Battle of Thermopylae

Battle of Thermopylae

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Battle of Thermopylae
partof=the Greco-Persian Wars

date=August 480 BC cite journal|title=Herodotus and the Dating of the Battle of Thermopylae|journal=The Classical Quarterly|date=1976|first=Kenneth|last=S. Sacks|coauthors=|volume=26|issue=2|pages=232–248|id= |url=|format=|accessdate=2008-07-05 ]
place=Thermopylae, Greece
result= Persian victory.
territory=Persians gain control of Boeotia and march for Athens.
combatant1=Greek city-states
combatant2=Achaemenid Empire
commander1=Leonidas IKIA
commander2=Xerxes I of Persia,
5,200 (Herodotus)
6,400 or 6,700(+) (Diodorus Siculus)
11,200 (Pausanias)

Individual groupsb
300 Spartans
400 Thebans
700 Thespians
900 Helots
1,000 Phocians
1,800+ other Greek alliesc
strength2=2,080,000 (Herodotus)Herodotus [ VII,186]
Not including his noncombatants that were also part of the invasion, almost three million is the number provided by Herodotus, other than this, Simonides reports an exact figure of three million. A figure of 2,641,610 is considered an unlikely number for Thermopylae, mostly on the fact that no marines of any kind fought in Thermopylae. If the marines are subtracted, one would arrive at the number 2,080,000, which is the highest possiblity, but there could have been less. It should also be noted, Herodotus agrees with Ctesias in saying the Persian Immortals, cavalry of the Medes and Cissians, plus other infantry fought in a course of three days. Which on the fourth day Xerxes ceased operations, and on the fifth day encircled the Greeks with 40,000 recycled troops from the previous days of fighting. ]
10,000 Persian Immortals,
20,000 Median and Cissian cavalry,
~50,000 other infantry (Ctesias) [ [ Ctesias; J.H. Freese (Translator); Photius (Editor) (1996-2007). "Excerpt 27" (html). Persica. Livius articles on ancient history. Retrieved on 2007-10-19.]
Ctesias says Xerxes' expedition was composed of 800,000 men that invaded Greece, however for Thermopylae he breaks down the Persian numbers to 10,000 Persian Immortals, 20,000 Median and Cissian cavalry, and ~50,000 other infantry which equal ~80,000 total troops of which Xerxes permits to fight.
~200,000 (Modern estimates - see below)
casualties1= ±2,000b
casualties2=20,000 (Herodotus) [Herodotus [;query=chapter%3D%231327;layout=;loc=8.25.1 VIII, 24] ]
|notes=aNumbers from the ancient sources. Modern estimates are discussed below; bAs agreed on by all sources; c The majority of the army was dismissed on the third day, leaving 3,300 troops

In the Battle of Thermopylae, which occurred in August 480 BC cite journal|title=Herodotus and the Dating of the Battle of Thermopylae|journal=The Classical Quarterly|date=1976|first=Kenneth|last=S. Sacks|coauthors=|volume=26|issue=2|pages=232–248|id= |url=|format=|accessdate=2008-07-05 ] (and was detailed almost entirely by Herodotus), an alliance of Greek city-states fought the invading Persian Empire at the pass of Thermopylae in central Greece. Vastly outnumbered, the Greeks held back the Persians for three days in one of history's most famous last stands. A small force led by King Leonidas I of Sparta blocked the only road through which the massive army of Xerxes I of Persia could pass. After three days of battle, a local resident named Ephialtes is believed to have betrayed the Greeks by revealing a mountain path that led behind the Greek lines. Dismissing the rest of the army, King Leonidas stayed behind with 300 Spartans, 700 Thespian volunteers, 400 Thebans who may have been pressed into service, and 900 Helots.

