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The work of war


“Among the Spartans the work of war is demystified and depersonalized through its vocabulary, which is studded with references both agrarian and obscene.  Their word which I translated earlier as “screw,” as in the youths’ tree-screwing, bears the connotation not so much of penetration as of grinding, like a miller’s stone.  The front three ranks “screw” or “mill” the enemy.  The verb “to kill,” in Doric theros, is the same as “to harvest.”  The warriors in the fourth to sixth ranks are sometimes called “harvesters,” both for the work they do on the trampled enemy with the butt-spike “lizard-stickers” of their eight-footers and for that pitiless threshing stroke they make with the short xiphos sword, which itself is called a “reaper.”  To decapitate a man is to “top him off” or “give him a haircut.”  Cropping off a hand or arm is called “limbing.” [ibed. p. 11]


Arming of the troops


“Squires armed the warriors from the feet up, starting with the heavy oxhide soles which could tread over fire; then the bronze greaves, which the squires bent into place around the shins of their masters, securing them at the rear of the calf by the flex of the metal alone…This process of arming for battle, which the citizen-soldiers of other poleis had practiced no more than a dozen times a year in the spring and summer training, the Spartans had rehearsed and rehearsed, two hundred, four hundred, six hundred times in a campaigning season.  Men in their fifties had done this ten thousand times.  It was as second-nature to them, fitted now with the linen spolas corselet and bronze breastplate, proceeded to do with elaborate care and ceremony, assisting one another like a regiment of dandies preparing for a dress ball, all the while radiating an eerie presence of calm and nonchalance.” [Gates of Fire, Pressfield, p.15]


The appearance of the Phalanx to the enemy



“Shields, helmets and foot-long spearpoints had been burnished to a mirror’s gleam; they flashed brilliantly in the sun, investing the massed formation with the appearance of some colossal machine, made not so much of men as of bronze and iron.”…”In the Spartan line the iron-bladed forest of eight-footers rose solid as a spike fence, each shaft upright and aligned, dressed straight as a geometer’s line none moving.”  [p.17 Gates of Fire, Pressfield]


