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Impossible Victory---

Xerxes, Leonidas & Themistocles


The Persians seek to invade Europe through Greece


“…Military adventures of this kind had long been a specialization of the Persians.  For decades, victory---rapid, spectacular victory---had appeared to be their birthright.  Their aura of invincibility reflected unprecedented scale and speed of their conquests…Europe was not to witness another invasion force to rival this until 1944, and the summer of D-Day…the Greeks had appeared few in numbers and hopelessly divided.  Greece itself was little more than a geographical expression: not a country but a patchwork of quarrelsome and often violently chauvinistic city-states. [Persian Fire, pp. xiii-xiv]  “The whole of the east was on the move…They were men of many races: Persians, Medes, and Bactrians, Arabs on camels, mountain men from Caucasus, Libyans driving chariots, and horsemen from central Iran.  There were even primitive Ethiopians painted in savage style, whose Stone Age weapons contrasted strangely with the sophisticated armour and swords of the immaculate Persian royal guard.  It was the year 480B.C. and Xerxes had given the order for the invasion of Europe.  The King’s writ had gone forth, and when he himself went to war, every nation, tribe and race within the vast Persian Empire was expected not only to furnish its due contingent of men, but those men must also be led by their own kings, leaders, or princes…” [pp21-23, Thermopylae, by Ernle Bradford]


483BC to 480BC


Xerxes, as we saw in Esther chapter 1 and from secular sources, had been planning this invasion of the European continent---through the back door of Greece---since 484/483BC.  During the reign of Darius his father, on a previous military adventure attempting to expand the borders of the Persian Empire northwestwards, he had lost a naval fleet off the cape Mount Athos sits on.  So Xerxes had actually had his engineers did a huge ship canal, making Mount Athos an island, thus allowing a naval fleet to safely circumvent the dangerous cape Mount Athos is situated on.  That was one of the two major military engineering projects Xerxes had his ‘army corps of engineers’ undertake in preparation for his invasion of Europe through Greece.  People think Xerxes’ invasion of mainland Greece was merely a vengeance deal due to their assisting the Ionian Greeks in their rebellion against the Persian Empire under his father Darius, and also due to their defeat at Marathon (less than 200 Athenian had fallen, but Persian dead, carefully counted, numbered 6,400!).  It wasn’t vengeance, per se, but Xerxes’ desire to expand the borders of the Persian Empire thousands of miles northwestward where his father, and Cyrus before him had failed to do so.  This was a major military invasion of Europe. 


Persian stockpiling for the Invasion of Europe


quoting Theopompos of Chios, records:

“Tens of thousands of stands of arms, both Greek and oriental; vast herds of baggage animals and beasts for slaughter; bushels of condiments, and boxes and sacks, and bales of paper and all other accessories.  And there was so much salt meat of every kind, that it made heaps, so large that people approaching from a distance thought they were coming to a range of hills.”


Bradford Ernle says in his book Thermopylae:

“They were among the forerunners in the large-scale use of paperwork---under which so much of the world groans today…provision was made in the way of stores for the army when it should have crossed into Greece.  While in Asia Minor they might be expected to feed off the land to a great extent, since all of the area came under Persian rule.  Such could not be expected in Greece itself once the army was south of the pro-Persian north…in several parts of this region of Thrace great provision dumps were established.  The largest of these was at the White Cape on the Thracian coast and another was at the mouth of the Strymon near the new bridge.  Yet others were sited to the south, in parts of Macedonia…evidence of forethought, excellent logistics, and planning superiority over the Greeks of the period.  The small Greek city-states could not understand what the organization of a great empire and the movement of many thousands of men entailed: they themselves thought in terms of hundreds or at the most a few thousands…The principle source of amazement, not untinged with some reluctant admiration, was the great bridge of boats which Xerxes ordered to be constructed across the Hellespont at the narrows between Abydos on the Asian side to a point near Sestos on the European side: a distance of about seven furlongs or 1400 yards [3/4 of a mile].  “There were two bridges supported on 674 biremes and triremes which were used to form the floating platforms upon which the carriageway itself was laid.  There were 360 vessels on the side towards the Black Sea and 314 on the southern section…[he had them] erect palisades on either side of the bridges so that the animals which were to pass over would not take fright at the sight of ‘the bitter water’…nothing until amphibious operations of the twentieth century, was to equal the skill and technical ability of these engineers and craftsmen of the Persian Empire---working in the fifth century B.C.” [Thermopylae, Bradford Ernle, pp.27-30.] 


