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Reevaluating history: Battle of Thermopylae

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I'd tought that it would be interestring to reevaluate historical events and characters through an Objectivist perspective. I really think that this brings into concrete focus many of the issues of ethics and politics we discuss, sometimes, at a very abstract level.

I'd like to start with the Battle of Thermopylae, of 480BC. Mostly, I'm interested in your evaluation of Sparta and spartan behaviour, the paradox of fierce warriors whose entire value system was a form of social-metaphysics.

Contemporany historians categorize Thermopylae as a classic example of self-sacrifice and collectivism. Some claim that, in fact, the Spartan where what we'd call whim-worshipers, because their behaviour was determined by their internalized need to apear as being brave, the only criteria for social consideration.

What do you think? What is Sparta's relation with reason? (even in an Athenian sense) Was their behaviour at Termopylae selfless or selfish?

What would an Objectivist general and/or army do when faced with a numerically superior army? If you think that the decision of the Spartans to stand their ground, to their deaths, was misguided, does it matter that it was the same decision that anyone unwilling to live in slavery would make?

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I am very glad you brought this up. I just finished a historical fiction novel centered around this event. I had been thinking about similar questions myself.

I see one of the main questions here to be 'was this altruism'? The best answer I can come up with is no.

A brief summary, as I understand it:

From what I've read about the event, 300 soldiers from the Lacedaemonian force were dispatched to meet up with other Greek allies en route to Thermopylae. The goal was to hold off the Persian invaders for as long as they could manage, so as to give the other 5000 or so Spartans and other Greeks time to rally forces and meet the Persians full-strength. Combined with the other Greeks, the force at Thermopylae was supposedly 2000-3000 in all. Though they were vastly outnumber by the Persians, who were fielding the largest army the world had seen to date, the layout of Thermopylae was in the favor of the Greeks. The pass was narrow, with sheer cliffs to the sea on one side and impassable rocks on the other. The Persians tried to fight a war of attrition, but were failing. It was not until the Persians found a way around behind the pass that the Greeks had to decide whether to yield the pass or stay and fight.

The Spartans, so it is told, decided to stay and fight to the last. Inspired by their example, other Greeks did the same. They were utterly annihilated. This did accomplish the goal however; the Greek allies were able to gather their forces, and eventually handed the Persians defeat.

So, was this the right thing to do? As they valued their homeland, their culture, their freedom, and their families, then yes. One may argue that remaining at the pass when they knew they would be surrounded and destroyed was 'over the top' so to speak, bordering on altruistic, but if it was the only way to slow the Persians and allow the allies to organize, then theirs was a choice for life, even in their deaths.

I'm sure there will be those who disagree. :P

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I am very glad you brought this up.  I just finished a historical fiction novel centered around this event.  I had been thinking about similar questions myself.

I am willing to bet dollars to donuts that the book you read was "The Gates of Fire" by Steven Pressfield. Awesome book and a great topic (especially with Troy just being released).

I agree with your analysis with one stipulation. It's uncertain from Pressfield or any other historian that I have read on the subject that the Greek defense of Thermopylae was really neccessary. It was even suggested in the book that the Greeks could have regrouped at another location and challanged the Persian army there. In essence this is what happened. The pivotal land battle that defeated the Persians was at Platea more than a year after Thermopylae. So an argument can be made that the "buy the Greek allies time" rationale was not necessary.

Add to this the Spartan conception of honor. For them, it almost seems that dying in battle fighting a glorious war was their highest value. They look too much like Kamikazees at times. Pressfield consistently presents them as dutifully sacrificial to the gods. In fact they come across as religous fanatics to the relatively secular, "philosophical" Athenians.

Now that being said. I don't think any defender of freedom can look at Thermopylae and not be impressed (to some extent anyway) at their dedication to living a life free from oppression from a foreign tyrant. And Pressfield gives his characters some beautiful language for the defense of freedom. For me the issue revolves around whether it was truly necessary for the defense of Greece. Pressfield suggests that the Spartan's were sacrificing themselves to provide a rallying cry for Greece. I guess this can be called self-interested from a broad persepective but knowing what I know about the Spartans, I am suspicious.

If the time bought for the rest of the army to solidify itself was truly needed then the Spartan "sacrifice" was not a sacrifice and Thermopylae was one of the greatest battles for liberty in mankind's history. If it was more of a Kamikazee mission Spartan style than I think the 300 peers at Thermopylae should still be recognized as vailiant if not misguided soldiers. Actually, as I write this, I realize that I am making it a factual issue.

Lastly, if you read the Gates of Fire, I strongly reccommend that you read Pressfield's other novel "The Tides of War" which deals with Alcibiades and the Pelopenesian War. Now that is a complicated war that I would love to see scrutinized under an Objectivist lense. By the way, someone please read that book and tell me if I am not crazy in thinking that Pressfield has incorporated themes from The Fountainhead in it. There are speeches that could have come directly from Roark's trial. There are other passages in it that are absolutely breathtaking in their defense of the productive and the heroic. Further, the trial of the 10 generals will captivate you.

