Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Hallowed ground

Knowing of my fascination with the Battle of Thermopylae, Julie Davis recently sent me links to several online reviews of 300, the current box-office smash hit based on the story of the Spartans who defended the pass against a Persian invasion, sacrificing themselves to the last man in order to do so. Her gesture was much appreciated, although I have decided for several reasons to skip this film. However, I hope 300 will revive public interest in one of the enduring stories of ancient history, in much the same way James Cameron's 1997 blockbuster sparked renewed interest in the sinking of the Titanic.

The Battle of Thermopylae has been mentioned previously on this site, when I compared the sacrifice of the crew and passengers of United Airlines Flight 93 to that of the Spartans in 480 B. C. There are enough obvious differences between the two events that I feel no need to belabor them -- such as, for instance, the fact that the Flight 93 participants were ordinary people, not professional warriors like the Spartans -- but the two battles are similar in their results, in that each involved a noble sacrifice against hopeless odds in order to prevent an even worse event from taking place. The Spartans and their allies at Thermopylae delayed a Persian invasion just long enough to enable the squabbling Greek city-states to pull themselves together and repel the threat; the Flight 93 passengers and crew doubtless saved hundreds, if not thousands, of lives, and perhaps the Capitol or White House as well, by forcing the plane to crash into the ground.

Today my own contribution to the current round of Thermopylae mania consists of two parts. The first is this image of the battlefield as it appears today. When the Spartans made their heroic stand some 2500 years ago, the pass and the trail through it were much closer to the sea than they appear in this picture, where the trail runs between the cliffs and the modern, paved highway toward the right. Centuries of accretion have replaced a portion of the Gulf of Malis with the agricultural land seen here beyond the highway -- which I believe, incidentally, to conflict with what is supposed to be happening with global warming, although that is another subject for another day:

(Click on the image to view it in a larger size.)

The second item I want to mention is the famous utterance by Leonidas when Xerxes offered to spare his life and the lives of his men if they would surrender their arms. His laconic reply consisted of only two words: molon labe, usually rendered in English as "Come get them." This translation fails to capture an important nuance of the Greek expression, which is rendered in the perfective aspect. In other words, molon ("coming") expresses a completed action, so that the Persians were not being told to "come get them" in the way we might understand that phrase, which suggests to our ears that the outcome of the battle might not be certain. However, in the Greek version, there is no such uncertainty, and Leonidas and his men plainly understood that they were doomed. Thus, the true meaning of Leonidas's defiant expression is, "After you have defeated and destroyed us, then you may take them."

It is an expression which resonates through the ages, as seen here, where it constitutes the motto of the First Corps of the modern Greek army.

As I said, I do not plan to see the movie. But I have been going through one of those occasional periods when I can't make up my mind what I want to read next, and now I think I might want to go find a good book about this battle and curl up with it somewhere.


Blogger Barney said...

Garry - this post is one of the reasons I'm glad I introduced you to blogging. You enrich your reader's lives. Thanks! Keep it up! Barney

9:21 PM  
Blogger Barney said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

9:26 PM  
Blogger Garry Wilmore said...

Barney: FYI, I only deleted that comment because you posted it twice! :-)

12:51 PM  

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