Spring of 480 B.C.


In 481BC Xerxes started his massive Persian multinational army northwards through the Middle East and on into Asia Minor, where he encamped for the winter months.  Then by the spring of 480BC he received word that his two huge ship-pontoon bridges spanning across the Hellespont and the large ship canal at Mount Athos had been completed.  (His ‘army corps of engineers’ first attempt at the massive ship-pontoon bridges had failed, at the cost of the leading engineers’ heads.  But the 2nd attempt succeeded.  Xerxes was not a very forgiving emperor.)  Now an estimated 75,000 to 150,000 pack animals conveying the supplies of huge supply depots which had been assembled in Asia Minor across the Hellespont into northern Greece, along with an army historians estimate at between 210,000 and 500,000 or more troops, and this created what must have been the largest traffic-jam ever witnessed in ancient history.  While this movement of Xerxes’ army sorted itself out crossing the Hellespont (taking about a week’s time), Xerxes watched his combined naval forces holding fleet exercises on the surface of the Hellespont below him.  His combined multinational navy was made up of, according to Herodotus:  The Phoenicians, 300 triremes; the Egyptians, 200 triremes; Cyprus, 150 triremes; Cicilia and Pamphilia, 130 triremes; Lycia and Caria, 120 triremes; Asian (Ionian) Greeks, 290 triremes; the Cyclades Islands, 17 triremes; and the Thracian Greeks, 120 triremes.  This gave Xerxes combined naval force 1,327 triremes (and biremes, an inferior version of the trireme).  Understand, all these contributing ‘nations’ making up Xerxes’ Persian armed forces were now vassal states within the Greater Persian Empire (including the Ionian Greeks of Asia Minor, who had unsuccessfully tried to rebel against Persia in 500BC). 


A.E. Housman said:


The King with half the East at heels

Is marched from land of morning.

His fighters drink the rivers up,

Their shafts benight the air….”


“…The army itself, when it was on the march, moved in columns, baggage train ahead, with half the infantry as escort; then came two brigades of Xerxes’ noble guards, the Immortals; the sacred chariot of Ahuramazda drawn by ten stallions, then the Great King, followed by two further brigades of crack infantry and cavalry; the rest of the Immortals; and finally all the other infantry divisions.  The whole array, it has been calculated, would have taken seven days to cross the bridges from Asia Minor into Europe.”…“The nation and the empire that Xerxes was now leading to the invasion of Europe represented a concentration of military and political power such as the ancient world had never known before…unlike those that, instead of remaining confined within the territorial limits of the Near East the Persian Empire was still expanding.  From 547 B.C. onwards it continued to do so for some seventy years...Had it succeeded, the Zoroastrian creed might have been imposed upon the pagan Greeks.  There would have been no fifth-century Athens, and all European history would have been different.”  [Thermopylae, Bradford Ernle, p40]


The Athenians


Two Greek city-states formed the central core of Greek military resistance against Xerxes’ hordes from the East---Athens and Sparta.  From Athens would come the naval arm of the Greek military, and from Sparta would come the core of their land-based military expertise.  One of the greatest naval strategists of all times arose out of obscurity in 483BC, only to fall back into obscurity when these crucial engagements had been won.  His name was Themistocles, and he was politically and tactically brilliant, but a radical maverick amongst his peers.  God definitely had a hand in the grooming of this individual.  Like Winston Churchill, he was their ‘Man of the Hour.’  In 483BC, providentially, it would appear, a very rich vein of silver was discovered in the mining area of Laurium near Cape Sunium.  Under normal circumstances the windfall profits from these mines would be divided up equally amongst the Greek citizenry (after paying the miners their just wages, of course).  Themistocles somehow convinced the hardnosed Senate of Athens to divert the entire sum of money gained from this motherlode into the construction of 100 new trireme warships of a special heavier design (less maneuverable and not as fast, but with exceptional kinetic ramming force).  In open waters these triremes were at a disadvantage to the faster, lighter and more maneuverable Phoenician and Egyptian triremes.  But apparently this naval genius had already chosen the two major battle-grounds where his specially designed warships would operate in, and both of them were in the somewhat restricted waters along the Greek coastline (which he was very familiar with).  These ships were called triremes because they were ramming-type warships containing three deck-levels of oarsmen, with a large copperclad ram projecting submerged extending off the bow of each ship.  Themistocles had these triremes constructed heavier in weight than their Phoenician or Egyptian counterparts.  Herodotus says about Themistocles:


