Battle of Thermopylae


The battle of Thermopylae took place during the second medical war; in it an alliance of Greek polis, led by Sparta (by land) and Athens (by sea), united to stop the invasion of the Persian Empire of Xerxes I. The battle lasted seven days, with three days of fighting. It took place in the narrow pass of Thermopylae (because of the hot springs that existed there), in August or September 480 BC.

Greatly outnumbered, the Greeks stopped the Persian advance by strategically placing themselves in the narrowest part of the gorge (estimated at 10 to 30 meters), through which the entire Persian army would not pass. At the same time, the battle of Artemisio took place, where the Athenians fought the Persian supply fleet by sea.

The Persian invasion was a belated response to the defeat suffered in 490 B.C. in the first medical war, which had ended with the victory of Athens at the battle of Marathon.

Xerxes assembled an immense army and navy to conquer the whole of Greece, which, according to modern estimates, would be composed of some 250,000 men, although more than two million according to Herodotus. Faced with the imminent invasion, the Athenian general Themistocles proposed that the Greek allies block the advance of the Persian army at the pass of Thermopylae, while stopping the Persian army at the Strait of Artemisius.

An allied army of about 7,000 men marched north to block the pass in the summer of 480 B.C. The Persian army reached the pass of Thermopylae in late August or early September.

For a week (three full days of combat), the small force commanded by King Leonidas I of Sparta blocked the only road that the powerful Persian army could use to access Greece, in a width that did not exceed twenty meters (other sources refer to one hundred meters). Persian casualties were considerable, not so in the Spartan army. On the sixth day, a local resident named Ephialtes betrayed the Greeks by showing the invaders a small road they could use to access the rear of the Greek lines. Knowing that his lines were going to be overrun, Leonidas dismissed most of the Greek army, remaining there to protect his retreat along with 300 Spartans, 700 Thespians, 400 Thebans and possibly a few hundred more soldiers, most of whom fell in the fighting.After the engagement, the allied army received news of the defeat at Thermopylae at Artemisium. Since their strategy called for holding both Thermopylae and Artemisium, and faced with the loss of the pass, the allied navy decided to retreat to Salamis. The Persians crossed Boeotia and captured the city of Athens, which had previously been evacuated. In order to achieve a decisive victory over the Persian navy, the Allied fleet attacked and defeated the invaders at the battle of Salamis at the end of the year.

Fearing being trapped in Europe, Xerxes withdrew with most of his army to Asia, leaving General Mardonius in command of the remaining troops to complete the conquest of Greece. The following year, however, the allies won the decisive victory at the Battle of Platea, which ended the Persian invasion.

Both ancient and modern writers have used the battle of Thermopylae as an example of the power that patriotism and the defense of one”s own terrain by a small group of fighters can exert on an army. Likewise, the behavior of the defenders has served as an example of the advantages of training, equipment, and use of terrain as multipliers of an army”s strength, and has become a symbol of bravery in the face of insurmountable adversity.

The constant expansion of the Greeks in the Mediterranean, both eastward and westward, led them to create colonies and important cities (such as Miletus, Halicarnassus, Pergamon) on the coasts of Asia Minor (today Turkey). These cities belonged to the so-called Hellenic Ionia, which was totally taken over by the Persians after the fall of the kingdom of Lydia.

After several rebellions of these cities against the Persians, a balance was achieved, where finally the Achaemenid Empire granted them a degree of autonomy in exchange for heavy tribute, despite which the Hellenic colonists continued to aspire to absolute freedom. They revolted against imperial power and won some initial victories, but they knew their inferiority to the Asiatic colossus, so they asked the mainland Greeks for help. The Spartans refused at first, but the Athenians did support them, which led to the start of the Medical Wars.

Ionian Revolt (499-494 B.C.)

The city-states of Athens and Eretria supported the Ionian revolt against the Persian Empire of Darius I, which took place between 499 and 494 B.C. At that time, the Persian Empire was still relatively young and therefore more susceptible to revolts among its subjects. Moreover, Darius had not acceded to the throne peacefully, but after assassinating Gaumata, his predecessor, which had meant the need to extinguish a series of uprisings against him. For all these reasons, the Ionian revolt was not a minor issue, but a real threat to the integrity of the Empire, and for that reason Darius vowed to punish not only the Ionians, but also all those who had been involved in the rebellion, especially those peoples who were not part of the Empire. Darius also saw an opportunity to expand his power into the fractious world of Ancient Greece, and so he sent a preliminary expedition under the command of General Mardonius in 492 B.C. to secure the approach to the Greek land by reconquering Thrace and forcing the kingdom of Macedonia (the birthplace of Alexander the Great) to become a vassal of Persia.

Battle of Marathon (490 B.C.)

In 491 B.C. Darius sent emissaries to all the polis of Greece, requesting the surrender of “water and land” as a symbol of submission to him, and after the previous year”s demonstration of Persian power, most of the Greek cities submitted. Athens, however, tried the Persian ambassadors and executed them by throwing them into a pit. In Sparta, they were simply thrown into a pit. This caused Sparta to be, officially, at war with Persia as well.

Darius began to prepare in 490 B.C. an amphibious mission under the command of Datis and Artafernes, which began with an attack on Naxos and the subsequent submission of the Cyclades, and then moved on to Eretria, a city on the island of Euboea, which he besieged and destroyed. The invading force then moved on to Eretria – a city on the island of Euboea – which it besieged and destroyed. Finally, it moved towards Athens and landed in the bay of Marathon, where it encountered an outnumbered Athenian army. However, in the confrontation of the two armies in the battle of Marathon, the Athenians won a decisive victory that meant the withdrawal of the Persian army from Europe and its return to Asia. For that occasion the Persians would have had an army three times the size of the Athenian army, but suffered a severe setback.

