Xeo knows that Xerxes has no need for Xeo to recount the details of the final battle. However, he will recount some of the things which His Majesty might not have noticed. Because the Persians didn’t actually begin their assault until midday, Leonidas began by taking a relaxed and comfortable nap. He juxtaposes this with the memory of a corps of Spartans hurling themselves into the fray, later, to retrieve the fallen body of their commander. These images prompt Xeo to wonder, “of what does the nature of kingship consist?”
Leonidas is the perfect image of Spartan self-composure before the battle. He has such love for his men and such confidence in their training that he is perfectly at rest, even knowing they’re all about to die. His men’s corresponding love for him is shown by their determination to rescue his body.
Xeo tells Xerxes that a king doesn’t stay in his tent while his men bleed on the battlefield. He doesn’t eat while his men go hungry or command their loyalty through fear. He should command it through love and his willingness to sweat alongside them and even bear the harshest burdens. A king should serve his men, not they him.
Xeo recalls that in the moments before the final battle, Leonidas chatted with each of his generals. As he talked with Dienekes about their shared respect for the distant Persians, he expressed his sorrow for them: “What wouldn’t they give, the noblest among them, to stand here with us now?” Xeo tells Xerxes that this is a king—not one who enslaves men, “but by his conduct and example makes them free.” If Xerxes wonders why Xeo was willing to lay down his life for a country not his own, the answer is that they were his kin and country, and he and his fellow warriors were never freer than when they obeyed Sparta’s harsh laws.
Even on the brink of killing and being killed by Persians, Leonidas has compassion for them, observing that they would much prefer to enjoy the liberty for which the Spartans are fighting. This attitude exemplifies what makes Leonidas great. Xeo also refers to the laws of Sparta as those which “which take life and give it back again”—perhaps a reference to the Diomache’s goddess, Persephone.
Like Leonidas, Xeo dozes before the final battle, dreaming of his loved ones, especially Diomache, whom he can never overtake no matter how avidly he pursues her up a mountain slope leading heavenward. When he awakes, the Persians are a bowshot away. Xeo takes his place in the file, for the first time not carrying his bow but a fallen man’s spear, Alexandros’s shield, and the helmet and cap of other fallen Spartans. He fights alongside Suicide and Dienekes.
Xeo’s dream of Diomache suggests that she is not only out of his reach romantically, but that she’s even more profoundly beyond him spiritually. When Xeo wakes up, he finds himself taking the place of a Spartan warrior—something even beyond what he’d dreamed of as a boy.
Xeo recalls the timeless, inexorable tide of the fight, watching Leonidas’s corpse being heroically dragged from the fray. He killed an Egyptian warrior with his spear just as that man drove his own weapon into Xeo’s guts, Suicide hauling his injured body out of the fighting. As they go, Suicide’s foot is struck off, and he tells Xeo to carry him on his back, using Suicide’s body to shield himself. The battered, spent Spartans are being pushed back by the enemy.
Xeo recounts his own nearly mortal injury and Suicide’s selfless attempt to shield him from further harm, in keeping with his philosophy. The Spartans’ stand was clearly hopeless, but they are willing to resist to the very last.
About sixty defenders retreat to a knoll where there’s a weapons cache. Xeo finds a strap and cinches in his spilling guts. He marvels at the beauty of the day. Cavalry and the Persian Immortals are beginning to pour over the wall. Dienekes and another general goes down, not like a Homeric hero, but “like commanders completing their last and dirtiest job.” The remaining Spartans continue going after the enemy even when they have no more weapons; Polynikes grabs a Persian’s throat before he is shot down. A burning wagon rolls over Xeo’s legs. A seeming “hailstorm” of Persian arrows comes down ceaselessly on the few living Spartans.
Each of the Spartan heroes literally goes down fighting, in a way that matches his personality. Dienekes just does his job; Polynikes is fierce to the last. Xeo is completely disabled by his injuries, but he continues observing and marking everything that happens for posterity.