On the Persian side


In May 480BC, as Xerxes sat on his marble and gold throne watching his cherished Immortals crossing the Hellespont on his incredibly well-engineered ship-pontoon bridges---the Greeks, who had had years to prepare for Xerxes’ invasion (you can’t hide activities this large very well), were still bickering and squabbling over what to do, totally disunited toward any viable solution.  God had prepared Themistocles, who had engineered and created a small but formidable battle-fleet.  And Themistocles already knew how he was going to deal with the Persian navy.  But his strategies were far from being accepted by the vast majority of the bickering Greek city-states.  Many of you are aware of the verse that says “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit saith the LORD.”  Not to say Themistocles or Leonidas had God’s Holy Spirit, but they were about to do his bidding.  The Lord GOD had certainly had a hand in preparing these two men, and the forces that followed them.  Or else European history would  have been entirely different from what we know it as having been.  More importantly, and related to that alternate reality which never occurred, we would not have our strong freedom-loving democracies of Europe, England, America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, to say nothing about Japan, South Korea, and even to a degree, the Russian Federation right now.  For our democratic western democracies were cradled and developed in Greece and Rome.  It is these very democracies that have held totalitarianism at bay, allowing Christianity and the Gospel of the Kingdom of God be proclaimed from the 1800s AD onward, as well as close to a billion Bibles being distributed worldwide.  The Bible prophecies of Daniel chapters 2, 7, 8 and 11 would have been stopped in their tracts if Xerxes had won, because in 130 years hence from this attempted massive Persian invasion of Europe, Greece would arise as the very next world-ruling empire under Alexander the Great.  Had Xerxes’ military hordes won there would have been no Alexander the Great and no world-ruling Greek empire as the Bible clearly prophecied there would be.  So, against impossible odds, these bickering, squabbling, disunited Greek city-states must defeat Xerxes, and his military hordes from the East.  The Persian hordes at this time were made up of forty-six vassal nations, under thirty Persian generals, and over them six chief marshals (five of whom were Royal sons).  The crossing of the two bridges over the Hellespont took a week, one huge military traffic-jam.  Supply dumps had already been set up in Persian occupied or friendly northern Greek territories, and Xerxes’ army sucked streams dry as they crossed them.  The army had to carry its own water until it reached the Hubris River, an estimated 1,000,000 gallons of water carried by an estimated 35,000 camels, in order to give 500,000 soldiers 2 quarts of water a day (not a whole lot, considering their average ration was dry grain).  The brilliant mind of Themistocles had thought all of this through.  Once Xerxes’ forces finished crossing west across northern Greece, where his supply depots were located, his entire army would have to rely on an estimated 3,000 Persian supply vessels (their equivalent of a merchant-marine), and these needed the protection of Xerxes active navy, which was also supposed to be battling the Greek navy.  Now we saw Xerxes’ naval force of triremes and biremes consisted of 1,327 vessels.  But Xerxes had used 674 of them to create his two massive ship-pontoon bridges across the Hellespont---leaving him with 653 triremes to wage war against the Greek navy as well as to protect his supply lines, those 3,000 supply ships.  The strength or weakness of Xerxes’ army, as with any army, was in its supply-lines---food, water and ammunition, the three essentials an army moves forward on.  Napoleon said “an army moves on its stomach.”  The Masterplan of that great military mastermind lay on the Island of Salamis, cutting off Xerxes’ supply-lines.  Themistocles’ strategy, let the Persians overextend themselves, and then seriously threaten their sea-borne supply-lines.  But it depended on two major land-sea battles, of which, the victories of both were calculated risks at best.  Time and fair weather on the Mediterranean Sea were also calculated into Themistocles’ Masterplan.  Ambassadors from the majority of the Greek city-states met in an improvised ‘Congress’ on the Isthmus of Corinth under the sponsorship of Sparta, and an alliance was formed and proclaimed amongst all those attending.  Athens and Sparta were accepted as the undisputed leaders, Sparta to lead the combined Greek army and Athens under Themistocles to lead the Greek naval forces, totaling about 300 triremes and biremes at the very most.


The First Part of Themistocles Masterplan---Create a Northern Army-Navy Defensive Line at Artemisium and Thermopylae


This first military action, in Themistocles’ mind, could be nothing more than to fight a delaying action---waste Xerxes’ fair-weather sailing time and buy the Greeks precious time.  Themistocles’ naval forces were to work in concert with Leonidas’ combined Greek hoplite army to do just exactly that.  It is totally inconceivable that Themistocles wouldn’t have somehow privately conferred with Leonidas and discussed his plans in detail well before the battle at the Hot Gates, Thermopylae, and the naval encounters off of Artemisium.  General mobilization of the entire Greek navy was declared, and every ship manned.  All men under 50 years of age were expected to serve.  The plan, when the triremes were manned and ready, was for 100 of them to proceed north to the port of Artemisium at the extreme northern tip of the long fish-like island of Euboea, right opposite to where Leonidas and the Greek army would be fighting a delaying action at the Hot Gates---Thermopylae.  In Leonidas’ mind, he knew it would be a delaying action at best---and for his chosen Spartiate Knights, a suicidal one as well. 


Winds of the Aegean---the critical weather-factor


“Greece is a mountainous country…its coast is singularly inhospitable.  To the east and north of Athens the long fish-shaped island of Euboea lies like a defensive shield.  Its eastern coast offers no harbours and any fleet finding this bleak shore to leeward in the event of a blow [gale] would be in great trouble.  It was now high summer and, after the indecisive vagaries of the prodroms, the real ‘Greek wind’ had set in to blow.  The Meltemi, as it is called, is almost as steady as the Trade Winds of the oceans.  It can be relied upon throughout most of the summer to be constant coming from a northerly direction, as the colder air from the Black Sea and Russia beyond flows down steadily to replace the hot air which lifts over all the Aegean, the Mediterranean, and Africa.  Dying away only slightly at nightfall (but still leaving a pitching and lumpy sea), the Meltemi can be expected to blow at anything between Force 6 to 8 on the Beaufort scale [22 knots to 40 knots windspeed], at times even reaching gale force. For the trireme, labouring under oars, and even the wind from astern, the Meltemi  was hardly a friend.” [Thermopylae, Bradford Ernle, p. 94]  [to see the Beaufort Scale, log onto]


