The Dawn of Ancient Greek Heroism
The unwitting defeat of Leonidas and the thousands of Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae has confounded the minds of many historians and has compelled them to deduce any possible logical explanation.
Sparta was a superpower at the time of ancient Greece.The Greek historian Xenophon, stated that it “had the greatest power of any Greek community but also one of the smallest populations” (Powell, 2001, p.218).
The Spartan society was known for its patriotism, and courage in war.1 The way of education of the society was unique for Sparta, where it emphasized the development of the physique thru compulsory military training for both boys and girls at a very early age.2 This intensely strict mandate has produced the psychology of dying rather than defeat at war.3 The outstanding accomplishment that was born out of this way of living was a supreme military.
Sparta seemed unconquerable with a population who would choose death over loss at battle and a military feared by other polis. The strength of heart of the Spartans, however, was put to the test during the famous Battle of Thermopylae.
King Leonidas lead an army of 4000 to defend the straits of Thermopylae from the attacking Persians. They fought courageously, giving big losses to the army of Persian emperor Xerxes but suffered defeat when a Greek traitor told Xerxes of an alternative trail to attack the Spartans. Upon knowing this treachery, Leonidas sent away most of his army and faced the Persians with the remaining 300. Leonidas and his army fought with all courage and died as heroes.4
That point of Greek history was arguably “Spartan’s finest hour” (Caltredge, 2002) and became an outstanding source of inspiration to poets and literary figures who tried to immortalize that event. Francois Rene de Chateaubriand (Bernard 2003) described the event, thus:
I cannot describe the confused feelings which overpowered me. The hill at whose foot I stood was, then, the hill of the citadel of Sparta…. I dismounted, and ran all the way up the hill of the citadel. As I reached the top, the sun was rising behind the Menelaian hills. What a beautiful spectacle! But how melancholy! … I stood motionless, in a kind stupor. A mixture of admiration and grief checked my steps and my thoughts; the silence round me was profound. Wishing, at least, to make echo speak in a spot where the human voice is no longer heard, I shouted with all my might, “Leonidas!” No ruin repeated this great name, and Sparta herself seemed to have forgotten it. (p. 1)
Herodotus attributed that courageous decision of Leonidas and his army to die to the fulfillment of the oracle at Delphi, where Sparta would decide to sacrifice its king or to suffer the obliteration of the whole city.5 However, it would be unreasonable to always accept the truth of the oracle since it is only a conjecture, an alternative explanation to the fiasco caused by man’s wrong decision-making so he may not be blamed.6 In order not to attribute events to the supernatural, one must therefore, peruse the history book again, look for the most possible and grave explanation, and find the reasons that would satisfy logic.
One can look at two things: the form of government and the way of life. These are mutually inclusive ideas however these are looked upon as factors that would affect the standards of morality of society. The Greek historian Theopompus sees democracy, the political system of Sparta, as a way leading “to luxury and dissolute living, and luxury is thoroughly corrupting” (Flower, 1994, p.79), assuming this is true for Sparta, democracy would not explain the heroism of Leonidas and his army.
The Spartan way of life however, revolves around the education of its young to become the warriors that could protect its city. Therefore, the education of the Spartan society would explain the rationale behind this tragic decision. Every man in Sparta underwent rigorous physical training, and in this process, patriotism was being built. The decision to die for society was being taught along the process. When one sees death better to taste than defeat, it would become easy to die and accept the reality of dying. For this society, it is scornful to be a coward and glorious to die at the battlefield.
Caltredge (2002) cited in his article:
Spartan wives and mothers were not shrieking violets. They openly berated and chastised any hint of cowardice in their sons. They wept tears of pain if their son or husband came back safe but defeated from battle, tears of joy if he died in a winning cause.
The Spartan way of educating their citizens that the way to glory is thru death at battle has driven Leonidas and his men to carry on fighting until death, because only then can they show that indeed, it is glorious to die for a good cause rather than be defeated.
1 See Pomeroy (1999, p.132).
2 See Starr (1965, p. 258) for a detailed description of the education of men; Caltredge (2002) for the description of the education of women.
3 See Caltredge (2002).
4 See Platts (1865, p. 258).
5 See Hodkinson (1994).
6 See the footnote on Dyer (1894, p.52).
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Cartledge, P. (2002 August). To Die For? Paul Cartledge Sees Ancient Spartan Society and Its Fierce Code of Honour as Something Still Relevant Today. History Today, 52(20), 1.
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Flower, M. (1994). Theopompus of Chios.
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Hodkinson, S. (1994). The Shadow of Sparta.
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