View Full Version : The Greatest Warriors Ever

03-18-2007, 07:09 AM
The greatest warriors ever...
by Christopher Hudson

At the end, just 300 men stood between victory and the collapse of Western civilisation. It was the summer of 480BC. The Persian invasion force under Great King Xerxes had swept down from the north to the narrow, rocky pass of Thermopylae in central Greece, where a makeshift Greek army fearfully awaited them.

If the barbarian hordes, numbering more than 100,000 men, overran these defenders, Greek democracy and civilisation would fall prey to alien forces whose cruelty was a byword.

Most of the Greek defenders accepted they would fight bravely then retreat in good order, surviving to fight another day. But the loyal Spartans spearheading this ragtag Greek force were different.

Their courage and self-sacrifice would ensure that this would become one of the bloodiest and most influential battles of the ancient world.

The 300 Spartan warriors, young men who had been trained for a single purpose in life - to fight and kill their many enemies - were silent and intent.

On the eve of battle they stripped naked and oiled themselves lovingly, combing their very long black hair, as if death was a goddess to be propitiated. Each man had written his name on a chip of wood and tied it to his arm, so his corpse could be identified.

They had waited for such a task as this since their childhood. Only the Spartans who had excelled in their boyhood training were chosen to serve as knights in the king's bodyguard.

These knights, the 300 "champions", were selected for the battle of Thermopylae because they all had sons, so their family line would not die out if they were slaughtered.

The commander-in-chief of this extraordinary force was one of the two kings of Sparta, King Leonidas. When his wife asked what she should do as he departed for the fight, he replied with typical Spartan terseness: "Marry a good man and bear good children."

For the first two days of the threeday battle, the Persians could not make any progress. The pass at Thermopylae, between the mountain and the sea, was barely the width of two wagons and the Spartans and Greeks held them off.

But on the third day, a Greek traitor showed the Persians another path, which enabled them to come round behind and encircle the Greeks.

Over their dawn meal, Leonidas told the Spartans sombrely: "This evening we shall dine in Hades." He poured a libation to the gods and ordered his troops to advance, all of them knowing it would be their last day on earth.

When he was killed, his men fought on with redoubled fury under the Persian arrows, as much to defend the fallen body of their King from the savagery of the barbarians as to show their valour.

According to the historian Herodotus, the enraged Spartans slaughtered the Persians in heaps. Some drowned in the sea, others were trampled to death as their own officers forced them on into the bloody fray with whips.

"The Spartans, reckless with their own safety and desperate, since they knew their destruction was nigh at hand, exerted themselves with the most furious valour against the barbarians," wrote Herodotus.

In the press of bodies, blinded by dust, the Spartans' spears broke and their shields and swords were battered out of their hands. Yet they continued fighting, grappling the Persians, choking them and biting them with their teeth. But in the end, the outcome was inevitable. Out of the 300, just one of them survived.

The Persians may have won the battle but Thermopylae boosted Greek morale so strongly that they were able to drive them out of Greece the following year. Civilisation was saved.

From that time on, the behaviour of the 300 has gone down in history as a model of courage in adversity. It has inspired poets, artists and orators down the centuries, and films too, of which the latest, called simply 300, is released later this month.

Yet the mystery is that it emerged out of one of the strangest social systems the world has ever known - a system even more controlled and militaristic than Germany's Third Reich, yet where homosexuality was the norm and where women were the most scandalously liberated in the whole of Greece.

While Athens was the cradle of democracy, Sparta, 100 miles to the south-west, could have been on a different planet.

Athens, the commercial and cultural centre of Greece, was an outwardlooking, civilised society where political decisions were made with popular assent. While Sparta was ruled by a warrior elite and served by a population of slaves.

Like Nazi Germany, it used constant indoctrination from an early age to enforce its totalitarian rule, and spies and secret police to create a climate of fear. Like the Nazis, it killed the mentally and physically disabled, and half-breeds - the children of Spartan mothers and non-Spartan fathers.

