In great footsteps: Herodotus in Ancient Greece

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This is, quite literally, a nightmare walk. Surrounded by mountains studded with oaks and pines beneath a blue winter sky, I’m walking in the footsteps of Ephialtes, one of history’s most infamous traitors, high above the site of one of the greatest battles the world has ever seen. This is a man whose shocking treachery was so reviled by Greeks that his name means “nightmare” today, almost 2,500 years after his dastardly act at Thermopylae.

Rewind to August 480BC. Our guide to the world-changing events that sweltering summer is the incomparable Herodotus, fifth-century BC Father of History. His masterpiece Histories tells the story of the Persian Wars. It tells of many other things besides, from beard-growing priestesses to dog-headed men and gold-digging ants, but here we will stick to his description of the battle of Thermopylae, the great Greek stand against the Persian invaders.

To the west of this narrow pass, bounded by the Aegean Sea to the north and cliffs to the south, was the Persian Great King Xerxes with his bristling expeditionary force of 200,000. Any invading army from the north had to cross Thermopylae. Defending the pass to his east was the defiant Spartan-led resistance of around 6,000 men under King Leonidas. The odds, you could say, were stacked against the Greeks.

Xerxes camped outside the pass waiting for the inevitable surrender. As none came, a messenger was sent to Leonidas, ordering him to surrender his arms. Back came the reply: “Molon labe!” (“Come and get them!” – today the motto of the Greek First Army Corps). Three Persian units, including the feared Immortals, were sent into the pass. Each attack was routed. Xerxes’ blood was boiling.

At this point Ephialtes made his betrayal. He told the Persian king, “in the hope of a rich reward”, of a crescent-shaped mountain path which led inland over the hills to the east of Leonidas’s position at Thermopylae. If the Persians took it, Leonidas would be encircled, his resistance over. The gate to Greece would be wide open.

The rest was history. In one of the world’s first special forces operations, a Persian detachment of Immortals under their commander Hydarnes marched along the path overnight, defeated a small local guard force in the hills, descended on to the plain and, together with their comrades, overwhelmed Leonidas’s men.

Hunting down the track today is no easy matter. Bulldozers have been at work, trees cut down and roads criss-cross Mount Kallidromos. No surprise academics do not agree on the precise route. Herodotus, for his part, sounds pretty clear. “The track begins at the Asopos, the stream which flows through the narrow gorge, and, running along the ridge of the mountain – which, like the track itself, is called Anopaea – ends at Alpenos, the first Locrian settlement as one comes from Malis ... ”

My hike begins a little west of the Asopos in the village of Vardates on the Malian Plain. Rising above me, almost white in the pounding sunlight, are the limestone Trachinian cliffs. Beyond that to the south looms lofty Mount Kallidromos. I have another, more detailed, guide and map in the form of an academic paper by Paul Wallace, who in 1977 recreated the Immortals’ overnight march, setting off at 9pm and descending to the site of the last stand of the Greeks by 11am the next morning.

Once the lung-busting rigours of the initial ascent are over, the walk is magnificent, giving panoramic views over a wild and desolate landscape. There are times, walking along serene plateaux, stepping in and out of patches of melting snow, disturbed only by the occasional tinkling of cowbells and the gentle buzz of flies, when it feels as though you have stepped into a scene of total Alpine tranquillity. Shafts of sunlight steal through forests of Kermes oak, illuminating cobwebs delicately suspended between branches. A mosaic of orange and red leaves, veterans of the autumn, lie scattered underfoot. And what could be more appropriate on this route than the Judas Tree – Cercis siliquastrum – which “bleeds” pink blossoms each spring.

It is only when the country opens out, and you stare down to the gates of the pass at Thermopylae from the height of the ridge along Nevropolis, that you understand the topography of the Immortals’ outflanking manoeuvre and get a sense of the pure brilliance of Ephialtes’s treachery. Leonidas didn’t stand a chance. The sea has retreated several miles from the base of the mountains over the course of two and a half millennia, making the once narrow pass much wider, but you can well imagine Xerxes’ compelling need to force a breakthrough.

My favourite spot is not up in the mountains, spectacular as they are, but down below on the Malian Plain at the diminutive Kolonos Hill. Figs, olives and oaks cluster around protectively. Oleander and laurel are planted around the plaque bearing the immortal Simonides epigram that Ruskin considered the noblest set of words ever uttered by man.

Go tell the Spartans, passer-by, That here, by Spartan law, we lie.

It is the end of the route and it was the end, too, for Leonidas and his 300 Spartans, the place where, unflinching, they made their valiant – and doomed – last stand. Herodotus describes how, after their spears and swords were shattered, the overrun Spartans fought to the death with hands and teeth. The heroic defeat galvanised the Greeks, an inspirational spur to victory over the Persians, which duly gave birth to western civilisation.

Across the busy highway that links Athens to Thessaloniki is a statue of Leonidas, his spear raised, poised for battle. Tour buses stop here regularly, disgorging lines of visitors who troop to its base, digital cameras bleeping.

And what of Ephialtes? Herodotus tells us the Spartans put a price on his head and he was later bumped off. All of which hides an inconvenient truth for the Greeks, according to Paul Cartledge of Cambridge University, my Herodotean friend and collaborator, author of the magisterial study Thermopylae.

“It’s convenient to blame it all on Ephialtes, to have a traitor who’s considered exceptional … but in fact most Greeks were on the same side as Ephialtes,” he notes. “Only 31 of about 700 cities in the Aegean Greek world actively resisted the Persians. Up there in the mountains, Thermopylae was bound to end in defeat.”

For those who fancy a long hot soak after this dramatic expedition, a soothing surprise awaits. Thermopylae means “Hot Gates” in ancient Greek, and the bubbling sulphur springs are still there, collected into a steaming pool nearby. It’s the perfect end to a nightmarish walk.

Justin Marozzi is the author of ‘The Man Who Invented History: Travels with Herodotus’ (John Murray)

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