Honor to those who in their lives
have defined and guard their Thermopylae.
Never stirring from duty;
just and upright in all their deeds,
yet with pity and compassion too;
generous when they are rich, and when
they are poor, again a little generous,
again helping as much as they can;
always speaking the truth,
yet without hatred for those who lie.

And more honor is due to them
when they foresee (and many do foresee)
that Ephialtes will finally appear,
and that the Medes in the end will go through.

Constantine P. Cavafy (1903)

[ Greek original ]


In 480 BC, Xerxes led the Persians (Medes) and invaded Greece. The Spartan king Leonidas, in charge of 7000 Greeks, was ordered to cut the advance of the Persian army at Thermopylae (in central Greece), a narrow strip of land between the sea and impassable mountains. The Persian army, 250,000 strong, attacked twice and was forced to retreat, due to the fact that the passage was so narrow that they could not fully deploy their force. However, an avaricious local farmer, Ephialtes, led a force of Persian infantry through a mountain passage and next morning they appeared behind the Greek lines. Leonidas ordered the rest of the army withdraw, and held the passage with 300 Spartans. As a true Spartan, he chose death over retreat; all 300 Spartans, including Leonidas, died, but held the Persians long enough to ensure the safe withdrawal of the rest of the Greek army.

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(C) George Barbanis