29. The Contrast Between the Original Olympic Games and Today’s Would Astonish the Ancient Greeks
Today, the Olympic Games are a mega global event – the mega global event – rivaled perhaps only by soccer’s FIFA World Cup. As this article is being written, the 2020 (or 2021) Tokyo Olympics are in the process of hosting 11,326 athletes who hail from 205 nations, plus the International Olympic Committee’s Refugee Olympic Team. All of them eager and primed to compete over a seventeen-day stretch for glory and medals in 339 events, divided between 33 sports and 50 disciplines.
The difference between the scope and scale of the current Olympics and the original event would probably astonish and amaze ancient Greek participants and audiences if they knew what their competition would one day become. When the Olympic Games were first inaugurated in 776 BC, and for over half a century through 724 BC, there was only one athletic event: the stadion. It was named after the building in which it was held, which became stadium in Latin, and from which the English word stadium is derived.
28. The First Olympic Games Had a Single Competition
The ancient Greeks’ key Olympic Games event was the stadion. It was named after a building that was big enough to contain 20 competitors, who ran an approximately 200 yard or 180 meter sprint. The first few races might have been slightly longer, however, as the original stadion in Olympia had a track that was 210 yards or 190 meters long. The athletes lined up, and games officials were positioned at the starting blocks to keep a sharp eye out against false starts.
Unlike modern runners who take off from a crouch, ancient Greek sprinters took off from a standing position, with their arms stretched out before them. They were also naked. It is unclear how the original start line was marked, but by the fifth century BC at the latest, there was a stone start line, known as the balbis. In due course, a set of double grooves about four to four and a half inches apart were carved into the balbis for runners to place their toes and get some leverage to launch themselves at the start of the race.
Muscles tensed, coiled, and ready to commence, the ancient Greek stadion sprinters awaited the start of the race. Behind and to their sides hovered Olympic Games officials to ensure that nobody took off too early. Before them lay a packed earth track, at the end of which awaited another set of games officials, whose task was to decide the winner – and spot and disqualify any cheaters. If it was too close and the officials determined that it was a tie, the race would be rerun. Finally, the signal to start came – a sharp trumpet blow. The competitors exploded into action, took off, and within a few frantic seconds, the race was over.
Since the stadion was the original Olympics’ sole competition, those few seconds encapsulated the entirety of the athletic portion of the original Olympic Games. However, it is hard to grasp today just how important those few seconds were to the participants. The ancient Greeks often dated events not by a numbered calendar like we do today, but by four-year Olympiads, and the Olympiads were named after the winner. So the winner of the original stadion race literally won a place in the history books.
Because the ancient Greeks dated events based on four-year Olympiad cycles, the winner of the stadion race – the only competition in the first half century of the Olympic Games – achieved a degree of fame and prestige difficult to grasp today. Since the Olympiad was named after him, from then on out, people would include his name whenever they referred to anything that happened in the four year cycle of his victory. Something along the lines of: “such and such happened in the first (or second, or third, or fourth) year of [Olympic Winner’s Name] Olympiad“.
Eventually, more athletic events were added to the competition, such as boxing, wrestling, discus, javelin, long jump, and chariot racing. However, the stadion still held pride of place as the Olympic Games’ most prestigious competition, and the four-year Olympiad cycles continued to be named after its victor. Because of that, historians today are able to name just about every stadion winner. The first of them – and thus the first victor in the history of the Olympics, was a cook from the city-state of Elis named Koroibos, who won the stadion in 776 BC.
Many statues and vase paintings of the ancient Greeks that depict men engaged in athletics portray them nude. The era’s literature also makes clear that athletes competed while naked. So it seems reasonable to assume that the Greeks did not have the kinds of hangups we do today about bare bodies, since they often let it all hang out. As it turns out, however, the ancient Greeks had one particular hangup, that had to do with the penis: they thought that the naked glans was vulgar.