Sparta did not participate in the battle against the Persians. Athens, in order to cope with the invasion, asked the Spartans for help in fighting, but, as has been said, the origin of the problem lay in the Greek colonies in Asia, and Sparta had neither founded any nor helped them in the rebellion. Therefore, the Lacedaemonians did not feel involved. So much so that they did not go to the battle of Marathon because they were celebrating the feasts of Apollo Carnaeus (called Carneas).

In any case, and after the defeat, Darius reacted by beginning to recruit a new army of immense size, double or five times the size of the one defeated at Marathon, in order to invade Greece. However, his plans were interrupted when, in 486 B.C., a revolt in Egypt forced the expedition to be postponed. Darius died during the preparations against Egypt and the throne of Persia passed to his son, Xerxes I, who crushed the Egyptian rebellion.

Xerxes quickly resumed preparations for the invasion of Greece which, being a large-scale invasion, required lengthy planning to accumulate the necessary supplies and to recruit, equip and train the soldiers.

Sparta – Athens Alliance

The Athenians, for their part, had also been preparing for war against Persia since the mid-480s B.C. Finally, in 482 B.C. the decision was made, under the guidance of the Athenian statesman Themistocles, to build a huge fleet of triremes, which was essential for the Greeks to be able to confront the Persians. However, the Athenians lacked the capacity and population to confront the enemy on land and at sea at the same time, so in order to fight the Persians they needed to form an alliance with other Greek polis. In 481 B.C. Emperor Xerxes sent ambassadors throughout Greece again requesting “land and water”, but deliberately omitting Athens and Sparta. However, some cities were aligning themselves with these two leading states, for which a congress of Greek polis was held in Corinth in the late autumn of 481 B.C., from which an allied confederation of city-states emerged. This confederation had the power to send emissaries requesting aid and to send troops from the member states to points of defense after joint consultation. This fact in itself was of great significance in view of the disunity that had historically existed among the city-states, and especially in view of the fact that many of them were still technically at war with each other.

The Oracle of Delphi

The legend of Thermopylae, as told by Herodotus, says that the Spartans consulted the Oracle at Delphi that same year about the outcome of the war. The Oracle is said to have ruled that either the city of Sparta would be sacked by the Persians, or they should suffer the loss of a king descended from Herakles. Herodotus says that Leonidas, in line with the prophecy, was convinced that he was heading for certain death, and so he chose as soldiers only Spartans who had living sons.

The Greek strategy

The confederation met again in the spring of 480 B.C. A Thessalian delegation suggested that the allies meet in the narrow valley of Tempe, on the borders of Thessaly, to block Xerxes” advance. A force of 10,000 hoplites was sent to the valley, considering that the Persian army would be forced to cross it. However, once there they were warned by Alexander I of Macedon that the valley could be crossed and surrounded by the Sarantoporus Pass, and that the Persian army was of immense size, so the Greeks withdrew. Shortly afterwards they received news that Xerxes had crossed the Hellespont.

Themistocles then suggested a second strategy to the allies. The route to southern Greece (Boeotia, Attica and the Peloponnese) required Xerxes” army to pass through the very narrow pass of Thermopylae. This pass could easily be blocked by Greek hoplites despite the overwhelming number of Persian soldiers. In addition, and to prevent the Persians from overcoming the Greek position by sea, Athenian and allied ships could block the Strait of Artemisius. This dual strategy was finally accepted by the confederation. However, the Peloponnesian cities prepared contingency plans to defend the isthmus of Corinth if necessary, while the women and children of Athens were evacuated en masse to the Peloponnesian city of Trecen.

Persia crosses the Hellespont

Xerxes decided to build bridges over the Hellespont to enable his army to cross from Asia to Europe, and to dig a canal across the isthmus of Mount Athos (Xerxes” canal) for his ships to pass through (a Persian fleet had been destroyed in 492 B.C. while rounding that cape). These engineering works were operations of great ambition beyond the reach of any other contemporary state. Finally, in early 480 B.C., preparations for the invasion were completed, and the army that Xerxes had assembled at Sardis marched towards Europe on two floating bridges, preparations for the invasion were completed, and the army that Xerxes had assembled at Sardis marched in the direction of Europe, crossing the Hellespont on two floating bridges. The Persian army moved through Thrace and Macedonia, news of the impending invasion of the Persians reaching Greece in August.

Sparta Preparations

At that time the Spartans, the de facto military leaders of the alliance, were celebrating the religious festival of the Carneas, during which military activity was forbidden by Spartan law. During that festival military activity was forbidden by Spartan law and, in fact, the Spartans did not arrive in time for the battle of Marathon because they were celebrating the festival. The Olympic Games were also being held, so because of the prevailing truce during their celebration it would have been doubly sacrilegious for the Spartans to march in full to war. On this occasion, however, the Ephorians decided that the urgency was sufficiently important to justify sending an advance expedition to block the passage; an expedition to be commanded by one of the two Spartan kings, Leonidas I.

Leonidas took with him 300 men of the royal guard, the Hippeis, as well as a larger number of supporting troops from elsewhere in Lacedemonia (including ilotas). The expedition should try to gather as many allies as possible on the march and wait for the arrival of the main Spartan army.

