The Medes, the vanguard of the Persian army, wear bright purple trousers, embroidered tunics, and plumed helmets. They also wear rouge and jewelry. This unusual costume actually strikes terror in Greek hearts: “one felt as if he were facing men from the underworld.” The Greeks, in their turn, put forward the warriors of Thespiae as their vanguard. These take their place in “the Narrows” between the mountain wall and the cliff that drops to the sea. The Spartans and other allies stay atop the rebuilt Phokian Wall, armed and ready.
The two sides take their places for battle. While the Persians are numerically superior by far, they face the challenge of squeezing into the battlefield through the narrow passage, meaning that only small numbers of their men can be sent into the engagement at a time. This makes the prospect of battle all the more terrifying, as they will have to face the enemy without the support of a full army.
The day crawls onward, with no advance on either side. Eventually the Greeks see that the delay has been caused by the erection of a platform and throne for Xerxes on the ridgeline high above. Soon they see purple-robed Xerxes himself, looking “like a man come to watch an entertainment.” As jeers and insults erupt from the Greeks, Xerxes even bows elegantly to the crowd.
Xeo, atop the wall, watches in awe as the Medians advance with a contemptuous demeanor. However, the Greeks, with their highly polished shields, crested helmets, and ghastly, hollow-eyed helmets, present “a theater of terror,” too. More unbearably tense time passes. Then, all of a sudden, a hare darts into the space between the two armies, and Hound’s dog, Styx, takes off in pursuit. Every Greek’s “eye seized upon the event at once as a sign from heaven.”
The tense chase between the hare and the dog is a picture of the larger conflict in miniature. Primed to see the supernatural in these events, the Greek onlookers assume that the result will tell them something about their own fate.
Eventually, the rabbit finds itself in Styx’s jaws, to the triumphant cheering of the Greeks. However, two Persian archers step forward and shoot arrows into the dog, and Styx writhes and dies, to Hound’s anguish. At once, the Medes begin launching arrows toward the Greeks, and the Thespaians charge toward the Medians with their spears. The orderly ranks and files instantly transform into “a roiling mass of manslaughter.”
The result of the chase is ambiguous; both hare and dog come to a sad end, and the Persians use this diversion to wade at once into battle. The tension has broken, and the bloodshed begins.
Before his men enter the fray, Dienekes addresses them. He repeatedly recalls the men’s eyes to him, away from the fighting. He tells them that the Persian forces are already cracking and will soon cave. Soon, the Spartans wade into the melee, relieving the exhausted Thespaians. Dienekes’ prediction is correct—the Persians’ light shields can’t stand up to the Spartans’ heavy ones. The Medians are skirmishers; the Spartans’ heavy phalanx formation takes a brutal toll on them. Soon, the Medians are flinging themselves suicidally at the Spartans. And as their ranks repeatedly replenish themselves, the tide begins to turn in their favor. Only the narrow passage onto the battlefield stops them from overrunning the Spartans. Xeo loses track of Dienekes’ whereabouts and steps in to help where he can.
Dienekes constantly fights to keep his men from giving in to fear. The Spartans, though numerically inferior, have many advantages over the Persians, such as their weapons and relentless phalanx tactics—pushing as a massive unit into the more lightly armed, less unified enemy. However, the Persian forces are so massive that they continually replace their fallen men with new ones and are able to effectively resist the Spartan advance.
Out of sheer discipline, the Spartan ranks manage to re-form. Though they are at the brink of annihilation, they yield to “those homely acts of order which Dienekes had ever declared the supreme accomplishment of the warrior,” not just individually but as a unit, each warrior knowing and fulfilling his role.
The Spartans have been so relentlessly drilled in various scenarios that even when their ranks are broken, they remember their roles and what ordinary steps to take in order to keep pushing forward. This is key to their ability to resist succumbing to fear.
Dienekes has always sought to de-mystify war by regarding it as “work.” As brave as the Medes are, and as well-suited to warfare on the open plains of Asia, they are ill-prepared to face the endlessly drilled cohesion of the Spartans. As Xeo searches the field for Dienekes, he is nearly overcome by the horror surrounding him. Finally, he manages to rejoin his master’s platoon. As the Spartans continue to heave toward the enemy, Xeo presses into the back of one of the men. They advance “not in a mobbed disordered charge shouting like savages, but dead silent […] with a dread deliberateness in time to the pipers’ keening wail.” Meanwhile, the desperate Median arrows block the sight of the sky and make the air seem to vibrate. But the Persian forces are getting pressed back so effectively that many are toppling off the narrow mountain path and into the sea below. Even Xerxes is horrified as he watches.
The Spartans continue to do what they have trained over and over, hoping to overpower the Persians by sheer discipline and power. Though his job is to tend to Dienekes in the fighting, he makes himself useful wherever he can and finds himself in the midst of the fray, too. It seems indeed that the Persians are beginning to crack, as they can’t maintain their steady pouring of men into the battlefield and begin to be forced into the sea.
Xeo eventually finds Dienekes and Alexandros, collapsed in exhaustion on the ground, as the platoon is relieved by allied units. Dienekes has lost his left eye. As Xeo tends to his injured master, he watches Polynikes shouting in triumph at the fleeing enemy, “Not today!”
The war has an immense cost; Dienekes is already gravely wounded. Polynikes, however, seems to be in his element, taunting the enemy. His brazen attitude in the face of danger demonstrates the courage that soldiers must embody in order to fight successfully.