Battle of Thermopylae (480 BC)
Last stand of the 300
~ My Tribute ~
In the Battle of Thermopylae of 480 BC an alliance of Greek city-states fought the invading Persian army in the mountain pass of Thermopylae.
Vastly outnumbered, the Greeks held back the enemy in one of the most famous last stands of history. A small force led by King Leonidas of Sparta blocked the only road through which the massive army of Xerxes I could pass. After several days of confrontation the Persians attacked but were defeated by heavy losses, disproportionate to those of the Greeks. This continued on the second day but on the third day of the battle a local resident named Ephialtes betrayed the Greeks, revealing a mountain path that led behind the Greek lines.
With the rest of the army dismissed, King Leonidas stayed behind with his bodyguard of 300 Spartans and the 700 man Thespian army even though they knew it meant their deaths, to allow the rest of the army to escape.
The disproportionate losses of the Persian army alarmed Xerxes so that when his navy was later defeated at Salamis he fled Greece leaving only part of his force to finish the job of the conquest of Greece, which was defeated at the Battle of Plataea. The performance of the defenders at the battle of Thermopylae is often used as an example of the advantages of training, equipment and good use of terrain to maximise an army’s potential, as well as a symbol of courage against extremely overwhelming odds. The heroic sacrifice of the Spartans and the Thespians has captured the minds of many throughout the ages and has given birth to many cultural references as a result.
Size of the Persian Army
Xerxes I, king of Persia, had been preparing for years to continue the war against the Greeks started by his father Darius. In 481 BC, after four years of preparation, the Persian army and navy arrived in Asia Minor.
A bridge of ships had been made at Abydos. This allowed the land forces to cross the Hellespont. Herodotus of Halicarnassus, who wrote the first history of this war, gave the size of Xerxes’s army as follows:
Fleet crew: 517,610
Arabs and Libyans: 20,000
Greek allies: 324,000
Spartan Lamda shield emblem circa 422 B.C.
A congress was called in Corinth in late autumn of 481 BC, headed by the militaristic Sparta, whose supremely disciplined warriors were trained from birth to be the best soldiers in Greece and among the fiercest in the ancient world. Very little is known about the internal workings in the congress or the discussion during its proceedings.
Funeral orations though have been criticised since antiquity for not being historically correct but rather an exercise in flattery. While this was probably Themistocles’ strategy it is probably not what the congress of Corinth, which was dominated by Sparta, decided. More probably its decision was that the way to victory was to wear down the Persian Army and hold it in the north as long as possible until it was forced out of the country due to attrition, epidemics, and lack of food.
Topography of the battlefield and Greek forces
At the time, the mountain pass of Thermopylae consisted of a pass so narrow that two chariots could barely move abreast—on the western side of the pass stood the sheer side of the mountain, while the east side was the sea. Along the path was a series of three «gates», and at the center gate a short wall that had been erected by the Phocians in the previous century to aid in their defense against Thessalian invasions. It was here in August of 480 BC that an army of some 7,000 Greeks, led by the 300 Spartans of the royal guard, stood to receive the full force of the Persian army, numbering perhaps some sixty times its size. The Greek army included according to Herodotus the following forces:
Arcadian Orchomenos: 120
Other Arcadians: 1,000
Phocians and Opuntan Locrians: 1,000
Total forces: 5,200
To this number we have to add 1,000 other Lacedemonians mentioned by Diodorus Siculus and some perhaps 800 auxiliary troops from other Greek cities. Diodorus gives 4,000 as the total Greek troops, and Pausanias 11,200. It has been argued that this force was only intended to slow and not stop the invasion force. However it seems that the Athenians at least felt confident that this army and Leonidas’ presence were enough to stop the Persians, otherwise they would have already vacated their city and sent their whole army to Thermopylae.
According to Herodotus the main reason that a force this small was sent was that the Spartans were awaiting the end of the Karneia Festival and the other Greeks the end of the Olympic Games. It is more probable, though, that a small force was sent because the site favored a small defending force. We know of one case in which a small force did stop a larger invading force from the north; in 353 BC/352 BC the Athenians managed to stop the forces of Philip II of Macedon by deploying 5,000 hoplites and 400 horsemen.
Knowing the likely outcome of the battle, Leonidas selected his men on one simple criterion: he took only men who had fathered sons that were old enough to take over the family responsibilities of their fathers. The rationale behind this criterion was that the Spartans knew their death was almost certain at Thermopylae. Plutarch mentions, in his Sayings of Spartan Women, that after encouraging her husband before his departure for the battlefield, Gorgo, the wife of Leonidas I asked him what she should do when he had left. To this, Leonidas replied:
Marry a good man, and have good children.
When Xerxes reached Thermopylae, he sent emissaries to the Greek forces. At first he asked Leonidas to come on his side and offered him to be king of all of Greece. Leonidas answered:
If you knew what is good in life, you would abstain from wishing for foreign things. For me it is better to die for Greece than to be monarch over my compatriots (Plutarch, Moralia, 225, 10)
Then Xerxes asked him more forcefully to surrender their arms. To this Leonidas gave his very famous answer: "Come take them!"
Shield emblem of King Leonidas of Sparta
When scouts initially informed Xerxes of the size of the Greek force, and of the Spartans who were performing preparations which included naked calisthenics and combing their hair, Xerxes found the reports laughable. Not understanding the ritual significance of the Spartan preparations as the actions of men with the resolution to fight to the end, he expected the force to disband at any moment and waited four days for the Greek force to retreat. When they did not, he became increasingly frustrated by what he perceived as foolish impudence on the part of the small Greek force. On the fifth day Xerxes ordered his troops into the pass.
