Wednesday, July 13, 2011





At the end, just 300 men stood between victory and the collapse of Western civilisation. It was the summer of 480BC. The Persian invasion force under Great King Xerxes had swept down from the north to the narrow, rocky pass of Thermopylae in central Greece, where a makeshift Greek army fearfully awaited them.

If the barbarian hordes, numbering more than 100,000 men, overran these defenders, Greek democracy and civilisation would fall prey to alien forces whose cruelty was a byword.

Most of the Greek defenders accepted they would fight bravely then retreat in good order, surviving to fight another day. But the loyal Spartans spearheading this ragtag Greek force were different.

Their courage and self-sacrifice would ensure that this would become one of the bloodiest and most influential battles of the ancient world.

The 300 Spartan warriors, young men who had been trained for a single purpose in life - to fight and kill their many enemies - were silent and intent.

On the eve of battle they stripped naked and oiled themselves lovingly, combing their very long black hair, as if death was a goddess to be propitiated. Each man had written his name on a chip of wood and tied it to his arm, so his corpse could be identified.

They had waited for such a task as this since their childhood. Only the Spartans who had excelled in their boyhood training were chosen to serve as knights in the king's bodyguard.

These knights, the 300 "champions", were selected for the battle of Thermopylae because they all had sons, so their family line would not die out if they were slaughtered.

The commander-in-chief of this extraordinary force was one of the two kings of Sparta, King Leonidas. When his wife asked what she should do as he departed for the fight, he replied with typical Spartan terseness: "Marry a good man and bear good children."

For the first two days of the threeday battle, the Persians could not make any progress. The pass at Thermopylae, between the mountain and the sea, was barely the width of two wagons and the Spartans and Greeks held them off.

But on the third day, a Greek traitor showed the Persians another path, which enabled them to come round behind and encircle the Greeks.

Over their dawn meal, Leonidas told the Spartans sombrely: "This evening we shall dine in Hades." He poured a libation to the gods and ordered his troops to advance, all of them knowing it would be their last day on earth.

When he was killed, his men fought on with redoubled fury under the Persian arrows, as much to defend the fallen body of their King from the savagery of the barbarians as to show their valour.

According to the historian Herodotus, the enraged Spartans slaughtered the Persians in heaps. Some drowned in the sea, others were trampled to death as their own officers forced them on into the bloody fray with whips.

"The Spartans, reckless with their own safety and desperate, since they knew their destruction was nigh at hand, exerted themselves with the most furious valour against the barbarians," wrote Herodotus.

In the press of bodies, blinded by dust, the Spartans' spears broke and their shields and swords were battered out of their hands. Yet they continued fighting, grappling the Persians, choking them and biting them with their teeth. But in the end, the outcome was inevitable. Out of the 300, just one of them survived.

The Persians may have won the battle but Thermopylae boosted Greek morale so strongly that they were able to drive them out of Greece the following year. Civilisation was saved.

From that time on, the behaviour of the 300 has gone down in history as a model of courage in adversity. It has inspired poets, artists and orators down the centuries, and films too, of which the latest, called simply 300, is released later this month.

Yet the mystery is that it emerged out of one of the strangest social systems the world has ever known - a system even more controlled and militaristic than Germany's Third Reich, yet where homosexuality was the norm and where women were the most scandalously liberated in the whole of Greece.

While Athens was the cradle of democracy, Sparta, 100 miles to the south-west, could have been on a different planet.

Athens, the commercial and cultural centre of Greece, was an outwardlooking, civilised society where political decisions were made with popular assent. While Sparta was ruled by a warrior elite and served by a population of slaves.

Like Nazi Germany, it used constant indoctrination from an early age to enforce its totalitarian rule, and spies and secret police to create a climate of fear. Like the Nazis, it killed the mentally and physically disabled, and half-breeds - the children of Spartan mothers and non-Spartan fathers.

A deeply xenophobic state, it focused on self-preservation and the domination of other Greek city-states. It occupied the two nearest it and turned their inhabitants into "helots", or serfs, who provided a labour-force on which Sparta depended: they were the worker ants.

The helots, strictly speaking, were captives of war. Each year Sparta's rulers made a phoney declaration of war on them, both to remind them of their servile status and to ensure that helots could be killed without legal repercussions.

There were seven times more helots than Spartans, and the militarism of Spartan society was founded on the need to keep them in their place.

As domestic servants, they prepared and cooked the food, made clothes, did the housework and looked after the children. In wartime they provided run-of-the-mill troops for battle.

Helots worked the fields and performed all manual tasks. Male Spartans were forbidden any profession, trade or business except the business of war.

A uniquely professional and motivated fighting force, they were the SAS of the Greek world. Their toughness was honed in an educational system unmatched in the West until the Hitler Youth organisation.

New-born Spartan males were formally examined for any physical deformities. If any were found, they were carried to a nearby gorge and left out in the sun to die of exposure.

Babies who passed this test were taken from their mothers at the age of seven and inducted into a compulsory communal education system - a training which would last them all their lives.

Between the ages of seven and 18, young Spartans were divided into packs and forced to live off the land, stealing their food. They were made to train outdoors, to sleep on hard pallet beds in the open and to travel silently at night. Truly, it was a Spartan existence.

The toughest Spartans organised the packs and literally whipped the boys into shape. They learned to rely solely on themselves and their companions.

Meanwhile the boys were made to break all links with their parents and regard their pack as family.

This surrogate fathering encouraged a system of ritual pederasty. After the age of 12, every Spartan adolescent was expected to receive a young adult warrior as his lover. It would have been a mark of shame for a teenager not to have been courted by an older youth.

