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Author:
William Golding
Last Updated:
07/01/02
Title:
"The Hot Gates"

I had lunch in Lamia, a provincial town of Thessaly which lies on the route south to Athens. Most people go through Lamia without stopping, but I was following the route of the Persian invasion, that spectacular combined operation of almost twenty-five hundred years ago.

I had come down past Olympus and through the Vale of Tempe, which a classical atlas in my hand that made no mention of Lamia; so when I came unexpectedly on the town at midday, I rejoiced and thought of food. As Greek food goes, I was lucky. The time was early April, and outside every house people were grouped round an open fire. They had the Easter lamb spitted and were turning the repulsive, naked thing over the coals, hour after hour. So I ordered Easter lamb in the certainty of knowing what I would get; and it was so.

I drank ouzo as an apéritif, dribbling it into a tumbler of water. It tasted like licorice and looked like milk. They say you can't drink Greek water without getting typhus, but I did. There's no other way of drinking ouzo, and if you don't drink ouzo as an apéritif in a Greek provincial town, you go without.

Lamia central square was hot and dusty. The tables of the one restaurant spilled out on the pavement in the shade of some small trees. I managed to stop the waiter bringing me some of the wine of the country. This is retsina, which should be drunk once and avoided thereafter. It stinks of resin and tastes like paint remover. You must insist on an island wine, Rodos, say, or Demestica, which I got that day and liked.

It was in these parts, in 480 B.C., that the Persian army had been held up for a few days on its way to Athens. South of Lamia, the river Spereheios has cut a valley athwart the invasion route, and the road must crawl round the corner on the other side of the valley between the cliffs and the sea. Sitting beneath a tree, and drinking my Demestica, I thought about Athens and Persia, and the hot springs that bubble out of the cliff where the road is narrowest, so that the Greeks call it the Hot Gates. I thought of myself too—dreaming for twenty years of coming here, poring over ancient maps; and now faced with the duty and necessity of trying to understand.

I had seen the valley of the Spercheios when I entered Lamia, had glimpsed the vast wall of rock five thousand feet high on the other side of the valley, which lay between me and Athens. Athens was shining Athens, the Athens of history, shining in the mind. Yet when the Persian Xerxes, King of Kings, drove his army at her, she did not shine. At that time she was little but a thorn in his side, a small city which had insisted on running her own affairs—and had an odd knack of encouraging cities which ought to bow to the King of Kings to do the same.

Athens needed thirty years, and then she would shine as no city had shone before or has shone since. For all her faults she would take humanity with her a long, long step—but on that day she was nothing but a pain in the neck of the King of Kings, who had the greatest army in the world poised at her last gate.

I had café turque in a minute cup—one third black liquid and two thirds sludge, a delightful combination—and Greek 'Cognac.' If you have begun with ouzo, do not finish with Greek 'Cognac.' Even when separated by Demestica, they strike on each other like a match on the matchbox and produce a flame that does not readily die out.

I had my 'Cognac,' and being English (mad dogs and Englishmen), marched out into the midday sun while the rest of Greece went sensibly to sleep. I sat down under an olive tree on the north side of the valley, where Xerxes may have stood to consider the small remaining problem before him. Mine was different. I had to re-create his problem. The spercheios has brought so much mud down the valley that fields have pushed miles out into the sea. Where there was once a narrow pass, there is now room for road and rail, and fields that lap around the corner.

I went back for my car and drove down into the little valley and across the plain. A new motor road lies across it and sweeps around the corner where the old Hot Gates had lain between the cliffs and the sea. The road was unsurfaced, and in the rear-view mirror I saw the great white cloud of dust that hung in the air behind me until it settled on the crops.

The Hot Gates were deserted. I came to an avenue and then to a group of mean-looking buildings huddled among trees. I drove in, but of course there was no one about. It was a spa, I supposed, and as far as I was concerned, on that burning afternoon, anyone who wanted a hot bath—with native sulphur—was welcome to it. I sat in the car and considered that history has left not a trace of scar on this landscape.

At the time of the Persian invasion, when the sea came close to these cliffs, the narrow track had held seven thousand men—Spartans, Thebans, Locrians, Thespians, Phocians—who watched one another as much as they watched the enemy. Greece to the south was in a turmoil as the Persians marched toward it. What to do? Whom to trust? What to believe? The track that summer was thick with dusty messengers bearing appeals for help, or accusations, or denials, or prayers to the gods. In any event, with Xerxes only a few miles away, there was a mixed force to hold the track—groups sent by the cities of Greece, and small groups at that. No city dared strip itself of troops.

Was there no memorial left? I drove out of the avenue and found one man awake at last. He was a goatherd carrying a thumbstick and a whistle. His goats were a tumultuous jumble of horns, of black and brown fur with ruffs and edgings of white, and staring, yellow, libidinous eyes. You see these herds in Greece as you may see flocks of sheep on a country road in England. Each goat has its bell, and the tinny concert, half-heard from the side of a mountain, is one of the evocative sounds of Greece. I asked him about the Hot Gates, and he pointed forward along the road. Then he turned aside with his goats and they began to file off and scatter up the side of the cliffs.

