How do you choose men for sacrifice? The question seemed to hang in the stagnant summer air, thick with the dust kicked up by herds of sacrificial beasts driven into the city for the start of the Karneia. Leonidas had looked into the eyes of the passing steers, and they had looked back at him with recognition and understanding. “We are part of the same fraternity,” the four-legged sacrifices seemed to say as they nodded their heads and moved on, flicking their tails at flies.
But Leonidas had come to terms with that. He had been selected by the Gods. He was a descendant of Herakles. He had taken up the burden of kingship with the conscious intention of leading Sparta to a better future. At the time, he had pictured different challenges, but he knew now this was his destiny. He would not fail.
But what about the others?
Leonidas looked about the empty streets. At this time of day on a holiday, the city seemed abandoned. School was closed and the children sent home with their familes. The soldiers of Sparta’s army were furloughed. The stalls in the market and the workshops of craftsmen were boarded up. The race-courses, palaestra and gymnasia were deserted. Only on the edge of town and along the backstreets, behind the shuttered windows and closed doors of the houses, families rested in the noonday heat, gathering their strength for the athletic and choral competitions scheduled for later in the day and week. Pleistarchos would be taking part in the sporting contests for the first time, and Agiatis had been selected to perform in one of the dances. Leonidas wanted to be there for them, cheering and applauding—but not if the price was that the next time they performed it would be as slaves for a Persian master!
The Persians were advancing faster than expected. Sparta could not wait until the end of the Karneia to deploy the army. By then it might be too late—particularly with half of Hellas in Olympia and sticking their heads in the sand!
For a moment, the anger flared up in his chest. Two-thirds of the Gerousia and two of the ephors were as stupid as all the other Greeks who thought Persia would respect the Olympic peace. They refused to see that this struggle was like none that had gone before. They refused to understand that Sparta and her allies could not wait for a convenient time to respond. They had to march now. If they didn’t, they would come too late—as they had at Marathon.
The argument in the Council still echoed inside his aching head. The ghostly voices of his counterparts and the even more ghostly whispers of what he should have said had kept him from his sleep throughout the night. Leonidas felt acutely his failure to prevail in Council. He had mustered all the intelligence they had on Persian strength in men, ships and horses. He had described in detail the terrain between the Persian host and Lacedaemon, underlining the advantages of a defense at Thermopylae. He had reminded them in gruesome detail of the costs of failure. And he had stressed until his throat was raw that too little too late could be fatal for all they held dear.
At length, the Council agreed that Thermopylae, although far north of Sparta’s sphere of influence and beyond the usual range of operation for her army, was the ideal place to make a stand. They agreed further to ask the Assembly to call up five classes of reserves, increasing the strength of the standing army to three thousand men, and they agreed this force must deploy “as soon as possible.” But the Council stubbornly insisted there could be neither an Assembly nor a deployment until the Karneia was over. To do either would be an insult to the Gods.
That was when Leonidas had taken a desperate gamble. Since a king could take the Guard anywhere he ordered, Leonidas had made a last attempt to force the Council’s hand by announcing that, if they would not give him the army at once, he would march north immediately with the Guard alone. To his dismay, they had agreed.
Three hundred men against a million!
Well, three hundred Spartiates and maybe twenty times that number of allies against the million.
A stray cat trotted purposefully but with lowered head along the side of the nearest barracks, disappearing into the next alley. A mouse hung limply from either side of her mouth. It was still twitching and left a trail of blood on the cobbles. Yet even a mouse, Leonidas thought, when cornered will stand and fight. They would fight.
My next entry will be posted April 25, as I will be travelling in Greece until then. Happy Easter!