Master Thespians
Don't prepare for glory.


James S. Robbins

The runaway blockbuster 300 has prompted renewed interest in the classics. The movie has it all — heroism, sex, violence, good vs. evil — who knew dead white men could be so interesting? The historical inaccuracies in the movie are legion, as in many historical films (let alone those based on a graphic novel). But if the movie motivates people to learn about the true story then I’m all in favor. And for those who want to see in it an allegory of the Iranian threat, just consider what Xerxes would have done if he had a nuclear weapon. “Hot gates” indeed.

One is attracted to the human drama of the story. A small band of fighters willingly sacrifice themselves against vastly superior forces to buy time so armies could assemble to defeat the enemy later. It is no mystery why the defense of the Alamo was soon dubbed “America’s Thermopylae.” In fact the first Alamo monument bore the inscription, “Thermopylae had her messenger of defeat – the Alamo had none.” Leave it to the Texans to one-up the ancients.

But the analogy is inexact, because of what the respective groups were defending. The heroes of 1836 were fighting for freedom. The Spartans fought to maintain their autocratic state. A better analogy is not the Alamo but Iwo Jima, from the Japanese point of view (also recently dramatized in Letters from Iwo Jima). Both groups of defenders, Spartan and Imperial Japanese, were prepared to die fighting the enemy — but not for things we value.

Yes, we can admire them on the human level, for the bravery it took to fight against hopeless odds for the cause in which they believed. Courage, self-sacrifice, and indomitable spirit are qualities we like to see in our heroes.  But is that enough? Shouldn’t we take the cause into account too? Seriously, in the battle of Spartans vs. Persians, for whom do you root? Both were unsavory. You can relate the contest to Iran vs. Iraq in the 1980s — you wish both sides well and give support to the weaker. Or the Soviet Union vs. Germany in World War II — we backed Stalin for the same reasons the Athenians fought alongside the Spartans. For the moment, there was a common enemy.

Surely the Athenians did not see themselves as part of a common heritage with the Spartans, either politically or ethnically. The funeral oration of Pericles during the later Peloponnesian War is a laundry list of reasons why Athens represented a superior civilization to then-enemy Sparta. Throughout the Cold War, students of Thucydides pondered the parallels between the U.S./Soviet rivalry and that of Athens, a free-trading, democratic, pluralistic sea power, versus Sparta, an autarkic, totalitarian, xenophobic land power. Many noted uncomfortably that Sparta eventually won. The parallels run deep, and the analogy is well aligned; we can trace our democracy back to Athens in much the way the Soviet Union could trace its dictatorship back to Sparta.

The Spartans used the rallying cry of “Hellas for the Greeks” when it was convenient for them, but they were well known for only fighting when the interests of their city were at stake. Even Leonidas’s self sacrifice at Thermopylae was conditioned by an oracle’s vision that Sparta would either lose one of its kings or be destroyed. As well, Herodotus observes that Leonidas was motivated by “the wish to secure the whole glory for the Spartans.”

If you can’t quite get behind rooting for the Spartans, there were other heroes on the scene at Thermopylae, people the movie ignores. Herodotus tells us that when it became clear that the Greek defensive position had been flanked, Leonidas ordered the men from the other Greek states to leave, to prepare for the confrontation yet to come. But the 700 men of Thespiae, led by Demophilus, refused. They chose to stand with the three hundred Spartans, to fight beside them. “So they abode with the Spartans,” Herodotus wrote, “and died with them.”

Who were the Thespians? No, not actors — hard to imagine seven hundred or even seventeen taking up arms these days. They came from Boeotia, near Mt. Helicon, a little more than midway between Thermopylae and Athens. Their polis was traditionally a democracy. The Thespian Hoplites were much more akin to the volunteer citizen soldiers long seen as the backbone of the American fighting forces. Unlike the Spartans, the Thespians did not spend their lives drilling and training for war while living off the sweat and toil of those the enslaved Helots. The Thespians were free men who lived freely, and defended their city because their conscience demanded it.

What little we know of Thespiae leads us to believe that life there was pleasant, and cultured. The chief god of their city was Eros, and the city’s statue of the love god was famous throughout Greece (so much so it was stolen twice by the Romans). Because of the proximity to Mt. Helicon, the mountain of the muses, the Thespians dedicated a temple to them as well. The muses were the guardians of the creative forces of art and the mind. How unlike Sparta, where art and music only lived in the service of the state, and creative thinking was tantamount to subversion. Herodotus praises the Thespian warrior Dithyrambus for his role in the battle, “who gained greater glory than any of his countrymen.” His name refers to a hymn sung at the festivals of Dionysus to the accompaniment of a flute and dancing around an altar. Dionysus was the god of wine, whose worship symbolized the joy of life, of civilization, and of peace (and, alas, occasionally debauchery). Perhaps at his last moments Dithyrambus lived up to his name; perhaps, like George Custer, he died with a smile on his face.

After the defeat at Thermopylae the Persian army flooded into the Boeotian plains, and many cities, such as Thespiae’s traditional enemy Thebes, recognized Xerxes’ overlordship with a symbolic gift of earth and water. But Thespiae refused to “medize.” Its citizens retreated from their city, which was promptly burned. The next year 1800 Thespians joined in the combined Greek army at the Battle of Plataea, where the Persian army was routed and driven back to Asia Minor. Thespiae was rebuilt, and its citizens returned to their lives.

The Thespians made a greater sacrifice than the Spartans, but they did not have the power and influence of Sparta, nor apparently the ability to inspire the same sort of myth-making. It became a Spartan tradition annually to honor the dead of Thermopylae, in the self-glorifying way totalitarian regimes do, and to read their names and reclaim publicly the honor Leonidas gave his life to secure. How Thespiae may have recognized the battle is lost to history. So it has remained. Today in Thermopylae there are two main monuments to the defenders. The Spartan monument features a wall flanked by sculptures of figures reclining, fronted by a bas relief of the battle, and with a statue of a Spartan hoplite, spear raised, dominating the center, above the inscription “Come and take them.” At the traditional spot of the last stand, a plaque proclaims, “Stranger, bear this message to the Spartans, that we lie here obedient to their laws.”

Nearby stands a strangely muted memorial to the soldiers of Thespiae, a dark, headless, armless, legless trunk, a shattered remnant of a man, and beside the pedestal a marble tablet dedicating the shrine to the unknown defenders of the pass who chose to sacrifice themselves for democracy and their homeland. For their epitaph, I suggest a passage by A.E. Housman, written to honor the British dead of the First World War:

Here dead we lie because we did not choose
To live and shame the land from which we sprung.
Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose;
But young men think it is, and we were young.