The relationship was not purely sexual. The senior partner was expected to coach his protege and even to take the punishment if, for example, his young novice was cowardly enough to cry out during one of the many ordeals of his training. The Spartans believed that homosexual relations encouraged solidarity on the battlefield.

The most promising teenage Spartans were enrolled in the Crypteia - literally, Secret Operations. As in Nazi Germany, where the Gestapo habitually terrorised ordinary citizens, the Crypteia formed a secret police force, which gathered intelligence, murdered troublemaking helots and spread terror among the rest as a form of control.

Crypteia members in their midteens were sent out into the countryside, armed only with a dagger, on helot-hunting expeditions. They were required to "blood" themselves by killing a helot, preferably one who was a known troublemaker.

At the age of 20, these young warriors were elected to the equivalent of regimental messes, where they would live until they were married - yes, eventually, they were introduced to women -and where they would dine every day for the rest of their soldierly lives.

The mess was a sort of social club for the warrior elite, although a frugal one. The Spartans believed in austerity and self-denial. The principle fare was black bean soup, a vile concoction of boiled pig's blood with vinegar that led foreigners to joke that they could understand why the Spartans were so indifferent towards death.

In some respects, though, Sparta was more advanced than Athens and other city-states. Women lived a much freer life than anywhere else in ancient Greece.

Spartan-warriors.png spartan women Unlike other women, they were active and prominent in public life. They could own land and property. And although segregated from the boys, they were well educated and could read and write.

As part of their syllabus, the girls would gather at the river for ecstatic ritual dances known as "ambrosial nights".

These were unbuttoned occasions, with wild songs about the pleasures of "limb-loosening desire" where the girls would sing of being "ridden like horses" and "exhausted by love".

Oiled from head to toe, they danced, ran races, threw the javelin, wrestled and performed gymnastics - all completely naked and in the open, to the consternation of visitors.

The Spartans, typically, saw these exercises as preparing them to be the mothers of fit, healthy children.

The women had a reputation for beauty - Helen of Troy was a Spartan - and also for being sexually independent.

Freed from housework - their helot servants did all that - they formed liaisons with other women as well as available men and Sparta gained a reputation for enthusiastic lesbianism.

Yet they could be formidable. "With your shield, or on it!" was one Spartan woman's farewell to her warrior husband. That is: Come home a hero or die as one.

There was constant pressure to maintain the stock of male Spartan warriors because the level set for them was so high, so there were benefits for fathers with three or more sons and no laws against adultery.

Marriage ceremonies began with a symbolic rape: the bride was seized and carried off to the marital home where she was made ready for a groom, who'd had sexual relations only with other men.

Her hair was close-cropped; she was dressed in a belted shift like a soldier's tunic and then placed in an ill-lit room, so that she might almost pass for a man when her husband came to her.

Just as motherhood was the beall and end-all for Spartan women, so were martial arts for the men.

After the battle of Thermopylae, the Spartans spent most of the next 120 years at war, a period which saw the Spartans win dominion over most of Greece, before overreaching themselves and being brought to their knees by forces outside and within.

Sparta's astonishing military successes depended on tactics which aroused terror in its enemies.

As Paul Cartledge tells us in his history of the Spartans, their heavilyarmedfootsoldiers used eight-deep shield walls moving in perfect step, like Panzer tanks, to bulldoze the enemy off the field of battle.

With their huge three-feet-wide shields overlapping, each soldier was protected, from his chin down to his knees, thus freeing his right hand to thrust a spear or a sword.

Armour on the legs, metal helmets and padded linen breastplates gave the soldiers added body protection.

No cavalry on earth could charge down this close-packed line of armoured infantry as long as it stood firm; nor could the Persian archers have any effect on so much metal armour.

In the battle of Plataea, where they threw the Persians out, these Spartan formations broke right through to the enemy stockade and massacred everyone in sight. Never again would a Persian army invade the Greek mainland.

Even their religion was put to martial use. Spartans used linedancing, not only to honour their gods, but also as training in the rhythm and cohesion needed by soldiers fighting in phalanx formation.

Athletics was another form of religious and military expression. What became the first all- Greek Olympic Games was first established in Sparta in 776 BC.

The Romans admired the example of Spartans so much that they liked to believe they were related to them.

Certainly, the collapse of Sparta resembled the downfall of Rome. It had several causes. Sparta's last powerful king, Agesilaus, brought back so much booty from his Asian expeditions that the Spartans began to lose their habits of austerity and became self-satisfied.

Sparta thought itself unconquerable, without realising that there was such a small complement of paid-up Spartan warriors left that a helot uprising could pose problems.

A brilliant general from neighbouring Thebes then defeated the Spartans at the battle of Leuctra, and when the helots rose up against their masters, Sparta's days of glory were numbered.

In the historical record, it remains as both an inspiration and a warning.

Sparta's evolution from a handful of villages in the southern Peloponnese to the most powerful fighting force in the ancient Greek world, through amazing feats of arms, resounds through the ages.

Yet its repressive society was too close to modern dictatorships to deserve our unalloyed admiration.

It was a totalitarian regime, dependent on slave labour, which indoctrinated its young into an acceptance of state terror. And inevitably the slaves eventually took their revenge.


The legend of Thermopylae, as told by Herodotus, has it that the Spartans consulted the Oracle at Delphi earlier in the year. The Oracle is said to have made the following prophecy:

O ye men who dwell in the streets of broad Lacedaemon!
Either your glorious town shall be sacked by the children of Perseus,
Or, in exchange, must all through the whole Laconian country
Mourn for the loss of a king, descendant of great Heracles.

