When Alexandros and Xeo arrive late on battle site, finding a vantage point on a bluff, the Spartan rangers have just finished setting the Antirhion harbor ablaze, a measure intended to unnerve the enemy and “sear into their unseasoned senses the stink and scourge of coming slaughter.” They watch as the Spartan troops go through the much-rehearsed ritual of arming for battle, taking great care to dress their long hair “while radiating an eerie presence of calm and nonchalance.”
Later in the book, Xeo will be in the thick of the battlefield action, so this scene, with the boys overlook the action from a bluff, allows a view of a battle from outside. A surprising amount of the strategy is psychological. The Spartans know their foes aren’t seasoned in battle, so they do everything they can to project calm and undermine the confidence of the other side.
The men also write their names or inscribe their symbols on “tickets,” twig bracelets that will identify their bodies should they fall. As the men begin taking their place on the line, Dekton leads two ceremonial goats to King Leonidas. Alexandros points out that the Antirhionians are so frightened that the plumes on their helmets are quaking, and the shafts of their spears are chattering like teeth. The enemy begin banging their shields and uttering war cries, but the Spartans neither move nor make a sound.
The Spartans also reject pseudoandreia, last-minute courage drummed up through inspirational speeches or shouting. Instead, their matter-of-fact stillness injects yet more fear in the shaking enemies.
As the enemy continues to advance, Leonidas remains at the front of his troops and performs the ceremonial goat sacrifice. With the goat still braced between his knees and the blade dripping with blood, he extends his sword to the heavens and then toward the enemy. The Spartans advance, singing the hymn to Castor and snapping their spears into fighting position on the climactic beat. The Antirhion ranks begin to break before the Spartans even reach them, many abandoning the field in terror.
The goat sacrifice is a reminder of the centrality of the gods in Spartan minds. Though they are matter-of-fact in battle, they are very much beholden to their gods. This is also shown by the hymn to Castor, a Greek god, was the son of a mythical Spartan king, hence the hymn in his honor. The Spartans’ presentation causes their enemies’ courage to buckle when fighting has scarcely begun.
The Spartans’ grim efficiency against the Antirhionians “wolves in a pack [taking] down the fleeing deer.” The Spartans surge relentlessly against their enemies until the dam breaks, and the front ranks break forward to slaughter what men remain on the field. Finally, the Antirhionians clearly routed, a halt is called to the slaughter, and the Spartans begin searching among the dead for fallen friends. Xeo follows Alexandros down the slope onto the field as his friend searches for his loved ones. Both Olympieus and Dienekes emerge unscathed from the fray and embrace Alexandros in shock. His father quickly turns angry, but Alexandros is distracted by the sight of his father’s beloved squire, Meriones, wounded on the ground. The dying squire comforts Alexandros, telling him, “No happier death than this.” He asks to be buried on the battlefield, and Alexandros sings a farewell song.
Xeo gets a firsthand look at what the Spartans can do on the battlefield. It doesn’t take long; the Antirhionians don’t put up a notable fight. The death of Olympieus’ squire, Meriones, underscores the loyalty of squires who, in Pressfield’s account, often accompanied their masters into battle. It also foretells Xeo’s own willing sacrifice of himself as a squire later on.
Xeo, meanwhile, is stunned by the appearance of familiar warriors in the aftermath of battle; they now seem like “heroes and demigods” to him. Even now, they maintain discipline, not gloating over the vanquished, but offering the humble thank-offering of a single rooster. He watches Dienekes re-forming the ranks and thinks about the state of mind that Spartans try to avoid at all costs—katalepsis, or possession, “that derangement of the senses that comes when terror or anger usurps dominion of the mind.” Dienekes, Xeo realizes, is not a “superman,” but “just a man doing a job” with self-composure.
It’s the job of an officer like Dienekes to keep soldiers from falling into “possession.” This will be a recurrent theme in battle, as Dienekes strives to keep men from falling prey to anger or fear and forgetting their training. Even though Dienekes is not a larger-than-life figure, his marked composure only reinforces his greatness in Xeo’s mind. He begins to understand the Spartans as something more than mere avenging gods, as he’d thought as a boy.
The survivors collect their “tickets,” which were broken in half before the battle, with one half kept in a basket. Those tickets unclaimed in the basket allow the slain to be identified and numbered. As the men come forward, their limbs quake, and some shudder and weep, overcome by the terror they’ve kept at bay until now—a condition called “fear-shedding.” Twenty-eight men were killed this day.
The Spartans are not stoic machines; they still must release the terror and grief of war after the action has subsided.
King Leonidas moves among his men, “not declaiming like some proud monarch […] but speaking softly like a comrade,” embracing some of the men and addressing them without condescension. The survivors begin to assemble around him. In a simple tribute, he reads aloud the names of the fallen. Then he gives a speech. He compares the experience of battle to the two-part “ticket.” He sets aside the best part of himself—the loving and compassionate part. Into battle he carries “the baser measure, that half which knows slaughter and butchery,” without which he couldn’t fight.
Xeo gets his first glimpse of King Leonidas’s presence on the battlefield. Leonidas shows none of the grandeur of a stereotypical ruler but walks and talks with his men and comforts them. This impression stays with Xeo for life and forever shapes his understanding of leadership. Leonidas’s speech acknowledges that warfare requires a kind of separation between compassion and baser instincts.
Leonidas goes on to describe the “holy moment” when a surviving solider reclaims his ticket from the basket, wondering why the gods have mercifully spared him while beloved comrades have fallen. At this moment, as he rejoins the two pieces of his ticket, the renewed flow of love, mercy, and compassion “unstrings his knees.” He rejoices in his inexplicable deliverance.
Leonidas’s moving example explains why the aftermath of battle is so overpowering even for hardened warriors. Just as he connects the pieces of his identifying ticket, he also rejoins his humanity and is overwhelmed by the feelings that are reawakened.
Leonidas has ordered that pursuit of the Antirhionian foe should cease. He reminds the men that they have not fought today in order to conquer or enslave, but to make these men their allies against a greater foe—the Persian. Spurring laughter, he grants that some of the men think he’s crazy for worrying about this invisible foe: “he takes chances with his life in an unkingly manner and prepares for war against an enemy he has never seen.” But he assures the Spartans that the Persian will come, in greater numbers than those who were defeated at Marathon four years earlier.
More of Leonidas’s kingly character is revealed. He isn’t interested in slaughter merely for the sake of conquering. He’s looking ahead to the growing Persian menace. He has foresight that others don’t—the less prescient even think him “unkingly” for worrying about the Persians so much.
Leonidas goes on to explain that the Persian Xerxes is a different kind of king than he is. He doesn’t join the men in battle, “but looks on, safe, from a distance”; his men aren’t peers, but “slaves and chattel.” Xerxes, he says, is coming to Greece in hopes of enslaving other men. When he arrives, he will find united allies, not “paid-for friends.” That is why Leonidas is treating the defeated with generosity. He wants the men they’ve spared to stand alongside the Spartans to teach the Persians “what valor free men can bring to bear against slaves.”
Leonidas forthrightly explains the difference between himself and Xerxes. Xerxes doesn’t fight alongside his men or view them as equals. He’s coming to Greece to collect more slaves, and many of his allies are paid off; they are not truly loyal to him. In contrast, the Greeks are true allies. That’s why Leonidas has spared the Antirhionians they’ve just routed so thoroughly. If the vanquished aren’t treated as free and willing allies, then the Spartans act no better than the Persians.