Xerxes’ Naval course from the Bosporus to the northern tip of Euboea


          “…Artemisium on the northernmost spur of Euboea took its name from a temple erected there to the goddess Artemis ‘Facing the East’, this attribute no doubt arising from the fact that it was from here that ships took their departure eastwards across the Aegean…North of Euboea from Cape Sepias to Mount Olympus the land presents an iron-bound coast—a wall of mountains where there is little shelter except for small craft, and certainly nothing that could remotely accommodate a fleet.  The Persian armada, after they had traversed the ship-canal through the peninsula at Mount Athos and rounded the two other peninsulas of Chalcidice had a long haul of over sixty miles before they came to the strait between the island of Skiathos and Cape Sepias, with always this brooding and hostile coast on their starboard hand, threatening them if a gale from the north blew up.  Confronting them, as they emerged, lay Artemisium.  It was plain that the key to the whole [northern] naval campaign lay here.”  [Thermopylae, Bradford Ernle, p. 95] 


But Thermopylae was the perfect location for a small well-armed, well-trained force to stop and hold a very large force which was by comparison poorly armed.  It is late June 480BC, Xerxes’ forces have just left Doriscus marching westwards while his fleet is headed for the Athos Canal.  The fleet now parts company with Xerxes’ army at Acanthus, the army headed for Therma at head of the Thermaic Gulf.  The fleet now through the Athos canal, had to round the two capes of Chalcidice before it could head north to rendezvous with the army at Therma.  The fleet got there first.  But it was now late July, and Xerxes first engagement with the Greek army at Thermopylae was a month away.


Greeks March and Sail to the North


The minute the Greeks heard Xerxes’ forces were in Pieria they hastily broke up their last conference of the Corinthian League at the Isthmus.  Their allied fleet, now agreeing to Themistocles’ plan, headed north to set up their defensive line at Artemisium (which would be in line with the defensive line set up by Leonidas at the Hot Gates, Thermopylae).  Their whole fleet that was going north through the Euripus Channel (between the western shores of Euboea and the eastern shores of mainland Greece) consisted of about 150 ships, 100 of which were the new heavy triremes.  The Spartans, despite the approach of their most holy Carneia festival held in mid-August, sent a chosen 300 Spartiate Knights with King Leonidas leading them.  It was late July.  Leonidas, completely understanding the nature of this “holding action” carefully selected only Spartiate Knights who had male offspring, not desiring to see any Spartiate family line extinguished.  Xenophon tells us the Spartan procedure when one of the kings set out for war… 


“….When the sacrifices are over the King summons everyone and gives out the orders of the day.  If you could but watch the scene you would come to the conclusion that all other men are mere amateurs at soldiering, and that the Lakedaemonians are the only artists of warfare.”


It has been said, “Sparta created not things in words or stone, but men.”     


