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Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Battle of Thermopylae - Zenith of Heroism (Part 2)

As a the second day of the battle was coming to a close, a Trachinian traitor named Ephialtes arrived in Xerxes' camp and informed the Persian leader about the secret mountain path around the pass of hermopylae. Taking advantage of this information, Xerxes ordered Hydarnes to take a large force, including the Immortals, on a flanking march over the trail. At daybreak on the third day, the Phocians guarding the Anopaia path were surprised to see the advancing Persians. Attempting to make a stand, they formed on a nearby hill but were bypassed by the Persians. That led to the fall of Thermopylae.

Ephialtes of Trachis was the son of Eurydemus of Malis, who betrayed his homeland Greece by showing the Persian forces a path around the allied Greek position at the pass of Thermopylae that resulted into the victory of the invading Persians. The treachery of Ephialtes  was motivated by his greed for money as a reward from the Persian King Xerxes. However there was no bounty given to Ephialtes after the Persians were defeated in the Battle of Salamis. He fled Thessaly when a reward for his death was offered by Ampicythons of Pylae. Ephialtes  was killed by Althenades of Trachis for an unrelated cause, nonetheless, Althenades was given the reward.  Today the name Ephialtes which means “nightmare” is used as a synonym for traitor in Greek in a comparable fashion to Judas Escariot in the Bible or Arnold Benedict in the American history.
After the Greek forces were outflanked by the Persians through a secret path in the mountain of Thermopylae, it was chronicled that Leonidas himself ordered the Greek allied troops to retreat for their safety. Leonidas decided to stay with the remaining force of the 300 Spartans to fight insurmountable odds to the last man to delay the advance of the Persian army.  The Thespians, refusing to retreat, stayed with Leonidas and the Spartans, and they perished with them.
Actual casualties for the Battle of Thermopylae are not known with certainty, but may have been as high as 20,000 for the Persians and around 2,000 for the Greeks.
After receiving the news of the fall of Thermopylae,  Athenian politician Themistocles, commander of the Greek naval fleet decided  for its withdrawal at Artemisium and proceeded to Salamis.  Since the Greek's strategy required both Thermopylae and Artemisium to be held to ensure victory over the Persians, Themistocles felt it was a wise military decision.
 After capturing Thermopylae, the Persians advanced south and overran Boeotia and then captured the evacuated Athens, while the remaining Greek troops began fortifying the abandoned Artemisium. In late 480 BC the Greek fleet, seeking a decisive victory over the Persian armada, attacked and defeated the Persian invaders at the Battle of Salamis. Fearful of being trapped in Europe, Xerxes withdrew with much of his army to Asia, losing most to starvation and disease, leaving Mardonius (A Persian Military Leader) to attempt to complete the conquest of Greece. The following year, however, the Greek army decisively defeated the Persians at the Battle of Plataea, thereby ending the Persian invasion.
When the news of the Persian army advancing to Greece In August 480 BC was received by the Greeks, the timing became a dilemma for the Spartans as it coincided with the feast of Carneia and the Olympic truce and the Spartan army was prohibited by the Council to engage in military activities during these celebrations. Efforts were made to convince the Council Senators to permit the Spartan army to go to Thermopylae to protect the pass for the sake of Greece but the politicians disapproved the proposal.
Since there is no time to wait for the whole Spartan army that can only be dispatched after the religious festival, King Leonidas decided to take a heroic yet hopeless stand with only his 300 personal bodyguards who were not covered by the Council’s order.
Before the departure of Leonidas and the 300 Spartans, the Council consulted the Oracle at Delphi earlier in the year. The Oracle is said to have made the following prophecy; "that either Sparta must be overthrown by the barbarians, or one of her kings must perish." The prophecy was delivered in hexameter verse, and ran thus: -
O ye men who dwell in the streets of broad Lacedaemon!
Either your glorious town shall be sacked by the children of Perseus,
Or, in exchange, must all through the whole Laconian country
Mourn for the loss of a king, descendant of great Heracles (Hercules)
Before the fall of Thermopylae, it has been said that Leonidas had enough time to withdraw and save his own life and the Spartanss. Yet Leonidas refused to abandon the pass.  Historian Herodotus considers it as an act of deliberate self-sacrifice carried out in accordance with an oracle, which predicted that the death of a Spartan King would save Sparta from destruction. Dascalakis, another ancient writer argues that Leonidas remained in order to give the allied contingents, whom he dismissed (with the exception of the Thebans and the Thespians), time to get away and go back to their families.