“Themistocles was a man who most clearly presents the phenomenon of natural genius…to a quite extraordinary and exceptional degree.  By sheer personal intelligence, without either previous study or special briefing, he showed both the best grasp of an emergency situation at the shortest notice, and the most far-reaching appreciation of probable further developments.  He was good at explaining what he had in hand; and even of things outside his previous experience he did not fail to form a shrewd judgment.  No man so well foresaw the advantages and disadvantages of a course in the still uncertain future.  In short, by natural power and speed in reflection, he was the best of all men at determining promptly what had to be done.”  Herodotus



The Spartans


Since we Christians understand that world history always fits into God’s framework of Bible prophecy, it would appear that Sparta was apparently “designed” for one task and one important war---just as it would appear that God groomed Themistocles for his special role in leading the Greek navy against Xerxes’ naval forces.  “The Spartans came of a different branch of the Greek stock known as Dorians, who had invaded the Peloponnese in waves about 1000 B.C., …At the head of the rigidly stratified society which evolved in Sparta there were at the top the Dorian conquerors, the ‘Spartiates’.  They formed, as it were, ‘The Master-Race’. 


Bradford Ernle tells us in his Thermopylae:  “They were the only people to have the vote, and they lived in military messes in the capital.  Below them came the Perioikoi or Neighbours—free men who marched and fought along with the Spartiates, but did not have voting rights.  The third stratum of the society was formed by the Helots.  These, who may well have been the descendants of the indigenous inhabitants, worked on the farms that belonged to the Spartiates.  They were not slaves in the classical sense of the word but cultivated the land and gave half their produce to the Spartiate citizens…But the threat of a Helot revolt, however veiled, was always there, and for this reason and because of the other conquered people around them the Spartans always had to keep a proportion of their army at home.  They could never field all their fighting manpower…they became a warrior-race largely because it was essential for them.  (Grundy calculated that the proportion of Free to Non-Free in the Spartan state was 1:15.)  To maintain a ruling class out of such a disproportionate relationship meant that the citizen of Sparta, the Spartiate, must of necessity have made himself so hard and fine a soldier that his efficiency outweighed the balance.”…”The famous discipline of the Spartan warrior caste was attributed to Lycurgus and the laws he impressed upon these people… the iron code of rules which set them apart from all other men.  For one thing, no Spartiate was permitted to own gold or silver.  These same laws also forbade him from indulging in agriculture, craft, or indeed in any kind of profession—except that of arms.”…At seven or eight years of age boys were taken from their mothers and were enrolled in a group of their year.  It is not clear whether at this age he still lived at home but, in any case, he now came under the discipline and control of a senior Spartiate.  Similarly at thirteen he was transferred to yet another group under similar control, but presided over by a magistrate.  Their whole life was devoted to the state…Boys slept in dormitories on rush-beds, rushes they had to cut without the aid of a knife…their rations were kept to a minimum, so much so that it was expected that they would steal for food to supplement them but, if caught, they were severely punished.  From the very beginning, it can be seen that those qualities required in a soldier—cunning, audacity and just plain ‘scrounging’—were encouraged.  As might be expected, their training was largely designed to toughen their bodies; so the military arts were taught; drill, weapon-training, and of course athletics...girls received a very similar training…H.D.F. Kitto in The Greeks has succinctly summarized it:

“There were two kings—reminiscent of the two equal consuls in the Roman Republic.  The origin was probably different, but the desired effect was the same: in each case the duality was a check on autocracy.  At home the kings were overshadowed by the Ephors (‘Overseers’), five annual magistrates chosen more or less by ballot: but a Spartan army abroad was always commanded by one of the kings, who then had absolute powers.”


