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Stripped of its helmet, Leonidas' head is framed by his long hair. The lean skin of the warrior's face, its color gone, stands out all the more against a short and pointed beard. The dirt of battle is probably still upon Leonidas, and there is a dark purple bruise on his chin from the pooling of what little blood is left. Ragged bits of tissue and bone hang from his severed neck, and flies and beetles have landed on his skin. If the dead Spartan king's eyes could see, they might look 140 miles to the south — all the way to Athens, the road to which now lies open for Persia.
The time is August 480 b.c.; the place, Thermopylae, Greece; the occasion, the aftermath of a great battle. A vast army of Persians was on the march to conquer Greece. A small force of Greeks had been all that stood in their way. And yet, in a pass that narrows to a space smaller than a baseball diamond, the impossible almost happened. For three days, just over seventy-one hundred Greeks, spearheaded by an elite unit of three hundred Spartans, gave a savage beating to a Persian army that outnumbered them by perhaps 20-to-1. About 150,000 men willing to die for the glory of Xerxes, the Persian Great King, came up against the most efficient killing machine in history.
Leonidas son of Anaxandrides, commander in chief of the Greek resistance to Persia at Thermopylae, died in a heroic last stand. After the battle, as Xerxes son of Darius toured the battlefield, he came upon Leonidas' body and ordered the beheading of the corpse and the impalement of the severed head on a pole. One of those who no doubt saw Leonidas' severed head was the former king of Sparta, Demaratus son of Ariston, a refugee who was now allied with the Persians.
In the slaughtering pen at Thermopylae — as the narrow killing fields might be called — a king died and a legend was born. Led by Leonidas, the three hundred Spartans stood and fell and took the pride of the Persian Empire down with them. Sparta the steadfast and self-sacrificing, Greece unflagging in its fight for freedom, Xerxes the flummoxed, Demaratus the traitorous: These are the images left in the summer heat. Thermopylae is the prototype of many a last stand, from Roncesvalles to the Alamo to Isandlhwana to Bastogne.
The gantlet at Thermopylae had punished the Persians. Xerxes had learned how high the price of victory would be, if he could pay it at all. How hard to think that so few men could devastate so many. Yet Thermopylae is no ordinary place — or rather, was no ordinary place. The silting-up of the land over the millennia leaves the ancient scenery hard to recognize today. Yet what a landscape it was.
It was a gateway region, a pass — actually, three passes — containing the main road between northern and central Greece. Its name, 'Thermopylae,' means 'hot gates': 'hot' because of the sulfur springs there and 'gates' rather than 'gate' because of the three separate places where the land narrows. Thermopylae consists of a tapered plain that stretches for about 3 1/2 miles, from east to west. Mountains lie to the south, and to the north is the sea, here known as the Gulf of Malis.
Thermopylae is narrowest at its two ends, the so-called East and West Gates, while the mountains are sharpest in the center of the pass, at the so-called Middle Gate (all modern appellations). It was here, at the Middle Gate, that the Greeks defended the pass. Taking advantage of a dilapidated old wall, which they rebuilt, they took their stand between the sheer cliffs and the sea. The land was less than twenty yards wide here in 480 b.c. As far as the Greek defenders knew, the mountains were impassable.
Glory and revenge brought Xerxes to Thermopylae. Greeks and Persians had been at war for more than a generation. Xerxes' father, Darius I, had crushed a Greek revolt in western Anatolia, but his armies had been bruised by Greeks at Sardis in 498 and suffered a demeaning defeat in 490 at Marathon, where a seaborne Persian army was stopped after landing less than twenty-five miles from the city of Athens. Now the Persians sought to settle the score.
Xerxes was bent on adding Greece by force to what was, without exaggeration, the greatest empire in the history of the world to that date. His domain extended from present-day Pakistan in the east, westward through central and western Asia to Macedonia in the north, and across the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in the south. It took roughly four thousand miles of roads to travel from one end of the empire to the other. The realm covered nearly three million square miles, which makes it about as big as the continental United States of America, and contained perhaps as many as twenty million people. Yet with an estimated total world population in 500 b.c. of only about one hundred million, Xerxes' empire held perhaps one-fifth of the people on the planet. In comparison, Greece was tiny, covering an area of less than fifty thousand square miles, much of it already in Xerxes' hands before Thermopylae.
