|The Story of Greece|
|by Mary Macgregor|
| Stories from the history of ancient Greece beginning with mythical and legendary stories of gods and heroes and ending with the conquests of Alexander the Great. Gives short accounts of battles and sieges, and of the men who made Greece a great nation. Ages 10-14 |
THE BATTLE OF THERMOPYLAE
 XERXES looked on while his soldiers fought at the entrance to the
pass. And they did their best, for they were unwilling that
their king should see them beaten back by men who had spent
their days in games or in bedecking their hair. But they
could not stand against the fierce attacks of the Spartans,
and at length, when many of their number had been slain,
The king then ordered his own chosen bodyguard, the ten
thousand famous Immortals, to advance against the gallant
defenders of the pass.
Even at the approach of these renowned warriors, the
Spartans did not waver. They pretended to flee, only to
turn and slay the barbarians who had followed them into the
pass. At length after a furious conflict, the Immortals
were forced to give way and return to their camp.
Three times as he watched the Immortals, Xerxes sprang from
his throne, thinking that all was lost. But the next day he
sent them against the foe once more, for now he believed
that the Spartans would be too weary to fight.
But Leonidas was careful of the little band he commanded.
It was easy to hold the pass with only a small number of
men. As each company grew tired, the king ordered it to
withdraw and sent a fresh one to take its place. Soon the
entrance to the pass was choked with the dead bodies of the
Some of the most valiant of Xerxes' warriors were next sent
against the enemy. But they were cowed by the
 bravery of the Spartans, and as they saw their comrades falling around
them, they turned to flee. Then their officers drove them
back with lashes.
For two days, the terrible slaughter never ceased, and
Xerxes was almost ready to leave the pass to its brave
defenders, so hopeless seemed the task of taking it.
But that night, a Greek named Ephialtes came to the great
king, and for a large sum of money, he offered to show the
Persians a path which led over the hill down to the pass of
Thermopylae. The path was the tiny track that was guarded
by the Phocians.
The offer of the traitor was at once accepted, and at
midnight Xerxes sent his officer Hydarmes, at the head of
his Immortals, to follow Ephialtes.
"All night long they followed the path with the mountains on
the right and on the left. The day was dawning when they
reached the peak of the mountain, and there the thousand
Phocians were keeping watch and guarding the pathway. While
the Persians were climbing the hill, the Phocians knew not
of their coming, for the whole hill was covered with oak
trees, but they knew what had happened when the Persians
reached the summit. Not a breath of wind was stirring, and
they heard the trampling of their feet as they trod on the
fallen oak leaves."
No sooner had they heard than the arrows of the Immortals
were pouring in upon them. They fell back, leaving the
pathway free, while they hastily put on their armour and
prepared to fight to the death. They did not dream that the
Immortals had no wish to fight with them. But so it was,
for the Persians took no more notice of them, but finding
the hill path free, they sped downward to the pass to take
the Spartans in the rear. The Phocians were left along on
the heights almost before they were aware.
Leonidas had heard of the treachery of Ephialtes soon after
the traitor left the Persian king. He knew that to try to
hold the pass now that he would be attacked in the rear
 was certain death. Yet the brave king did not hesitate, for his
orders had been to hold the pass at all costs.
Nor did he waver as he remembered the ominous words of the
oracle, "Sparta must be overthrown or one of her kings must
perish." It seemed that he was the king who was doomed to
die, but what of that if his country was saved?
He resolved that to Sparta alone should belong the glory of
the defence of Thermopylae. So while there was still time,
he sent away all his allies, keeping with him only his three
hundred Spartans, seven hundred Thespians who refused to
leave him, and four hundred Boeotians, lest they should join
Then "when the sun arose, Xerxes poured out wine to the gods
and the barbarians arose for the onset, and the men of Leonidas
knew now that they must die." But they would die fighting,
and before they were attacked in the rear they would do
Fierce and desperate was their defence, and before the fury
of their blows the barbarians fell in heaps. Once again,
the Persian officers, armed with whips, had to drive their
men forward to face the small but undaunted band.
In the confusion many of the great host of Xerxes were
pushed into the sea while many more were trampled to death
by their comrades.
So furious was the struggle, that at length the spears of
the Spartans were broken in their hands. In a moment, they
had seized their swords and hundreds of the Persians fell
before their terrible thrusts.
But now the worst that could befall the Spartans happened.
Leonidas, their brave king Leonidas, was slain where he
fought in the forefront of the battle. A terrible struggle
at once began for the body of the king.
Four times the Spartans drove back the Persians, and then
with one tremendous effort they carried away the body of
It was at this moment that the Immortals, led by the
 traitor, Ephialtes, reached the pass. The Spartans hastily
withdrew behind the wall, which had been repaired by the
order of their king. Here, on a hillock, "they defended
themselves to the last, such as had swords using them, and
the others resisting with their hands and teeth; till the
barbarians, who had in part 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 missile weapons."
As you read the story of the brave defence of Thermopylae,
you do not wonder that Leonidas and his three hundred
Spartans have won for themselves immortal fame.
On the hillock where the little band took their last stand,
a stone lion was placed in honour of king Leonidas, while in
the pass itself a pillar was erected on which were written
"Go, tell the Spartans, thou that passest by,
That here obedient to their laws we lie."
When the battle was over, Xerxes ordered his men to search
for the body of Leonidas. When it was found he ordered the
head to be cut off and the body to be hung upon a cross.
It was the custom of the Persians to honour the bodies of
those who had fallen fighting bravely against them. This
unusual and cruel treatment was but a proof of the fear the
brave Spartan had inspired in the heart of Xerxes. Nor
could the king forget that he had been on the point of
leaving the pass in the hands of its brave defenders.
Demaratus could not look at the slaughter of his countrymen
unmoved. He had seemed to be a friend of the great king,
yet now he longed to warn the Spartans who had stayed at
home that the Persians were ready to march against them.
But how could he send a message unknown to the Persians. He
soon thought of a strange and less cruel way
 than had Histiaeus, who, you remember, branded his secret on the head
of his slave.
The exiled king took a writing tablet and scraped away the
wax on which letters were usually engraved. On the wood
beneath he scratched the message he wished to send. He then
poured melted wax on the top of what he had written, and the
tablet looked as any other tablet looked.
When it reached Sparta, the people
studied it with
amazement. There was a tablet, but where was the message?
They turned it this way and that, they peered at it now on
one side, now on another—nothing was to be seen.
Then Gorgo, whom you heard of last as a little maiden of
eight years old, gave the people advice as wise as she had
given to her royal father long before. She was grown up
since those days and had been married to brave king
"Scrape off the wax," she said to the people, "and see if
the message lies on the wood beneath."
And when this was done, there stood the warning words of
Demaratus, so that all might read.
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