Kittie Howard

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A Statue in Thermopylae, Greece

A larger-than-life bronze statue of a Spartan icon, King Leonidas I, stands in an eclipse near a wide, long, and dusty plain in Thermopylae, Greece.  The king's raised right hand holds a javelin.  The downward left hand grips a shield.  A Spartan helmet, with its now famous Mohawk swoop, covers the warrior's head.  Otherwise, King Leonidas I stands naked.  The Spartan king fought naked.

Leonidas died at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC, more specifically, at the Pass of Thermopylae, where, in the combined area of mountain pass and lower plain, Leonidas and his 7,000 soldiers held off Persia's King Xerxes and his 2,641,610 soldiers for several intense days.  When the ferocious fighting ended, only two of the 7,000 Greek soldiers survived.  The victorious Persians, though, eventually tasted defeat at the Battle of Plataiai in 479 BC., where history also changed course.

But, for the moment, I'd prefer not to trod another war-torn path, but remain at the Battle of Thermopylae, one of history's most studied and respected battles.  However, without the drama of war, the Pass of Thermopylae rises above the extended battle plain below and appears more a snapshot of Greece's spectacular mountain scenery than an extended setting for one of history's bloodiest battles.

The battle plain below, large enough to hold over two and a half million men, lies flat, like a discarded remnant, as if Mother Nature had created a rugged masterpiece and dropped the scrap of land to perfect a turquoise-blue sea to lap the peaceful shoreline.  If not for the Battle of Thermopylae, an historical quirk, the long plain would simply exist, neither pretty nor ugly, just there, a wall flower among Greece's more imposing battle sites.

But, trapped and out-numbered by Xerxes, Leonidas refused to surrender, basically said to the Persian king, "If you want me and my men, come and get us," and, so, Xerxes complied.  Leonidas and his men fought to the bitter end with heroics that earned the Greeks dictionary definitions of honor, valor, courage, and bravery, definitions that have since translated into the world's various militaries with equal respect.  For there are times when something so powerful occurs even sworn enemies agree to agree.

So, today a statue of Leonidas faces burial mounds and thousands of soldiers who died on that dusty plain.  Behind Leonidas, in the far distance, a modern highway and parallel rail tracks cut through a land that once ran scarlet with blood.  This morning, however, the hum of fast cars and heavy trucks whirs like gnats on a hot day. Save for an occasional chirping bird, diesel- and gas-powered modernity is the only sound one hears.  For it is hot.  Perspiration runs from the brow like a salty river.

I look at the statue of Leonidas and wonder about history's enormity: The millions of men gathered to kill, the armada of ships in the sea needed to transport the soldiers, the why of it all.  True, the Peloponnesian Wars eventually followed the Battle of Thermopylae, wars that produced innovation and change modern military leaders follow, but the Battle of Thermopylae seduces today's warriors primarily for the raw courage that prevailed.

Historians like to point out that most wars or significant battles began because of economics or a need for land, truisms that socialists say exist today.  However, the Battle of Thermopylae happened because it could.  Leonidas and Xerxes didn't really want to fight each other.  Attempts to prevent the conflict didn't work because Leonidas and Xerxes had nothing else to do.  As my husband, a military history hobbyist, said, "Warriors don't pick olives."

So the armies fought.  Men died.  And time moved on.

Sad, actually.

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