A deeply xenophobic state, it focused on self-preservation and the domination of other Greek city-states. It occupied the two nearest it and turned their inhabitants into "helots", or serfs, who provided a labour-force on which Sparta depended: they were the worker ants.

The helots, strictly speaking, were captives of war. Each year Sparta's rulers made a phoney declaration of war on them, both to remind them of their servile status and to ensure that helots could be killed without legal repercussions.

There were seven times more helots than Spartans, and the militarism of Spartan society was founded on the need to keep them in their place.

As domestic servants, they prepared and cooked the food, made clothes, did the housework and looked after the children. In wartime they provided run-of-the-mill troops for battle.

Helots worked the fields and performed all manual tasks. Male Spartans were forbidden any profession, trade or business except the business of war.

A uniquely professional and motivated fighting force, they were the SAS of the Greek world. Their toughness was honed in an educational system unmatched in the West until the Hitler Youth organisation.

New-born Spartan males were formally examined for any physical deformities. If any were found, they were carried to a nearby gorge and left out in the sun to die of exposure.

Babies who passed this test were taken from their mothers at the age of seven and inducted into a compulsory communal education system - a training which would last them all their lives.

Between the ages of seven and 18, young Spartans were divided into packs and forced to live off the land, stealing their food. They were made to train outdoors, to sleep on hard pallet beds in the open and to travel silently at night. Truly, it was a Spartan existence.

The toughest Spartans organised the packs and literally whipped the boys into shape. They learned to rely solely on themselves and their companions.

Meanwhile the boys were made to break all links with their parents and regard their pack as family.

This surrogate fathering encouraged a system of ritual pederasty. After the age of 12, every Spartan adolescent was expected to receive a young adult warrior as his lover. It would have been a mark of shame for a teenager not to have been courted by an older youth.

The relationship was not purely sexual. The senior partner was expected to coach his protege and even to take the punishment if, for example, his young novice was cowardly enough to cry out during one of the many ordeals of his training. The Spartans believed that homosexual relations encouraged solidarity on the battlefield.

The most promising teenage Spartans were enrolled in the Crypteia - literally, Secret Operations. As in Nazi Germany, where the Gestapo habitually terrorised ordinary citizens, the Crypteia formed a secret police force, which

gathered intelligence, murdered troublemaking helots and spread terror among the rest as a form of control.

Crypteia members in their midteens were sent out into the countryside, armed only with a dagger, on helot-hunting expeditions. They were required to "blood" themselves by killing a helot, preferably one who was a known troublemaker.

At the age of 20, these young warriors were elected to the equivalent of regimental messes, where they would live until they were married - yes, eventually, they were introduced to women -and where they would dine every day for the rest of their soldierly lives.

The mess was a sort of social club for the warrior elite, although a frugal one. The Spartans believed in austerity and self-denial. The principle fare was black bean soup, a vile concoction of boiled pig's blood with vinegar that led foreigners to joke that they could understand why the Spartans were so indifferent towards death.

In some respects, though, Sparta was more advanced than Athens and other city-states. Women lived a much freer life than anywhere else in ancient Greece.

Unlike other women, they were active and prominent in public life. They could own land and property. And although segregated from the boys, they were well educated and could read and write.

As part of their syllabus, the girls would gather at the river for ecstatic ritual dances known as "ambrosial nights".

These were unbuttoned occasions, with wild songs about the pleasures of "limb-loosening desire" where the girls would sing of being "ridden like horses" and "exhausted by love".

Oiled from head to toe, they danced, ran races, threw the javelin, wrestled and performed gymnastics - all completely naked and in the open, to the consternation of visitors.

The Spartans, typically, saw these exercises as preparing them to be the mothers of fit, healthy children.

The women had a reputation for beauty - Helen of Troy was a Spartan - and also for being sexually independent.

Freed from housework - their helot servants did all that - they formed liaisons with other women as well as available men and Sparta gained a reputation for enthusiastic lesbianism.

Yet they could be formidable. "With your shield, or on it!" was one Spartan woman's farewell to her warrior husband. That is: Come home a hero or die as one.