Circumcision was not practiced in ancient Greece, so the glans was usually covered by the foreskin. However, the glans might pop out while engaged in frenetic activity such as athletics. To avoid such a faux pas, a string, known as the kynodesme (“dog leash”), was wrapped around the penis and foreskin to ensure that the glans stayed out of sight. The Romans, who thought the Greeks were sissies, took it a step further: instead of dainty strings, they used iron clamps, iron rings, or straight up safety pins through the foreskin.
The most famous and celebrated athlete of the ancient Greeks was Milo of Croton (flourished 6th century BC). A wrestler of great renown, he was also a renowned warrior who led his fellow citizens to military victory. A freakishly powerful man, he carried a bull on his shoulders by way of strength training, and his daily diet reportedly included twenty pounds of meat, twenty pounds of bread, washed down by ten liters of wine. To intimidate his opponents, Milo ate raw bull’s meat in their presence, and drank raw bull’s blood. His string of athletic victories was unprecedented and unsurpassed. He dominated the quadrennial Panhellenic Games – the Olympic, Pythian, Nymean, and Isthmian – for decades.
Back then, the people of Croton, modern Crotone in southern Italy, were famous for their physical strength, and the city produced generations of champions. In the 576 BC Olympics, for example, the first seven finishers in the 200-yard sprint, the stadion, were all from Croton. Milo surpassed all who came before him. All in all, in a decades-long stretch from 540 BC to about 516 BC, Milo of Croton reportedly won the wrestling championship in six Olympic Games, seven Pythian Games, nine Nemean Games, and ten Isthmian Games. He was also a five-time Periodonikes – a kind of “grand slam” title the ancient Greeks bestowed upon somebody who was crowned champion in all four Panhellenic Games in the same four-year cycle.
23. The Greatest Olympic Champion’s Sticky Stuck End
Not only was Milo of Croton a great athlete, he was also a great warrior. In 510 BC, the tyrant of nearby Sybaris banished some of its leading citizens, and was offended when Croton offered them asylum. Things escalated, especially after the philosopher Pythagoras, who spent much of his time in Croton, urged its citizens to use the dispute as a pretext to destroy Sybaris. War eventually broke out, and Milo led the forces of Croton to victory, decked out in his Olympic crowns, a lion skin, and armed with a club like Hercules.
Milo’s remarkable life came to a bizarre end one day when he went out for a stroll through the woods, and came upon a tree trunk that had been partially split with wedges. Always on the lookout for opportunities to challenge himself with feats of strength, Milo tried to rend the tree apart with his bare hands. However, the wedges fell off and his hands got stuck in the crack. It was bad day for the era’s greatest athlete. His predicament got worse when a pack of wolves (some narratives claim it was a pride of lions) came upon him as he struggled to free himself, and ate him alive.
Milo of Croton might have been the ancient world’s greatest athlete, but there was one man who was awarded more Olympic wreaths than him. Many more. Like blew Milo’s and any other athlete’s Olympic record out of the water. That man was Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, better known to history as the Emperor Nero. One of Rome’s worst rulers, Nero was born in 37 AD, a nephew of Emperor Caligula, and a grand nephew of his successor, Emperor Claudius. Claudius fell in love with his niece and Nero’s mother, Agrippina. He married her, adopted Nero, and named him his heir and successor. Agrippina poisoned Claudius in 54 AD, and her teenaged son became emperor.
Agrippina dominated Nero early in his reign, and to escape his mother’s smothering embrace, he decided to murder her. He tried to make it look accidental, such as with a roof designed to collapse and crush her. The roof fell on and crushed one of her maids, instead. Next, Nero gifted his mother a pleasure barge, rigged to capsize in the middle of a lake. Before Nero’s horrified gaze as he watched from a villa with a lakeside view, his mother swam from the capsized barge to shore like an otter. At his wits’ end, and dreading an awkward confrontation, he sent some sailor to club her death with oars.
Free at last from his domineering mother, Nero gave free rein to his impulses and indulged himself to the fullest. He fancied himself a talented musician, and although others scoffed – but never to his face – he took it seriously. Nero took singing and lyre playing lessons from the era’s greatest musicians, and underwent exercises to strengthen his voice, such as lying down on his back with lead weights on his chest. He also avoided all fruits and foods that were reportedly bad for the vocal cords.
