Sunday, June 19, 2011

The 300

I have stood in the very place where the 300 took their stand against the Persians: Thermopyle!

I could hardly get out of the bus fast enough at the stop this morning.  A visit to Thermopyle was not on the Fulbright Hays original itinerary, but some persuasive members of our tour convinced our guide that we simply had to visit this widely known, inspirational location.

The location of the battlefield stands at the foot of imposing, craggy mountains, part of the Pindos mountain range.  As a side note, the Pindos Mountains are actually an extension of the Alps as they crawl south into the Balkans.  Today, the site of the clash is bordered by the mountains on one side and a road and farm land/valley.  In the 4th century B.C., however, the battlefield was on the edge of the sea.

The details of the battle are widely known; sixth graders devour this story!  1000 Greeks fought a Persian army numbering in the tens of thousands (Herodotus's account tells us there are more, but that's hard to believe).  Nonetheless, 700 Thespians and 300 Spartans stood against the giant land-based empire in three battles here.  At one point, sparking the second clash, a Greek traitor is said to have told the Persians where the Greek army was located, obviously giving the Persians a huge advantage.  But what I didn't know about our traitor is this: according to Staphis, our guide, the traitor was not a member of the Greek army, but rather was a local farmer.  The Persians and the Greeks had already battled it out on part of his land (first clash), and the farmer simply didn't want the rest of his livlihood to become a casualty of the war.  So he got the Persians to move off his land by telling them where to find the Greek army, and sent them around the mountain!  A very interesting side note to the story.

Ultimately 700 Thespians and 300 Spartans were slaughtered by the Persians at Thermopyle.  But here is another fact that I was unware of until today: each and every member of the 300 Spartans was a warrior between the ages of 25 and 35---and every one of those men had at least one son back at home in Sparta.  It's not hard to figure out the thinking behind this recruiting strategy.  If a Spartan was unable to come home waving his shield in victory, his body was carried home upon it---but there would be, guaranteed, a young Spartan at home to grow into the role of his father.

I stood where the Spartans spilled their blood, defending a foe that obliterated them.  Their bravery inspired Greeks from across the Aegean to do the impossible against their Persian enamy.  May I be so inspired by these ancient warriors to stand my ground against whatever forces threaten to devour me.

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