Herodotus tells us that Leonidas, in line with the prophecy, was convinced he was going to certain death since his forces were not adequate for a victory, and so he selected only Spartans with living sons.

En route to Thermopylae, the Spartan force was reinforced by contingents from various cities (see below) and numbered more than 5,000 by the time it arrived at the pass. Leonidas chose to camp at, and defend, the 'middle gate', the narrowest part of the pass of Thermopylae, where the Phocians had built a defensive wall some time before.[38] News also reached Leonidas, from the nearby city of Trachis, that there was a mountain track which could be used to outflank the pass of Thermopylae; in response, Leonidas stationed 1,000 Phocians on the heights to prevent such a manoeuvre.[39]

Finally, in mid-August, the Persian army was sighted across the Malian Gulf, approaching Thermopylae.[40] With the Persian army's arrival at Thermopylae, the Greeks held a council of war.[41] Some Peloponnesians suggested withdrawal to the Isthmus of Corinth and blocking the passage to Peloponnesus.[41] The Phocians and Locrians, whose states were located nearby, became indignant and advised defending Thermopylae and sending for more help. Leonidas calmed the panic and agreed to defend Thermopylae.[41]

A Persian emissary was sent by Xerxes to negotiate with Leonidas; the Greeks were offered their freedom and the title "Friends of the Persian People," moreover they would be re-settled on better land than they currently possessed.[42] When these terms were refused by Leonidas, the ambassador asked him more forcefully to lay down his weapons; Leonidas' famous response was for the Persians to "Come and get them" (Μολὼν λαβέ).[43] With the Persian embassy returning empty-handed, battle became inevitable. However, Xerxes delayed attacking for four days, waiting for the Greeks to disperse, before sending troops to attack them



The Battle of Thermopylae was fought between an alliance of Greek city-states, led by Athenian General Themistocles, and the Persian Empire of Xerxes I over the course of three days, during the second Persian invasion of Greece. It took place simultaneously with the naval battle at Artemisium, in August or September 480 BC, at the pass of Thermopylae ('The Hot Gates'). The Persian invasion was a delayed response to the defeat of the first Persian invasion of Greece, which had been ended by the Athenian victory at the Battle of Marathon. Xerxes had amassed a huge army and navy, and set out to conquer all of Greece. The Athenian general Themistocles had proposed that the allied Greeks block the advance of the Persian army at the pass of Thermopylae, and simultaneously block the Persian navy at the Straits of Artemisium.

A Greek force of approximately 7,000 men marched north to block the pass in the summer of 480 BC. The Persian army, alleged by the ancient sources to have numbered over one million but today considered to have been much smaller (various figures are given by scholars ranging between about 100,000 and 300,000),[7][8] arrived at the pass in late August or early September. Vastly outnumbered, the Greeks held off the Persians for seven days in total (including three of battle), before the rear-guard was annihilated in one of history's most famous last stands. During two full days of battle, the small force led by King Leonidas I of Sparta blocked the only road by which the massive Persian army could pass. After the second day of battle, a local resident named Ephialtes betrayed the Greeks by revealing a small path that led behind the Greek lines. Aware that his force was being outflanked, Leonidas dismissed the bulk of the Greek army, and remained to guard the rear with 300 Spartans, 700 Thespians, 400 Thebans and perhaps a few hundred others, the vast majority of whom were killed.

After this engagement, the Greek navy at Artemisium received news of the defeat at Thermopylae. Since their strategy required both Thermopylae and Artemisium to be held, and given their losses, the Greek navy decided to withdraw to Salamis. The Persians overran Boeotia and then captured the evacuated Athens. However, seeking a decisive victory over the Persian fleet, the Greek fleet attacked and defeated the invaders at the Battle of Salamis in late 480 BC. Fearing to be trapped in Europe, Xerxes withdrew with much of his army to Asia (losing most to starvation and disease), leaving Mardonius to complete the conquest of Greece. The following year, however, saw a Greek army decisively defeat the Persians at the Battle of Plataea, thereby ending the Persian invasion.

Both ancient and modern writers have used the Battle of Thermopylae as an example of the power of a patriotic army of freemen defending native soil. The performance of the defenders at the battle of Thermopylae is also used as an example of the advantages of training, equipment, and good use of terrain as force multipliers and has become a symbol of courage against overwhelming odds.


In the early days of history the Greeks differed vastly from the other two great civilized systems on the Nile and the two rivers of Mesopotamia. Persian King Darius was displeased with Greek settlements in Asia and attacked Greece directly in 490 B.C.

   A great naval force fashioned to carry horses and entire armies was long and carefully prepared to subdue all of Greece, beginning with Athens. The Athenians hoped to delay battle until elite reinforcements from Sparta should join them, but the landing of the invasion force at Marathon being reinforced by Persian sympathizers nerved them to attack first. The two pronged attack was designed to lure the Athenian army away from Athens.

   The Greeks advanced their phalanx (a wall of shields & spears) slowly until they came within range of the Persian archers, when they broke into a run. The arrows were ineffective at close range compared to the Greek spears. Soon they retreated, but the Greeks ran them down them from behind and killed them and war as we know it was born. After Pheidippides made his famous run from  Marathon to Athens he cried out the news; "Rejoice! we conquer!" and then he died from exhaustion. The Greek City-states had proven that they could fight and win even without the elite Spartans.

