– King Cleomenes II of Sparta(369-309BC), in response to a letter from King Phillip of Macedon (father of Alexander the great), seeking to know if he should come as a friend or a foe. Phillip took the hint and never ventured into Sparta
The dictionary defines the word ‘laconic’ as being blunt – using as few words as possible to make a point, one that can be sarcastic or biting. The characters that Clint Eastwood played for example, had this style (‘A man has got ta know his limitations’).
The word ‘laconic’ derives its origins from a particular group of folks who lived in a region of ancient Greece then known as Laconia and they carved a name for themselves as a martial race, for four centuries, between the 6th and the 2nd Centuries BC.
The Laconians believed that every male citizen had one and only one specific purpose in life – to fight and die for the state. To this end, the training began at the age of 6 – when the child had to be handed over by his parents to the state’s care. He disappeared into a kind of all-boys’ state-sponsored military boarding school system where kids were taught not only how to fight but also the arts and sciences. Legend has it that when a mother sent her son off to one of those institutions, she told the kid, ‘when you return home next, I want to see you either clasping your shield or lying on it.’ By the time they graduated, at 23, these men would turn into inscrutable, taciturn and laconic Jason Bourne-like fighting machines.
If you were smart in those days, you knew not to mess with the Laconians.
We know Laconians by another, more popular moniker – Spartans. Laconic speech is Spartan speech. The Spartans were the kings of the one-liners of ancient history. Cool, no? Twenty-five centuries after they disappeared from the scene, we still know how the Spartans spoke, thanks to a historian named Herodotus (484-425BC) who existed in real time then and wrote down every fine detail on rolls and rolls of papyrus comprising nine massive volumes, the remnants of which you’ll find in – no guesses on this one – the largest collection of articles acquired through organized, state-sponsored theft, known to mankind : the British Museum.
The Spartan flag, with the inverted ‘V’ in the center – the Greek letter ’lambda’ (‘L’ for Laconia)
Like the rest of the Spartans, Herodotus too was laconic. He like ta call a spade a spade and therefore he named his work just that – The Histories – a sort of founding document that is now considered as the first known instance of someone sitting down and recording history for posterity.
Dotty (I call Herodotus ‘Dotty’ and I hope he won’t be offended) starts The Histories with a preamble that he must have deemed necessary – to highlight the purpose of his effort – ‘So that the great deeds of men may not be forgotten, whether Greeks or foreigners. And especially so that men, centuries hence, know of the causes of all the wars that their ancestors fought and learn from them….’
I have a 600-page Penguin edition of The Histories that is most entertaining, in the sense that when you read it, you have this eerie feeling that history – which mankind has repeatedly failed ta learn from – keeps repeating itself with grindingly horrendous regularity. Dotty wasted his time writing the preamble.
However, had it not been for Dotty and his book, we might never have learned about the Battle of Thermopylae (480BC), an almost cinematic story of how 300 Spartans held off a marauding army of five million Persians under the great ruler Xerxes I in 480BC. Of course, the number of Persians might have just been around 200,000 and Dotty, like the rest of us, maybe just got carried away. I can relate ta that. But thanks anyway, Dotty.
Our dear Dotty
Here’s the story of Thermopylae as Dotty tells it –
First the background – after the first Persian invasion of Greece, where they got their noses ground into the soil right and proper at Marathon in 490BC and had ta turn tail, the then Persian emperor Darius I was pissed off as hell. You would be too, if you thought of yourself as a God-king, kind of like a fifth century BC Donald Trump.
Darius swore to mount a second invasion but failing health prevented him from carrying it out. He passed on in 486BC, leaving the Persian throne to his eldest son, Khashayarsha, whom western historians know as Xerxes I.
In those days, when an invasion didn’t work out, the invaders didn’t just go back home and get out their tennis rackets. They kept coming back, until either they were decimated or they successfully annexed and enslaved the invaded land and established their hegemony over it. The threat of an invasion was ever present and the percentages grew manifolds if the city states neighboring yours saw you prospering. For that reason, many of the invasions were pre-emptive, to ward off a possible future aggression.
The second Persian invasion began in the summer of 480BC. Xerxes’ hordes came down from Persian-occupied Thrace (modern Turkey) and marched through Macedonia unimpeded. They were lucky – this was more than a century before Alexander the Great, or else they would have had their butts kicked outa there once again.
South of Macedonia, Thessaly too offered no resistance to the Persians, but the Thessalians did send a messenger to warn the Spartan King, Leonidas I, that the Persians cometh. For once the Greek city-states buried their differences and decided to band together under Leo and make a stand at a narrow (50-ft wide) mountain pass at Thermopylae. It was a strategic choice, given the steep cliffs on all sides that precluded any attempts to sidestep the pass.
Sparta was way down south and in those days they didn’t have C130 Hercules troop-lifters or Carrier Task Forces. Getting the bulk of their defenders to the pass would take weeks. Fortunately Leonidas had 300 Spartan soldiers camped nearby and those desperados held off Xerxes’ men on the pass for 20 days – Luke Skywalkers against the Darth Vaders, fighting for freedom and democracy, against the dark forces.
