The day Xeo finished relating his tale, as transcribed by Gobartes, “in the bitter irony of God Ahura Mazda,” was the day that the Persian naval forces were defeated by the Greek fleet, which, “by its consequences for the supply and support of the army, doomed the entire campaign to disaster.” When the oracle of Apollo told the Athenians, “The wooden wall alone shall not fail you,” it had not referred to the palisade of the Acropolis, as they’d thought, but to the wall of ships’ hulls that stood fast against the Persian enemy.
As Xeo finishes his tale, the Persians suffer a devastating defeat. It turns out that the oracle, which the Athenians had misunderstood, was in their favor after all. This goes to show, once again, how tricky such supernatural phenomena can be; the gods indeed seem to be one step ahead of human understanding.
After the defeat, Xerxes is on a rampage, putting to the sword many officers of his own court. Mardonius instructs Gobartes to kill Xeo and destroy the transcripts of his story. When Gobartes finds Orontes to carry out this order, Orontes tells him that if he wants to live, he must disregard that order. Xerxes will eventually prevail and will ask to see Xeo and hear his story again. Later that evening, they speak to the feeble Xeo, hoping to sneak him out of His Majesty’s quarters. Xeo laughs at the thought that any of his friends remain alive to receive him.
Xerxes flies into a self-destructive rage in the face of defeat. His field marshal wants to kill Xeo, too, but Xeo’s newfound friends in Xerxes’ court don’t want that to happen and suspect Xerxes would later regret it, too. But Xeo also suspects he doesn’t have much left to live for.
Clearly wanting to delay the moment of execution, Orontes asks Xeo to tell the last bit of the story that remains untold—what Leonidas had to say about women’s courage. Xeo does so, as the story was originally told to Dienekes by Paraleia. This occurred a few evenings before the march to Thermopylae. Several wives and mothers of the Three Hundred had been asked to come to Dienekes’ and Arete’s house. When they had gathered, Paraleia began telling the group of a conversation she’d had earlier that day with Queen Gorgo, Leonidas’s wife, in secret.
There is still a last part of the tale to tell—the story of women’s courage which Dienekes had just hinted at earlier. Its origin is a bit convoluted. The story was originally told to Dienekes by Alexandros’s mother, Paraleia, who’d been summoned to meet with the king and queen at Dienekes’ house.
Gorgo tells Paraleia that Leonidas wants to speak to her about the double grief she bears, as wife and mother of warriors being sent to Thermopylae. But first Gorgo speaks to Paraleia from her own heart. She, herself, is daughter of one king and now wife to another. She says that few women understand the burdens of her station. She possesses her loved ones only in stewardship to Greece. The trial of all women, ordained by God, is “to abide with pain, to endure grief, to bear up beneath sorrow’s yoke and thus to endow others with courage.”
Queen Gorgo seeks out Paraleia, who, as wife to Olympieus and mother to Alexandros, bears perhaps the keenest grief of any Spartan woman before Thermopylae. Gorgo can sympathize with this. Spartan women, she tells Paraleia, can’t claim their loved ones for themselves. That’s because their job is fundamentally to give courage to others, not to indulge their own grief.
Paraleia is about to cry out in rage at this injustice when Leonidas himself comes in. He sits down with the two and asks Paraleia if she hates him; he would do so if the roles were reversed. The city is speculating, he explains, why Leonidas chose the Three Hundred—was it for their prowess, or due to bribery or some “subtle alchemy?” He will never tell them, but now he will tell Paraleia, “I chose them not for their own value, lady, but for that of their women.”
Leonidas honors Paraleia with a personal conversation, showing her his characteristic concern for equality as well as his deep empathy. He confides in her that he actually didn’t choose the Three Hundred warriors for themselves, as everyone has assumed. Again, women are shown to have tremendous influence in Sparta, even if it isn’t formally apparent.
Comforting Paraleia, Leonidas explains that if Greece saves herself at this hour, it won’t be at Thermopylae, but in later land and sea battles. Then Greece will preserve herself. This will happen because, after the Three Hundred have died, the Spartans will look to her and to the other wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters of the fallen. If they see heartbreak, they will break, too. But if they see endurance and honor, all of Greece will stand up behind them.
Leonidas reveals that even before marching out to Thermopylae, he already knew that destruction awaited them there. He prepares Paraleia for the heavy responsibility that awaits her and the other Spartan woman—it will actually fall upon them to save Greece through their character, much as they’ve already galvanized the Spartans for war already.
Leonidas tells Paraleia that she is now a mother of all of Greece, a task to which he appointed her because he believed she could bear it. At this, Paraleia loses her self-command and weeps bitterly. Leonidas comforts her like a loving father, and at last her grief spends itself. “Prompted by some unseen goddess,” she tells Leonidas, “Those were the last tears of mine, my lord, that the sun will ever see.”
Paraleia demonstrates the andreia for which she’s been celebrated earlier in the story—she has great self-composure and valor for the sake of those around her.