In the Battle of Thermopylae of 480 BC, an alliance of Greek city-states fought the invading Persian army at the pass of Thermopylae in central
A small force led by King Leonidas of
The performance of the defenders at the battle of
After the expedition to
Support gathered around these two leading states. A congress met at
The Persian army first encountered a joint force of 10,000 Athenian and Spartan hoplites led by Euanetus and Themistocles in the vale of Tempe. Upon hearing this, Xerxes sent the army through the Sarantaporo strait, which was unguarded, and sidestepped them. The hoplites, warned by Alexander I of Macedon, vacated the pass. The allied Greeks judged that the next strategic choke point where the Persian army could be stopped was
Some modern historians, such as Bengtson, claim that the purpose of the land force was to slow down the Persian army while the Persian navy was defeated at sea. Another theory is that the land army was expected to hold back the Persian forces in the north and defeat it through attrition, epidemics, and food deprivation.
Some have argued that the Athenians were confident that a small force led by Leonidas would be enough to hold back the Persians; otherwise, they would have already vacated their city and sent their whole army to
Leonidas took charge of his personal fighting unit, the 300 Spartans, and headed to
Xerxes I, king of
The size of the Persian army has been, and still is, under debate. Herodotus who wrote the first history of this war accounts for an army of 2.6 million men, while the poet Simonides, who was a near-contemporary, talks of four million. Ctesias of Cnidus, Artaxerxes Mnemon's personal physician, wrote a history of
Modern scholars have given different estimates based on knowledge of the Persian military systems, their logistical capabilities and supplies available along the army's route. Modern estimations tend to consider the figures given in ancient texts as miscalculations or exaggerations on the part of the victors. Sir Frederick Maurice, a British general in World War I, was among the first to claim that the army could not have surpassed 175,000 due this reason. A minority of scholars have suggested land force figures lower than 100,000, while a popular view supports a range of 100,000-150,000 or 150,000-200,000.
According to Herodotus, the Greek army numbered around 7.000 men. Diodorus gives 4,000 as the total of Greek troops, and Pausanias 11,200. Modern historians, who usually consider Herodotus more reliable, prefer his claim of 7,000 men.
In ancient times, the coast line was about where the road is now, or even closer to the mountain
At the time, the pass of Thermopylae consisted of a track along the shore of the
On the Persian army's arrival to the battle scene, Greek troops instigated a council meeting. Some Peloponnesians suggested withdrawal to the Isthmus and blocking the passage to
Meanwhile, the Persians entered the pass and sent a mounted scout to reconnoiter. The Greeks allowed him to come up to the camp, observe them, and depart. When the scout reported to Xerxes the size of the Greek force and that the Spartans were indulging in calisthenics and combing their long hair, Xerxes found the reports laughable. Seeking the counsel of an exiled Spartan in his employ, Demaratus, Xerxes was told that the Spartans were preparing for battle and that it was their custom to adorn their hair beforehand. The exile called them "the bravest men in
Xerxes remained incredulous. According to another account, he sent emissaries to the Greek forces. At first, he asked Leonidas to join him by offering the kingship of all
Then Xerxes asked him more forcefully to surrender their arms. To this Leonidas gave his noted answer:
(pronounced: /molon labe/),
meaning "Come take them". This quote has been repeated by many later generals and politicians in order to express an army's or nation's determination to not surrender without a battle.
Despite their extremely disproportionate numbers, Greek morale was high. Herodotus writes that when Dienekes, a Spartan soldier, was informed that Persian arrows would be so numerous as "to blot out the sun", he remarked with characteristically laconic prose, "So much the better, we shall fight in the shade."
Xerxes waited four days for the Greek force to disperse. On the fifth day he ordered the Medes and the Cissians to take the Greeks prisoner and bring them before him.
Xerxes sent in the Medes who had been only recently conquered by the Persians perhaps, as Diodorus Siculus suggested, because he wanted them to bear the brunt of the fighting.
The Medes soon found themselves in a frontal assault. The Greeks had camped on either side of the rebuilt Phocian wall. That the wall was guarded shows that the Greeks were using it to establish a reference line for the battle, but they fought in front of it.
Details of the tactics are somewhat scant. The Greeks probably deployed in a phalanx, a wall of overlapping shields and layered spearpoints, spanning the entire width of the pass. Herodotus says that the units for each state were kept together. The Persians, armed with arrows and short spears, could not break through the long spears of the phalanx, nor were their lightly armoured men a match for the superior armour, weaponry, and discipline of the hoplites.
Yet there are some indications the Greeks did not fight entirely in close formation. They made use of the feint to draw the Medes in, pretending to retreat in disorder only to turn suddenly and attack the pursuing Medes. In this way they killed so many Medes that Xerxes is said to have started up off the seat from which he was watching the battle three times. According to Ctesias, the first wave numbered 10,000 soldiers and were commanded by Artapanus.