“As he passed north through the small cities of Tegea and Manienea, and then through Arcadia, on his way towards the Isthmus, Leonidas gathered in other small allied contingents to the total of 2,120, Arcadia itself providing the bulk of these.  He now, it would seem, had a little more than 3,000 men, hardly enough even for a delaying action in the pass.  However, as Burn points out, tradition has it that he reached the Isthmus with 4,000 and the only conclusion to be drawn is that the additional 1,000 were ‘emancipated Helots, armed as hoplites…Putting the Isthmus behind him, Leonidas marched north through Boeotia, where he may have hoped for some larger reinforcements, but only the small township of Thespiae came to his support with 700 hoplites.  The important city of Thebes, somewhat grudgingly, sent not more than 400 men—The Lokrians of Opus sent him all the men they had (some hundreds?) while the people of Phokis dispatched 1,000, and these of Malis possibly a further 1,100.  The entire force which he took with him to Thermopylae was probably a little more than 7,000 men.”…While the nodding horsehair-crested helmets and the scarlet cloaks marched north, picking up these reinforcements on their way, the allied fleet under a Spartan admiral, Eurybiades, had rounded Cape Sunium and was on his way up the Euboea Channel.  A reserve fleet of some 200 ships [triremes and biremes] had been left behind to guard the southern positions from Attica to the Argolid.  There seems little doubt that the finest new ships were sent up to defend the position of Artemisium and even they, with presumably the best crews, will have made hard work of it.  Under the blazing midsummer sun the oarsmen had to toil against the fast current which whips down between Euboea and the mainland, speeded at this time of year by the fact that the northerly winds have been blowing for many weeks.  Ahead of them had been sent a fast 30-oared cutter with a well-known Athenian aboard, to act as liaison officer between the fleet at sea and the army under Leonidas. [This was a joint army-navy operation—it wasn’t merely Leonidas with his famous 300 at the Hot Gates.]  [Thermopylae, Bradford Ernle, pp. 104-106]


While Xerxes was crossing the Hellespont


“…Refugees, many brides with babes, were flooding into the last of the free cities.  Young mothers took flight to Lakedaemon, islanders and relations fleeing the Persian advance across the Aegean.  These brides inflamed their listeners hatred of the foe with tales of the conquerors’ atrocities in their earlier passage through the islands: how the enemy at Chios and Lesbos and Tenedes had formed dragnets at one end of the territory and advanced across each island, scouring out every hiding place, hauling forth the young boys, herding the handsomest together and castrating them for eunuchs, killing every man and raping the women, selling them forth into foreign slavery.  The babies heads these heroes of Persia dashed against the walls, splattering their brains upon the paving stones.  The wives of Sparta listened with icy fury to these tales, cradling their own infants at their breasts.  The Persian hordes had swept now through Thrace and Macedonia.  The baby-murderers stood upon the doorstep of Greece, and where was Sparta and her warriors?”  [Gates of Fire, Pressfield, p. 42]


Leonidas’ march north to the Hot Gates,


“All along the march north, the allied column had encountered country tribes and villagers fleeing, streaming south along the military road, or what had now become a military road.  Tattered clan groups fled before the Persian advance, bearing their pitiful possessions in shoulder sacks contrived from bedcovers or bundled cloaks, balancing their ragged parcels like water vessels atop their heads.  Sunken cheeked husbandmen wheeled handbarrows whose cargoes were more often flesh than furniture, children whose legs had given out from the tramp or bundled ancients hobbled with age.  A few had oxcarts and pack asses.  Pets and farm stock jostled underfoot, gaunt hounds cadging for a handout, doleful-looking swine being kicked along as if they knew they would be supper in a night or two.  The main of the refugees were female; they trudged barefoot, shoes slung about their necks to save the leather.  When the women descried the allied column approaching, they vacated the road in terror, scrambling up the hillsides, clutching their infants and spilling possessions as they fled.  There came always that moment when it broke upon these dames that the advancing warriors were their own countrymen.  Then the alteration which overtook their hearts bordered upon the ecstatic.  The women skittered back down the hardscrabble slopes, pressing tight about the column, some numb with wonder, others with tears coursing down their road-begrimed faces.  Grandmothers crowded forward to kiss the young men’s hands; farm matrons threw their arms about the necks of the warriors, embracing them in moments that were simultaneously poignant and preposterous.  “Are you Spartans?” they inquired of the sun-blackened infantrymen, the Tegeates and Mycenaeans and Corinthians, Thebans, Philiasians and Arkadians, and many of these lied and said they were.  When the women heard that Leonidas in person led the column, many refused to believe it, so accustomed had they become to betrayal and abandonment.  When the Spartan king was pointed out to them and they saw the Knights about him and at last believed, many could not bear the relief.  They buried their faces in their hands and sank upon the roadside, overcome.  As the allies beheld this scene repeated, eight or ten, a dozen times a day, a grim urgency took possession of their hearts.  All haste must be made; the defenders must at all costs reach and fortify the pass before the arrival of the enemy.  Unordered, each man lengthened stride.  The pace of the column soon outstripped the capacity of the train to keep up.   The waggons and pack asses were simply left behind, to catch up as best they could, their necessaries transferred to the marching men’s backs. [Gates of Fire,  Steven Pressfield, pp. 49-50]


