Go tell the Spartans

| March 13, 2007

[Welcome to those coming over from Winds of Change! — additional comments at the end of this post]

I haven’t seen 300 (the movie), though I own and have read Frank Miller’s graphic novel, as well as Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield. More importantly, I also own and have read all of Herodotus’s The History, the closest we have to original source material on the battle at Thermopylae (Herodotus was born in 484 BC, while the battle at Thermopylae took place in 480 BC).

In it, Herodotus tells how Xerxes is puzzled by his spy’s report at the small number of Greeks holding the pass at Thermopylae, and that they appear to be involved in “gymnastic exercises [and] combing their long hair.” Demaratus, a Greek exile who fled Sparta to Persia, explains:

“I spake to thee, O king! concerning these men long since, when we had just begun our march upon Greece; thou, however, didst only laugh at my words, when I told thee all this, which I saw would come to pass….These men have come to dispute the pass with us; and it is for this that they are now making ready. ‘Tis their custom, when they are about to hazard their lives, to adorn their heads with care. Be assured, however, that if thous canst subdue the men who are here and the Lacedaemonians who remain in Sparta, there is no other nation in all the world which will venture to lift a hand in their defense. Thou hast now to deal with the first kingdom and town in Greece, and with the bravest men.” [Book 7, para 209; George Rawlinson translation]

Xerxes refrains from attacking for four days, expecting the Greeks to run away; they don’t, adhering to Spartan law that forbids either retreat or surrender:

When, however, he found on the fifth [day] that they were not gone, thinking that their firm stand was mere impudence and recklessness, he grew wroth, and sent against them the Medes and Cissians, with orders to take them alive and bring them into his presence. Then the Medes rushed forward and charged the Greeks, but fell in vast numbers; others however took the places of the slain and would not be beaten off, though they suffered terrible losses. In this way it became clear to all, and especially to the king [Xerxes], that though he had plenty of combatants, he had very few warriors….During these assaults, it is said that Xerxes, who was watching the battle, thrice leaped from the throne on which he sate, in terror for his army. [7:210, 212]

King Leonidas and the Spartans finally fall on the third day of battle. And, according to Herodotus, an inscription is made at Thermopylae, possibly the most famous war memorial in human history:

Ὦ ξεῖν’, ἀγγέλλειν Λακεδαιμονίοις ὅτι τῇδε
κείμεθα, τοῖς κείνων ῥήμασι πειθόμενοι.

Go, stranger, and to Lacedaemon tell
That here, obeying her behests, we fell. [7:228]

Or as Frank Miller puts it in his graphic novel 300:

Go tell the Spartans, passerby,
That here, by Spartan law, we lie.

Xerxes then asks Demaratus if all Lacedaemons are like this; Demaratus gives him the bad news:

“O king!” replied the other, “the whole number of Lacedaemons is very great; and many are the cities which they inhabit. But I will tell thee what thou really wishest to learn. There is a town in Lacedaemon called Sparta, which contains within it about eight thousand full-grown men. They are, one and all, equal to those who have fought here. The other Lacedaemonians are brave men, but not such warriors as these.” [7:234]

In the meantime, the rest of Greece — shamed and spurred by the deliberate self-sacrifice of King Leonidas and his band of Spartans — rallies for war. Xerxes’s fleet is destroyed at Salamis by the Athenians; Xerxes personally retreats from Greece, and the occupying force he leaves behind is eventually destroyed by the combined Greek forces.

And Western civilization, including many of the political and philosophical concepts we take for granted some 2500 years later, survives.

In fact, 160 years later, Greece returns the favor to Persia — Alexander III of Macedon, after uniting (at sword’s point) the Grecian city-states weakened in the aftermath of a long and bloody internal war, crosses the Hellespont himself, but heading east — and he doesn’t stop until he and his armies reach India. In his wake, Greek culture, science, politics and philosophy spread throughout many lands, and Alexander is surnamed “the Great”.

So why am I bothering to write about all this?