The king eventually withdrew the Medes. Having taken the measure of the enemy, he threw the best troops he had into a second assault: the Immortals, an elite corps of 10,000 men. On his side, Leonidas had arranged a system of relays between the hoplites of the various cities so as to constantly have fresh troops on the front line. In the heat of the battle, however, the units did not get a chance to rotate. Being able to approach the Greek line only in such numbers as the space allowed, the Immortals fared no better than the Medes. Xerxes had to withdraw them as well. The first day of battle probably ended there.
On the second day, the assault failed again. The account of the slain gives some indication why: the wall of bodies must have broken up the Persian line and detracted from their morale. Climbing over the bodies, they could see that they had stepped into a killing machine but the officers behind prevented them from withdrawing. Xerxes at last stopped the assault and withdrew to his camp, totally perplexed. He now knew that a head-on confrontation against Spartan-led troops in a narrow place was the wrong approach.
Late on the second day of battle, as the king was pondering what to do next, he received a windfall: a Malian Greek traitor named Ephialtes informed him of a path around
The path led from east of the Persian camp along the ridge of
Ephialtes was motivated by the desire of a reward, but this came to nothing when the Persians were later defeated at the Battle of Salamis. He then fled to
None of the Persians' actions surprised Leonidas. From a variety of sources, he was kept apprised of their movements and received intelligence of the Persian outflanking movement before first light.
When Leonidas learned that the Phocians had not held, he called a council at dawn. During the council some Greeks argued for withdrawal in the face of the overwhelming Persian advance, while others pledged to stay. After the council, many of the Greek forces did choose to withdraw. Herodotus believed that Leonidas blessed their departure with an order, but he also offered the alternate point of view that those retreating forces departed without orders. The Spartans had pledged themselves to fight to the death, while the Thebans were held as hostage against their will. However, a contingent of about 700 Thespians, led by general Demophilus, the son of Diadromes, refused to leave with the other Greeks, but cast their lot with the Spartans.
Ostensibly, the Spartans were obeying their oath and following the oracle of
At dawn Xerxes made libations. He paused to allow the Immortals sufficient time to descend the mountain, and then began his advance.
The Greeks this time sallied forth from the wall to meet the Persians in the wider part of the pass in an attempt to slaughter as many Persians as they could. They fought with spears until every spear was shattered and then switched to xiphoi (short swords). In this struggle, Herodotus tells us that two brothers of Xerxes fell: Abrocomes and Hyperanthes. Leonidas also died in the assault.
Receiving intelligence that Ephialtes and the Immortals were advancing toward the rear, the Greeks withdrew and took a stand on Kolonos a small hill behind the wall. The Thebans deserted to the Persians but a few were slain before their surrender was accepted. While some of the remaining Greeks fought with their xiphoi, some were left with only their hands and teeth. Tearing down part of the wall, Xerxes ordered the hill surrounded and the Persians rained down arrows until the last Greek was dead. Archaeologists have found evidence of the final arrow shower.
The modern monument of the Spartans with the bronze statue of Leonidas. The sign reads 'Molon Labe', meaning 'Come and Get'
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. This was very uncommon for the Persians; they had the habit of treating enemies that fought bravely against them with great honor, as the example of Pytheas captured earlier off
Xerxes was curious as to why there was such a small Greek force guarding
Two Spartans survived the conflict. Aristodemus suffered an eye injury and was sent behind the lines, eventually ordered back to
After the departure and defeat of the Persians, the Greeks collected their dead and buried them on the hill. A stone lion was erected to commemorate Leonidas. Forty years after the battle, Leonidas' body was returned to
The fierce resistance of the Spartan-led army offered
The simultaneous naval Battle of Artemisium was a stalemate, whereupon the Athenian navy retreated. The Persians were now in control of the Aegean Sea and all of peninsular
Simonides composed a well-known epigram, which was engraved as an epitaph on a commemorative stone placed on top of the burial mound of the Spartans at
Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,
that here, obedient to their laws, we lie.
Steven Pressfield, in Gates of Fire
Go, stranger, and to
That here, obeying her behests, we fell.
Go tell the Spartans, thou that passest by,
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.
William Lisle Bowels
Here lie in death, remembering her command.
Erich von Manstein Lost Victories
William Golding, The Hot Gates, 1965
Ruskin said of this epitaph that it was the noblest group of words ever uttered by man. Its purpose is not to attract attention, but rather to show that they fear that
The full length article can be found at: http://www.battle-of-thermopylae.eu/. The website contains lots of additional information on the battle and a large number of photographs of the battlefield and the monuments.