“Come back with your shield, or on it”.
These were words that would resonate for any warrior, but for Aristodemus, even the memory of his mother’s voice reciting the Spartan rhetoric made him feel deeply me back with your shield, or on it.” These ashamed. His hand gripped the shaft of his spear, knuckles whiter and palm slicker than those of his comrades, his focus narrowed to a pinpoint even through the visor of his full helm. This battle was important: retribution against the would-be invading army of Xerxes, for the sacrifice that the warrior king Leonidas and his chosen 300 Spartans made at Thermopylae the year before.
The story of his birth was a minor legend even in his own time: when the ephors – Sparta’s elder statesmen – took him from his mother to Mount Taygetos, Aristodemus was small and jaundiced. He was placed in the gorge for starvation, the weather or wild animals to take him – but the Spartan babe had no intention of going the same way as so many other newborns. In that cursed place he clung to ephor Sphodrias’ fingers so tightly that he was unable to shake this tiny child from his grasp. Beaten, and seeing the Spartan pup in a new light, Sphodrias had taken Aristodemus back to his mother to be reared at home.
In the light of what Aristodemus was about to do, Sphodrias might well have bashed him against the ground until his hand was released. But the elders weren’t around to judge him now, as Aristodemus broke rank and surged forward. One of his fellow hoplites tried to grab him but there was little purchase on his polished bronze cuirass. Besides, Aristodemus was fleet of foot even among his peers. He sprinted toward the advancing Persians, over 30 years of punitive daily training and cruel warrior trials pulsing through his mind.
He must have been three years old when he was left alone for hours in the pitch black of his home, bawling for his mother to light a lamp or to keep him company, to no avail. Then his mother would come home and temper his body by emptying an amphora full of stale wine over his head until his eyes stung. He’d been half-starved his whole life but it was around this time that the gnawing in his stomach was unbearable. And then, like any other Spartan boy, he was taken away at the age of seven to become a Spartan paidion and to live in the barracks, lest his easy living with his mother soften him.
The next 12 years of his life were spent in the increasingly tough regime of the agoge. Mandatory to all male Spartan citizens except the firstborn sons of the royal houses, it was here Aristodemus was taught stealth, combat and communication among other military disciplines. Above all, loyalty to Sparta was driven into him, to ensure that when the time came, he wouldn’t hesitate to put the state before his own life.
Life in the agoge at least made sense of his early youth, even if the Spartan warrior fraternity was brutal. The entire agelai (the ‘pack’, or class) of Spartan youths Aristodemus was enrolled into were once stripped to the waist and flayed simultaneously – just to try their endurance. Their families watched, encouraging their sons to act like the Spartan warriors they aspired to be, to silently take the pain. After four strokes, Dion (who was particularly skilled at the fight-dance pyrriche and had the hallmarks of a future leader) cried out in anguish. His parents hissed at him from the sidelines and he was disgraced. Meanwhile, Aristodemus was still standing silently after 23 excruciating lashes. As the last paidon standing he had proved his mettle and he was lifted onto the broad shoulders of his trainer while his mother beamed at him. The thick scars that licked across his back were his trophies and a testament to his honour.
A reckless battle-rage now took him as the faces in the Persian front line came into focus. Aristodemus could make out doubt, confusion and even a trace of fear in the half-helms of Xerxes’ so-called ‘Immortals.’ The indomitable form of a Spartan phalanx could break the confidence of the average soldier, but not even the cream of the Persian elite would willingly go toe-to-toe with a Spartan hoplite consumed with wanton bloodlust.
As he closed the final few dusty yards, the hard, bittersweet memories of his teenage years flooded unbidden into his mind. At the age of 13, Aristodemus made the transition from paidon to a meirakion, or youth, and his life became tougher at every level. He was stripped of individuality, his head shaved and he often went unclothed: a Spartan had no need of the trappings of weaker nations, being a Spartan soldier was dignified enough. He slept among his peers in a crowded dormitory on a bed of hard reeds, endured chilly winters and blistering summers and often returned bleeding and beaten from his exhausting daily martial routine. He didn’t complain or so much as whimper; he considered himself lucky that a bloody mouth and cracked ribs was the extent of his injuries. The dummy spears and swords they trained with might have been wooden but they were no mere toys. One of his fellow agelai, Procles, let his guard slip for just a fraction of a second, enough for his sparring partner to exploit the opening and deliver a blow to Procles’ temple so furious that he died on the spot. There was no mourning – Procles was obviously not cut out to be a Spartan soldier.
And now Aristodemus whispered a brief prayer to Apollo and Ares as he breached the Persian lines. The first Immortal he met didn’t come close to living up to the title of his rank. Aristodemus used the momentum gained from his maniac charge to plough his spear straight through his shield and pierce his throat. He didn’t even attempt to retrieve his weapon from the Persian’s body, the close range was ideally suited to his xiphos, a deceptively short sword that was deadly in the hands of a Spartan worth his salt. The next Persian to fall had somehow turned his flank to the maddened Spartan.
Buzzing with adrenaline and a catharsis of emotion, Aristodemus re-enacted the memory of his first kill. This was not a soldier from an invading army, but a helot slave gathering fruit in a vineyard. Spartans would encourage their youths to steal to supplement their poor diet, to make them stealthy and cunning. If they were caught, they were usually beaten or whipped: the punishment was not for stealing, but for being caught. By the time he was approaching manhood, this trial had taken a darker path. Signs of resistance were rippling through the helot slave community so the ephors used this opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. To nip any chance of revolt in the bud and to hone the blooming talent for violence their youths had began to exhibit, the ephors gave Aristodemus and a handful of others some meagre rations, a xiphos and the simple order go into the Greek countryside, to stalk and kill a helot slave. Preferably a big one.
It took Aristodemus a day to choose his target and then wait until the big man was alone and burdened with grapes. The attack was lightning-quick and came from unexpected quarters: Aristodemus ambushed the helot the way he’d been taught, his xiphos cleaving deep into the man’s groin three times, severing the femoral artery and barely giving him a chance to acknowledge his attacker, who had fled the scene before the helot collapsed.
It seemed the Persians were almost as unused to the savagely efficient way the Spartans could wield their weapons as the helots. This Immortal looked dumbstruck as Aristodemus’ blade flashed three times in the sunlight, before his legs gave way following a torrent of blood spilling onto the battlefield. The Persian front line was done absorbing Aristodemus’ suicidal charge, and now it was time for the lines to close and repel this wayward Spartan. In the ensuing melee, a cut he inflicted to a Persian’s head blinded one of his opponents. An eye for an eye. Now that felt more like redemption. Thermopylae had never been far from Aristodemus’ mind this past year, but the memory of his disgrace now came back to him with the same vigour of his battle fury. Having survived two days at the narrow pass of the Hot Gates, Aristodemus’ eye became infected, effectively blinding him. To King Leonidas, he was now a weak link and a liability to the effectiveness of his war machine. He was denied the honour of fighting for what would be the final, fateful day and was sent back to Sparta along with another unfortunate soldier, Eurytus, who suffered the same affliction. Halfway home and realising what they would face upon returning alive and without the honour of victory, Eurytus decided to return to the Hot Gates and meet his fate. Aristodemus followed the orders of his king, however, and suffered a worse fate than his kinsmen at Thermopylae. He was snubbed, branded ‘Aristodemus the coward’, free Spartans could strike him in the street with impunity (though few dared put that law to the test), while no man could offer him shelter. It would have been the lowest ebb for any Spartan and yet, Aristodemus could still fight for Sparta – he could still redeem himself. Maybe it would be here, at the Battle of Plataea, with this final act of heroic abandon? Or if the black mark wasn’t struck from his name, then his death would at least end the pain of his dishonour.
Aristodemus was one of only two survivors from the famous battle of Thermopylae. The other, who arrived too late at the final battle, hanged himself rather than face the shame Aristodemus experienced on his return to Sparta. This made Aristodemus the only veteran of Thermopylae to fight in the Battle of Plataea, and goes some way to explaining why contemporary Greek historians picked out this particular soldier.
The story of Aristodemus is the embodiment of the highs and lows of the Spartan way. From an early age, they were forged into superhuman fighting machines through a merciless training regime and the denial of some of the most basic of human needs – whether that was a square meal or the love and attention of their parents. Boys were broken down and taught to live by their wits, to rely only on other Spartan soldiers, especially their ‘lovers’ – the dubious title given to their adult guardians. The ancient city-state of Sparta has earned a legendary status today because it was pathologically willing to trade a normal life for its own sons in order to create an army the ancient world would tremble before.
Aristodemus threw his life away at Plataea and his peers afforded him no special honour as a result. But Sparta recognised the fury and strength with which he fought, which saw him kill several Persians before he fell. So in the eyes of his people, in the ethos of the brutal warrior state of Sparta, he had finally redeemed himself.
Written by Ben Biggs