What should we expect from our elected officials? Sparta has lessons
With an approaching election and persistent disappointment in elected officials, I have heard various versions of “Let’s kick all of them out of office and elect a fresh batch.” But I think getting rid of the political rot calls for a scalpel, not a blunderbuss.
A friend who has held local elected office recently mentioned his dismay that some Fayette County officials seem compelled to make their work in office about self-aggrandizement, having lost sight of the selfless service that should be their guiding light.
But some does not mean all; there are diamonds among the stones. He told me of a very demanding and tough woman he worked with, the kind of person that weaker people may avoid. He said she wasn’t always easy to work with but she never lied to him, she had his back, and he could always count on her word and her commitments.
Maybe we could use more of that in public office instead of quick smiles and promises. A few diamonds among the stones do stand tall, put their own interest aside and serve the public instead of themselves.
I was reminded recently of real leadership when a package arrived. It was a birthday gift to myself, a replica bust of Spartan King Leonidas in full beard and battle helmet, circa 480 BC. The bust now sits on my desk, causing my younger daughter to squint when she looked at it with, “What the heck?” bouncing in her head. I am confident my teenage daughter will roll her eyes when she notices.
They don’t know the story of Leonidas, or that he is the ultimate example of honor, a virtue that seems to be rapidly dying.
There are more than a few Americans worth emulating, but politicians at every level would do well to also study Leonidas of Sparta and take his measure in commitment, loyalty, selflessness, doing the right thing even when it is very hard and dedication to ideals greater than himself.
We could use a remedial school on these character issues for some elected officials.
Right here in Peachtree City we have a mayor whose idea of consensus building is to trash his fellow City Council members in the blogs and local newspapers.
I have watched them struggle to find a way to deal with him, trying not to descend to his level. Our mayor’s view of leadership is to find a success and take personal credit for it, as he did recently when The Gathering Place project was completed and he brazenly took credit for the hard work of Vanessa Fleisch.
Our mayor’s notion of honor is to create a totally unnecessary $12,000 expense to the city by his own misbehavior, then maneuvering behind the scenes to have the taxpayers pay the bill instead of stepping up to take ownership of the mess he created.
We may find out whether the City Council went too far in reducing the mayor’s salary, their attempt to make things right for taxpayers, since the mayor is suing the city he purports to represent, his attempt to make sure he gets his money.
Sounds to me like our mayor would fit right in with the politicians Leonidas dealt with five centuries before Christ was born.
Around 480 BC, King Xerxes of the vast Persian Empire brought a fighting force of over 200,000 warriors to conquer Greece. Xerxes was coming from the north, through Thrace, Macedonia and Thessaly, and had to pass through a bottleneck at Thermopylae, where the most narrow point was just wide enough for one chariot, with high cliffs on the southern side and on the north side a long, steep drop to the Malian Gulf.
During this period Greece was composed of city-states which often fought each other, Sparta and Athens among them. Sparta’s entire culture was dedicated to war and its warriors, trained brutally from the age of 7. King Leonidas knew his Spartans were the most fierce warriors but far too few in number, and defending against Xerxes would require banding all Greeks together.
While this disaster knocked at Greece’s door, Leonidas petitioned the leaders of the other city-states to immediately mobilize their fighting forces to defend Greece. They dawdled and argued because the Olympiad was under way and could not be interrupted.
Ultimately, they did nothing, sort of like our own Congress raiding the Social Security fund, then lacking the courage to act on the approaching fiscal calamity in that program.
Leonidas knew the narrow pass at Thermopylae was the strategic choke point to hold back the overwhelming Persian force. He said his goodbyes to his family, gathered 300 of his best warriors, and set off to defend Greece. Along the way a force of 7,000 other Greeks joined him, and even with the added strength they all knew it was a suicide mission.
At Thermopylae, King Xerxes remained on his mobile throne, taking reports and issuing orders from a safe distance, while Leonidas led his men by example, side by side with them on the front line of their phalanx, unwilling to do less than the best of his men.
The hand-to-hand fighting was furious. On the first day, the Spartans held the narrow pass as the Persians sent waves of 10,000 to assault them. The Persian bodies piled up with just a few Spartan losses.
On the second day, Xerxes assumed the few defenders would be weakened, but they held under the same brutal assault waves. Xerxes withdrew his force in frustration and sought alternatives. A Greek traitor named Ephialtes informed him of a secret pass around Thermopylae that would take Persians around the Greeks to attack them from behind.
While Persian forces were surrounding them that night, Leonidas learned of the betrayal and sent the remaining Greeks in retreat back to defend their cities, leaving the remnants of the 300 Spartans to fight and die defending the pass on the third day.
By their stand and sacrifice, the Spartans were giving their rival city-state and prime target of Xerxes, Athens, time to evacuate with their irreplaceable art and manuscripts, and they were providing all of Greece the inspiration to get busy defending their homeland.
That evening, spies reported to Xerxes the strange spectacle they had seen as the Spartans combed their long hair, oiled their bodies and prepared for their death the next day.
On the third day they fought with ferocity and ultimately every one of the Spartans was killed, including Leonidas. In a rage Xerxes ordered that Leonidas’ head be cut off and his body crucified.
Xerxes did go on to conquer much of Greece, but Persian occupation and influence was short-lived, and the last stand at Thermopylae is credited by some historians as the savior of the roots of western civilization by making possible the evacuation of Athens.
Maybe that is taking it too far, maybe it is enough that Leonidas and his men sacrificed themselves for something they felt was greater than themselves.
At Thermopylae there now stands a bronze statue of Leonidas with an epitaph. Since there were no Greek survivors to report to Sparta what happened to their warriors in 480 BC, the epitaph appeals to strangers to tell Sparta about the faithful service of the 300: “Go tell the Spartans, thou who passest by, that here, obedient to their laws, we lie.”
I don’t pretend to measure up to the example of Leonidas and we don’t ask our elected officials to risk or sacrifice their life. Nevertheless, Leonidas is my reminder that we should strive in our personal life, and redouble that effort in public office, to meet high standards of honesty, integrity, objectivity and transparency ahead of any personal interest.
I know, I’m old-fashioned and I am likely to be disappointed. But the bust of Leonidas seems to be looking at me, and the least I can do is try.
[Terry Garlock of Peachtree City occasionally contributes a column to The Citizen.]