National Geographic : 1944 Mar
Leonidas' Immortal Sacrifice at Thermopylae IN THE summer of 480 B.C. the Persian king, Xerxes, was moving down with a vast army against Greece. Most of the Greek states forgot their differences in the face of the common peril. Athens, fortunately, possessed a well equipped navy, and, aided by contingents from other cities, was leader in the defense against the danger by sea. Sparta, the other chief military state of Greece, advanced a shortsighted plan of campaign, which was to defend the narrow Isthmus of Corinth, hold only the Peloponnesus, and abandon the remainder of the country to the invader. But this was not approved by the majority of the Greeks. For a time the Greek allies, led by Themistocles, an Athenian general, contemplated a defense of Thessaly near Mount Olympus. But the position was untenable, and the forces withdrew, leaving part of the army to block the Per sian advance at Thermopylae, where the narrow pass be tween the mountains and the sea offered some hope of success. This defense was led by Leonidas, the Spartan king, with some three hundred Spartans and their followers, and nearly five thousand other fighters from Tegea, Orchomenus, Cor inth, Thespiae, Thebes, Locris, Phocis, and elsewhere. For a time the resistance was highly successful, and the Persian numbers were of no advantage in the narrow defile. But a certain Epialtes from Malis betrayed to the Persians a secret way around the position, and in the night word came to Leonidas that his forces were being cut off from behind. At daybreak, therefore, he dismissed his allies save for a thousand Phocians, 700 Thespians, and the Thebans, and with his three hundred fought an immortal delay- ing action at the pass. He himself and allbut two of the Spartans perished, but theglorious memory ofhis devotion forms one of the brightestpages ofGreek history. The Spartan dead wereburied under amound near where they fell, and a stone lion was setupover it.Simonides wrote their epitaph: "0 passer-by, tellthe Lacedaemonians that we lie here obeyingtheir orders." In the picture Leonidas isseen bidding farewell tothe departing allies. In thedistance, watched by sentries, rises smoke from the Persian campfires, and inthe middle distance appears part ofarough stone fortification erected by the people of Phocisas adefense inanearlier war. The Greek warrior of that period wore acorselet ofbronze and leather over a shirt.Lappets ofleather hung from the cuirass to protect the abdomen, and the lower legs were pro tected by bronze greaves.Onthe head was ahigh-crested bronze helmet lined withleather orworn over aleather cap. The shields were usually round, although theThebans carried oval shields with indentations oneither side. Swords were short and double-edged, and aspear completed the warrior's offensive armament. Troops from the noncitizen class were equipped with a simple helmet or cap andcarried bows, spears, orslings. Three years ago Thermopylae was held again, this time by men from Britain-anisland that was unknown inGreek times except to some Phoenician tintraders. Again the pass was taken, and the defenders had tofall back, leaving some of their number behind tohold off theenemy aslong as possible, because they, too, had been outflanked.