June 3, 2023

Spartans: undaunted by pain or danger


Until last month the email address of every student at Northampton Community College (NCC) had the word “spartan” which automatically indicated that they were students. In other words, all of us students are spartans, not just NCC’s athletes. Where did the word spartan originate?

   The Webster dictionary offers a few meanings for the word. Lower-case spartan means “marked by strict self-discipline or self-denial,” “marked by simplicity, frugality, or avoidance of luxury and comfort,” “laconic,” “undaunted by pain or danger.” Upper-case Spartan means “of or relating to Sparta in ancient Greece.”

   Movie-lovers will remember “300,” the motion picture in which that specific number of soldiers, heroic and proud, died defending their country against the giant Persian army, representing the second [after China] most powerful empire on Earth at the time. It extended from India to Egypt, to Turkey. The film is truthful to some degree.

   Keep in mind that not being a documentary movie, it’s uncommitted to veracity; it’s to be watched “along with popcorn and soda pop,” in the words of Dan Vergano (US TODAY). Hollywood entertains, appeals to emotions to boost box office, which for this movie was superb, grossing close to half a billion dollars. Critic reviews were mixed.

   Putting aside the historical inaccuracies of the film, one thing is true. Spartans were formidable human beings who after 25 centuries are still alive in the collective mind. Many of their personal traits are listed as spartan synonymous in Webster dictionary. People’s admiration has originated modern day Spartans everywhere in both, non-scholastic environments — unrelated to education — and scholastic.

   Various collective sports teams were named after the legendary warriors: soccer (English Football) in England, Malta and Scotland, hockey in Oregon, cricket in Barbados and Australia, American Football in New Zealand and Wisconsin.

   Among scholastic institutions, 10 universities and colleges in the U.S. and more in Australia and Canada carry the name Spartans. Approximately 105 High Schools in the U.S. are nicknamed Spartan, which includes Wyoming Valley West Senior High School in Plymouth, Luzern County.

   Ancient Greece was not a single country as it is today. There were autonomous city-states, “poleis.” Athens and Sparta were prominent. One is familiar with the knowledge that Athens gave to the world: philosophy, architecture, arts, mathematics, geometry. Not much with Sparta’s legacy.

   Located southwest of Athens, in the region of Laconia [from which derived “laconic”, the short and to the point talk that characterized Spartans]. Spartans lived by a peculiar code: the highest honor for a human being was service to the country and even higher to die in the battlefield.

   Spartans considered themselves to be property of the state from birth. Men lived to be soldiers. At age seven, a boy was taken from their parents and submitted to extraordinary training and living very modestly.

   As boys approached manhood, discipline intensified. The official military service was from age 20 to 60. In battle, one thing was clear: win or die, never surrender nor retreat. Spartans were the best soldiers in the ancient world, a sample of which was the Battle of Thermopylae, at the end of August, beginning of September in 480 BC, precisely 2,500 years ago.

   The Pass of Thermopylae was a narrow — 45 feet — coastal passage. The very large Persian fleet transported a very large number of soldiers, estimated to be 180,000 by modern experts to the Greek coast. To get further inland, going through the Pass was the only alternative, even more because the Greek had built a wall that funneled the Persian soldiers’ advance through the Pass.

   Specific circumstances made King Leonidas and 300 hand-picked soldiers to “welcome” the Persians at Thermopylae. “Eat your breakfast as if you are to eat your dinner in the other world,” Leonidas told his brave men.

   The ferocious combat lasted three days. [King Xerxes had asked for surrender and waited four days, King Leonidas reply is described below]. Military training, extraordinary courage and knowledge of the terrain worked out perfectly the first and second days. On the evening of the second, Spartans were betrayed and the Persians accessed the Thermopylae Pass through a secret passage. On the third day, King Leonidas and Spartans fought until the last minute of their life.

   The heroes’ epitaph poetically tells of the love of Spartans for their King and country: “Go, tell the Spartans, stranger passing by that here, obedient to their laws, we lie.”

   The Thermopylae Battle was lost, but the example of supreme sacrifice set by the Spartans, was never forgotten. The Greek recovered and were able to expel the giant Persian army.

   Today, Sparta is a peaceful, bucolic town the size of Wilkes-Barre (or State College) accessible by bus from Athens. The 150-mile trip takes some three hours. Palaiologou Avenue, the commercial heart of downtown Sparta, ends at a giant statue of the city’s greatest son, King Leonidas.

   Behind the statue, two tall polls hold the Greek and the European Union’s flags. The pedestal reads  “ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ” (“Come and take them”), the laconic reply of Leonidas to Persian King Xerxes demand to Greeks to surrender their weapons and thus spare their lives.

   One of a kind. That’s what the original Spartans were. Extraordinary courage, discipline and dedication to a noble cause are values that today’s Spartans in various localities try to honor.

   NCC students, shouldn’t forget that.

Jesus Zaldivar

Jesus Zaldivar, contributor to The Commuter, is a Media Production student at NCC. Previously, he conducted biomedical / environmental research in South America, Europe and six states in the U.S. (Contact: jesus.zaldivar@student.northampton.edu)

View all posts by Jesus Zaldivar →
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