After the war was over, the Amphyctionic League (the association of northern Greeks whose meeting-place had always been at the Hot Gates) set up a plaque to commemorate the last stand of Leonidas and his men:
Tell them in Lacedaemon, passer-by:
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.
This lapidary and suitably laconic inscription reminded all Greeks for generations to come of the debt owed to the men - and to the code - of that strange and often violently disliked state in the Peloponnese. Its message has carried on even into our own remote world and time. It has been celebrated by William Golding in his essay ‘The Hot Gates’:
It is not just that the human spirit reacts directly and beyond all arguments to a story of sacrifice and courage, as a wine glass must vibrate to the sound of the violin. It is also because, way back and at the hundredth remove, that company stood in the right line of history. A little of Leonidas lies in the fact that I can go where I like and write what I like. He contributed to set us free.
To this one can only add that there are today vast areas of the world where the autocracy of a Persian monarch like Xerxes is far exceeded by modern tyrannies. Even the self-perpetuating bureaucracy of our modern Western, self-styled ‘democratic’, world would have seemed to the Spartans who died at Thermopylae an unacceptable thing.
Thermopylae, which has been wrongly compared in recent times
to the evacuation of Dunkirk, can be counted a victory in moral terms. The right men had been there, in the right place and at the right time - but far too few of them. Had Sparta sent a thousand men instead of a king’s bodyguard of three hundred, the Phocian force guarding the pass over Kallidromos could have been stiffened by a leavening of Spartan officers who would have made sure that it was, at the very least, hotly contested. In the end, in view of the size of the Persian army, there can be small doubt that the result would have been much the same. In the past it was the natural human tendency to elevate the battle at the Hot Gates to an almost superhuman dimension and, having done so, to let the purpose of it be forgotten. Quite unlike Dunkirk, which was a withdrawal, Thermopylae was a deliberate self-sacrifice by a handful of men who died so that the fleet at Artemisium might stay in being. The very fact that, on the same day as the storming of the pass, Xerxes gave orders for his fleet to attack the Greeks proves how important to his strategy was the shattering of this linchpin.
The importance of Thermopylae was understood in the times that immediately followed this great battle for the West. Some later commentators have confused the issue. The death of Leonidas and of the three hundred chosen men from Lacedaemon was seen at the time for what it was: a torch, not to light a funeral pyre, but to light the hitherto divided and irresolute Greek people. If, as some have regarded it, the chosen death of the Spartan king was an act of devotion, a sacrifice to appease the gods and to ensure that, if a Spartan king must die, his city would be spared on that score, then Leonidas chose wisely. As has been suggested, it may well be that he had something to expiate. At the same time, no student of history should ever forget that, without Thermopylae, there would hardly have been that extraordinary surge of pride throughout Greece which produced the spirit that was to lead to Salamis and Plataea. For the first time in their history a distinct sense of ‘Greek-ness’ far overriding the almost eternal (and fratricidal) squabbles of their city-states served to unite this brilliant people. It was true that the unity was far from total (Argos is but one example), yet for most of the Greeks, who still remained free or had not already medised, the example of Thermopylae provided a common bond of pride and honour. Eurybiades, uneasy as he may have been in his position of command over a predominantly Athenian fleet, could find in the example of Leonidas and the Three Hundred an inspiratory proof that Sparta kept her word. They had died to a man and a king had been sacrificed, not in some local war in the Peloponnese but far to the north, in a battle to preserve the freedom of all Greece.
Herodotus tells us that he took pains to ascertain the names of the Three Hundred, something that was relatively easy to do since they were all recorded on the memorial for Thermopylae which was erected at Sparta. In this same vicinity has been found the fifth-century head and torso of a warrior which has been credibly identified as a statue of Leonidas, which Pausanias informs us was set up along with the commemorative Roll of Honour. Simonides, who wrote an encomium on ‘those who died at the Hot Gates’, set the tone for all subsequent tributes to a self-sacrifice that Greece never forgot, while the Spartiates held annual games in their honour at which a speech was delivered in memory of the fallen and the battle. It was Simonides also, who had been a personal friend of Megistias, who wrote a tribute to him that was set up among the monuments in the Pass:
Here lies Megistias, who died
When the Medes crossed Spercheius’ tide.
