The story of Aristodemus of Sparta, who was branded a traitor but eventually turned a hero, is one the Battle of Thermopylae’s sub-chapters.
Nearly all historical events have both heroes as well as villains. In the Battle of Thermopylae Leonidas and his brave 300 were the heroes — and Ephialtes of Trachis, the vile traitor who betrayed the Spartan army, served as the villain.
The name of the King of Sparta became synonymous with bravery and devotion, while that of Ephialtes came to be the ultimate symbol of treason and the baser instincts, forever to be connected with the image of a pile of dead Spartan soldiers at Thermopylae Pass.
Yet there was another man, one of Leonidas’ 300, namely Aristodemus of Sparta, the only survivor of the epic battle.
According to the historian Herodotus, there were only three men out of Leonidas’ elite army who did not fight in the epic battle.
The first was Pantites, who had been sent by Leonidas as an emissary to Thessaly to call for reinforcements. Pantites failed to return to Thermopylae in time for the battle, and branded with shame in the eyes of his fellow Spartans, he hanged himself.
Then there were two other men, Aristodemus and Eurytus, who had been stricken by en eye disease and become blind. King Leonidas deemed them unfit to fight and ordered them to return home before the battle.
Eurytus, however, turned back again to the battlefield, and though literally blind, met his valiant death very early on in the battle. Aristodemus, who duly returned to his homeland, was regarded as a coward and subjected to humiliation. He was even called “Aristodemus the Coward” from then on.
Herodotus believed that had both Aristodemus and Eurytus returned to Sparta alive, or Aristodemus alone been ill and excused from combat, the Spartans would have ascribed no blame to him.
The Battle of Thermopylae
The invasion of the Persians into the Greek homelands set in motion the clash of the two greatest powers of the ancient world. As much as modern historians question many of the elements quoted by Herodotus, it was in essence a handful of warriors — 300, or 1,000 if we add the Thespians or 5,000-6,000 according to other estimates — standing against an enormous horde of opponents.
The final outcome, namely the fact that the Persians did cross the strait, is not surprising or admirable. But a much more interesting subject of eternal study will be how so few not only did not fear the enemy, but were able to ultimately stop them, defeating them first in the mind and then on the battlefield.
When Xerxes was finally convinced that the Greeks were not kidding him when they insisted on confronting his vast army, he truly believed it was a given that the complete obliteration of the single-minded defenders of Thermopylae was just a matter of time.
On the other side, Leonidas, was following the prediction of the oracle, which had stated that Sparta or one of its kings would be lost while leading an army of dedicated, valiant warriors who were ready to sacrifice themselves along with him.
It was not a coincidence that all 300 of the soldiers already had male children; therefore their replacement in the Spartan Army was a given.
Before the battle that lasted three days began, Leonidas had ordered Pantites to go into Thessaly. It is believed that he was sending a message asking for additional troops, although this part of the story is disputed.
Be that as it may, Pantites returned alone only to discover that his king and comrades were all dead, while arrows, broken spears, shields, and fresh Persian mass graves remained the only witnesses to what had happened.
When Pantites returned to the free city-state of Sparta, thanks to the sacrifice of his fellow Spartans at Thermopylae, he was accused of cowardice — and he soon killed himself.
Aristodemus redeems himself in Sparta
The word “coward” was the worst insult for the supremely warlike Spartans. The coward was not punished, but he was treated as if he did not exist; he was invisible and no one would touch him.
He could not exercise or train to fight and he could not marry because no woman would have him. He had no civil rights and was even obliged to step aside when a Spartan passed by. For this accused of cowardice, death may have been preferable.
Understandably, Aristodemus sought to attain a glorious death at the very next opportunity presented to him. This turned out to be the battle of Plataea, just one year after Thermopylae. There, it was recorded that he foght fiercely, desperately desiring rid himself of his shame and clear his name.
Indeed, he fought fiercely and bravely at Plataea and was wounded. His courage and bravery did not go unnoticed. Unfortunately for him, however, the military leaders also saw a recklessness that was completely incompatible with the discipline which was a key element of the success of the Spartan phalanx.
Every move outside the battle plan was considered as endangering the lives of fellow warriors.
Once again, Aristodemus was in a difficult position and was forced to apologize for his stance. Although very seriously injured in the battle, he was accused of being insane.
Madman or not, however, he survived to take part in the Greek-Persian wars until their very end, paying a bitter price for walking away and not returning home dead on his shield from the great Battle of Thermopylae.