"THE BRAVEST MEN OF ALL HELLAS"
 THROUGH the Pass of Thermopylae lay the entrance from the north to
the south of Greece. It was this pass that the Greeks
determined to hold against the Persians when they withdrew
from the Pass of Tempe.
The Pass of Thermopylae was about a mile long and the narrow
road ran between the mountains and the sea. At each end of
the pass the mountains were sheer cliffs, descending so
close to the sea that the only pathway was a mere strip of
To enter the pass, at either end, it was necessary to go
through a narrow entrance called Pylae or the Gates. In the
road between the Pylae or Gates there were hot springs. The
Greek word for hot is thermos, and that is how the pass came
to be named Thermopylae or Hot-Gates.
At the narrowest part of the pass stood an old broken-down
wall, and this wall was repaired by the order of Leonidas,
King of Sparta, that it might form a defence against the
A short distance from the mainland lay the island of Euboea,
the strait between being at one place only two and a half
miles in breadth. Here the Greek fleet took up its position
under the command of the Spartan Eurybiades, Themistocles
being second in command. Themistocles would have held the
chief command had not some of the States refused to serve
under an Athenian admiral.
The land army was led by Leonidas, one of the kings of
Sparta. But because this was now the month of June
 480 B.C., the time when the Olympic games
were held, many of the
Spartans did not march with Leonidas to Thermopylae. For
although the country was in danger, the games, being also
religious rites, must be held as usual, and numbers of brave
soldiers stayed at home to take part in the festival.
When Leonidas set out on his march to defend the entrance to
the south of Greece, he had with him only three hundred
Spartans. On the way to Thermopylae he was joined by troops
from other States, so that when he reached the pass he was
at the head of seven thousand men.
Now there was only one narrow hill track by which the enemy could
reach the rear of the Spartans, and strangers to the country
were little likely to find it. Yet Leonidas bade the
Phocians, who lived in the district, guard well this narrow
footpath. He would leave nothing to chance.
When Xerxes with his great army reached Thermopylae, he was
told that it was in the hands of a small band of Spartans,
under king Leonidas. The tidings did not disturb the
Persian monarch, he was sure that the Spartans would soon
leave their post, when they saw his great army.
But the Spartans did not retreat, although they could see
plainly the vast hordes that had come against them.
By and by Xerxes grew impatient and sent a horseman to
reconnoitre. The horseman could not see the Spartan camp,
for it was hidden by the old wall that had been repaired,
but he could see the men themselves without the wall. Their
arms were piled up against it in stacks, as though no enemy
was near. Some of the soldiers were wrestling with each
other, others were combing their hair, as if they were
getting ready for a festival rather than for a battle.
The Persian was astonished at what he saw. As the Spartans
took no notice of him, he stayed to count their number, and
then rode quietly back to tell Xerxes all that he had seen.
Xerxes, too, was amazed. Why should soldiers trouble to
comb their hair before fighting? Why should they
 wrestle with one another as though no danger lay before them? He
thought that they were doing "childish and silly
things," for he did not understand that this was the Spartans' way of
getting ready either to die or to slay their enemies.
In the Persian camp was an exiled King of Sparta, named
Demaratus. Xerxes sent for him to ask why his countrymen
wasted their time, wrestling and combing their long curls.
"These men," answered Demaratus, "are here to fight for the
pass; and when they have to face a mortal danger, their
custom is to comb and deck out their hair. Be sure then,
that if thou canst conquer these and all the rest who remain
behind in Sparta, there is no other nation which shall dare
to raise a hand against thee, for now art thou face to face
with the bravest men of all Hellas."
But Xerxes laughed at the thought of a small band of men
like the Spartans daring to fight against his great army.
He dismissed Demaratus and sent to demand that the Spartans
should give up their arms. But the only answer that
Leonidas sent back was to bid the king "to come and take
them." It was plain that the Spartans did not fear the
enemy. When one of them was told that the Persian host was
so numerous that "the flight of their arrows would darken
the light of the sun," he answered carelessly, "So much the
better, we shall fight in the shade."
For four days Xerxes waited, expecting the Spartans
to flee, but on the fifth day they were still there, wrestling
and combing their hair as before.
Then the king sent a band of soldiers to the enemy's camp,
bidding it take these bold Spartans alive and bring them
bound into his presence.
But the Persians could not push their way through the narrow
gates which were guarded by the enemy. They were not only
kept at bay, they were thrust back again and again, and many
of their number were slain by the long spears of the