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Eastern Mediterranean

The Battle of Thermopylae, 480 BC

by Kerli Henno, 17 November 2007

The pass at Thermopylae was the site of a heroic defeat for the Greeks, as they tried unsuccessfully to defend it in battle against a huge Persian army in 480 BC. However, the defeat served as a rallying call for all of Greece, and remains an everlasting symbol of heroic resistance against overwhelming enemy numbers.

A fleet of Persian ships belonging to Achaemenid King Xerxes had sailed along the coastline from northern Greece into the Gulf of Malia in the eastern Aegean Sea. From there it headed towards the mountains at Thermopylae, where troops poured ashore in their thousands.

An emergency force of about seven thousand Greeks faced the Persian army there at a narrow pass which controlled the only road between Thessaly to the north and central Greece. The Spartan general and king, Leonidas, was in command of the Greek forces which tried to hold off the vast Persian army, and to keep them from attacking the rear of the Greek navy (under Athenian control).

Leonidas may have hoped to block them for long enough so that Xerxes would have to sail away for food and water. The battle lasted for over two days and the Greeks might have been even more successful if a traitor had not shown the Persians a secret path around the pass. This path enabled the Persians to attack the Greeks from both sides.

The battle's beginnings

The political origins of the battle predate Xerxes, as it was his father, Darius I, or Darius the Great, who initially sent heralds to all Greek cities offering blandishments if they would submit to Persian authority.

As was customary, this was signalled by asking for 'earth and water', betokening their submission, which was duly kept by the assiduous bureaucrats of the Persian empire. The Athenians threw the heralds into a pit, while the Spartans characteristically hurled their emissaries into a well with the suggestion that they dig their own earth.

At the start of the Second Persian War, when Xerxes tried to repeat the exercise he ignored the Athenians and Spartans. Even so, Greek support gathered around them and a defensive strategy was formulated. After ten thousand Athenian and Spartan hoplites in the Vale of Tempe were sidestepped by Xerxes, the narrow pass at Thermopylae was judged to be the next place at which a stand could be made.

A combined Greek force was sent there, and an Athenian naval force was sent to Artemision to prevent the Persians from sailing around them and attacking them from the rear.

The Greek force included three hundred Spartans (Leonidas' personal guard - the men of the film, '300'), plus 4,900 additional heavy infantry from Arcadia, Corinth, Thespiae, Phocis, Tegea, Mantinea, Mycenae, Phleious, and Thebes, an unspecified number from the Opuntian Locrians, and a number of slaves (each hoplite could be expected to have at least one lightly armed retainer).

Xerxes remained incredulous, finding it unbelievable that such a small army should contend with his own. Plutarch informs us that he then sent emissaries to the Greek forces.

Kingship of Greece

At first, Xerxes asked Leonidas to join him by offering him the kingship of all Greece.

Leonidas answered: 'If you knew what is good in life, you would abstain from wishing for foreign things. For me it is better to die for Greece than to be monarch over my compatriots'.

Then Xerxes asked him more forcefully to surrender his arms. To this Leonidas gave his noted answer: 'Come and get them'.

A bust of King Leonidas of Sparta
  If you knew what is good in life, you would abstain from wishing for foreign things. For me it is better to die for Greece than to be monarch over my compatriots.

King Leonidas  

Although the Persians were many in number, and their manpower clearly exceeded that of the Greeks, estimates of their actual strength vary widely, from an army as small as twenty thousand to one as large as five million (Greek historian Herodotus numbered them at two million); the most widely accepted number is between 200,000 and 300,000.

When the Persian army arrived at Thermopylae, Greek troops instigated a council meeting. Some Peloponnesians suggested a withdrawal to the Isthmus and the blocking of the passage to the Peloponnesus.

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

The Persians entered the pass and sent forward a mounted scout to reconnoitre. 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 callisthenics, combing their long hair, waxing their torsos and oiling their bodies and spears, Xerxes found the reports laughable.

The battle begins

Seeking the counsel of Demaratus, a Spartan king of questionable parentage who had been exiled in 491 BC and had found employment with the Persians, 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 emphasised the fact that he had tried to warn Xerxes earlier in the campaign, but the king had refused to believe him.

The Greeks had camped on either side of the rebuilt Phocian wall, and Xerxes waited for four days for the Greek force to disperse.