Aristotle describes the kingship of Sparta as a ‘kind of unlimited and perpetual generalship’.  Kitto continues: ‘There was also a Senate, and there was an Assembly, but the Assembly could not debate, and it expressed its decisions—to the amusement of other Greeks—not by voting but by shouting: the loudest shout carried the day.’  This astonishing compendium of almost every kind of government from monarchy, aristocracy, oligarchy to democracy was quite unique.  Other Greeks,…just could not understand how such a ramshackle affair could work.  The fact is that it did; one reason, perhaps, why a number of Greek writers and philosophers admired these strange soldiers of the Eurotes valley.”          Based on the theory that the men must be prepared for war at any time and the exigencies of campaign food, they must not be allowed to grow soft or self-indulgent at any time…another effect which all this discipline produced—not only superlative warriors but excellent mannered citizens…The old were revered, the women respected, and the young warriors admired.”…A good illustration of this is given in a tale told by Plutarch.  In a crowded throng at the Olympic games an old man was looking in vain for a seat from which to watch the events.  His stumbling attempts to find one were noticed by many Greeks from other states, who mocked him for his age and fruitless endeavors.  When, however, he came to the section where the Spartans were seated, every man among them rose to his feet and offered him their seats.  Somewhat abashed, but nevertheless admiringly, the other Greeks applauded them for their behavior.  ‘Ah’, the old man is reported to have said with a sigh, ‘I see what it is—all Greeks know what is right, but only the Spartans do it.’ sexual matters, the Spartans, true to their conservative outlook in everything, seem to  have had the highest rate of monogamy in all Greece…Xenophon…found a society that was little changed since the time of Leonidas.”  [Thermopylae, Bradford Ernle,  portions from pp. 58-64] 


It is recorded in Greek history that a Spartan army was allied to another Greek army, and that this other Greek hoplite army started to complain about how few Spartans had come to join them.  The Spartan king-general had all the hoplite soldiers sit down in two opposing groups, one Spartan, one the allies.  He then had a herald call out for all those that were potters to stand, then all those who were weavers to stand, and so he had the herald go through all the crafts and trades.  By the end, all the allied hoplite soldiers had risen to their feet, while not a single Spartan had.  All the Spartiate hoplites were still sitting.  This Spartan king then said, “You see how many more soldiers Sparta has contributed to the battle than you have.”  The whole Spartan attitude is contained in those few words, as the Spartans trained for war 10 to 11 months out of every year, and the Spartiate’s only trade was soldiering.  I can just hear Leonidas saying this to the Thespian and Malis contingents who combined contributed 1,700 hoplites compared to his 300 Spartiate hoplites on their march north to Thermopylae.  Xenophon, again says:


“…all men, I imagine, make as much money as they can.  One is a farmer, another a shipowner, another a merchant, and others live by various different handicrafts.  But at Sparta freeborn citizens were forbidden by Lycurgus to have anything to do with business.  He insisted that they should regard as their only concern those activities which make for civic freedom.  How, indeed, should wealth be considered seriously there since he also insisted on equal contributions to the food supply and the same standard of living for all, thus removing the attraction of money for indulgence’s sake?”




The story of Xerxes’ invasion of Greece, the story of its ultimate failure, cannot be understood without relating it to the arms borne by the opposing sides…

          “The narrow pass below the Hot Gates of the sulphur springs was a natural choice for men to stand and fight a battle in heavy armour.  The hoplite force, against which Xerxes was to throw the flower of his army, relied on two basic qualities, solidity and weight.  The Spartans and their allies stood in a close, almost unbroken, wall of armour, the shield being held on the left arm, and each man protecting the right side of his neighbour.  The hoplites thus presented a line of shields and breast-plates to the advancing enemy.  Under normal circumstances, which did not apply to Thermopylae, the right-hand side was naturally the weak point, so the best troops were always put in this position of trust and honour.  Thermopylae, however, was an ideal situation for a hoplite battle because this weak side was guarded by the sea.