There was constant pressure to maintain the stock of male Spartan warriors because the level set for them was so high, so there were benefits for fathers with three or more sons and no laws against adultery.

Marriage ceremonies began with a symbolic rape: the bride was seized and carried off to the marital home where she was made ready for a groom, who'd had sexual relations only with other men.

Her hair was close-cropped; she was dressed in a belted shift like a soldier's tunic and then placed in an ill-lit room, so that she might almost pass for a man when her husband came to her.

Just as motherhood was the beall and end-all for Spartan women, so were martial arts for the men.

After the battle of Thermopylae, the Spartans spent most of the next 120 years at war, a period which saw the Spartans win dominion over most of Greece, before overreaching themselves and being brought to their knees by forces outside and within.

Sparta's astonishing military successes depended on tactics which aroused terror in its enemies.

As Paul Cartledge tells us in his history of the Spartans, their heavilyarmedfootsoldiers used eight-deep shield walls moving in perfect step, like Panzer tanks, to bulldoze the enemy off the field of battle.

With their huge three-feet-wide shields overlapping, each soldier was protected, from his chin down to his knees, thus freeing his right hand to thrust a spear or a sword.

Armour on the legs, metal helmets and padded linen breastplates gave the soldiers added body protection.

No cavalry on earth could charge down this close-packed line of armoured infantry as long as it stood firm; nor could the Persian archers have any effect on so much metal armour.

In the battle of Plataea, where they threw the Persians out, these Spartan formations broke right through to the enemy stockade and massacred everyone in sight. Never again would a Persian army invade the Greek mainland.

Even their religion was put to martial use. Spartans used linedancing, not only to honour their gods, but also as training in the rhythm and cohesion needed by soldiers fighting in phalanx formation.

Athletics was another form of religious and military expression. What became the first all- Greek Olympic Games was first established in Sparta in 776 BC.

The Romans admired the example of Spartans so much that they liked to believe they were related to them.

Certainly, the collapse of Sparta resembled the downfall of Rome. It had several causes. Sparta's last powerful king, Agesilaus, brought back so much booty from his Asian expeditions that the Spartans began to lose their habits of austerity and became self-satisfied.

Sparta thought itself unconquerable, without realising that there was such a small complement of paid-up Spartan warriors left that a helot uprising could pose problems.

A brilliant general from neighbouring Thebes then defeated the Spartans at the battle of Leuctra, and when the helots rose up against their masters, Sparta's days of glory were numbered.

In the historical record, it remains as both an inspiration and a warning.

Sparta's evolution from a handful of villages in the southern Peloponnese to the most powerful fighting force in the ancient Greek world, through amazing feats of arms, resounds through the ages.

Yet its repressive society was too close to modern dictatorships to deserve our unalloyed admiration.

It was a totalitarian regime, dependent on slave labour, which indoctrinated its young into an acceptance of state terror. And inevitably the slaves eventually took their revenge.

Copyright of the Daily Mail UK

Paulie W
03-18-2007, 02:38 PM
Fun article, but full of inaccuracies and semi-truths!

Thermopylae has always struck me as an excellent example of clever propaganda. Thermopylae was remarkably easy to defend, as would be proved later but the Greeks as a whole, and Sparta in particular didnt commit to the defence. Then, when the Greek forces arrived at the pass, Leonidas neglected to defend the 'secret' path properly. The bravery he and his Spartan troops showed in remaining when they realised the game was up is no doubt extraordinary but masks some serious tactical blunders (and was also no doubt the only way to cover the withdrawal of the other Greek forces). It would be easy to write an account of Thermopylae that presented the defeat as a major disaster but it was cleverly represented as a triumph of Greek and more particularly Spartan courage - if you read Herodotus' account the Spartans are shown as cheerfully facing up to their certain death; better still, cracking jokes in the face of it. Someone then produced an oracle of the god Apollo which stated, to paraphrase, that a Spartan king must die for the Greeks to triumph.