The Persians succeeded in taking the pass but sustained losses disproportionate to those of the Greeks. The fierce resistance of the Spartan-led army offered Athens the invaluable time to prepare for a decisive naval battle that would determine the outcome of the war.cite book |last=Bury |first=J. B. |coauthors=Russell Meiggs |title=A History of Greece to the Death of Alexander the Great |edition=4th Revised Edition |year=2000 |month=July |publisher=Palgrave Macmillan |isbn= |pages=page 271 The 1913 edition (same page numbers) is downloadable, Google Books, at [] .] The subsequent Greek victory at the Battle of Salamis left much of the Persian Empire's navy destroyed and Xerxes retreated to Asia, leaving a force in Greece under Mardonius, who was to complete the subjugation of the Greeks. The Spartans assembled at full strength and led a pan-Greek army that defeated the main Persian force at the Battle of Plataea. This battle ended the Greco-Persian War and the expansion of the Persian Empire into Europe. [Bury (1913), page 295.]

Both ancient and modern writers have used the Battle of Thermopylae as an example of the superior power of a patriotic army of freemen defending native soil. [

So almost immediately, contemporary Greeks saw Thermopylae as a critical moral and culture lesson. In universal terms, a small, free people had willingly outfought huge numbers of imperial subjects who advanced under the lash. More specifically, the Western idea that soldiers themselves decide where, how, and against whom they will fight was contrasted against the Eastern notion of despotism and monarchy — freedom proving the stronger idea as the more courageous fighting of the Greeks at Thermopylae, and their later victories at Salamis and Plataea attested.] The performance of the defenders at the battle of Thermopylae is also used as an example of the advantages of training, equipment, and good use of terrain as force multipliers,cite journal | last=Eikenberry | first=Lt. Gen. Karl W. | title=Take No Casualties | journal=Parameters: US Army War College Quarterly | volume=XXVI | issue=2 | pages=pages 109–118 | date=Summer 1996 | url= | accessdate=2007-10-17] and has become a symbol of courage against overwhelming odds.


Nearly all of the sources for the account of the battle come ultimately from Herodotus. Many writers have called into question the accuracy of his accounts or statistics. For example, Herodotus estimated that the total size of the Persian army in their empire was 5,283,220; this was dismissed as an "absurd exaggeration" by renowned archaeologist and ancient Greek historian John Boardman. [John Boardman book: [ "The Cambridge Ancient History"] . 1988. Page 532. ISBN 0521228042.] Herodotus claimed that the land and naval forces of Xerxes at the passage of Hellespont totalled 2,317,000 in addition to 2,000,000 slaves and support personnel; this figure has also been called into question. [P. V. N. Myers book: [,M1 "A General History For Colleges And High Schools"] . 2004. Page 107. ISBN 1419101331.]


The Greek city-states of Athens and Eretria had supported the unsuccessful Ionian Revolt against the Persian Empire of Darius I in 499-494 BC. Darius swore revenge on these two city-states, and also saw the oppurtunity to expand his empire into the fractious world of Ancient Greece. Persian Fire. Holland, T. Abacus, ISBN 978-0-349-11717-1 ] A preliminary expedition under Mardonius, in 492 BC, to secure the land approaches to Greece ended with the re-conquest of Thrace and forced Macedon to become a client kingdom of Persia. [Herodotus VI,43]

In 491 BC, Darius sent embassies to all the Greek city-states, asking for a gift of 'earth and water' in token of their submission to him. Persian Fire, pps178-179. Holland, T. Abacus, ISBN 978-0-349-11717-1 ] Having had a demonstration of his power the previous year, the majority of Greek cities duly obliged. In Athens, however, the ambassadors were put on trial and then executed; in Sparta, they were simply thrown down a well. This meant that Sparta was also now effectively at war with Persia.

Darius thus put together a amphibious task force under Datis and Artaphernes in 490 BC, which attacked Naxos, before receiving the submission of the other Cycladic Islands. The task force then moved on Eretria, which it besieged and destroyed. [Herodotus VI,94] Finally, it moved to attack Athens, landing at the bay of Marathon, where it was met by a heavily outnumbered Athenian army. At the ensuing Battle of Marathon, the Athenians won a remarkable victory, which resulted in the withdrawal of the Persian army to Asia.

