Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC, an alliance of South Greek city-states fought the invading Persian army in the pass of Thermopylae. Vastly outnumbered, the Greeks delayed the enemy in one of the most famous last stands of history. A small force led by King Leonidas of Sparta blocked the only road through which the massive army of Xerxes I could pass. The Persians succeeded in defeating the Greeks but sustained heavy losses, disproportionate to those of the Greeks. A local resident named Ephialtes betrayed the Greeks, revealing a mountain path that led behind the Greek 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 secured the retreat of the other Greek forces.
The losses of the Persian army alarmed Xerxes. When his navy was later defeated at Salamis he fled Greece leaving only part of his force to finish the conquest of Greece. It was defeated at the Battle of Plataea. The performance of the defenders at the battle of Thermopylae is often used as an example of the advantages of training, equipment and good use of terrain to maximize an army's potential, as well as 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.
All men of Spartan birth had to serve in the army. Boys of seven were taken from their families to live in army barracks. Their whole lives were dedicated to learning the arts of war. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote that Spartan soldiers, (look photo - Spartan hoplites Copyright © Nick / greece-private) differed from the rest of the Greeks in that they wore long red robes ,always combed their long hair when they might be about to put their lives at risk, as when going into battle. The scarlet color of the military cloaks became a symbol of Spartan pride. SPARTAN REGIME. The Spartan system of education, with its emphasis on physical fitness, was mush admired in 19th - century Victorian Britain. Corporal punishment too was regarded as character - forming for schoolboys, just as it was in ancient Sparta.Size of the Persian army
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 Abides. This allowed the land forces to cross the Hellespont. Herodotus of Halicarnassus, who wrote the first history of this war, gave the size of Xerxe's army as follows:
|Arabs and Libyans||20,000|
This number needs to be nearly doubled in order to account for support troops and thus Herodotus reports that the whole force numbered 5,283,220 men, a figure which has been rejected by modern historians. 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, the Greek countryside, and supplies available along the army's route.
One faculty contends that ancient sources do give realistic numbers. According to the texts the Greeks at the end of the battle of Plataea mustered 110,000 (Herodotus) or 100,000 (Pompeius) troops: 38,700 hoplites and 71,300 or 61,300 peltasts respectively, the difference probably being 10,000 helots. In that battle, according to Herodotus, they faced 300,000 Persians and 50,000 Greek allies. This gives a 3-to-1 ratio for the two armies, which proponents of the school consider a realistic proportion.
Size of the Greek army
After the expedition to Greece had got under way, Xerxes sent messengers to all the states offering blandishments if they would submit and asking earth and water from their soil as a token of submission. Many smaller states submitted. 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." 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 as well as to send a fleet to Artemision, a naval choke point. Xerxes' army was being supplied and supported by sea. Using the fleet they might also have crossed Maliacos bay and outflanked the Greek army again.
The Greek high strategy is confirmed by an oration later in the same century: But while Greece showed these inclinations [to join the Persians], the Athenians, for their part, embarked in their ships and hastened to the defense of Artemisium; while the Lacedaemonians and some of their allies went off to make a stand at Thermopylae, judging that the narrowness of the ground would enable them to secure the passage. 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 to hold the Persian army in the north for as long as possible, and defeat it through attrition, epidemics, and food deprivation.
Some have argued that the Athenians felt confident of the small force and Leonidas' presence being enough to stop the Persians, otherwise they would have already vacated their city and sent their whole army to Thermopylae. We know of one case in which a small force did stop a larger invading force from the north; in 353 BC/352 BC the Athenians managed to stop the forces of Philip II of Macedon by deploying 5,000 hoplites and 400 horsemen.
The force with Leonidas was sent forward by the Spartans in advance of their main body, that the sight of them might encourage the allies to fight, and hinder them from going over to the Medes, as was likely they might have done had they seen that Sparta was backward. They intended presently, when they had celebrated the Carneian Festival, which was what now kept them at home, to leave a garrison in Sparta, and hasten in full force to join the army. The rest of the allies intended to act similarly; for it happened that the Olympic Festival fell exactly at this same period. None of them looked to see the contest at Thermopylae decided so speedily; wherefore they were content to send forward a mere advance guard. Such accordingly were the intentions of the allies.
