219. The Greeks at Thermoplyae1 received the
first warning of the destruction which the dawn would bring on them from
the seer Magistias, who read their fate in the victims as he was
sacrificing. After this deserters came in, and brought the news that the
Persians were marching round by the hills: it was still night when these
men arrived. Last of all, scouts came running down from the heights, and
brought in the same accounts, when the day was just beginning the break.
Then the Greeks held a council to consider what they should do, and here
opinions were divided: some were strong against quitting their post, while
others contended to the contrary. So when the council had broken up, part
of the troops departed and went their ways homeward to their several
states; part however resolved to remain, and to stand by Leonidas to the
220. It is said that Leonidas himself sent away the troops who departed,
because he tendered to their safety, but thought it unseemly that either he
or his Spartans should quit the post which they had especially sent to
guard. For my own part, I incline to think that Leonidas gave the order,
because he perceived the allies to be out of heart and unwilling to
encounter the danger to which his own mind was made up. He therefore
commanded them to retreat, but said that he himself could not draw back
with honor; knowing that, if he stayed, glory awaited him, and that Sparta
in that case would not lose her prosperity. For when the Spartans, at the
very beginning of the war, sent to consult the oracle concerning it, the
answer which they received from the Pythoness was, “that either Sparta must
be overthrown by the barbarians, or one of her kings must perish.” The
prophecy was delivered in hexameter verse2 and
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.
He cannot be withstood by the courage of bulls nor of lions,
Strive as they may; he is as mighty as [Zeus]; there is nought that shall
Till he have got for his prey your king, or your glorious city.
The remembrance of this answer, I think, and the wish to secure the
whole glory for the Spartans, caused Leonidas to send the allies away. This
is more likely than that they quarreled with him, and took their departure
in such unruly fashion.
221. To me it seems no small argument in favour of this view, that the
seer also accompanied the army, Megistias, the Arcanian—said to have been
of the blood of Melampus3 and the same who was
led by the appearance of the victims to warn the Greeks of the danger which
threatened them—received orders to retire (as it is certain he did) from
Leonidas, that he might escape the coming destruction. Megistias, however,
refused, and stayed with the army; but he had an only son present with the
expedition, whom he now sent away.
222. So the allies, when Leonidas ordered them to retire, obeyed him and
forthwith departed. Only the Thespians and the Thebans remained with the
Spartans; and of these the Thebans were kept back by Leonidas very much
against their will. The Thespians, on the contrary, stayed entirely of
their own accord, refusing to retreat, and declaring that they would not
forsake Leonidas and his followers. So they abode with the Spartans, and
died with them. Their leader was Demophilus, the son of Diadromes.
223. At sunrise, Xerxes made libations, after which he waited until the
time when the forum is wont to fill, and then began his advance. Ephialtes
had instructed him thus, as the descent of the mountain is much quicker,
and the distance shorter, than the way round the hills, and the ascent. So
the barbarians under Xerxes began to draw nigh; and the Greeks under
Leonidas, as they now went forth determined to die, advanced much farther
than on previous days, until they reached the more open portion of the
pass. Hitherto, they had held their station within the wall and from this
had gone forth to fight at the point where the pass was the narrowest. Now
they joined battle beyond the defile, and carried slaughter among the
barbarians, who fell in heaps. Behind them, the captains of the squadrons,
armed with whips, urged their men forward with continual blows. Many were
thrust into the sea, and there perished; still a greater number were
trampled to death by their own soldiers; no one heeded the dying. For the
Greeks, reckless of their own safety and desperate, since they knew that,
as the mountain had been crossed, their destruction was nigh at hand,
exerted themselves with the most furious valor against the barbarians.
224. By this time the spears of the greater number where all
shivered, and with their swords they hewed down the ranks of the Persians;
and here, as they strove, Leonidas fell fighting bravely, together with
many other famous Spartans, whose names I have taken care to learn on
account of their great worthiness, as indeed I have those of all the three
hundred. There fell too at the same time very many famous Persians: among
them, two sons of Darius, Abrocomes and Hyperanthes, his children by
Phratagune, the daughter of Artanes. Artanes was brother of King Darius,
being son of Hystapes, the son of Arsames; and when he gave his daughter to
the king, he made him heir likewise of all his substance; for she was his
225. Thus two brothers of Xerxes here fought and fell. And now there
arose a fierce struggle between the Persians and Lacedaemonians over the
body of Leonidas, in which the Greeks four times drove back the enemy, and
at last by their great bravery succeeded in bearing off the body. This
combat was scarcely ended when the Persians with Ephialtes approached; and
the Greeks, informed that they drew nigh, made a change in the manner of
their fighting. Drawing back into the narrowest part of the pass, and
retreating even behind the cross wall, they posted themselves upon a
hillock, where they stood all drawn up together in one close body, except
only the Thebans. The hillock whereof I speak is at the entrance of the
straits, where the stone lion stands which was set up in honor of Leonidas.