Darius therefore began raising a huge new army with which he meant to completely subjugate Greece; however, in 486 BC, his Egyptian subjects revolted, indefinitely postponing any Greek expedition Persian Fire. Holland, T. Abacus, ISBN 978-0-349-11717-1 ] . Darius then died whilst preparing to march on Egypt, and the throne of Persia passed to his son Xerxes I. Xerxes crushed the Egyptian revolt, and very quickly re-started the preparations for the invasion of Greece. Since this was to be a full scale invasion it required long-term planning, stock-piling and conscription. Xerxes decided that the Hellespont would be bridged to allow his army to cross to Europe, and that a canal should be dug across the isthmus of Mount Athos (rounding which headland, a Persian fleet had been destroyed in 492 BC). These were both feats of exceptional ambition, which would have been beyond any contemporary state. Persian Fire, p213-214. Holland, T. Abacus, ISBN 978-0-349-11717-1 ] By early 480 BC, the preparations were complete, and the army which Xerxes had mustered at Sardis marched towards Europe, crossing the Hellespont on two pontoon bridges.

The Athenians had also been preparing for war with the Persians since the mid-480s BC, and in 482 BC the decision was taken, under the guidance of the Athenian politician Themistocles, to build a massive fleet of triremes that would be necessary for the Greeks to fight the Persians Persian Fire. Holland, T. Abacus, ISBN 978-0-349-11717-1 ] . However, the Athenians did not have the man-power to fight on land and sea; and therefore combatting the Persians would require an alliance of Greek city states. In 481 BC Xerxes sent ambassadors around Greece asking for earth and water, but making the very deliberate omission of Athens and Sparta. [Herodotus [ VII, 32] ] Support thus began to coalesce around these two leading states. A congress of city states met at Corinth in late autumn of 481 BC,Herodotus [ VII,145] ] and a confederate alliance of Greek city-states was formed. It had the power to send envoys asking for assistance and to dispatch troops from the member states to defensive points after joint consultation. Herodotus does not formulate an abstract name for the polity, such as "congress" or "alliance", but calls them simply "Unicode|οἱ Ἕλληνες" (the Greeks) and "the Greeks who had sworn alliance" (Godley translation) or "the Greeks who had banded themselves together" (Rawlinson translation). [Herodotus, [ VII, 148] ] Sparta and Athens had a leading role in the congressHerodotus [ VII, 161] ] but interests of all the states played a part in determining defensive strategy. Little is known about the internal workings of the congress or the discussion during its proceedings. Only 70 of the approximately 700 Greek cities sent representatives. Nevertheless, this was remarkable for the disjointed Greek world, especially since many of the city-states in attendance were still technically at war with each other. Persian Fire. Holland, T. Abacus, ISBN 978-0-349-11717-1 ]

The 'congress' met again in the spring of 480 BC. A Thessalian delegation suggested that the allies could muster in the narrow Vale of Tempe, on the borders of Thessaly, and thereby block Xerxes advance Persian Fire, 248-249. Holland, T. Abacus, ISBN 978-0-349-11717-1 ] . A force of 10,000 Greek people including hoplites and cavalry to the vale of Tempe, through which they believed the Persian army would have to pass. However, once there, they were warned by Alexander I of Macedon that the vale could be bypassed through the Sarantoporo Pass, and that the army of Xerxes was overwhelming, the Greeks retreated. Herodotus [ VII,173] ] Shortly afterwards, they received the news that Xerxes had crossed the Hellespont.