Mountain wall on your left, ocean on your right


“They came to the pass of Thermopylae, the sea on their right hand to the north, crisped with the bright waves of summer.  It was a formidable place.  To the left of them the heights of Mount Kallidromos rose up stark and sheer, a defensive wall brilliant at noon, and it…will have been the dark of the moon [the astronomical conjunction] when they took up their positions.  The full Carneia moon that year was on 20 August.  Their right flank, then, lay on the sea and their left was protected by Kallidromos, an ideal place for a hoplite line, being unturnable at either end…In 480, however, the point which was chosen for the defensive line was only about twenty yards wide…The Spartans, therefore, chose a slightly wider front, but one where their vulnerable left was protected by a sheer wall of rock.” [Thermopylae, Bradford Ernle, p. 107]


Demaratus cautioned Xerxes against underestimating the Spartans in warfare:

“When the Spartans fight singly they are as brave as any man, but when they fight together they are supreme above all.  For though they are free men, they are not free in all respects; law is the master whom they fear, a great deal more than your subjects fear you.  They do what the law commands and its command is always the same, not to flee in battle whatever the number of enemy, but to stand and win, or die.”


First Encounter by sea at Cape Sepias---three Greek triremes guarding the channel destroyed


Bradford Ernle in Thermopylae describes the first naval encounter between the Persians and Greeks:  “Just as the first columns were beginning their advance, Xerxes decided to send a small detachment from the fleet down to inspect the straight between Cape Sepias and the island of Skiathos, [see map] and then to reconnoitre the Gulf of Pagasae.  This was to lead to the first naval engagement of the whole campaign, and one which did not auger very well for the Greeks.  Ten fast ships, almost certainly Phoenician and possibly specifically from Sidon, were selected for the operation.  The Greeks from their naval base at Artemisium had naturally enough despatched scouts to watch the Skiathos channel where the enemy must inevitably first be seen.  There were three triremes on guard, one from Athens, one from Aegina, and one from Troezen—their task clearly being not to engage any advance squadron but to report back quickly to base.  They were, however, out-manoeuvred or, as seems clear, the heavier Greek vessels were no match in speed for the lighter-built and faster Phoenicians.  At the first sight of the enemy all three turned tail and fled.  The Persians gave chase, and the ship from Troezen, commanded by Prexinus, was captured at once.  The victors picked out the best-looking of the marines on board, took him up to the bows and cut his throat.  The name of this unfortunate was Leon…[Leon means ‘Lion’ therefore possibly a very acceptable sacrifice?]  [But Leonidas will get even.]  The ship from Aegina, however, which was commanded by Asonides, put up a fierce resistance.  A marine on board, Pytheas, distinguished himself in particular and, after his ship was boarded, continued to fight until he was almost cut to pieces…the Persian marines did all that they could to save his life, dressing his wounds with myrrh and binding them up with linen.  When they got back to their base they displayed him with admiration to everybody there and looked after him well.  The other prisoners from the ship, however, were treated as slaves…The third vessel, the Athenian, its retreat cut off, fled northward and finally ran itself aground at the mouth of the River Peneus in Thessaly [see map].  The whole crew of 200, who only got clear of their pursuers by the narrowest of margins, then made their way back through hostile Thessaly to reach Athens after a long overland march…Three of the pursuing vessels, we learn, ran aground on a small rocky reef in the Skiathos channel, which, with seamanlike efficiency, they promptly marked for the benefit of the oncoming fleet using stone blocks to form a pillar…Xerxes and his staff had calculated that it would take the army some fourteen days to get itself down to Thermopylae… If Xerxes and his staff, after all their elaborate preparations over the years and in all their efficiency on the march itself, had erred, it was in ignoring the time element.  Xerxes, enjoying his triumphal progress, had dallied too long.”  [Thermopylae, Bradford Ernle, pp. 108-109] 


