The Battle of Thermopylae is a battle in September 480 BC during the Greek-Persian war (480 “” 479 BC). It took place in a narrow gorge, called Thermopylae, where a group of 300 Spartan hoplites died heroically, blocking a way to the Persian army of the tsar Xerxes I.
The unique authentic primary source about the feat of 300 Spartans, on which further mentions were based, was Herodotus’s book VII. Irrespective of Herodotus, the later author Ktesiy from Knid told about the battle of Thermopylae, according to the Persian sources (Green 115). Probably, Ktesiy’s workwas used by Diodor in his description of the 300 Spartans` feat. Other antique sources mention the developed legend, to which invented details were added.
The Battle of Thermopylae, which took place on August 11th, 480 AD, was one of the well-known battles of the Greek-Persian war where the small group of the army of the tsar of Sparta Leonid struggled and died heroically in the battle with a huge army of the Persian tsar Xerxes.
Thermopylae was the way to the Middle Greece, where a unique public road from Thessaly to Lokrida passed. It was quite a narrow path, 14 to 21 m wide, and up to 6,5 km long, being narrowed at the entrance and at the exit, and extending in the middle, where there were hot sulfur springs, which entitled this way, going from the northwest to the southeast. It was situated between Eta and Kallidrom’s mountain spurs and the marshy coast of the Malian bay. In the middle of the path, the fokeyets erected the stone wall, protecting them from attacks of the fessaliyets, but it had already been ruined at the time of the Persians’ invasion.
At the end of the VI century BC, the Persian state, having won many Greek city-states of Asia Minor (Ionia), directed its expansion at the territory of Hellas. When Darius I sent his ambassadors to Sparta to demand “land and water”, and humility, the Spartans dumped them in a deep well.
The first campaign of tsar Darius I to Greece appeared unsuccessful; a bit later, in 490 BC, the sortie of the Persians was beaten off by Athens at the Marathon. Darius began to prepare a new campaign, but he died in 486 BC, and his son Xerxes ascended the Persian throne.
Some years passed after the battle at the Marathon. The Persians started to be forgotten gradually in Greece and in Athens. A laurel branch, a victory symbol, was added to the image of the goddess of Athena on the Athenian coins. It seemed that the Persians, having received a bad experience at the Marathon, would not go to Hellas any more. Only the most far-sighted Athenians and the outstanding figure of the Athenian democracy, Femistocle, guessed about the fact that the new Persian invasion was inevitable. When in Attica, the new field rich of silver was discovered, and some suggested to share unexpected wealth gradually between all the citizens, Femistocle convinced the people’s assembly to do another thing: it was decided to construct the military ships using this money, and the Athenian fleet in 200 triyers would become the strongest in Greece.
The matter was that Femistocle understood perfectly: the Athenians have no chances to win on a land in a battle over uncountable hordes of the Persian tsar. In this sense, the Marathon victory was only random: the self-confident Persians considered that the Greeks would be frightened by their name and look only. In the sea war, the wise Athenians believed, the parts would be equal and it was not known to who the gods would grant a victory.
Xerxes affirmed in his power. Meanwhile, the old tsar Darius died in Persia. His successor Xerxes spent some years destroying his rivals and affirming his power. Only after that he started to draw up forces from all the ends of the huge state. Xerxes “decided to finish up with the independence of Greece, passing about the country with fire and a sword, sweeping off from the earth everybody who would dare to resist him”.
At last, military preparations of the Persians were completed. The huge fleet (1207 ships) was approaching to the coast of Asia Minor, and the overland army gathered in Sardis, the capital of Lidia satrapy, consisting of different tribes and armed people. The tsar with the guard, 10 thousand of “immortals”, also arrived here. These imperial bodyguards were called so because a number of their group always remained invariable, new guardsmen were accepted immediately instead of those who died or were killed.