          In the battle that was to follow, the force under Leonidas stood firm in the opening phase.  There was no need for them to do other than stand like a rock, and let the seemingly inexhaustible waves of the enemy break themselves to pieces on their spears and shields.”  [Thermopylae, Bradford Ernle, p.67, 69]


Greek Heavy Armour


From Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire we learn these essentials about Greek heavy armour:          “…the armour of the hoplite was extremely heavy…The helmet in general use was of the type known as the Corinthian, named after the city which is credited with having first developed it…made out of bronze and was beaten out of a single sheet of metal.  The whole of the head, including the collarbone (so vulnerable to a sweeping sword-cut) was completely covered.  The cheeks were also guarded by an extension of the lower rim of the helmet which left only a narrow slit, shaped like a T, for the eyes and nose.  To protect the head from bruising or concussion there was an inner lining which was secured to the bronze or iron by leather laces that passed through a series of holes in the helmet…To beat a complete helmet out of a single piece of iron (or bronze) was a highly developed skill, requiring many hours of patience and expertise…The principal parts of the body, the shoulders and trunk, were protected by a composite corselet.  This consisted of two shoulder pieces (again as a protection against the overhand cut of a sword or the descent of a spear or arrow) which were laced together at the chest.  Chest and stomach were covered by one or two sheets of leather which extended down below the waist.  This flap was usually, though not invariably, covered by oblong metal scales made of bronze.”…Another type of corselet, which it is possible that some of the Greeks wore at this period (armour, as in later centuries, may have passed down from father to son), resembled a bell.  This consisted of two bronze plates, covering front and back, and laced together down the sides…it was moulded to fit the torso and often carefully modelled to reproduce the shape of the chest and stomach.  Below this hung a leather kilt to which were stitched protective oval or palm-leaf-shaped pieces of bronze similar to those in the more usual protective body-armour.”


The Shield or Hoplon



“The other and indeed the main form of protection for the Greek hoplite was the shield…the hoplite’s shield was wood covered with bronze.  In order to give the arm a firm grasp there was an arm-band (porpax) in the centre, through which the hand and arm were passed, the hand grasping a stout cord just inside the rim.  This cord was separately knotted at about half a dozen stud points.  If a cord should break, the hoplite could shift his hand around and obtain a further grip upon the next corded section.  It was from this great round shield known as a hoplon that the Greek hoplites took their name.  An average diameter of a shield was about three feet, although, to judge from one example (four feet across), shields, like the armour itself, were made to individual specifications.  The outer cover of the shield, and almost invariably the rim, was made of bronze, wood only forming the base.”…What the troops of Xerxes would have seen as they approached the armoured Spartiates in the pass at Thermopylae was a row of almost identical round shields each bearing the same sign, the Greek A (Lambda or L) standing for their Lakedaemon.  In this way, the Spartans with their disciplined unity foreshadowed the organised regiments of later centuries.”


The Spear, 8-footer


“In the first stages of any encounter the primary weapon of the hoplite was his spear.  The shaft was either of ash or olive, and the typical spear used by the hoplite was about six to eight feet long (often called 8-footers by the hoplite)…Bronze spear-heads have been found dating from as late as the fifth century BC, but the majority undoubtedly favoured the more efficient iron tip.  By the time of Xerxes invasion, it would seem that one long spear was the principal equipment of the hoplite.”  The Spartan poet Tyrtaeus describes a typical battle-line such as the Persians were to encounter at Thermopylae: ‘Standing foot to foot, shield pressed on shield, crest to crest and helmet to helmet, chest to chest engage your man, grasping your sword-hilt or long spear.’”  By the time of the Persian wars, however, a new type of sword had begun to emerge, one-edged, and designed for a cutting stroke [precursor of the Roman short-sword, who probably copied it from the Spartans].  “While the Greeks, quite apart from their corselets, wore greaves, carefully moulded to fit their wearers legs to protect them against a slashing blow under their shields.”


