Thermopylae and Texian self-fashioning

‘Thermopylae had her messenger of defeat; the Alamo had none’. Despite having spent the first nineteen years of my life in or near San Antonio, Texas, I didn’t come across this rather pompous exclamation until years later. For most of my childhood, the Alamo was the boring and rather embarrassing shrine to which we were dragged on a seemingly yearly basis in primary school and required to remain reverently silent as we viewed the somewhat dusty historical dioramas. When, in my early teens, I became interested in Greek and Roman history, it never occurred to me that there might be any link between these subjects and my home State (indeed, I suspect the distance was a big part of the appeal).

As John Steinbeck once noted, ‘Texas has its own history based on, but not limited by, facts‘. T.R. Fehrenbach, the most popular historian of Texas in the 20th century, once summarized the romantic fictions of Texan history, writing that (in terms displaying cultural assumptions that will make 21st century readers squirm) ‘Rangers, cattle drives, Injuns, and gunfights may be mythology, but it’s our mythology’. To remarkable extent, the Greeks and Romans belong to that catalogue of frontier mythology. This is perhaps especially true in the period of the Texan revolution and up until the annexation of the Republic of Texas by the United States, when the Texians eventually became Texans and, after their own fashion, Americans.


Thermopylae in Texas?

The references to Thermopylae were present during from the very beginning of the Texan Revolution. The first battle of this conflict, in fact little more than a skirmish, took place at Gonzales, a small town east of San Antonio, which had been established in 1825 as a colony for immigrants from the United States after the liberalization of Mexican immigration policy under the 1824 constitution. The colony at Gonzales suffered from the same problem that had characterized all settlements in Texas since the earliest days of Spanish colonization: it was extremely vulnerable  to attacks by local Indian tribes, especially the Comanches, who were a formidable military force. In response to this threat, the Mexican government gave the colony at Gonzales a six-pounder cannon, hardly an impressive piece of artillery by contemporary European standards, but enough to create a bit of a bang and make an impression in the sparsely inhabited frontier of Mexico’s far north.


Mural from the local museum in Gonzales

But in 1835 things were not well in Mexico. President Antonio López de Santa Anna — the  self-styled ‘Napoleon of the West’ — made substantial changes to the 1824 constitution, under the Siete Leyes (Seven Laws) which gave substantially more power to himself and went some way toward refashioning Mexico from a Federal Republic on the model of the United States to a centralized Republic on the model of France. 11 States rebelled, amongst them the sprawling northern state of Coahuila y Tejas. The commander of Mexican troops in Texas, Colonel Domingo de Ugartechea,  was understandably reluctant to allow even a small piece of artillery to remain in the hands of a potentially rebellious faction. So he sent forth a force consisting of one corporal and five private soldiers to retrieve the gun. Little did he know how rebellious these Texians would prove. When the inhabitants of Gonzales refused to give up the cannon to the first Mexican force, Ugartechea sent a much more formidable detachment of 100 dragoons to seize it. When the dragoons arrived, they were greeted by the local militia. These Texians flew a makeshift flag showing the cannon with the inscription ‘Come and Take It’, a paraphrase of the defiant response given by King Leonidas to the Persians at Thermopylae.  The Texians viewed themselves as latter-day Greeks, fighting for the rights of their decentralized polities against the centralizing forces a larger and more powerful empire (Mexico here serving as Persia).

The associations between the Texians and the Greeks would prove a compelling means of mythologizing the revolution. Comparisons between the battles of Thermopylae and the Alamo were made almost immediately. On the 18th of March 1836, only twelve days after the fall of the Alamo, David Burnet, the acting President of the newly-declared Republic of Texas wrote that

The fall of the Alamo is the surest guarantee of our ultimate success. The Spartan band who so nobly perished there, have bequeathed to us an example, which ought and will be imitated; and have inflicted on the enemy a terror and a loss that are equivalent to a defeat.

A few weeks later, General Thomas Chambers invoked Thermopylae in a pamphlet written to encourage volunteers from the United States to join in the Texan Army, written in the high style of the era which sounds rather histrionic to 21st century readers:

The fort was carried by storm,but the valiant band defended themselves with desperate resolution until they were all hewed down. . . . Brave, chivalrous, heroic, patriotic band! ye sleep in death but still are free.” Your names shall be inscribed in the proudest and brightest pages of history with those of Leonidas. … It is expected that the despot will attempt to advance immediately into the heart of the country to murder and butcher our families,and devastate our homes. Let him come! If he has made for our intrepid brethren and country- men a Thermopylae at Bexar, he shall also find in the plains of Texas a Marathon and a Plataea!

By October of 1836, the comparison had even made its way into popular song.  Reuben Potter’s ‘Hymn of the Alamo’, which was reprinted many times in both Texas and the United States, contains the following bit of doggerel:

Here, on this new Thermopylae

Our monument shall tower on high,

And ‘Alamo’ hereafter be

In bloodier fields, the battle cry

But the most famous comparison between the two battles was made in 1842 by Edward Burleson, the Vice-President of the Republic of Texas, in a speech made at the site of the Alamo:

Citizens, the feeling inspired by events, within these consecrated walls, of so recent date, fills my bosom with emotions that it would be in vain to attempt utterance. This sacred spot, and these crumbling remains, the desecrated temple of Texian liberty, will teach a lesson which freeman can never forget; and while we mourn the unhappy fate of Travis, Crockett, Bowie, and their brave compatriots  let it be the boast of Texians, that  , though Thermopylae had her messenger of defeat, the Alamo had none.

Edward Burleson (1798-1851), Vice President of the Republic of Texas (1841-44), invoker of Thermopylae.

Edward Burleson (1798-1851), Vice President of the Republic of Texas (1841-44), invoker of Thermopylae.

It’s significant that, despite this grandiloquence of tone, this was not only a commemorative speech given by a politician but also a speech given by an military commander to troops in wartime: the Texan army was at that time fighting off an expeditionary force of some 500 Mexican troops under the command of Gen. Rafael Vasquez, who had briefly managed to recapture San Antonio. Burleson clearly believed that the reference to Theremopylae was one that would galvanize the troops. His propagandic purpose also goes some way toward his somewhat lax accounting: although the Mexican Army had indeed signaled that they would give no quarter and did indeed massacre the majority of the Texian defenders, the Alamo in fact in fact had numerous survivors (many, but by no means all, of whom were non-combatants, including slaves).

Burleson’s speech obviously struck a chord, as its final lines were hastily inscribed on the monument to the defenders of the Alamo that the Texan government had commissioned the year before. alamomonument

Not every Texian was an enthusiastic devotee of the Classics. When, at an early meeting of the Texan congress, the learned Tejano Lorenzo de Zavala began a speech by saying ‘An ancient Roman once said’, he was interrupted and told that the concern was not with ancient Romans but with contemporary Tex(i)ans. An understandable sentiment perhaps, but one which ignores the role of the ancient world in Texian self-fashioning.


3 thoughts on “Thermopylae and Texian self-fashioning

  1. Fascinating! Such a contrast with the European empires’ obsession with Rome. Did the Mexicans hark back to the ancient world too?

  2. Well, one Mexican officer compared their victory at the Alamo to that of Pyrrhus against the Romans. The Mexican Army, like the Epirote army before it, was well-training in the conventional tactics of the era. But they were fighting a Napoleonic-style battle (which assumes smooth-bored muskets) against a force armed with rifled weapons. ‘Another such victory and all is lost!’

    More generally, Mexico is a predominately Roman Catholic country with a law code based on Roman law, so I’m sure many educated Mexicans have seen themselves as neo-Romans at various points.

  3. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

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