At the Hot Gates


Teacher's Study Guide for
At the Hot Gates

The Setting:

At the outset of the story, along the long road between Sparta and the geological choke point known as Thermopylae. The bulk of the story takes place in the narrow pass at Thermopylae.

The Characters:

Agis: a Spartan boy who has run away to follow his father.
Nikandros: his father, a Spartan hoplite.
Polydoros, Eunomos, Aristodemos, Cleomenes: Nikandros' companions in arms.
Leonidas: King of the Spartans.
Soldiers from various other Greek city-states
An Ionian translator
The Three-Hundred Spartans
The invading Persian army

Questions for Comprehension and Discussion

Refer to a map of ancient Greece. Find Sparta in the south. It is located in an area known as the Peloponnese (Pelop's Island). Along the north-east coast of the Peloponnese, find the city of Corinth and the isthmus. This isthmus is the only land connection between the Peloponnese and the mainland. Find Athens, north-east of the isthmus. Now look for Thermopylae in the Straits of Euboea. Euboea is a long island off the eastern coast, north of Athens.

A hoplite is a heavily-armed Greek soldier. What armor does he wear? What are his weapons? Draw a hoplite.

Every Greek city-state (polis) defended their territory with a citizen army. When not serving in a war effort, the men earned a living as farmers, herders, merchants, or followed the common trades of the day. The Spartan culture, on the other hand, evolved differently. Their males were trained, starting at seven years old, to become professional life-long soldiers. In order to free the men from trades and food production, the Spartans enslaved the surrounding population and forced them to provide their daily needs. What are the benefits and drawbacks of the two systems? Which system would you prefer to live under, if you had to choose?

Historical Note:
The battle of Thermopylae did not occur in isolation. While the brave Spartans fought, not far away, at the Cape of Artemisia, an allied contingent of 271 Greek triremes had assembled to try to do at sea what the Spartans were attempting on land. An immense Persian fleet had sailed down the eastern coast of Greece shadowing the progress of the land army. Their numbers are still in dispute, but scholars agree that they numbered no less than 800 ships, and perhaps as many as 1200. In any event, they vastly outnumbered the combined fleet of the Greek allies. Reaching Cape Artemisia, they sought the calm waters between the island of Euboea and the coast. The Cape was the sea choke-point correlating to the narrows of Thermopylae. The Greek naval forces hoped to stop their progress, or at least to take the risk of following the stormy outer coast of Euboea. Both battles were fought simultaneously. The combined Greek naval forces held the Persians off. Although both sides suffered equal loses, it was far more serious for the Greeks, since they had far fewer ships to lose. When news came of the Spartan defeat, the Greeks broke ranks and sailed back south to Athens to consider their next move. With nothing left to offer resistance, the Persians fleet sailed along the coast and the army marched south, destroying everything in its way. They arrived at an abandoned Athens, and sacked the city.

While preparing for the Persian assault, the Athenians had asked the oracle at Delphi how to fend off the oncoming Persians. The oracle offered a typically ambiguous response: take refuge behind their wooden walls. Some interpreted this as a call to build a wooden defense wall around Athens. Others, especially the general Themistocles, knew that wooden walls would not hold back the invaders. He insisted that the oracle meant that their salvation lay in building ships and defeating the Persians at sea. Fortunately, he was able to convince enough influential citizens that this was their only chance. The Athenians abandoned their city and had taken refuge on the island of Salamis, just off the coast. By means of a wily deception executed by Themistocles, the Persians were drawn into a sea battle in the straits. The smaller Athenian vessels were easier to maneuver in the narrow passage, and they dealt the Persian fleet a destructive blow.

The story is that Xerxes had a throne set up on a hillside to watch the battle. As the allied forces decimated his fleet, he ranted and raged at the loss of his ships. But he had achieved his goal: revenge on Athens, who had supported an Ionian revolt during his father's reign. Seeing his fleet defeated in one afternoon, Xerxes suddenly feared that the Greeks might go behind his back and cut off his retreat. Besides, more important issues needed his attention. He left his army behind to ravage the countryside and complete the land conquest of the Greek city-states. The Greeks formed a coalition and defeated the Persian army at the battle of Plataea. Stragglers from the defeated Persian army were enslaved or put to the sword.

This bright moment of Greek cohesiveness was not to last. Athens had flexed her political muscles, and was hungry for more. She founded an empire, subjugating city-states did not align themselves willingly. When Sparta formed a league to resist Athenian growth, the remaining city-states aligned themselves with one side or another, leading to the prolonged and painful 27-year Peloponnesian War that drained the city-states and in the end brought proud Athens to her knees.

Questions from the story:

Pages 5 - 20
  1. What trick do the soldiers use to catch the boy?

  2. When the boy thinks he is about to die, he cries out, "Thanatos!" What does that word mean? Why does he cry it out?

  3. The two soldiers discuss who the boy might be. What are their guesses?

  4. When the boy speaks for the first time, how do the soldiers react? Why?

  5. How could they tell that he was a Spartan?

  6. The soldiers accuse the boy of running away from his youth group, or agela. What is an agela?

  7. Why were the boys in the agela not fed enough?

  8. They bring the boy to Leonidas. Who is he? What is unique about the Spartan kingship?

  9. How does Leonidas test the boy to find out if he's telling the truth?

  10. What reason did the boy give for following the Spartan army?

  11. The boy is checked out by the hoplite soldiers. What was the standard armor of a hoplite? (see notes, pp. 74-75)

  12. How do the hoplites show approval of the boy's actions?

  13. Leonidas decides the boy must be punished for running away. What is his decreed punishment? What is the name of the soldier who steps forward to give the punishment?

