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Sunday, June 19, 2011

300 spartans

In the history of ground war strategies and the power of incredible skill, strength and courage against an overwhelming force, the legend of the 300 Spartans who held the vast Persian army in check in the pass called Thermopylae is such an amazing story that to this day we repeat it with awe. Even in the last year, a movie about the battle of Thermopylae came out which only rekindled the interest in this battle and in the ground war they found to defend the Greeks.

In the history of ground war strategies and the power of incredible skill, strength and courage against an overwhelming force, the legend of the 300 Spartans who held the vast Persian army in check in the pass called Thermopylae is such an amazing story that to this day we repeat it with awe. Even in the last year, a movie about the battle of Thermopylae came out which only rekindled the interest in this battle and in the ground war they found to defend the Greeks.

The history and background of the Spartan culture is one that we look to as an inspiration of devotion to an ideal and a seriousness about being soldiers taken to the extreme. To live a "Spartan existence" is a phrase we use to illustrate someone that is so devout about their discipline that every aspect of their lives is focused on that goal. The training and lifestyle those 300 warriors went through before that battle has been confirmed by history as being phenomenal and extreme but one that produced perhaps the most dedicated and effective soldiers in history.

History tells us that young men being groomed for the military in Sparta entered their training in childhood leaving behind family to devote every moment of their lives and every fiber of their beings to becoming fierce and effective soldiers. Their physical training was intense and it never ended. We think of marines as tremendous soldiers today because of a basic training that is harsh and intense and that produces the finest soldiers of our day. The Spartan program was like the program the Marines used amplified thousands of times.

Much of what happened at Thermopylae is the stuff of legend. Much of why a Persian army of perhaps over 100,000 soldiers was stopped by 300 Spartans brings into play the role of strategy and tactics in any successful ground war. The pass was narrow so when the Spartans took their position at high ground, they could block the pass with numerous rows of Spartan defenders to repel the Persians. The Spartans were armed with tough and well designed armor and weapons in contrast to the Persians who wore no armor and who fought primarily with inferior short swords. And the Spartans training of self-denial and intense physical fitness meant that they could withstand the onslaught of Persians for days or weeks and slowly wear down the much superior force.

We do have to recognize that in the end, the Spartans were defeated. But their amazing stand at Thermopylae enabled the Greeks to prepare for the invasion of the Persians so that much of the larger Greek army escaped before the Persians finally broke through the Spartan defenses. Literally tens of thousands of Persians died at Thermopylae trying to break the virtually impervious Spartan defenses. That defensive line was in reality a line of 300 virtually perfect warriors trained for this moment, armed with the finest ground warfare gear possible and with a dedication to task that meant surrender would never happen.

Small wonder the defense of Thermopylae by those courageous 300 Spartans has become a hallmark of what the best of military preparedness and courage can produce. Those 300 men became an inspiration to military strategists and soldiers for centuries to come and even to this day. And knowing that their legend continues to be repeated generation to generation, it is likely that what happened in Thermopylae may never be forgotten entirely.

Battle at Thermopylae - 480 B.C.

Persian Wars Battle at Thermopylae - 480 B.C.

The Spartans who led the defense were all killed, and they may have known in advance that they would be, but their courage provided inspiration to the Greeks, many of whom otherwise might have willingly medized* (become Persian sympathizers), or so the Spartans feared. Although the Spartans lost at Thermopylae, the following year the Greeks did win battles they fought against the Persians.
Persians Attack the Greeks at Thermopylae:
Xerxes' fleet of Persian ships had sailed along the coastline from northern Greece into the Gulf of Malia on the eastern Aegean Sea towards the mountains at Thermopylae. The Greeks faced the Persian army at a narrow pass there that controlled the only road between Thessaly and Central Greece. Spartan King Leonidas was general in charge of the Greek forces that tried to restrain the vast Persian army, to delay them, and keep them from attacking the rear of the Greek navy, which was under Athenian control. Leonidas may have hoped to block them long enough that Xerxes would have to sail away for food and water.
Ephialtes and Anopaia:
Spartan historian Kennell says no one expected the battle to be as short as it was. After the Carnea festival, more Spartan soldiers were to arrive and help defend Thermopylae against the Persians. Unfortunately for Leonidas, after a couple of days, a medizing traitor named Ephialtes led the Persians around the pass running behind the Greek army, thereby squashing the remote chance of Greek victory. The name of Ephialtes' path is Anopaea (or Anopaia). Its exact location is debated.

Leonidas sent away most of the amassed troops.
Greeks Fight the Immortals:
On the third day, Leonidas led his 300 Spartan hoplite elite troops (selected because they had living sons back home), plus their Boeotian allies from Thespiae and Thebes, against Xerxes and his army, including the "10,000 Immortals." The Spartan-led forces fought this unstoppable Persian force to their deaths, blocking the pass long enough to keep Xerxes and his army occupied while the rest of the Greek army escaped.
The Aristeia of Dieneces:
Aristeia relates to both virtue and the reward given the most honored soldier. In the Battle at Thermopylae, Dieneces was the most honored Spartan. According to Spartan scholar Paul Cartledge, Dieneces was so virtuous that when told there were so many Persian archers that the sky would grow dark with the flying missiles, he replied laconically: "So much the better -- we shall fight them in the shade." Spartan boys were trained in night raids, so although this was a show of bravery in the face of countless enemy weapons, there was more to it.
A Bit About Themistocles:
Themistocles was the Athenian in charge of the Athenian naval fleet that was nominally under the command of the Spartan Eurybiades. Themistocles had persuaded the Greeks to use the bounty from a newly discovered vein of silver at its mines at Laurium to build a naval fleet of 200 triremes. When some of the Greek leaders wanted to leave Artemisium before the battle with the Persians, Themistocles bribed and bullied them into staying. His behavior had consequences: Some years later, his fellow Athenians ostracized the heavy-handed Themistocles.
The Corpse of Leonidas:
There is a story that after Leonidas died, the Greeks tried to retrieve the corpse by means of a gesture worthy of the Myrmidons trying to rescue Patroclus in the Iliad XVII. It failed. The Thebans surrendered; the Spartans and Thespians retreated and were shot by Persian archers. The body of Leonidas may have been crucified or beheaded on Xerxes' orders. It was retrieved about 40 years later.
The Persians, whose naval fleet had already suffered seriously from storm damage, then (or simultaneously) attacked the Greek fleet at Artemisium, with both sides suffering heavy losses. According to the Greek historian Peter Green, the Spartan Demaratus (on Xerxes' staff) recommended splitting the navy and sending part to Sparta, but the Persian navy had been too heavily damaged to do so -- fortunately for the Greeks.