He began to give recitals on stage, first before small groups of intimate friends, then, as sycophants praised his “talent” – he reportedly had a weak and husky voice – before bigger audiences. Eventually, Nero threw exceptionally long concerts in which he sang and played a lyre. Few dared leave before completion, or observe with less than rapt attention. The performances were reportedly so bad that women faked labor in order to leave, and men faked heart attacks or death so they could get carried out. That was nothing, however, compared to how Nero indulged his other passion: for the Olympic Games.
After the Romans conquered Greece, they fell madly in love with all things having to do with all things Greek. To curry favor with their new masters, the Greeks modified the Olympic Games rules to allow Romans to compete as well. Nero had dreamt since childhood of becoming an Olympics champion. So he arranged for the Olympic Games to be delayed for two years until he could visit Greece. The emperor competed in chariot racing, and his competitors did their best to throw the race by deliberately slowing down. Despite that, Nero failed to reach the finish line because he crashed and wrecked his chariot.
The judges, in a combination of a sycophancy coupled with fear of an unstable man who could have them crucified with a snap of his fingers, awarded him the victor’s wreath anyhow. They justified that on the specious argument that he would have won, but for the crash. They also awarded him victor’s wreaths for every event in which he competed, for events in which he did not compete, and for events that were not part of the Olympic competition, such as singing and lyre playing. A pleased Nero showered Olympia and the entire surrounding region with rewards, and awarded the judges Roman citizenship and large sums of money.
Nero spent extravagantly in pursuit of his hobbies and to satisfy his whims, until the treasury was emptied. In the meantime, he entrusted the government to incompetent and corrupt cronies who wrecked it. By 68 AD, the Roman Empire had had enough, and numerous rebellions broke out. In Rome, the Senate declared Nero a public enemy, and his Praetorian Guard abandoned him. Nero toyed with impractical ideas: among other things, he wanted to throw himself upon the mercy of the public and beg their forgiveness. He reasoned that if he sang for them as he played the lyre, it would “soften their hearts”, and he would be allowed to retire to some distant province as its governor.
He composed a speech and wrote a song, but changed his mind after he was told that he would probably be torn apart by a mob as soon as he was sighted in public, before he got the chance to orate or sing. As he mulled alternatives, news came that he had been declared a public enemy by the Senate, had been sentenced to be publicly beaten to death, and that soldiers were on the way to arrest him. All hope gone, Nero decided to end his life. Unable to do it himself, he had a freedman stab him, and cried out his last words before the fatal blow: “Oh, what an artist dies in me!”
18. The Greatest Martial Artist of the Ancient Greeks
The ancient Greek sport of pankration, which means “all force”, was a combination of boxing and wrestling. It was a no holds barred event, and other than for a few prohibitions – a competitor could not gouge or bite, or attack his opponent’s genitals – just about everything was allowed. Pankration is widely viewed today as the ancestor of modern Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). Arrhichion of Phigalia (died 564 BC), who was crowned champion of that sport in the 572 BC and 568 BC Olympiads, was the most famous Greek pankratist.
He sought a threepeat at the 564 BC Olympic Games, and advanced through the early rounds to the title bout. There, age might have finally caught up with him and slowed him down, because for the first time in his Olympics competitive career, he got into trouble. Arrhichion’s opponent outmaneuvered him, got behind the champion, and with legs locked around his torso and heels digging into his groin, applied a choke hold. Arrhichion was too much of a competitor to accept defeat, however, and he managed to turn things around. Unfortunately, the result was his own tragicomic demise.
When Arrhichion of Phigalia found himself locked in a chokehold in the 564 BC Olympic Games’ pankration title bout, things seemed hopeless. However, the two-time returning champion was a wily competitor, and he had a few tricks up his sleeve. He feigned a loss of consciousness, which got his opponent to relax a bit. When his opponent eased off, the wily title holder snapped back into action, and with a convulsive heave, he shook and threw off his opponent, and snapped his ankle in the process.