The whole thing reminds me a little of the way the British suceeded in masking the enormity of the defeat at Isandhlwana by making great play of the courage shown by the defenders at Rorke's Drift a day later (as prortayed in the movie Zulu), who were rewarded with 11 Victoria Crosses.

03-18-2007, 04:05 PM
My last name may be Leonitis (close to the king's name), but I'm glad as hell I wasn't born in Sparta. PeteLeo.

03-19-2007, 01:34 PM
Im sure most nations have these prideful things in their history and one cant help but be inspired by courage against big odds in the reading of it.
Let me add that my Fathers people the Armenians showed alot of courage when at the mountain city of Shabin Karahisar, about 6,000, men, women and children Armenians in their mountain stronghold, with very poor homemade weapons, help of a modern Turkish army (of that world war one era) of over 50,000 equipped men. Remember that the Turkish army was bent of GENOCIDE and no one would be spared. These folks were fighting for their lives and for their families. They fought heroically for days and days until all the men either were killed or starved to death, the remaining women and children took poison and died, such was the honor of the people. When the Turks got there no one was alive, but the Turkish murderers paid a tremendous price the and the people did not give up their lives cheaply.

03-19-2007, 01:36 PM
Sorry fellas instead of "help of" I meant "held off"

03-20-2007, 04:08 PM
From www.talkinghistory.org

Go to :


Then scroll down to:

February 15, 2007
Segment 1: "Cavalry, Caravans and Christians: Genghis Khan and Europe's First Global Age."

From Radio Netherlands, this 2006 documentary produced by Marijke van der Mee 800 years after Genghis Khan united the Mongols into one nation, focuses on the lasting impact of the Mongol invasions on Europe. As described by the producer: "Within a generation of uniting the nomad tribes of the Eurasian Steppes into one unified Mongol nation in 1206, Genghis Khan and his sons gained control of the largest contiguous land empire in history. This [last] year's 800th anniversary of the rise to power of Genghis Khan offers a welcome opportunity to look at the immeasurable impact that the Mongol empire and conquests have had on Europe to this day."

03-21-2007, 04:57 AM
An Armenian student of mine (from Iraq) once told me his great-great grand father killed a number of his family before falling on his sword. Maybe he was referring to the battle Rocky is referring to. But I guess there were many such incidents of honour suicides -particularly aimed at not letting the Ottomans get at their womenfolk.

03-21-2007, 10:48 AM
plenty great ones. the gurka regiment for the brits in the last two centuries--are as fine as any . stories of their prowess and courage abound though martial history.

03-21-2007, 07:54 PM
18 Marine Recon types versus a Battalion or so of NVA, circa 1966... By morning the Marines were down to a handful of ammo and there most effective weapons were thrown rocks. Imagine how the NVA felt after shooting the crap outta these guys and being laughed at, literally?

Steve McV
03-27-2007, 02:26 PM
At the battle of Toulon, Napoleon, then a subordinate artillary officer, placed a line of cannon in a good but very exposed position. When his superiors told him that no one would work guns in such a vulnerable position, Bonaparte placed a sign near the guns which read "The Battery of Men Without Fear." Throughout the battle, those guns stayed well manned.

Steve McV
03-27-2007, 02:29 PM
And as always one should "Remember the Alamo."

Outnumbered ten to one, the defenders cost Santa Anna one third of his assault force, some 600 killed and wounded vs. the 182 men in the "fort."

Paulie W
03-27-2007, 03:17 PM
Bah, at the Battle of Marathon, the heavily outnumbered Athenians lost just 192 men but some 6,400 Persians were counted dead on the battlefield!

03-28-2007, 06:55 AM
paulie--thats amzing--how many troops did athens have? talk about a shutout!!

Paulie W
03-28-2007, 05:52 PM
The sources are a bit sketchy but suggest there were about 10,000 Athenians and some 60,000 Persians.

Roberto Aqui
04-08-2007, 08:47 PM
You boys are forgetting about Sampson. He was a bit of a dolt, but fatal when roused, which was often!