A second strategy was therefore suggested by Themistocles to the allies. The route to southern Greece (Boeotia, Attica and the Peloponnesus would require the army of Xerxes to travel through the very narrow pass of Thermopylae. This could easily be blocked by the Greek hoplites, despite the overwhelming numbers of Persians. Furthermore, to prevent the Persians bypassing Thermopylae by sea, the Athenian and allied navies could block the straits of Artemisium. This dual strategy was adopted by the congress. Persian Fire, pps 255-257 Holland, T. Abacus, ISBN 978-0-349-11717-1 ] However, the Peloponnesian cities made fall-back plans to defend the Isthmus of Corinth should it come to it, whilst the women and children of Athens had been evacuated "en masse" to Salamis.

Run-up to the battle

Xerxes seems to have made rather leisurely progress through Thrace and Macedon, and June and July passed without the Persians approaching Greece. Finally, in August, news of the imminent arrival of the Persians arrived in Greece. Unfortunately for the Greeks, at this time of year the Spartans, generally considered to be the best warriors in Greece, were celebrating the festival of Carneia. During the Carneia, military activity was forbidden by Spartan law; the Spartans had arrived too late at the Battle of Marathon because of this requirementHerodotus VII, 206 entire. The translation is Rawlinson's. The Godley translation can be found at [] ] It was also the time of the Olympic Games, and therefore the Olypic truce, and would have been doubly sacreligious for the whole Spartan army to march to war Persian Fire, pps 258-259. ] On this occasion, the ephors decided the urgency was sufficiently great to justify an advance expedition to block the pass, under one of its kings, Leonidas I. Leonidas took with him the 300 men of the royal bodyguard, the "Hippeis", and probably a larger number of support troops drawn from other parts of Lacedaemon (including helots). These were to try and gather other allied troops along the way, and to await the arrival of the main Spartan army.

The legend of Thermopylae (as told by Herodotus) has it that Sparta consulted the Oracle at Delphi before setting out to meet the Persian army. The Oracle is said to have made the following prophecy in hexameter verse:cite web | last=Herodotus | authorlink=Herodotus | coauthors=George Rawlinson (Translator) | title="The History of Herodotus: Polymnia" | work=Greek Texts | & Greece Http Ltd. | date=2005 | pages=page 50 |url= | format=html | accessdate=2007-10-18]

O ye men who dwell in the streets of broad Lacedaemon!
Either your glorious town shall be sacked by the children of Perseus,
Or, in exchange, must all through the whole Laconian country
Mourn for the loss of a king, descendant of great Heracles.

Herodotus tells us that Leonidas, in line with the prophecy, was convinced he was going to certain death since his forces were not adequate for a victory, and so he selected only Spartans with living sons. [Herodotus [ VII, 205] ] "En route" to Thermopylae, the Spartan force was reinforced by contigents from various cities (see below), and numbered more than 5,000 by the time it arrived at the pass. Leonidas chose to camp at, and defend the 'middle gate', the narrowest part of the pass of Thermopylae, where the Phocians had built a defensive wall some time before. News also reached Leonidas, from the nearby city of Trachis, that there was a mountain track which could be used to outflank the pass of Thermopylae; in response, Leonidas stationed 1,000 Phocians on the heights to prevent such a manouevre Persian Fire, pps 262-264. Holland, T. Abacus, ISBN 978-0-349-11717-1 ]

Finally, in mid-August, the Persian army was sighted across the Gulf of Malis, approaching Thermopylae. With the Persian army's arrival at Thermopylae, Greek troops instigated a council meeting. Some Peloponnesians suggested withdrawal to the Isthmus and blocking the passage to Peloponnesus. The Phocians and Locrians, whose states were located nearby, became indignant and advised defending Thermopylae and sending for more help. Leonidas calmed the panic, and agreed to defend Thermopylae.Herodotus [ VII, 207] ] Since the whole strategy of the Greeks depended on holding both Thermopylae and Artemisium, it could scarcely have been otherwise.