In September of 480, aided by northern Greeks, the Persians marched on Athens and burned it to the ground, but it had been evacuated.
More on the Persian Wars:

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Julius Caesar

The series begins in 82 BC when Julius Caesar is a young man. He is out in the town with his daughter Julia when news comes that Lucius Cornelius Sulla is just outside the city walls and intends to take the city with his army. The guards sent with the news allow post up death lists on the senate door. When he sees that his father-in-law's name is there he rushes to his house to try and help him escape. However, Pompey arrests him and takes him to Sulla. Caesar's mother, Aurelia, asks Sulla to show him mercy; out of respect for her, he promises to let Caesar live if he divorces his wife, Cornelia, but Caesar refuses. Sulla lets him go but orders Pompey to kill him and bring his heart to him. Pompey follows Caesar and tells him to leave Rome, which he does. Pompey buys a swine's heart from the market and tells Sulla that the heart is Caesar's.
Meanwhile, Caesar is captured by pirates who intend to ransom him for money. When the Romans crew sent with the message of the ransom don't return, the pirates plan to kill him. Caesar fights them for an extra day and wins. However he has an epileptic attack and the pirates believe him worthless, deciding to throw him in the sea; but just before they do the Roman boat returns with the money and they let Caesar go. Back in Rome, Sulla dies of a heart-attack and Caesar is allowed to return home. While he was gone Cornelia became very ill and Julia befriended the young daughter of Caesar's rival Marcus Porcius Cato, Portia, her brother Marcus and their cousin Brutus.
When Cornelia dies from her illness, Caesar swears at her funeral that he will make Rome a better place to live in. Around this time the same pirates who held him captive are cutting off the grain supply. The senate send Pompey to deal with the problem after Caesar convinced them that he will not take the city with his army like Sulla did. Several years later Pompey returns to Rome and Caesar has achieved the consulship. On the day of Pompey's triumph Julia, Portia and Marcus decide to go, and Portia insists on dragging Brutus along with them. At the triumph, Caesar has one of his epileptic fits but is aided by Calpurnia Pisonis, daughter of a wealthy man in Rome. At Pompey's welcome home party, while Pompey gets on well with Julia, Caesar notices Calpurnia who he doesn't remember from their encounter before.
Caesar swears to his mother that he will make a name for himself. Julia realizes that her father needs an alliance and offers to marry Pompey in order to obtain his legions. Pompey agrees and he marries Julia. In marrying her, he agrees to allow Caesar to take his legions to Gaul, despite the fact that the senate wished to send Cassius to go. Calpurnia tells Caesar that she knows about his "falling sickness" and he confesses that shames him. Before he goes to Gaul, Caesar marries Calpurnia and the two of them remain in contact through letters.
While sacking a town in Gaul, Caesar comes across a strong-willed warrior who refuses to give in to the Romans attacking his home. He tells Caesar his name is Vercingetorix. Caesar asks the warrior why it is he is willing to die for something that will be destroyed no matter what and the warrior replies because it "is his". Because of his strength of will, Caesar lets him go, giving him a horse. However later on, the same warrior chief gathers a huge army and battles Caesar's army at the Battle of Alesia. Out numbered Caesar's army emerges victorious despite being surrounded.
Back in Rome Julia dies in childbirth, and Pompey begins to turn against Caesar who he fears is becoming too powerful. He allies with Cato to politically attack Caesar back in Rome. Caesar sends Mark Antony to talk to the senate, which makes the situation worse. Pompey plans to attack Caesar before he returns to Rome.
Caesar begins to make his way back to Rome and crosses the river Rubicon. Pompey, Cato and Brutus all decide to leave to regroup their own troops in Greece. Upon his return to Rome Caesar is made Dictator. He then catches up with and defeats Pompey at the Battle of Pharsalus, who then flees to Egypt. After the battle Caesar pardons the captured soldiers of Pompey, including Brutus who he tells if anyone wants peace they shall have it. Pompey arrives in Alexandria and is killed by the regent for the boy king Ptolemy XIII in Egypt. Caesar is given his head as a gift and is disappointed by the killing of Pompey. Then Cleopatra VII seduces Caesar and before he leaves he installs her as rightful Queen of Egypt over her brother Ptolemy. Going on to Utica to find Cato and his son, Caesar wins the Battle of Thapsus. Upon hearing of his allies loss; Cato who didn't fight in the battle, commits suicide by falling on his sword.
With Caesar's Civil War over he returns to Rome with his new allie Cleopatra and their son Caesarion. This disturbs the senators who plot against Caesar thinking he wants to be King. Cassius the principle mover of the plot convinces his brother in-law Brutus, who was spared by Caesar, to join them and end Caesars reign as Dictator. Calpurnia has a dream about Caesar's death. She knows somethings up but can't save him. On the Ides of March the senators mob Caesar stabbing him to death.