The Spartan king was put in charge of the army at Thermopylae. Of his over lordship Herodotus says only that they especially looked up to him. He was convinced that he was going to certain death, which he would not have been if he had thought the forces given him were adequate for a victory. He selected only men who had fathered sons that were old enough to take over the family responsibilities. Plutarch mentions in his Sayings of Spartan Women that after encouraging her husband before his departure for the battlefield, Gorgo, the wife of Leonidas, asked him what she should do when he had left. To this he replied: Marry a good man, and have good children. Another common saying of Spartan Women was: Come home with your shield or on it. The meaning being that the soldier was to return home either victorious (with your shield) or dead - i.e. carried away from the battle field (on their shield), rather than fleeing the battle and dropping their shield in cowardice (as it was too heavy a piece of armor to carry while running).
At the time, the pass ofThermopylae 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 Phobias 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. Today the pass is not that, but is inland, due to infilling of the Gulf of Malis. The old track appears at the foot of hills around the plain, flanked by a modern road. It still is a natural defensive position to modern armies.
Arrival of the Persians
When the Persian army reached the entrance to Thermopylae, the Greeks instigated a council meeting. The Peloponnesians advised withdrawing to the isthmus and defending only the Peloponnesus there. They knew, of course, that the Persians would have to defeat Athens before they could arrive at the isthmus. The Phocians and Locrians, whose states were located nearby, becoming indignant, advised defending Thermopylae and sending for more help. Leonidas thought it best to adopt their plan.
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 a Greek in his employ, Demaratos, he was told that the Spartans were preparing for battle and that it was their custom to adorn their hair beforehand. They were the bravest men in Greece, he said, and they intended to dispute the pass.
Xerxes remained incredulous. According to another account, he did send emissaries to the Greek forces. At first he asked Leonidas to join him and offered him the kingship of all of Greece. Leonidas answered:
Then Xerxes asked him more forcefully to surrender their arms. To this Leonidas gave his noted answer: ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ (pronounced: /molon lave) which means "Come take them". This quote has been repeated by many later generals and politicians, in order to express the Greeks' determination to risk a sacrifice rather than surrender without a fight. It is today the emblem of the Greek First Army Corps.
Greek morale was high. Herodotus wrote 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." Today Dienekes's phrase is the motto of the Greek 20th Armored Division. Xerxes waited four days for the Greek force to disperse. On the fifth day he ordered the Medes and the Cissians to take them prisoner and bring them before him.
On the one hand these men in this way had intended to make this; on the other hand the Greeks were in Thermopylae fearing this. When Xerxes was near the pass, the Greeks were planning an escape. He knew that the Peloponnesians having come to Peloponnesus were guarding the Isthmus. Leonidas with the Phocians and Locrians having been very much angered by the opinion of the man himself was voting to both remain and send messengers to the city ordering them (Peloponnesians) to come to aid, since they themselves were too few to ward off the army of the Medes. With the Greeks planning these things, Xerxes was sending a rider (scout) to see how many there were and what they might do. He, still being in Thessaly had heard how the small army having collected might still be there, and that the leaders might both be the Lacedemonians (Spartans) and Leonidas of the race of Heracles. And when the horseman rode to the camp, he was looking down and was not seeing the whole camp, for he was not able to look down upon those having been stationed within the wall, which they having built were guarding. This was known as the Phocian Wall. He was noticing them outside, and their weapons were lying in front of the wall.
The Spartans happened to have been stationed outside at the time. He was indeed seeing some of the men exercising and some of the men combing their hair. The men were wrestling because they were preparing for battle. This was their form of stretching before going to fight. They were also combing their hair because they did not want to be pulled down by their hair while fighting in battle. Clearly the scout running was admiring these things and noticed the number of men. Having seen everything exactly he departed back to Xerxes undisturbed; for no one exhibited concern or found him as a threat. He having gone away was speaking to Xerxes all the very things which he had seen. Xerxes, hearing this, did not hold the ability to comprehend the facts, that the Spartans were preparing both to be killed and to kill to the best of one's ability. Since they were seeming to cause laughter to him (it was humorous to Xerxes to find out that the Spartans were preparing for battle by wrestling and combing hair), Xerxes sent for Demaratos the son of Ariston, being in the Persian camp. Xerxes was asking him having come to each of these things, wishing to know what the Spartans were doing.