In June 480 the Persians had begun their march on Greece from the Hellespont. Xerxes commanded a huge army of about 150,000 combat soldiers and a massive fleet of about twelve hundred warships. After passing through northern and central Greece, the army would head southward, capture and burn Athens, and drive into the Peloponnese and destroy the enemy's resistance. Greece would become a Persian province.
That the Great King led the invasion of Greece in person should not have been a surprise. Xerxes advertised heroism in his very name: Xerxes is Greek for the Persian Khsha-yar-shan, the king's throne name, which means 'Ruler of Heroes.' Tall and handsome, Xerxes looked the part. And he followed in the footsteps of Cyrus the Great, founder in 550 b.c. of the Achaemenid Empire (named for Achaemenes, the semilegendary founder of Cyrus' clan). Every king since Cyrus had led an invasion, and every king had conquered new territory.
Xerxes had marched his army through the northern regions of Greece in Thrace and Macedonia and past Mount Olympus into Thessaly. He then led them into Central Greece, through Phthia, the legendary homeland of Achilles, and into Malis, where myth had it that Heracles spent his last years. Meanwhile, the Persian fleet sailed nearby, along the coast. The army halted at the pass of Thermopylae, which it found blocked by the Greeks. The navy stopped about fifty miles to the north, at Aphetae, opposite the Greek fleet at Artemisium.
The Great King hoped to win the war in central Greece. He planned for his army and navy to overwhelm the Greeks there through Persian numbers and Greek defections. But in late August, when the Persian army reached Thermopylae, the Greeks were ready for him.
Only about three dozen Greek city-states rallied to the cause of defense against Persia. Most of Greece either supported the invaders or sat on the sidelines. Yet Greece had several things in its favor, among them superb infantrymen, a competitive navy, brilliant strategists (especially the Athenian commander, Themistocles), and — in southern Greece — knowledge of the terrain. Farther north, as at Thermopylae, the allies' local intelligence was limited. But did the Greeks have the iron will needed to stand up to Persia? That was the question that Thermopylae would test.
Formal defensive preparations began in spring 480, when members of the Greek alliance against Persia — the Hellenic League — met at the Isthmus of Corinth to chart strategy. Their plan had three basic elements. First, since Persia would attack both by land and sea, the Greeks would respond with an army and a navy. The Peloponnese would provide most of the infantrymen, since Athens would devote all its manpower to its big navy. Second, since Persia was attacking Athens via northern Greece rather than by island-hopping across the Aegean, the allies would mount a forward defense in the north. It was better to try to stop Persia there than at the gates of Athens. Third, time was on the Greeks' side. For political reasons, the Persian king wanted a quick victory, and for practical reasons, the Persian quartermasters could not supply their huge invasion force for very long. Therefore the Greeks had an incentive to drag out the war until the Persians gave up.
In June or July, the Greeks sent an army of ten thousand men to hold the mountain pass known as the Vale of Tempe, which runs between Macedonia and Thessaly. But their leaders discovered two other passes nearby. Since it would be impossible to close all three passes to Persia, they withdrew southward. Tempe had been a failure of intelligence, a sign of how little the Greeks knew about their own country and how much darkness ancient strategists often worked in.
But Thermopylae was a better choice. Leonidas reasoned that in its confines a small number of men could hold off the Persians. Besides, Thermopylae was close enough to the harbor at Artemisium to allow a coordinated land-sea strategy. The Greek fleet at Artemisium would keep Persian reinforcements from arriving by sea and cutting off the Greek army holding the pass at Thermopylae. Recognizing the Greeks' strategy, the Persians coordinated their attack on Artemisium and on Thermopylae. Although they had not planned matters quite so precisely, the land and sea battles there turned out to be fought on precisely the same three days in late August 480 b.c.
But having established that, modern historians run up against a series of mysteries. Numbers, first. The Greeks sent only a small force to Thermopylae, fewer in fact than at Tempe a month or two before. Why? A closer look only compounds the puzzle. The approximately seventy-one hundred Greeks at Thermopylae were made up of about four thousand Peloponnesians from nearly a dozen different states as well as about thirty-one hundred soldiers from central Greece. Some of the more noteworthy contributions, besides the three hundred Spartans, were four hundred men each from the great states of Thebes and Corinth. Yet they were each easily outstripped by the seven hundred men from the tiny city-state of Thespiae. Sparta promised to send more men soon, yet, even so, the discrepancy in numbers is striking.
