The Last Stands of History
By Brendan Wilson
In the film 300, the last stand of Leonidas is depicted in a scene of machismo and gratuitous violence. Gerard Butler, cast as the famed Spartan King, leads a troop of 300 Spartans to the narrow pass at Thermopylae in an ill-fated effort to repel an immense Persian invasion force. They all die fighting.
Throughout history, the Battle of Thermopylae, like the Battle of the Alamo many centuries later, has come to symbolize bravery, resilience, and defiance in the face of overwhelming odds and near certain death. This month, this somber tradition grows to include the Mariupol soldiers surrounded in the Azovstal steel plant.
For more than a month, Vladimir Putin’s army has reduced the city to rubble through medieval siege warfare. A hailstorm of Russian missiles has turned a once bustling industrial center to ruins. Ukrainian officials report more than 20,000 civilian casualties. Satellite images reveal a macabre tableau of flattened buildings and mass graves. The red cross has described the situation as “apocalyptic.” Three quarters of the population has fled.
Last week, Russia proudly declared the city “liberated” after taking control of most of its territory. To snuff out the last embers of resistance, Putin ordered a blockade of the steel plant so tight that “a fly couldn’t pass.” Bombs have failed, so he intends to starve them out.
As with the Spartans and Texans whose experience they now share, these defiant few have resisted threats and ultimatums, choosing to stand their ground against an aggressor with more soldiers, more resources, and more firepower.
“What you’re seeing is the effect of the Alamo. Mariupol has become like the Alamo. It’s a surrounded fortress just being bombed,” noted retired Admiral James Stavridis. Bloomberg’s Mark Gongloff added that Mariupol “could soon join history’s pantheon of other inspirational lost causes, from Thermopylae to the Alamo.”
In 480 BC, Persian King Xerxes I marched his enormous army of 150,000 across the Hellespont in a quest to add Greece to its growing empire. In response, King Leonidas was put at the head of a Greek coalition army of 7,000 professional fighters and given the impossible task of resisting the invasion.
Understanding the enemy’s size, he wisely chose to position force at Thermopylae. Greek for “hot gates”, the mountainous pass narrowed to a width of about 30 feet, forming a chokepoint that would mute the Persian numeric advantage.
Before the battle, the Persians shouted their final ultimatum, “Lay down your arms or face certain death.” “Molon labe," the Greeks replied. "Come get them!"
Despite being vastly outnumber and subjected to volley after volley of Persian arrows that “block[ed] out the sun,” the Greeks held the pass for two days. But on the third day, they were betrayed by an informant who led the Persians around the pass, effectively encircling the Greek army. Alerted to the deception, Leonidas ordered the bulk of his army to retreat, choosing to remain and defend the pass with only 300 Spartan soldiers.
Ancient historian Herodotus recounts in his Histories that Leonidas and his men had accepted their fate. “Men, tonight we dine in Hades!” By the end of the day, each one had fallen, but not before inflicting disproportionate losses.
It is possible that the battle of Thermopylae was on the minds of Alamo commanders James Bowie and William Travis, who two millenia later peered over the fort’s walls at more than 1,500 heavily armed Mexican soldiers led by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana. Having chosen not to heed Army Commander Sam Houston's earlier calls to abandon the fort, they now knew that their 200 poorly armed volunteer fighters would not be able to hold off Santa Ana’s professional army for long.
In February 1836, the Mexicans began to rain artillery fire on the Alamo. For nearly two weeks, the Texans inflicted hundreds of casualties as the invaders tried and failed repeatedly to scale the mission’s fortifications. Finally, on the thirteenth day, the walls were breached, and the fort was overrun. Santa Ana ordered all men killed, including the famous frontiersman Davy Crockett.
In both battles, men both outgunned and outmanned made the choice to die fighting for a cause. They were motivated less by hatred of the enemy and more by honor and the love of their country, their code, and their way of life. The Spartans were willing to die fighting for Sparta, the Texans for an independent Texas.
In history’s latest rhyme, these 2,000 Ukrainians have made a defiant statement to a Russian tsar that has repeatedly asserted that Ukraine is not a “real country,” culturally and historically distinct from Russia. The sacrifice of Ukraine's fallen blows a hole in this argument.
It is important to remember that the last stands at Thermopylae and the Alamo were not for naught. In both cases, they stood as symbols that spurred their sides to later triumph. Cornell Classics professor Barry Strauss notes that the battle of Thermopylae served as "a symbol of resistance, a symbol of determination, a symbol that the Greeks would not give in.” “Remember the Alamo!” became the Texan rallying cry that lifted a depleted volunteer army to an unlikely victory over Santa Ana in the year after the Alamo fell.
The free world now watches events unfolding in Ukraine. We are justly revolted by the carnage but hopeful that an outmatched military can harness the inspiration drawn from the stand at Mariupol and prevail over evil.
Subscribe for FREE to be emailed future posts!
Battle of thermopylae 480 BCE. World History Encyclopedia. (n.d.). Retrieved April 25, 2022, from https://www.worldhistory.org/image/1134/battle-of-thermopylae-480-bce/
Bloomberg. (n.d.). Bloomberg.com. Retrieved April 25, 2022, from https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2022-04-21/mariupol-s-agonizing-and-brutal-siege-may-be-as-historic-as-thermopylae
History.com Editors. (2010, March 4). Battle of the Alamo. History.com. Retrieved April 25, 2022, from https://www.history.com/topics/mexico/alamo
Press, T. A. (2022, April 23). Ukraine says Russian forces try to Storm Mariupol Steel Plant. NPR. Retrieved April 25, 2022, from https://www.npr.org/2022/04/23/1094471660/ukraine-russia-mariupol-steel-plant