I gave a speech on “Becoming a Warrior-Poet” somewhere in Michigan on August 22, 2023, so thought I’d share it in written form here. Enjoy!
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Come with me to a lonely impasse in Greece called the Hot Gates. It’s 480 B.C. On the one side is a sheer drop off; the other a wall of stone. The path is narrow, a bottleneck separating the Greeks from the Persians. Feel the scorching sun on your back, see the dust swirl around your feet with each step, smell death in this unforgiving land. Here flowed the lifeblood of some of the best warriors this world has ever known—the 300 Spartans who gave the rest of Greece the chance it needed to marshal its
forces and win back their freedom from tyrannical Persia.
It’s said that Sparta has no great monuments to boast of, but that it produced men, true men who through their valiant death now live immortal on the pages of history. True and valiant to very death, these Spartans stand as imperfect rolemodels of what it means to be a warrior poet.
Sparta demanded the utmost of her citizens—and they paid the ultimate price at the Battle of Thermopylae, the Hot Gates. They, along with a few thousand allies, would hold the tens of thousands of Persians at bay for seven days, fighting with bare hands and teeth when their weapons broke down.
The Spartans faced the enemies first, alone, just the 300 of them. I quote King Leonidas from Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire, as Leonidas addresses the warriors before the last battle, a suicide mission: “If we have saved our own skins today, our cities would crumble one by one until the whole of Hellas had fallen. But by our death here with honor, in the face of these insuperable odds, we transform vanquishment into victory. With our lives we sow courage into the hearts of our allies. They are the ones who will win the victory, not us. Our role today is to stand and die.” Imagine having your commander say that to you at the beginning of battle.
When faced with death, you instinctively think of what it means to die well. Vain things disappear from your heart and mind—only what matters most remains. The Spartans’ acceptance of, even contempt for death, sprang from knowing there were things worth dying for, worth living for; and that if one held true to what one perceives as honorable, true, and good, one can meet death, at peace with himself and with others.
The Spartan’s physical prowess as fighters, mental fortitude as warriors, and psychological strength as a single, living organism of war was grounded in their history, training, and a warrior ethos that transcends time and place.
Before Sparta became legendary, it was nothing special, just another Greek city. Then Lykurgus changed everything. Coinage was made so ridiculous and impractical—you needed a piece of silver the size of a man’s head to purchase a loaf of bread—that virtue was valued over wealth. All occupations for men were outlawed, except for one—being a warrior.
And warriors they became. The agoge or the Upbringing, took in boys as young as six years old, and stripped everything soft and weak from their bodies and minds. Fat, fear, cowardice, self-pity. For the next ten years, each to-be warrior would regularly run 10 miles over rocky terrain barefoot, holding a mouthful of water. They could not swallow nor spill a drop—at the end of those ten miles, the water was spat into a bowl, and measured; those found lacking were immediately punished.
The boys were starved and forced to steal to survive—punished for being caught, not for stealing. Infractions—leaving a shield concave-side up on the ground, not polishing your armor, not pushing yourself to the max at any given point—were all deserving of punishment. The ends of whips ate into your flesh, tearing your back off over and over again. You cannot cry out, shed a tear, show weakness. You held onto the bar. To let go was to fall to the ground like a wimp for not taking the pain. Sometimes boys would hold on until death or delirium from blood loss and pain released their grip.
The Greeks, not just in Sparta, are known for their particularly brutal form hand-to-hand combat, pankration. One of the most deadly violent fighting forms since Cain and Abel, pankration was basically a fighting match with no limits. Fingers were snapped apart, ears bit off, eyes gouged out—you get the picture. To win you must be the only one standing—even if it meant bringing your opponent to the edge of death, even if your opponent was your best friend.
Of the 300 at Thermopylae, two warriors stand out to me—King Leonidas and Dienekes. Both men were skilled in violence, superb in strength, brilliant in tactics, able to perform the commonplace in the midst of chaos. This last ability, living as usual even as the world crumbles around you, is one of the highest marks of self-mastery.
As a poet, Dienekes studied fear, bringing out valor through his understanding of what was required of him and his personal integrity. Herodotus the historian records that, before the main battle began at Thermopylae, a scout reported that Persian archers were so numerous, their arrows block out the sun. Dienekes nods at him, then turns to his men with a twinkle in his eyes. “Very well. Then we’ll fight in the shade.”
So much for dark humor—but his men joined in his laughter. Why? Because they knew and loved their commander, Dienekes, and King Leonidas, the king they served under.
King Leonidas lived out what it means to earn love and respect, through the sacrifice and pain he suffered for his men. He fought shoulder-to-shoulder with the lowest-ranking soldier; he joked and laughed with them; he was fearless, telling the Persians to “come and take it” when Xerxes commanded Sparta to lay down their arms. And when his strategists debated endlessly on how and where to build a protective wall, he strode out, lifted a boulder, set it down in place, and didn’t stop building until the wall was finished. That is the kind of man almost anyone would gladly fight with and die for.
The Spartans’ strength at Thermopylae came not only from what they’d suffered and trained, but from the opposite of fear—which is, surprisingly, not courage, but love. “The warrior fights,” as GK Chesterton says, “not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.” What brought the 300 to that place at that moment, and what kept them on the battlefield fighting a losing battle, was because they were fighting—and winning—a higher battle. It wasn’t the Persians they wanted to destroy—it was their countries and families they were protecting with their lives.
That is key to what a warrior poet is—someone who knows how to fight, and why he’s fighting. Put another way, it’s not just guns and knives—it’s also theology and philosophy.
But back to love. As the number of their enemies grew faster in number than the corpses beneath their feet, Dieniekes and Leonidas cried out to their men to fight for their country, for freedom, then for their wives and children, and finally—when all was lost but their will to fight—to forget all else but the man fighting beside him. “He is everything, and everything is in him,” Dieinekes told them. That’s why the shield was the one instrument of war they must never, never part with, in death or life—sword, javelin, and dagger were personal weapons, but the shield protected the man at your side. Love, coupled with courage, breeds a selflessness that evil may break, but never could crush. It’s the essence of why soldiers caught in no-man’s-land would pray not “Lord, spare me”, but “Lord, let me be worthy of my brothers.”
Yet that sacrificial love wasn’t what made them the warriors they were. It was their women. In all this talk of fighting and strength and manly glory, it was the women who truly won the battle for Sparta and Greece. Spartan mothers sent their husbands and sons to war, handing them their shield with the words “Come back with it—or on it.” The men went into battle knowing their women would stay strong and bear up under great loss, —and this knowledge gave them their strength and bravery. Modern-day warrior poets are no different; Tim Ballard’s wife did the same when she encouraged him to quit his job and place his very life in danger to rescue trafficked children. Susan Wumbrand, when all other Romanian pastors crumbled in the face of godless tyranny, told Richard she would not have a coward for a husband, even if it meant death for both of them.
Leonidas knew that the eyes of all Greece would be on their Spartan women after the 300 had perished. If the women crumbled, the rest of Greece would follow, and never recover. But they didn’t crumble. They stood strong, and because of them Greece stood strong—and one year after the death of the 300, Greece’s fleet and army conquered the Persians at Salamis and Plataea.