11 day delay put on Persian fleet


Xerxes’ army was now marching south along the Greek coastline leading toward the Skiathos Channel with the northern part of Euboea island and Artemisium nearby on the south side of the same channel.  His fleet could reach the Skiathos Channel in one day, whereas Xerxes’ army marching on foot would take him eleven days to reach the same spot, and then heading around the Malian Gulf to Thermopylae where Leonidas and his Spartiates were waiting for him would consume three or four more days.  So he told the fleet to wait ten days and then to sail down to the Skiathos Channel to meet up with him.  It was now mid-August. 


The Weather-Element of Themistocles’ Strategy


The Greek Hesiod very wisely set the limit of sailing on the Mediterranean (for sensible men) to 50 days after the summer solstice (June 20 + 50 days or thereabouts).  The way it works, as the summer months progress, the Mediterranean Sea and the Aegean Sea have been heating up.  Then at the right moment as a slight imbalance in barometric pressure occurs, a mass of hot air will rise over the sea, ascending like some giant hot-air balloon.  When this happens, cold air will immediately rush from the north, blowing south with gale force to replace this giant mass of air that has risen over the mid-ocean.  It can happen so suddenly that barometers can’t even show when one of these Hellesponters or Maestro-winds is about to occur.  These gales usually last no longer than 24 hours.  Xerxes fleet set sail as ordered (ten days later), and after about a day’s voyage out they were arriving off the Magnesium coast between Casthanea and Cape Sepias (just north of the Skiathos Channel).  The lead ships beached themselves, but due to the small beach area the rest had to anchor, laying lines to each other eight-deep.  They were on for the most part a rocky lee shore, and many of them being experienced mariners, felt a bit uneasy.  But twenty-four hours and they’d be safely through the Skiathos Channel at the mouth of the Bay of Pagasae.  Herodotus tells us at dawn the next day ‘the weather was clear and calm’ with a curious bright stillness which often precedes a violent northeaster, a ‘Hellesponter’ or ‘Maestro’ or Masterwind as the Greeks call it.  This Hellesponter came raging out of a cloudless sky without warning.  The luckless Persian fleet was just getting underway when it struck.  They were caught on a rocky lee shore.  Herodotus says:


‘Those who realized in time that the blow was coming, and all who happened to be lying in a suitable place, managed to beach their vessels and get them hauled ashore before they were damaged and before they lost their own lives as well.  The ships which were caught offshore, on the other hand, were all lost: some driven down onto the place called the Ovens at the foot of Mount Pelion and others onto the beach.  A number ran aground on Cape Sepias itself, and others again were driven ashore off the cities of Meliboea and Casthanea.  It was a storm of the greatest violence.’


The Greeks had been praying to Boreas, their god of wind, but Yahweh answered their prayer.  Herodotus says they lost 400 ships, but it’s not likely they lost more than one quarter of their number, and probably 100 or so of these were cargo vessels.  The Persians may have lost 50 triremes, leaving them still with 600 triremes.  Their fleet was far from shattered, as the subsequent battles show.  Whittled down a bit, but not shattered.  Not yet.  This particular storm lasted for three days, quite unusual for that time of year.  Most Hellesponter’s only last 24 hours.  The Greek fleet had been sheltered in the lee of Euboea and sat out the storm, watching Persian wreckage float past them headed down the Euripus Channel (which flows north to south). 


