« ZurückWeiter »
they fled to a higher part of the mountain, and the enemy, without waiting to pursue them, began to descend.
As day dawned, morning light showed the watchers of the Grecian camp below a glittering and shimmering in the torrent bed where the shaggy forests
bened; but it was not the sparkle of water, but the shine of gilded helmets and the gleaming of silvered spears! Moreover, a Cimmerian crept over to the wall from the Persian camp with tidings that the path had been betrayed, that the enemy were climbing it, and would come down beyond the Eastern Gate. Still, the way was rugged and circuitous, the Persians would hardly descend before mid-day, and there was ample time for the Greeks to escape before they could thus be shut in by the enemy.
There was a short council held over the morning sacrifice. Megistias, the seer, on inspecting the entrails of the slain victim, declared, as well he might, that their appearance boded disaster. Him Leonidas ordered to retire, but he refused, though he sent home his only son. There was no disgrace to an ordinary tone of mind in leaving a post that could not be held, and Leonidas recommended all the allied troops under his command to march away while yet the way was open. As to himself and his Spartans, they had made up their minds to die at their post, and there could be no doubt that the example of such a resolution would do more to save Greece than their best efforts could ever do if they were careful to reserve themselves for another occasion.
All the allies consented to retreat, except the eighty men who came from Mycæne and the 700 Thespians, who declared that they would not desert Leonidas. There were also 400 Thebans who remained; and thus the whole number that stayed with Leonidas to confront two millions of enemies were fourteen hundred warriors, besides the helots
or attendants on the 300 Spartans, whose number is not known, but there was probably at least one to each. Leonidas had two kinsmen in the camp, like himself, claiming the blood of Hercules, and he tried to save them by giving them letters and messages to Sparta ; but one answered that “he had come to fight, not to carry letters”; and the other, that “ his deeds would tell all that Sparta wished to know.” Another Spartan, named Dienices, when told that the enemy's archers were so numerous that their arrows darkened the sun, replied, “So much the better, we shall fight in the shade.” Two of the 300 had been sent to a neighboring village, suffering severely from a complaint in the eyes. One of them, called Eurytus, put on his armor, and commanded his helot to lead him to his place in the ranks; the other, called Aristodemus, was so overpowered with illness that he allowed himself to be carried away with the retreating allies. It was still early in the day when all were gone, and Leonidas gave the word to his men to take their last meal. To-night,” he said,
with Pluto." Hitherto, he had stood on the defensive, and had husbanded the lives of his men ; but he now desired to make as great a slaughter as possible, so as to inspire the enemy with dread of the Grecian name. He therefore marched out beyond the wall, without waiting to be attacked, and the battle began. The Persian captains went behind their wretched troops and scourged them on to the fight with whips ! Poor wretches, they were driven on to be slaughtered, pierced with the Greek spears, hurled into the sea, or trampled into the mud of the morass ; but their inexhaustible numbers told at length. · The spears of the Greeks broke under hard service, and their swords alone remained ; they began to fall, and Leonidas himself was among the first of the slain. Hotter than ever was the fight over his corpse, and
two Persian princes, brothers of Xerxes, were there killed ; but at length word was brought that Hydarnes was over the pass, and that the few remaining men were thus enclosed on all sides. The Spartans and Thespians made their way to a little hillock within the wall, resolved to let this be the place of their last stand; but the hearts of the Thebans failed them, and they came towards the Persians holding out their hands in entreaty for mercy. Quarter was given to them, but they were all branded with the king's mark as untrustworthy deserters. The helots probably at this time escaped into the mountains : while the small desperate band stood side by side on the hill still fighting to the last, some with swords, others with daggers, others even with their hands and teeth, till not one living man remained amongst them when the sun went down. There was only a mound of slain, bristled over with arrows.
Twenty thousand Persians had died before that handful of men ! Xerxes asked Demaratus if there were many more at Sparta like these, and was told there were 8000. It must have been with a somewhat failing heart that he invited his courtiers from the fleet to see what he had done to the men who dared to oppose him! and showed them the head and arm of Leonidas set up upon a cross; but he took care that all his own slain, except 1000, should first be put out of sight. The body of the brave king was buried where he fell, as were those of the other dead. Much envied were they by the unhappy Aristodemus, who found himself called by no name but the “Coward,” and was shunned by all his fellow-citizens. No one would give him fire or water, and after a year of misery, he redeemed his honor by perishing in the fore-front of the battle of Platæa, which was the last blow that drove the Persians ingloriously from Greece.
The Greeks then united in doing honor to the brave warriors who, had they been better supported, might have saved the whole country from invasion. The poet Simonides wrote the inscriptions that were engraved upon the pillars that were set up in the pass to commemorate this great action. One was outside the wall, where most of the fighting had been. It seems to have been in honor of the whole number, who had for two days resisted : “ Here did four thousand men from Pelops' land
Against three hundred myriads bravely stand.” In honor of the Spartans was another column :
“Go, traveller, to Sparta tell
That here, obeying her, we fell.” On the little hillock of the last resistance was placed the figure of a stone lion, in memory of Leonidas, so fitly named the lion-like, and Simonides, at his own expense, erected a pillar to his friend, the seer Megistias :
“The great Megistias' tomb you here may view,
The names of the 300 were likewise engraven on a pillar at Sparta.
Lion, pillars, and inscriptions have all long since passed away, even the very spot itself has changed ; new soil has been formed, and there are miles of solid ground between Mount (Eta and the gulf, so that the Hot Gates no longer exist. But more enduring than stone or brass — nay, than the very battle-field itself — has been the name of Leonidas. Two thousand three hundred years have sped since he braced himself to perish for his country's sake in that narrow, marshy coast road, under the brow of the wooded crags, with the sea by his side. Since that time how many hearts have glowed, how many arms have been nerved at the remembrance of the Pass of Thermopylæ, and the defeat that was worth so much more than a victory !