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The Battle Of Thermopylae

After the Pan-Hellenic “Congress at Corinth” in Spring 480BC the Greek delegates agreed to a two-pronged defence strategy, relying on the narrow pass of Thermopylae and the Straits of Artemisium to fend off the overwhelming numerical advantage of the Persian forces. The Spartans possessing the only equivalent to a “standing army” amongst the Greeks and having developed a prestige and martial prowess respected by their fellow Hellenes, would be vital to the plans to defend all their fatherland. In August of 480BC news reached the free Greek states that the Persian army and King Xerxes had not only crossed the Hellespont but had made its way through Macedon and Thrace. The spirit of independence swept through to the city states, and their call to arms was requested, to march immediately to Thermopylae (“hot gates”) where their defence would be made.

The rest of the Greek states, small and large, powerful and fledgling, looked to the Spartans for leadership and inspiration, they waited for them to make the first move. Such was their respect and admiration, since Sparta had not only proven its strength but also its unwavering loyalty to the ideals of Hellenic freedom and traditions over the course of its rise to predominance. August, however, was a time of great religious significance to the Spartan state, as it was the time of the Doric lunar festival of the Carneia, during which it was unfavourable to lead the citizen army to war and away from their temples. Nevertheless, the Spartans considered their loyalty to Greece to be the greatest form of religious devotion and the highest honour they could bestow upon their ancestral gods was to defend their shrines and countrymen. Making an extraordinary exception to the rule, the Spartans decided to send one of their Kings, Leonidas from the line of the Agiads, with 300 of his personal bodyguards.

It is said by Herodotus, that during their deliberation, the Spartans received an oracular response from the Pythia at Delphi that “either your glorious city will be sacked … or the whole of Laconia must mourn the loss of a king, a descendant of great Heracles.” Leonidas, a mature man close to 60 years old, knowing his duty to his country and his people, and accepting his fate, set off with his men towards his destiny at Thermopylae. The Spartan force, consisting of 300 Spartiate warriors and an unknown number of Helot attendants and skirmishers began the long journey to Thermopylae, passing through villages and cities on the way, being joined by many other Peloponnesians, Phocians, Locrians, Thebans and Thespians to name a few. At the time of their arrival at Thermopylae the Greek force is estimated to have numbered no more than 7,000 including auxiliary troops such as skirmishers and attendants. Standing opposite them was the army of King Xerxes, numbering over 1 million according to Herodotus and under 300,000 according to modern historians. Many of the Greeks demanded that their force retreat to the Isthmus of Corinth in the face of such overwhelming numbers, however Leonidas convinced the Greeks that to fail to defend Phocis and Locris (nearby Thermopylae) was to fail to defend all of Greece, for all Greeks are worthy of the right to freedom and self-determination.

Xerxes sent an ambassador to the Greeks, asking them to surrender their arms and become another people subservient to Persian whims, to which Leonidas famously responded, ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ! Come and Take them! On the 20th of August, after four days of delaying by Xerxes, the battle of Thermopylae and the fate of free Greece began! Having positioned themselves behind a light defensive wall, constructed earlier by the Phocians in their struggle against the Thessalians, the Greeks began to repair and fortify it in the build up to battle. Before the fight began, however, Leonidas was informed by locals from nearby Trachis of a mountain path that led around and behind the pass of Thermopylae, threatening to outflank the Greek position. Aware of this, Leonidas stationed a unit of Phocians to defend the mountain path. Now the stage was set, the Persians intent on breaking through the Greek line before their own army was weakened by lack of supplies and disease; and the Greeks on the other hand were content to bide their time, taking advantage of the narrow pass and the fact that time was an enemy to the Persians.