Xerxes tries a naval end-around


After the three-day storm, while most of Xerxes’ fleet was still sorting themselves out and making repairs in the Gulf of Pagasae just north of Artemisium, Xerxes in a bold venture dispatched 200 triremes to row south along the eastern shore of Euboea island, to round its southern end and then head up the Euripus Channel.  If successful, his fleet would be able to not only cut off any Greek retreat back down the Euripus Channel, but also would enable his fleet of triremes to approach the smaller Greek fleet from two opposing flanks, essentially boxing them into a confined space.  He could then destroy the Greek fleet at will.  A famous Greek salvage diver who happened to be working repairing Persian triremes in the Gulf of Pagasae heard about this. It is said he swam the 10 miles from the mouth of Aphetae to Artemisium (not impossible for a good swimmer) to inform the Greeks of this end-around move of 200 Persian triremes.  Word was immediately sent back to the 53 Greek triremes at the southern end of Euboea and the Euripus Channel.  They were supposed to be heading up the channel to join the Greek fleet, but now waited to guard the Euripus Channel.  They needn’t have bothered.  Meanwhile at Thermopylae the three-day Hellesponter had lashed Mount Kallidromos and Leonidas’ forces, which had recently arrived at the Hot Gates, with wind and rain blowing horizontally off the ocean-side of Thermopylae.  They huddled under their scarlet cloaks, protecting their campfires as best they could.  







Secure Supply-Lines to the South, Scorched Earth to the North



After arriving at the Hot Gates Leonidas got busy repairing the ancient Phokian Wall just behind the narrowest part of the Pass, behind which most of the hoplites would encamp and be marshaled as the three-day battle progressed.  It would act as a defensive backdrop between the walls of Mount Kallidromos on their left and the cliffs above the Ocean on their right flank.  An immediate supply dump was created behind this rebuilt Phokian Wall, with their main supply base being in the village of Alpeni a fair distance behind his lines.  There was a very fertile farming valley between the Asopus River all the way north past the River Spercheius River to the town of Lamia and beyond.  Leonidas, wishing to deny the enemy any comforts in the way of supplies and fresh foodstuffs he could commandeer, raided the valley the night after his arrival, taking all the grain and cattle he could, and then burning all the farms and fields, even cutting down all the trees.  Xerxes would take no comfort on the land, and would have to rely on his supply ships for immediate sustenance beyond what they carried with them.  And these supply ships would be denied access to the Gulf of Malia by the Greek fleet at Artemisium.  The next problem Leonidas faced was a tactical one.  All defensive military lines can, eventually be turned.  The Persians, at some point in time, would find a way to circumvent his defensive hoplite line at the Pass, and then hit his forces from both ends, frontally and at his back (just like Xerxes was trying to do with his 200 triremes heading around the southern end of Euboea).  The very name of the mountains making up his left-hand defensive line gave it away.  Kallidromos means in Greek “Beautiful Running Track.”  This trail started at the Asopus River and ran along the tops of the Kallidromos mountains and then led down to the road between the village of Alpeni and the Phokian Wall.  Since the Phokian contingent of 1,000 hoplites knew of this path which Xerxes could use to circumvent Leonidas’ line of battle, he dispatched the entire Phokian contingent to guard the path at a point somewhere up on the mountains, and if engaged, to hold the Persians off and send word back that his line was being turned from the rear.  It would have been good if Leonidas could have spared a few Spartiates to add a degree of professionalism to the Phokian contingent, but he couldn’t spare one of these highly trained professional soldiers.  They were all needed to help officer the 4,000 to 5,000 less professional Greek hoplites making up his main defensive battle line.  The men of Phokis were very familiar with this path---the trouble is as Bradford Ernle so aptly put it, “the dog did not bark at night.”


14th August 480BC, Xerxes’ massive army arrives


Xerxes army finally arrived, setting up camp in the valley the village of Trachis is located in, between the Rivers Spercheius and Asopus.  It took Xerxes’ army about four days to come up and regroup.  Xerxes sent heralds to the Greek lines to tell the defenders that they could go in peace if they laid down their arms.  Leonidas’ answer is classic.  He said in his booming voice, “Tell Xerxes he can come and get them.” 