The Greeks deployed themselves in a phalanx, a wall of overlapping shields and layered spearpoints, spanning the entire width of the pass. The Persians, armed with arrows and short spears, could not break through the long spears of the Greek phalanx, nor were their lightly armoured men a match for the superior armour, weaponry and discipline of the Greek hoplites. Because of the terrain, the Persians were unable to surround or flank the Greeks, thus rendering their superior numbers almost useless. Greek morale was high.
Herodotus wrote that when Dienekes, a Spartan soldier, was informed that Persian arrows were so numerous that they blotted out the sun, he remarked with characteristically laconic prose, «So much the better, we shall fight in the shade.»
At first Xerxes sent in the Medes, perhaps because he preferred them for their bravery or perhaps, as Diodorus Siculus suggested, because Xerxes wanted them to bear the brunt of the fighting—the Medes had been only recently conquered by the Persians. Along with them he sent relatives of those who had fallen at the battle of Marathon ten years earlier. According to Ctesias the first wave numbered 10,000 soldiers under Artapanus.
Enormous casualties were sustained by the Persians as the disciplined Spartans who sought to maximise enemy casualties orchestrated a series of feint retreats, followed by a quick turn back into formation. Waves upon waves of soldiers would go to the front, stepping upon the bodies of their dead comrades, only to die. Ctesias writes that Xerxes sent 20,000 more men driven by whip-wielding officers who flogged them whenever they retreated ; these fared no better. Fifty thousand more Persians attacked on the second day of battle, but were repelled. After watching his troops fall before the Greeks, Xerxes decided to send in the legendary Persian Immortals. Leonidas arranged a system of relays between the hoplites of the various cities so as to constantly have fresh troops on the front line. Yet in the heat of the battle the voracity [of the Greeks] was such that the units did not rotate out but continued to fight and overcame the bounds of the battle to kill many of the elite Persians—even the Immortals lacked the power to break the determined and driven phalanx, and they, too, were forced to retreat with heavy casualties. The casualties on the Greek side were small : Ctesias claims that the first 10,000 Persians killed only two or three Greeks. It seemed that with regular reinforcements the Greeks could go on ad infinitum.
After the second day of fighting, a local shepherd named Ephialtes defected to the Persians and informed Xerxes of a separate path through Thermopylae, which the Persians could use to outflank the Greeks. The pass was defended by 1,000 Phocians, who had been placed there when the Greeks learned of the alternate route just before the battle ; they were not expecting to engage the Persians. Xerxes sent Hydarnes with the Immortals through the pass. Surprised by the Persian attack, the Phocians offered only a brief resistance before retreating higher up the mountain to regroup. Instead of pursuing them, however, the Persians simply advanced through the pass unopposed. For this act, the name Ephialtes means «nightmare» and is synonymous with «traitor» in Greek.
Spartan Mora shield emblem
Final stand of the Spartans and Thespians
Leonidas, realizing that further fighting would be futile, dismissed all Greek forces save the surviving Spartans and Thebans on August 11; the Spartans having pledged themselves to fight to the death, and the Thebans held as hostages as Thebes’ loyalty to Greece was questioned. However, a contingent of about 700 Thespians, led by Demophilus, refused to leave with the other Greeks. Instead, they chose to stay in the sacrificial effort to delay the advance and allow the rest of the Greek army to escape. The significance of the Thespians’ refusal to leave should not be ignored.
The Spartans, as brave as their sacrifice indubitably was, were professional soldiers, trained from birth to be ready to give their lives in combat as Spartan law dictated. Conversely, the Thespians were citizen-soldiers (Demophilus, for example, made his living as an architect) who elected to add whatever they could to the fight, rather than allow the Spartans to be annihilated alone. Though their bravery is often overlooked by history, it was most certainly not overlooked by the Spartans, who are said to have exchanged cloaks with the Thespians and promised to be allies for eternity.
The fighting was said to have been extremely brutal, even for hoplite combat. As their numbers diminished the Greeks retreated to a small hill in the narrowest part of the pass. The Thebans took this opportunity to surrender to the Persians. After their spears broke, the Spartans and Thespians kept fighting with their xiphos (short swords), and after those broke, they were said to have fought with their bare hands, teeth and nails.
The Greeks killed many Persians, including two of Xerxes’ brothers. In this final stand, Leonidas was eventually killed; rather than surrender, the Spartans fought fanatically to defend his body. To avoid losing any more men, the Persians killed the last of the Spartans with flights of arrows.
When the body of Leonidas was recovered by the Persians, Xerxes, in a rage at the loss of so many of his soldiers, ordered that the head be cut off, and the body crucified. The mutilation of a corpse, even one of the enemy, carried a great social stigma for the Persians, and it was an act that Xerxes was said to have deeply regretted afterwards. Forty years after the battle Leonidas’ body was returned to the Spartans, where he was buried with full honors and funeral games were held every year.
While a tactical victory for the Persians, the enormous casualties caused by less than a thousand Greek soldiers was a significant blow to the Persian army.
Monuments at site
There is an epitaph on a monument at site of the battle (which was erected in 1955) with Simonides’ epigram, which can be found in Herodotus’ work The Histories (7.228), to the Spartans:
Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,
that here, obedient to their laws, we lie
or a more strictly literal:
Oh foreigner, give a message to the Lacedaemonians
that here lie we, their words obeying.
Another translation (by Michael Dodson, 1951) captures the spirit of enduring service to the state which was taught to all Spartan warriors:
Friend, tell the Spartans that on this hill
We lie obedient to them still.
Frank Miller, in his comic series 300, translated it still differently:
Go tell the Spartans, passerby,
That here, by Spartan law, we lie
Additionally, there is a modern monument at the site, called the «Leonidas Monument» in honor of the Spartan king. It reads simply: «Come and take them»
Thermopylae - Greece