The Story of the Three Hundred Spartans
by A. R.
Introductory Note: Considering the value Victorian culture gave to classical knowledge, it is fitting that this children’s story recounts a famous battle in ancient Greek history. In 480 BC, Xerxes, the king of Persia, attempted to invade Greece with an army that vastly outnumbered the Greek forces. To allow the rest of the Greek forces to retreat safely after several days of fierce battle, 300 Spartan soldiers followed their leader, Leonidas, in a desperate fight to the death. “The Story of the Three Hundred Spartans” is intended to captivate young readers, as well as teach the important lessons of valor and courage when times are hard.
Xerxes, the king of Persia, resolved to conquer Greece, and he collected a great army from every part of his dominions. There were to be seen gathered together men of all nations: Medes and Persians, woolly-haired negroes and swarthy Indians, all armed with their various weapons—nearly two million of fighting men.1For “million” the original reads “millions.” For the Persian empire was the largest in the world; and the king thought in his pride that he could easily overcome such a little country as Greece, that could only muster a few thousand warriors. But then these were all free men, fighting for liberty and their families, whilst the Persian army was chiefly composed of men forced to leave their homes to fight for an Eastern tyrant. The king had spent four years in making preparations for the war, and he had a fleet of ships that he might attack Greece by sea as well as by land. He caused a bridge of boats to be made over the Hellespont, the narrow strait that separates Asia from Europe, but the waves dashed it in pieces; so he made a stronger one of ships, and then his army began their march. So great were their numbers, that it was seven days and nights before they had all crossed over the bridge into Europe.
Now there was only one way of entering Greece from the north-east coast, and that was by a narrow pass through the mountains. This pass was called Thermopylae, from the hot springs there; it was about five miles long, but very narrow at each end. A little within the pass there was a wall that had been built at some former period, and here the Greeks, no way affrighted at the multitude of their enemies, resolved to make a stand, and bar the way of their invaders. So they sent a force of about four thousand men, under the command of Leonidas, to take up their position in the pass. Leonidas was the king of Sparta, and he had with him three hundred chosen warriors, all of them men ready to die in defence of their country. Two of the Spartans, however, Eurytus and Aristodemus, were attacked by a disease in their eyes that nearly deprived them of sight, and they were compelled to leave their posts and retire to Alpenus, a town at the southern end of the pass. The rest of the small army was composed of troops from the different states of Greece.
When Xerxes arrived at Thermopylae with his vast host, he thought that the Greeks would fly in terror at the mere sight of him. He sent forward a horseman to examine their position. Now the Spartans wore long hair, which they were very particular to keep smooth and carefully parted; and the horseman saw them behind the wall within the pass, some of them sitting quietly combing their hair, whilst others were exercising themselves in feats of strength. There was with Xerxes one Demaratus, a deposed Spartan king, who had taken refuge at his court; and when the horseman returned and told the Persian monarch what he had seen, Xerxes, in astonishment, asked Demaratus if it were possible that this handful of men would dare to oppose him. ‘They certainly mean to fight,’ replied the Spartan; ‘for it is the custom of my countrymen to arrange their hair before going into battle.’ But the king would not believe him, and waited four days in the expectation that the Spartans would come out of the pass and submit to him.
At length he sent a body of troops to capture them, and bring them in chains to his feet. But the Spartans, firmly standing at the narrow entrance of the pass, drove them back with their long spears with dreadful slaughter. Xerxes was seated on a lofty throne, whence he could see the battle; and he now ordered his own body-guard to advance to the attack. They were called the Immortals, were ten thousand in number, were supposed to be invincible, and felt sure of victory. But they also had to give way before the steady valour of the Spartans, and the king rose from his throne in fear and rage when he saw the destruction of his finest troops! The battle had lasted the whole day.
Now there was an intricate path over the mountains, known to but a few of the Greeks themselves; and when Leonidas heard of it he posted some troops on the hills to guard it. A treacherous Greek, named Ephialtes, betrayed the secret to Xerxes, who immediately sent Hydarnes, the commander of the Immortals, to follow the guidance of the traitor, and enter the pass at the southern end, so that the Greeks would be hemmed in. The Persians set out at nightfall, marching as silently as they could; but the night was very still, and the sound of their feet crunching over the dead leaves that strewed the path alarmed the Greeks posted there, who started to their arms. Hydarnes paused; for he feared that they might be Spartans; but when Ephialtes assured him they were not, he forced his way through them, and pursued his way down to the southern side of the mountain.
