enlist Spartan aid for their cause, not Athenian, though ultimately it was an Athenian fleet that took part in the sack of Sardis. On land Sparta could call upon more hoplites than could Athens, between 5,000 Spartitiates, 5,000 Periokoi of Lakedaimon, and several thousand (up to 15) from their Peloponnesian allies, as demonstrated by the campaign leading up to Plataia. Now this force was a more or less all out attempt, though some number must have remained behind to prevent uprising and intervention from Argos. There is logic behind these capabilities, the Peloponnesian League and the storied agoge for acquiescing to Spartan hegemony against Persia. Further, in the years leading up to the wars two Spartan kings, Kleomenes and Leonidas, may have spent their energies enlisting a panhellenic effort against Persia.

Yet in the modern mind, and possibly even the ancient (though this is harder to prove, if it was even the case), Spartan prowess in battle devolves to one heroic three-day stand on road through a narrow passage north of Boiotia: Thermopylae. Poems, books, and movies have all been made about this one event, with the epitaphs about it evoking shivers. So prominent is it that it is easy to forget that it accomplished exactly nothing, and was a total defeat which cost Sparta 300 homoioi (equals).2 While the Persian losses were large at Thermopylae, he had troops to spare, so that when he left for Asia following Salamis, he still left behind Mardonios with an army larger than the combined Greek force, plus a second army somewhat smaller to protect the road through Macedonia, and a third in Northern Asia minor. It was costly to take the pass, but not in a significant manner.

There is also one brand of scholarship that argues that Leonidas himself was disobeying orders by remaining at Thermopylae when the situation had become untenable, though he may not have known how quickly the Persian flanking force would arrive and therefore thought that he could beat a fighting retreat. The suggestion from this derives from the boat that was to inform the Greek fleet of the defeat which did not leave until relatively late on the third day, suggesting that it was not a suicidal last stand, in which case the boat would have departed immediately.

The argument that he was buying time begs the question: time for what? The “final stand” he was buying time for their retreat, but as suggested he was only a rear-guard, not a suicidal mission and expected to beat a retreat later. Yet the initial deployment to Thermopylae is often seen as a delaying mission, so the question again arises. It was not to raise an army, since three days matters not at all when the actual land battle was not fought for another year. It was not to evacuate Athens, though three days would matter more there, since they must have already been evacuating, and it would take the Persians another week or more to reach the city from Thermopylae. No, sacrificing four or more thousand Greeks for three days is a ludicrous possibility.

I agree with the line of thinking that says that Leonidas did not intend a suicidal stand, but a fighting retreat; he held Thermopylae as long as he could, expecting reinforcements–for example, one of the two surviving Spartans missed the battle because he was off as an envoy gathering reinforcements. Thus Leonidas expected more troops and fully expected to be able to stave off the Persians, effectively stemming their invasion, while the fleet at Artemesion held off or defeated the Persian fleet.

This logic, and the subsequent sacrifice leads to a logical conclusion of a legend about Sparta putting it all out for Greece. This aspect is not lost, but this sort of responsibility already existed and the other states seemingly expected that Sparta would do it, so Thermopylae was their duty, not the foundation of a new legend. Instead it is usually cited as the rigidity, discipline and martial prowess of Spartans and while their standing firm is impressive, they all died. Leonidas miscalculated his capacity to retreat and died early on the third day before they had reached the point of retreat. Disciplined to the point of stupidity, led bravely in a failed effort (though it should be noted that Leonidas led as he was supposed to and if he was given 40,000 hoplites, not all of whom would have fit in the pass anyway, he would have done just fine), the rise of the legend is perplexing. It does make a great story, but it was a heroic failure. Sparta was largely interested in defending the Peloponnese and if Leonidas was breaking with policy by standing and dying, then it shows a weakness on the part of the Greek alliance.


EDIT FROM THE FUTURE, 5/13/2013
The Spartan Myth also has a great deal to do with the supposed absence of strife in Sparta during the classical period.


1 I will not go into a detailed discussion about the events leading up to the Persian Wars, though that topic may be forthcoming over this week. Note that at least some of my topical choices will be based in my course work this semester–Problems in Greek History and The Roman Empire.

2 Two issues about this number: 1) Actually it was 298, but one of the survivors committed suicide and the other died fighting in a frenzy at Plataia. 2) 300 was the traditional Spartan number for dangerous missions, though it is unlikely they were intended to be a suicide force, but moreover, during the Peloponnesian War around 175 homoioi were captured by Athens on Sphacteria and this was sufficient cause to offer a truce until they were returned. For a state with such a small population of full citizens, 300 was a large force, and too large of one for a suicide mission.

Leuctra and Waterloo; The transience of invincibility

Waterloo, the final defeat of Napoleon by the joint Prussian and British forces was an incredibly well-orchestrated defense by the Duke of Wellington, who bore the brunt of the French assaults until the Prussian army arrived and finalized the defeat. But before the Prussians arrived Wellington drove off multiple charges of the French cavalry, defended Hougoumont all day, and held La Haye Sainte for most of the battle.

Mistakes were made on both sides, and at several points Napoleon probably could have routed the British Army and then turned to deal with the Prussian Army. Most importantly for Napoleon, his second in command was Marshal Ney, not nearly the same calibre officer as Marshal Davout, who was left in charge of Paris during this fateful campaign. Napoleon’s final move at Waterloo was to dispatch the Middle Guard, not the Old Guard, but a terrifying unit nonetheless, and one of his elite. The British Foot Guards broke this charge, prompting the disintegration of the French Army and end of Napoleon’s Hundred Days.

Spartan training was the stuff of legends in Ancient Hellas and from the days of Thermopylae and Plataea an aura of invincibility arose, not unlike that which Napoleon would enjoy. Before Thermopylae Spartans were feared, but not considered invincible (ironic that a defeat would do so much to further an aura of invincibility). Throughout the next hundred years or more Spartans were nigh undefeated on land, the major exception being on the island of Sphacteria off of Pylos, where a group of Spartans ignominiously surrendered. Then came Leuctra.

Thebes waxed while Sparta waned, became softer, more materialistic and lazy. In 371 the Spartan king Cleombrotus led the army up into Boeotia where a smaller force under Epaminondas caught it at a disadvantage and crushed it. In one fell swoop the Spartan predominance and invincibility disappeared.

In both situations armies were mismanaged and the loser could easily have emerged victorious; but in neither did they. Spartan hoplites could have held and the Imperial Guard could have kept advancing, but they didn’t. Both groups broke, both groups ran, auras of invincibility irreparably shattered. It took just one instance, one flight, one complete defeat.