On the way to Thermopylae the Spartan army was reinforced by contingents from various cities, reaching a number of more than 5,000 soldiers by the time they reached their destination. Leonidas chose to camp and defend the narrowest part of the pass of Thermopylae, at a place where the inhabitants of Phocis had erected a defensive wall some time before. News also reached Leonidas from the nearby city of Trachynia of the existence of a mountain road that could be used to bypass the pass of Thermopylae. In response, Leonidas sent 1000 Phocidian soldiers to be stationed on the heights to prevent this maneuver.

Finally the Persian army was sighted crossing the Maliac gulf and approaching Thermopylae in mid-August, and in view of this fact the allies held a council of war in which some Peloponnesians suggested withdrawing to the isthmus of Corinth to block the passage to the Peloponnese. However, the inhabitants of Phocis and Socrates, regions near Thermopylae, were outraged by the suggestion and advised defending the pass while sending emissaries to ask for more help. Leonidas agreed to defend Thermopylae.

Persians: 250 000 soldiers

Figures on the soldiers assembled by Xerxes for the second invasion of Greece have been the subject of endless discussions due to the sheer size offered by classical Greek sources.

Current historiography considers more or less realistic the data on the Greek troops and, for many years, the amount offered by Herodotus about the Persians was not questioned. However, in the early 20th century the military historian Hans Delbrück calculated that the length of the columns to supply a fighting force of millions of men would be so long that the last chariots would be leaving Susa when the first Persians reached Thermopylae.

Modern historians tend to assess the figures of Herodotus and other ancient sources as completely unrealistic, the result of miscalculations or exaggerations on the part of the winning side. The subject has been debated at length, but there seems to be a consensus regarding the size of the army, which would range between 200,000 and 300,000 men, which in any case would be a colossal army for the logistical means of the time. It should be remembered that if Xerxes withdrew the bulk of his troops back to Asia, he must also have left in Corinth an important number to maintain the siege, well over 100,000 men. Whatever the exact figures, however, what does seem clear is that Xerxes was anxious to ensure the success of the expedition, for which he assembled an army numerically far superior both on land and at sea to that of his enemies.

There are also doubts as to whether the entire Persian invasion army was assembled at Thermopylae. It is not clear whether Xerxes previously left garrisons of soldiers in Macedonia and Thessaly, or whether he advanced with all available soldiers. The only ancient source commenting on this point is Ctesias, who suggests that 80 000 Persians fought at Thermopylae.

Greeks: 7000 soldiers

According to the figures provided by Herodotus the allied army was composed of the following forces:

Diodorus Siculus suggests the figure of 1000 Lacedaemonians and another 3000 Peloponnesians, out of a total of 4000. Herodotus agrees with this figure in one paragraph, in which he mentions an inscription attributed to Simonides of Ceos, stating that there were 4000 Peloponnesians. However, elsewhere in the quoted paragraph Herodotus reduces the figure of Peloponnesians to 3100 soldiers before the battle.

The historian of Halicarnassus also states that when Xerxes showed the corpses of the Greeks to the public he also included among them those of the Ilothians, but he does not say how many there were or what was the work in which they served the army.

Therefore, a possible explanation for the difference between these two figures could be the existence of 900 Ilothians in the battle (three for each Spartan). If the Ilothians were present at the battle, there is no reason to doubt that they served in their traditional role as squires of the Spartans. Another alternative, however, is that the 900 soldiers in difference between the two figures were periecs, and that they corresponded to the 1000 Lacedaemonians mentioned by Diodorus Siculus.

Another figure in which there is some confusion is the number of Lacedaemonians that Diodorus includes, since it is not clear whether the 1000 Lacedaemonians he refers to include the 300 Spartans or not. On the one hand he says that “Leonidas, when he received the command, announced that only a thousand men would accompany him on the campaign.” However, he then says that “There were, therefore, a thousand of the Lacedaemonians, and with them three hundred Spartiates.”

The account of Pausanias agrees with the figures of Herodotus (whom he probably read), except for the fact that he does give the number of Locrians which Herodotus failed to estimate. Since they resided directly in the place through which the Persian advance was to pass, the Locrians contributed all the men of fighting age they possessed. According to Pausanias there were about 6000 men which, added to Herodotus” figure, would give a total of 11,200 allied soldiers.

Many modern historians, who normally regard Herodotus as the most credible author, add the 1000 Lacedaemonians and 900 Ilothians to Herodotus” 5200 soldiers, yielding an estimate of 7100 (or about 7000) men, and refuse to account for the 1000 soldiers of Melida cited by Diodorus and the Locrians of Pausanias. The numbers changed throughout the battle, essentially when most of the army retreated and only about 3000 men remained on the battlefield (300 Spartans, 700 Thespians, 400 Thebans, probably 900 Ilothians and 1000 Phocians, not counting the casualties suffered in the preceding days).

First day

Upon their arrival at Thermopylae, the Persians sent a mounted scout to reconnoiter the area. The Greeks, who had camped on the banks of the baths, allowed him to ride up to the camp, observe them, and depart. When the scout reported to Xerxes the diminutive size of the Greek army and that the Spartans, instead of training rigorously, were instead performing calisthenics (relaxation) exercises and combing their long hair, Xerxes found the report laughable. Seeking the advice of Demaratus, an exiled Spartan king who claimed territories in Lacedemonia, he pointed out to him 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 Persian king that they intended to contest their passage. He emphasized that he had tried to warn Xerxes earlier in the campaign, but that the king had refused to believe him, and added that if Xerxes succeeded in subjugating the Spartans, “there is no other nation in the world that would dare to raise its hand in their defense.”

