If he was allowed only three hundred Spartiates to hold Thermopylae until the army arrived after the Karneia, then he couldn’t take the Guard. They were all young men, the majority unmarried, all but a handful childless. Casualties were inevitable while waiting for the promised three-thousand-strong army to arrive. Leonidas did not want to have the extinction of any family on his conscience. So he had asked permission to substitute Guardsmen with volunteers from among the citizens with living sons. The ephors had agreed.
Leonidas expected about a thousand volunteers. He calculated that if he had a thousand men to choose from, he would be able to put together the balanced force he needed. He needed both canny veterans and enthusiastic youth. He needed men good at dogged defense, but also men capable of a quick sortie or a night raid. He needed men who cared more about the freedom of their families than their own lives, and that meant men who loved their families. He needed men who were prepared to die―but only after taking a heavy toll on the enemy first.
Oh, yes, he knew what he needed in principle, but how was he to select the men in fact? How was he supposed to walk down a line of men he’d known from childhood, men who’d sweated and bled beside him in the Argolid, or youth he’d mentored as eirenes, men whose daughters sang and danced with his own, and men whose sons went to school with Pleistarchos―and decide who he was going to throw in front of the Persian host like a piece of meat?
Eventually, they would all fight. They would all take blood for blood when the time came. And every one of them―no matter whom he chose―was a trained soldier.
But because he’d failed to prevail in Council, only three hundred would be squinting into the sunlight to watch for the darkening that indicated a new volley of arrows. Only three hundred would stand in the murderous sun, shield to shield, while sweat poured from their straining bodies until their feet were churning mud rather than the dust of summer-baked earth. Only three hundred would be splattered with blood amid the screaming and the groaning of the dying, risking their limbs, their eyes, and their lives while the others remained with their wives and children, singing the paeans and cheering the grape-runners and feasting in the nine ceremonial tents of the Karneia….
Was he supposed to pick the three hundred men like the helots chose a sacrificial lamb? For the beauty of their bodies? Was he supposed to select the best Sparta had to offer? Or should he do the opposite, and take with him those that Sparta could best afford to lose?
Leonidas realized he was not prepared to risk the latter. If he took the worst and they failed when it mattered most, Gorgo and Agiatis, no less than all the other women and children of Sparta, would pay the price. No, he had to take the best to ensure they could hold Thermopylae until the army reinforced them.
He picked up the pace and turned the corner to enter Tyrtaios square, where he had requested the volunteers to muster. Instantly he was taken aback by the glare of sun reflected from bronze. The volunteers had drawn up across the square in full panoply. Although they stood at ease, with the hoplons resting on their knees and their helmets shoved back to expose their faces, they wore bronze fighting armor and red cloaks. The stiff, black, horsehair crests bristled proudly from their helmets.
Magnificent as they appeared, however, they were a mere handful―far fewer than the one thousand men Leonidas expected. He made a quick count of the ranks and files, and realized that exactly three hundred men awaited him. That could be no coincidence. Someone had made the selection for him. He frowned. He did not intend to let whoever it was get away with that! He would demand to see the complete list of volunteers.