Battle of Thermopylae

Battle of Thermopylae

Thermopylae is a mountain pass near the sea in northern Greece which was the site of several battles in antiquity, the most famous being that between Persians and Greeks in August 480 BCE. Despite being greatly inferior in numbers, the Greeks held the narrow pass for three days with Spartan king Leonidas fighting a last-ditch defence with a small force of Spartans and other Greek hoplites. Ultimately the Persians took control of the pass, but the heroic defeat of Leonidas would assume legendary proportions for later generations of Greeks, and within a year the Persian invasion would be repulsed at the battles of Salamis and Plataea.

Context: The Persian Wars

Whatever the exact motives, in 491 BCE Darius sent envoys to call for the Greeks' submission to Persian rule. The Greeks sent a no-nonsense reply by executing the envoys, and Athens and Sparta promised to form an alliance for the defence of Greece. Darius' response to this diplomatic outrage was to launch a naval force of 600 ships and 25,000 men to attack the Cyclades and Euboea, leaving the Persians just one step away from the rest of Greece. In 490 BCE Greek forces led by Athens met the Persians in battle at Marathon and defeated the invaders. The battle would take on mythical status amongst the Greeks, but in reality it was merely the opening overture of a long war with several other battles making up the principal acts. Persia, with the largest empire in the world, was vastly superior in men and resources and now these would be fully utilised for a full-scale attack.

In 486 BCE, Xerxes I (r. 486-465 BCE) became king upon the death of Darius and massive preparations for invasion were made. Depots of equipment and supplies were laid, a canal dug at Chalkidike, and boat bridges built across the Hellespont to facilitate the movement of troops. Greece was about to face its greatest ever threat, and even the oracle at Delphi ominously advised the Athenians to 'fly to the world's end'.

The Pass of Thermopylae

When news of the invading force reached Greece, the initial Greek reaction was to send a force of 10,000 hoplites to hold position at the valley of Tempē near Mt. Olympos, but these withdrew when the massive size of the invading army was revealed. Then after much discussion and compromise between Greek city-states, suspicious of each others' motives, a joint army of between 6,000 and 7,000 men was sent to defend the pass at Thermopylae through which the Persians must enter mainland Greece. The Greek forces included 300 Spartans and their helots with 2,120 Arcadians, 1,000 Lokrians, 1,000 Phokians, 700 Thespians, 400 Corinthians, 400 Thebans, 200 men from Phleious, and 80 Mycenaeans.

Thermopylae was an excellent choice for defence with mountains running down into the sea leaving only a narrow pass along the coast.

The relatively small size of the defending force has been explained as a reluctance by some Greek city-states to commit troops so far north, and/or due to religious motives, for it was the period of the sacred games at Olympia and the most important Spartan religious festival, the Karneia, and no fighting was permitted during these events. Indeed, for this very reason, the Spartans had arrived too late at the earlier Battle of Marathon. Therefore, the Spartans, widely credited as being the best fighters in Greece and the only polis with a professional army, contributed only a small advance force of 300 hoplites (from an estimated 8,000 available) to the Greek defensive force, these few being chosen from men with male heirs.

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In addition to the land forces, the Greek poleis sent a fleet of trireme warships which held position off the coast of Artemision (or Artemisium) on the northern coast of Euboea, 40 nautical miles from Thermopylae. The Greeks would amass over 300 triremes and perhaps their main purpose was to prevent the Persian fleet sailing down the inland coast of Lokris and Boeotia.

The pass of Thermopylae, located 150 km north of Athens was an excellent choice for defence with steep mountains running down into the sea leaving only a narrow marshy area along the coast. The pass had also been fortified by the local Phokians who built a defensive wall running from the so-called Middle Gate down to the sea. The wall was in a state of ruin, but the Spartans made the best repairs they could in the circumstances. It was here, then, in a 15-metre wide gap with a sheer cliff protecting their left flank and the sea on their right, that the Greeks chose to make a stand against the invading army. Having somewhere in the region of 80,000 troops at his disposal, the Persian king, who led the invasion in person, first waited four days in expectation that the Greeks would flee in panic. When the Greeks held their position, Xerxes once again sent envoys to offer the defenders a last chance to surrender without bloodshed if the Greeks would only lay down their arms. Leonidas' bullish response to Xerxes request was 'molōn labe' or 'come and get them' and so battle commenced.