In total, for the campaign to Hellas, Xerxes collected, as the Greeks considered, more than 5 million people; there were 1 million 700 thousand soldiers among them. This figure was absolutely unreal, and it is possible to explain it only by the reason that “fear takes molehills for mountains”, and the great fear reigned in Hellas then. Actually, the Persian army could hardly reach more than 200 thousand people (Cartledge 26). The bigger quantity could not even live there. There would be not enough drinking water in all the rivers and reservoirs for it. However, such an army exceeded several times those forces that all the Greek policies could collect together to repulse the Persians. The trouble was that it appeared impossible: there was no unity among the Greeks; the majority of them were ready to bow down to the lord of the Persians.
The Persians, courageous soldiers, dashing equestrians and well-aimed archers were the most efficient part of multilingual troops who moved to Hellas because of the will of the Persian tsar. Each Persian had been taught three things since the childhood: to ride a horse, to shoot with bows and to tell the truth. The Persians were armed with spears (which were shorter than the ones of the Greeks), bows and daggers, their body was protected with a short scaly armor and the wattled shield, fitted by skin. Some, mainly in the cavalry, had metal helmets. Thus, unlike Greek hoplites, Xerxes’s soldiers had only light weapons, which only differed by the richness of decoration. The majority of the army was armed only with bows and darts.
The Greeks sent an army, consisting of 10 thousands of hoplites, in order to detain the Persians on distant approaches to Peloponnese. At first, the allied army wanted to constrain Xerxes on the northern border of Thessaly with Macedonia, but then it departed on Istm, an isthmus, connecting the peninsula of Peloponnese to the Balkans. However, in that case, many Greek cities on the continent would appear defenseless, and the army passed to Thermopylae, a narrow path in the mountains from the area of Thessaly to the Middle Greece. At the same time, the Greek fleet became a barrier of the Persian flotilla at the Artemisia’s cape, not far from Thermopylae.
The main objective of the Greeks was to detain the movement of the Persian army on the territory of Hellas. Defending the narrow Thessaly path, the Greeks could hope to solve this strategic problem. Having arranged the forces in the bottlenecks on the way to sea and overland Xerxes’s armies (Thermopylae and the passage in the cape Artemision), the Greeks leveled the opponent’s superiority in strength. Unlike the Greeks, the Persians could not stop, as their army needed to be supplied with foods, which was taken from the conquered territories. Therefore, it was necessary for the Persians to break through the Thermopylae gorge to win the campaign.
From the tactical point of view, the Thermopylae gorge suited perfectly for the Greeks. The hoplites’ phalanx could not be bypassed from the flanks; there was also no place for cavalry maneuvers. In a close face-to-face fight, protected by armor, the hoplites were stronger than badly-armed infantry of the opponent. A weak point of the position was a roundabout mountain path. Though it was impassable to cavalry, soldiers could pass it on foot. Leonid was warned about the existence of the path and sent one thousand fokiyets to protect it. The average width of the path was 60 steps.
In 480 BC, a huge army of the Persians, led by Xerxes, made a transition from Asia Minor to Europe through the Hellespont passage. Herodotus estimates the number the Persian army and the dependent people as 1,7 or 2,6 million people. Modern historians, based on logistics, estimate a number of the Persians as up to 200 thousand people, “though these figures could be called as overestimated”.
The army of the Greeks consisted of constant city groups of the professional heavy-armed soldiers-hoplites, sent as detached forces while the cities collected militias. Up to 6 thousand hoplites gathered at Thermopylae; the Spartan group, consisting of 300 soldiers, was headed by Tsar Leonid, Anaxandrid’s son and Heracles’ descendant in the 20th generation. Leonid was the 3rd or the 4th son of the Spartan tsar Anaxandrid, however, two eldest sons died, having opened Leonid the way to the power. In 480 BC, he was about 40 years old. Spartan tsars (two from different families governed at the same time) possessed a complete power only during the war, and in a peace time, they carried out rather representative functions.