Xerxes sent an emissary to negotiate with Leonidas. He offered the allies their freedom and the title of “friends of the Persian people,” indicating that they would be settled in more fertile lands than those they occupied at the time. When Leonidas refused the terms, the ambassador again asked him to lay down his arms, to which Leonidas responded with the famous phrase “Come and get them yourself” (Greek Μολών Λαβέ, literally meaning “come and get them”).

Herodotus tells of the battle, apropos of the great size of the Persian army, the famous anecdote according to which, in the words of the author, the bravest of the Greeks was the Spartan Denizes, for before the battle was engaged he told his own that he had been given good news, for he had been told that the archers of the Persians were so many that “their arrows covered the sun and turned the day into night, having then to fight in the shade ” (ὡς ἐπεάν ὁι βάρβαροι ἀπιέωσι τὰ τοξεύματα τὸν ἥλιον ὑπό τοῦ πλήθεος τῶν οῒστών ἀποκρύπτουσι, εἰ ἀποκρυπτόντων τὣν Μήδων τὸν ἥλιον ὑπό σκιή ἔσοιτο πρὸς αυτούς ἡ μάχη καὶ οὐκ ἐν ἡλίω). Dienekes, and the Spartans in general, regarded the bow as an unhonorable weapon, since it evaded hand-to-hand confrontation.

The confrontation was delayed by a miraculous torrential rain. And as negotiation with the Spartans failed, the battle became inevitable. However, Xerxes delayed the attack for four days, hoping that the allies would disperse in view of the great difference in size between the two armies, until he finally decided to advance.

Fifth day

On the fifth day after the arrival of the Persians at Thermopylae, Xerxes finally decided to launch an attack on the Greek allies. He first sent the Media and Khuzestan soldiers against the allies, with instructions to capture them and bring them before him. These contingents launched a frontal attack against the Greek position, which had been placed in front of the Phocian wall, at the narrowest part of the pass. However, these were light infantry troops, numerous but at a distinct disadvantage in armament and armor against the Greek hoplites. They were apparently armed with wicker shields, short swords and throwing spears, ineffective against the Spartans” wall of shields and long spears. The normal tactic of the Achaemenid Empire was to launch a first wave that would overwhelm the enemy by sheer numbers and, if that did not work, to throw in the Immortals; this tactic was effective in battles in the Middle and Far East, but it did not work as well against the Greeks, whose tactics, techniques and weaponry were very different.

Details on the tactics employed are scarce: Diodorus comments that “the men stood shoulder to shoulder” and that the Greeks were “superior in courage and in the great size of their shields,” which probably describes the workings of the standard Greek phalanx, in which the men formed a rampart of shields and spearheads and would have been highly effective if able to cover the full width of the pass. The weaker shields and shorter spears of the Persians prevented them from engaging the Greek hoplites hand-to-hand and on equal terms. Herodotus also states that the units of each city were kept together, and that they rotated between the battle front and the rear, thus seeking to prevent fatigue, implying that the Greeks had more men than were strictly necessary to block the pass. According to Herodotus, the Greeks killed so many Persians that Xerxes is said to have risen from the seat from which he watched the battle on as many as three occasions. According to Ctesias, the first wave was shattered with only two or three casualties among the Spartans.

According to Herodotus and Diodorus, the Persian king, having taken the measure of the enemy, sent his best troops in a second assault that same day: the Immortals, an elite corps of soldiers consisting of 10,000 men, but the Immortals did no more than the soldiers sent earlier, failing to break through the allied lines. However, the Immortals achieved no more than the soldiers sent earlier had done, failing to breach the allied lines. The Spartans appear to have employed the tactic of feigning a retreat and then turning around and killing the disorganized Persian soldiers who ran in pursuit.

Sixth day

On the sixth day, Xerxes again sent his infantry to attack the pass, “supposing that his enemies, being so few in number, were already incapacitated by wounds received and could not resist any longer.” However, the Persians made no progress and the Persian king finally stopped the assault and withdrew to his camp, utterly perplexed.

At the end of the second day of battle, and while the Persian king was considering what to do, he was visited by a Greek traitor from Thessaly named Ephialtes who informed him of the existence of the mountain pass around Thermopylae, offering to guide them. Ephialtes acted motivated by the desire for a reward. The name Ephialtes, after the events reported, was stigmatized for many years. The name was translated as “nightmare”, and became the archetype of “traitor” in Greece (as is the case with Judas in the case of Christians).

Herodotus comments that Xerxes sent his commander Hydarnes that same night along with the men under his command, the Immortals, to surround the allies through the pass, departing by night, but he says nothing more about the men he commanded. However, he says nothing more about the men he commanded. The Immortals had suffered heavy casualties during the first day of battle, so it is possible that Hidarnes was given command over an increased force, which included the surviving Immortals and other soldiers. According to Diodorus, Hydarnes had a force of 20,000 men for this mission. The pass led from the east of the Persian camp along the hill of Mount Anopea, bordering Eta, behind the cliffs that flanked the pass and had a branch going to Phocis, and another going down to the Maliac gulf at Alpene, the first city of Socrates.

Diodorus adds that Tirrastyades, a man from Cime, escaped by night from the Persian camp and revealed to Leonidas the plot of the Trachynides. This character is not mentioned by Herodotus, for whom the Greeks were warned of the Persians” encircling maneuver by deserters and by their own lookouts.

Diodorus relates that the Greek soldiers launched a night attack on the Persian camp, in which they caused a slaughter and that Xerxes would have met his death had he been in his tent. Herodotus does not mention this episode. Diodorus” source may have been Ephorus of Cime.