The sudden and excruciating pain of the snapped ankle made Arrhichion’s opponent do the ancient Greeks’ equivalent of a tap out, and he made the sign of submission to the referees. However, when he threw off his opponent while the latter still had him in a powerful chokehold, Arrhichion ended up with a broken neck. Since his opponent had already tapped out, the dead Arrhichion’s was declared the title bout’s winner. It was perhaps the only time in the history of the Olympic Games that a corpse was crowned as an Olympic victor. The three-times pankration champion thus added a wrinkle to the athletic ideal of “victory or death” by gaining victory and death.
16. The Ancient Greeks Had Some Funny Philosophers – Some of Them Unexpectedly So
People don’t usually think of Pythagoras (circa 570 – circa 495 BC) as the kind of fellow who was a barrel laughs. However, the ancient Greek philosopher, whose Pythagorean theorem has tormented school children for generations untold, could actually be a wild one at times. The man had some pretty funny beliefs, such as his avoidance of beans because he thought that they contained the souls of the dead, or that people lost a part of their soul whenever they cut a fart.
The caveat, though, is that Pythagoras did not think that those beliefs were funny: he was dead serious about them. Literally dead serious. When he was forced to flee for his life from pursuers out to kill him, his flight path ended at a field of beans. Rather than cut through the field and come in contact with the detested beans, he turned around to face his killers. They promptly went ahead and killed him. However, as seen below, Pythagoras did have a fun side, some of which was manifested in his invention of a prank cup that spilled wine on drinkers.
15. The Philosopher Who Couldn’t Stand Greedy Drinkers
One fun activity that Pythagoras enjoyed was to imbibe wine. For that matter, so did most of ancient Greeks. However, Pythagoras had a pet peeve when it came to drinking: he did not like wine hogs. Specifically, he did not like it when greedy friends filled their cups to the brim, and took more than their fair share of the booze. So he decided to do something about that, and invented a special cup that came to be named after him.
At first glance, the Pythagorean cup looks like a run of the mill traditional ancient Greek goblet. Inside, however, it contains a column that sticks up the middle. You can drink from it like from any other goblet, so long as you don’t try to fill it to the maximum. Pythagoras designed the cup so that if a drinker got greedy and tried to fill it to the brim, it would instead drain all the wine and spill it out the bottom. Presumably, with wine spilled all over him, and faced with the hassle of wine stain removal, the greedy friend would learn a lesson about moderation.
14. The Greek Who Used the Principle of the Siphon to Prank His Friends
Pythagoras’ cup uses the basic principle of the siphon – same as that used to drain gas out of a car’s tank with a hose. The column inside the cup has a small hole at the bottom. The hole leads to an inverted U-shaped pathway inside the column. The pathway leads up from the hole at the bottom of the cup’s interior, to the top of the column, then loops back down to another hole at the base of the cup. When wine is poured into the cup, the column inside fills to the same level as that of the wine in the cup.
So long as the wine level does not reach the top of the U, the Pythagorean cup functions like any other cup. However, if the liquid level tops the column, and thus the U bend within it, the cup’s special effect takes over. Soon as wine tops the U bend and spills into the part of the column headed towards the hole at the base of the cup, the cup becomes a siphon, and begins to drain. Once the siphon effect begins, it does not stop draining the wine until the cup is empty.
Empedocles (circa 492 – 432 BC) was an influential Greek pre Socratic philosopher and poet from Akragas, in Sicily. He originated the theory of the four classical elements of earth, air, fire, and water, which reduced all matter to simpler substances in a bid to explain the complexity of the universe. He also proposed that there were two forces, which he referred to as Love and Strife, that constantly mixed and separated the elements. He was influenced by Pythagoras, and was against the slaughter of animals for food and against animal sacrifices.
