Ode to Leonidas, King of Sparta

by Ian Williams

Stern Sire and Father of the ancient West!
Sacred, your primogeniture appears
before the pride of Xerxes’ bloodied Best,
“Immortals” bowed before these few brave spears.
What fertile earth awaits the Asian horde?
What day is come, abroad the sun-sparked seas?
What fruits, this greatest labour in the north?
The oriental cliffs that shade you, lord,
Bound by the Pillars, Strong-Armed Hercules,
The southern reach of Greece shall bring them forth.

Grim Parent of Europa’s golden fields!
Anon, the multitude of hellish slaves
yell murder, thrust and punch your steady shields!
But now, what refuge? No more! Hold the waves!
What hateful power does this darkness hold?
An age of servitude, a world of char?
Shall men be chained who reach to pierce the sky?
Be forward! Bloodless in the slaughter! Bold!
Divine, that Emperor in his chariot-car?
No more a god than we who, fearless, die!

Fierce Ancestor of symphonies and art!
You held the line. What cowards hate to stand
became your glory, for in death your part
is played: inspiring, by delay, the Land!
Who rises from abyss of boundless time?
Who forms from out this blood-blest fallen host?
Who but the glory of this morning’s light?
They are your sons, all sturdy in their prime!
Composers, poets, architects! The boast
of your great fall illumines dying night.

The fire of occidental history,
ploughed, seeded, watered deep, inspired from love,
is born; aye, love for folk; and e’vn for me,
perhaps, unknown except to fates above.
When will you see, O Son of Lion-King?
When live aright? When conquer in defence?
When take your bride? When Love? When Birth?
Where lives your blood, there singers still may sing.
Where strives your line, there poets guard from hence!
Where death to self, the rule of all the Earth.

Ian Williams is a 30-year-old resident of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. 


Sonnet VIII. Leonidas

the Spartan King at the Pass of Thermopylae, 480 B.C.

by Evan Mantyk

Eyes narrow as the pure-blood king looks through
The jagged cliffs to where the Persians march
Around to do soon what they’ve yearned to do:
Enclose the Greeks within a fatal arch.

He hears their footsteps counting down the time
To when his far, far smaller force is trapped
Then slaughtered cold thanks to some traitor’s crime.
Resolved, he simply speaks and all are rapt:

“You other Greeks must quickly flee from here
To live and fight for Greece another day,
But as for us three hundred it is clear:
Our orders have not changed, therefore we stay.”

And thus the noble Spartans died yet won;
Their foes’ morale was crushed—they were outdone.



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10 Responses

  1. C.B. Anderson

    I loved the elaborate rhyme scheme in the first poem that carried/was carried by the seamless narrative.

    In the second poem the theme is perfectly reinforced. This event was the battle of Thermopylae, was it not? A film version of the story came out recently, and I recommend it. At one point in the film Xerxes sends a message to the Greeks that his arrows will darken the sky, whereupon Leonidas says,”Then we shall fight in the shade,” by which he meant that they would face the onslaught from under their shields.

  2. Evan Mantyk

    An editor and poet note: While I was writing this sonnet, I received Ian Williams’ submission on exactly the same topic. I’ve never written about Leonidas before and only very occasionally about the Spartans, and I have never received a submitted poem on Leonidas. Nor did I know Mr. Williams before his submission. So what are the chances of that?

    “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them how you will”

  3. Joseph S. Salemi

    There are a few film versions of the Spartan stand at Thermopylae. A fine one from the 1950s, with Richard Egan and Diane Baker, is “Three Hundred Spartans.”

    The elegiac couplet which the Greeks placed on the battlefield memorial to honor the Spartan heroes is powerfully concise and clipped (very much in the manner of laconic Spartan speech):

    Stranger, go tell the Spartans that we lie here,
    Obedient to their orders.

  4. James A. Tweedie

    I think Mr. Williams engages is a bit of poetic hyperbola in crediting Leonidas for being:

    “Sire and Father of the ancient West,”
    “Parent of Europa’s golden fields,”
    “Ancestor of symphonies and art,” and
    “(F)ire of occidental history.”

    But quibbling aside, it was nice to see over-the-top, in-your-face, full-blown, brash and shamelessly florid heroic verse posted on the SCP site. Nothing dainty about this poem. No rhapsodic whispering in the wind over sunsets. No metronomic prostration to syllables here; only the steady, pounding rhythmic beating of the drums of war with the blinding glint of bronze breaking into and shattering the wokeness of today’s post-modern world.

    If “effect” was the intent, then this poem was most certainly “effective.”

