In 480 B.C. the forces of the Persian Empire under King Xerxes, numbering according to Herodotus two million men, bridged the Hellespont and marched in their myriads to invade and enslave Greece.
In a desperate delaying action, a picked force of three hundred Spartans was dispatched to the pass off Thermopylae, where the confined between mountains and sea were so narrow that the Persian multitudes and their cavalry would be at least partially neutralized. Here, it was hoped, an elite force willing to sacrifice their lives could keep back, at least for a few days, the invading millions.
Three hundred Spartans and their allies held off the invaders for seven days, until, their weapons snagged and broken from slaughter, they fought “with bare hands and teeth” (as recorded by Herodotus) before being at last overwhelmed.
The Spartans and their Thespian allies died to the last man, but the standard of valor they set by their sacrifice inspired the Greeks to rally and, in that fall and spring, defeat the Persians at Salamis and Plataea and preserve the beginnings of western democracy and freedom from perishing in the cradle.
Upon the modern memorial at Thermopylae, called the Leonidas monument in honor of the Spartan king who fell there, is engraved his response to Xerxes’ demand that the Spartans lay down their arms. Leonidas’ reply was two words, “Molon labe”. “Come and get them.”