The year was 480 BC when King Leonidas of Sparta, left with only a few dozen fighters from the original 300 at Thermopylae, gave a speech whose motivational power has resonated over the millennia.
The truth is that we do not know exactly what Leonidas told his troops. None survived the last day to tell the tale—other than a messenger who was sent back to Sparta and, of course, the traitor who gave away Leonidas’ position to the enemy.
Leonidas was not just a King and great fighter. He was also known as a gentle persuader—a man all citizens of Sparta respected and listened to.
The Spartans were facing annihilation at the hands of hundreds of thousands of Persians at Thermopylae. The morning before the final Persian assault, Leonidas gathered all the standing comrades in arms and tried to raise their morale.
By fighting to the bitter end, he hoped that he would delay the advance of the Persians into the rest of Greece; his great sacrifice succeeded in the end with the eventual defeat of the Persians at Salamis.
Sparta will be remembered for what we do here, today
“A thousand, two thousand, three thousand years from now,” Leonidas declared, “men a hundred generations yet unborn may for their private purposes make journey to our country [of Sparta].”
“They will come, scholars perhaps, or travelers from beyond the sea, prompted by curiosity regarding the past or appetite for knowledge of the ancients,” he said, and “they will peer out across our plain and probe among the stone and rubble of our nation. What they will learn of us?”
“Their shovels will unearth neither brilliant palaces nor temples; their picks will [prize] forth no everlasting architecture or art,” Leonidas (may have) said. “What will remain of the Spartans? Not monuments of marble or bronze, but this, what we do here today.”
Out beyond Thermopylae (The Hot Gates in Greek), the enemy trumpets sounded. Clearly, now could be seen the vanguard of the Persians and their chariots and armored convoys of their King.
Leonidas of Sparta: We will be sharing dinner in Hades
“Now eat a good meal, men,” Leonidas most likely grinned, “for we’ll all be sharing dinner in Hades.”
This fictionalized account of Leonidas’ final speech to his troops is contained in the best-selling book by Steven Pressfield called Gates of Fire.
The epic novel of the battle of Thermopylae, first published in 1999, has been featured on the reading list of the Commandant of the US Marine Corps.
It is taught at West Point, the United States Naval Academy, and at the Marine Corps’ Basic Training School. The novel stresses the literary themes of fate and irony as well as the military themes of honor, duty, stoicism, and esprit de corps.
Shortly after the release of the novel, George Clooney’s production company, Maysville Pictures, acquired the rights for the film. David Self was brought on to write the screenplay, and Michael Mann was set to direct.
The film suffered a troubled production, however. Mann departed the project, citing creative differences, and it was later put on hold due to lukewarm critical reception for historical fiction films such as Troy, Alexander, and King Arthur.
After the release and success of 300, a film also based on the Battle of Thermopylae, plans for the Gates of Fire adaptation were completely scrapped.