When the Medes were being roughly handled, they were retreating, and the Persians, whom the king was calling immortals, having shown themselves forth, were advancing, of whom the first was Hydarnes. It was thought that they would accomplish victory. But when they were battling the Greeks, they were bearing no more success than the Medes, but the same results. For fighting in a small passage, they could not make use of their number, and using smaller spears, could not engage the Greeks with success. And turning their backs, the Greeks would flee convincingly, and the Persians would advance with a shout and a din. The triumphing ones would turn to be the Greeks, and the ones having turned themselves were holind off the greater number of Persians. A few of the Spartans were falling due to the superiority of the Persian force, but the Persians were not able to take hold of the pass. It is said that Xerxes, looking on, jumped from his seat three times in fear for his army. On the following day, the Persians were contending no more successfully. With some of the Greeks surviving, (the Persians) hoping that they (The Greeks), having been covered in wounds, would not be able to raise their hands (to fight), attacked again; but having been arranged by clan and company, the Greeks were surviving, and each one was fighting in share, except for the Phocians, who were guarding the other pass.
Late on the second day of battle, as the king was pondering what to do next, he received a windfall circumstance: a Malian, named Ephialtes, informed him of a path around Thermopylae and offered to guide them. Ephialtes was motivated by the desire of a reward, though he was later assassinated. The path led from east of the Persian camp along the ridge of Mt. Anopaea behind the cliffs that flanked the pass. It branched, one path leading to Phocis, and the other down to the Gulf of Malis at Alpenus, first town of Locris. Leonidas had stationed 1000 Phocian volunteers on the heights to guard this path.
For all their previous indignation and insistence on a defense at Thermopylae, they were not prepared: there were no advance positions, sentinels or patrols. Their first warning of the approach of the Immortals under Hydarnes was the rustling of oak leaves at first light on the third day of the battle. Herodotus says that they "jumped up", suggesting that they were still asleep, and were "greatly amazed", which no alert unit should have been.
Hydarnes was as amazed to see them hastily arming themselves. He feared that they were Spartans, but was enlightened by Ephialtes. Not wishing to be delayed by an assault, Hydarnes resorted to a tactic that later turned out to be the winning one: he fired "showers of arrows" at them. The Phocians retreated to the crest of the mountain, there to make a last stand (their story). The Persians branched left to Alpenus. For this act, the name of Ephialtes received a lasting stigma: it means "nightmare" and is synonymous with "traitor" in Greek.
After several days of fighting, Magistias, a Greek "seer", inspected the entrails of an animal sacrifice. It was custom of the Greeks to slice an animals underside and inspect its internal organs. By the shape and color of the organs of the sacrifice, the Greeks would determine whether the battle would end favorably for them (or not). On this day, however, Magistias inspected the sacrifice, and he told the Greeks in Thermopylae that death was destined to them at dawn. The Greeks, however, were unfazed by this grim omen. They were less concerned about living or dying, than they were with how many Persians they killed (apparently, this bad omen was referring to Ephialtes and his betrayal of the Greeks).
He was leading a large group of Persians through a "cow path" which was really unknown to many. This path would lead the Persians behind the Lacedemonians, ergo allowing the Persians to fight on both sides of the Lacedemonians. Many of the Greeks were arguing not to stay and fight the battle because it was suicidal, so Leonidas himself dismissed them. However the Spartans, the Thespians, and the Thebans alone were staying to fight. The Thebans were not wanting to fight but Leonidas was holding them hostage by their word. The Thespians however, declared that they would not leave Leonidas behind and that they would fight to the death beside him and the Spartans. Demophilius, son of Diadromes, was the general of them. This section has been translated from Herodotus, and then explained by Mr. Gregory J Knittel, Ph.D.