The Greek city-states of Athens and Eretria had supported the unsuccessful Ionian Revolt against the Persian Empire of Darius I in 499-494 BC. The Persian Empire was still relatively young, and prone to revolts amongst its subject peoples. Moreover, Darius was a usurper, and had spent considerable time extinguishing revolts against his rule. The Ionian revolt threatened the integrity of his empire, and Darius thus vowed to punish those involved (especially those not already part of the empire).[13][14] Darius also saw the opportunity to expand his empire into the fractious world of Ancient Greece.[14] A preliminary expedition under Mardonius in 492 BC, to secure the land approaches to Greece, re-conquered Thrace, and forced Macedon to become a client kingdom of Persia.[15]

In 491 BC, Darius sent emissaries to all the Greek city-states, asking for a gift of 'earth and water' in token of their submission to him. Having had a demonstration of his power the previous year, the majority of Greek cities duly obliged. In Athens, however, the ambassadors were put on trial and then executed by throwing them in a pit; in Sparta, they were simply thrown down a well.[16][17] This meant that Sparta was also effectively at war with Persia.[16]

Darius thus put together an amphibious task force under Datis and Artaphernes in 490 BC, which attacked Naxos, before receiving the submission of the other Cycladic Islands. The task force then moved on Eretria, which it besieged and destroyed. Finally, it moved to attack Athens, landing at the bay of Marathon, where it was met by a heavily outnumbered Athenian army. At the ensuing Battle of Marathon, the Athenians won a remarkable victory, which resulted in the withdrawal of the Persian army to Asia.[19]

A map showing the Greek world at the time of the battle

Darius therefore began raising a huge new army with which he meant to completely subjugate Greece; however, in 486 BC, his Egyptian subjects revolted, indefinitely postponing any Greek expedition.[12] Darius then died whilst preparing to march on Egypt, and the throne of Persia passed to his son Xerxes I.[20] Xerxes crushed the Egyptian revolt, and very quickly re-started the preparations for the invasion of Greece.[21] Since this was to be a full scale invasion, it required long-term planning, stock-piling and conscription.[21] Xerxes decided that the Hellespont would be bridged to allow his army to cross to Europe, and that a canal should be dug across the isthmus of Mount Athos (rounding which headland, a Persian fleet had been destroyed in 492 BC). These were both feats of exceptional ambition, which would have been beyond any other contemporary state. By early 480 BC, the preparations were complete, and the army which Xerxes had mustered at Sardis marched towards Europe, crossing the Hellespont on two pontoon bridges.[23]

The Athenians had also been preparing for war with the Persians since the mid-480s BC, and in 482 BC the decision was taken, under the guidance of the Athenian politician Themistocles, to build a massive fleet of triremes that would be necessary for the Greeks to fight the Persians.[24] However, the Athenians did not have the manpower to fight on land and sea; and therefore combating the Persians would require an alliance of Greek city states. In 481 BC, Xerxes sent ambassadors around Greece asking for earth and water, but making the very deliberate omission of Athens and Sparta.[25] Support thus began to coalesce around these two leading states. A congress of city states met at Corinth in late autumn of 481 BC,[26] 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. This was remarkable for the disjointed Greek world, especially since many of the city-states in attendance were still technically at war with each other.[27]

The 'congress' met again in the spring of 480 BC. A Thessalian delegation suggested that the Greeks could muster in the narrow Vale of Tempe, on the borders of Thessaly, and thereby block Xerxes' advance.[28] A force of 10,000 hoplites was dispatched to the Vale of Tempe, through which they believed the Persian army would have to pass. However, once there, they were warned by Alexander I of Macedon that the vale could be bypassed through the Sarantoporo Pass, and that the army of Xerxes was overwhelming, the Greeks retreated.[29] Shortly afterwards, they received the news that Xerxes had crossed the Hellespont.[28]

A second strategy was therefore suggested by Themistocles to the Greeks. The route to southern Greece (Boeotia, Attica and the Peloponnesus) would require the army of Xerxes to travel through the very narrow pass of Thermopylae. This could easily be blocked by the Greek hoplites, despite the overwhelming numbers of Persians. Furthermore, to prevent the Persians bypassing Thermopylae by sea, the Athenian and allied navies could block the straits of Artemisium. This dual strategy was adopted by the congress.[30] However, the Peloponnesian cities made fall-back plans to defend the Isthmus of Corinth should it come to it, whilst the women and children of Athens had been evacuated en masse to the Peloponnesian city of Troezen.[31]

[edit] Prelude

File:Thermopylae & Artemisium campaign map.png

Map showing Greek & Persian advances to Thermopylae and Artemisium

The Persian army seems to have made rather leisurely progress through Thrace and Macedon, but finally, in August, news of the imminent Persian approach reached Greece.[32] At this time of year the Spartans, de facto military leaders of the alliance, were celebrating the festival of Carneia. During the Carneia, military activity was forbidden by Spartan law; the Spartans had arrived too late at the Battle of Marathon because of this requirement.[33] It was also the time of the Olympic Games, and therefore the Olympic truce, and thus it would have been doubly sacrilegious for the whole Spartan army to march to war.[33][34] On this occasion, the ephors decided the urgency was sufficiently great to justify an advance expedition to block the pass, under one of its kings, Leonidas I. Leonidas took with him the 300 men of the royal bodyguard, the Hippeis, and a larger number of support troops drawn from other parts of Lacedaemon (including helots).[34] This expedition was to try to gather as many other Greek soldiers along the way as possible, and to await the arrival of the main Spartan army.[34]

The legend of Thermopylae, as told by Herodotus, has it that the Spartans consulted the Oracle at Delphi earlier in the year. The Oracle is said to have made the following prophecy:

O ye men who dwell in the streets of broad Lacedaemon!
Either your glorious town shall be sacked by the children of Perseus,
Or, in exchange, must all through the whole Laconian country
Mourn for the loss of a king, descendant of great Heracles.[35]