Corinth and Sparta both lie in the Peloponnese, a peninsula located several hundred miles south of Thermopylae, and which is protected by the natural barrier of the narrow and mountainous Isthmus of Corinth. No Peloponnesian state wanted to risk sending a large force off to central Greece without first dispatching a smaller force to test the waters. They were particularly concerned about Thebes, the largest and strongest central Greek state, and an uncertain ally, since strong rumors circulated of its impending defection to Persia. Thespiae, a neighbor and rival of Thebes, was determined to stop Persia. The city-state's central Greek location, however, put it directly in harm's way. Hence, Thespiae made an all-out effort at Thermopylae.
The second question is just what were Sparta's intentions at Thermopylae. If Thermopylae was so far away and exposed to the enemy, why bother to risk even a small number of men — much less one of Sparta's two kings? (The dual monarchy was an unusual but established part of Spartan government.) There were good reasons, both positive and negative. On the plus side, Thermopylae was too strong a position to give up and a successful forward defense might have kept war away from the Peloponnesian homeland. Sparta, moreover, had a reputation to maintain as Greece's leading land power. The dispatch of a king symbolized Spartan resolve, even if he had only few men with him. By his presence, Leonidas might stiffen the spines of wavering Greek states.
Besides, the three hundred Spartans were all full citizens, that is, elite soldiers, and therefore a scarce resource. In fact they made up about 4 percent of Sparta's elite military manpower, no small amount. So they too represented Sparta's grit and determination. And they could leverage success simply by bloodying Persia and slowing it down. A fight that caused casualties and delay would shake Persia's resolve while giving the Greeks a taste of Persian tactics — invaluable knowledge for use in the next battle.
On the minus side, Sparta and other Greek cities faced a big religious prohibition. Two major festivals — Sparta's Carnea (dedicated to Apollo) and the all-Greek Olympic Games (in ancient times, a celebration of the gods) — took place the same time as the mustering of the Greek army. The cities therefore imposed strict limits on the dispatch of men to war. And that, said the Greeks, is why they could send only an advance force to Thermopylae. They promised that the main army would follow, after the festivals. It is tempting to consider this a mere excuse, but it might just be true. The fact is that war tends to make people more, not less, religious.
But what of the idea, first attested in ancient times, that Thermopylae was planned as a suicide mission? This is probably a legend. Suicide missions were downright un-Spartan. Pragmatism and realism were the national character traits; every Spartan soldier was an elite warrior; no Spartan would voluntarily sacrifice three hundred such soldiers.
A different picture emerges from the historian Herodotus, our best source on Thermopylae, who wrote approximately two generations after the battle. He reported that Leonidas handpicked his Spartans for the Thermopylae mission; they were 'the 300 men assigned him by law and whose lot it was to have sons.' Three hundred was the standard number of Spartans used for hazardous assignments, but just what 'whose lot it was to have sons' means is, frankly, unclear. In Sparta, men generally married around the age of thirty, so soldiers with sons were probably in their thirties or forties. Because the Olympic Games, and perhaps the Carnea too, especially involved youth, men with sons might possibly have been exempted from attending religious observances — which makes them the logical option for the mission. But the choice of men with sons for the Thermopylae operation might also reflect military psychology, a matter on which the Spartans set great store.
Leonidas in particular made a point of using a shrewd eye to select soldiers. He insisted on choosing each of the four hundred men in Thebes' contingent at Thermopylae, and he picked men of suspect loyalty, in order to test them. His selection of an all-fathers unit of Spartans might similarly have served a psychological purpose, in this case, unit motivation. The Greeks believed that men with sons were especially mature and reliable, hence they would make highly motivated soldiers. There is no reason to think, as some scholars do, that Leonidas chose an all-fathers unit because he wanted to make sure that each soldier had an heir at home — or that he did so knowing that Thermopylae would be a suicide mission.
In fact, Leonidas wanted to avoid unnecessary risk. Herodotus reported that when the Greeks reached Thermopylae and realized the huge size of the enemy army, they had second thoughts about the operation. Indeed it was only the anger of the Phocians and Locrians that kept Leonidas from supporting a proposed withdrawal to the Isthmus of Corinth. He agreed to stay at Thermopylae, but he sent messengers southward to hurry the reinforcements. And so a Greek army sat at Thermopylae and a Greek navy sat at Artemisium, and they each waited for the barbarians.