Empedocles was also a stone cold nut job. He seems to have genuinely believed that he was a god, and got himself killed in a bizarre attempt to prove his divinity. He was born into a prominent family, and his father was a pro-democracy local bigwig who played a prominent role in overthrowing his polis’ ruling tyrant in 470 BC. Empedocles followed in his father’s footsteps, and helped overthrow an oligarchic government that took over Akragas after the tyrant was removed. He was reportedly offered his city’s sovereignty, but declined.
12. Empedocles Tried to Prove His Divinity to Fellow Greeks, and Things Did Not Go Well
Empedocles was a genius and polymath, a gifted orator and poet, and was considered to be one of his era’s greatest intellectuals and most talented physicians. His ability to cure diseases and avert epidemics won him widespread acclaim, and before long, he had developed a reputation as one who possessed marvelous powers. The accolades seem to have gone to his head, and he eventually came to believe that he did, indeed, possess miraculous powers such as the ability to control old age, destroy evil, and control the winds and rains.
Empedocles’ delusions finally bubbled over after he cured a supposedly incurable woman, whose ailment had defied all prior physicians. So he claimed he was a god. To demonstrate his divinity to skeptical fellow Greeks, he gathered about 80 people, and led them to the top of an active volcano, Mount Etna. There, he declared that as proof of his immortality, he would jump into the volcano, and return as a god after his body was consumed by the fire. Empedocles jumped into the volcano, but twenty five centuries later, he has still not returned.
Trolling has probably been around since proto humans first gathered around a campfire, and trolling that quickly escalates into something worse is not a newfangled development unique to the internet era. The ancient Greeks were no slouches when it came to trolling that sparked off flame wars. A good example was the steadily escalating back and forth trolling between Bupalus of Chios and the poet Hipponax of Ephesus (both flourished 6th century BC), which got so bad that Bupalus eventually committed suicide after an epic takedown.
Bupalus was a famous sculptor whose marble statues, typically of draped female figures such as Artemis, The Graces, or Fortune, were in exceptionally high demand. Centuries after Bupalus’ death, the Roman Emperor Augustus had his agents scour the Greek world for statues by the famous sculptor, which he used to decorate the Temple of Apollo in Rome. In addition to being a world class sculptor, Bupalus was also a world class troll, who had the misfortune to get into a tiff with an even bigger troll.
Bupalus’ adversary, Hipponax of Ephesus, was a poet. However, he was not a high brow type like Homer or Hesiod, or a gentle soul who penned pretty verses about summer idylls in rolling meadows, as gentle lambs frolicked about. Instead, his bread and butter seems to have been acerbic lines such as “There are two days when a woman is a pleasure: the day one marries her and the day one carries out her dead body“, and diss poetry. In addition to an ugly personality, Hipponax had a gargoyle face to match. The beef started when Hipponax sought to marry Bupalus’ daughter, only for her father to reject him.
That probably spared the girl from a life with somebody who was, by all reports, as ugly on the inside as he was on the outside. Bupalus then rubbed salt in the wound, and caricatured the unsightly Hipponax in some of his sculptures. Hipponax responded with rhymes that accused Bupalus of being a literal motherfu*ker, and went into graphic details about the carnal acts that the sculptor supposedly engaged in with his mother. Bupalus was subjected to intense public mockery as a result, and unable to stand it, he hanged himself. His fate became a byword among the Greeks, as illustrated by a line from ancient Athenian comic playwright Aristophanes: “Someone ought to give them a Bupalus or two on the jawâthat might shut them up for a bit“.
9. The Ancient Greeks Had Grammar Nazis Long Before There Were Nazis
Just as the preceding example of Bupalus demonstrates that trolls have been around since forever, so have know it all types and grammar Nazis, even before there were Nazis. Take Philitas of Cos (circa 340 – circa 285 BC), whom ancient sources describe as an annoying and overly pedantic busybody know it all, who could not resist the urge to constantly correct others. A poet and scholar who tutored Egypt’s King Ptolemy II, Philitas played a key role in popularizing the Hellenistic school of poetry, which flourished in Alexandria.