Hoplites vs Archers

The two opposing armies were essentially representative of the two approaches to Classical warfare - Persian warfare favoured long-range assault using archers followed up with a cavalry charge, whilst the Greeks favoured heavily-armoured hoplites, arranged in a densely packed formation called the phalanx, with each man carrying a heavy round bronze shield and fighting at close quarters using spears and swords. The Persian infantry carried a lightweight (often crescent-shaped) wicker shield and were armed with a long dagger or battleaxe, a short spear, and composite bow. The Persian forces also included the Immortals, an elite force of 10,000 who were probably better protected with armour and armed with spears. The Persian cavalry were armed as the foot soldiers, with a bow and an additional two javelins for throwing and thrusting. Cavalry, usually operating on the flanks of the main battle, were used to mop up opposing infantry put in disarray after they had been subjected to repeated salvos from the archers. Although the Persians had enjoyed the upper hand in previous contests during the recent Ionian revolt, the terrain at Thermopylae would better suit Greek warfare.

Although the Persian tactic of rapidly firing vast numbers of arrows into the enemy must have been an awesome sight, the lightness of the arrows meant that they were largely ineffective against the bronze-armoured hoplites. Indeed, Spartan indifference is epitomised by Dieneces, who, when told that the Persian arrows would be so dense as to darken the sun, replied that in that case the Spartans would have the pleasure of fighting in the shade. At close quarters, the longer spears, heavier swords, better armour, and rigid discipline of the phalanx formation meant that the Greek hoplites would have all of the advantages, and in the narrow confines of the terrain, the Persians would struggle to make their vastly superior numbers tell.

Battle

On the first day, Xerxes sent his Median and Kissian troops, and after their failure to clear the pass, the elite Immortals entered the battle but in the brutal close-quarter fighting, the Greeks held firm. The Greek tactic of feigning a disorganised retreat and then turning on the enemy in the phalanx formation also worked well, lessening the threat from Persian arrows and perhaps the hoplites surprised the Persians with their disciplined mobility, a benefit of being a professionally trained army.

The second day followed the pattern of the first, and the Greek forces still held the pass. However, an unscrupulous traitor was about to tip the balance in favour of the invaders. Ephialtes, son of Eurydemos, a local shepherd from Trachis, seeking reward from Xerxes, informed the Persians of an alternative route —the Anopaia path— which would allow them to avoid the majority of the enemy forces and attack their southern flank. Leonidas had stationed the contingent of Phokian troops to guard this vital point but they, thinking themselves the primary target of this new development, withdrew to a higher defensive position when the Immortals attacked. This suited the Persians as they could now continue unimpeded along the mountain path and arrive behind the main Greek force. With their position now seemingly hopeless, and before their retreat was cut off completely, the bulk of the Greek forces were ordered to withdraw by Leonidas.

Last Stand

The Spartan king, on the third day of the battle, rallied his small force - the survivors from the original Spartan 300, 700 Thespians and 400 Thebans - and made a rearguard stand to defend the pass to the last man in the hope of delaying the Persians progress, in order to allow the rest of the Greek force to retreat or also possibly to await relief from a larger Greek force. Early in the morning, the hoplites once more met the enemy, but this time Xerxes could attack from both front and rear and planned to do so but, in the event, the Immortals behind the Greeks were late on arrival. Leonidas moved his troops to the widest part of the pass to utilise all of his men at once, and in the ensuing clash the Spartan king was killed. His comrades then fought fiercely to recover the body of the fallen king. Meanwhile, the Immortals now entered the fray behind the Greeks who retreated to a high mound behind the Phokian wall. Perhaps at this point the Theban contingent may have surrendered (although this is disputed amongst scholars). The remaining hoplites, now trapped and without their inspirational king, were subjected to a barrage of Persian arrows until no man was left standing. After the battle, Xerxes ordered that Leonidas' head be put on a stake and displayed at the battlefield. As Herodotus claims in his account of the battle in book VII of The Histories, the Oracle at Delphi had been proved right when she proclaimed that either Sparta or one of her kings must fall.

Meanwhile at Artemision, the Persians were battling the elements rather than the Greeks, as they lost 400 triremes in a storm off the coast of Magnesia and more in a second storm off Euboea. When the two fleets finally met, the Greeks fought late in the day and therefore limited the duration of each skirmish which diminished the numerical advantage held by the Persians. The result of the battle was, however, indecisive and on news of Leonidas' defeat, the fleet withdrew to Salamis.