Fear-inspiring look of the helmet




“Adding further to the theater of terror presented by the Hellenic phalanx and, to my mind most frightful of all, were the blank, expressionless facings of the Greek helmets, with their bronze nasals thick as a man’s thumb, their flaring checkpieces and the unholy hollows of their eye slits, covering the entire face and projecting to the enemy the sensation that he was facing not creatures of flesh like himself, but some ghostly invulnerable machine, pitiless and unquenchable.  I had laughed with Alexandros not two hours earlier as he seated the helmet over his undercap; how sweet and boyish he appeared in one instant, with the helmet cocked harmlessly back upon his brow and the youthful, almost feminine features of his face exposed.  Then with one undramatic motion, his right hand clasped the flare of the cheekpiece and tugged the ghastly mask down; in an instant the humanity of his face vanished, his gentle expressive eyes became unseeable pools of blackness chasmed within the fierce eye sockets of bronze; all compassion fled in an instant from his aspect, replaced with the blank mask of murder.  “Push it back,” I cried.  “You’re scaring the hell out of me.”  It wasn’t a joke.”  [Gates of Fire, Steven Pressfield, p.60]



the whole Greek hoplite pictured above (helmet of a later date though)



Persian Armour by Comparison


“The Persians, on the other hand, wore comparatively little armour.  Although a warlike people, their methods of fighting, which had secured for them the largest empire in the world, had hardly required more than a leather corselet, proof enough against most dropping arrows and thrown spears.  The javelin—which the Greek had largely abandoned in favour of the long pike-like spear—was still their principal weapon after the arrow.  Only the famous Immortals, the 10,000 men comprising the king’s personal body-guard, wore anything approaching the armour of the hoplite…rare for them to have any head covering other than a loose cloth—rather like a burnous, designed more for protection against the sun than anything else—and they had never adopted the metal greaves for the legs, but wore skin trousers.”


Wicker Shields


“They carried a leather or wickerwork shield and, apart from the bow and arrow, used a dagger for close-quarter work.  [Yeah, right, fighting a guy with an 8-foot spear and a short-sword with a dagger, that’s really gonna work for you.] they were not a match for the heavily armoured Greek hoplite.  In the great plains of Asia, where mobility was all-important, they would easily have proved their efficiency and capability against any army that the Greeks could muster.  But Thermopylae, with the narrow pass between the mountains and the sea, was an area that might have been specifically designed for the kind of warfare for which the Greeks—especially the Spartans—were trained.”  [Thermopylae, Bradford Ernle, pp. 73-74]


Ships of War


From Bradford Ernle we learn this about the warships of the era, especially the Greek warships: “…the trireme was rowed at three levels and there was one man to each oar. …’each sailor, taking his oar, cushion and oarstrap’…what the designers had done was to provide the vessel with an outrigger: an extension beyond the ship’s side that gave the top level oarsmen (thranites) a greater leverage.  The total crew of a trireme consisted of about 200 men, of whom 170 were oarsmen.  The thranites at the top numbered 31 on each side (62).  Below them came the second bank (zygotes) with 27 rowers to each side (54), and at the bottom, also with 27 men each side (54), came the thalamites.  Both the two lower decks of oars were worked through holes or ports in the side, and it is clear enough that the least enviable position in the ship was that of the thalamites.  They had little enough chance of escaping if the trireme was holed or otherwise overwhelmed.  Aristophanes also makes the joking comment that it could be very unpleasant to be on the bottom tier if someone above decided to relieve himself.  The remaining crew consisted of 15 deck hands, fourteen soldiers (some of whom were archers), and a flautist who piped the time for the oarsmen.  The helmsmen, whose job was all important on the ‘run-in’ towards an enemy trireme, steered by means of two broad-bladed steering-paddles as had been the fashion for centuries.  In command of each trireme was a trierarch (master, and sometimes owner)…Although the all-important oarsmen came from poorer classes, they were free citizens—quite unlike the galley-slave labour of later years in the Mediterranean.  It was the oarsmen, in fact, who by their predominance in numbers over the rich land-owning citizens were to provide the basic substratum upon which Athenian democracy was to evolve.”