At daybreak the sentinels on the heights brought news to Leonidas that the secret path was discovered by the enemy. There was still time for him to retreat, but no true Spartan would think of that, and both he and his three hundred companions determined to do their duty, and remain at their posts to resist the invaders of their country. So he sent home all the other Greeks except the Thebans, whom he suspected of favouring the enemy, and the Thespians, who wished to stay and share his fate and his glory.
Ephialtes had calculated the time it would take him to traverse the mountain, and had arranged with Xerxes to attack the Spartans in front at the same time that the Immortals fell upon their rear; and so in the morning he once more ordered his troops to advance. But Leonidas, now knowing his death was certain, rushed on his foes at the head of his little band, overthrowing them on all sides. The Persians, crowded together, were trampled under foot; yet still more were driven up to the combat by the lash of their officers over the bodies of their comrades. The brave Leonidas was killed, and a desperate fight took place over his body, and there were but few of the three hundred left alive. Their spears were broken, and their swords blunted. Suddenly the Greeks heard that Hydarnes and his Immortals were entering the pass behind them. The Thebans threw down their arms, and begged their lives, which were granted them; but the Spartans, retiring within the pass behind the wall, drew up on a little hillock, where they were soon surrounded by their enemies, and overwhelmed with showers of javelins, arrows, and stones, till the last of them lay dead.
Meantime, Eurytus and Aristodemus, lying ill at Alpenus, had heard that the Persians were about to enter the pass, and that Leonidas and his devoted band would be surrounded by their foes. Calling for his arms, and grasping his spear and shield, though he could scarce see, Eurytus told his servant to lead him into the battle. The helot obeyed, and guiding his master into the fatal pass, there left him, and the half-blind hero, rushing on the Persians, fell beneath their javelins.
Astrodemus, probably thinking it useless to go into the pass where he was sure to be killed, returned to Sparta with tidings of the battle. But his countrymen said that he had forsaken his duty, and deserted his general. No one would speak to him, and he dragged on a miserable existence till the following year, when there was another battle with the Persians at Plataea. The unhappy man, thinking he could now retrieve his honour, ventured his life in the most reckless manner, and was killed after performing prodigies of valour. After the battle, he was adjudged to have far exceeded his companions in bravery; but the Spartans, believing that his wonderful deeds proceeded from desperation, rather than from true courage, would not award him the palm, though they no longer called him ‘The coward.’ And so poor Aristodemus was deprived of honour even in death.
After the battle of Thermopylae, Xerxes began to think the conquest of Greece not so easy as he had imagined it would be, and asked Demaratus if he should meet with many more such obstacles in his way. Demaratus told him that there were at least eight thousand of his countrymen all ready to act as Leonidas had done. And shortly afterwards, the Persian fleet having been overcome and nearly destroyed at Salamis, Xerxes fled back to his own dominions, leaving his general, Mardonius, to carry on the war. But Mardonius was killed, and his army routed at Plataea, and the Persians were finally driven from Greece.
The memory of Leonidas and his three hundred companions was held in the greatest veneration by the Spartans. Festivals were established in their honour, and hymns sung in their praise, and a splendid monument was erected over their grave in the pass. The battle of Thermopylae was fought four hundred and eighty years before the Christian era. A few remains of their monument may still be seen, but the fame of the brave men who died for their country will live for ever.
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How To Cite (MLA Format)
. "The Story of the Three Hundred Spartans." The Chatterbox, vol. 18, no. 2, 1883, pp. 12-5. Edited by Sara Herald. Victorian Short Fiction Project, 22 September 2019, http://vsfp.byu.edu/index.php/title/the-story-of-the-three-hundred-spartans/.
29 September 2018
21 September 2019
Notes [ + ]
|1.||↑||For “million” the original reads “millions.”|