Here they defended themselves to the last, such as still had swords using
them, and the others resisting with their hands and teeth; till the
barbarians, who in part had pulled down the wall and attacked them in
front, in part had gone round and now encircled them upon every side,
overwhelmed and buried the remnant which was left beneath showers of
226. Thus nobly did the whole body of Lacedaemonians and Thespians
behave; but nevertheless one man is said to have distinguished himself
above all the rest, to wit, Dieneces the Spartan. A speech which he made
before the Greeks enraged the Medes, remains on record. One of the
Trachinians told him, “Such was the number of barbarians, that when they
shot forth their arrows the sun would be darkened by their multitude.”
Dieneces, not at all frightened at these words, but making light of the
Median numbers, answered, “Our Trachinian friend brings us excellent
tidings. If the Medes darken the sun, we shall have our fight in the
shade.” Other sayings too of a like nature are reported to have been left
on record by this same person.
227. Next to him two brothers, Lacedaemonians, are reputed to have made
themselves conspicuous: they were named Alpheus and Maro, and were the sons
of Orsiphantus. There was also a Thespian who gained greater glory than any
of his countrymen: he was a man called Dithyrambus, the son of Harmatidas.
228. The slain were buried where they fell; and in their honour, nor
less in honour of those who died before Leonidas sent the allies away, an
inscription was set up, which said:
Here did four thousand men from Pelops’ land
Against three hundred myriads bravely stand.
This was in honour of all. Another was
for the Spartans alone:
“Go, stranger, and to Lacedaemon tell
That here, obeying her behests, we fell.”
This was for the Lacedaemonians. The seer had the following:
The great Megistas’ tomb you here may view,
Whom slew the Medes, fresh from Spercheius’ fords.
Well the wise seer the coming death foreknew,
Yet scorned he to forsake his Spartan lords.
These inscriptions, and the pillars likewise, were all set up by the
Amphictyons, except that in honour of Megistias, which was inscribed to him
(on account of their sworn friendship) by Simonides, the son of Leoprepes.4
229. Two of the three hundred, it is said, Aristodemus and Eurytus,
having been attacked by a disease of the eyes, had received orders from
Leonidas to quit the camp; and both lay at Alpeni in the worst stage of the
malady. These two men might, had they been so minded, have agreed together
to return alive to Sparta; or, if they did not like to return, they might
have gone to the field and fallen with their countrymen. But at this time,
when either was open to them, unhappily they could not agree, and took
contrary courses. Eurytus no sooner heard that the Persians had come round
the mountain, than straightaway he called for his armour, and, having
buckled it on, bade his Helot5 lead him to the
place where his friends were fighting. The Helot did so, and then turned
and fled; but Eurytus plunged into the thick of the battle, and so
perished. Aristodemus, on the other hand, was faint at heart, and remained
at Alpeni. It is my belief that if Aristodemus had only been sick and
returned, or if both had come back together, the Spartans would have been
content and felt no anger; but when there were two men with the very same
excuse, and one of them was chary of his life, while the other freely gave
it, they could not but be very wroth with the former.
230. This is the account which some give of the escape of Aristodemus.
Others say, that he, with another, had been sent on a message from the
army, and, having it in his power to return in time for the battle,
purposely loitered on the road, and so survived his comrades; while his
fellow messenger came back in time, and fell in the battle.
231. When Aristodemus returned to Lacedaemon, reproach and disgrace
awaited him; disgrace, inasmuch as no Spartan would give him a light to
kindle his fire, or so much as address a word to him; and reproach, since
all spoke of him as “craven.” However, he wiped away all his shame
afterwards at the battle of Plataea6.
232. Another of the three hundred is likewise said to have survived the
battle, a man named Pantites, whom Leonidas had sent on an embassy to
Thessaly. He, they say, on his return to Sparta, found himself in such
disesteem that he hanged himself.