The preceding account was given to Xerxes prior to the burning of Athens. That was six weeks after the victory at Thermopylae. At this time, Xeo’s health suffers a reverse. Seeing the fate of Athens has distressed him badly. He inquires after Diomache and her temple, but no one can tell him anything. Meanwhile, Xerxes is anticipating a climactic sea battle with the Greeks the following day. Gobartes, the historian, is summoned to prepare to record events at Xerxes’ side. However, he stays with Xeo until the last moment. Xeo relaxes when he hears that the priestesses of Persephone had evacuated across the bay. He knows he’s fading, and he wishes to dictate as much as he possibly can before he dies.
Xeo finishes giving his account about six weeks after the battle at Thermopylae has taken place. The Persians have since destroyed Athens, and Xeo takes a turn for the worse, seeing the heart of Greek culture under attack. He also fears for his cousin. Xeo has endeared himself to Xerxes’ staff through the whole ordeal and he also wants to finish the task he believes Apollo has set for him.
Xeo returns to the action of the morning at the last morning at Thermopylae. The dead and injured raiders have to be let down the cliff on ropes. Barely a hundred Spartan Peers are still alive, and they are arming themselves and “dressing their hair, preparing to die.” When they bury Alexandros, Polynikes comments that Alexandros was “the best of us all.”
Even though they now they’re dying, the Spartans still uphold their code, taking care to look as well-groomed as possible before the end. Polynikes has complete reversed his position on Alexandros after seeing him fight, also suggesting how much he’s grown as a character.
The Ten Thousand have now been spotted. They have encircled the Spartans and now stand six miles to their rear. Leonidas has dismissed the allies to safety. Rooster, too, is pulling out, eagerly accepting the liberty that Leonidas has granted him. He promises to report on Alexandros’s bravery. He also reports that Leonidas has released all squires from service as well. Dienekes has never compelled Xeo’s service. But Xeo refuses to leave. Rooster points out that Rooster owes Sparta nothing, and he has a wife and children. But Xeo tells him that the decision had been made long before. Dienekes tells Rooster, “He never had good sense.”
Leonidas doesn’t hold the allies and squires to the same expectations as the Spartan warriors—they’re free to go rather than making a last stand that will certainly result in their deaths. While some take advantage of this, some, like Xeo, refuse to leave. Sparta is truly his city now, even though he has a family elsewhere.
The Thespaians, many freed Spartans squires and helots, and some other allies have also refused to pull out. Even Suicide stays, determined to keep fighting even though he’s gravely wounded. The army reconfigures and begins to assemble. A Persian herald arrives, including Ptammitechus. He calls that Xerxes doesn’t want their lives, only their arms. Leonidas calls back, “Tell him to come and get them.” That ends the exchange.
Xerxes gives the Spartans a last chance to change their minds, but in a characteristically “Spartan” quip, Leonidas refuses. Everyone who’s still there fully expects to die.
Leonidas addresses his men. He tells them that if they had withdrawn today, it would have been seen as a defeat. It would have sent Greece the message that resisting the Persians is futile. While it might have saved Spartan lives, it would have caused one Greek city after another to fall. But, he says, by dying here with honor, “in the face of these insuperable odds, we transform vanquishment into victory.” Their role is to stand and die; it’s up to the rest of Greece to create the final victory.
Leonidas has likely known all along that the battle would come to this. The deaths of the Spartans won’t result in actual victory, but it will be a symbolic one. It’s meant to give the rest of Greece the courage to follow the Spartan example of resistance.
Leonidas then invites anyone else to speak who wishes. Several men step forward to give short speeches ranging from moving to humorous. When Polynikes gets up to speak, he cries. He holds up the shield that has been passed down through his family. He has sworn, he said, to die before another man takes this shield from his hand. But now he walks to an obscure Thespaian warrior and hands over his shield. Soon, more and more men are exchanging shields and helmets. Different arms and cloaks “[intermingle] until all distinction between the nations had been effaced.”
The allies, squires, and helots don’t have to die here—they are free to go, but many have chosen to die alongside the Spartans. This so moves Polynikes that he hands over his beloved shield. Many others follow his example, symbolically demonstrating that they’re not just a Spartan army, but a Greek army. This also explains Xeo’s mixed-up variety of gear when he’s later discovered by the Persians.
The men call upon Dienekes to speak, expecting something witty. But instead he tells the men, “Forget every concept, however noble, that you imagine you fight for here today. Act for this alone: for the man who stands at your shoulder.”
After his discovery about fearlessness and love, Dienekes no longer tries to motivate the men with anything besides loyalty to one another.
Leonidas speaks final words to the Spartans alone. He tells them that, many years from now, people will come to examine the Spartan landscape for some clue to its inhabitants. They won’t find great structures or art; what they do here today is all that will remain of the Spartans. Then they hear Persian trumpets in the distance. Leonidas encourages his men to eat a good breakfast, “for we’ll all be sharing dinner in hell.”
The Spartans are different from other Greek city-states; they don’t boast the visible achievements one would find in, for instance, Athens. But by dying here today, the Spartans will enable Greece as a whole to carry on and flourish.