Seventh day

At dawn on the seventh day (the third day of battle), the Phocidians guarding the pass over Thermopylae became aware of the arrival of the Persian column by the rustling of their footsteps on the leaves of the oak trees, and Herodotus says that they jumped up and girded their weapons. Herodotus says that they sprang to their feet and girded on their weapons. The Persians were surprised to see them running quickly to arm themselves, for they had not expected to meet any army at that place. Hydarnes feared that it was the Spartans, but was informed by Ephialtes that it was not. The Phocians withdrew to a nearby hill to prepare their defense on the assumption that the Persians had come to attack them, but the Persians, not wanting to be delayed, harassed them with arrows as they continued on their way, seeking their main objective of surrounding the allied army.

When a messenger informed Leonidas that the Phocidians had been unable to defend the pass, he called a council of war at dawn. Some of the allies defended the retreat, but the Spartan monarch decided to remain in the pass with his warriors. Many of the allied contingents either chose at that time to retreat or were ordered to do so by Leonidas (Herodotus admits that there are doubts about what actually happened). The 700-strong contingent of Thespias, led by Demophilus, refused to retreat with the other Greeks, and remained to fight. The 400 Thebans also remained, as well as probably the Ilothians who accompanied the Spartans.

The actions of Leonidas have been the subject of much discussion. A common claim is that the Spartans were obeying the laws of Sparta by not retreating, but it seems that it was precisely the failure to retreat at Thermopylae that gave rise to the belief that the Spartans never retreated. It is also possible (and it was the belief of Herodotus) that, remembering the words of the Oracle of Delphi, Leonidas was determined to sacrifice his life to save Sparta. The answer they received from the lips of the Pythia was that Lacedemon would be devastated by the barbarians or their king would die.

either your mighty and exalted city is razed to the ground by the descendants of Perseus, or it is not; but, in that case, the land of Lacedemon will mourn the death of a king of the line of Heracles; for the invader will not be stopped by the strength of bulls or lions, for he possesses the strength of Zeus.

However, since the prophecy made no specific mention of Leonidas, it seems a weak reason to justify that about 1500 men also fought to the death.

The theory that perhaps offers more credibility is that Leonidas chose to form a rearguard in order to protect the retreat of the rest of the allied contingent. If all the troops had withdrawn at the same time, the Persians would have been able to cross the pass of Thermopylae quickly with their cavalry and then give chase to the retreating soldiers. On the other hand, if they had all remained in the pass they would have been surrounded and totally massacred. With the decision of a partial retreat, Leonidas could save more than 3,000 men, who could continue the fight later.

The decision of the Thebans has also been the subject of discussion. Herodotus suggests that they were taken into battle as hostages to ensure the good behavior of Thebes in the war. However, as Plutarch noted, this would not explain why they were not sent back with the rest of the allies. Most likely they were loyal Thebans who, contrary to the majority of Thebans, were opposed to Persian domination. It is likely that, therefore, they went to Thermopylae of their own free will and remained until the end because they could not return to Thebes if the Persians conquered Boeotia.

The Thespians, for their part, who were unwilling to submit to Xerxes, faced the destruction of their city if the Persians took Boeotia, although this fact alone also does not explain why they remained there, considering that Thespias had been successfully evacuated before the Persians arrived. It seems that the Thespians volunteered as a simple act of sacrifice, which is all the more astonishing considering that their contingent represented all the hoplite soldiers their city could muster. This seems a Thespian trait: on at least two other occasions in history a Thespian army would sacrifice itself in a fight to the death.

At dawn Xerxes performed a religious libation, waited to give the Immortals sufficient time to finish their descent down the mountain, and then began their advance. The allies on this occasion advanced beyond the wall to confront the Persians in the widest part of the pass, thereby trying to increase the casualties they could inflict on the Persian army. They fought with their spears until they were all broken from use and then used their xiphos (short swords). Herodotus relates that two brothers of Xerxes fell in the fight: Abrocomes and Hyperantes. Leonidas also died in the fight and the two sides fought for his body, the Greeks finally succeeding. As the Immortals approached, the allies retreated and made forts on a hill behind the wall. The Thebans, “turned away from their companions and, with uplifted hands, advanced toward the barbarians” (according to Rawlinson”s translation), but still killed some before accepting their surrender. The Persian king would later have the Theban prisoners given the royal mark. Of the remaining defenders, Herodotus says:

Here they held out to the end, those who still had swords using them, and the others resisting with their hands and teeth.

Part of the wall demolished, Xerxes ordered the hill surrounded and the Persians rained arrows on the defenders until all the Greeks were dead. When the Persians seized the body of Leonidas, Xerxes, furious, ordered the corpse”s head to be cut off and his body crucified. Herodotus makes the observation that this treatment was very unusual among the Persians, who were in the habit of treating brave soldiers with great honor. After the departure of the Persians, the allies recovered the corpses of their soldiers and buried them on the hill. Almost two years later when the Persian invasion ended, a lion-shaped statue was erected at Thermopylae to commemorate Leonidas. Forty years after the battle the bones of Leonidas were brought back to Sparta, where he was reburied with full honors. Annual funeral games were held in his memory.

In 1939, archaeologist Spyridon Marinatos discovered a large number of Persian-style bronze arrowheads on Kolonos Hill while excavating Thermopylae, which changed theories about the hill on which the Allies had died, since before the excavation it was believed to be a smaller hill near the wall. Finally, the pass of Thermopylae was opened for the Persian army.