    And, in my opinion at least, Evan’s sonnet reads as one his best. Clear, succinct, well shaped and ending with a strong couplet. If the intent was to tell a complex, heroic story in fourteen lines, then I would say, “Well done.”

    And as for Dr. Salemi’s quote from the battlefield memorial, I cannot imagine a more powerful exclamation point to place at the end of these two poems combined.

    For most people in the Western world today–Mr. Williams being a notable exception–the world of ancient Greece (and virtually anything that happened before 1990) appears to be as irrelevant, boring, or even perhaps, annoying. Yet there is wisdom to be gleaned in learning from the glories and failures of those whose civilizations and distinctive humanity have preceded ours. Sadly, I must conclude that . . .

    The Spartans, famed in history
    For being fierce, and brave, and true,
    Today are merely known to be
    The sobriquet of MSU.

  5. Joseph S. Salemi

    Actually, the sacrificial stand of King Leonidas at Thermopylae (“The Hot Gates”) saved European civilization from being killed in the cradle. The Persian King Xerxes was a fanatical totalitarian who wished to subjugate the entire West and force a crackpot Zoroastrian religion upon it.

    By holding back the massed Persian hordes for several crucial days, and utterly humiliating Xerxes, Leonidas gave the Greeks breathing space to defeat the invasion.

    The Spartans knew that they would be wiped out. But they stood their ground, and took plenty of Persian invaders with them.

    • James A. Tweedie

      I do not believe our comments are mutually exclusive. History is full of “turning points” and “what ifs.” Similar epithets have been bestowed on Sobieski at Vienna, or the weather that defeated the Spanish Armada or the Irish, who “saved” Western Civilization. What if Luther has recanted? What if Robert the Bruce had been killed by Sir Henry de Bohun at Bannockburn instead of the other way around? It is natural to celebrate such historical figures and momentous events, and hyperbola is a natural part of such celebrations—a kind of literary exclamation point. In a similar way, according to my children, I am the world’s greatest Dad. I even have a trophy and a t-shirt to prove it!

  6. Ercules Edibwa

    Mr. Williams excellent poem strikes me as vigourously Drydenesque; and I think this is the best sonnet of Mr. Mantyk’s I have read; it too has a remarkable vigour in its lines. A third sample added to this strand, if not so grand, demonstrates how varied can be the vantages of individual writers to similar, if not exact, topics.

    A Simple, Understated Slab at Thermopylae
    “Beyond the point to which Simonides brought it, the epigram never rose.”
    —J. W. Mackail

    There at the rough hill’s brow, where thick green shrubbery has swelled,
    that overlooks the narrow spot three hundred Spartans held
    the Persian army off for sev’ral days, one finds a plaque,
    on which there is inscribed Simonides’ famed epigraph,
    rust coloured, orange-brown and square, on its encircled throne,
    which has been decorated with Laconian green stone,
    a simple, understated slab, a plain memorial,
    the elegiac couplet’s Greek I put thus: “Stranger, tell
    the Spartans we lie here obedient to their command,”
    above the now retreating Malian Gulf and its sand.

  7. Denise Sobilo

    I divine in this introductory (at least for this site) work the spirit of a warrior-poet who rides in the vanguard of righteous armies, for truly the oriental despot ever rises anew and must be defeated in each age. As but a neophyte transitioning into formal verse from the FVBVSTQ acrostic, I envy the grace and, as C.B. says, the seamlessness, of this piece: neither your lines nor your rhymes are forced, but fluent.

    Though unintended, a superb complement. Great minds think alike; or perhaps the times require again such reminders.

  8. David Watt

    It is a fortunate occurrence to have two excellent poems on the same subject presented together. The sharp thrusting narrative of the first is complemented by the succinct grace of the second.

  9. Gleb Zavlanov

    These poems are amazing.

    I love the first line in every stanza of Mr. Williams’ poem, and the graphic depiction of the Spartans’ sacrifice given in Mr. Mantyk’s poem.

    It never occurred to me just how significant the Battle of Thermopylae was: 300 brave soldiers and their king, by sacrificing themselves in a gruesome, seemingly hopeless and desperate battle, managed to save Ancient Greece from certain invasion by Xerxes, allowing it to blossom into Western Civilization.

    But that’s what great poetry does: it stops you in your tracks and makes you realize something you’ve never realized before through beautiful and evocative language.

    And ironically, perhaps you would never have written these poems were it not for those Spartans you celebrate.

    Thank you, Mr. Williams and Mr. Mantyk for this great poetry.



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