Tuesday, November 16, 2004
Quote of the Day
"We will find a way, or make one."
-- Hannibal, 217 BC or thereabouts
It's an inspiring thought, particularly the way he meant it. Hannibal became the dread enemy of the Roman legions, winning battle after battle... and in more than one case, he did it by doing what nobody believed he could do.
For example, the Romans were certain that crossing the Alps with an army was impossible. Difficult it certainly was; Hannibal's army suffered many hardships crossing the Alps, losing many men and all but one of Hannibal's great war elephants. But the result was a major enemy force where the Romans believed none could be... and the battle of Cannae.
An even more dramatic victory was won at Trasimene (or Thrasymenus) in 217 BC, the year before Cannae, when Hannibal somehow got Roman legions (under the command of Consul Flaminius) to march along a narrow beach in a thick fog. With high cliffs on one side and the ocean on the other, Hannibal attacked from the front, rear, and flank, killing many thousands of Roman soldiers (including Flaminius himself). Many Romans were simply forced into the ocean, where they drowned under the weight of their own armor.
I've gotten curious about some of these epic battles after reading about the Battle of Thermopylae (circa 480 BC), in which 300 hand-picked Spartans (and their support troops) held off a Persian army, two million strong, for seven days. It was a suicide mission from the beginning; the Spartan Three Hundred knew that none of them would survive. But their delaying action made it possible to fortify the major cities of Greece; and, perhaps even more importantly, their sacrifice against overwhelming odds rallied the Greeks and unified them, as little else could possibly have done.
It's a humbling thought -- three hundred warriors, including their own King, marching to their own certain deaths and fighting with such amazing bravery that their story, and their names, are remembered to this day, 2500 years later. (Herodotus records that, by reputation, the Persian archers under Xerxes were so incredibly numerous that their volleys of arrows blocked out the sun! But when the Spartans were told this, the warrior Dieneces retorted, "Good. Then we'll fight them in the shade.")
Two memorials stand to the Spartans at Thermopylae. One is a monument to King Leonidas of Sparta, who fought and died there with his troops. A Persian messenger called on the Spartans to lay down their arms; the monument records Leonidas's reply: "Molon labe". ("Come and get them.")
The other memorial, the contemporary one, is an epitaph for the Three Hundred, and is perhaps the most stirring and best-known military epitaph in history. Written by the poet Simonides of Ceos (556BC - 468BC), a modern translation of it reads:
Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,respectfully,
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.
Daniel in Brookline