According to Herodotus, the battle cost in lives

Herodotus says at one point in his account that 4000 allies were killed, but assuming that the Phocids guarding the mountain pass were not killed in the battle (a total of 2000 casualties can then be estimated).

From a strategic point of view, the defense of Thermopylae was the best possible way for the Allies to employ their forces. If they could prevent the Persian army from moving into Greece, they would not need to seek a decisive battle, and could simply remain on the defensive. Moreover, and with the defense of two narrow passes such as Thermopylae and Artemisium, the numerical inferiority of the allies was less of a problem. For their part, the Persians faced the problem of provisioning such a large army, which meant that they could not remain in one place for long. The Persians were therefore forced to retreat or advance, and advancing meant crossing Thermopylae by force.

Tactically, the Thermopylae pass was ideal for the type of fighting of the Greek army: the narrowness of the pass nullified the numerical difference, and the Hellenistic hoplite phalanx formation might be able to block the narrow pass with ease and, having covered flanks, was not threatened by enemy cavalry. In such circumstances the phalanx would pose a very difficult enemy to overcome for the Persian light infantry, equipped with a much lighter and therefore less protective panoply. Moreover, the phalanx”s long dory (phalanx spears, not as long as the sarissas used by Alexander the Great”s army) could skewer the enemies before they could even touch them, as had happened in the confrontation at the battle of Marathon. Therefore, the fight did not initially have to be suicidal, since there was a real chance of holding the position.

On the other hand, the main weak point offered by the battlefield chosen by the allies was the small mountain pass that ran parallel to Thermopylae, and which allowed the army to be overtaken on the flank and, therefore, surrounded. Although this flank was probably not practicable for cavalry, the Persian infantry could easily pass through it (especially when a good part of the Persian soldiers were familiar with fighting in mountainous terrain). Leonidas was aware of the existence of this pass thanks to the warning of the inhabitants of Trachynia, so he positioned a detachment of Phocian soldiers to block it.

Battlefield topography

At the time of the battle, the Thermopylae Pass consisted of a gorge along the coast of the Maliac Gulf so narrow that two chariots could not pass through it at the same time. To the south the pass bordered on great cliffs, while to the north was the Maliac Gulf itself. Along the pass were three narrower passes or “gates” (pylai), and at the central gate stood a wall that had been built by the Phocians in the previous century to defend against invasions from Thessaly. The place was called the “Hot Gates” because of the hot springs that could be found there.

Today the pass is no longer close to the sea, but several kilometers inland, which is due to sedimentation that has been occurring in the Maliaco Gulf. The old road lies at the foot of the hills surrounding the plain, flanked by a modern road. However, soil composition samples have been taken which indicate that at the time of the events the pass was only about 100 meters wide and that the water reached the level of the gates. On the other hand, the pass has continued to be used as a natural defensive position by modern armies, as for example during the Battle of Thermopylae in 1941.

With Thermopylae open to the passage of the Persian army, it became unnecessary to continue the blockade of Artemisius. Therefore, the naval battle that was taking place there simultaneously and that had remained in a stalemate ended, and the allied fleet was able to withdraw in order to the Saronic Gulf, where they helped to transport the remaining Athenian population to the island of Salamis.

After crossing Thermopylae, the Persian army continued its advance, plundering and burning Platea and Thespias, cities of Boeotia that had not submitted to the Persians, and then marched on the city of Athens, which had already been evacuated by that time. Meanwhile, the allies, mostly from the Peloponnese, prepared the defense of the isthmus of Corinth, demolishing the only road that crossed it and building a wall that crossed it. Corinth was the last strategic bastion to resist, and there were the allies of all the Greek cities of the Peloponnese and evacuated cities, razed by the Persians. As in the case of Thermopylae, for this strategy to be effective required the allied navy to simultaneously blockade the Persian fleet, preventing it from passing through the Saronic Gulf, to prevent the Persian troops from simply landing past the isthmus, in the Peloponnese. However, instead of a mere blockade, Themistocles persuaded the allies to seek a decisive victory against the Persian fleet. They tricked the Persians into driving their navy into the Straits of Salamis, where the allies succeeded in destroying many of their ships in the Battle of Salamis, which ended the threat to the Peloponnese.

Xerxes, fearing that the Greeks would attack the bridges of the Hellespont and could trap his army in Europe, withdrew with much of it back to Asia. He left an army of about 150,000 men of selected forces under Mardonius, to complete the conquest over the next year. The Persians strategically seized the main water supply of the Greeks. And they offered negotiation proposals, using the Macedonian Alexander I as a “diplomatic hostage”, who some sources agree informed the Greeks of the right moment to attack at Platea. The refusal to surrender was absolute, and the Greeks rejected all kinds of proposals, the allies finally brought Mardonius to a battle, so they marched on Attica. Mardonius retreated to Boeotia to lead the Greeks to open ground and the two sides ended up facing each other near the city of Platea. There the battle of Platea took place, in which the Greeks won a decisive victory, killing Mardonius (a Spartan projectile), and destroying the Persian army, thus ending the invasion of Greece. Meanwhile, in the almost simultaneous naval battle of Mycale, the Greeks also destroyed what remained of the Persian fleet, thus reducing the threat of future invasions.

However, during the course of the invasion Xerxes” armies caused serious damage to the Greek cities and many of them were burned and razed to the ground, as happened to Athens itself, which was engulfed in flames, including the main temples of its Acropolis.

From the military point of view, although the battle was not very significant in the context of the Persian invasion, it does have some special significance, based on what happened during the first two days of fighting. Indeed, the ability of the defenders is used as an example of the advantages of training, equipment and good use of terrain as multipliers of an army”s military strength.