But the barbarians — as the Greeks sometimes called the Persians — were waiting in turn. For four days, Xerxes made no move against the enemy. No doubt he was hoping that the Greeks would retreat in fear. He had also discovered reasons to think twice before sending his men in to fight Spartans.
A few months earlier, Demaratus, the exiled king of Sparta, had warned Xerxes about his former countrymen. They must have made an odd pair, the king of kings in his purple robes and gold jewelry and the austere Spartan, raised in a country whose citizens slept on straw pallets and allowed their sons only one cloak a year. Demaratus said that no matter how greatly they were outnumbered, the Spartans would fight. And the Spartans, he pointed out, were great warriors. They would obey the command of their law and fight to the death.
Now, on the eve of battle at Thermopylae, Demaratus deciphered a strange report brought back from the Greek camp by a Persian spy on horseback. The spy had caught the Spartans outdoors drawn up in lines, outside the rebuilt wall at the Middle Gate, but they practiced maneuvers that left him baffled. While some of the Spartans exercised naked, others combed their hair. Xerxes too found this behavior odd, but Demaratus explained that the Spartans were in the habit of grooming their hair before risking their lives. What the scout had seen, therefore, was a deadly sign of Spartan ferocity. No wonder Xerxes held his men back for four days. Why fight a battle when the enemy might be scared into retreating? On the fifth day, however, Xerxes' patience wore out. He sent his soldiers against the Greeks.
On one side stood a Greek army spearheaded by Spartan soldiers. With his bronze helmet, breastplate, and greaves, each Spartan seemed to be sheathed in metal. There was bronze too in the plating of his shield, which was large, circular, and convex in shape. A crimson-colored, sleeveless wool tunic extended from his waist to mid-thigh. The braids of his long hair ran out from under his helmet, while a horsehair plume swayed above it. The long hair, a Spartan trademark, was meant to look fearsome. Each Spartan was barefoot, itself a symbol of toughness. He carried a short iron sword and a long pike. The latter, which was his main weapon, was an ash-wood spear, about nine feet long, with an iron head and a bronze butt spike. Arranged in close order in a phalanx, shields interlocking, the Spartans thrust at the enemy with their pikes.
On the other side stood the Persian and Median infantrymen of Iran. By comparison with the Spartans, they looked as if they were dressed for the parade ground rather than the battlefield. Each Iranian wore a brightly colored, sleeved, knee-length tunic, under which an iron-scaled breastplate protected the torso, but he had neither helmet nor greaves. He wore a felt hat or a turban on his head, while his lower body was covered either by a long draped robe or by a pair of trousers. He wore gold jewelry, even into battle. His feet were protected by shoes. His shield was smaller than a Greek's and made of wicker rather than of wood and bronze plating. The Persian spear was much shorter than the Greek pike, which put the Iranians at a disadvantage. Nor could the dagger carried by an Iranian outreach the Spartan sword. Unlike the Greek infantryman, the typical Iranian soldier carried a quiver full of cane arrows with bronze or iron points and a bow with its ends shaped like animal heads. Yet Persian arrows could do little damage against a wall of Greek shields or a rapid charge by bronze-covered infantrymen. No wonder that a Spartan at Thermopylae named Dieneces is said to have quipped that he did not mind if the Persians' barrage of arrows was so thick that it blocked out the sun, since he preferred to fight in the shade.
But equipment was only part of the story. Thermopylae was a triumph of Greek military science over Persian blundering. Leonidas chose his terrain wisely and his tactics logically. The battle opened with wave after wave of Persians attacking, but each broke on the long spears and the rugged training of the Greek infantrymen. The Persians' best troops, the so-called Immortals, did no better than their less elite comrades when they were committed to the fight late in the first day. Spartan casualties were light, but Persian losses were huge. Xerxes had to concede that when it came to soldiers he had 'many people but few men,' or so Herodotus said. But kings do not give up illusions easily.