My father enlisted in the Navy at age 17 in 1941 and survived Pearl Harbor, the (Naval) Battle of Guadalcanal, and the invasion of Guam. The first time I visited in the USS Arizona memorial in Pearl Harbor (in 1975), I found tears streaming down my face, recognizing that most of the 1100+ names listed there were young men just like my father had been, and that they represented families and family lives that would never be. Ever since then, I have had a very tender — almost raw — spot when it comes to the willingness of men and women to go deliberately in harm’s way for the safety and liberty of others. It is a wrenching, horrible yet absolutely necessary cost for the freedoms we enjoy — and I fear that much of our society has lost sight of that (among many other things). I don’t speak from an abstract point of view, either; I have a son who is a Marine and will likely go over to Iraq late this year or early next year, while one of my daughters plans to enlist in either the Navy or the Marines as of this summer.

And so the story of Themopylae prods at my heart, just as I quietly weep every time I re-read Herman Wouk’s novel War and Remembrance and get to the Battle of Midway — where Wouk stops and lists the names of the actual pilots who died, who knowingly chose their own deaths, and in so doing changed world history for the better.

As Victor Davis Hanson notes, we owe much to Leonidas and his 300. Whether you choose to see the movie or not, reflect on how the bravery and death of a handful of Greeks back in 480 BC shaped the world we live in today, including the freedoms that we enjoy. Reflect also on the sacrifices of our own armed forces, to establish and preserve our liberties and freedom and to extend those same traditions and concepts to others.

And ask ourselves what we — as individuals — have done to deserve and live up to such sacrifices. ..bruce..

[UPDATED 03/14/07 – 2226 PDT]

My original posting above was inspired in part by an observation made by Marc “Armed Liberal” Danziger over at Winds of Change:

But one interesting thing popped up as I read the available reviews (many linked at www.rottentomatoes.com); the astounding historical and cultural ignorance of most film critics.

Kenneth Turan of the LA Times was the only one who ‘got’ the historical context of Thermopylae (even though he didn’t like the movie). Sheesh. You’d think that people who write about culture for a living would know something about it, wouldn’t you?

Marc’s got an excellent follow-up posting addressing the issue of patriotism (or, as some would have it, “patriotism”) and touches on the key point that I somewhat clumsily thrash around:

What’s missing from Matt’s (actually nuanced) argument is one simple point; the Spartans are us – they are, literally, among the ancestors of this rickety enterprise we all know as Western Civilization, and so – beyond our affinity for their heroism, or their connection to the notion of freedom (for landowning nobles, at least) – we owe them a debt of patrimony.

That, of course, is one of the central themes in the writings of Victor Davis Hanson, particularly The Western Way of War and Who Killed Homer? (both of which I recommend highly).

For me, there is an emotional resonance beyond the “debt of patrimony”. I actually know all four verses to “The Star-Spangled Banner“, because it’s in the standard LDS (Mormon) hymnbook, and when we sing it in church, as usually happens around the 4th of July, we sing all the verses. [Actually, the LDS Church dropped the 3rd verse when it revised the hymnbook in 1985, undoubtedly because the 3rd verse says unkind things about the British. A pity; I rather enjoyed the frisson of having both the complete “Star-Spangled Banner” and “God Save the King” in the same hymnbook.] And though I’ve been singing the 4th verse for 40 years, I can still never get through the first few lines without choking up:

Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war’s desolation….

My dad did that for 30 years; my son (named after him) has stepped into that same role. Western Civilization, which we enjoy so much even as we criticize it, exists because millions of men (and women) over the past 2500 years have knowingly sacrificed their lives and left behind grieving families and friends. And, to echo Marc’s observation, it’s not just film critics who have an “astounding historical and cultural ignorance” — it’s Western society as a whole. ..bruce..

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Category: Commentary, Geopolitics, Main, Military, Reviews, US Politics

About the Author ()

Webster is Principal and Founder at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor of Computer Science at Brigham Young University. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at bwebster@bfwa.com, or you can follow him on Twitter as @bfwebster.

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  1. Winds of Change.NET | March 14, 2007
  1. Oldun says:

    Thank you sir. Likewise, I was a young teenager when my father first took me to to a war memorial in the UK for the citizen-soldiers of many countries who died in the war to Europe. He didn’t explain why and he didn’t need to. I have never forgotten, and wherever I travel, I try to stop over and pay my respects at the monuments for those who died to preserve and protect our present and our childrens’ futures.