A Persian embassy was sent by Xerxes to negotiate with Leonidas; the allies were offered their freedom and the title "Friends of the Persian People", moreover they would be re-settled on better land than they currently possessed. Persian Fire, pps 270-271. Holland, T. Abacus, ISBN 978-0-349-11717-1 ] When these terms were refused by Leonidas, the ambassador asked him more forcefully to lay down his weapons; Leonidas's famous response was for the Persians to "Come and get them" (polytonic|Μολὼν λαβέ). [Plutarch, Apophthegmata Laconica, Saying 11. pronounced|moˈlɔːn laˈbe), this saying was taken by the Greek First Army Corps as their emblem.] With the Persian embassy returning empty-handed, battle now became inevitable.

The opposing forces

Size and composition of the Persian army

Primary sources

In 480 BC, the Persian army and navy arrived at the Persian garrison of Doriscus in Thrace. A bridge of ships had been made at Abydos. This allowed the land forces to cross the Hellespont. At Doriscus, Xerxes conducted a review and a count of his army and navy, which was recorded by the Persian scribes. Herodotus lists and describes the units and gives the size of Xerxes' combined forces as follows:
John Ruskin expressed the importance of this ideal to Western civilization as follows:Citation | last=Ruskin | first=John | authorlink=John Ruskin | contribution=Part VIII: Of Ideas of Relation - I. of Invention Formal: Chapter I: The Law of Help | title=The Complete Works: Modern Painters: Volume the Fifth | publisher=Bryan, Taylor and Company | date=1894 | location=New York. Page 212.]

Leonidas monument

Additionally, there is a modern monument at the site, called the "Leonidas Monument", in honor of the Spartan king. It features a bronze statue of Leonidas. A sign, under the statue, reads simply: "Μολών λαβέ" ("Come and get them!"). The metope below depicts battle scenes. The two marble statues on the left and the right of the monument represent, respectively, the river Eurotas and Mount Taygetos, famous landmarks of Sparta.

=Thespian monument= In 1997, a second monument was officially unveiled by the Greek government, dedicated to the 700 Thespians who fought with the Spartans. The monument is made of marble and features a bronze statue depicting the god Eros, who was worshiped in ancient Thespiae. Under the statue, a sign reads "In memory of the seven hundred Thespians". A plate, below the statue, explains its symbolism :
* The headless male figure symbolizes the anonymous sacrifice of the 700 Thespians to their country.
* The outstretched chest symbolizes the struggle, the gallantry, the strength, the bravery and the courage.
* The open wing symbolizes the victory, the glory, the soul, the spirit and the freedom.
* The broken wing symbolizes the voluntary sacrifice and death.
* The naked body symbolizes Eros, the most important god of the ancient Thespians, the god of creation, beauty and life. The monument to the Thespians is placed beside the one to the Spartans.

Legends associated with the battle

Herodotus's colourful account of the battle has provided us with many apocryphal incidents and conversations away from the main historical events. These accounts are obviously not verifiable, but they form an integral part of the legend of the Battle. They often demonstrate the Laconic speech (and wit) of the Spartans to good effect.

For instance, Plutarch recounts in his "Sayings of Spartan Women" that upon his departure, Leonidas's wife Gorgo asked what she should if he did not return; to which Leondias replied, "Marry a good man and have good children." [cite web | last=Plutarch | authorlink=Plutarch | title=Gorgo | work=Moralia: Apophthegmata Lacaenarum: as published in Vol. III of the Loeb Classical Library Edition, 1931 | publisher=Bill Thayer |url=*.html | format=html | accessdate=2007-10-26 Paragraph 240E, Saying 6.]