Every Greek contingent took its turn in the line except the Phocians, who were posted on guard duty. But the Spartans stood out for their prowess. They had the only full-time army in Greece, and their training outpaced anything that the Great King's men — or the other Greeks — had undergone. With the exception of the kings, every Spartan citizen was schooled in a rigid, military education called simply 'the Upbringing.' Only trained and hardened Spartans could have carried out the following maneuver at Thermopylae: turning and retreating in an orderly way and then, once they had tricked the Persians into charging them with a roar, changing course in an instantaneous wheel and crushing the enemy.
For two days the slaughter continued. Then, on the third day, the Persians outflanked the Greeks by taking a trail over the mountains and around Thermopylae. The path led the Persians down to the sea to the east of the Greeks at the Middle Gate. As in past battles, Greek treason saved the Persians. At Thermopylae, the Greek traitor in question was a native of the region, Ephialtes son of Eurydemus of Trachis. In exchange for money, he guided Xerxes' Immortals over a steep, narrow, and hard-to-follow mountain track. They set out in the evening, 'around the lighting of the lamps,' and traveled by night. Meanwhile, Xerxes and most of the Persian army remained at sea level, at the west end of the Thermopylae pass.As the Immortals approached the Greeks, a unit of one thousand Phocian infantrymen stationed on the ridge above Thermopylae heard them coming. By dawn's first light it was calm and windless, and the sound carried of soldiers' feet tramping on fallen leaves. As soon as the Persians realized that Greeks blocked their way, they worried over having stumbled into the much-feared Spartans. When the Persians learned that they were in luck, they drove the frightened Phocians off with a hail of arrows and continued downward toward Thermopylae.–>
Meanwhile, the news came to the Greeks below, at the Middle Gate. The intelligence arrived in stages. First, in a pre-dawn sacrifice, the Greek seer Megistias of Acarnania made out impending death in the victim's entrails. Then deserters, followed by lookouts, reached the Greek camp with solid news of the Persians' movement. The Greek commanders met, debated, disagreed, and most of the men started to leave. Whether they were deserters or just soldiers doing their job is unclear. After the battle, some reports claimed that Leonidas himself dismissed most of the allied troops before the enemy could close off the far end of the pass; Herodotus was inclined to agree. In the end, about a thousand other Greeks remained with the Spartans, including the loyal Thespians and the untrustworthy Thebans (the latter virtually hostages).
Leonidas' strategy is unclear. Perhaps he planned to have his men guard the rear and then escape at the last moment. If so, the maneuver went wrong. Or perhaps the king had now decided to die — the interpretation that Herodotus strongly preferred, although he admitted that this was controversial. The historian said that Leonidas had three reasons to have the Spartans stay: a sense of propriety, a desire to fulfill a prophecy that only the death of a king could save Sparta, and a thirst for glory — a primitive wish out of the pages of Homer. Leonidas gave Megistias permission to leave, but the soothsayer stayed and instead sent away his son, who was his only child.
At sunrise, back at the western end of the Thermopylae pass, Xerxes carried out libations. Yet he waited until mid-morning to order the advance, to ensure that the Immortals had enough time to come down from the mountains and into the eastern end of Thermopylae pass. At that point, any Greeks left at the Middle Gate would have been surrounded.
And then the Persian attack came. Instead of fighting from behind the rebuilt defensive wall, this time the Greeks at the Middle Gate came out to close with the enemy. Battling fiercely, they inflicted heavy casualties on the Persians. It was a fight to the finish. The Greeks first battled with their spears, and when their spears were all broken they used their swords. When their swords were gone, they went after the Persians with hands and teeth. When Leonidas finally fell, the Greeks drove the enemy off four times before recovering his body. Nevertheless, prior to being at last overwhelmed by Persian spears and arrows, the Greeks killed two of Xerxes' half-brothers, Abrocomes and Hyperanthes.
Of the three hundred Spartans at Thermopylae, only two survived the battle: Pantites, who had been sent with a message to Thessaly, and Aristodamus, who was also a messenger or — in a different version — was one of two men excused for severe eye infections. The other man, Eurytus, is said to have gone into battle anyhow, led by his servant. Back in Sparta, Pantites is said to have hanged himself in disgrace, while Aristodamus overcame the nickname 'Aristodamus the Coward' by fighting to the death in a later battle.
