Classics Ambassador Freyja H-W recounts our first online event of the 2020-21 season:
Last Thursday, Professor Polly Low, Greek historian at the Department of Classics and Ancient History at Durham University, joined us over Zoom to give a brilliant insight into the Spartan commemoration of the battle of Thermopylae. Though she unfortunately couldn’t be with us in Lytham due to the unusual circumstances we all find ourselves in, Professor Low’s fantastic lecture was a testament to the way in which the fascinating nature of ancient history transcends both time and place as she transported us all to the world of the Spartans and the aftermath of the Greco-Persian Wars in the fifth century BCE.
Professor Low opened the lecture with a quick summary of the battle and reminded us that, although the Battle of Thermopylae has survived as a strong symbol of resilience and resistance, the actual battle itself only delayed the Persian army from continuing south. This presented an often-overlooked question: why is Thermopylae remembered as being so important? And why, if it all, did the Spartans think it was so special? Perhaps the battle lingers in both contemporary and modern memories because it is a symbol of doomed collective resistance – the image of the out-numbered Spartans fighting with swords, most having broken their spears three days in (as told to us by Herodotus 7.224), demanded a level of respect and even offered inspiration for those in antiquity living and fighting with the battle fresh in their minds.
Professor Low continued to guide us through an analysis and evaluation of several illuminating sources, from Herodotus to Pausanias, venturing to uncover the truth behind the Spartan commemorations of Thermopylae. The first major question addressed was whether there was a physical monument built on the battle site as possibly suggested in Herodotus 7.228: ‘There is an inscription written over these men’, this inscription supposedly being the famous ‘Foreigner, go tell the Spartans that we lie here obedient to their commands’ – another symbol of unanimity and loyalty even in death. While acknowledging logistical difficulties since the land was under Persian control, Professor Low noted that it was standard practice for the dead to be buried on the site of the battle and so this idea of a monument is entirely plausible. Of course, that monument no longer exists, but we do have an example of how this might have looked in the Tomb of the Lacedaemonians in Athens which is a burial of Spartan soldiers who were killed fighting in Athens at the very end of the Peloponnesian War.
The Simonides Fr.531 line ‘Stranger, bring the message to the Spartans that here we remain, obedient to their orders’, which is part of a choral ode, was presented as possible evidence of Thermopylae being commemorated at a festival or the casualties mourned at a Spartan festival of speeches. Prof. Low also elaborated on the inscription described by Herodotus which seems to be corroborated by Pausanias 3.14.1 ‘ There is set up a slab with the names, and their fathers’ names, of those who endured the fight at Thermopylae against the Persians’. Herodotus also states, although does not detail how, that he ‘learned by inquiry the names of all three hundred’. This type of list would be unusual for the Spartans but the existence of the Athenian casualty list for the battle of Marathon indicates there could be a kernel of truth in Herodotus’ grand claim. Spartan commemorations are typically scattered and focused upon the individual, which gives further weight to the suggestion that Thermopylae was considered a special event.
Another possibility discussed was that the Spartan commemorations of Thermopylae actually centred around Leonidas, which would be more in line with what we know of the Spartans, as suggested in Pausanias 3.14.1 where it is stated ‘ The bones of Leonidas were taken by Pausanias from Thermopylae forty years after the battle’ and rested in a tomb that would later be beside the tomb of Pausanias. This suggests that the bones were moved as an act of propaganda to influence internal Spartan politics, polishing Pausanias’ reputation by association.
Concluding the lecture, Professor Low brought us back to the modern era (and very close to Lytham St Annes with the memorial above!) to contemplate the legacy of the battle of Thermopylae and the Spartans themselves, both of which have been used symbolically by groups with diverse motivations. The most sinister example was perhaps that of H.Göring who used the aforementioned ‘Stranger, bring the message to the Spartans that here we remain, obedient to their orders’ line attributed to Simonides to encourage the German Army to keep fighting in Stalingrad. The Spartans themselves have been used as an emblem for emulation by many far-right groups. However, other examples include mentions in literature and poetry, such as in the Greek poet Cavafy’s ‘Thermopylae’ and even a Simonides reference on a war monument in Southport, which serve to remind us that the classical world is still startlingly relevant and alive in the world around us.
Many thanks to Professor Low for such an eloquent and engaging talk and for her wide-ranging knowledge in the Q&A session where we utilised the benefits of Zoom webinar to explore further topics for discussion including burial practices of the Thebans and Athenians, memorials to Salamis, Anglo Saxon burial mounds, Pindaric odes, Solon’s decrees on commemorating the individual dead, and different examples of kleos in sporting and military contexts.