Combing their hair

Marble copy of 4th century BCE portrait of Alexander the Great. Or Alexander looking like Jim Morrison – Picture taken from here, by Mary Harrsch.

I thought this story is pretty cool to continue a previous post on Greeks and Persians. This is taken from The Histories by Herodotus. Xerxes, during the Battle of Thermopylae, wanted to know what the Greeks were doing, so he send a guy to spy on them:

He saw some of the men exercising naked and others combing their hair. He marvelled at the sight and took note of their numbers. When he had observed it all carefully, he rode back in leisure, since no one pursued him or paid him any attention at all. So he returned and told Xerxes all that he had seen

When he told this to Xerxes the Persian King thought it was a joke. He asked someone else about it,but this other person confirmed this tradition:

When this man arrived, he asked him about each of these matters, wanting to understand what it was that the Lacedaemonians were doing. Demaratus said, “You have already heard about these men from me, when we were setting out for Hellas, but when you heard, you mocked me, although I told you how I expected things to turn out. It is my greatest aim, O King, to be truthful in your presence

 So hear me now. These men have come to fight us for the pass, and it for this that they are preparing. This is their custom: when they are about to risk their lives, they arrange their hair.”

And this is the basis of the poem “Thermopylae”, by Raymond Carver:


Back at the hotel, watching her loosen, then comb out
her russet hair in front of the window, she deep in private thought,
her eyes somewhere else, I am reminded for some reason of those
Lacedaemonians Herodotus wrote about, whose duty
it was to hold the Gates against the Persian army. And who
did. For four days. First, though, under the disbelieving
eyes of Xerxes himself, the Greek soldiers sprawled as if
uncaring, outside their timber-hewn walls, arms stacked,
combing and combing their long hair, as if it were
simply another day in an otherwise unremarkable campaign.
When Xerxes demanded to know what such display signified,
he was told, When these men are about to leave their lives
they first make their heads beautiful.
She lays down her bone-handle comb and moves closer
to the window and the mean afternoon light. Something, some
creaking movement from below, has caught her
attention. A look, and it lets her go.


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