Thermopylae is a spa, its name meaning “hot gates” after the thermal springs at the site. It can only be approached by means of steep and narrow passages. Visitors trek there every summer to enjoy the baths’ curative powers. The earth there is very dry; Xeo reminds King Xerxes that even the clay was churned into deep mud by the blood and urine of the terrified warriors. When the Spartan rangers first arrived at Thermopylae, they scattered two parties of about 30 bathers. The colorful tents left up by the tourists and vendors were eventually torn up to bind Spartiates’ wounds.
Xeo explains that by “Spartiates,” he refers to the full Spartans, or Peers, not the periokoi or Gentleman-Rankers, those secondary Spartans of less than full citizenship. By the end of the battle at Thermopylae, there were so few Spartans left that freed slaves, armor bearers, and squires like himself were permitted to fill the gaps.
Xeo explains something of the Spartan hierarchy. In the intensity of battle, though, even those who were not full Spartan warriors fought alongside citizens, which explains his own presence on the field.
Xeo’s own presence at the battle will require a digression. He explains that he was captured at age 12 as a heliokekaumenos, “scorched by the sun”—a semi-feral youth sunburned by exposure to the elements, orphaned and wandering in the mountains in the aftermath of the First Persian War. Originally, he was placed among the helots, the serf or slave class, but was mistreated and ultimately rejected due to his ineptitude as a field hand. Then, “luck or a god’s hand” delivered him into the service of the Spartan youth, Alexandros, and his mentor, Dienekes. This saved Xeo’s life.
Xeo isn’t Spartan at all. He was a refugee of the First Persian War, which hints at why fighting alongside the Spartans later meant so much to him. Xeo’s story hints at the fact that he didn’t have an easy boyhood, but that, in his view, the gods had special intentions for him, propelling him into the service of the warriors.
All Spartiate heavy infantrymen are attended by at least one helot, and platoon leaders have two. Xeo had the good fortune to be chosen by Dienekes as one of these. His duties were to tend and transport Dienekes’ armor, prepare his meals and bedding, bind his wounds, and do whatever else is necessary so that he is free to train and fight.
Xeo is basically a warrior’s servant, having been chosen as one of the greatest warriors, Dienekes, whose mentorship will prove so important to Xeo’s story. Spartan warriors are to be primarily concerned at all times with readiness to fight.
Before all this, however, Xeo grew up in the city of Astakos in Akarnania. He always wanted to cross the straits to visit the island of Ithaka, the legendary home of Odysseus. He planned to do this on his tenth birthday, but three days before the planned trip, his city was overrun, all the males of his clan were slaughtered, and the females were sold into slavery. He and his cousin, Diomache, were left homeless orphans.