…Herodotus tells the story…

“During the conference Xerxes sent a horseman to find out the strength of the Greek force….The Persian approached the camp and made a survey of all that he could see [evidence enough that the heralds were never allowed behind the Phokian wall] and to observe what the soldiers were doing.  This was not, of course, all the Greek force, for he could not make out the troops behind the reconstructed and guarded wall.  Nevertheless, he took careful note of those troops who were stationed outside the wall.  At that time they happened to be Spartans, some of whom were stripped for exercise while others were combing their [long] hair.  He watched them in astonishment and took due note of their numbers, and then rode back at leisure.  No one attempted to pursue him and indeed, no one took the slightest notice of him.”


This “laconic” behavior must have amazed the Persians (and that very word “laconic” comes from the very name Lakedaemonian).  Demaratus must have been really concerned at this point.  Demaratus was an exiled Spartan general-king who was now one of Xerxes main advisors on all things having to do with Greek military matters.  Herodotus tells us he said to Xerxes:


 “My Lord, I only try and tell the truth when in your presence.  You mocked me before, but please hear me again.  These men are making ready for the coming battle and they are determined to contest our entrance at the Pass.  It is normal behaviour for the Spartans to groom their hair carefully before they prepare themselves to face death.  I can assure you on one point: if these men can be defeated and others of them who are still at home, then there is no one else in the whole world who will dare to lift a hand, or stand against you.”  [ie you are about to face the toughest, most fearsome army in the whole world.]  [Herodotus]


The tactical ground explained—“the dance floor”


“Lizard Stone, so named for a particular fearless fellow of that species who took his sun thereupon, stood farthest forward of the Phokian Wall, closest to the Narrows, perhaps a hundred and fifty feet from the actual mouth of the pass.  It had been determined by trial with our own men that a thousand of the foe, densely packed, could fit between this demarcation and the Narrows.  A thousand, Leonidas had ordered, will be invited to the dance.  There, at Lizard Stone, they will be engaged and their advance checked. 

          Crown Stone, second of the three and another hundred feet rearward of Lizard, defined the line at which each relief detachment would marshal, immediately before being hurled into the fray. 

          Lion Stone, rearmost of the three and directly in front of the Wall, marked the waiting line---the runner’s chute, at which each relief unit would marshal, leaving enough space between itself and those actually fighting for the rear ranks of the combatants to maneuver, to give ground if necessary, to rally, for one flank to support another and for the wounded to be withdrawn.”  [Gates of Fire, Pressfield, p.58]


Tactical advantage


“Remember that the Persians most formidable weapons, his cavalry and his multitudes of archers and slingers, are rendered impotent here by the terrain.  That is why we chose this site.  The enemy can get no more than a dozen men at a time through the Narrows and mass no more than a thousand before the Wall.  We have four thousand.  We outnumber him four to one.” … “War is work, not mystery.”


Early tactics


“It made further sense, so the Greeks surmised, that when making trial of an enemy for the first time, a prudent general would not commit the flower of his troops—in His Majesty’s case his own Ten Thousand, the Persian household guard known as the Immortals—but rather hold these elite in reserve against the unexpected.  In fact, this was the selfsame strategy adopted by Leonidas and the allied commanders.  These kept the Spartans back, choosing to honor, after much debate and discussion, the warriors of Thespiae.  These were granted first position and now, on the morning of the fifth day, stood formed in their ranks, sixty-four shields across, upon the “dance floor” formed by the Narrows at the apex, the mountain wall on one side, the cliffs dropping to the gulf on the other and the reconstructed Phokian Wall at the rear.

          This, the field of slaughter, comprised an obtuse triangle whose greatest depth lay along the southern flank, that which was anchored by the mountain wall.  At this end the Thespaians were drawn up eighteen deep.  At the opposing end, alongside the drop-off to the sea, their shields were staggered to a depth of ten.  This force of the men of Thespiae totaled approximately seven hundred. 

          Immediately to their rear, atop the Wall, stood the Spartans, Philiasians and Mycenaeans, to a total of six hundred.  Behind these every other allied contingent was likewise drawn up, all in full battle panoplia… [Gates of Fire, Steven Pressfield, p.61]

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