I first saw the film, The 300 Spartans when I was seven-years-old, and (as I’ve mentioned before on this site) it determined the future course of my life, both as an artist, and an amateur scholar of ancient history. So fascinated by the story of Leonidas, one of the first books I bought was the Penguin Classics edition of Herodotus’ Histories , which in turn opened up to me the historical context of not only of the Battle of Thermopylae itself, but the whole concept of the sadly eternal battle between freedom and tyranny.
This is written with the presumption that all of those reading it are aware of the basic story of the battle (even as depicted in the more recent and bizarre movie, 300) and the fact that although Leonidas and his tiny army were overwhelmed, their heroism inspired Greece onward to eventual victory over the invading Persian empire. With the passing of time, the stand of the 300 at Thermopylae became a metaphor for freedom defying tyranny, so poignantly exemplified in the stark words of Simonides’ epitaph to the fallen Spartans; “O stranger, go tell the Lacedaemonians that we lie here, obedient to their words…”
Bearing in mind numerous powerful caveats; including that a) most of our free “western societies” today are hardly comparable with ancient Sparta (or any of the other Greek states), and that b) Xerxes had no nuclear option to fall back on when his invasion plans went awry, the lesson of Thermopylae has rarely seemed more instructive.
The big question remains however, if Kiev is a modern-day Thermopylae is the West prepared for a Salamis and a Platea?
When I first saw the movie The 300 Spartans I was only seven-years-old but it made an impression on me that has endured for the following fifty years. The story of King Leonidas and his heroic stand at the Pass of Thermopylae lit a touch paper in my young spirit that shaped the course of all my future careers, and even perhaps the way my life has panned out.
Most peoples and nations on Earth have their own such iconic tales of heroic defeat, which seem to lend themselves to idealistic notions of ultimate sacrifice for the sake of freedom. For instance, the (European) Americans have their Little Bighorn, the British, their Charge of the Light Brigade and the French, the last stand of the Old Guard at Waterloo.
The thing however, that distinguishes the action of the 300 at the Hot Gates back in 480 BC from all of the above, and gives it such universal and lasting allure to most peoples of the Earth (with the possible exception of Xerxes’ modern heirs) was its almost total contextual non-ambiguity.
The actions of Yankee Blue Coats against the Plains Indians, Cardigan’s “Cherry-Bums” in the valleys of the Crimea, and Napoleon’s “grognards” (grumblers) in a Belgian wheat field; for all their undoubted courage were primarily in the interests of conquest — the very thing that Leonidas was attempting to halt. Custer, Raglan and Napoleon — their widely varying military abilities notwithstanding — were all closer to Xerxes than to Leonidas in the context of their respective battle objectives. Thus, in many ways, the Spartan King offers us an historical rarity; a genuinely noble defeat in the purest of causes — defense of the homeland; more of a Wounded Knee than a Little Bighorn.
About two years after my young imagination had been fired by the story of Leonidas and the 300, I became familiar with an account of a similar military engagement in the even more ancient annals of my own people’s narrative. And so enthralled was I by the story of King Saul and his son Jonathan’s defeat at the hands of the Philistines on the slopes of Mount Gilboa I actually wrote a book about it some forty years later. (That book, among other things, led me to setting up this blog and so it’s probably high time I posted an article along these lines.)
And just as Leonidas’ death was a powerful inspiration for the following Golden Age of Greece, the defeat of Saul and Jonathan actually secured both the concept and the durability of Israelite, and then Jewish nationhood.
However, while Leonidas is lauded by the modern Greeks as their consummate national hero, for reasons too complex to go into here, the only monuments to Saul’s act of ultimate sacrifice at Gilboa are the exquisite seasonal wildflowers which annually defy the curse of David upon the mountain’s slopes (2 Samuel 1:21). My book was a vain attempt to rectify the situation; to raise the status of Saul within the national consciousness of modern Israel and Jewish people everywhere, so that instead of heading straight from Ben Gurion Airport to Jerusalem and the other “holy sites” ; they would instead make for Gilboa, where a nation was forged in the blood of its first, and most noble king. So noble in fact, his own usurper felt obliged to concede as much in his timeless lament (abridged here)…