Herodotus attests several conversations that took place between Xerxes and Demaratus, an exiled Spartan king in his retinue. Early in the campaign, Xerxes asked Demaratus whether he thought that the Greeks would put up a fight, for in his opinion neither the Greeks nor even all peoples of Europe together would be able to stop him because they were disunited.Herodotus [ VII, 101] ] Demaratus replied:Herodotus [ VII, 102] ]

First, they will never accept conditions from you that bring slavery upon Hellas; and second, they will meet you in battle even if all the other Greeks are on your side. Do not ask me how many these men are who can do this; they will fight with you whether they have an army of a thousand men, or more than that, or less.
Xerxes laughed at this answer, claiming that "free men" of any number would never be able to stand against his army which was unified by a single ruler, and that obedience to one single master would make his troops extremely courageous, or they would be led into battle "by the whip" even against an army of any size. He added that "even if the Greeks have larger numbers than our highest estimate, we still would outnumber them 100 to 1". He asserted that his army contained men who would gladly fight with three Greeks at once and that Demaratus was talking nonsense.Herodotus [ VII, 103] ] To this Demaratus answered: [Herodotus [ VII, 104] ]
I would most gladly fight with one of those men who claim to be each a match for three Greeks. So is it with the Lacedaemonians; fighting singly they are as brave as any man living, and together they are the best warriors on earth. They are free, yet not wholly free: law is their master, whom they fear much more than your men fear you. They do whatever it bids; and its bidding is always the same, that they must never flee from the battle before any multitude of men, but must abide at their post and there conquer or die.

It is reported that, upon arriving at Thermopylae, the Persian sent a mounted scout to reconnoiter. The Greeks allowed him to come up to the camp, observe them, and depart. When the scout reported to Xerxes the size of the Greek force and that the Spartans were indulging in calisthenics and combing their long hair, Xerxes found the reports laughable. Seeking again the counsel of Demaratus, 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 emphasized that he had tried to warn Xerxes earlier in the campaign, but the king had refused to believe him. He added that if Xerxes ever managed to subdue the Spartans, "there is no other nation in all the world which will venture to lift a hand in their defence" (Rawlinson translation).Herodotus [ VII, 209] ]

Herodotus also describes the reception of a Persian embassy by Leonidas. The ambassador told Leonidas that Xerxes would offer him the kingship of all Greece if he joined with Xerxes. Leonidas answered: "If you had any knowledge of the noble things of life, you would refrain from coveting others' possessions; but for me to die for Greece is better than to be the sole ruler over the people of my race." [cite web | last=Plutarch | authorlink=Plutarch | title=Leonidas, Son of Anaxandridas | work=Moralia: Apophthegmata Laconica: as published in Vol. III of the Loeb Classical Library Edition, 1931 | publisher=Bill Thayer |url=*/main.html | format=html | accessdate=2007-10-26 Paragraph 225C, Saying 10.] Then the ambassador asked him more forcefully to surrender their arms. To this Leonidas gave his famous answer: polytonic|Μολὼν λαβέ, "Come and get them". [Plutarch, Apophthegmata Laconica, Saying 11. pronounced|moˈlɔːn laˈbe), this saying was taken by the Greek First Army Corps as their emblem.]

Such Laconic bravado doubtlessly helped to maintain morale. Herodotus writes that when Dienekes, a Spartan soldier, was informed that Persian arrows would be so numerous as "to block out the sun", he retorted, unconcerned; "So much the better...then we shall fight our battle in the shade." [Herodotus, [ VII, 226] . "In the rain" was taken by the Hellenic Army XX Armored Division as their motto.]

Thermopylae in popular culture

The Battle of Thermopylae has been an icon of western civilization from its very aftermath. This icon expresses itself in countless instances of adages, poetry and song, literature, films, television and video games. A more serious aspect has been its didactic use. The battle appears in many books and articles on military topics.

Prior to the battle, the Hellenes remembered the Dorians, an ethnic distinction to which the Spartans belonged, as the conquerors and displacers of the Ionians in the Peloponnesus. After the battle, Spartan culture became an inspiration and object of emulation, a phenomenon known as Laconophilia.


Further reading


ee also

*Aristodemus (Spartan)
*Battle of the Persian Gate
*Battles of macrohistorical importance involving invasions of Europe
*Molon labe
*Persian empire
*Spartan Army
*Battle of Saragarhi

External links

* [ "The Five Great Battles of Antiquity"] by David L. Smith, [ Symposion Lectures] , 30 June 2006.

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