Gillian Bouras
An Australian
Writer
Living in Greece

February 2016

Well, January went quickly, mainly because of generally mild winter weather. We may not be so lucky this month: the first visit my parents paid to the village house took place in February. A memorable time, and now so long ago. My youngest son, Alexander, was a baby, we had to cope with the usual quota of cloth nappies that were generally to be found airing near the wood stove, and it rained solidly for four weeks. And with none of your Melbourne/London drizzle. (My father moaned monotonously about the loss of sunny Greece.) Need I say more? Except that this rain is often the February pattern: so good for the olive trees, say the farmers.

It’s fair to say that I am still re-living the trip we made en famille in December. And how could I have forgotten to write last month that before we got to Trikala we made a slight detour in order to take in the site of the Battle of Thermopylae, which took place in 480 BC? This battle was part of a mighty and prolonged struggle between an alliance of Greek city-states and the colossal empire of Persia. Combat lasted for three days, and was very uneven in strength, as the Greeks had about 7000 men, 10,000 at the most, and the Persians, at a conservative modern estimate, had at least 70,000.

It has been written that history is chiefly the history of great men. We’ve revised this view now, fortunately, but in ancient times it was generally a fair statement to make. And the great man remembered from this battle is, of course, Leonidas, king of Sparta, and leader of the 300 gallant defenders of the narrow pass at Thermopylae, the Hot Gates, named for the hot springs near by. At one point emperor Xerxes demanded that the Spartans and their supporters surrender their arms. Leonidas’s defiant reply has rung down the centuries: Μολωνλαβε! Come and take them! He and his men were betrayed by one Ephialtes, who showed the Persians another route through the pass, and so Leonidas and his men fought to the death. Not for nothing did Spartan mothers instruct their sons who were to go to war: H ταν η επι τας / With your shield or on it. And it is surely no coincidence that the word ephialtes means nightmare in Modern Greek.

The topography of the area has changed a great deal since ancient times. Because of the silting up of the Gulf of Malia, and a certain amount of land reclamation, the scene of the battle is now some distance from the coastline, which was not the case in 480 BC. But the pass itself is apparently much as it was, and in 1941 Allied forces mounted a defensive action there as part of the unsuccessful attempt to repel Nazi invaders.

Up until a few years ago, the very impressive memorial to Leonidas was by the side of the main road. Now there is a new main road, so we had to make a slight detour. I had already seen the site at a distance, and I remember Alexander telling me soon afterwards that the memorial was the result of private effort: ‘You can’t rely on governments to do that sort of thing.’ Sure enough, we discovered that one Harry Bouras, a Greek-American, had appropriately rallied 300 of his friends, acquaintances, and other interested parties to contribute to his project, which was finished in the 1950s. (We have no idea whether there is a family connection, but Bouras is indeed a Peloponnesian name.) My grandsons were impressed. And were also impressed by the Museum, which explains the events of the battle in minute detail and computerised displays.

The large bronze statue gazes towards the battle-field. Two figures in repose at the base of the memorial are named Eurotas and Taygetus, after the river and the mountain range of Laconia province, where the capital Sparta is located. In the 1960s, the inhabitants of Sparta followed the Thermopylae example, and erected a similar statue of Leonidas, which is near the ruins of ancient Sparta. It is easier to get close to than the one at the battlefield, and is strangely moving: Leonidas holds a large shield and gazes towards his snow-topped mountains, the Taygetus.

I have been told about Steven Pressfield’s historical novel Gates of Fire, but confess I have not read it. But it seems that it is compulsory reading for the Army, Navy and Marine Academy students in the United States. All those time-honoured ideas of patriotism, sacrifice, and defence of one’s native soil. A weapon of indoctrination and propaganda if ever there was one. Or so I imagine.

All these memories of not so long ago. And I haven’t even got on to the monasteries of Meteora and the city of Ioannina yet!

Gillian Bouras

 

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