Xerxes, therefore, on the fifth day, after four days of delay, launched his initial attack against the Greeks. ON THE FIRST DAY the arrows of the Persian archers were ineffective against the Greek positions, whose large wooden shields, covered with bronze, shielded them from what arrows even made it over the distance. Thus, Xerxes sent forward his first wave of light infantry, Ctesias, an ancient historian of repute, recounts that the first wave of Persians was “cut to pieces” by the Spartans, only losing a handful of Spartiates in return for thousands of Persian dead. Enraged, Xerxes flung the pride of his armed forces, the Immortals, against the Greeks next. This proficient and skilled group of 10,000 warriors was tactfully defeated by the Spartans, feigning retreat and wheeling around to crush the Immortals, proving that in fact they were very “mortal”. DAY TWO began with another infantry attack, greatly overestimating the damage they had inflicted upon the Greeks. Xerxes was shocked when the attack had little to no impact, only costing him thousands of more lives, and permanently demoralising his force. It is said that either on the First or Second Day of battle, Xerxes rose from his throne three times, enraged at the losses inflicted upon his army.

A change of fate, that would go down in Greek history and culture as the epitome of betrayal and cowardice came when a native Trachinian named Ephialtes betrayed his countrymen and fatherland to the Persians for a handful of coins, giving away the location of the mountain trail, leaving the Greek force exposed to encirclement. Ephialtes’ name would be derided throughout history, coming to mean “nightmare” in modern Greek. Now ON THE THIRD DAY the Persians sent a division, most likely of the remaining immortals and other mountain tribesmen, to begin the march down the mountain trail, surprising the Greek rear guard. Here, the Phocian detachment stationed at the pass was alerted to the Persian encirclement by rustling of leaves and the movement of bushes, after being pushed back, the Persians were free to swoop down on the Greek rear. Leonidas, after being made aware of the Phocians’ defeat, called a council with the leaders of all the Greek contingents. Most leaders were in favour of retreat; however, Leonidas knew that his Spartans must stay. A total withdrawal would have left the Greeks open to cavalry attack, perhaps costing the lives of the whole force, and to retreat would have gone against Spartan law and Leonidas’ promise to free Greece and fulfil the Delphic prophecy.

The Spartan king and his 300 Spartans would stay, Demophilus with the 700 Thespians and 400 Thebans as well. Xerxes, aware that his Immortals had flanked the Greeks who remained, sent his infantry to charge at the Greek lines, covered by a volley from Persian bowmen. It is now that in the middle of the fray, Leonidas was struck by a Persian arrow, and his corpse was hard fought over. Seeing the Immortals approach from their rear, now truly surrounded, the Thebans “lifted up their hands and left their allies, walking towards the barbarians”. The Theban betrayal was complete and the remaining Spartans and Thespians fought with “spear, sword, hand and tooth” until the Persians finished them off with a final volley of arrows. In their sacrifice, those few brave Greeks ensured the survival of their compatriots, giving valuable time for the free Greek states to rally a greater force, going on to defeat the Persians first at Salamis and then at Platea.

Now just a dry and lonely plain, at Thermopylae there lies a small plaque, on which is written the epitaph composed by Simonides of Ceos for those brave Spartans who valued freedom as much as life itself, Ὦ ξεῖν’, ἀγγέλλειν Λακεδαιμονίοις ὅτι τῇδε κείμεθα, τοῖς κείνων ῥήμασι πειθόμενοι. “O stranger, go tell the Lacedaemonians that we lie here, obedient to their words”.


Further Reading

Paul Cartledge. Thermopylae: The Battle That Changed the World. (Vintage: 2007) 978-1400079186.

Ernle Bradford. Thermopylae: The Battle for the West. (Da Capo Press: 2004) 0-306-81360-2.

Paul Cartledge. Sparta and Lakonia: A Regional History. 2nd Edition. (Routledge: 2002) 0-415-26276-3.

Herodotus. Histories. 7.201-233.Translated by Aubrey de Selincourt. (Penguin: 2003) 978-0-14-044908-2.

John C. Kraft, George Rapp, Jr., George J. Szemler, Christos Tziavos, Edward W. Kase. “The Pass at Thermopylae, Greece”. Journal of Field Archaeology (1987) 14 (2): 181–98.