The seven hundred Thespians at Thermopylae died fighting with the Spartans. Dieneces was honored as the bravest Spartan, and Dithyrambus as the bravest Thespian. The Thebans suffered only shame. As soon as the tide turned against the Greeks, they headed for the Persians. The Thebans stretched their hands out in a gesture of submission, and they called out their friendship to the Persians. A few Thebans were killed before the Persians realized that they truly meant to surrender. Xerxes accepted the Thebans as allies, but he nevertheless had them branded on the forehead with the royal mark, beginning with their commander, Leontiades. It was a sign that they were now slaves.
Xerxes' men cleared the pass in the end, but the image of Leonidas' head loomed over it. In the pitiless Greek light of high summer it was a reminder of Persian weakness. Since the Persians normally took pride in treating their enemies with respect, they would not have insulted the body of a fallen foe like Leonidas unless he had enraged them by the force of his resistance. Leonidas' head was a reminder that the butcher's bill for the three days of killing four thousand Greeks (the others escaped) was twenty thousand Persians. Any more such victories and the Persians were ruined.
The naval battles at Artemisium, which took place around the same time as the land battles at Thermopylae, proved even costlier for Persia. A combination of Greek boldness and disastrous weather (the gods of the winds, it was said, favored Greece) reduced the Persian fleet by nearly half. The rump Persian navy of about 650 triremes still outnumbered the Greeks, who could not muster more than about 350 triremes. But the Greeks had the advantages of home water, short supply lines, and maritime expertise.
At Thermopylae, Xerxes had stayed close enough to the fighting to inspire the men but far enough away to limit his danger. Surrounded by royal guards, he sat on a high-backed throne, where he is said to have jumped to his feet three times in horror at the mauling inflicted on his troops. Not that Xerxes' position was risk free. The Greeks claimed afterward to have sent raiders into the Persian camp at night who penetrated even the royal tent before they were repelled. The story is so improbable that it might be true. In any case, it highlights the risks that real leaders take.
After the Battle of Thermopylae, a chastened Xerxes summoned Demaratus again. The Spartan had correctly predicted Sparta's tough stand, so Xerxes asked Demaratus for information and advice. How many more Spartans were there? And how might Persia defeat them?
Demaratus might have been thrilled at these questions because they opened the door for revenge on the Spartan homeland that had exiled him. He told Xerxes that Sparta had eight thousand soldiers, all as good as the men who had fought at Thermopylae. In order to beat them, he advised the Great King to change his strategy. Xerxes should force the Greeks to divide their armies by sending a seaborne force to attack Sparta's home territory and thereby compel the Spartan army to return home. This force would be carried by half the Persian fleet; the rest of the fleet would stay with the bulk of the Persian army in central Greece. These main Persian forces could defeat the rest of the Greeks.
It was a bold plan, but a bad one because it would have allowed the outnumbered Greeks to even the odds and attack a divided Persian fleet at will and in two stages. After furious debate, the plan was rejected. This was a key moment in the war. Like most military decisions, the choice was made not on military grounds alone but in the heat and dust of the political arena.
One Spartan king had died trying to stop Persia's march southward and another had put his life on the line in an endeavor to deflect it. Leonidas would be remembered as a Greek hero, Demaratus as a traitor, but neither won any more success in keeping Xerxes from his determined course. Whether it was the will of the gods or the stubbornness of the Great King, the Persians would not be denied their appointment in Athens.
One day after his men had finally broken through at Thermopylae and Artemisium, Xerxes gave the order. The mighty force began to march, sail, and row its way south. All eyes now turned toward Athens. But they never quite lost their focus on Thermopylae.
In the coming months of drudgery and blood, the sacrifices of the Greeks at the Middle Gate no doubt buoyed up the national spirit. Within less than a year, in great victories at sea at Salamis and on land at Plataea, the Greeks smashed the forces of the invader and drove out the surviving Persians. Afterward, memorials were set up at Thermopylae for the dead, none with an epigram more memorable than this, in John Dryden's translation:
Go tell the Spartans, thou who passeth by, That here, obedient to her laws, we lie.
Barry Strauss is an MHQ contributing editor and the author or editor of numerous books on classical history. This article is adapted from his latest book, The Battle of Salamis: The Naval Encounter That Saved Greece — and Western Civilization (Simon & Schuster, 2004), © 2004 by Barry S. Strauss.
This article was originally published in the Fall 2004 edition of MHQ.
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