On the fifth day, 18 August 480 BC, he sent in the Medes, who had only recently been conquered by the Persians, and Cissians, along with relatives of those who had died ten years earlier at the battle of Marathon in the First Persian War, to take the Greeks prisoner and bring them before him. They numbered around ten thousand men.

They soon found themselves engaged in a frontal assault, with the Greeks defending the ground in front of the Phocian wall. While details of the actual combat are scarce, it seems likely that the Greeks used the standard phalanx, where their long spears outmatched the less sophisticated armaments of the Persian soldiers. Ctesias comments that the first attack was 'cut to pieces'.

There was probably a second wave of attackers (sources disagree), this time around twenty thousand strong. Despite their leaders being flogged to encourage them to press forward, this force was also defeated with heavy casualties, while only a handful of Spartans had fallen.

Then it seems that Xerxes' Immortals went in, a force of ten thousand elite soldiers. They also clearly failed to take the pass, as the Spartans spent the night there, fully in control. As they are not directly mentioned again during the battle, it can be taken that they were badly mauled and retreated to lick their wounds.

The second and third days

On the second day Xerxes sent, according to Ctesias, another fifty thousand men to assault the pass, but again they failed. Xerxes at last stopped the assault and withdrew to his camp in a state of complete confusion.

A Greek traitor named Ephialtes, inspired by the promise of reward, now met Xerxes and informed him of a path around Thermopylae. Ephialtes offered to guide the Persian army through the pass, and Xerxes sent his commander, Hydarnes, with a force of about forty thousand men. Hydarnes had been the commander of the Immortals the day before, so perhaps now he was given a scratch force made up of the surviving Immortals, plus troops from other units.

The Phocians retreated to the crest of the mountain to make their stand, but the Persians took the left branch of the pass to Alpenus and therefore circled behind the main Greek force. On 20 August 480 BC, Leonidas learned that the Phocians had not held and he called a council of war at dawn.

After the council, many of the Greek forces chose to withdraw before they could be entirely cut off. If they stood and fought, the heavily armed Greek infantry would not be able to outrun Persia's cavalry. Once halted in the open, they would be overwhelmed by superior numbers and a cavalry charge, so retreat now was the best option.

A contingent of about seven hundred Thespians (Thebans who were held as hostage against their will), led by General Demophilus, the son of Diadromes, refused to leave with the other Greeks, but cast in their lot with the Spartans. Unknown and unremembered by most, nine hundred Laconian Helots (serfs of the Spartan state) also remained behind to fight to the last.

At first light on the third day of the battle Xerxes made libations, pausing to allow the Immortals and other troops 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 of the enemy as they could.

They fought with spears until every spear was shattered and then switched to short swords. Leonidas died in the assault.

Battle of Thermopylae
The Spartan stand at Thermopylae in 480 BC, along with some Greek allies, stopped the Persian advance in its tracks and provided a rallying call for the rest of the free Greek cities to oppose the Persians

An example of the Greek phalanx
The phalanx

The Greek phalanx was a column formation of heavy infantry armed with long spears, or pikes, 1.8 to 3.7 metres long and much longer than spears of the past, and swords. The men carried a round shield called a hoplon, from which the infantry took their name; hoplites. They wore metal armour on their chests, forearms, and shins at least, plus a metal helmet which covered the head down to the neck. A typical phalanx unit was ten men wide by ten men deep, but many such units could be combined into one larger unit.

Receiving intelligence that Ephialtes and the mixed force of Immortals and regular Persian troops were advancing towards the rear, the Greeks withdrew and took a stand on a small hill behind the Phocian wall. Tearing down part of the wall, Xerxes ordered the hill surrounded and the Persians rained down arrows until the last Greek was dead.

When the body of Leonidas was recovered by the Persians, Xerxes ordered that the head be cut off and the body crucified.

After the Persians' departure, the defeated Greeks collected their dead and buried them on the hill. A stone lion was erected to commemorate Leonidas. Forty years after the battle, Leonidas' bones were returned to Sparta where he was reburied with full honours, and funeral games were held every year in his memory.

However, for the moment, the Persians were in control of the Aegean Sea and all of peninsular Greece as far south as Attica.


Main Sources

Avdijev, V I & Pikus, N N - Vana-Kreeka Ajalugu

Burn, A R - The Pelican History of Greece

Tepec - Cronache Arcane

Ancient Greece

Ancient Greece: History, Mythology, Art, Culture & Architecture



Text copyright © Kerli Henno (Kelly Hennoch) from sources and other notes. An original feature for the History Files.