Herodotus tells us that Leonidas, in line with the prophecy, was convinced he was going to certain death since his forces were not adequate for a victory, and so he selected only Spartans with living sons.[36]

En route to Thermopylae, the Spartan force was reinforced by contingents from various cities (see below) and numbered more than 5,000 by the time it arrived at the pass.[37] Leonidas chose to camp at, and defend, the 'middle gate', the narrowest part of the pass of Thermopylae, where the Phocians had built a defensive wall some time before.[38] News also reached Leonidas, from the nearby city of Trachis, that there was a mountain track which could be used to outflank the pass of Thermopylae; in response, Leonidas stationed 1,000 Phocians on the heights to prevent such a manoeuvre.[39]

Finally, in mid-August, the Persian army was sighted across the Malian Gulf, approaching Thermopylae.[40] With the Persian army's arrival at Thermopylae, the Greeks held a council of war.[41] Some Peloponnesians suggested withdrawal to the Isthmus of Corinth and blocking the passage to Peloponnesus.[41] The Phocians and Locrians, whose states were located nearby, became indignant and advised defending Thermopylae and sending for more help. Leonidas calmed the panic and agreed to defend Thermopylae.[41]

A Persian emissary was sent by Xerxes to negotiate with Leonidas; the Greeks were offered their freedom and the title "Friends of the Persian People," moreover they would be re-settled on better land than they currently possessed.[42] When these terms were refused by Leonidas, the ambassador asked him more forcefully to lay down his weapons; Leonidas' famous response was for the Persians to "Come and get them" (Μολὼν λαβέ).[43] With the Persian embassy returning empty-handed, battle became inevitable. However, Xerxes delayed attacking for four days, waiting for the Greeks to disperse, before sending troops to attack them.[44]

[edit] Opposing forces

[edit] Persian army
For a full discussion of the size of the Persian invasion force, see Second Persian invasion of Greece

Battle of Tirad Pass a metaphor of Thermopylae.

An Ilocano traitor named Galut informed the Americans of the mountain path around Tirad Pass.

The numbers of troops which Xerxes mustered for the second invasion of Greece have been the subject of endless dispute, because the numbers given in ancient sources are very large indeed. Herodotus claimed that there were, in total, 2.6 million military personnel, accompanied by an equivalent number of support personnel.[3] The poet Simonides, who was a near-contemporary, talks of four million; Ctesias gave 800,000 as the total number of the army that was assembled by Xerxes.[4]

Modern scholars tend to reject the figures given by Herodotus and other ancient sources as unrealistic, and as a result of miscalculations or exaggerations on the part of the victors.[45] Modern scholarly estimates are generally in the range 70,000–300,000.[46]b[›] These estimates usually come from studying the logistical capabilities of the Persians in that era, the sustainability of their respective base of operations, and the overall manpower constraints affecting them. Whatever the real numbers were, however, it is clear that Xerxes was anxious to ensure a successful expedition by mustering an overwhelming numerical superiority by land and by sea.[47] The number of Persian troops present at Thermopylae is therefore as uncertain as the number for the total invasion force. For instance, it is unclear whether the whole Persian army marched as far as Thermopylae, or whether Xerxes left garrisons in Macedon and Thessaly.



File:Thermopylae ancient coastline large.jpg

It is reported that, upon arriving at Thermopylae, the Persians 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 Demaratus, an exiled Spartan king in his retinue, Xerxes was told that the Spartans were preparing for battle and that it was their custom to adorn their hair when they were about to risk their lives. Demaratus called them "the bravest men in Greece" and warned the Great King that they intended to dispute the pass. He emphasized that he had tried to warn Xerxes earlier in the campaign, but the king had refused to believe him. He added that if Xerxes ever managed to subdue the Spartans, "there is no other nation in all the world which will venture to lift a hand in their defense."

Herodotus also describes the reception of a Persian embassy by Leonidas. The ambassador told Leonidas that Xerxes would offer him the kingship of all Greece if he joined with Xerxes. Leonidas answered: "If you had any knowledge of the noble things of life, you would refrain from coveting others' possessions; but for me to die for Greece is better than to be the sole ruler over the people of my race." Then the ambassador asked him more forcefully to surrender their arms. To this Leonidas gave his famous answer: "Come and get them."

Such Laconic bravado doubtlessly helped to maintain morale. Herodotus writes that when Dienekes, a Spartan soldier, was informed that Persian arrows would be so numerous as "to block out the sun", he retorted, unconcerned; "So much the better...then we shall fight our battle in the shade."

After the battle, Xerxes was curious as to what the Greeks had been trying to do (presumably because they had had so few men) and had some Arcadian deserters interrogated in his presence. The answer was that all the other men were participating in the Olympic Games. When Xerxes asked what was the prize for the winner, the answer was "an olive-wreath". Upon hearing this, Tigranes, a Persian general, said: "Good heavens, Mardonius, what kind of men are these that you have pitted against us? It is not for riches that they contend but for honor!" (Godley translation) or otherwise "Ye Gods, Mardonius, what men have you brought us to fight against? Men that fight not for gold, but for glory

On the fifth day after the Persian arrival at Thermopylae (which would become the first day of the battle), Xerxes finally resolved to attack the Greeks. First of all, he sent Medes and Cissians against the Greeks, to take them prisoner and bring them before him. They soon found themselves launching a frontal assault on the Greek position. The Greeks fought in front of the Phocian wall, at the narrowest part of the pass. Details of the tactics are scant; Diodorus says "the men stood shoulder to shoulder" and the Greeks were "superior in valor and in the great size of their shields." This is probably describing the standard Greek phalanx, in which the men formed a wall of overlapping shields and layered spear points, which would have been highly effective as long as it spanned the width of the pass. The wicker shields and shorter spears of the Persians prevented them from effectively engaging the Greek hoplites.

