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The Battle of Thermopylae

In 480 B.C. the forces of the Persian Empire under King Xerxes, numbering some two million men, bridged the Hellespont and marched in their myriads to invade and enslave Greece and all of Europe.  At that time the Persian Empire was the largest and most powerful the world had ever known.  Persia had already conquered all of the nations of the Eastern world and conscripted all of their armies into one massive force.  It was said that as this humongous army marched, its soldiers and horses drank entire rivers dry!  There was nothing left in its wake as the invaders carved a path of destruction throughout the countryside.  Greece was to be only a stepping stone, the beginning in the Persians march across Europe with plans to conquer the entire Western world from Greece, through Italy, France, Spain and the rest all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.

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For hundreds of years, the fiercely independent Greek city-states had always quarreled amongst themselves but now led by Sparta’s indomitable hoplite warriors, all of Greece for once was united against this looming threat from the East with one common goal—to keep out the barbarian invaders from Persia and maintain their freedom.

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In a desperate, heroic delaying action, a picked force of 300 Spartans was dispatched to the pass at Thermopylae known as the Hot Gates or “Gates of Fire”, where the confines between mountain and sea were so narrow that the Persian multitudes and their cavalry would be at least partly neutralized.

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Here, it was hoped, an elite force willing to sacrifice their lives could keep back, at least for a short time, the invading millions while the rest of Greece gathered and organized a larger defense force.

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300 Spartans and their allies held off the invaders for three long, bloody days wreaking havoc on the best troops from the Persian Empire.

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Medes, Egyptians, Libyans, Arabians, Indians, Bactrians, Palestinians, Syrians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Phoenicians, Ethiopians and more—all were no match for the seemingly invincible Spartans.

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Even the elite 10,000 Persian Immortals, King Xerxes’ greatest soldiers fared no better against the impenetrable red & gold Spartan wall of bristling long razor sharp spears and heavy solid oak and bronze shields.

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Finally unable to get by the determined Greeks, Xerxes offered a fortune in gold to anyone who could find a way around the mountains past the Spartan stronghold.  It didn’t take long for a local traitor, tempted by the huge sum of gold, to lead the Persians around the mountain pass behind the Spartans.  Now completely surrounded, exhausted and tremendously outnumbered the Spartans still stood their ground and fought to the death taking as many of the enemy as possible with them to Hades.

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Their weapons smashed and broken from the slaughter, they fought savagely with bare hands and teeth.  In the end, even while being driven on by their officers’ whips and threats, the Persians and their allies would not close man-to-man anymore with the Greeks for fear of losing more men. 

The 300 battle-hardened expert Spartan warriors had already annihilated thousands of the Empire’s best fighters and though bloodied and exhausted they still stood defiantly blocking the entrance to Greece.  King Xerxes realizing that this battle was just the first of many more to come throughout all of Greece and that he could not afford to lose more valuable men at this rate, ordered his archers to fire on the Greeks from a safe distance. 

Hiding out of reach of the Spartans deadly short swords, the Persian bowmen fired thousands upon thousands of murderous arrows non-stop from all sides directly into the brave Spartan warriors finally overwhelming them by sheer numbers.

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Defiant to the end, not one Spartan surrendered or retreated.  Fighting ferociously, they all died to the last man, but the standard of valor they set by their sacrifice inspired the Greeks to rally. 

The following year once again led by the Spartans--but this time by the full Spartan army and not just 300 troops--the allied Greek army crushed the Persians at the battle of Platea.

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King Xerxes’ decimated Persian army was sent limping back to the East, never again to return to threaten Greece.  The Warriors of Greece had triumphed preserving the beginnings of Western democracy and freedom from perishing in the cradle.

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Following victory in the Greco-Persian War, Greece entered into its, “Golden Age” when a new style of government known as democracy took root and independent thinking was encouraged.  Great advances were made in the field of medicine, the arts and sciences flourished, mathematics, music, philosophy, theater, architecture, agriculture and sporting events like the Olympics blossomed.  International commerce and trade boomed making Greece a thriving worldwide market place and center of culture and learning.  All of this was possible only because 300 men trained from birth to be the greatest warriors of the ancient world did their duty faithfully and without question so that others might live to enjoy freedom.

Two memorials remain today at Thermopylae.  Upon the modern one, called the Leonidas Monument in honor of the Spartan king who fell there, is engraved his response to Xerxes’ demand that the Spartans lay down their arms.  Just prior to the start of the battle at the Hot Gates King Xerxes sent an envoy to the Spartan contingent informing them of how badly outnumbered they were and that resistance was futile in the face of such overwhelming odds.  The Greeks were ordered to surrender their weapons immediately if they wanted mercy.  King Leonidas defiantly replied in typically laconic Spartan style with just two ominous words, Molon Labe.  “Come and get them.”

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The second monument, the ancient one, is an unadorned stone engraved with the words of the poet Simonides.  Its verses comprise perhaps the most famous of all warrior epitaphs:

“Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,
that here obedient to their laws we lie.”

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Although extraordinary valor was displayed by the entire corps of Spartans and their allies, yet bravest of all was declared to be the Spartan warrior Dienekes.  It is said that on the eve of battle, he was told that the Persian archers were so numerous that when they fired their volleys, the mass of arrows blocked out the sun.

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Dienekes, however, quite undaunted by this prospect, remarked with a laugh, “Good, then we’ll have our battle in the shade.”

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