Final stand of the Spartans and Thespians
None of the actions of the Persians were a surprise to Leonidas. From a variety of sources he was kept apprised of their every move, receiving first intelligence of the outflanking movement before first light. When he learned that the Phocians had not held, he called a council. It was just at dawn. Some of the Greeks wished to depart, and some to stay. At the end of the council some departed. Herodotus believed that Leonidas blessed their departure with an order, but he related the other point of view, that they departed without orders. The Spartans had pledged themselves to fight to the death, and 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 in their lot with the Spartans.
Ostensibly the Spartans were obeying their oath and following the oracle from Delphi (see below). However, it would have been good generalship to delay the advance of the Persians and cover the retreat of the Greek army; in fact, with the Persians so close at hand, it probably was a tactical requirement, made more palatable by the oracle.
At dawn Xerxes made libations, waited until he thought the Immortals had time to descend the mountain, and then began to advance. The Greeks this time sallied out from the wall to meet them in the wider part of the pass with a view toward slaughtering as many as they could. This they succeeded in doing. They fought with spears until the spears were all 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. The Greeks and the Persians fought for his body, the Greeks winning.
Receiving intelligence that Ephialtes and the Immortals were coming up, the Greeks withdrew and took a stand on a small hill behind the wall. The Thebans under Leontiades put hands up, but a few were slain before the surrender was accepted. Some of the remaining Greeks were fighting with 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. Archaeology has confirmed the arrow shower at the end.
From Herodotus Book VII "The Final Struggle at Thermopylae" from The Histories:
When Xerxes made libations (drink-offerings), with the sun having risen; he, waiting, was making the time to attack for his own benefit perhaps somewhere at full market time; for he had also dispatched in such a way according to Ephialtes; for away from the mountain, there is both a shorter descent and a greatly smaller place, or there is both a way around and an ascent. And the barbarians were advancing with Xerxes and the Greeks were advancing with Leonidas, as if making the way out for the sake of death, now in truth rather at the beginning they were going against many men to the more broad area of the strait. For while they being on guard for the protection for the wall, yet throughout the earlier days they, giving way, were fighting to the narrow pass. Then many men, joining battle outside of the narrows, threw themselves to the crowd of the barbarians; for the leaders of the division, having held whips, thrashed many men behind, always urging on forward. While many of those men were falling into the sea and were being destroyed, yet the greater part still living, were being trampled by many of one another; and there was no account of who was falling. For just they (the Greeks), having felt sure to be dead in the future from those coming around the road to them, were pointing away to the barbarians to the greatest strength of which they were capable, both disregarding and being reckless. And currently now then it was happening to the spears of greater men of theirs were breaking, but they were killing Persians with swords for their own benefit. And Leonidas fell to this battle having proved himself the bravest man and others of the Spartans by name with himself, of which as having proven for leading men, I have learned the names by inquiry, also I learned of all the three hundred. And indeed the many other famous men of Persia there fell. And among indeed the two sons of Darius, both Abrokomes and Hyperanthes, being born to Darius from Fratagounes, daughter of Artanes. Both the two brothers of Xerxes fell there fighting, and on behalf of the body of Leonidas there was becoming a great struggle of both the Laekadaemonians and Persians, to this place the Greeks drew out from under with courage and they turned for their own benefit the opposition (back) four times. This conflict continued until those men arrived with Ephialtes. When the Greeks learned that those men arrived, from there already they altered the quarrel; for also they went back again to the narrow of the road, and having passed by a wall, the others having gone, were placing all the men assembled upon a hill, except the Thebans. The hill was upon the entrance, whereas now a stone lion stood for Leonidas. Warding off those men on that piece of ground with short daggers, still those of them who still had daggers being around were hitting and the barbarians, throwing (weapons) overwhelmed those (fighting) with both hands and mouths, they, having pursued from the opposite side and having demolished the defense of the wall, they having come about from every side, were standing around.