File:Map Greco-Persian Wars-en.svg

Herodotus says that the units for each city were kept together; units were rotated in and out of the battle to prevent fatigue, which implies the Greeks had more men than necessary to block the pass. The Greeks killed so many Medes that Xerxes is said to have started up three times off the seat from which he was watching the battle. According to Ctesias, the first wave was "cut to ribbons" with only two or three Spartans dead.

File:Thermopylae map 480bc.png

According to Herodotus and Diodorus, the king, having taken the measure of the enemy, threw his best troops into a second assault the same day: the Immortals, an elite corps of 10,000 men. However, the Immortals fared no better than the Medes had, failing to make headway against the Greeks. The Spartans apparently used a tactic of feigning retreat, and then turning on, and killing the enemy troops when they ran after the Spartans.

Second day

File:Persian warriors from Berlin Museum.jpg


Depiction of Persian warriors, probably the Immortals.

On the second day, Xerxes again sent in the infantry to attack the pass, "supposing that their enemies, being so few, were now disabled by wounds and could no longer resist."[72] However, the Persians fared no better on the second day than on the first.[72] Xerxes at last stopped the assault and withdrew to his camp, totally perplexed.[4]

Late on the second day of battle, however, as the Persian king was pondering what to do next, he received a windfall; a Trachinian traitor named Ephialtes informed him of the mountain path around Thermopylae and offered to guide the Persian army.[73] Ephialtes was motivated by the desire of a reward. For this act, the name of Ephialtes received a lasting stigma, his name coming to mean "nightmare" in the Greek language and becoming the archetypal traitor in Greek culture.

Herodotus reports that Xerxes sent his commander Hydarnes that evening, with the men under his command, the Immortals, to encircle the Greeks via the path. However, he does not say who those men are. The Immortals had been bloodied on the first day, so it is possible that Hydarnes may have been given overall command of an enhanced force including what was left of the Immortals, and indeed, according to Diodorus, Hydarnes had a force of 20,000 for the mission. 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 Malian Gulf at Alpenus, first town of Locris.

After the second day, a Greek named Ephialtes defected to the Persians & through a separate path, defended by 1,000 men of Phocis who fled after a brief engagement with the Persians, led the Persian Army to the undefended back of the Greeks. On 11 August, 480 BC , the last day of the battle, Leonidas ordered the rest of the Greek forces to leave the battlefield & with his 300 Spartans & the 700 Thespians made a suicidal effort to delay the Persian advance in the Greek mainland. When one of the Greeks said to the Spartan King: "Leonidas! How are you going with so few to risk with so many"? he said: "If you think that I am going to fight by numbers, then the whole of Greece would be insufficient, for she is only a small part of the numbers of the Persians, but if I am going to fight by valour, then even this number is enough". Leonidas was one of the first who got killed. The Persians tried to capture Spartan King's dead body. Four times they mounted attacks to capture his dead body. Four times the Spartans drove off the Persians, fanatically fought around Leonidas. The last Spartans were killed by a barrage of Persian arrows.
On the monument the Spartans erected on the site of the battle, Simonides (a famous epigraphist) wrote:
"Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here, obedient to their laws, we lie"

The statue of Leonidas at Thermopylae today
On a similar monumement, erected by the Thespians, is written:
"O stranger, tell the Thespians that we died here, showing fidelity to freedom"
To honour the diviner Megistias (an Acarnanian of the house of Melampus) who did not depart (diviners were sacred persons in the ancient world..."Megistias indeed would not depart, but he sent away his son who chanced to be with the army; for indeed he had no other son but him only.." according to Herodotus), Spartans dedicated this epigram:
"This is the tomb of the famous Megistias, whom once, when the Medes crossed Sperchius River, they slained, the diviner who knew he would meet his death, yet he would not leave the Spartan King"
The aftermath of the battle was that the Persians were perturbed by the fact that a bunch of Greeks, caused so many casualties on the Persian Army. The naval battle of Salamis (300 Greek ships under Themistocles defeated the Persian navy of about 600 ships) followed in September 480 BC & in the next year at Plataea (August 479 BC, 30,000 Greeks-5,000 Spartans, 8,000 Athenians-defeated a force of 120,000 Persians under Mardonius , Marduniya in Persian), the last battle of the Persian Wars took place.

Third day


File:Jacques-Louis David 004 Thermopylae.jpg

Leonidas at Thermopylae, by Jacques Louis David, 1814. This is a juxtaposition of various historical and legendary elements from the Battle of Thermopylae.

At daybreak on the third day, the Phocians guarding the path above Thermopylae became aware of the outflanking Persian column by the rustling of oak leaves. Herodotus says that they jumped up and were greatly amazed. Hydarnes was perhaps just as amazed to see them hastily arming themselves as they were to see him and the Persian forces. He feared that they were Spartans but was informed by Ephialtes that they were not. The Phocians retreated to a nearby hill to make their stand (assuming that the Persians had come to attack them). However, not wishing to be delayed, the Persians gave them a volley of arrows, before passing by to continue with their encirclement of the main Greek force.[78]

Learning from a runner that the Phocians had not held the path, Leonidas called a council of war at dawn.[80] Some of the Greeks argued for withdrawal, but Leonidas resolved to stay at the pass with the Spartans.[80] Many of the Greek contingents then either chose to withdraw (without orders), or were ordered to leave by Leonidas (Herodotus admits that there is some doubt about which actually happened). The contingent of 700 Thespians, led by their general Demophilus, refused to leave with the other Greeks but committed themselves to the fight.[82] Also present were the 400 Thebans, and probably the helots that had accompanied the Spartans.[79]