A great seer, yet he scorned to save
Himself, and shared the Spartans’ grave.
In the aftermath of the battle, Xerxes was mindful of what their ex-king had told him about the Spartans’ prowess in war and their ‘Kamikaze’ code of honour. He sent for Demaratus, who gave him some very good advice which - fortunately for the Greeks - the king did not (or could not) take. After inquiring as to the number of similar fighting men there might be in Lacedaemon the king asked him what he thought was the best way of overcoming such a people. Demaratus replied:
Suppose you divide your forces and send three hundred ships from the fleet round to Lacedaemon. There is an island off the coast there called Cythera … which your ships can use as their base, and from which they can spread terror all over Lacedaemon. With a war on their own doorstep you need not worry that they will go to the help of the other Greeks, whom in the meantime your army can proceed to conquer. The rest of Greece will be crushed first of all, while Lacedaemon will be left helpless on its own.
This was sound and sensible. With marauding troops in Lacedaemon itself, and with the Persian fleet harrying the coastline, the Spartans would have been forced to keep their army at home to protect their city and to keep an eye on their neighbours, as well as the Helots, who might all have risen if Sparta itself was threatened. Xerxes’ brother Achaemenes, who was in command of the Egyptian fleet, remonstrated. He had already seen the great Persian armada depleted by storms off the rocky coastline leading to Cape Sepias, and then the loss of the advance squadron sent to round Euboea, and here was this Spartan renegade - a soldier not even experienced in nautical matters - advising the king to despatch over half his ships to the south of Greece. ‘This man is probably a traitor,’ he told the king bluntly. ‘He’s a typical Greek… . We have already had four hundred ships wrecked, and if you despatch another three hundred from the fleet for a voyage round the Peloponnese, the enemy will be on equal terms and a match for us.’
What determined Xerxes’ compliance with his admiral was the straightforward fact that he could not afford to divide his fleet at this stage in the campaign. Achaemenes was right: the winds, weather, and ironbound coastline of Greece had already taken too much toll. Furthermore, from the reports that had reached him, the Greeks had shown themselves more than competent at sea. The aggressive policy of Themistocles in being the first to seek action, and then the hard-fought battle of Artemisium, now paid dividends. The value of Thermopylae has been challenged by some critics. ‘Too little and too late’ is perhaps fair comment - at any rate as regards the poor Peloponnesian response in terms of manpower, although the force itself arrived in good time. If the Phocians and other allies had been the only ones at the pass, one can confidently say that it would have fallen on the first day. Later generations of Spartans had a right to be proud of their ancestors. Without Leonidas and his Three Hundred putting the steel into the Greek core there would have been no Artemisium.
The Greeks had learned during that sea battle, as Plutarch puts it,
how they would behave in the face of danger [and] that men who know how to come to close quarters and are determined to give battle have nothing to fear from mere numbers of ships, gaudily decorated figureheads, boastful shouts, or barbaric war-songs; they have simply to show their contempt for these distractions, engage the enemy hand to hand and fight it out to the bitter end.
Now, after the fall of Thermopylae and with their landward flank exposed, there was nothing for the Greek fleet to do but retreat under cover of darkness. They banked up the fires so that they would last through the night and lead the Persians to believe that the fleet was still at Artemisium. There was no time for the rest that the men needed, nor for anything but the most immediate and simple repairs to the ships.