The Aftermath

The battle of Thermopylae, and particularly the Spartans' role in it, soon acquired mythical status amongst the Greeks. Free men, in respect of their own laws, had sacrificed themselves in order to defend their way of life against foreign aggression. As Simonedes' epitaph at the site of the fallen stated: 'Go tell the Spartans, you who read: We took their orders and here lie dead'.

A glorious defeat maybe, but the fact remained that the way was now clear for Xerxes to push on into mainland Greece. The Greeks, though, were far from finished, and despite many states now turning over to the Persians and Athens itself being sacked, a Greek army led by Leonidas' brother Kleombrotos began to build a defensive wall near Corinth. Winter halted the land campaign, though, and at Salamis the Greek fleet manoeuvred the Persians into shallow waters and won a resounding victory. Xerxes returned home to his palace at Sousa and left the gifted general Mardonius in charge of the invasion. After a series of political negotiations it became clear that the Persians would not gain victory through diplomacy and the two armies met at Plataea in August 479 BCE. The Greeks, fielding the largest hoplite army ever seen, won the battle and finally ended Xerxes' ambitions in Greece.

As an interesting footnote: the important strategic position of Thermopylae meant that it was once more the scene of battle in 279 BCE when the Greeks faced invading Gauls, in 191 BCE when a Roman army defeated Antiochus III, and even as recent as 1941 CE when Allied New Zealand forces clashed with those of Germany.


Your guide to the battle of Thermopylae

The battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC has become the archetype for the courageous last stand. But what’s known about the battle between the forces of Xerxes and Leonidas? And what are the origins of the myth that just 300 Spartans fought against the vast Persian army? Professor Chris Carey explains more

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Published: September 25, 2019 at 11:39 am

In 480 BC, the king of Persia invaded Greece. As the ruler of a vast empire, Xerxes brought with him the greatest army Greece had ever seen, and for four months this massive force rolled south through the country unopposed. City after city surrendered.

But Xerxes’s campaign came to a juddering stop when his army reached the pass of Thermopylae in central Greece, where he found a Greek army waiting, led by the Spartan king Leonidas. The battle that followed has gone down in history as the mother of all last stands.

The battle for the pass

As you approach Thermopylae (about 200 kilometres from modern Athens) from the north, the mountains loom before you like a wall. At the time of the invasion the view was more daunting still. Changes in the sea level mean that these days, the hills at Thermopylae now skirt an alluvial plain [a mainly flat landform]. But in 480 BC, the sea washed up to the base of steep hills and the pass was narrow: five metres wide at most at each end, and no more than 15 metres even in the middle.

The opposing Greek force was small, not much more than 7,000, with 300 Spartans at its core. But it was stuck like a cork in a bottle. To advance south, Xerxes had to take the pass – and time was not on his side. It was late summer, and he needed to wrap up the whole invasion as far as possible before winter. His army was vast: ancient sources put its numbers in the millions, although modern historians incline to about 200,000. Even 50,000 would have been huge by ancient standards. Xerxes knew that if he delayed, he faced supply problems. He needed to feed and water not just the warriors but a host of camp followers, cavalry mounts and baggage animals – plus an immense and lavish royal retinue. So, he was under pressure.

The Greeks were heavily outnumbered. But the tight space meant that the Persians could not use their vast numbers to crush them. And they could not use the tactics that had made them masters of the world from the Aegean to the Indus: breaking the enemy with volley after volley of arrows from a distance, before moving in to annihilate them. Xerxes’s force instead had to resort to the brutal hacking clash of infantry lines at close quarters: the Greek way of fighting. Worse still, the sheer numbers of the Persian force counted against them, since in this confined space they were at constant risk of being crushed by their own side.

For two days, Xerxes threw division after division into the pass. All came back mauled – even his elite corps of 10,000 ‘Immortals’. But there were paths through the hills, and one in particular led along the mountain overlooking the pass to a point behind the Greek lines. Alerted to the path by a local Greek, at dusk on the second day Xerxes sent his Immortals to prepare to outflank the Greeks on the morning of day three.

Surrounded by the enemy

When Leonidas learned of the encirclement early on the third day, he called a meeting. They still had time to withdraw, but Leonidas and what was left of his 300 Spartans insisted on staying. So, too, did the contingent of 700 from the ancient Greek city of Thespiae. Since their city in the nearby region of Boeotia was in the path of any Persian advance, they had good reason to lay down their lives. Four hundred Thebans also stayed (only to desert at the end).

