Whenever I walk the Revolutionary battlefield in Concord, Mass., I’m heartened by our nation’s resilience.
Studying the world-famous Minuteman statue, and on the same ground where, in the spring of 1775, a hastily formed American militia awaited King George’s troops, I can’t help but value the cost of freedom.
This drive for liberty, however, was nothing new. The signature event reflecting that pursuit was carved into Western consciousness more than two millennia before Concord by 300 Spartans and their king, Leonidas.
While that event has been a watershed in history texts for ages, it actually re-entered public consciousness, and pop culture, in 2007. Then, worldwide audiences welcomed the release of Hollywood’s highly touted movie, “300.”
A Zack Snyder adaptation of Frank Miller’s award-winning graphic novel, it recounts, often incredibly and implausibly, the stand of the 300 against an invading Persian juggernaut of a million soldiers at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C.
With Independence Day weekend upon us, its silver screen success is worth this historical refresher:
With Persia thwarted a decade earlier by the upstart Greeks at Marathon, its emperor Xerxes vowed revenge on the tiny agricultural peninsula.
Back then, calling Greece a nation was a misnomer. Rather, it was a disparate group of city-states which couldn’t agree on anything but worshipping the Olympian gods and speaking the same language.
Past that, infighting and intrigue defined their reality. Sadly, not much has changed in that department today – but more on that later.
To allow the Greeks to muster and rally, their leaders called for an operational delay of the Persian advance. The 300 joined several other units and chose to hold Thermopylae, where heavy Greek armor could be used to the defenders’ advantage in a constricted battle space against the lighter clad Persians.
Remarkably, the small Greek contingent held the pass for three days until the traitor Ephialtes revealed a secret mountain approach to Xerxes, exposing a flank and sealing its fate.
Leonidas then dismissed most of his coalition, and prepared the 300 for a final stand. While historians today still argue how many Greeks faced how many Persians on that last day of battle, we can be sure the numbers didn’t favor Leonidas – by a long shot.
Just as Lexington, Concord, and many of those other early skirmishes in our struggle for independence didn’t exactly go over well, Thermopylae was a resounding tactical defeat for the Greeks.
In hindsight, however, it ended up a victory on many levels, particularly as a metaphor.
For all the mixed results of Western self-determination since then, Thermopylae remains the symbol to which many leaders point; when the few – as the movie portrays in grossly romantic terms – stood up to the many, all in the name of free will.
But there’s nothing romantic about war: it’s a bloody, messy business that’s often better avoided – but not at any and all costs, as our founding fathers, and their Greek forbearers, decided.
That’s because the irony of freedom is complacency.
The Spartans always understood their boorish reputation, and that the Greek notion of liberty was benevolent oligarchy at best. In that same vein, no one will mistake the early 13 colonies as bastions of enlightenment, at least by today’s standards.
Still, we can’t, and shouldn’t, erase history: while war remains abhorrent, Leonidas knew then that someone had to resist Xerxes and spark the bickering local factions into a semblance of cohesion.
Even if it meant the ultimate sacrifice.
Within a year, those unified Greek forces rained defeat on the Persians at Salamis and Plataea, effectively ending further Eastern designs on the Mediterranean. The Golden Age and its early throes of democracy followed, setting a pattern of government for the West which lives on.
It took our Continentals somewhat longer to prevail against the Crown, but by 1783, they had.
Today, like our Minuteman at Concord, a bronze statue of Leonidas stands tall in a quiet plain of rural Greece, the unlikely home of an epic slaughter. (One wonders if Daniel Chester French had it on his mind when he cast The Minuteman).
And yes, today, the nation we know as Greece arguably is a geopolitical mess, in the throes of its worst financial crisis in modern times – one that could threaten the financial stability of Europe, if not the world.
But what this teaches us is that no legacy is flawless, or can be carried out perfectly. Like war itself, governing is a chaotic and imprecise proposition. Winning freedom is one thing; what we do with it is quite another.
And like the wobbly ancient Greek alliance, 2,500 years later we are still grappling with our own political limitations. As Americans, though, our initial hopes for independence required the resolve and backbone of a group of armed New England farmers blocking the Redcoats’ march.
Final victory, under the unified command of General George Washington, was left for another day.
British author and Nobel laureate William Golding, while standing on the 300’s grave at Thermopylae, assessed their reach through time: “A little of Leonidas lies in the fact that I can go where I like and write what I like. He contributed to set us free.”
Indeed, the Spartan king’s message resonated far past his generation of feuding Greek allies: preserving freedom is endless, but someone – like our Minutemen – must start it.
So, with muskets cocked and ready on that April dawn of 1775, stubborn yet selfless colonists stared down the advancing English columns.
And on the final day of their lives in 480 B.C. – behind failing shields and with a fledgling homeland at their backs – a handful of Spartans, Greeks one and all, drew their swords on Leonidas’ order and closed ranks one last time, waiting patiently to see the whites of Xerxes’ eyes.
Telly Halkias is a national-award winning newspaper columnist.
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