Themistocles and a fast squadron were the first to leave. It is strange that there is no mention of Eurybiades, technically the commander-in-chief, but one can only presume that what Themistocles had certainly assumed in advance had taken place: Eurybiades was largely a token figure to hold the divided loyalties of Greeks and Peloponnesians together. The Corinthians led the main body and the Athenians brought up the rear. It was upon them that any Persian attack might fall so it was natural that, as the best seamen, they should take this position. Many of the triremes must have been in a poor state after that hard-fought day in which the Athenians had borne the brunt and suffered so much damage. Some oars will have been ported because their rowers were dead; forward planking abaft the rams opened up; timber ribs cracked or even broken; and in many cases, of course, the bronze-clad rams had been torn off or forced back against stems that barely held together. The men themselves will have been little better than their ships, marines wounded and without even the primitive medical help of the day, rowers exhausted and salt-stained from their long hours over the looms of the oars, and all sadly conscious that despite their efforts the strategy of checking the Persians in the north had failed. At least this time they did not have to battle against the current of the Euripus Channel, which served to boost their flagging oar-strokes and their damaged ships southwards, where they could effect repairs and wait again for the advance of the enemy.
No sooner had they gone than a man of Euboea, a native of Histiaea to the west of Artemisium, set off to carry the news to the Great King. No doubt he hoped by ingratiating himself with the Persians to save his township from the wrath that must inevitably fall upon all the long island. The Persians, who seem to have had a healthy mistrust of the Greeks, ‘even if bearing gifts’, kept him prisoner while they sent out some fast ships to investigate. At dawn the following day, having learned the truth, the whole fleet sailed across to Artemisium where they found nothing but burned-out wreckage, smouldering fires, and the bones of Euboean sheep. It is significant that they did not at this moment set off in hot pursuit of the fleeing enemy - the natural thing to do for a successful fleet. Clearly Artemisium had not been a victory for the Persians and they needed, quite as much as the Greeks, some time to make good their ships and reinforce them with fresh marines and oarsmen. Quite apart from this, their progress was necessarily tied up with the advance of the army on the mainland shore. The man from Histiaea reaped no reward. ‘They stayed there [at Artemisium] till mid-day, and then sailed on to Histiaea which they occupied before overrunning all the coastal villages in the area.’
Xerxes still seems to have been in no hurry. He delayed at Thermopylae for a whole day while his troops buried the Persian dead (20,000 according to Herodotus), leaving only about a thousand of them on the battlefield but conspicuously, of course, leaving all the Greeks unburied. He then sent word to the fleet that all might have a day’s leave and come across to Thermopylae, ‘to see what the King does to the madmen who thought they could oppose him’. Clearly the warships were not involved in this day-trip for sailors, for we learn that ‘so many wanted to avail themselves of this offer that the supply of boats ran out’. Herodotus comments that ‘the ludicrous attempt of Xerxes to conceal the number of his own dead deceived no one’. This statement must be suspect, for it is impossible after the lapse of time when the historian was writing that he could have known what simple sailors and marines thought or said about their guided tour of the battlefield. Once again, one feels, Xerxes is being portrayed as anxious in his hubris to impress his fellow mortals with his omnipotence. It is more likely that this was yet another exercise in propaganda, in which the Persians both during and in the years immediately preceding the invasion had shown themselves extremely adept. In this vast combined operation
it was essential that the fleet and the army should both have trust in one another’s capability. What better than to show the fleet - whose morale, he must have judged, was somewhat low after their recent mauling - that they had an invincible army behind them?
Themistocles, that master of political mechanics, was also awake to the value of propaganda. As his advance squadron made its way down the channel he put in at all the places where there was fresh water, knowing that the Persians must necessarily do likewise, and left behind messages scratched or cut on the rocks. These were of course designed to be read by the many Ionian Greeks serving in the Persian fleet, and called upon them to remember that they too were Greeks and that they should not be making war upon their fellows.
The best thing for you to do is to join us, but if this is impossible you should at least remain neutral. On the other hand, if you are under such constraint that you can do neither of these things, at least, when it comes to battle, remember we are of the same blood - that our quarrel with the Persians originally began on your account - and make sure you fight badly.
There is no evidence that this early example of ‘pamphlet propaganda’ had any effect, but it may possibly have caused some of the Ionians not to give of their best. One day later, after the battlefield inspection was over, the bulk of the Persian army began its march southward into central Greece.