I drove on to the Hot Gates proper, where once there had been room for no more than one wagon at a time. Sure enough, there was a memorial, level with the place where that mixed force had once stood in the pass, a nineteenth-century monument, grandiose and expensive. When the battle was fought, the place where the monument stands was out in the sea.

Nature has not done her best here for the story of that battle. The Vale of Tempe would have been in a better place, and there are a hundred haunted spots in Greece where the setting would be more striking and the drama more obvious. Quiet, crop-fledged fields lie between the cliffs and the sea, with the scar of the motor road on them. The slopes and cliffs, though sprinkled with shrubs and flowers, aromatic in the hot sun, are arid with outcroppings of rock. There is dust everywhere. Little gullies leading back into the cliffs are marked with low stone walls that look ancient but are recent structures made by farmers and goatherds. If you go to the Hot Gates, take some historical knowledge and your imagination with you.

Just at the mouth of one of these gullies, I came across a mound. It was not very imposing to look at. The Greeks have planted it with laurels; but laurels planted recently in Greece never seem to be doing very well. There are some by the Springs of Daphne, some on the field of Marathon, some at Delphi—and they all look sheepish and a bit scruffy. But it was here, by this very mound, that the mixed force led by Leonidas and his three hundred Spartans came to hold the pass.

Standing by the dusty mound on that April afternoon, in the deserted landscape, where the only sound was an occasional clatter from the laurel leaves in a hot gust of wind, I wondered what Leonidas made of it all. He was, like all the Spartans, a dedicated soldier. But what did he think? As he looked north, where Lamia now lies on the hills across the valley, he must have heard the sound of quarreling at his back. That is the one certain thing—the mixed force was quarrelling.

You can imagine the sullen afternoon lengthening, the ribaldry, the sudden shouts, perhaps even the clash of arms, the mutter of men who had to do as they were told but knew better than their leaders, the cynical laughter of men who had no faith in anything because Greece behind the wall—Athens, Sparta, Thebes and the rest—was at war not only with Persia but with itself. Then there had come a flash and glitter from the flank of the mountain across the valley.

Mark that Leonidas did not know how Athens needed thirty years to blossom. For him, Sparta, that dull, cruel city, shone brighter than Athens. But as the Persian army seeped down from a dozen pathways into the valley, and the mixed force fell silent at his back, it must have been some inarticulate and bitter passion for freedom as he knew it that kept him there, sullen and fiercely determined as he gazed across the plain.

No man had ever seen anything like this army before. It was patently unstoppable. It came along the neck of the hills on the banks of the Asopus, from the heights of the mountain and along the coastal track from Alope and Phalara. Lengthening rivers of men—Persians in fish-scale armor, turbaned Cissians, bronze-clad Assyrians, trousered Scythians, Indian bowmen, Caspians, Sarangians in bright cloth and high-heeled boots—came down and spread in a flood that filled the plain. Soon there was nothing to see but rising clouds of white dust, pierced and speckled with the flicker of steel. If each of the seven thousand Greeks should kill his ten men, there would be more than enough to press forward—and this was only the vanguard.

At their back, stretching for league after league by Mounts Pelion and Ossa, back through the narrow gorge of the Peneus to the wide plain beneath Olympus, marched the main body of the Persian war machine: Arabs in robes and Negroes in leopard skins; leather-clad Libyans, Thracians with headdresses of foxpelt, Pisidians with their oxhide shields, Cabalians and Milyans, Moschians, Tibareni, Tacrones and Mossynoeci; Marians, Colchians with their wooden helmets, Alarodians, Saspires and Medes; and horses and oxen and mules. There were eighty thousand mounted bowmen and lancers, and chariots in a swarm no one could count.

What that assembly of nations heaved itself off the earth and marched, the ground shuddered like the head of a drum. When that assembly came to a swift Greek river and halted for miles along the bank to drink, the waters shrank to a few pools of mud. This was the army that seeped and flooded into the valley all day, and halted under its own dust before the narrow entrance of the Hot Gates.

Not a man in the pass could be sure that the rest of Greece really meant to fight. And if those panicky cities on the other side of the wall did combine, what could they do against such an army? And who could be sure that these lousy Thebans (or Thespians or Locrians, according to your own nationality) really meant to fight? Only the three hundred Spartans were calm, and even cheerful. They were soldiers, and nothing but soldiers, and this was what they were for.

Xerxes pitched his tent and set up his throne. He sent forward a scout. The Spartans saw the horseman coming but ignored him. They were bathing in the sulphur springs and combing their hair. The horseman came thumping along the plain by the shore. He came toward them and reined back his horse just out of bowshot. He balanced there on his rearing horse and peered sideways at the pass under his lifted hand. Then he wheeled away in dust and spurts of sand. The men in the pass saw him go to a kind of glittering mound, dismount and make his report.