The rest of the Greek force chose to leave. The historian Herodotus, keen to lionise Leonidas, tells us that the leader sent the allies away to spare their lives and win immortal glory. Although neither motive can be dismissed, it’s likely that the main reason was strategic. The Persians (unlike the Greeks) had cavalry, which could overtake and destroy the retreating forces. To buy time for the retreating troops, Leonidas needed a rear-guard to hold back the Persians – and die, if necessary.

The rear-guard held their own, despite losing their commander Leonidas amidst brutal, drawn-out fighting . But then the Immortals arrived, and the Greeks had to retreat to a low hill. The vicious hand-to-hand fighting had broken their spears and swords, but they fought on with daggers, hands and teeth until the Persians tired of unnecessary losses and shot them down with arrow volleys. Arrowheads of Anatolian design have been found in large numbers on the hill by modern archaeologists.

Thermopylae was a Greek defeat. The rear-guard was annihilated and the Persians rolled on to occupy central Greece. But Thermopylae did – crucially – prove that the Persian war machine could be stopped. It also tested the Greek strategy of using confined space to neutralise Persian numbers, a strategy that later proved devastatingly effective when the Greeks destroyed the Persian fleet in the narrow strait of Salamis just a month or so later.

Where does the myth of 300 Spartans come from?

Win or lose, the battle achieved mythic status almost at once, like the British retreat at Dunkirk in 1940, or the massacre of the defenders at the Alamo mission in Texas in 1836. And it became Sparta’s myth. The 300 Spartans were a minority of the defending force – not just in the army but even in the last stand – but the clash became the battle of the Spartan 300, not the Greek 7,000, in popular imagination.

It also served to polish Sparta’s already formidable reputation for invincibility. In the fifth century BC, Herodotus recounts how Xerxes (before Thermopylae) asked the exiled Spartan king Damaratus how free Greeks could stand against him without being forced to fight under the lash. Damaratus replied that the Spartans, though free, have a master whom they fear more than the Persians: their king and the law, which tells them not to retreat, but to stand and die. This wasn’t strictly true the Spartans knew how to retreat. It was Thermopylae that created the myth that Spartans always win or die.

Equally useful for Sparta’s image were stories of Spartans who made the mistake of surviving. One such story is that of Aristodemus, who was one of two Spartans invalided out of the battle due to an eye infection. His comrade, Eurytus, was blinded –but he returned to the battle to fight and die. Aristodemus, meanwhile, went home. He was ostracised and his life was made so unbearable that he preferred to die as a berserker fighting against the Persians a year later. The Spartans still refused to forgive him, even then. The message was clear: no second chances in Sparta.

Most strikingly, later sources present the whole campaign as a suicide expedition, having Leonidas tell the authorities at Sparta before the battle that his real goal is to die for Greece. But 7,000 seems a large force to send out just to die for no strategic goal. And the story works only for the 300 Spartans, not the 6,000+ allies. Certainly, those who left on the third day did not think they had joined a suicide squad. The story reflects the tendency we all have to ‘read history backwards’ and see the outcome as both inevitable and predictable. It usually isn’t.

Thermopylae also generated proliferating stories of Spartan courage under fire, always tied to the Spartan reputation as ‘men of deeds’ not words. The Spartan soldier Dieneces, when told that the Persian arrows would blot out the sun, is said to have replied calmly: “Good news we’ll be fighting in the shade.” A later story adds to this reputation: when the Persians demanded that the Spartans hand over their weapons, Leonidas answered “Come and get them” (words now inscribed on his statues in Sparta and at Thermopylae).

Thermopylae became the archetype for the courageous last stand. In modern times, it has been used and abused as the yardstick for courageous sacrifice against the odds. It has been used to glorify genuine tales of courage – such as the stand of the Indian and British forces at Kohima, in north-east India, against the Japanese invasion in the Second World War, or the courageous action of the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93 on 9/11 against the terrorists who hijacked the plane (the aircraft crashed in a field, prevented from reaching its intended target).

Also, ironically, Thermopylae has been used to glorify imperialist failures – such as the defeat at Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam in 1954 during the closing years of French control in Indo-China, or the British defeat by the Zulus at Isandlwana in KwaZulu-Natal in 1879. It was invoked, too, at the catastrophic German failure at Stalingrad during the German invasion of Russia in the Second World War.