Leonidas' actions have been the subject of much discussion. It is commonly stated that the Spartans were obeying the laws of Sparta by not retreating, but it seems it was actually the failure to retreat from Thermopylae that gave rise to the notion that Spartans never retreated.[83] It is also possible that recalling the words of the Oracle, Leonidas was committed to sacrifice his life in order to save Sparta. However, since the prophecy was specific to him, this seems a poor reason to commit 1,500 other men to a fight to the death.[83] The most likely theory is that Leonidas chose to form a rearguard so that the other Greek contingents could get away.[83][84] If all the troops had retreated, the open ground beyond the pass would have allowed the Persian cavalry to run the Greeks down. If they had all remained at the pass, they would have been encircled and would eventually have all been killed.[79] By covering the retreat, and continuing to block the pass, Leonidas could save more than 3,000 men, who would be able to fight at some later point.[84] The Thebans have also been the subject of some discussion. Herodotus suggests that they were brought to the battle as hostages to ensure the good behavior of Thebes.[36] However, as Plutarch long ago pointed out, if they were hostages, why not send them away with the rest of the Greeks?[83] The likelihood is that these were the Theban 'loyalists', who unlike the majority of the fellow citizens, objected to Persian domination.[83] They thus probably came to Thermopylae of their own free will, and stayed at the end because they could not return to Thebes if the Persians conquered Boeotia.[79] The Thespians, resolved as they were not to submit to Xerxes, faced the destruction of their city if the Persians took Boeotia.[83] However, this alone does not explain the fact that they remained; the remainder of Thespia was successfully evacuated before the Persians arrived there.[83] It seems that the Thespians volunteered to remain as a simple act of self-sacrifice, all the more amazing since their contingent represented every single hoplite the city could muster.[85] This seems to have been a particularly Thespian trait – on at least two other occasions in later history, a Thespian force would commit itself to a fight to the death.

At dawn Xerxes made libations, pausing 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 xiphē (short swords). In this struggle, Herodotus states that two brothers of Xerxes fell: Abrocomes and Hyperanthes. Leonidas also died in the assault, shot down by Persian archers, and the two sides fought over his body, the Greeks taking possession. As the Immortals approached, the Greeks withdrew and took a stand on a hill behind the wall. The Thebans "moved away from their companions, and with hands upraised, advanced toward the barbarians..." (Rawlinson translation), but a few were slain before their surrender was accepted. The king later had the Theban prisoners branded with the royal mark. Of the remaining defenders, Herodotus says:

"Here they defended themselves to the last, those who still had swords using them, and the others resisting with their hands and teeth."

Tearing down part of the wall, Xerxes ordered the hill surrounded, and the Persians rained down arrows until every last Greek was dead. In 1939, archaeologist Spyridon Marinatos, excavating at Thermopylae, found large numbers of Persian bronze arrowheads on Kolonos Hill, changing the identification of the hill on which the Greeks died from a smaller one nearer the wall.

The pass at Thermopylae was thus opened to the Persian army according to Herodotus, at the cost to the Persians of up to 20,000 fatalities.[90] The Greek rearguard meanwhile, was annihilated, with a probable loss of 2,000 men, including those killed on the first two days of battle. Herodotus says at one point that 4,000 Greeks died, but assuming that the Phocians guarding the track were not killed during the battle (as Herodotus implies), this would be almost every Greek soldier present (by Herodotus' own estimates), and this number is probably too high.


Main article: Second Persian invasion of Greece

When the body of Leonidas was recovered by the Persians, Xerxes, in a rage against Leonidas, ordered that the head be cut off and the body crucified. Herodotus observes that this was very uncommon for the Persians, as they had the habit of treating "valiant warriors" with great honor (the example of Pytheas, captured off Skiathos before the Battle of Artemisium, strengthens this suggestion). However, Xerxes was known for his rage, for instance, when he had the Hellespont whipped because it would not obey him. After the Persians' departure, the Greeks collected their dead and buried them on the hill. After the Persian invasion ended, a stone lion was erected at Thermopylae to commemorate Leonidas.[94] A full forty years after the battle, Leonidas' bones were returned to Sparta where he was buried again with full honors; funeral games were held every year in his memory.

With Thermopylae now opened to the Persian army, the continuation of the blockade at Artemisium by the Greek fleet became irrelevant. The simultaneous naval Battle of Artemisium had been a tactical stalemate, and the Greek navy was able to retreat in good order to the Saronic Gulf where they helped to ferry the remaining Athenian citizens across to the island of Salamis.

Following Thermopylae, the Persian army proceeded to burn and sack the Boeotian cities which had not submitted to the Persians, Plataea and Thespiae, before marching on the now evacuated city of Athens. Meanwhile, the Greeks (for the most part Peloponnesian) prepared to defend the Isthmus of Corinth, demolishing the single road that led through it, and building a wall across it. As at Thermopylae, to make this an effective strategy required the Greek navy to stage a simultaneous blockade, barring the passage of the Persian navy across the Saronic Gulf, so that troops could not be landed directly on the Peloponnese. However, instead of a mere blockade, Themistocles persuaded the Greeks to seek a decisive victory against the Persian fleet. Luring the Persian navy into the Straits of Salamis, the Greek fleet was able to destroy much of the Persian fleet in the Battle of Salamis, which essentially ended the threat to the Peloponnese.