Even during the terrible invasion, the Greeks were not going to make gods angry by their refusal from celebrations. In Sparta, the holiday of Karney, which coincided with the 75th Olympic Games of 480 BC, was celebrated. Leonid selected 300 worthy men from the citizens who already had children. Other Spartans were going to join the army after the end of the celebration.
Leonid was married to his niece, Gorgo, the daughter of his elder brother Cleomenes, who was the Spartan tsar before his death and who had a minor son Plistarkh.
The Greeks set up the camp behind the wall, blocking the narrow Thermopylae path. The wall represented a low barricade, laid out of heavy stones. The Persian army stopped at the city of Trakhina before the entrance to Thermopylae. One local told them about a large number of barbarians, and added that “if the barbarians let out arrows, there will be a sun eclipse from a cloud of arrows”. In reply, Spartan Diyenek joked carelessly: “Our friend from Trakhin brought a nice message: if the medians black out the sun, it will be possible to fight in shadow”.
In the middle of August, the Persian army appeared on the bank of the Malian gulf at the city of Trakhina before the entrance to Thermopylae. The soldiers from Peloponnese were afraid of the sight of the Persian power, and they suggested coming back and protecting Isthmus of Corinth. The fokiyets and lokras, whose lands were outside the bounds of the Peloponnese peninsula, were overwhelmed with such an offer. The dispute was resolved by Leonid who made the decision to remain in the same place.
Xerxes’ ambassador was sent to the Hellenic army, who offered the Greeks to give up and receive freedom for it, get the title “friends of the Persian people” and better lands than those they owned. When this offer was rejected by Leonid, the ambassador said to the Greeks that Xerxes ordered to lay down arms. The legendary answer was given: “Come and take it”, according to Plutarch.
Xerxes had been waiting for 4 days, and on the 5th day, he sent the most efficient groups from the native medians. According to Diodor, Xerxes sent to fight close relatives of the soldiers, who had died 10 years earlier in the fight with the Greeks at the Marathon. The Greeks met them face to face while the other part of the Greeks remained on the wall. The Greeks pretended they were receding, but then they turned around and counterattacked the upset crowds of the Persians. Then Xerxes replaced the medians with the kissiyets and the sakes, famous for their eagerness to fight. Worse-armed barbarians could not break through the dense phalanx of the Greeks, which was covered by the wall of big shields. Before the evening, the Xerxes’s guard went to fight — the soldiers from the group of “immortal” ones. However, they receded after a short fight.
The second day, Xerxes sent to fight the soldiers, known for their courage, with the promise of a good award for success and death for those escaping from the battlefield. The second day also passed in useless attacks. The Persians replaced attacking groups, the Greeks, in turn, replaced each other in the battle.
Xerxes did not know what to undertake further when a local man, Epialt, volunteered to lead the Persians along the mountain path, bypassing Thermopylae, for compensation. The path was protected by the group of the fokiyets (from the Middle Greece), consisting of 1000 soldiers. A Persian group of 20 thousand soldiers under the Gidarn’s command was secretly walking all night long, and by the morning they attacked the fokiyets unexpectedly. Having persecuted them on the top of the mountain, Gidarn continued moving back, protecting Thermopylae. The Fokiyets sent their runners to report the Greeks about the roundabout maneuver of the Persians; the Greeks were warned about it at night by Tirrastiad, a deserter from the Persian camp.
The opinions of the allies were divided. The majority, submitting to the will of the circumstances, went to their cities. There were only 300 Spartans of Tsar Leonidas, 700 thespians under Demophilus command, Diadromes’s son, and 400 fivanets under the command of Leontiad, Evrimakh’s son. The number of soldiers in groups was specified at the beginning of the battle, but after 2 days of struggle, the Greeks had notable losses. Thespiae and Thebes were the cities in Boeotia through which the way of the Persian army should inevitably lie, so the groups of these cities protected their native land in Thermopylae. Herodotus was writing his historical work at the time of hostility of Thebes with Athens, therefore, he did not miss an opportunity to expose the fivanets-traitors of Hellas. He reported that the fivanets group was withheld against their will as hostages by Leonid. Herodotus’ version was “disproved both the destiny of the group and the logic of the war”. According to Diodor, there were only 500 soldiers left at the disposal of Leonid for the 3rd day.