There’s no doubt that the events of Thermopylae in 480 BC live on, in our history, our popular culture and beyond.

Chris Carey is Emeritus Professor of Greek at University College London. He is the author of Thermopylae, part of the Great Battles series, published by Oxford University Press in August 2019.


A Grim Future for Greece

Aristonice the Pythia took her seat, separated from the Athenian petitioners by a veil. She soon fell into a stupor, then began raving in a voice that none could understand. The gibberish was carefully recorded, and when the message was translated it was far from comforting. “Leave your homes,” it began, “and fly to the ends of the earth.” The message continued that “all is lost,” and prophesied that “many shrines of the gods” would meet a “fiery destruction.”

The Athenians’ blood ran cold here was a dire prediction of utter ruin. Stomachs knotted with anxiety, faces downcast, they left the temple in a state of deep depression. But one, Timon, a man who lived in Delphi and probably was attached to the Temple of Apollo in some way, told the Athenians to try again. If they returned with an olive branch, a token of supplication, maybe Apollo would reconsider his harsh words.


History of the Battle of Thermopylae

In the history of the ancient world, the Battle of Thermopylae stands out as one of the most important engagements for the fledgling Greek city-states. Fought over three days in 480 BC between an alliance of Greeks led by the Spartan King Leonidas and the Achaemenid Empire led by King Xerxes, Thermopylae is best remembered for the last stand of the 300 Spartan warriors, who held off the Persian army to give their comrades time to withdraw from the field. Here’s a look at the details of the battle:

Causes of the Second Persian Invasion of Greece

Xerxes’s decision to invade Greece is rooted in his father Darius’s failed expedition against Athens in 490 BC. Seeking to avenge his father and expand the Achaemenid Empire’s influence into Europe, Xerxes mustered a massive army to subdue the Greeks. While ancient sources say that the Persian army numbered over a million men, modern historians estimate that Xerxes’s forces probably consisted of around 100,000 to 150,000 soldiers.

Once Xerxes had brought his forces together, he crossed into Europe through a massive pontoon bridge at the Hellespont. Seeing the massive size of the Persian army, many Greek city-states capitulated to the Persian king’s demands for tribute. Others, however, joined an alliance led by Athens and Sparta to resist the Persian force.

Information About Battle of Thermopylae

As the Persian forces slowly made their way through northern Greece, leaders of the allied city-states knew that they had to delay the Persian army for as long as possible. Military planners knew that it would take time for them to get their armies together. As such, a small force of about 7,000 soldiers was sent to the pass of Thermopylae to slow the Persian advance. Thermopylae was chosen because it was a narrow pass in the mountains that would negate the Persian advantage in numbers.

For the first two days of the battle, the Greeks were able to hold the Persians in check. The Greeks fought in a phalanx formation, which featured a wall of shields with spears facing the enemy. Late in the day on the second day of the battle, a local farmer named Ephialtes betrayed the Greeks, showing Xerxes a secret pass around the Greek lines.

Knowing that his forces were encircled, Leonidas formed a rearguard of his 300 Spartans and around 2,000 other soldiers to let the rest of the Greek army escape. Charging into the Persians, every single Spartan died in the engagement.

Aftermath of Thermopylae

Xerxes’s victory at Thermopylae came at a huge cost to his army, with many sources numbering the Persian dead at 20,000. Once Xerxes had secured Thermopylae, he swept into Greece, destroying much of the countryside and burning Athens to the ground. Using their advantage in ships, the Greeks destroyed the Persian navy at the Battle of Salamis, ending the Persian threat and forcing Xerxes to withdraw from the country.

In the end, the Battle of Thermopylae is important because it prevented Greece from becoming part of the Achaemenid Empire. The battle is further well known for the heroic rearguard actions of Leonidas and the 300 Spartans. The battle marked Spartan soldiers as among the best warriors of the ancient world, with indomitable spirits and refusal to surrender even in the face of great odds. It also allowed the rest of Greece to band together, particularly Athens, where a brilliant naval battle at Salamis was planned and executed.

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Battle of Thermopylae (323 BC)

The Battle of Thermopylae was fought in 323 BC between the Macedonians and a coalition of armies including Athens and the Aetolian League in the pass of Thermopylae during the Lamian War.

