Xeo recalls watching the marshaling of the tiny force of Three Hundred on the Spartan plain. As expected, Dienekes is among them. More surprisingly, Alexandros, only 20 years old, was also picked. The Spartans believe that a mix of green, unseasoned warriors and battle-tested veterans yields the best fighting. The good-byes to loved ones, especially husbands to wives and small children, are poignant.
The eve of Thermopylae is finally here. The long buildup has given the reader a much better appreciation of what has brought Dienekes, Alexandros, and others to this moment than if Xeo had plunged directly into an account of the battle. There is actually more behind the selection of these specific 300 warriors than meets the eye, but Leonidas will only reveal it much later.
Two days before the march-out, Arete had summoned Xeo in private, on a “county day,” or festival during which the Peers are allowed to spend a carefree day on their estates with their families. While Dienekes is occupied with settling farm business, Xeo joins Arete in the farm kitchen. She tells him, “The gods remain always a jump ahead of us, don’t they, Xeo?” Xeo helps her pack Dienekes’ kit, including surgical supplies, money, sweets, and mementoes from his daughters.
From her comment, Xeo realizes that Arete hadn’t fully realized the consequences of saving Rooster’s baby’s life. She’d just summoned her courage to do what she felt to be right in the moment, out of the instinctive spiritual sense she displayed in past conversation with Xeo. Xeo continues to enjoy a special bond with Arete as he helps her prepare for Dienekes to go off to battle.
Arete asks Xeo what happened when he accompanied Dienekes on embassy to Athens last month—did he locate Diomache? When Xeo is hesitant to speak, Arete sadly remarks that Xeo wouldn’t be the first man to love someone other than his wife: “the gods played the same trick on my husband and me.” She invites Xeo on a walk, reminding him that she was once married to Dienekes’ brother, Iatrokles. She loved Dienekes from the first time she saw him as a girl, she tells Xeo, but she was promised to his older brother instead. When at last she and Dienekes married, after Iatrokles’ death, Arete feared that they were cursed for their selfish passion by the fact that they were only given daughters, and then Arete was barren.
Arete confides in Xeo further, observing that the gods often play with human passions, causing things to turn out far differently than humans intend. She reminds him of the whole story between herself, Dienekes, and Iatrokles’ brother. She believes that the gods punish human passion, particularly when it seems to be at odds with the gods’ larger purposes for people and for society.
When the Three Hundred were summoned to Thermopylae, Arete says, she finally saw “the true perversity of the gods’ plan.” If her husband had remained without a son, he would have been denied the honor of going to Thermopylae. But now, “inspired by blind impulse […] I have saved the life of this boy, my brother’s bastard’s son, and lost my husband’s in the process.”
Arete spells out the full “perversity” of what the gods apparently have intended—she will lose Dienekes after all, though her impulse was only to rescue Rooster’s son. The gods see much farther than humans do, and their purposes aren’t transparent.
Arete goes on, musing that women of other cities think that Spartan women are made of “stauncher stuff” than they, able to lose their husbands without tears. But, she says, their grief is no less “because we choke it down in our guts.”
Arete rejects the stereotypical view of Spartan women. Just because their grief isn’t on full display doesn’t mean it isn’t every bit as bitter as that of other women. This runs somewhat counter to the idealized Spartan male perception of their women.
Arete turns to Xeo and tells him that it isn’t too late for him. He isn’t Spartan, and he needn’t bind himself by Spartan laws, or by the seeming cruelty of the gods. She’s given him a pouch of money; he could run away, or have Diomache, whom he loves, brought to Sparta for him. Xeo says this would be dishonorable, and Arete is disgusted. Xeo appreciates Arete’s kindness, but he points out that the gods would indeed be “one jump ahead.” Arete says nothing more, only promising that Diomache will learn of Xeo’s death and burial.
Arete wants to see a chance for a different outcome for Xeo where there is no longer a chance for herself. Xeo refuses because she is sick of the Spartan obsession with “honor.” Xeo just points out what Arete has already said—that no matter what he does, he can’t outwit the gods. And anyway, he is completely devoted to Sparta. There’s no going back.
On the morning of the march-out, Xeo watches Arete solemnly bid Dienekes goodbye. King Leonidas does the same with his wife, Gorgo. Xeo bids his wife, Thereia, a warm goodbye, knowing she won’t be a widow for long. He jokes, “Wait at least until I’m out of sight.” He hardly knows his children and wishes he could have loved Thereia as she deserved.
With all his duties, Xeo has not had much opportunity to get to know his own family, in contrast to the longstanding marriages of Dienekes and Leonidas. All the couples know they won’t likely meet again.
After the final sacrifices, Leonidas prepares to lead the army toward Thermopylae. He makes a speech, saying that it’s from Sparta’s women that he finds the courage to face death. He explains that while men’s pain is of the flesh, quickly over, women’s pain is unending sorrow. He tells his men to learn from the women, who bear painful childbirth knowing that nothing good comes without a price. The warriors, he says, choose to pay this price for liberty. The army drinks a ceremonial libation, and Leonidas swears by the gods that the women of Sparta will not “behold the smoke of the enemy’s fires.”
Leonidas speaks in praise of Spartan women. He acknowledges their unending sorrow and encourages the men to take a cue from their wives—their warfare is something akin to childbirth, pain in exchange for something far more lasting and worthwhile. Leonidas promises that the women of Sparta will be protected no matter what, reflecting the deep valuation Spartan men hold of the women in their lives.