Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Heroes at the Hot Gates


So says the sign on the new GR1 motorway north from Athens to Thessaloniki. Looking south from the motorway the stranger passing by sees the white stone wall of the monument, and, to the right, steam rising from the hot springs which give the place its name. Behind the monument the small conical wooded hill of Kolonos is hard to discern against the background of the steep forests, crags and gullies of the northern face of Mount Kallidromos.

To the north of the motorway maybe two kilometres of flat marshy land end at the shore of the Malian Gulf.

The scene was different in August 480 BCE - 2,489 years ago. The land surface was sea-bed, maybe 20 metres below the present level, the shore was then at the foot of the mountain slopes. There was only a narrow passage through between mountain and sea, hence the 'gates' in the place-name.

Rivers depositing silt in the head of the Malian Gulf produced this change of geography during the intervening millennia.

The hot springs are still prominent to the west of Kolonos. The largest is the source of a small river of water almost too hot for the hand, stinking of hydrogen sulphide.

Look at Thermopyles on Google Earth and you will see the white deposits from the thermal springs and streams.

There is a small spa establishment by the hot water; let us hope it is not developed for profit, now there is motorway access.

This passage between mountain and sea was the site of the most famous battle, when King Leonidas and his 300 Spartan hoplites led another 4,000 or so troops from the districts east and south of Thermopyles. It was a desperate attempt to delay the remorseless advances of The Great King of Persia, Xerxes, into Greece. Xerxes' army included forces from the vast Persian empire, extending from Anatolia to the Punjab, and south to Egypt and Ethiopia. It is hard to be sure of numbers, but Xerxes commanded well over a million soldiers, carrying a great diversity of arms and armour. A large number of camp-followers came too - women. servants, slaves, traders.

Through Thermopyles the invaders could pass only a few abreast, in small numbers. They had to wade the hot smelly river to confront a phalanx of grim, determined, ruthlessly trained Spartans, backed by the other Greek soldiers; less determined, less disciplined.

It was the heroic mind-set in open, stubborn defiance of overwhelming odds, that mind-set which has been the stuff off fame, legend, and epic since the dawn of man.

It may be stated thus: fame is the only sure immortality; therefore act so that your deeds will be remembered with honour and admiration, even though you go down to defeat.

So, the last words of Beowulf, the lay of a great hero, are lof-geornost - most hungry for fame.

We find it well declared in Macauley's Horatius:

Then out spake brave Horatius,

The Captain of the Gate:

"To every man upon this earth

Death cometh soon or late.

And how can man die better

Than facing fearful odds

For the ashes of his fathers,

And the temples of his gods".

And in Tolkien, at the great battle of Pelennor Fields:

"Stern now was Eomer's mood, and his mind clear again. He let blow the horns to rally all men to his banner that could come thither; for he thought to make a great shield-wall at the last, and stand, and fight there on foot till all fell, and do deeds of song on the fields of Pelennor, though no man should be left in the West to remember the last King of the Mark."

And, most recently:

"Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Commonwealth and its Empire lasts for a thousand years, men will still say, 'This was their finest hour'."

So too Leonidas and his Spartans, bracing themselves to the duty they lived to fulfil, knowing the odds against them were overwhelming, and believing they should go well-groomed to the Gods:

" 'The King with half the east at heel is come from lands of morning,

His fighters drink the rivers up, their shafts benight the air,

And he that fights will fall for nought, for home there's no returning.'

The Spartans on the sea-wet rock sat down and combed their hair."

At the hill of Kolonos the Spartans made their last stand on the third day of the battle. The summit of Kolonos bears a modern slab of reddish stone from Sparta, inscribed with the lines written by Simonides, perhaps the most famous of all epitaphs [it isn't easy to read].

Ὦ ξεῖν’, ἀγγέλλειν Λακεδαιμονίοις ὅτι τῇδε

κείμεθα, τοῖς κείνων ῥήμασι πειθόμενοι.

O ksein', angellein Lakedaimoniois hoti tude

keimetha tois keinon rhumasi peithomenoi.

[Writing u for upsilon, long ee, in the Welsh fashion.]

O stranger, report to the Lakedaimonians that here

we lie, as they commanded our obedience.

Leonidas and his 300 achieved the fame they sought. After 2-1/2 millennia they are remembered as heroes.

Xerxes' lasting shame is his order to decapitate and dishonour Leonidas' body, setting up the head on a pole.

The Greek who betrayed Leonidas by showing the Persians a path through the mountain to Leonidas' rear has great and permanent dishonour: his name - Ephialtes - is the modern Greek word for nightmare.

The least said the better about the monument erected by American Greeks at Thermopyles: a vainglorious monster, which Leonidas' would view with contempt.

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