November 23 2010

The sublimity of Leonidas’ and his three hundred fellow Lacedaemonians’ personal self-sacrifice in their forlorn hope at Thermopylae in 480 B.C. was more than offset, in Sparta’s moral account with Hellas, by the political selfishness and strategic fatuousness of the Lacedaemonian Government’s contemporary public policy. A Power which in the crisis of 490 B.C., had ignominiously failed to put in an appearance on the battlefield of Marathon until after the Achaemenian expeditionary force had been repulsed by the Athenians and Plataeans single-handed, ran true to form in the greater crisis of 480 B.C., when Sparta refused to stake the whole of her magnificent infantry on trying to hold the pass of Tempe, or even the pass of Thermopylae, in concert with Athens’ magnificent navy. The example shown to Hellas at Thermopylae by Leonidas and his token force was the soldiers’ deed and not their Government’s. While Leonidas and his companions were sacrificing their lives, the Lacedaemonian Government’s one idea was to look after the parochial interests of Laconia and her Peloponnesian neighbours by fortifying the Isthmus of Corinth; and, in compromising their country’s honour by staking her existence on this poor-spirited plan, they do not appear to have reflected that, in thus abandoning Attica as well as the central and northern sections of Continental European Greece, they were virtually inviting the Athenians to capitulate to the invader and were thereby doing their worst to deprive themselves of the assistance of the Athenian Navy, without which the Peloponnese would have been indefensible. If, after the Persians’ break-through at Thermopylae, the Athenians had shown the same uninspired common sense as was shown by the Thebans, the Athenian Navy would either have gone out of action or would have changed sides, and in either of these events the Peloponnesians’ Isthmian wall would have been outflanked by the naval operations of an irresistibly superior enemy sea-power without any need for the land-troops of the Achaemenian expeditionary force to attempt to storm the Isthmus by a frontal attack. The situation was saved for the Peloponnese, as well as for Hellas as a whole, by the Athenians’ decision, in this supreme emergency, to emulate the heroism of a Spartan Leonidas whose own Government had failed to catch the hero’s inspiration. By summoning up the fortitude to keep the sea after the enemy’s occupation of their country and devastation of their city, the Athenians won for Hellas her decisive naval victory at Salamis.

Even after Athens had thus saved the Peloponnese at Salamis in 480 B.C., the Lacedaemonian Government managed nevertheless to come within an ace of losing the war for Hellas after all in 479 B.C. by threatening to “miss the bus” for Plataea as they had previously “missed the bus” for Marathon; and, in the event, the Hellenic victory at Plataea, like the Hellenic feat of arms at Thermopylae, was a soldiers’ battle and not an achievement of generalship or statesmanship, as far as the Lacedaemonians were concerned. Moreover, the Lacedaemonian soldier’s magnificent faithfulness to his traditional standards of military honour and prowess was offset after the Battle of Plataea, once again, by disgraceful conduct in high places. The Lacedaemonian Government’s cowardice after Thermopylae was eclipsed after Plataea by the treachery of the Lacedaemonian commander under whose official auspices the victory had been won. When it came, in the next phase of the war, to carrying the hostilities into Achaemenian territory for the purpose of liberating those Hellenic communities that had been under Achaemenian rule before 480 B.C., the Spartan Regent Pausanias demonstrated his own imperviousness to the inspiration of his uncle King Leonidas by surrendering unconditionally to the temptation of allowing himself to be dazzled by a signally defeated Achaemenian Imperial Majesty’s tinsel sheen of pomp and circumstance. In the act of disgracing himself by losing his head and becoming a renegade, Pausanias lost for his country the leadership in the war for the liberation of the Asiatic Hellenes from an Achaemenian yoke.

Typical Victorian language! The contrast between good soldiers and blinkered generals may have had a contemporary resonance. Pausanias was a traitor.

Melvyn Bragg’s 2004 discussion (45 minutes) with Tom Holland, author of Persian Fire; Simon Goldhill, Professor of Greek Literature and Culture, King’s College, Cambridge; and Edith Hall, Leverhulme Professor of Greek Cultural History, University of Durham and author of Inventing the Barbarian: Greek Self-Definition through Tragedy.

Themistocles (Wikipedia).

David, Leonidas at Thermopylae (1814), Louvre

A Study of History, Vol VIII, OUP, 1954 (footnote)

2 Responses to “Thermopylae”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    A friend of mine once defined Edward Lear’s limericks as “the Victorian middle class getting bored with itself”.

    “There was an old man of Thermopylae,
    Who never did anything properly;
    But they said, ‘If you choose
    To boil eggs in your shoes,
    You shall never remain in Thermopylae.’”

  2. davidderrick Says:

    French classicism: the geometry of limbs.

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