The battle of Thermopylae is one of the most famous battles of antiquity, repeatedly referred to in ancient, as well as in recent and contemporary culture, and in the West, at least, it is the Greeks who are praised for their attitude in battle. In the West, at least, it is the Greeks who receive the praise for their attitude in the battle. However, and within the context of the Persian invasion, Thermopylae was undoubtedly a serious defeat for the allies, which had disastrous consequences for the Greeks.

However, as Professor Peter Green argues: “In a sense, the ultimate victories at Salamis and Platea would not have been possible without that splendid and inspiring defeat”. Thus, for the moral boost it gave to the Greek legitimists, it was a defeat, however difficult to understand, to a certain extent “necessary”.

Whatever the Allies” objective might have been, it is presumable that their strategy was not the surrender of all of Boeotia and Attica to the Persians. Thus, readings of the battle of Thermopylae in which it is seen as a successful attempt to delay Persian action, giving the Allies sufficient time to prepare for the battle of Salamis, and those that suggest that Persian casualties were so heavy that it dealt a great moral blow to them (suggesting that the Persians won a Pyrrhic victory), probably cannot be sustained.

The theory that the battle of Thermopylae gave the Allies sufficient time to prepare for Salamis ignores the fact that the Allied army was at the same time fighting and suffering casualties at the battle of Artemisium. Moreover, compared to the probable time that elapsed between Thermopylae and Salamis, the time during which the Allies were able to hold the position at Thermopylae against the Persians is not particularly significant. It seems clear that the Allied strategy was to hold the Persians at Thermopylae and Artemisium and that, having failed in their objective, they suffered a heavy defeat. The Greek position at Thermopylae, despite being greatly outnumbered, was almost impregnable. Had they been able to hold the position longer, it is possible that the Persians would have had to retreat for lack of food and water. Thus, despite the casualties, forcing the passage through Thermopylae was a clear Persian victory, both tactically and strategically. The successful retreat of most of the Greek troops, while a morale booster, was by no means a victory, although it did reduce the magnitude of the defeat somewhat.

The fame of Thermopylae derives therefore not from its effect on the final outcome of the war, but in the inspiring example it set. The battle is famous because of the heroism of the soldiers who stayed in the rear despite knowing that their position was lost and that they faced certain death. Since then, the events that took place at Thermopylae have been the subject of praise from a multitude of sources. A second reason it served as a historical example of a group of free men fighting for their country and their freedom:

Thus, almost immediately, contemporary Greeks saw Thermopylae as a critical moral and cultural lesson. In universal terms, a small group of free men had fought against an immense number of imperial enemies fighting under the lash. More especially, the Western idea that soldiers decided where, how and against whom they fought contrasted with the Eastern notion of despotism and monarchy – proving freedom as the stronger idea in the face of the greater bravery shown by the Greeks at Thermopylae, attested by the later victories at Salamis and Platea.

While this paradigm of “free man” versus “slaves” might be seen as too crude a generalization, it is nevertheless true that many commentators have used Thermopylae to illustrate this point.

After the expulsion of the Persians, the Greek cities had an arduous and costly work of reconstruction, and despite the lesson of military work together, within a few years Athens and Sparta were once again at odds with each other. After 130 years of this battle, the Greek polis considered resuming the idea of a plan of action to liberate the cities in Ionia and several islands, in the hands of Persia: the League of Corinth (337 B.C.). As a continuation of the Medical Wars, it was a revenge of the Greeks for the destruction suffered, under the leadership of Macedonia (former vassal of the Persians), where Alexander the Great emerged to put this plan into action, not only liberating Ionia, but also Egypt, snatching the entire empire from the powerful Persia to the confines of India (334 to 323 B.C.). Thus Persia definitively ceased to exist as an empire at the hands of the Greeks, its former vassals. This is the so-called Hellenistic period.


Several monuments have been erected around the site where the Battle of Thermopylae took place.

The Greek poet Simonides of Ceos composed a well-known epigram that was used as an epitaph on a memorial stone placed on top of the burial mound dedicated to the Spartans who fought at Thermopylae, on what is also the hill on which the last of them died. However, the original stone has not been preserved to this day, but the epitaph appears on a new stone that was erected in 1955. The text, according to Herodotus, read as follows.

O xayin”, angellein Lacedemonios, that we shall eat, convinced by their wordsCuenta a los Lacedemonios, viajero, que, cumpliendo sus órdenes, aquí yacemos.

Additionally, a modern monument erected in honor of Leonidas, the Spartan king, can be found at the site of the battle, consisting of a bronze statue depicting the monarch. A legend under the statue reads, simply, “Μολών λαβέ”, the famous phrase with which Leonidas rejected any peace agreement, and scenes from the battle are depicted on the lower metope. The two marble statues, on the left and right of the monument, represent, respectively, the river Eurotas and Mount Taigeto, representing the geography of Sparta.

In 1997 the Greek government officially inaugurated a second monument dedicated to the 700 Thespians who fought to the end with the Spartans. The monument is erected on a marble stone, and consists of a bronze statue symbolizing the god Eros, who was worshipped in ancient Thespia. Under the statue a sign reads “In memory of the seven hundred Thespians”.

A plaque under the statue explains its symbolism:

The monument is located next to the monument in honor of the Spartans.

Legends associated with the battle

Herodotus” colorful account offers a wealth of conversations and incidents that are impossible to verify, but form an integral part of the legend of the battle. They often demonstrate the laconic and witty Spartan style of speech.

