The battle of Thermopylae

  • by  Fotis Kerasaridis

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 centralGreece. Vastly outnumbered, they held back the invader in one of history's most famous last stands. A small force led by King Leonidas ofSparta blocked the only road through which the massive army of Xerxes I could pass. After three days of battle, a local resident named Ephialtes betrayed them by revealing a mountain path that led behind their lines. Dismissing the rest of the army, King Leonidas stayed behind with 300 Spartans and 700 Thespian volunteers. Though they knew it meant their own deaths, they held their position and secured the retreat of the other forces. The Persians succeeded in taking the pass but sustained heavy losses, extremely disproportionate to those of the Greeks. The fierce resistance of the Spartan-led army offeredAthens the invaluable time to prepare for a decisive naval battle.

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 maximize an army's potential, and has become a symbol of courage against 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.

Greek Preparations

After the expedition to Greece had got under way, Xerxes sent messengers to all Greek cities offering blandishments if they would submit, and asking for "earth and water" from their soil as a token of their submission. Many smaller states submitted. However, the Athenians threw their envoys into a pit and the Spartans threw theirs into a well, taunting them with the retort, "Dig it out for yourselves" (referring to the 'earth and water' demand).

Support gathered around these two leading states. A congress met at Corinth in late autumn of 481 BC and a confederate alliance of Greek city-states was formed. It had the power to send envoys asking for assistance and to dispatch troops from the member states to defensive points after joint consultation. There is no evidence that any one state was in charge. Herodotus calls them simply "the Greeks" or "the Greeks who had banded together." The interests of all the states played a part in determining defensive strategy. Nothing else is known about the internal workings of the congress or the discussion during its proceedings.

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 Thermopylae. They decided to defend it and send a fleet to Artemision, a naval choke point, as Xerxes' army was being supplied and supported by sea. Using the fleet, Xerxes' army might have crossed Maliacos bay and outflanked the Greek army again.

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 Thermopylae. There is one known 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.

Leonidas took charge of his personal fighting unit, the 300 Spartans, and headed to Thermopylae. Herodotus writes that Leonidas was idolized by his men. He was convinced that he was going to certain death and his forces were not adequate for a victory, and so selected only men who had fathered sons who were old enough to take over the family responsibilities. Plutarch mentions in his Sayings of Spartan Women that, after encouraging him, Leonidas's wife Gorgo asked what she should do on his departure. He replied, "Marry a good man, and have good children."

Armies

Xerxes I, king of Persia, had been preparing for years to continue the Greco-Persian Wars 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.

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 Persia according to Persian sources that unfortunately has not survived, and gives 800,000 as the total number of the original army that met in Doriskos, Thrace, after crossing the Hellespont.

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.

Battlefield

thermopylae3 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 Gulf of Malis so narrow that only one chariot could pass through. On the southern side of the track stood the cliffs, while on the north side was the gulf. Along the path was a series of three constrictions, or "gates" (pylai), 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. The name "hot gates" comes from the hot springs that were located there.

Battle

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 Peloponnesus. They were well aware that the Persians would have to go through Athens in order to reach them there. The Phocians and Locrians, whose states were located nearby, became indignant and advised defending Thermopylae and sending for more help. Leonidas and the Spartans agreed with the Phocians and Locrians.

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 Greece" and warned the Great King that they intended to dispute the pass.

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 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."

Then Xerxes asked him more forcefully to surrender their arms. To this Leonidas gave his noted answer:

Μολών Λαβέ
(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 Thermopylae and offered to guide the Persian army through the pass.

The path led from east of the Persian camp along the ridge of Mt. Anopaea behind the cliffs that flanked the pass. It branched with one path leading to Phocis and the other down to the Gulf of Malis at Alpenus, first town of Locris. Leonidas had stationed 1,000 Phocian volunteers on the heights to guard that path.  Hydarnes resorted to a tactic that later turned out to be a victorious one: He fired "showers of arrows" at them. The Phocians retreated to the crest of the mountain to make their stand. The Persians branched left to Alpenus.

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 Thessaly; the Amphictyons at Pylae had offered a reward for his death. According to Herodotus he was killed for an apparently unrelated reason by Athenades of Trachis, around 470 BC; but the Spartans rewarded Athenades all the same. For this act, the name of Ephialtes received a lasting stigma: it means "nightmare" and is synonymous with "traitor" in Greek.

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 Delphi. However, it might also have been a calculated strategy to delay the advance of the Persians and cover the retreat of the Greek army. In fact, with the Persians so close at hand, the decision to stand and fight was probably a tactical requirement only made more palatable by the oracle.

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.

 

Aftermath

thermopylae2 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 Skyros shows. However, Xerxes was known for his rage, as when he had the Hellespont whipped because it would not obey him.

Xerxes was curious as to why there was such a small Greek force guarding Thermopylae and interrogated some Arcadian prisoners. The answer was that all the other men were participating in the Olympic Games, forbidding them to participate in war. When Xerxes asked what the prize for the winner was, "An olive-wreath" came the answer. Upon hearing this, Tritantaechmes, a Persian general, spontaneously responded by saying to Mardonius: "Good heavens! Mardonius, what kind of men are these against whom you have brought us to fight? Men who do not compete for money, but for honor".

Two Spartans survived the conflict. Aristodemus suffered an eye injury and was sent behind the lines, eventually ordered back to Sparta with the retreating allies by the King. Pantites, was sent by Leonidas to raise support in Thessaly but returned to Thermopylae only after the battle's conclusion. Pantites hanged himself in disgrace after being shunned as a "trembler".

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 Sparta where he was buried again with full honors and funeral games were held every year in his memory.

 

 782 thermopylae
 786 salamis
 655 gates fire
784 spartans

The fierce resistance of the Spartan-led army offered Athens the invaluable time to prepare for a decisive naval battle. The subsequent Greek victory at the Battle of Salamis left much of the Persian navy destroyed and Xerxes was forced to retreat back to Asia, leaving his army in Greece under Mardonius, who was to meet the Greeks in battle one last time. The Spartans assembled at full strength and led a pan-Greek army that defeated the Persians decisively at the Battle of Plataea, ending the Greco-Persian War and with it Persian expansion into Europe.

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 Greece as far south as Attica. The Spartans prepared to defend the Isthmus of Corinth and the Peloponnese, while Xerxes sacked an evacuated city of Athens, whose inhabitants had already fled to Salamis Island. In September, the Greeks defeated the Persians at the naval Battle of Salamis, which led to the rapid retreat of Xerxes. The remaining Persian army, left under the charge of Mardonius, was defeated in the Battle of Plataea by a combined Greek army again led by the Spartans, under the regent Pausanias.

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 Thermopylae. It is also the hill on which the last of them died. Archaeologist Spyridon Marinatos discovered large numbers of Persian arrowheads there.  Some English translations of the epigram are given in the table below.

Translation Notes

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 Lacedaemon tell
That here, obeying her behests, we fell.
George Rawlinson

Go tell the Spartans, thou that passest by,
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.
William Lisle Bowels

Stranger! To Sparta say, her faithful band,
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 Sparta may become suspicious that their soldiers left their duties, and they wished to ask travelers to tell Sparta the truth.

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.

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