After Antipater received news of the outbreak of the war, he sent messengers to Craterus and Philotas who were in Asia with an army of over 10,000 soldiers, to come to his aid. [1] But receiving news of the progress of the war and realizing that he could not wait for his reinforcements to arrive, he marched south to Thessaly with 13,000 foot soldiers and 600 horsemen, [1] while he left Sippas in command of Macedon. But the Thessalians, who initially supported Macedon, changed sides to the Athenian alliance and joined the Athenian general Leosthenes' forces in occupying the passes of Thermopylae, significantly outnumbering the Macedonians. Antipater was defeated in the ensuing battle and since he could not retreat because the Athenian coalitions' forces were stronger than his forces, he shut himself in the city of Lamia where he was subsequently besieged by Leosthenes' forces. [1]


The other ancient ‘Battle of Thermopylae’ pitted the Greeks against the invading Goths

The Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC has long thrived in the realm of pop culture with supposedly 300 chiseled Spartans defending against a horde of barbarous Persian troops. The reality was obviously different from this nigh idealistic presentation on the Western side, with the Greeks actually having around 7,000 men (according to modern estimates) – who nevertheless still managed to hold off a significantly larger Persian army (as in an ‘organized army’, not ‘horde’), thus securing a strategic victory by incurring a tactical loss. But as it turns out, there was another Battle of Thermopylae about 750 years later, and that time around it brought forth the Greek defenders (under Roman rule) against the rampaging Goths (an East Germanic people from late antiquity). The seemingly inconspicuous episode of history (in 250-260 AD) was originally documented in an ancient Greek text written in the 3rd century AD by an Athenian writer named Dexippus. But the text fragments the historians came across (and analysed) are dated from the medieval 11th century AD, and thus thought to be the copies made of the far older and original text.

In any case, the researchers made of spectral imaging to assess these fragments in question, thus allowing them to be comprehensible for the most part. And one of these fragments was successfully translated by a duo of lecturers – Christopher Mallan of Oxford University, and Caillan Davenport of the University of Queensland. Like in the case of the poignant letter written by a Roman legionary 1,800-years ago, this read is also quite engaging with talks of battle columns of the ‘barbarian’ Goths and Greek troops rushing forth to their defensive positions at the famed narrow pass of Thermopylae.

One of the mentioned incidents starts off with an Goth assault on the city of Thessalonica. As Dexippus wrote –

Making an assault upon the city of the Thessalonians, they tried to capture it as a close-packed band. Those on the walls defended themselves valiantly, warding off the battle columns with the assistance of many hands.

Suffice it to say that the assault was probably unsuccessful on the part of the Goths. Hence they made their move further south towards Athens. Dexippus gave his ‘reasoning’ behind such a desperate maneuver –

…envisioning the gold and silver votive offerings and the many processional goods in the Greek sanctuaries, for they learned that the region was exceedingly wealthy in this respect.

But learning of the enemy movements, the rag-tag Greeks (with a presumably sizable militia) arrayed themselves along the narrow pass of Thermopylae. Dexippus wrote –

Some [of the Greeks] carried small spears, others axes, others wooden pikes overlaid with bronze and with iron tips, or whatever each man could arm himself with. When they came together, they completely fortified the perimeter wall and devoted themselves to its protection with haste.

Interestingly enough, Dexippus also mentions the name of the Greek commander – a general named Marianus. This particular figure supposedly gave a rousing speech to his troops harking back to the past exploits of their ancestors at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC.

O Greeks, the occasion of our preservation for which you are assembled and the land in which you have been deployed are both truly fitting to evoke the memory of virtuous deeds. For your ancestors, fighting in this place in former times, did not let Greece down and deprive it of its free state. In previous attacks, you seemed terrifying to the enemies. On account of these things, future events do not appear to me not without hope…

But like any literary cliffhanger, the fragment ends rather unceremoniously, and thus historians are still not sure about the outcome of the seemingly momentous battle. And since we are talking about a literary piece, the speech could have been an invention of the writer himself. To that end, there are other fragments written by Dexippus and the first of them was translated in German in 2014, by Gunther Martin and Jana Grusková, researchers at the University of Bern and Comenius University in Bratislava, respectively. There are also complementary English articles published by the same researchers regarding the fragments – and the overarching narrative seems to suggest that the Roman Emperor Decius (who lived from 201-251 AD) tried to repel the Goths from Greece. But he was probably unsuccessful in his endeavor, by losing both men and territories to the invading enemy.