Herodotus considered that 300 Spartan hoplites were accompanied by Helots (the state serfs in Sparta) whom the Spartans used as badly-armed soldiers and servants, but with who they did not share glory. According to Herodotus, in the fight at Plataea, each Spartan-hoplite had 7 Helots-servants; the ratio in Thermopylae battle was not known, but, probably, was approximately the same, judging by the number of the Greeks who were killed.
Without reckoning on the victory but only on the glorious death, the remained Greeks accepted the battle in the distance from the former place where the path widened. Even there the Persians could not turn around and perished in masses in a crush or were dumped from the steep coast. The Spartans’ spears were broken; they struck their enemies with short Spartan swords in the close hand-to-hand fight. During the struggle, Leonid died; the Persians lost Abrocomes and Hyperanthes, brothers of tsar Xerxes. Having noticed the approach of the Persian group from the back, headed by Epialt, the Greeks receded to the wall, and then, having passed it, took a position on the hill near the exit from the path. According to Herodotus, during the retreat, the fivanets separated and were captivated, thus, they saved the lives at the price of branding in slavery.
The Spartans and thespians accepted the last battle. The Persians shot the last heroes with the arrows, and stoned them. According to Herodotus, the Spartans Diyenek, brothers Alfey and Maron, a thespians Dithyramb distinguished themselves with valor.
Only Aristodem remained alive out of 300 Spartans; he was left by Leonid in the Alpena’s settlement as he was ill. When returning to Sparta, Aristodem was expected to meet disgrace and shame. Nobody spoke to him; he was given a nickname of Aristodem-Coward. They say there was another Spartan alive called Pantit, who had been sent as the messenger to Thessaly. When returning to Lacedaemon (the area where Sparta was situated), he was also expected to meet disgrace, and he was hanged.
Diodor told about the last fight of 300 Spartans in a legendary form. They attacked the Persian camp still in the dark time and beat a great number of the Persians, trying to kill Xerxes in a general turmoil (Green 47). Only in the morning, the Persians noticed a small number of people in Leonid’s group and threw spears and arrows at him from the distance.
Tsar Xerxes personally examined the battlefield. Having found Leonid’s body, he ordered to behead it and to put it on a stake. Up to 20 thousand Persians and 4 thousand Greeks, including Spartan Helots, were killed near Thermopylae, according to Herodotus.
In the following 479 BC, the Persian army was completely destroyed in the fight at Plataea in Boeotia. In that fight, among the Spartans, Aristodem, the only survivor of 300 soldiers of Tsar Leonid, distinguished himself with courage. He fought like frenzied, having left the ranks, and “made great feats only because, as the Spartans believed, he looked for death because of his fault”.
Sparta declared an award for the head of the traitor Epialt, Evridem’s son. Then he was killed by his tribesman in a quarrel. The remains of Tsar Leonid were reburied in Sparta 40 years later after his death. For 600 years after the battle, the residents annually carried out competitions in honor of the national hero during the Roman time. The names of all fallen in Thermopylae were cut on the plate.
After the Greek-Persian war, in the 3rd Messensky war, a group of 300 Spartans was completely destroyed. But only the death of the group under the command of Tsar Leonid in September 480 BC became a legend.
The value of the Thermopylae battle was that the defeat, which the Greeks suffered at Thermopylae, turned back their moral victory, which showed an advantage of the unification in the face of danger and death, and the possibility to battle against uncountable armies of the Persian tsar. It was the victory of the free people, who voluntary made their choice, understanding the inevitability of death. It was the victory of the Greek arms and tactics, allowing the united strengths of the Greeks to win the battle at Plataea one year later.