Leonidas and Ephialtes: The Archetype of the Hero and the Traitor. A lesson for Modernity
Marco Túlio Cicero, prominent politician, lawyer, orator, philosopher and Roman writer, wrote that history is the master of life (Historia Magistra Vitae). In his statement he incorporates the thought coming from the earliest classical historians like Herodotus and Thucydides, that history is full of examples that serve as a guide for men. History works as a messenger, transmitting the memory of men from the past to the present. It is through history that the past serves as a forge for the construction of the future.
There is an episode in the ancient history of Greece, more specifically in the context of the Second invasion of Greece, during the Battle of Thermopylae, which listed two men who became examples to other men. Leonidas and Ephialtes would be remembered forever for their roles – quite distinct from one another – during the war. The lesson these men have left for us can clarify issues that are imminent now.
Leonidas I was born of the Agiad dynasty, which was believed to descend from Heracles. Being the third son of his father, the Spartan king Anaxandrides II, he was not a candidate for succession. So, like all other Sparta children, he was sent to the Agoge and trained to become a Spartan warrior. He was educated within the aristocratic and military traditions of Sparta, proving himself worthy to ascend to the throne in 491 BC.
About Efialtes little is known. It is known that he was born in Trachis, city of the region of Thessaly and that was son of Euridemo of Malis. His name would be known throughout history after his acts during the Battle of Thermopylae.
In 480 BCE the Persians are advancing ever further into Greek territory, forming various alliances with smaller city-states. This made the city-states who previously lived in conflict with each other, eventually become allies, aiming to stop the Persian advance. Athens and Sparta began joining forces to stop the invasion of foreign forces. There is a passage from Herodotus’ Histories in which the Athenians explain to a messenger from Sparta that the Spartans should ally themselves with the Athenians and not with the Persians.
“First and foremost of these is that the images and buildings of the gods have been burned and demolished, so that we are bound by necessity to exact the greatest revenge on the man who performed these deeds, rather than to make agreements with him. And second, it would not be fitting for the Athenians to prove traitors to the Greek people, with whom we are united in sharing the same kinship and language, with whom we have established shrines and conduct sacrifices to the gods together, and with whom we also share the same way of life.” (VIII:144.2)
The Greeks then united around their common identity, which solidifies into four elements: common religion, common blood, common language, and common customs.
Knowing that the Persians were taking the route to the south of Greece and that they would have to cross for the pass of Thermopylae, the Greeks formulated a strategy and decided to detach troops to block the passage. The problem is that in that year the military leaders of the alliance, the Spartans, were celebrating the religious festival of Carnea, which forbidden the engaging in military activities. In addition, they were also celebrating the Olympic Games, so going to war that year would be considered a double sacrilege. However, knowing the urgency of the situation, the ephors – five Spartan leaders – decided that a military expedition was extremely necessary. They sent one of their king, Leonidas I, to command the army. The king took with him 300 men of his personal guard, as well as some other men of the Lacedaemonia (region whose Sparta is capital) and a detachment of Heílotai (slaves). Along the way to Thermopylae he recruited 1000 Tegeates and Mantineans, 1120 Arcadians, 400 Corinthians, 20 Boeotians, 700 Thespians and 400 Thebans, as well as more soldiers from other polis. Finally, the whole troop reached about 5,000 men. According to Herodotus, the Spartans consulted the Oracle of Delphi and here is what was said:
“O ye men who dwell in the streets of broad Lacedaemon!
Honor the festival of the Carneia!! Otherwise,
Either your glorious town shall be sacked by the children of Perseus,
Or, in exchange, must all through the whole Laconian country
Mourn for the loss of a king, descendant of great Heracles.”
Leonidas knew victory was impossible. The Persian army reached a number of more than hundreds of thousands of soldiers. Even so, he marched to Thermopylae, for he had an obligation to his homeland. The lives of thousands of Greeks depended on his Last Stand. Leonidas incorporates in himself the maximum values of the aristocratic masculinity: the Honor, the Duty, the Virtue, the Strength, the Leadership and the Sacrifice. He had an obligation to fulfill and fulfilled knowing that it would cost his own life, but would ensure that the lives of his People and his Nation were protected.
In the other hand, Ephialtes is the extreme opposite of the example of Leonidas. After the sixth day of the Battle of Thermopylae, with the first attacks against the Greeks having no effect, with not even the 10,000 Immortals having any success, it seemed impossible for the Persians to resolve the battle in the short term. Then a Greek named Ephialtes appears in the war camp of the Persians. Inhabitant of the region, he has knowledge of a secret path – known only by the local people – that led to the rear of Thermopylae. In the hope of receiving some reward from Xerxes I, Ephialtes reveals the path to the Persians. During the evening, wishing an attack at dawn, Xerxes I orders that Ephialtes guides the Immortals along the way. After learning of the Persian maneuvers, Leonidas offers free choices for the Greeks who fought at his side: step back from the battle and join the Greek defenses that were being organized in the Isthmus of Corinth, or stay and die in war, having their names remembered forever. For the Spartans there was no choice. The Constitution of Lycurgus declared that desertion is the ultimate disgrace for a Spartan. Then there remained the 300 Spartans, 700 Thespians and 400 Thebans. On the seventh day the outcome of the battle finally comes, dying to the last man of the Greeks, who, after breaking their spears and their swords, set out for hand-to-hand combat.
Leonidas and the Greeks served as inspiration for warriors, poets and artists for all subsequent years. Leonidas is remembered forever as the Lion of Sparta and one of the bravest men of all mankind. He fought and sacrificed his own life for the benefit of all his People, not only the Spartans, but all the Greeks. He became an archetype of Honor and Duty, being an example to all men. In contrast, the name of Ephialtes would become synonymous with traitor. Remembered forever as the man who betrayed his homeland and his own people, aiding the invasion of foreign forces that had an interest in dominating and enslaving the Greek people.
These two examples must serve as a guide to modernity. We must choose to follow the footsteps of Leonidas, embodying the Duty to protect and defend our People and Civilization, against the traitors, sons of Ephialtes, who open the doors to foreign invaders and all else that might harm our Nation.
Honor and Glory to Leonidas. Courage leads to heaven, eternal life is conquered by the strong. To the pious and tolerant, only the eternal shame of Ephialtes.