  14. Leonidas tells Nikandros to care for the boy. Why Nikandros and not someone else?

Pages 20-29
  1. . Nikandros smacks his son when he says that leaving his agela was a difficult decision. What behavior is expected of a Spartan?

  2. There is mention of a prophecy spoken by the oracle. What is an oracle? Where was this one? To which god was this oracle dedicated? What was the prophecy?

  3. How were the soldiers of Leonidas' army chosen?

  4. The next day the boy steals some food. What does he get? Where did he get it? Why does his father hit him? Who are the helots? Why are they here?

  5. They meet up with other Greeks. How are they different from the Spartans?

  6. Why did Leonidas decide to go fight the Persians?

  7. Leonidas speaks about needing the Athenians to stop the Persians before they reach the isthmus, as they had done at Marathon. What is the isthmus? What happened at Marathon? See the notes on p. 76 and the Historical Notes, p. 69.

  8. How does Leonidas prove that his 300 Spartans are a better choice to fight the Persians than the other Greeks who outnumber them?

  9. What did the emissaries from Xerxes demand from the city-states they visited?

  10. What did the Spartans do to the emissaries?

Pages 29-37
  1. The soldiers discuss the other Greek troops. They compare them to their perioikoi. Who are these perioikoi they speak about? See the notes, page 76.

  2. The Spartans march fully armed. What does their armor look like? How much weight are they carrying? See the note on page 74.

  3. Once arrived at their destination, the boy leaves the other soldiers and investigates the place they have come to. Describe what he experiences in the cleft between the cliffs.

  4. The boy continues to walk and comes through the narrows to where it widens out. What is to his right? What is to his left? What does he see in the plains that open up before him?

  5. The boy wants to run and alert the hoplites. Leonidas is not alarmed. Why?

  6. The boy thinks that they are all Persians. What does Leonidas teach him about the army of the Persians?

  7. The place they have come to is called Thermopylae, which in English translates to the Hot Gates. Why do you think it has this name?

  8. The boy was horrified when he saw the army of the Persians. How do the Spartan hoplites react when they join him?

  9. How do they decide to fortify the narrows? Who do they get to do the work? Why don't they do it themselves?

Pages 37-40
  1. What do the Spartans do in the space before the wall?

  2. Why were some of the Spartans taking time to comb their hair?

  3. The Spartans exercise naked. Why? See note p. 77./br>
  4. Riders appear. The boy identifies two of the riders as barbarians. To a Greek, what is a barbarian? See note on p. 77.

  5. The third rider is a Greek, an Ionian. Look at an ancient map of Greece. Where was Ionia? What country does this land belong to today?

  6. Leonidas calls the Ionian a traitor. What does the Ionian consider himself?

  7. What argument does the Ionian give for cooperating with the Persians?

Pages 40-52
  1. Before the battle, Leonidas arranges the troops. Where does he place the different armies?

  2. Nikandros wants his son to go stand in the passage. What is the boy's response? Where does Leonidas send him? What is Nikandros concerned the boy might see? What does Leonidas advise him? How do they arm the boy?

  3. The Ionian returns with more Persians. The boy is intrigued by the dress of the Persians. How are they dressed?

  4. Xerxes makes Leonidas an offer if he lets them through the pass. What is it? What condition does Xerxes put upon his offer? How does Leonidas reply? How do the Spartans respond?

  5. What does a hoplite reply when the Ionian claims that so many arrows will fly that they will blot out the sun?

  6. What does Leonidas reply when told to give up his arms?

  7. Leonidas calls for phalanx order. What is a phalanx?

  8. In the phalanx, the first two lines did all of the fighting. How did that work?

  9. When a hoplite in the front lines was injured, what did he do?

  10. There was a sudden call for "Tortoise!" What did that mean?

  11. Leonidas calls for the Thespians to come out from behind the wall. What was their job?

  12. What was the boy's job from his perch?

  13. The boy dozes off. What happens? Who warned him just in time?

  14. When the Persians stopped their attack for the night, the Spartans left their post. Who drew the night watch?

  15. The Persian that climbed up to the boy made Leonidas concerned something else could happen. What was that?

  16. The companions discuss the battle. What was the driving force that kept the Persians attacking?

  17. What company of soldiers do the Spartans expect to face the next day? How do they earn their name?

Pages 52-67
  1. What happened during the night?

  2. Who marched against the Spartans this day? How were they dressed?

  3. The first line of the phalanx separated from the rest. What happened next?

  4. During a lull in the fighting, Agis comes down from his perch to search for his father. What was his father doing? What happens when Agis finds him?

  5. What shape were the Spartans in after the second day of fighting? Why?

  6. Leonidas calls the men to council. What is his news? What does he decide to do? What offer does he make to the other Greeks? To the Spartans?

  7. What do the Spartans decide? What do the Thespians decide?

  8. Whom does Leonidas ask Agis to fetch? What wound has he received? What does Leonidas instruct him? What role will Agis play?

  9. When Agis returns home, what punishment does Leonidas decree for him? What does he tell Agis? Do you think this punishment fair? Defend your answer. Why do you think it was a virtue for the Spartans to take punishment silently?

  10. What message does Leonidas send with Aristodemos?

  11. Why is Aristodemos worried about his shield?

  12. While fetching the shield, Agis encounters other soldiers going to join in the fighting. Who were they?

  13. What are Nikandros' last words to his son? If you had been him, would you have said something different? What?

  14. What happened after the battle at the Hot Gates? See the Historical Notes on page 71.

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