Both ancient and modern writers have used the Battle of Thermopylae as an example of the power and will of a patriotic army defending a native land against invaders. The defense fighting skills of the Greeks at the battle of Thermopylae is often used in both early and modern military strategies using the advantages of rigid training, equipment, and good use of terrain as force multipliers in succeeding battles.  The incredible bravery and courage of the Spartans and other Greeks against overwhelming odds had become a symbol of resistance to oppression and fight for freedom for a country.

From a military strategic point of view, the Greeks were making the best possible use of their comparatively outnumbered forces by defending Thermopylae and Artemisium. The Greeks knew all along that they are not fighting a decisive battle against superior number of Xerxes’ land and naval forces. The Greeks believed that as long as they could delay and prevent the Persian’s advance further into Greece, they are willing to remain on the defensive.
Furthermore, by defending two constricted passages (Thermopylae and Artemisium), the Greeks' inferior numbers became a lesser liability. On the contrary, the Persians had a big problem of providing supplies to such a large army to remain in the same camp for too long. The Persians are therefore pressed to attack and advance that required them to go through the narrow pass of Thermopylae.
In tactical terms, the pass at Thermopylae was ideally suited to the Greek style of warfare, specifically the Spartans. A hoplite phalanx would be able to block the narrow pass with ease, with no risk of being outflanked by the cavalry. In the pass, the phalanx would have been very difficult to assault for the more lightly armed Persian infantry. The major weak point for the Greeks was the mountain track which led across the highland parallel to Thermopylae, and which would allow their position to be outflanked. Although probably unsuitable for cavalry, this path could easily be traversed by the Persian infantry, many of whom were versed in mountain warfare.
King Leonidas and the 300 Spartans deserved the reputation of being the fiercest and best-disciplined combat fighters, ingeniously creating the element of surprise and driving the over-confident aggressor to desperation by inflicting catastrophic losses after every attack on the pass of Thermopylae including Xerxes imperial body guards of 10,000 'immortals'.
The performance of the defenders at the battle of Thermopylae is often cited as an example of the advantages of training, equipment and good use of terrain to maximize an army’s potential, as well as a symbol of courage against extremely overwhelming odds. The heroic sacrifice of the Spartans and the Thespians has captured the minds of many throughout the ages and has given birth to many cultural orientation as a result.
The battle of Thermopylae is just an episode in the great Greco-Persian wars, but over the centuries, it has become some sort of foundation myth of Western civilization. Many novels have been written about the epic battle such as William Golding's The Hot Gate and Steven Pressfield's Gates of Fire, Tom Holland’s  Persian Fire in 2005  and Frank Miller's award-winning comic book 300 , now a top-grosser movie.
 I have reasons to believe that the continuing interest in the battle of Thermopylae is easy to understand. The brilliant account by Herodotus of Halicarnassus (c.480-c.425), included in the seventh book of his Histories, one of the most entertaining and accessible texts from Antiquity. Unfortunately, the great care with which he separates facts from opinion has not always inspired later historians and researchers. With this in mind, it may not be an exaggeration to say that "Thermopylae" is rapidly becoming a political propaganda. And that is to be regretted, because novels, comic books, and movies, unlike research work, reaches many people and the way people hyphotesize the past.
Author Frank Miller gave his own interpretation saying that “The Spartans sacrificed themselves for the freedom of Greece. And not only for Greek liberty: the Spartans were "the world's one hope for reason and justice", and the Persians were living "in a sea of mysticism and tyranny". Although Thermopylae was a defeat, it showed the world what free men are capable of, inspired the other Greeks, and therefore saved the Greek culture and all western civilization.
April 30, 2013
Fresno, California USA

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