And intriguingly, this Decius character also supposedly made a morale-boosting speech but again it could have been invented by Dexippus himself –

Men, I wish the military force and all the provincial territory were in a good condition and not humiliated by the enemy. But since the incidents of human life bring manifold sufferings…it is the duty of prudent men to accept what happens and not to lose their spirit, nor become weak.

Lastly, it should be noted that historically there was possibly yet another ancient ‘Battle of Thermopylae’ in 267 AD when the Heruli (another East Germanic tribe) successfully invaded the Balkans. But a major part of their ‘mixed-band ‘forces (comprising fellow Goths and possibly allied Gepids) was annihilated at the Battle of Naissus two years later by the Eastern Roman troops commanded by Claudius II, who was later given the epithet of ‘Gothicus’.

Spectral imaging used for deciphering the fragment. Credit: Vienna, Austrian National Library.


Battle

First day

On the fifth day after the Persian arrival at Thermopylae and the first day of the battle, Xerxes finally resolved to attack the Greeks. First, he ordered 5,000 archers to shoot a barrage of arrows, but they were ineffective they shot from at least 100 yards away, according to modern day scholars, and the Greeks' wooden shields (sometimes covered with a very thin layer of bronze) and bronze helmets deflected the arrows. ⏦] After that, Xerxes sent a force of 10,000 Medes and Cissians to take the defenders prisoner and bring them before him. ⏈] ⏧] The Persians soon launched a frontal assault, in waves of around 10,000 men, on the Greek position. ⏈] The Greeks fought in front of the Phocian wall, at the narrowest part of the pass, which enabled them to use as few soldiers as possible. ⏨] ⏩] Details of the tactics are scant Diodorus says, "the men stood shoulder to shoulder", and the Greeks were "superior in valour and in the great size of their shields." ⏪] This probably describes the standard Greek phalanx, in which the men formed a wall of overlapping shields and layered spear points protruding out from the sides of the shields, which would have been highly effective as long as it spanned the width of the pass. ⏫] The weaker shields, and shorter spears and swords of the Persians prevented them from effectively engaging the Greek hoplites. ⏪] ⏬] 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 stood up three times from 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 killed in return. Β]

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, and failed to make any headway against the Greeks. ⏬] The Spartans apparently used a tactic of feigning retreat, and then turning and killing the enemy troops when they ran after them. ⏬]

Second day

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." ⏮] However, the Persians had no more success on the second day than on the first. ⏮] Xerxes at last stopped the assault and withdrew to his camp, "totally perplexed". Β]

Later that day, however, as the Persian king was pondering what to do next, he received a windfall a Trachinian named Ephialtes informed him of the mountain path around Thermopylae and offered to guide the Persian army. ⏯] Ephialtes was motivated by the desire for a reward. ⏯] For this act, the name "Ephialtes" received a lasting stigma it came to mean "nightmare" in the Greek language and to symbolize 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 were. 𖏝] 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 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, the first town of Locris. ⏁]

Third day

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 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 his forces. 𖏠] He feared they were Spartans but was informed by Ephialtes that they were not. 𖏟] The Phocians retreated to a nearby hill to make their stand (assuming the Persians had come to attack them). 𖏟] However, not wishing to be delayed, the Persians merely shot a volley of arrows at them, before bypassing them to continue with their encirclement of the main Greek force. 𖏟]

Learning from a runner that the Phocians had not held the path, Leonidas called a council of war at dawn. 𖏡] According to Diodorus, a Persian called Tyrrhastiadas, a Cymaean by birth, warned the Greeks. 𖏢] Some of the Greeks argued for withdrawal, but Leonidas resolved to stay at the pass with the Spartans. 𖏡] Upon discovering that his army had been encircled, Leonidas told his allies that they could leave if they wanted to. While many of the Greeks took him up on his offer and fled, around two thousand soldiers stayed behind to fight and die. Knowing that the end was near, the Greeks marched into the open field and met the Persians head-on. 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 and committed themselves to the fight. 𖏤] Also present were the 400 Thebans and probably the helots who had accompanied the Spartans. 𖏠]

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. It has also been proposed that the failure to retreat from Thermopylae gave rise to the notion that Spartans never retreated. 𖏥] It has also been suggested that Leonidas, recalling the words of the Oracle, was committed to sacrificing his life in order to save Sparta. 𖏥]

The most likely theory is that Leonidas chose to form a rearguard so that the other Greek contingents could get away. 𖏥] 𖏦] 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. 𖏠] By covering the retreat and continuing to block the pass, Leonidas could save more than 3,000 men, who would be able to fight again. 𖏦]

