I’ve been wanting to share one of my favorite moments in Greece last summer. I’ll set it up, but I’m gonna start off with a tangent so don’t let it be too distracting.
I’ll try to set the scene.
When we took the boat back from Skiathos, we arrived at a port in Volos. We were about to buy bus tickets for the 4-hour drive back to Athens, but we got suckered into a Taxi ride all the way there, instead. For less money than the bus tickets. Remind me to tell you sometime about the part where Allison and I both considered very seriously the idea that we made a mistake by getting in the taxi, and were being kidnapped. We even got transferred from the first taxi to second taxi, with a driver who spoke zero English and was on the phone every 4 minutes. He was taking us well off course, and we ended up near a small airport. Allie, sitting to my left – directly behind the driver – leaned over to me at one point and whispered, “If it goes down, I’ll go for his eyes while you take care of the rest.” She was not joking.
We were not kidnapped, of course, and I hate to tell a story about something that almost happened but didn’t. So that’s not what this post is about.
I will say, though, that on that very same kidnapper-taxi ride back to Athens, about an hour or so into the drive, we randomly ended up taking a route along the coast that took us right past Thermopylae. It was fleeting, but I was thrilled to see it in person.
I’ve read that the sea (not in frame) used to be much higher, here, with the shoreline reaching roughly where you see that modern highway.
In the photo, above, you can see that canyon on the left side of the frame. Those are the “Hot Gates,” the route the Persians would need to take to continue their invasion of Greece (and the rest of Europe) back in 480 B.C. And that highway you see there is the one that our taxi driver ended up serendipitously taking back to Athens.
AS THE STORY GOES
Thermopylae (or Hot Gates, in Greek) is the setting of the famous battle in 480 B.C. where 300 Spartans, led by King Leonidas, fought alongside a Greek force of around 7000 against the Persian King Xerxes and his invading army of somewhere between 100K-150K, which was sweeping the globe. Many of the Greek city-states had already pledged allegiance to him, in order to save their necks. Athens and Sparta were among those who opposed Xerxes. The decision to march on Xerxes at Thermopylae was not popular, and was surrounded in political controversy.
The Battle of Thermopylae is famous for the Spartan’s heroic last stand in the narrow mountain pass on the shoreline of the Aegean Sea. Because of terrain, strategy, and the logistics of marching your army so far from home, going through the pass at Thermopylae was the only good route for Xerxes’ army. Any other route involved high risk of his army being cut off and stranded in Europe; but with the bridges they had already built, and the navy they had in the Aegean, the Persians theorized that if they held Thermopylae, they could march throughout Greece and well into Europe. It was here that, against overwhelming odds, the meager Greek forces held off the invading Persian host for three days.
There’s a ton more to the story, with many separate battles, naval warfare, and much more. But Thermopylae was arguably the hinge pin to all of it.
As the story goes, Leonidas led the small Greek force to Thermopylae and met the Persians at the entrance to the canyon. Man for man, the Spartans were far better warriors, and seriously outmatched the Persian soldiers/conscripts. And while the Persians outnumbered the Greeks by at least 14 to 1 (likely more like 20 to 1), the Persian numbers meant nothing within that narrow pass. The Greeks – more especially the Spartans – slaughtered wave after wave of the Persian invaders.
After the second day of fighting, Leonidas and his men were betrayed by a local Greek, who told the Persian commanders of a small mountain pass that led behind the Greek lines. Leonidas became aware of the betrayal, and – knowing the Persians would soon surround them – he ordered nearly all of the Greek host to retreat (later to regroup) while he stayed behind with his 300 Spartans and about 1100 other Greek soldiers. This group of roughly 1400 Greeks held the pass for one more day, securing the retreat of the larger Greek force. Many sources say the Spartans outlasted the rest of their Greek brothers in arms, until all were surrounded. Given the chance, they refused surrender.
All were killed. Their sacrifice helped to unite Greece and, in numerous ways, made possible the defeat of the Persians, and ultimately allowed for the formation and spread of democracy (an idea in its infancy at the time).
On a monument erected shortly after the battle is a short poem, whose translation comes out roughly:
Go tell the Spartans
Strangers passing by
That here, by Spartan law we lie
As you can see, I’m a real geek on the subject. It’s an inspiring story about a battle that profoundly affected the world in ways we’ll never fully understand. It’s a pivotal moment in world history. Who knows what the world would look like if Xerxes’ army was able to continue their march into Europe?
IT WAS ENOUGH
When we first arrived in Greece – because of some of the snags we hit with the crooks at Ryan Air – we had to choose which places we would and would not be able to visit. Remember that our business was about two and a half years old when we left, and we were doing this as minimalists, with an extremely limited budget; some have wondered why we went at all, with almost nothing in savings and such meager monthly income. It’s a fair enough question, from a conventional perspective. Maybe we had no business going at all.
Here’s my answer: If you have to ask why, the question is moot.
Anyway, you can imagine why I was disappointed when we had to re-assess our budget and I realized how just far out of the way Thermopylae is from where we were staying in Athens. We had to cut a few of the fun things, and visiting Thermopylae was one of them. Even when we went to Skiathos, the bus we took to Volos bypassed Thermopylae. It just seemed unrealistic to make it out there. I had written it off.
So imagine the grin on my face in the back of that taxi, when I saw the street signs on that coastal highway:
Θερμοπύλες | Thermopylae
With a start, I realized where we were. Allie did, too. She noticed the same green street sign and, excited for me, she asked, “is this it?” I looked eagerly out the right side of the taxi and recognized it in an instant. The Hot Gates.
Looking on the narrow mountain pass, I remembered a passage from the novel Gates of Fire (award-winning historical fiction by Steven Pressfield), where a young Spartan in training (roughly equivalent of a squire) named Alexandros asks one of the veteran Spartan soldiers if he fears going to battle. The soldier responds by squeezing at the flesh on his arm and says:
“Never forget, Alexandros, that this flesh, this body, does not belong to us. Thank God it doesn’t. If I thought this stuff was mine, I could not advance a pace into the face of the enemy. But it is not ours, my friend. It belongs to the gods and to our children, our fathers and mothers and those of Lakedaemon a hundred, a thousand years yet unborn. It belongs to the city which gives us all we have and demands no less in requital.”
With reverence and wet eyes, I took in as much as I could as we flew along the highway. My inner-warrior relished the moment as I looked on the ancient battlefield where such heroes died for something larger than themselves. Allie knew what was going on, and squeezed my hand without a word. We didn’t stop the taxi. Our driver spoke no English, and I didn’t need to see the touristy souvenir stands anyway. We passed by at highway speeds, and within minutes it was well behind us. But it was enough.