Over the next five years, the Spartan army went on 21 different campaigns against other Greeks, especially those who seem traitorously inclined, like Thebes, Argos, and Macedonia. Even Sparta has a deposed king, Demaratos, who became Xerxes’ sycophant. In Persia, after King Darius’ death, there was some hope that the mobilization to invade Greece would stop, but then Xerxes ascended the throne. The mobilization redoubled.
The Spartans continue gathering as many allies as they can, going to war as necessary. Many decide that siding with Persia is the safer bet. (Demaratos was an earlier Spartan king who’d defied Leonidas’s predecessor, Kleomenes.) The threat grows ever grimmer as Xerxes follows his father Darius onto the throne.
Over the years, Xeo wonders often about his cousin Diomache, but even when his service for Dienekes brings him to Athens, he is unable to learn her whereabouts. He decides he must uproot his heart’s longing by marrying. Rooster finds him a bride, Rooster’s cousin Thereia, who soon bears Xeo a son and a daughter. Xeo vows to think no more of Diomache, as it would be impious. Alexandros, too, now a Peer of the army himself, marries Agathe and soon fathers twins.
Now adults, Xeo and Rooster both start families of their own. Xeo has always harbored feelings for Diomache but resolves to let them go so he doesn’t provoke the gods—perhaps thinking of Dienekes’ long pining for Arete and its consequences (a lack of sons).
Rooster’s wife, Harmonia, bears a son named Messenieus. Arete assists at the delivery of her grand-nephew. Xeo escorts her home, noticing the mixture of joy and sorrow on the lady’s face.
Rooster names his son after his Messenian homeland. Xeo thinks that Arete is just thinking about the fact that a male has been born at last from her family line, but there’s more to it, as he soon learns.
The Persians enter Europe. A force of 10,000 Spartans goes to Tempe in Thessaly to make a stand against the Persians, but the find the site to be undefendable; the men pull out and disperse. Greece seems paralyzed in the face of the threat. But “in the end it was their women who galvanized the Spartans into action.”
The long-expected Persian threat materializes at last. But the Spartans’ first attempt to fend them off goes poorly, as they abort an intended defense.
As refugee women with babies flood into Sparta, Spartan wives become increasingly angry. They confront their husbands, disdainful of what occurred at Tempe. The failure to even draw blood there “was not merely disgraceful … but blasphemous.” Soon a delegation of wives and mothers goes to the ephors, asking that they be sent into battle the next time, “armed with hairpins and distaffs, since surely the women of Sparta could disgrace themselves no more egregiously.”
Soon women start fleeing into Sparta in advance of the Persians. Spartan women are furious at their men’s failure to stop this and mockingly demand the right to go into battle the next time. Despite the dark humor, this delegation to the city magistrates has an effect, as the city makes a decision about how best to respond. The wrath of Spartan women is not to be trifled with.
At last, the declaration of war comes. Dienekes’ men get the word from another platoon commander, and the word quickly passes down the line: “It’s the Gates, lads.” The regiment is given the day off—a rarity. The news is that a force of 20,000 men will be called up, along with a naval force sealing up the straits at Artemisium. The men are immediately suspicious, knowing the Gates wouldn’t hold 5,000 men. Finally a senior counselor is prevailed upon, and he admits that only 300 peers—“all sires”—are being sent to take possession of Thermopylae. An all-sire unit is a suicide unit.
The “Gates” (Thermopylae means “Hot Gates”) had a long history of battles, as its narrow cliffside passages make it readily defendable. But it turns out that Sparta is only sending enough men to make a credible stand against the Persian advance. “All sires” refers to men with male offspring—those who are viewed as dispensable in battle because the continuation of their line is established.
Dienekes sends Xeo to his house, with a message requesting Arete and their daughters to join him for a walk. Xeo watches them from a distance. He sees Dienekes and Arete embracing tenderly. Xeo knows that no main force is going to be dispatched to Thermopylae at all. Only the Three Hundred are being sent, and they are expected to stand and die. Dienekes will not be one of them.
The story of the massive military call-up is only for public consumption. Dienekes has no male issue, and while there may be some relief in his embrace with his wife, there’s also shame. This is a picture of the inflexible demands of the Spartan code.