For example, Plutarch records in his work Moralia, among the sayings of the Spartan women, that Leonidas” wife, Gorgo, asked her husband when he was leaving for Thermopylae what she should do if he did not return, to which Leonidas replied “Marry a good man and have good children”.

Herodotus also describes the moment when the Persian embassy is received by Leonidas. The ambassador told him that Xerxes would offer him to be lord of all Greece if he would join him, to which Leonidas replied, “If you had any knowledge of the noble things of life, you would refrain from coveting the possessions of others; but for me to die for Greece is better than to be the sole ruler of the people of my race.” The ambassador then more firmly demanded that he lay down his arms, to which Leonidas gave his famous reply, Molon labe, “Come and take them.”

However, Leonidas” phrase is not the only laconic phrase that Herodotus records in his account. According to the author, when a Spartan soldier named Dienekes was informed that the Persian army was so large, and their archers so numerous, that their arrows were capable of “blocking the sun,” he nonchalantly replied, “Even better (…) then we will fight the battle in the shade.”

After the battle, and again according to Herodotus, Xerxes was curious about what the Greeks had wanted to do (presumably in view of the small number of forces they had sent), and had some deserters from Arcadia questioned in his presence. The answer was that all the other men were participating in the Olympic Games and, when Xerxes asked what the prize was for the winner, the answer was “an olive branch.” Upon hearing this, a Persian general named Tigranes exclaimed, “By the gods! Mardonius, what kind of people are these against whom you have brought us to fight? They do not compete for riches but for honor!”.

The main primary source on the Medical Wars is the Greek historian Herodotus. This author, who has been called “The Father of History”, was born in 484 BC in Halicarnassus, in Asia Minor (an area ruled by the Persian Empire). He wrote his work Histories between 440 and 430 BC, attempting to find the origins of the Medical Wars, which at that time were still a relatively recent event in history (the wars finally ended in 449 B.C.). Herodotus” approach was a complete novelty, at least in Western society, and for this reason he is considered to have invented History as we know it today. The historian Holland states: “For the first time, a chronicler set out to find the origins of a conflict not in a past so remote as to be fabulous, nor in the whims or wishes of some god, nor in a statement of the people manifesting their destiny, but by explanations which he could verify personally.

Many of the later ancient historians, despite following in his footsteps, disparaged Herodotus and considered themselves followers of Thucydides. However, Thucydides preferred to start his history from the point where Herodotus ended (at the siege of Sestos), so he must have considered that Herodotus had done a reasonably good job summarizing the earlier history. Plutarch, for his part, criticized Herodotus in his essay On the Malignity of Herodotus, describing him as “Philobarbaros” (lover of the barbarians) for not having been sufficiently pro-Greek. This suggests that Herodotus may have done a good job in terms of neutrality. A negative view of Herodotus eventually reached Renaissance Europe, although his work continued to be widely read. However, from the 19th century onwards his reputation was drastically rehabilitated by archaeological discoveries that repeatedly confirmed his version of events. The prevailing view of Herodotus today is that he did a generally good job in his History, although some specific details (especially the numbers of soldiers and dates) should be viewed with skepticism. On the other hand, there are still some historians who believe that Herodotus invented much of his history.

The Sicilian historian Diodorus Siculus, who wrote in the first century B.C. his work Historical Library, in which he also gives the account of the Medical Wars, was based in part on the Greek historian Ephorus of Cime, but his account is fairly consistent with that of Herodotus. However, his account is fairly consistent in comparison with that of Herodotus. In addition, the Medical Wars receive attention, in less detail, from other ancient historians, including Plutarch and Ctesias, and also appear in works by other authors, such as in The Persians by the playwright Aeschylus. Archaeological evidence, such as the Serpent Column, also provides support for some of Herodotus” specific claims.

The Battle of Thermopylae became an icon of Western culture shortly after it took place. This cultural icon appears in countless examples of adages, poetry, songs, literature and, more recently, movies, television and video games. In addition, a more serious aspect has been its didactic use: The battle appears in many books and articles on military subjects.

Moreover, that icon has extended not only to the battle itself, but to the idealized view of the Spartans that has survived historically. Before the battle, the Greeks remembered the Dorians, an ethnic distinction to which the Spartans belonged, as the conquerors of the Peloponnese. After the battle, Spartan culture would become an object of inspiration and emulation.

More recently, during World War II, Nazi propaganda, through Signal magazine, compared the Battle of Stalingrad to Thermopylae, a heroic attempt by Westerners to stop the barbarian hordes. The Nazis also called the suicide pilots who launched themselves against the bridges to stop the Soviet advance in 1945 “Leonidas squadron”.

The battle of Thermopylae is recalled in Colombia”s national anthem, in a clear analogy between the Greek warriors and the soldiers who participated in the battles for independence. Its ninth stanza reads:

constellation of Cyclops illuminated his night. The quivering flower, mortal the wind finding,

The battle in literature and music

ThermopylaeHonor to those who in their lives guard and defend Thermopylae. Never departing from duty; just and upright in their deeds, not exempt from pity and compassion; generous when rich, and also if poor, modestly generous, each according to his means; always speaking the truth, but not holding grudges against those who lie.And still more honor is due to those who foresee (and many foresee) that Ephialtes will appear and pass, at last, the Persians.

John couldn”t take his eyes off the spectacle, Déjà explained that the three hundred were Spartans and that they were the best soldiers who had ever lived. They had been trained to fight since they were children. No one could beat them.

Historical novel and graphic novel


  1. Batalla de las Termópilas
  2. Battle of Thermopylae
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