Later poets, such as the Roman Ovid, refer to Philitas as their model. A native of the island of Cos in the Aegean Sea, he was already an established poet and a respected man of letters when his homeland was conquered by Ptolemy I of Egypt in 309 BC. The king appointed Philitas to tutor his son and heir, Ptolemy II Philadelphus, and the poet relocated to Alexandria to perform his duties. He returned to Cos after his royal charge grew up, and led an intellectual society of poets and scholars.
8. The Pedant Who Died of Hunger as He Tried to Correct Others
All in all, Philitas of Cos was a genius, but he had a rather annoying downside. While a brilliant man by all accounts, the poet and intellectual seems to have rubbed many the wrong way with an overbearing perfectionism and a need to point out every mistake that he came across. All it took was for him to hear somebody utter a logical fallacy or use a wrong word, and Philitas would be off to the races, and go into a pedantic frenzy.
He would proceed to write page after page in which he detailed the error, why it was erroneous, and copious examples of what the correct usage should have been. According to ancient sources, he got so caught up in correcting others’ mistakes, investigating false arguments and poor word choices, that he starved to death while researching and writing an essay about somebody’s erroneous word usage. An inscription in front of his tomb read: “Stranger, Philitas is my name, I lie – Slain by fallacious arguments, and cares – Protracted from evening through the night“.
7. The Ancient Greek Who Gave Us the Word Draconian
Ancient Athenian legislator Draco (flourished 7th century BC), nicknamed The Lawgiver, reformed the city’s legal system with law codes and courts to enforce them, which replaced traditional tribal oral laws and blood feuds. The Athenians, who had asked him to come up with a new set of laws, were shocked when he came up with an extremely harsh legal code that punished both serious offenses and trivial ones with death. The severity of his legal system gave birth to the term “draconian”, to refer to exceptionally harsh penalties.
Little is known of Draco’s background, but he was most likely a nobleman. In the 620s BC, he was asked by fellow Athenians to come up with a legal system to replace the private justice one in use at the time, in which rights were enforced by citizens and their relatives. That lent itself to bloody vendettas and chaos, and a law of the jungle in which only the strong and those with connections were protected, while the weak were preyed upon by the powerful. Draco put Athens’ laws in writing and had them published. That reduced the pitfalls of traditional oral laws only known to a select few, and arbitrarily interpreted and applied.
6. The Ancient Greeks Sometimes Got Carried Away With the Applause
Draco’s legal reforms were a huge step towards equality under the law. The downside is that his laws were insanely severe, and highly favorable to creditors and the propertied classes. Debtors who defaulted could be sold into slavery, and those who committed petty offenses, as trivial as the theft of a cabbage, were liable to the death penalty. When asked why he legislated death for most offenses, Draco replied that he considered the petty crimes worthy of death, and he could not think of a higher penalty for the greater offenses. Whatever the poor and indebted might have thought, wealthy contemporaries liked Draco’s laws.
So much, in fact, that they reportedly killed him with applause. Literally. Ancient Greeks showed their approval by throwing hats and items of clothing at an object of adoration, and during a visit to Aegina, its citizens showered him with so many hats and shirts and cloaks that he suffocated to death under the barrage. Whatever praise he might have earned in his lifetime, Draco’s laws were eventually viewed as intolerably harsh by the Athenians. In 594 BC, they turned to another lawgiver, Solon, who repealed Draco’s laws and replaced them with new and somewhat more humane ones.
Of the many ways to shuffle off the mortal coil, death from laughter is probably among the better ways to go. If it was ever offered as an option, odds are that many would prefer to spend their last moments on earth laughing. One such fortunate who died from laughter was ancient Greek intellectual Chrysippus (circa 279 – circa 206 BC), one of the most influential men of letters of the Hellenistic era. Although he might disagree with the adage “Laughter is the best medicine“, seeing as how laughter killed him.
