Go tell the Spartans...
300, is of course the new movie about the battle at the "Hot Gates" - Thermopylae. It is based on the Frank Miller graphic novel, which was itself said to be inspired by the old B movie, The Three Hundred Spartans.
Classical scholar Victor Davis Hanson says it's pretty good, which augers well in my book. He loved Gladiator, as we did, and loathed Alexander - 'nuff said.
I'll be reviewing the movie, and the original 300 Spartans, and Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield - a threefer. The Spartans at Thermopylae and their legacy raise a lot of interesting, and disturbing questions about the origin of the West and the nature of free societies, which should make for some interesting discussion.
If I asked what comes to mind when I said "Thermopylae", you'd likely quote the epitaph of the Spartans by Simonides, a contemporary poet.
Ὦ ξεῖν’, ἀγγέλλειν Λακεδαιμονίοις ὅτι τῇδε
κείμεθα, τοῖς κείνων ῥήμασι πειθόμενοι.
There are several ways to render this in English. Translating poetry is often a trade-off between strict accuracy and capturing the effect of the original, but the best in my opinion goes:
Go tell the Spartans, oh stranger passing by
That here, obedient to their laws we lie.
I cannot read or recite that without my eyes watering.
This epigram was engraved on a stone and placed on the hill where the Spartans and the allies that stood with them made their last stand. The original has been lost, but a new stone was placed there in modern times. Near it is another, engraved with the words of King Leonidas to the envoy of the Great King when he demanded that they surrender their arms:
Μολών λαβέ (Molon labe) "Come and take them!"
Simonides epigram has inspired some pretty good knock-offs. The Battle of Kohima in WWII, credited with saving India from a Japanese invasion, has this memorial:
When You Go Home, Tell Them Of Us And Say,
For Their Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today
This is attributed to one John Etty-Leal and said to be "inspired" by a WWI epigram by John Maxwell Edmonds. (Inspired my ass. It's a direct rip off, different only in minor details in the second line "For your to-morrows these gave their to-day.")
The master of epitaph writing in modern English was undoubtedly Rudyard Kipling. I highly recommend Epitaphs of the War, which is a whole series of them on different themes. Some examples:
Two Canadian Memorials
We giving all, gained all
Neither lament us nor praise.
But only in all things recall
It is fear, not death that slays.
From little towns in a far land we came
To save out honor, and a world aflame.
By little towns in a far land we sleep
And trust that world we won for you to keep.
We were together since the war began.
He was my servant - and the better man.
Hindu Sepoy, Died in France
This man in his own country prayed, we know not to what Powers
We pray them to reward him for his bravery in ours.
And this one, dear to the hearts of all libertarians. A Politician:
I could not dig, I dared not rob
Wherefore I lied to please the mob.
Now all my lies are proved untrue
And I must face the men I slew.
What tale shall serve me here among
Mine angry and defrauded young?
Any man would be happy to be remembered for a great epitaph. Trouble is, you can't be around to enjoy them - unless you write your own ahead of time.
Jonathan Swift wrote his own epitaph, in Latin no less. His epitaph goes:
Hic depositum est corpus
JONATHAN SWIFT S.T.D.
Huyus Ecclesiae Cathedralis
Ubi saeva indignatio
Cor lacerare nequit
Et imitare, si poteris
Strenuum pro virili
William Butler Yeats translated it and cast it into English verse, thusly:
SWIFT has sailed into his rest;
Savage indignation there
Cannot lacerate his breast.
Imitate him if you dare,
World-besotted traveller; he
Served human liberty.
It rhymes, but I prefer the prose translation:
He is gone, where savage indignation can no longer lacerate his heart. Go traveller, imitate him if you can. He served Liberty.
Thomas Jefferson boasted of his proudest achievements in his epitaph:
Here was buried Thomas Jefferson
Author of the Declaration of American Independence
Of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom
And Father of the University of Virginia
Notice, not one word about having been president twice!
Westminster Abbey is no doubt a great place to look for fine epitaphs among the kings and notables buried there. But in the abbey is also the British Unknown Soldier:
They buried him among the kings Because he Had done good toward God and Toward His house
Lawrence Binyon wrote For the Fallen, for the dead of WWI, from which is often taken this part to be read at remembrance services:
They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
Shelley reminds us of the futility of vanity, (a lesson he might have taken more to heart). An enscription found on a statue of Rameses II contained a line that was translated something like: "If you would know who I am and where I am buried, surpass me in some of my deeds."
Shelley rendered it:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings!
Look on my Works ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.