One of my favorite nerd spots in Greece was Thermopylae, historic site of the battle depicted in the graphic-but-awesome 2006 movie « 300 ». It’s probably the most famous battle in Greek history, a tall tale of heroism against impossible odds.
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Picture this: it's 480 BC. The Empire of Persia is pissed that it got its butt kicked by the soldiers of Athens 30 years before, in the Battle of Marathon. The Persian leader, Xerxes, has spent the last 3 decades plotting his father’s revenge and amassing a huge army, intent on defeating Greece once and for all.
A paltry 7,000 Greek soldiers were sent to meet the Persians at Thermopylae. Their case was hopeless: Xerxes’ army was said to count 1 million warriors (although that number is disputed today - it was probably closer to 200,000). Included in those 7,000 Greeks were the famous 300 Spartan fighters, tough as nails. They were led by King Leonidas, an absolute beast of a man, whom us ladies will fondly remember as Gerard Butler in his leather loincloth.
*ahem* Moving on.
The vastly outnumbered Greeks held off the Persians for a week, then the real battle began. At one point, Xerxes commanded Leonidas to give up his arms, to which he famously retorted, Come and get them (Molon labe) !
For two days, the Spartan army planted themselves at the mouth of the only road that the massive Persian army could take through the mountains. The Persian soldiers had to break rank in order to squeeze through the bottleneck in the mountain pass. The Spartans, who were formidable fighters, could easily handle the now decreased number of enemies coming at them. (Spartans famously devised a battle formation called a phalanx, in which rows of soldiers stood directly next to and over each other, with their shields overlapping to form an enormous barrier). Consequently, they lost very few men while the Persians lost a great deal. King Xerxes was said to have been completely perplexed and dumbstruck, and was considering a full retreat after 2 days of constant ass-whooping.
However, Day 3 brought the real kicker for the Spartans. A local resident named Ephialtes betrayed them by leading the Persians around the mountains, allowing them to sneak up behind the Spartans. King Leonidas learned they had been betrayed, sent away most of the Greek army for safekeeping and stayed behind to fight to his certain death, along with his 300 Spartans and 700 other Greeks called the Thespians.
In the ensuing chaos, King Leonidas was shot down by Persian archers, who rained down sheets of arrows until every last Greek was dead. Xerxes went on to conquer Athens, but was defeated 20 years later by the very soldiers that had been sent home by Leonidas at Thermopylae.
Spartans, and this battle in particular, had been elevated to mythical status throughout Greece. To this day, Thermopylae is the most famous last-stand in world history and is a symbol of courage and bravery against overwhelming odds.
They were quite the tough bunch; every man was a warrior by law. One of the most extreme civilizations in Earth’s history, they stood out against their neighbors. For example, a Spartan specialty was black soup made from pig’s blood, vinegar and salt; no other civilization in Greece would drink it.
Literally bred for military excellence, Spartans were both idolized and feared by their fellow Greeks. Feeble or ill infants were left outside to die of exposure. At the age of seven, soldiers-in-training were stripped of all clothing except a single loincloth, and endured 13 years of brutality and frugality: heavy group initiations, extreme hunger, exposure to cold and heat, untreated infections and serious lack of sleep. They had to steal food to survive but were flogged if caught. They often didn’t survive the endurance contests and beatings they were regularly subjected to. Spartans had long, flowing hair which would only be cut off if a soldier showed weakness or cowardice.
Spartan women were fully educated and enjoyed considerably superior rights than other women in the world at that time (or in this time, for that matter). They enjoyed freedoms that were unheard of in that time period and their physical health and beauty was the stuff of legends. The mythical Helen of Troy, before she ran away with Paris and kicked off the Trojan War, was originally Helen of Sparta.
Fearing no other civilization and rarely defeated for centuries, the city of Sparta had no walls or defenses other than its own citizens. Even Alexander the Great didn't bother trying to conquer the Spartans.
If you’re planning to visit...
The memorial and its surroundings are beautiful, but the site itself is rather, well... spartan (haha See what I did there?) -- there are few plaques to chronicle the battle. The area looks nothing like the descriptions in historical texts (or in the movie); the ground between the mountain walls is roughly 65 meters higher and the seashore is now a few kilometres away. Also, it’s a bit out of the way in Central Greece (about 20 km from the town of Lamia), so I recommend a package tour for both the guide and the transportation.
I toured Thermopylae along with Ancient Delphi (add link), which was a much more developed site and totally worth visiting as well. You can also round up your visit to the ancient city of Sparta, although there’s not much left of it now.
If you are so inclined, Timeline (World History Documentaries) has a great three-part documentary about Spartans on YouTube, hosted by the fabulous historian Bettany Hughes.
Happy travels, my friend.