The Thebans have also been the subject of some discussion. Herodotus suggests they were brought to the battle as hostages to ensure the good behavior of Thebes. ⎽] However, as Plutarch long ago pointed out, if they were hostages, why not send them away with the rest of the Greeks? 𖏥] The likelihood is that these were the Theban "loyalists", who unlike the majority of their fellow citizens, objected to Persian domination. 𖏥] They thus probably came to Thermopylae of their own free will and stayed to the end because they could not return to Thebes if the Persians conquered Boeotia. 𖏠] The Thespians, resolved as they were not to submit to Xerxes, faced the destruction of their city if the Persians took Boeotia. 𖏥]

However, this alone does not explain the fact that they remained the remainder of Thespiae was successfully evacuated before the Persians arrived there. 𖏥] 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. 𖏧] 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. ⏩] A Persian force of 10,000 men, comprising light infantry and cavalry, charged at the front of the Greek formation. 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 of Xerxes' brothers 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 took 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, which changed the identification of the hill on which the Greeks were thought to have 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. 𖏬] 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 4,000 Greeks died, but assuming 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. 𖏮]


Were there really only 300 Spartans at the battle of Thermopylae?

The 2006 film 300 told the fantastical story of the battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC, when a handful of Spartans fought the entirety of Persia’s armies for three days. But was it as one-sided as the legend suggests?

In short, not as much as suggested. It is true there were only 300 Spartan soldiers at the battle of Thermopylae but they were not alone, as the Spartans had formed an alliance with other Greek states. It is thought that the number of ancient Greeks was closer to 7,000. The size of the Persian army is disputed. 5th-century Herodotus claimed there were over two million but it was more likely to be between 100,000 and 300,000, so the Greeks were still against overwhelming odds.

With this huge army, Xerxes I of Persia was intent on invading and conquering all of Greece, but King Leonidas of Sparta met him at the narrow coastal pass of Thermopylae, known as the Hot Gates, where Persia’s superior numbers counted for nothing. A messenger threatened a Spartan general saying, “Our arrows will block out the Sun”, to which the general replied, “Then we will fight in the shade.” Leonidas’ forces held off the Persians for two full days.

The Spartans were brutal warriors, raised never to surrender or show weakness. When a Persian ambassador ordered the Greeks to lay down their weapons, Leonidas hit back with, “Come and take them”.

A Greek called Ephialtes betrayed his country by revealing a path to the Persians that allowed them to outflank Leonidas. The Spartan King dismissed most of the army and formed a rear-guard of around 1,500 men, including his 300 Spartans, 700 Thespians, 400 Thebans and a few hundred others, many of them slaves. They were wiped out but this sacrifice allowed the bulk of the army to retreat and regroup.

Xerxes’ invasion ended in failure as the Greeks won decisive victories at the Battles of Salamis and Plataea. Greek unity was not to last, however, culminating in the Peloponnesian War.


1. A Fallen King

After the battle was finally won by the Persians and the remaining rear guard of Greeks had been killed (many of them by the Persian archers, as later excavation would prove), the leader of the Greek forces was given a particularly humiliating punishment by the Persians. Although Leonidas’ body had been fought over by the surviving Greeks to protect it from desecration (as opposed to him being the last surviving man to be killed), the body of the Spartan king was beheaded and crucified. This went against the custom of the Persians, who normally treated their fallen enemies with honor, but Xerxes was feeling particularly ticked off after a week’s delay and a particularly humiliating battle in which thousands of his men had died.

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Battlefield of Thermopylae

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I definitely suggest researching this famous battle before you visit.

The statue of King Leonidas - aged 60 at the time of the battlez - is a, fitting testament to his leadership.

However it took some time for me to click this was the actual battle site as it was not between two cliffs, but the cliffs and the sea which is now nowhere to be seen, and there is only a small map with very brief information.

The Spartan and Greek soldiers fought valiantly to defend their country, and I think deserve an improved commemoration site to honour their noble act.

We have all heard of this epic battle site. Three is not much to see except for the Leonidas monument but if you walk around, climb the small hill and imagine how it was over two thousand years ago when the shore line was much closer to the mountains near to where the street is nowadays.
Climb the hill that overlooks the field and enjoy the view. There is no entrance fee and there is lots of parking place.

I would only come here if it was on the way AND/OR if you are a geek for historical places…otherwise you may be disappointed.