Highly reccommended.

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Indeed, I did read Pressfield's 'Gates of Fire'. It is a well-written book that I really enjoyed.

I agree with you on the necessity issue of Thermopylae. If it was unnecessary to send the 300 on ahead, then it changes things a bit. Knowing what they were up against in this particular instance however, I suspect that even the Spartans would not send men to die needlessly. I would defer to the expert historians for conclusive evidence.

In other conflicts that the Greeks routinely engaged in, the agressors were pretty much straight-up looters, best I can tell. There is often some city-state or king who is trying to assert dominance over the neighbors or just plain plunder the town. Can't really fault the Greeks for it though - it was 2500+ years ago. Democracy was just being born.

I have not read Pressfield's other work(s), but I will definitely check that out.

As an unrelated aside for argive99: have you read Valerio Massimo Manfredi's series on Alexander the Great? It is a 3-book set along the same theme - historical fiction following Alexander on his conquest of the Persians. Good read.

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As an unrelated aside for argive99: have you read Valerio Massimo Manfredi's series on Alexander the Great?  It is a 3-book set along the same theme - historical fiction following Alexander on his conquest of the Persians.  Good read.

No, but on your reccommendation I am going to put them on my "to-read" list. I always enjoyed reading about Alexander, the Achilles of his day; the "Blazing Star".

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  • 2 months later...

For anyone interested in Thermopylae I reccomend the History Channel's series 'Decisive Battles'. In one of its episodes, they covered the Battle of Thermopylae in a way that I have never seen it shown before. They used computer animation to actually recreate the battle. It was awesome. You get a sense of what it really must of looked like. My admiration for those men has skyrocketed; and I say that having read Stephen Pressfields 'Gates of Fire'.

Here is the link:

http://www.historychannel.com/decisivebattles/

If you are a history buff, it is a must see.

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  • 3 weeks later...
I agree with your analysis with one stipulation. It's uncertain from Pressfield or any other historian that I have read on the subject that the Greek defense of Thermopylae was really neccessary. It was even suggested in the book that the Greeks could have regrouped at another location and challanged the Persian army there. In essence this is what happened. The pivotal land battle that defeated the Persians was at Platea more than a year after Thermopylae. So an argument can be made that the "buy the Greek allies time" rationale was not necessary.

Perhaps Thermopylae could be seen as a Doolittle raid... having its effect more by means of inspiration, of galvanizing moral conviction, rather than imparting any strictly strategic advantage.

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It's funny that the view that Thermopylae was a pointless battle is a view that has only recently become widespread. Enlightenment men highly valued it, and the Ancients most certainly did as well.

To correct the story of Thermopylae, King Xerxes invaded Greece with over 400,000 men. Athens being first to face his armada, has collected a small coalition of allied states to hold off the invasion until a bigger army was collected. They sent for Spartan soldiers, recognized by all as elite in Greek war, but the Spartans said they could not help immediately, being engaged in a strict religious ritual that forbade the citizens to leave the city. So King Leonidas volunteered to go by himself, with his entourage of 300 "best of the best". They joined forces with the Athenian resistance force, and waited at Thermopylae for the Persians to come.

Skirmishes and battles followed, in which the Persian armada was repulsed by the hardy Greek phalanx, and days passed while Xerxes grew impatient. Finally, a Greek traitor told him of a narrow pass around the mountains of Thermopylae, to which he sent his own elite units, the Immortals, so they would surround the small Greek army and end the war right there. Leonidas found out about the plan, so he quickly ordered the Allied army to leave the pass (Spartans had been unanimously chosen as leaders for the Greek army), while he and his men would guard it and give time for the Allies to regroup elsewhere. So they all left, except for 50-100 hoplites of another hardy Greek nation (I forget which), and the 300 Spartans under Leonidas.

The army escaped, but the Spartans were surrounded. It is noteworthy how they were killed: since they were still invincible at melee, the Persians surrounded them with archers and rained arrows down on them until every single one was dead.

Spartans were a very unusual people. In one sense they clearly were an example of a culture that worshipped death. The relatives of those who died at Thermopylae were beaming with happiness and joy, whereas the mother of one Spartan that left with the Allies killed him when he arrived home. The Spartans, it was said, "either return with their shield, or on it". One philosopher said that the Spartans "lived in order to die".

But in another sense, they were still men, not implacable robots. They were, in many ways, paragons of Greek virtue, being temperate, courageous, witty, physically formidable, and manly.

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  • 3 months later...

