We took Thermopylae at our leisure, passing out from Lamia over the Spercheios on the bridge of Alamana, at which Diakos, famous in ballad, resisted with a small band a Turkish army, until he was at last captured and taken to Lamia to be impaled…
It may be taken as a well-known fact that the Spercheios has since the time of Herodotus made so large an alluvial deposit around its mouth that, if he himself should return to earth, he would hardly recognize the spot which he has described so minutely. The western horn, which in his time came down so near to the gulf as to leave space for a single carriage-road only, is now separated from it by more than a mile of plain. Each visit to Thermopyla has, however, deepened my conviction that Herodotus exaggerated the impregnability of this pass. The mountain spur which formed it did not rise so abruptly from the sea as to form an impassable barrier to the advance of a determined antagonist. It is of course difficult ground to operate on, but certainly not impossible.
The other narrow place, nearly two miles to the east of this, is still more open, a fact that is to be emphasized, because many topographers, including Colonel Leake, hold that the battle actually took place there, as the great battle between the Romans and Antiochos certainly did. This eastern pass is, to be sure, no place where “a thousand may well be stopt by three,” and there can not have taken place any great transformation here since classical times, inasmuch as this region is practically out of reach of the Spercheios, and the deposit from the hot sulfur streams, which has so broadened the theater-shaped area enclosed by the two horns, can hardly have contributed to changing the shape of the eastern horn itself.
Artificial fortification was always needed here; but it is very uncertain whether any of the stones that still remain can be claimed as parts of such fortification. It is a fine position for an inferior force to choose for defense against a superior one; but while it can not be declared with absolute certainty that this is not the place where the fighting took place, yet the western pass fits better the description of Herodotus. Besides this, if the western pass had been abandoned to the Persians at the out-set the fact would have been worth mentioning.
As to the heroic deed itself, the view that Leonidas threw away his own life and that of the four thousand, that it was magnificent but not strategy, not war, does not take into ac-count the fact that Sparta had for nearly half a century been looked to as the military leader of Greece. It was audacious in the Athenians to fight the battle of Marathon without them, and they did so only because the Spartans did not come at their call. Sparta had not come to Thermopylae in force, it is true; but her king was there with three hundred of her best men. Only by staying and fighting could he show that Sparta held by right the place she had won. It had to be done. “So the glory of Sparta was not blotted out.”
One may have read, and read often,, the description of the battle in the school-room, but he reads it with different eyes on the spot, when he can look up at the hillock crowned with a ruined cavalry barrack just inside the western pass and say to himself : “Here on this hill they fought their last fight and fell to the last man. Here once stood the monuments to Leonidas, to the three hundred, and to the four thousand.”
The very monuments have crumbled to dust, but the great deed lives on. We rode back to Larnia under the spell of it. It was as if we had been in church and been held by a great preacher who knows how to touch the deepest chords of the heart. Euboea was already dark blue, while the sky above it was shaded from pink to purple. Tymphrestos in the west was bathed in the light of the sun that had gone down behind it. The whole surrounding was most stirring, and there was ever sounding in our hearts that deep bass note: “What they did here.”