Chrysippus was born in Soli, near today’s Mersin, Turkey, and was an athlete in his youth, dedicated to long distance running before he turned to philosophy. As a philosopher, he greatly influenced Stoicism, and later Stoic philosophers credited him with laying much of the groundwork upon which they built. He also did much to shape intellectual landscape of his era’s Greeks by offering alternatives to the theories of Plato and Aristotle. Despite all that, he is probably best known as the philosopher who laughed himself to death.
4. Laughter Was Certainly Not the Best Medicine For This Ancient Greek Philosopher
Chrysippu s moved to Athens, where he studied Stoicism under Cleanthes, head of the Stoic School, and became the school’s most gifted student. When Cleanthes died, Chrysippus succeeded him as head of the establishment. He was a prolific writer who wrote over 700 books, and although no full treatise remains, fragments of about 475 of his works have survived. They include summaries and critical evaluations of the Hellenistic schools, and it is mostly from those sources that scholars have assembled the materials for a coherent picture of Stoic philosophy and philosophers.
However, Chrysippus was not just about egghead pursuits. He liked to party, and partied hard, well into old age. When he was around 73-years-old, he got drunk at a party on undiluted wine (Greeks of the era usually mixed wine with water), then saw a donkey eating a fig. In his inebriated state, the sight struck him as hilarious, and he went into paroxysms of uncontrollable laughter, and repeatedly cried out “now give the donkey a drink of pure wine to wash down the figs“, until he fell over dead.
Ephialtes son of Eurydemos, better known to history as Ephialtes of Trachis, was a member of ancient Greece’s Malian tribe, after whom the Malian Gulf in the northwestern Aegean Sea is named. He became one of the most – or perhaps the most – reviled Greek of his era. When King Xerxes of Persia invaded Greece in the fifth century BC, Ephialtes showed the Persians a path that allowed them to bypass and surround a Spartan force that had halted the invaders at Thermopylae.
Xerxes’ invasion of Greece was launched after decades of steadily mounting tensions, spurred by Athens’ support during the reign of Persia’s King Darius I of a failed rebellion by his Ionian Greek subjects in Asia Minor. That led to a Persian punitive expedition against Athens, that was defeated at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. In 480 BC, Darius’ son and successor, King Xerxes, gathered forces for a massive campaign to conquer and subdue the Greeks once and for all.
When they were faced with the approach of a vast Persian army, the Malians, at the northeastern juncture of the Greek Peninsula with the rest of the Balkans, were among the many Greeks who chose discretion over valor. They “Medised” – that is, submitted to and collaborated with King Xerxes of Persia against other Greek polities. Along the Persian army’s route through Malian lands was a narrow pass known as Thermopylae, or the “Hot Gates”, situated between mountains to the south and the cliff-lined shore of the Malian Gulf to the north.
King Leonidas of Sparta commanded a small Spartan-led Greek force, that occupied and fortified the pass at Thermopylae. The Persians, who greatly outnumbered Leonidas’ men, were forced to attack directly up the pass and on a narrow front. That negated and neutralized their numerical superiority. The Persians were bested by the more heavily armed and armored Greeks, especially the elite core of superbly trained Spartans. For three days, the Persians launched futile attacks, but could not make the Greeks budge.
King Leonidas and the Greeks under his command kept the vastly superior Persian army bottled up in front of the pass at Thermopylae, until Ephialtes struck. He informed King Xerxes that he knew of a track through the mountains that bypassed Thermopylae, and reemerged to join the road behind the Greek position. In exchange for the promise of rich rewards, Ephialtes showed the Persians the way. When he discovered that he was about to be outflanked, Leonidas sent his Greek allies away.
He stayed behind with what remained of a 300-strong contingent of Spartans, who fought to the death until they were wiped out. Ephialtes was reviled from the ancient era to the present, and his name came to mean “nightmare” in Greek. He never collected his reward: the Persian invasion collapsed when their fleet was defeated at Salamis later that year, and their army was crushed at Platea the following year. Ephialtes fled, with a bounty on his head. He was killed ten years later over an unrelated matter, but the Spartans rewarded his killer anyhow.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading