The 300 from Sparta

On the occasion of the recently released Frank Miller big screen production of the ‘300’; a film about the battle between 300 Spartans and the hundreds of thousands of Persian soldiers, we are presenting a destination review of the geographic area where these Greeks grew up to become the brave warriors they so proved to be.

When the battle of Thermopylae broke out, in 480 B.C., the Greeks joined forces in order to fight against conqueror Xerxis and his great Persian legion. 300 Spartans undertook, what turned to be a ‘suicide mission’, to delay the Persian advance as the Greeks prepared their resistance. The Persians lost a large number of their army during the course of this short encounter with those few hundreds of intrepid Spartan warriors who proved truly unconquerable.

It was not until a traitor named Ephialtis, showed the Persians the way to a secret path, that allowed them to encircle the 300 that they managed to defeat the Lacedaemon force…

Sparta, Mani, Mystras, Mt. Taygetos, Keadas… placenames of the Peloponnese, the southern peninsular of Greece that so much resembles a “foot print” on the map, is the place where the myth is interwoven with reality.

Sparta in Laconia, in ancient times the second biggest city after Athens, was the place where the Spartans from their early childhood, trained to become great warriors. They lead a tough so called “Spartan” lifestyle an expression we use today to describe an abstemious way of living. The unhealthy newborns and weak infants were immediately thrown into the deadly gorge Keadas at mount Taygetos.

Archaeological finding have brought to light the bones of infants but also those of adult men and women who shared the same cruel fate. It seems that Keadas gorge served as a grave for all enemies as well as criminals and traitors. ‘win or die” is therefore considered a normal farewell wish for a Spartan mother, when seeing her offspring going off to war. Which means, either come back a victor holding your shield or die and be carried on your own shield, which means you died in honor. Despite Keadas centuries old history, the gorge still emanates an eerie atmosphere; the sense that it belongs to some nightmare of the past. It is very real though, and for the most daring of you, it can be found near the village of Trypi.

This hard lifestyle brought many victories for the Spartans, who carried ideals that made them almost invincible as retreat was not an option. Self sacrifice, the greatest proof of their courage, has filled them with pride throughout their long history up until today. It was at the battle of Thermopiles where King Leonidas and his 300 men chose death to retreat. Is that heroism or insanity? They say that heroes can some times reach the brink of insanity…

It was during the Byzantine era that Sparta regained its fame with its centre the castle of Mystras and the state that developed around it. Mystras is a huge and imposing complex indeed worth visiting. Scattered around the small state, you will find many churches as well as the palace of Paleologus which you must not neglect to visit.

Moving further south, after Gytheio you enter the region of Mani, the inner part of Mani. There you will witness a dramatic change in the landscape.

It becomes wild like the far West, dry and rocky. Scarce water supplies have turned this land into a dry and hot semi-desert. A bare uncultivated mountainous terrain with scattered rocks everywhere. A drought ridden land, with the occasional prickly pear bush and a few scattered olive trees growing on rocks. Your heart pounds heavily at the sight of this wildness. Who can survive in such a place? What kind of people live here? Mani people (Maniates). Unbending and proud just like their land. A hard people.

They knew no conquerors. In this place, overlooked by life itself, the only people who can survive are the Maniates and their tower homes which can be seen everywhere. In Vathia, in Kita, in Moudanitsa and elsewhere there are towers up to 20 metres high. Tall stone structures with small windows and low doors, inhospitable, protective of the family dwelling within, symbols of wealth and strength, possessed by the powerful. The whole scene is reminiscent of a medieval town and cause hairs to stand on end. The streets are so silent, dangerously quiet. One feels the need to look over ones shoulder to see…

The inheritance of Mani is burdensome. Barren land, solitude and the Tenaro Cape where according to legend lies the entrance to Hades (underworld). A burdensome inheritance which fell to a people who are capable of supporting its weight by virtue of their history.

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