With the Lakedaimonians and the Thespians being such, nevertheless, it is said that Dieneces was the best Spartan man. They say that before they mixed with the Medes, he spoke words, having learned from a Trachinian that if the barbarians would release their arrows, they would hide the sun with so great a number of their arrows. Dieneces, not being drawn from his senses, said to the Trachinian, considering the number of the Medes, that he (the Trachinian) would announce good things to them (The Greeks), for with the Medes having hidden the sun, the battle would be in the shade for them, and not in the sun. This saying and others of the same sort Dieneces the Spartan left behind with respect to memory. After that man (Dieneces), two Spartan brothers are said to be the bravest. Alpheus and Maron, children of Orsiphantus. Of the Thespians, he was honored above all others, of whom the name was Dithyrambus of Hamartides. To them (of whom) having been buried in the same place in which they fell, and to those having died and having been sent away (to be gone) by Leonidas, spoken words have been inscribed here.
"4.000 men from Peloponnesus once were fighting with a number of 3 million." This (the above) was inscribed to all, but that (below) to the Spartans. "O foreigner, tell to the Lacedemonias that we, obedient to their commands, lie here." Clearly this (the above) to the Spartans, but this (below) to the seer. "This is a monument to famed Megistias, whom the Medes killed having crossed the river Spercheus, who clearly knowing that death was near did not bear to leave the rulers of Sparta." The Amphictyons are having honored them, with inscriptions and monuments, except the inscription of the seer. Simonedes of Leoprepes, according to guest-friend responsibilities, is having inscribed that of the seer Megistias.
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 Asonides captured earlier off Skyros shows. Xerxes was known for his rages, as when he had the Hellespont whipped because it would not obey him.
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 from Thermopylae to Sparta, where he was buried again with full honors and funeral games were held every year.
The simultaneous naval Battle of Artemisium was a draw, whereupon the Athenian navy retreated. The Persians had control of the Aegean Sea and all of Greece as far south as Attica; the Spartans prepared to defend the Isthmus of Corinth and the Peloponnesus, while Xerxes sacked 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.
The legend of Thermopylae, as told by Herodotus, has it that Sparta consulted the Oracle at Delphi before setting out to meet the Persian army. The Oracle is said to have made the following prophecy in hexameter verse:
Mourn for the loss of a king, descendant of
He cannot be withstood by the courage of bulls nor of lions,
Strive as they may; he is mighty as Jove; there is naught that shall stay him,
Till he have got for his prey your king, or your glorious city.
In essence, the Oracle's warning was that either Sparta would be conquered and left in ruins, or one of her two hereditary kings must sacrifice his life to save her.
Date of the battle
Based upon information from Herodotus's The Histories Book VII, the date of Ephialtes's betrayal and the crossing of the mountain pass by the Immortals - the Persian Royal Guard- can be narrowed down to a few days in September of 480 BC. Leonidas had stationed upon the higher ground inland of the pass, sentries that would have been able to see fire from the Persians crossing the path. Since they did not know the terrain, they needed at least some form of light to make their way. Since lighting a fire would give away the position of the Persians, the Persians made the crossing when the light from the moon would be the greatest - the full moon. In order to discern the month in which the battle occurred, Herodotus again gives the information needed to pinpoint the battle dates. In Book VII Herodotus also talks of the solar eclipse that occurred at the crossing of the Hellespont, and how the Persian Magi explained the event to Xerxes. By estimating the distance the Persian Army could move each day, it can be established that the battle took place around September of 480 BC. When tracing back a lunar calendar, the date of the betrayal can be narrowed to September 18, 19, or 20, 480 BC. or the 75th Olympic Games.
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. Spyridon Marinatos discovered large numbers of Persian arrowheads there. The original stone is not to be found now Instead the epitaph was engraved on a new stone erected in 1955. The text is:
΄Ω ξείν', αγγέλλειν Λακεδαιμονίοις ότι τήδε κείμεθα, τοίς κεινών ρήμασι πειθόμενοι - O xein', angellein Lacedemonians hoti tede keimetha tois keinon rhemasi peithomenoi.
An ancient alternative rendering substitutes πειθόμενοινομίμοιςfor ρήμασι πειθόμενοι. The form of this ancient Greek poetry is an elegiac couplet. Tell them in Lacedemonians, passer-by Obedient to our orders, here we lie.
Additionally, there is a modern monument at the site, called the "Leonidas Monument" in honor of the Spartan king. It reads simply: "Molon Lave" (see above)