Thermopylae was certainly an interesting battle. A few facts about it.

prior to the battle a persian runner approached the Spartan camp to find the soldiers oiling themselves up and combing each other's hair and beating their chests. The runner took it as if the soldiers were excessively vain, though in reality they were psyching themselves up to die

Leonidas initially did not participate in the fighting. It was only after the other Greeks left that he began to fight. when a Persian emissary told Leonidas that the Persians would shoot so many arrows they would blacken out the sun, Leonidas replied with "then we shall fight in the shade"

the spartans were heavy infantry with large shields and thick armor, typical of the short ranged wars the Greeks fought amongst themselves and their rocky terrain. The Persians were accustomed to fighting over vast tracks of plainsland and thus were lightly armed and armored. This included the immortals. when locked in combat they simply could not penetrate the Spartan armor.

When Leonidas fell in battle, he fell some distance away from the main fighting unit. Persian recounts tell of the ferocity in which the Spartans fought simply to recover his body.

as Free said, they were finally defeated when a frustrated Xerxes finally pulled his troops out and peppered the spartans with arrow fire until he wiped them out to a man. The Spartans felt that ranged weapons were the weapons of cowards, so did not have any way of retaliation.

the final Persian death toll was in the 10,000s, a ratio which has never been matched until modern times. (Iraq war 1 I believe, when America took a 140 casualties and inflicted over 140,000 casualties)

The Spartan culture itself was, like Free said, unusual. Children were taken from their parents at a young age and sent to live in Barracks. They lived in communal barracks and ate in communal mess halls. It wasn't until late in their lives that they were free to start a family. Most Spartan men spent most of their young lives without any contact with women. Women were artisans and artists. Their economy was almost completely dependent on slaves, which were called "Helots." supposedly the relation between the Spartans and the Helots were excessively harsh, because slave uprisings were frequent and once a year it was permitted that a Spartan may kill any Helot he wished without reprisal of the law. This day was set aside to discourage further uprisings.

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  • 2 years later...
I am willing to bet dollars to donuts that the book you read was "The Gates of Fire" by Steven Pressfield. Awesome book and a great topic (especially with Troy just being released).

I agree with your analysis with one stipulation. It's uncertain from Pressfield or any other historian that I have read on the subject that the Greek defense of Thermopylae was really neccessary. It was even suggested in the book that the Greeks could have regrouped at another location and challanged the Persian army there. In essence this is what happened. The pivotal land battle that defeated the Persians was at Platea more than a year after Thermopylae. So an argument can be made that the "buy the Greek allies time" rationale was not necessary.

Add to this the Spartan conception of honor. For them, it almost seems that dying in battle fighting a glorious war was their highest value. They look too much like Kamikazees at times. Pressfield consistently presents them as dutifully sacrificial to the gods. In fact they come across as religous fanatics to the relatively secular, "philosophical" Athenians.

Now that being said. I don't think any defender of freedom can look at Thermopylae and not be impressed (to some extent anyway) at their dedication to living a life free from oppression from a foreign tyrant. And Pressfield gives his characters some beautiful language for the defense of freedom. For me the issue revolves around whether it was truly necessary for the defense of Greece. Pressfield suggests that the Spartan's were sacrificing themselves to provide a rallying cry for Greece. I guess this can be called self-interested from a broad persepective but knowing what I know about the Spartans, I am suspicious.

If the time bought for the rest of the army to solidify itself was truly needed then the Spartan "sacrifice" was not a sacrifice and Thermopylae was one of the greatest battles for liberty in mankind's history. If it was more of a Kamikazee mission Spartan style than I think the 300 peers at Thermopylae should still be recognized as vailiant if not misguided soldiers. Actually, as I write this, I realize that I am making it a factual issue.

Lastly, if you read the Gates of Fire, I strongly reccommend that you read Pressfield's other novel "The Tides of War" which deals with Alcibiades and the Pelopenesian War. Now that is a complicated war that I would love to see scrutinized under an Objectivist lense. By the way, someone please read that book and tell me if I am not crazy in thinking that Pressfield has incorporated themes from The Fountainhead in it. There are speeches that could have come directly from Roark's trial. There are other passages in it that are absolutely breathtaking in their defense of the productive and the heroic. Further, the trial of the 10 generals will captivate you.

Highly reccommended.

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I dont like the terms "misguided soldiers" or "Kamikazess". The big mystery of the battle to me, is whether they really died because Leonidas believed in the Oracle's prophecy. To Leonidas, he had only two choices. The Spartans had learned from Delphian prophetess that they would either see their city in ruins, or a dead king. Leonidas had told the other Greeks to return home before his demise, to fight another day, but the Spartans stayed because of their strong belief in the Oracle and their strict adherence to Spartan law.

"Misguided or suicidal", there is something to be said for this, but it is also possible that the Spartans were just too late to evacuate a hopeless position and died fighting.

The greatest honor for the Spartan soldier was to die on the battlefield. These men were bred to fight from an early age and it was an honor to die in battle. I have found countless references to their strict interpertation of the Spartan law that they would not retreat in battle.

I don't think they were "kamikazees or misguided", I really think that they considered this their destiny. This is just my opinion, I'm not here to argue.

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