Herodotus knew where Leonidas made his final stand against the Persian invasion of Greece because of a lion monument erected on a hill at Thermopylae. He bragged about memorizing the names of the 300 Spartans who fought alongside Leonidas, which historians today believe he learned from a monument erected upon the king’s grave in Sparta. Other monuments at Thermopylae told him the number of other Greeks that fought and died alongside Leonidas that day. Herodotus’s account of the Battle of Thermopylae (480 BC) has been propagated and retold by other historians such as Plutarch for the past 2,500 years. And most know of the story from the 300 graphic novel and film.
Yet, with the original monuments lost, we had stories of what happened, but we struggled with where it happened. The terrain at Thermopylae has changed dramatically due to earthquakes, sediment deposits, and a receding shoreline. The ground is 65 ft higher than it was in 480 BC.Today, the only reason we’re confident that Leonidas died fighting on Kolonos Hill, was because an archeologist discovered more than 100 arrowheads and spearheads there in 1939. Prior to that, historians had guessed it happened on a completely different spot.
Leonidas was a slaveowner by the way–all Spartans were. They subjugated other Greeks in the Peloponnese, owning entire families that provided labor and food. This enabled the Spartans to focus on their martial lifestyle. They continued this legacy, challenging and eventually defeating the Athenian Empire in the Peloponnesian War and then filling the power vacuum with a short-lived, but powerful hegemony over much of Greece.
Spartan supremacy didn’t last though. Their high watermark came at Leuctra where a Boeotian coalition led by Epaminondas and the Thebans defeated them in battle, killing a Spartan king (371 BC). Epaminondas then marched into the Peloponnese, liberating whole cities, after which he helped them build massive walls to keep the Spartans at bay. I’ve stood among the remnants of these ancient structures and even after 2,300 years, they are impressive. Sparta would never again be dominant and by the time Alexander rose to power, he was content to leave them defiant, yet isolated during his conquests.
Leuctra is arguably one of the most important battles in Greek history. Not only did it mark the beginning of the end of Spartan supremacy, but accounts by Xenophon and other ancient historians provide a wealth of military theory. Thus, locating the battlefield would be something worthwhile. Again, we had stories of what happened, but we didn’t know exactly where until 1839 when archeologists discovered not weapons, but instead a monument built by the Thebans to celebrate their victory. Although the monument had been lost, we knew it existed, as even Cicero complained about how gaudy it was.
Cicero’s explicit complaint of the massive stone structure topped with a bronze soldier (sound familiar?) was that war trophies were meant to be remembered “for the present” and “not remain forever.” This was the custom of the Greeks, but even they broke their rules for events such as Thermopylae and Leuctra. Whether others stayed true to the concept or not, there are many battlefield locations that have received only our best guess.
For example, only since the 1980s have historians settled on where they think Caesar defeated Pompey in Thessaly. Prior to then, there were 8 different proposed locations, each with scholarly articles arguing for and against.Elsewhere, we are still clueless as to where Edward Longshanks defeated William Wallace at Falkirk, and the proposed locations are based on what sort of matches vague medieval descriptions of the terrain, all written by people not present for the battle.
Without archeological evidence—weapons or even monuments—we are just guessing with these ancient and medieval battles. As such, I am grateful the Thebans chose to buck tradition and offend Cicero’s sensibilities so we could find remnants of it 2,200 years later.
Of course, some battlefields don’t need post-battle structures for identification. No one could walk a monument-less Verdun, Somme, or Vicksburg without recognizing that parts of the terrain resemble craters of the moon covered in foliage. Other battlefields are not so obvious. Agincourt would simply be a farmland without the Renaissance Faire-like experience. Even Gettysburg would look like little more than hills and farms without the massive amount of stone and bronze structures.
Regardless, it’s difficult to envision a world without monuments. When I want to tell people about John F. Reynolds at Gettysburg, it’s very easy to get their attention in front of his massive 1884 equestrian statue in front Philadelphia City Hall. This Pennsylvania native played a crucial role at Gettysburg, delaying the Confederate advance toward the town and taking a bullet to the neck in the process. It’s an easy story to tell with the statue standing prominently in the middle of the city.