Saturday, December 12, 2020


«Εμείς εδώ φυλάμε Θερμοπύλες», the elderly president of a regional brotherhood remarked as he showed me around the mouldy, crumbling club premises. He was off course, referring to Cavafy’s renowned poem «Θερμοπύλες», which, taking the sacrifice of Leonidas and the three hundred Spartans as its inspiration, ostensibly extols the virtues of staying the course, fighting the good fight and never retreating, even though one knows that the battle will be lost. The Spartans famously blocked the pass at Thermopylae, in order to arrest the Persian army’s descent into Greece. Ephialtes the traitor revealed a path to the Persians that allowed them to outflank the Spartans and instead of retreating to safety, they remained behind and were slaughtered to a man. In the poem, Cavafy pays honour to their sacrifice:   

“Honour to those who in the life they lead 

define and guard a Thermopylae. 

Never retreating from their task, 

consistent and just in all they do 

but showing pity also, and compassion; 

generous when they’re rich, and when they’re poor, 

still generous in small ways, 

still helping as much as they can; 

always speaking the truth, 

yet without hating those who lie. 

And even more honour is due to them 

when they foresee (as many do foresee) 

that Ephialtes will turn up in the end, 

that the Medes will break through after all.” 


In Greek-Australia, the poem is often quoted in the context of those who strive to keep the Greek language, culture and identity alive: they derive their legitimacy and also a sense of nobility from the fact that they know that whatever their efforts, they are doomed to failure. Nonetheless, they persist and it is their persistence, rather than the fruits of their labours that seem to vindicate their endeavours and quite possible, earn them a place in history.  


Yet as always, with Cavafy, not all is as it seems. First of all, as laudable as the Spartan sacrifice is, it could not have been occasioned without the existence of an Ephialtes. The Spartans need Ephialtes to betray them in order to add meaning and value to their defence of Thermopylae. In this way, as an agent of the sacrifice, Ephialtes is just as important a catalyst as the Spartans in ensuring their immortality. 


Similarly, in the third line of the poem, the subversive Cavafy makes an important point about those who never retreat from their task: while their commitment is praiseworthy and admirable, it is their inflexibility, their stubbornness, their inability to adapt their behaviour and their perspective to the changing situation that brings about their downfall. The fact that the Spartans are, according to Cavafy, magnanimous, decent, generous and compassionate merely highlights the extent of our loss in having these splendid men give up their lives, practically for nothing, for had they retreated, the world would have benefited from these attributes. A further question however ought to be asked: in whose estimation are they magnanimous and decent? Ours, or their own? 


Furthermore, Cavafy cleverly suggests here that there is always a mountain track to be found around Thermopylae, and rather than appreciating the nobility of their steadfastness, the poet is actually juxtaposing the Spartans’ inability to think laterally, to canvass possible permutations of strategy and to adopt a more broad perspective as to their defence that takes into account anticipating changes in the enemy’s plans and of course, having their own plans stand up to scrutiny, against their unshakeable but fundamentally flawed, narrow self-assurance that they are doing the right thing.  


Viewed from this perspective, it is the Spartans who crave honour for their lack of introspection and perspicacity, from us, in order to obfuscate their manifest failure at their appointed task. Cavafy’s specific mention of the fact that they speak the truth without hating those who lie is thus ironic. The whole premise upon which they have built their self-worth is a lie. Their truth, that of the worthy sacrifice, is in fact, self-delusion. They are lying about their situation and in craving honour from us, seek to make us complicit in that lie. 


The knowledge that whatever they do, the Medes (Persians) will come, magnifies the lie to the same extent as the overall tragedy. Those Spartans insightful enough to anticipate the coming of the Persians and the overwhelming of the Spartan defences are so invested in the myth that they have constructed around themselves that they are either powerless or unwilling to take any step to avoid their fate or mitigate their loss. Unable to face the bankruptcy of their myth, they take refuge in honour, an honour that is increasingly hollow when, with the benefit of hindsight it is considered that the sacrifice at Thermopylae in no way aided the Greek cause, that the Greeks carried on regardless, defeating the Persians in the sea battle at Salamis and that it was only after a protracted resistance marshalling all the resources of the Greek people that the Persians finally retreated to Asia Minor. In this way, Cavafy subverts the usual interpretation of the battle of Thermopylae, hinting that sweeping romantic gestures and isolated noble sacrifices, which focus on the glory of the individual, while able to capture the imagination, are of little practical use to the collective whole and can actually be counterproductive. The lives futilely lost at Thermopylae could have conceivably been used to better effect at Plataea and elsewhere, had the Spartans the maturity to rationally assess their circumstances. Instead, their fundamentalist approach ensured their downfall. 


Highlighting the egocentricity of the Spartan sacrifice, is Cavafy’s line: “still helping as much as they can.” Rather than co-ordinating their efforts in concert and consultation with the rest of the Greeks with a view to best serving a broader strategy for the benefit of all, the Spartans have taken it upon themselves to determine how best everyone else can be helped. In reality they are assisting no one else but themselves, reinforcing their own inflated sense of importance and seeking safety and legitimisation in their fanatic adherence to rigid codes of conduct that have no bearing upon their present situation. Codes of conduct and adherence to traditions and values are all well and good, Cavafy seems to conclude, but not at the expense of survival. To refuse to question, to adapt, to refuse to think, to analyse, to assess and to alter one’s understanding and practice based on empirical evidence, is to invite annihilation. His poem, rather than a paean to the physical Spartans, is a cry of their cerebral opposites. 


Accordingly, when our own local cultural doyens assure us that they are guarding our very own Thermopylae, we can therefore be forgiven for raising an eyebrow and beginning to be concerned. For we too often seek refuge in hidebound ideologies, ideals and values which often have no bearing on the new and challenging situations we face and which, in the face of change, render our conceptual framework redundant. Too often we are invested, as a community, in replicating antiquated structures and mores, in the fear that to not do so will highlight their redundancy. We revel in the making of grand gestures, that while impressive, are of no lasting significance or effect for our continued existence as an entity. It is in the ability to take nothing for granted, to continuously interrogate and doubt what we know to be true, to anticipate, before they sneak up upon us and outflank us, the challenges of the future, the lacunae in our narrative, the fault-lines in our discourse, to address these and compensate for them, that true heroism lies. And it is the staying power of those who fight the battles they can fight, retreating tactically only to return to fight again an innumerable amount of times, each time in a different way, responding innovatively to the obstacles before them and advancing our cause just that little bit further, that will ensure our perennial relevance and our survival as a coherent cultural community. For if there is anything to be learned from Cavafy’s Thermopylae, it is this: that Ephialtes or no, the Medes break through only at Thermopylae, before the blinkered. They retreat at Salamis and at Plataea, before the insightful, the flexible and the self-aware. 



First published in NKEE on Saturday 12 December 2020