Simultaneously, in order to prevent a sea-borne invasion from making landfall, the Spartans and their partners sent a small flotilla to Artemisium, where the sea south of Thrace contracts to a narrow channel between the island of Euboea and the Greek mainland. Leonidas’s ships would block the southward advance of any naval invasion there.
But the Persian onslaught was mind-boggling – 1200 battleships with 245000 marines and 3000 pentecosters. Pentecosters were 50-oared galleys, the oars manned by slaves (I heard Dotty say there was a slave by the last name, Heston, there but I can’t be sure). Those pentecosters carried an additional 250000 men.
And that was just Xerxes’s naval component. The land assault had an infantry 1.7 million strong and an 80,000 man cavalry. Those were just the original Persian personnel and that was not all. Xerxes too had made alliances along the way. There was an Arabian 20,000-man camel corps and a 30,000-man contingent of Libyan charioteers. Add to that all those fighting folks that the Persians had conscripted and beaten into military divisions, comprising of toughies picked up along the way – Thracians, Paeonions, Eordi, Chalcidians, Macedonians, Bythnians, Achaeans, Dolopes, Magnetes, Pierians – there were others but you might be suffering from ADHD, so I’ll let it rest here.
Thus, on that August of 480BC, the Great Xerxes, son of Darius I, grandson from his mother’s side to Cyrus the Great, reached the other side of Thermopylae at the head of a fighting machine that had 5,283,320 men, on 6000 ships, 80000 horses, 20000 camels and 30000 chariots
Against that, the Spartan alliance had a 7000 strong infantry, albeit the best fighters in the world. And a few ships to block the isthmus at Euboea.
That is the Dotty (Greek) version, inflating the enemy numbers. If there had been a Persian historian writing a parallel narrative, it might have glorified them this way…..
’In the fourteenth year of the great king Khashayarsha, ruler over all lands, from Gandhara in the east to Cyrene in the west, from Persepolis and Babylonia in the south to Thrace in the north, he prevailed by the will of our divine Lord Abathur, over the Spartans at a narrow mountain pass that they called Dargarm. The Spartan king was impaled on a stake on which he died very gradually for five days without water or shade, while 3 million of his men that were still moving about like broken dolls were burned alive, thus meeting their just destiny… Praise be to Khashayarsha, the Divine…….’
(Khashayarsha – Xerxes)
(Thermopylae got its name from the hot springs that abound there. Literally translated, it means ‘hot gates’)
Of course, in the end the Spartans lost, but they died the way they dreamt of dying – as heroes. Seeing the overwhelming odds, much of the other troops of the Greek alliance got disheartened and lost the will to fight. They turned back and went home to their city-states.
But not the Spartans. To the last man, they chose to remain by the side of their valiant king, Leonidas. He tried to dismiss them and ordered them to return to Sparta and save themselves but they wouldn’t desert him. Much of Sparta’s fame arose from the deeds of its heroes like Leonidas.
It is said that as Leonidas and his men continued enforcing the standoff at the pass, Xerxes became increasingly irritated. He sent out a scout to go as close to the pass as possible and try to see what the Spartans were up to. The scout reported back that he saw the Spartans grooming and braiding their hair and generally hanging out laughing and joking among themselves.
Xerxes was puzzled. He sent for his go-to guy for advice – Demaratus, son of Ariston, a trusted aide.
“What the f—k is going on? Why aren’t they giving up? Don’t they know what they are up against?” Xerxes asked Demaratus, of the Spartans.
And to that, Demaratus famously replied (though not in so many words), ‘I told you once before how this whole will go down, Sire, and you laughed at me. So hear me once more. These men have come to defend the pass and for this, they are preparing to die. It is common practice among Spartan infantrymen to groom their hair and celebrate before battle. It is not going to be easy. You will be up against the men of the finest fighting force in the wor….er….Greece.’
Then, not knowing if he had overplayed his hand and sealed his own fate (folks got beheaded for much less those days), Demaratus added with a fawning tone, “But of course, in the end you will prevail, my Lord.’
In an effort ta cover all the bases, Xerxes sent an emissary to the Spartans with a deal – ‘we don’t have ta fight. Join us and we’ll heap gold and concubines on you, make you prosperous beyond your dreams, the only downside – sore richards from all the concubine sex you’ll get’.
You know me – I wouldn’t mind that kinda downside and would have taken the deal, but then I’m not a Spartan. I don’t want ta be a fookin’ hero. According to Herodotus, Leo and the Spartans skinned the emissary alive and sent back his headless body, with a note stuck on it that read – πάει σκατά τους εαυτούς σας!!!!
That might look like ‘haba haba haba’ to you and me but roughly translated, the note said to Xerxes and his men just three words : ‘Go f–k yoreselves’.
Ps: Coming up next in my ‘wouldn’t ya like ta know’ series – The Assyrian Meanies