Fearing that the Greeks might attack the bridges across the Hellespont and trap his army in Europe, Xerxes now retreated with much of the army back to Asia,[100] though nearly all of them died of starvation and disease on the return.[101] He left a hand picked force under Mardonius to complete the conquest the following year.[102] However, under pressure from the Athenians, the Peloponnesians eventually agreed to try to force Mardonius to battle, and marched on Attica.[103] Mardonius retreated to Boeotia to lure the Greeks into open terrain and the two sides eventually met near the city of Plataea.[103] There, at the Battle of Plataea, the Greek army won a decisive victory, destroying much of the Persian army, and ending the invasion of Greece.[103] Meanwhile, at the near-simultaneous naval Battle of Mycale they also destroyed much of the remaining Persian fleet, thereby reducing the threat of further invasions.

[edit] Significance

Thermopylae is arguably the most famous battle in European ancient history, repeatedly referenced in ancient, recent and contemporary culture. In Western culture at least, it is the Greeks who are lauded for their performance in battle. However, within the context of the Persian invasion, Thermopylae was undoubtedly a defeat for the Greeks.[106] It seems clear that the Greek strategy was to hold off the Persians at Thermopylae and Artemisium; whatever they may have intended, it was presumably not their desire to surrender all of Boeotia and Attica to the Persians. The Greek position at Thermopylae, despite being massively out-numbered, was near-impregnable. If the position had been held for even slightly longer, the Persians might have had to retreat for lack of food and water. Thus, despite the heavy losses, forcing the pass was a clear Persian victory, both tactically and strategically. The successful retreat of the bulk of the Greek troops, though morale-boosting, was in no sense a victory, though it did take some of the sheen off the Persian victory.

It is sometimes stated that Thermopylae was a Pyrrhic victory for the Persians,[107][108] that is, one in which the victor is as damaged by the battle as the defeated party. However, there is no suggestion in Herodotus that this was the effect of the Battle of Thermopylae on the Persian forces. Furthermore, this idea ignores the fact that the Persians would, in the aftermath of Thermopylae, conquer the majority of Greece, and the fact that Persians were still fighting in Greece a year later. Alternatively, the argument is sometimes advanced that the last stand at Thermopylae was a successful delaying action that gave the Greek navy time to prepare for the Battle of Salamis. However, compared to the probable time (about one month) between Thermopylae and Salamis, the time bought by the last stand at Thermopylae was negligible. Furthermore, this idea also neglects the fact that a Greek navy was fighting at Artemesium during the Battle of Thermopylae, incurring losses in the process. Cawkwell suggests that the gap between Thermopylae and Salamis was caused by Xerxes systematically reducing Greek opposition in Phocis and Boeotia, and not as a result of the battle of Thermopylae; thus, as a delaying action, Thermopylae was insignificant compared to Xerxes’s own procrastination. Far from labeling Thermopylae as a pyrrhic victory, modern academic treatises on the Greco-Persian Wars tend to emphasise the success of Xerxes in breaching the formidable Greek position, and in the subsequent conquest of the majority of Greece. For instance Cawkwell states that "he was successful on both land and sea, and the Great Invasion began with a brilliant success...Xerxes had every reason to congratulate himself," whilst Lazenby describes the Greek defeat as "disastrous".

The fame of Thermopylae is thus principally derived, not from its effect on the outcome of the war, but for the inspirational example it set. Thermopylae is famous because of the heroism of the doomed rearguard, who, facing certain death, remained at the pass.[105] Ever since, the events of Thermopylae have been the source of effusive praise from many sources; e.g. "...the fairest sister-victories which the Sun has ever seen, yet they would never dare to compare their combined glory with the glorious defeat of King Leonidas and his men." A second reason is the example it set of free men, fighting for their country and their freedom:

"So almost immediately, contemporary Greeks saw Thermopylae as a critical moral and culture lesson. In universal terms, a small, free people had willingly outfought huge numbers of imperial subjects who advanced under the lash. More specifically, the Western idea that soldiers themselves decide where, how, and against whom they will fight was contrasted against the Eastern notion of despotism and monarchy — freedom proving the stronger idea as the more courageous fighting of the Greeks at Thermopylae, and their later victories at Salamis and Plataea attested."

Whilst this paradigm of "free men" outfighting "slaves" can be seen as a rather sweeping over-generalization (there are plenty of counter-examples), it is nevertheless true that many commentators have used Thermopylae to illustrate this point.

Militarily, although the battle was actually not decisive in the context of the Persian invasion, Thermopylae is also of some significance, on the basis of the first two days of fighting. The performance of the defenders is used as an example of the advantages of training, equipment, and good use of terrain as force multipliers.



There are several monuments around the battlefield of Thermopylae.

Epitaph of Simonides

Epitaph with Simonides' epigram

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.[51] The original stone has not survived, but in 1955, the epitaph was engraved on a new stone. The text from Herodotus is:The alternative ancient reading πειθόμενοι νομίμοις for ῥήμασι πειθόμενοι substitutes "laws" for "orders." In other words, the "orders" are not personal but refer to official and binding phrases (the Ancient Greek term can also refer to a formal speech).

The form of this ancient Greek poetry is an elegiac couplet, commonly used for epitaphs. Some English renderings are given in the table below.

It was well known in ancient Greece that all the Spartans who had been sent to Thermopylae had been killed there (with the solitary exception of the hapless Aristodemus), and the epitaph exploits the conceit that there was nobody left to bring the news of their deeds back to Sparta. Greek epitaphs often appealed to the passing reader (always called 'stranger') for sympathy, but the epitaph for the dead Spartans at Thermopylae took this convention much further than usual, asking the reader to make a personal journey to Sparta to break the news that the Spartan expeditionary force had been wiped out. The stranger is also asked to stress that the Spartans died 'fulfilling their orders'.

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