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Building the Bronze Wall

by James Bright

Adrastos sat heavily on the ground of the pass wiping sweat from his brow. Thermopylae — the Hot Gates — this land lived up to its name. Settled between a mountain and a shallow, marshy sea, Thermopylae had seemed the perfect place to face off with the Persian hordes.

Adrastos looked over to where his commander — no less than King Leonidas himself — was discussing something with two very animated locals. He thought, If there was a problem with the pass beside the infernal heat, why did they think it smart to wait until we were already here to come explaining it?

Adrastos watched the discussion break up, and a — to him, anyway — visibly unhappy Leonidas walked to where the soldiers were making camp.

At a gesture, Adrastos stood and walked to his warrior king. Adrastos ducked his head close to Leonidas’ ear, whispering, “What did the locals have to say, my lord?” Not that any non-Spartan would have something important to say.

In a calm but edged voice Leonidas replied, “There is apparently a way around us. It’s hard to find — would take a guide’s work for the Persians to discover — but it exists. They say only helots could get through, nothing like a full hoplite, and the Phocians say they will plug it for us. There shouldn’t be an unforeseen problem, but we should have been warned about this sooner.”

“Which Spartan would you like me to send to lead the Phocians, my Lord? I assume you’ve been thinking about this.” Adrastos had hoped, more than assumed, but it wouldn’t do any Spartan good to show hope.

“No one. I need all of you here on the front line to face the Persian horde.”

Chewing on this thought, more to keep from cursing than anything else, Adrastos replied, “You know the Phocians won’t be able to stand on their own against a Persian force; they focus too much on themselves and their own pride to stand united. They’ll fall like wheat to a helot’s scythe, or worse, mistakenly give the enemies free passage. Better that one of us leave the front to make sure they stand and fight than we end up taken from behind on a poor gamble.”

“Adrastos, heavy infantry will not make it through that pass, only light infantry. Do you truly doubt the Phocians that much?”

Thinking that his King was preoccupied with something else not to notice such a crucial detail, Adrastos replied, “That is not what you said, my Lord. You said helots could pass, but hoplites could not. Do you remember what the Athenians said ten years ago about their battle at Marathon? Our hoplites use bronze shields and heavy armor, but our Persian enemies use reeds for shielding, and wear padded armor, making them much lighter than we. Their heavy infantry most likely can make it through, my King!”

“If the Phocians face the might of Persia and run, then so be it. Adrastos, so long as I live our city is not safe. We will stand and fight here, pass or no pass, and if the gods demand we lose, at least we lose in the knowledge Sparta will stand.”

Adrastos couldn’t help thinking Not this horse dung again, Cleomenes bribed the Oracle for his own prophecy, why wouldn’t the barbarous Persians do the same? He managed to hold himself in check and said only, “That old prophecy? ‘Sparta will fall to the sons of Perseus or else all of Lacedaemon must mourn the loss of a king sprung from the line of Heracles.’

“Prophecies are supposed to be the word of the gods. They will happen no matter what we do, and there are better ways to fulfill prophecies than throwing away the defense of Greece without thinking of how to improve it first, my King.”

Leonidas looked appraisingly at Adrastos, as if he’d just started listening to his second-in-command’s words and was looking for the merit in the man who spoke them. “And do you have such a way in mind, Adrastos, beyond just sending one of our men to cover our backs?”

“Yes, my King.”

“Then let’s hear it.”

* * *

For the past three days Adrastos had been setting his defense, watching over the back route against Thermopylae and waiting for an event he hoped never came: the sight of Persian heavy infantry walking over the low hills lining the pass. Each night a messenger from the main line came with the daily report, the first two of which amounted to, “No sign of the Persians yet.”

The last night had brought the long-awaited news, “The Persians have begun arriving,” along with a description of the sight: large clouds of dust kicked up from the earth, blocking all but the silhouettes of any men.

Leonidas had encouraged the men to keep their courage by remarking, “See what luxury our enemies rely on? They can’t even march in the sun without trying to keep it off of them!”

Adrastos had been having enough troubles with his part, keeping the Phocians in line. The wait was getting to them, and the presence of a Spartan wasn’t enough to instill what only years of training created in a Spartan hoplite.

The Phocian men kept repeating the reports they had heard of the Persian army. “Over a million soldiers marching against us.” “We’ll never hold the pass if they all come for us.” Hearing such cowardice, it took Adrastos all his willpower not to make examples of the speakers to keep the rest in line.

Instead, he did his best to quell the obvious worry the Phocians had, stating for everyone to hear: “The Spartans don’t ask how many, simply where. If you wish to defend your people, you had best fight your hardest. Don’t let numbers get in the way of your duty to each other or to your people.” That seemed to calm the Phocians for the time being, but Adrastos knew that the hardest challenge would come when the Persians appeared in the pass.

* * *

The next three nightly reports were all the same: “Persian forces straggling in great numbers; dust clouds big enough to blot out the sun a constant sight on the horizon.” The Phocians’ morale was caught in a vise between sheer terror at the prospect of facing such an army and the utter boredom of waiting for action. It was the usual situation of any pitched battle and just the thing the Spartans were trained to deflect.

On the fourth night after the first Persian sightings, the report changed. “Contact made with the Persian army. Thousands of Persian light infantry and Immortals killed in battle. We have suffered minor casualties, but our Greek line remains.”

This news lifted the spirits of the Phocian soldiers. Not much, but just enough to make Adrastos’ job as commander easier. To keep the Phocians occupied for the first three days during their wait, Adrastos had them running drills to keep up their training so they’d have at least the appearance of the discipline needed by all good hoplites.