Key facts


“[9 feet across at the bottom, 18 feet across at the top, 117 feet long.] The ship itself…was long and narrow-gutted.  On a beam of three metres at the bottom, which extended to six metres at the level of the thranites on the outriggers, the trireme would have been about 37 metres long (about 117 feet).  Such a vessel was clearly unsuited for heavy-weather work and, indeed, there were only about four, or at the least five, months of the year in which a trireme could safely operate.  ‘The limitation factor in ancient warfare’, as I have said elsewhere, ‘was determined not only by the harvest season, when most of the nation’s population was engaged in ensuring the bread supply, but also by the fact that armies could not be transported, garrisons maintained, or sea battles fought, except in calm weather.’”           “The principal weapon of the period, as of the centuries before, was the vessel itself.  It was the great underwater ram in the bows which was the forerunner of the cannon and guns of later days.  The trireme was in fact launched at its opponent like a giant arrow.  The moment of impact was ‘the moment of truth’ for all aboard…The tactical use of the ram later became the paramount factor in any sea battle.  Ideally, of coarse, the objective was to catch the enemy beam on, breaking clean into the ship’s side and holing him [below the waterline].  But the ram could also be used by clever maneuvering to run right down the side of the opponent snapping off the oars like matchsticks (the looms of the oars leaping back under the impact and killing or maiming the rowers).  Having thus disabled the opponent, the trireme could then back off and, almost at leisure, come in and administer the coup de grace by holing the stricken enemy.  It was, one might say, the far-distant, man-impelled, precursor of the torpedo.” [Thermopylae, Bradford Ernle, pp. 75-78]     


“What kind of men were these Spartans?




As Steven Pressfield explains in his excellent historic novel Gates of Fire: “There was an exercise we of the battle train practiced when we served as punching bags for the Spartan heavy infantry.  It was called the Oak because we took our positions along a line of oaks at the edge of the Plain of Otona, where Spartiates and the Gentleman Rankers ran their field exercises in fall and winter.  We would line up ten deep with body-length wicker shields braced upon the earth and they would hit us, the shock troops, coming across the flat line of battle, eight deep, at a walk, then a pace, then a trot and finally a dead run.  The shock of their interleaved shields was meant to knock the breath out of you, and it did.  It was like being hit by a mountain.  Your knees, no matter how braced you held them, buckled like saplings before an earthslide; in an instant all courage fled our hearts; we were rooted up like dried stalks before the ploughman’s blade.” [Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield, p.2 par. 1]




We continue with Pressfield’s description of Spartan military training:  “The Lakedaemonions are extremely shrewd in these matters….On an 8-nighter…there are regimental exercises normally, though in this case it involved a division.  An entire mora, more than twelve hundred men with full armor and battle train including an equal number of squires and helots, had marched out into the high valleys and drilled in darkness for four nights, sleeping in the day in open bivouac, by watches, at full readiness with no cover, then drilling day and night for the following three days.  Conditions were deliberately contrived to make the exercise as close to possible to the rigor of actual campaign, simulating everything except casualties.  There were mock night assaults up twenty-degree slopes, each man bearing full kit and panoplia, sixty-five to eighty pounds of shield and armor.  Then assaults down the hill.  Then more across.  The terrain was chosen for its boulder strewn aspect and the numerous gnarled and low-branched oaks which dotted the slopes.  The skill was to flow around everything, like water over rocks, without breaking line.”  [ibed. pp. 7-8] “…Wine was at half-rations the first four days, none the second two, then no liquid at all, including water, for the final two.  Rations were hard linseed loaves, which Dienekes declared fit only for barn insulation, and figs alone, nothing hot.  This type of exercise is only partially in anticipation of night action; its primary purpose is training for surefootedness, for orientation by feel within the phalanx and for action without sight, particularly over uneven ground.  It is axiomatic among the Lakedaemonions that an army must be able to dress and maneuver the line as skillfully blind as sighted, for in the dust and terror of the othismos, the initial battlefield collision and the horrific scrum that ensues, no man can see more than five feet in any direction, nor hear even his own cries above the din.”…“What’s the difference between a Spartan king and a mid-ranker?....The king sleeps in that shithole over there, and we sleep in this shithole over here.” “The more miserable the conditions, the more convulsing the jokes become, or at least that’s how it seems…They could see their king, at nearly sixty, enduring every bit of misery they did.  And they knew that when battle came, he would take his place not safely in the rear, but in the front rank, at the hottest and most perilous spot on the field.”  “The purpose of an eight-nighter is to drive the individuals of the division, and the unit itself, beyond the point of humor.  It is when the jokes stop, they say, that the real lessons are learned and each man, and the mora as a whole, make those incremental advances which pay off in the ultimate crucible.  The hardship of the exercises is intended less to strengthen the back than to toughen the mind.”


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