Xerxes waited four days—and nothing happened. The men in the pass would not recognize the obvious. On the fifth day he sent forward a troop; and the result was a pushover for the Greeks. Every time the Persians thrust them back, the Greeks simply plugged the pass more completely. He sent forward his own bodyguard, the Company of Immortals, his best troops. They were defeated. For two days the Persians attacked, and the Greeks held them.

It is said that Xerxes leaped from his throne three times in terror for his whole army. Modern historians have found this incredibly, but I cannot see why. Communications between the wings of the army were primitive. At any moment, rumor could have sent those savage levies scrambling away into the mountains. If the soldiers immediately engaging the Greeks had run away, panic would have spread like a heath fire.

I strolled away from the cliff to where on the modern but colossal statue of Leonidas stands on its narrow plinth beside the road. He wears a helmet and sword belt, carries a shield, and threatens the mountains with a spear that quivers slightly in the brassy wind. I thought of the messages he sent during those two days. He needed reinforcements—as many as Greece could find. But that summer the roads were thick with messengers.

And then, of course, the inevitable traitor appeared from the wings.

I moved back and peered up at the cliffs. The traitor had led a Persian force over those cliffs at night, so that with day they would appear in the rear of the seven thousand in the pass. For years I had promised myself that I would follow that track. But I should have come twenty years earlier, with knapsack, no money, and plenty of breath. Yet twenty years ago I was fighting, too, and in as bitter a war. If I could climb cliffs less easily now, it was possible that I could understand war better.

I set myself to climb. The cliffs had a brutal grandeur. They were unexpectedly plainless and looked little like the smooth contours I had pored over on the map. The rocks here are igneous and do not fracture along predictable lines. I clambered up a slope between thorn bushes that bore glossy leaves. Their scent was pungent and strange. I found myself in a jumble of rocks cemented with thin soil, and I glimpsed over my head the dark hollow whence they had fallen. Goat bells clittered thinly to my right. There were coarse bushes and grass, and delicate flowers bowed down to the rock with bees. There were midges, there were butterflies, white, yellow, brown, and sudden wafts of spice that took the back of the nostrils in a sneezy grip.

I put out my hand to steady myself on a rock, and snatched it back again, for a lizard lay there in the only patch of sunlight. I edged away, kicked loose a stone, disturbed another with my shoulder so that a rivulet of the dust went smoking down under the bushes. The blinding sea, the snow mountains of Euboea were at my back, and the cliffs leaned out over me. I began to grope and slither down again. In a tangle of thick grass, flowers, dust and pungency, I heard another sound that paralyzed me, a sound as of a rope being pulled through the little jungle under the flowers. I saw a lithe body slip over a rock where there was no grass, a body patterned in green and black and brown, limbless and fluid.

I smiled wryly to myself. So much for the map, pored over in the lamplight of an English winter. I was not very high up, but I was high enough. I stayed there, clinging to a rock until the fierce hardness of its surface close to my eye had become familiar.

Suddenly, the years and the reading fused with the thing. I was clinging to Greece herself. Obscurely, and in part, I understood what it had meant to Leonidas when he looked up at these cliffs in the dawn light and saw that their fledgling of pines was not thick enough to hide the glitter of arms.

It was then—and by the double power of imagination and the touch of rock, I was certain of it—that the brooding and desperate thinking of Leonidas crystallized into one clear idea. The last pass was sold. If the rest of Greece beyond the wall did not unite and make its stand, the game was up. Leonidas knew now that he could make one last plea for that stand—a desperate plea, but one which those dull, dedicated Spartans were eminently fitted to give. I clambered and sweated down the cliffside to the place where he made it. He sent away most of his army but moved the Spartans out into the open, where they could die properly and in due form. The Persians came at them like waves of the sea. The Spartans retreated to make their last stand on a little mound.

To most of the Persian army, this must have meant nothing. There had been, after all, nothing but a small column of dust hanging under the cliffs in one corner of the plain. If you were a Persian, you could not know that this example would lead, next year, to the defeat and destruction of your whole army at the battle of Plataea, where the cities of Greece fought side by side. Neither you nor Leonidas nor anyone else could foresee that here thirty years' time was won for shining Athens and all Greece and all humanity.

The column of dust diminished. The King of Kings gave an order. The huge army shrugged itself upright and began the march forward into the Hot Gates, where the last of the Spartans were still fighting with nails and feet and teeth.

I came to myself in a great stillness, to find that I was standing by the little mound. This is the mound of Leonidas, with its dust and rank grass, its flowers and lizards, its stones, scruffy laurels and hot gusts of wind. I knew now that something real happened here. It is not just that the human spirit reacts directly and beyond all argument to a story of sacrifice and courage, as a wine glass must vibrate to the sound of a violin. It is also because, way back and at the hundredth remove, that company stood right in the line of history. A little of Leonidas lies in the fact that I can go where I like and write what I like. He contributed to set us free.

Climbing to the top of that mound by the uneven, winding path, I came on the epitaph, newly cut in stone. It is an ancient epitaph though the stone is new. It is famous for its reticence and simplicity—has been translated a hundred times but can only be paraphrased:

'Stranger, tell the Spartans that we behaved as they would wish us to, and are buried here.'

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