He’d noted that one of the few good things about the Phocians was their tolerance of the heat, undoubtedly the result of years living in this geyser-plagued region. Once reports started of the Persian army’s arrival at Thermopylae, Adrastos had his Phocians stop all but formation training, with the justification “You’re as skilled as you’re going to be. I’d rather you be ready and kill a few Persians than be caught during drill and massacred.”

The fifth night’s report was the same: “The Persians came, the Persians fought, the Persians ran behind their lines with a pile of bodies behind them.”

Early dawn on the sixth day, a lookout in the Phocian lines made out the shapes of men coming down the pass. He alerted Adrastos immediately, and the Phocian hoplites assembled for battle in the pass, between the mountain wall and a hill.

“Remember your training! Shoulder to shoulder. Protect each other with your lives and no one can take this day from you!” Adrastos shouted to encourage his warriors, adapting to the needs of his subordinates, who needed more encouraging during battle than a Spartan unit would. The whole time he was thinking for Ares’ sake he’d probably have to kill someone by day’s end just to keep these boys where they needed to be.

As the Phocians formed ranks, Persian Immortals appeared over a hill up the pass, drawing bows. The Persians drew their arms back and fired into the air at the Phocian lines just as they were finally formed.

Adrastos bellowed out orders. “Raise your shields! Protect your neighbor and stand your ground!” The first arrows landed as Adrastos finished shouting, bouncing off bronze-faced shields and in spots cutting through the leather armor that was all the Phocian militia could afford while still carrying the shields into battle.

The Persians were firing their second volley before the first even reached the ground, and a voice among the Phocians cut through the sounds of whistling arrows and injured screams, “They’ll tear us to pieces before we can even see battle if we stay down here! We have to run to higher ground and make them follow us!”

Adrastos whirled toward the man who spoke, calm fury radiating from him even though he expected at least one man to say something like this. “You will hold the line, all of you! These Persians do not care about you, they want to take the pass. This is why you are here, you will stay here to the very last warrior!”

Cowed and sobered by their leader’s speech, the Phocians held their shields steady, all but one not wanting to die under a hail of arrows, and almost sure any deserters would be hunted down and killed personally by Adrastos for breaking the line.

The proof of that last point came grimly home when one soldier dropped his weapons and ran. With a scowl on his face, Adrastos hefted a javelin above his head and hurled it, spearing the soldier to the ground as a testament to what he thought of deserters.

Held in place by that horrid gory reminder, every remaining Phocian stood his ground with his shield covering his neighbor. After five nearly wasted volleys once the Greeks firmed up their defense, the Persians regrouped and charged down the valley in a wave.

The Phocians held their ground, almost as afraid of their commander as they were of the Persians, and lowered their spears, taking the Persian assault on their shields and spears, blunting the force of the enemy charge with a bronze wall of death. Against the surging press of Persian bodies, the Phocians stabbed into the crowd and bashed too-bold enemies with their shields to clear space, as they had practiced during their three days of drills.

After ten minutes of battle, the Persians pulled back to regroup, hundreds of their soldiers lying on the ground with spear wounds, while fewer than two dozen of the Phocians had fallen injured to the arrows.

As the Persians retreated, Adrastos had to shout, “Stand your ground!” while striking men who threatened to break the lines to chase after the running enemies. “We’re not through here yet, that was only the first wave!” Adrastos allowed a smile to ghost around his lips at that, seeing his soldiers wanting to chase the enemy but following orders nonetheless.

Another fifteen minutes saw a smaller wave of Persians, the survivors from the earlier one, charge down the hill. More brutal battle, less intense than the last time, saw the Persians reduced to straggling routers, while fewer than ten Phocians fell to Persian spears.

The rest of the morning, the newly-blooded Phocian unit cleared the path without any further violence. Adrastos sent a messenger to Thermopylae with a report of the morning’s skirmish. When the soldiers had finished with the trail, they cleaned their equipment for the next day’s battle and rested.

That night’s report from Thermopylae was just like the last two nights, with one addition: “Good job, we might get through this siege intact yet.”

After receiving the report, Adrastos stood in the camp in the pass and addressed his warriors.

“You all did well today! With the will of the gods, we can hold out for reinforcements or even push the Persians back for another campaign season. Today was the first wave. You can expect the enemies to have made it back to their own camp. The King of Kings will know about us. Expect another battle tomorrow. The enemy is probably already on the way.”

Before the messenger from Leonidas was sent back, Adrastos gave him another message to return to the King. It said: “This battle has shored these men up. They might keep improving so long as we keep training them. Keep faith, and I wish you luck in your quest once the Persians break.”

Adrastos turned from the messenger, dismissing him, and looked proudly on the Phocian soldiers. When they’d started, he’d thought them children playing a man’s game, but not any more. He knew he’d still have to ride them to keep them in line, but he saw a glimmer of hope that the pass would remain safe so long as they were there.

He saw a fight break out between three of his soldiers and mentally sighed. “My work’s not done after all.” Running over to the mass of his army, he shouted at the fighters, “Break it up now!”

* *

Historical note

In our timeline the Phocians left the pass without fighting the Persian flanking force. The Persians overwhelmed the Greek defenders and proceeded to Athens, which they burned to the ground. The Greek navy at Artemisium retreated after hearing of the Spartan defeat at Thermopylae. It would take a year of desperate fighting and ultimately the naval victory at Salamis to give the Greeks back their homeland.

In the alternate timeline, Adrastos’s leadership saves the Greeks at Thermopylae and prevents the Persians’ march on Athens. Adrastos’ action will set history on a new course.

Copyright © 2011 by James Bright

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