Thermopylae was one of the classic battles of ancient Greece. One of the most famous holding tactics of all time. Xerxes I, the king of Persia invaded Greece in 480 BC with an army estimated at 250,000 men, as well as an enormous fleet. Approximately 1,400 Greeks, led by Leonidas, the king of Sparta, met the Persian army at Thermopylae ("Hot Gates"), a narrow pass dividing north and south Greece named for the hot springs nearby. The bottleneck was easily defended, and the Greeks held the Persians for 2 days before a traitor showed Xerxes an alternate route around the pass. The Greeks were forced to retreat, but Leonidas and 300 elite Spartans remained behind to delay the Persians, dying in the process, but buying even more time.

The time bought at Thermopylae allowed the Athenians to escape Athens in their ships, and flee to Salamis, while their ground troops fell back to fortifications at the isthmus of Corinth. Although Athens was taken and razed to the ground by the Persians, the speedier Athenian fleet managed to trap the persian fleet at Salamis and utterly destroy it, despite being outnumbered 3 to 1. A year later, the Greeks, under Spartan general Pausanias, obliterated the Persian army at the Battle of Plataea, ending Xerxes designs on Greece.
Simonides of Ceos wrote the famous lines that form the major inscription to be found at Thermopylae:

'Go tell the Spartans,
Thou that passeth by,
That faithful to their precepts,
Here we lie'

It in turn forms the basis for the famous inscription to be found on war memorials worldwide penned by John Maxwell Adams during World War One:

'When You Go Home,
Tell Them Of Us And Say,
For Their Tomorrow,
We gave Our Today'.

The man that showed the Persians the alternate route (the Anopaia path) was a local, named "ephialtis".(translates to "nightmare") Its still used today to call someone a traitor.
When scouts came to Dieneces, a warrior that had distinguished himself in battle, they told him that the Persians were so many that their arrows hid the sun. His response was: "Good, we shall fight in the shade.".
A statue of Leonidas and a cenotaph mark the spot today.

The King with half the East at heel is marched from lands of morning;
Their fighters drink the rivers up, their shafts benight the air.
And he that stands will die for naught, and home there's no returning.
The Spartans on the sea-wet rock sat down and combed their hair.

A.E. Housman
Today, the seaside mountain pass at Thermopylae in Greece looks very different than it did 2,500 years ago. The nearby Spercheios River has deposited enough sediment to considerably widen the once-narrow strip of land (Sacks 246). There is only a stone stature of a Spartan solider to remind us of the fierce battle that took place there in 480 BC between the Greeks and the invading Persians (Baker 65). The Greeks’ defense of the pass at Thermopylae culminated in a gloriously heroic but ultimately suicidal confrontation that was vitally important to the final outcome of the Persian Wars.

King Darius of Persia first invaded Greece in 492 BC and was unsuccessful (Pomeroy et al 187-188). In 480 BC Darius’ son and successor Xerxes decided to bring a victorious conclusion to the war that his father had started. King Xerxes controlled a Phoenician navy and up to 250,000 land troops (sources vary), and he expected to easily overpower the Greeks, who were constantly fighting among themselves (Pomeroy et al 194). The Greeks knew that the Persians were going to attack, and they consulted the Oracle at Delphi. The Oracle told the Spartans that a king’s death would save Greece, and she told the Athenians that wooden walls would save Greece (Pomeroy et al 194).

At the critical time when King Leonidas of Sparta needed to dispatch his army, Sparta was celebrating a religious festival that prohibited warriors from leaving to do battle (Sacks 246). King Leonidas decided leave immediately with 300 members of his royal guard. He only took men who were in their thirties and who had sons to carry on their family’s name (Baker 63). The rest of the army was supposed to follow at the next full moon, when the festival was over. On the way to Thermopylae, other men who were eager to defend Greece joined Leonidas. By the time the Greek army arrived at Thermopylae, its numbers had swelled to between 7,000 and 10,000 men (Powell 27).

At that time, the pass at Thermopylae was only about 55 feet wide at its narrowest point. The Aegean Sea bordered one side, and sheer cliffs bordered the other. Normal fighting tactics were impossible. The Greeks set up camp and then waited for orders from Leonidas. They combed their long hair and did gymnastic exercises to pass the time while they waited to fight. When Xerxes’ spies told him what the Greeks were doing, he laughed. He didn’t know that those were customary ways for Greeks to prepare for battle. Xerxes waited for four days, expecting the Greeks to retreat when they realized how many warriors they were up against. On the fourth day, Xerxes attacked (Baker 63).

Though Xerxes had a huge army, in that small space he could only use a fraction of his men at a time. Xerxes sent group after group of Persian warriors into the pass. The Greeks, who had better armor and longer spears (Sacks 246), slaughtered each group of fighters. Even Xerxes’ elite legion of Immortals (so called because there was always an Immortal to replace any Immortal that fell in battle) failed to overpower the Greeks (Baker 64). This continued for two days. Two of Xerxes’ brothers were killed (Sacks 246).

Xerxes realized that his tactics weren’t working, and he called his men back to their tents. Leonidas and his men were overjoyed. If they could hold out until the festival was over and their reinforcements came, they could win. But that night a Greek traitor named Ephialtes crept into the Persian camp and revealed a little-known path used by goatherds that led into the mountain and down behind the Greek camp. The local Phocian army had been instructed to guard this path in case the Persians found it. Ephialtes led the commander of the Immortals up the path.

The Phocians raced to tell Leonidas that he and his men were surrounded (Pomeroy et al 195). When Leonides heard the bad news, he dismissed the men who had joined him along the way to Thermopylae. Possibly he wanted to save as many men as possible for later battles while still delaying the Persians. Only the Thebans, the Thespians, and his three hundred Spartans remained. According to 5th century BC historian Herodotus, the Thebans were forced to stay (Baker 65).

The battle began at midmorning. The Persian troops, being whipped by their commanders, attacked from both ends of the pass. Many of them drowned in the sea or were trampled underfoot. The 1,400 Greeks fought until their spears and swords broke, then fought with their hands and teeth. Leonidas died early in the battle, and the Greeks defended his body fiercely. According to Herodotus, the Persians attempted to capture his corpse four times before they were successful. The battle did not end until every Greek solider was dead (Baker 65). At Xerxes’ command, Leonidas’ body was beheaded and displayed on a cross (Pomeroy et al 195).

The Battle of Thermopylae was very important as a delay tactic and because it made the Persians overly confident. It allowed the Athenians time to evacuate their city and send the elderly citizens and the city’s treasure to the island of Salamis and the women and children to safety in Troezen while preparing the men for a naval battle (Pomeroy et al 194). After Thermopylae, Xerxes was so confident that when the Greeks sent him a message through a slave of Persian descent, he took their bait and fought a naval battle that he was not prepared for (Baker 89). A storm at Artemisium had badly damaged his fleet during the Battle of Thermopylae. Still, he sent his ships to the narrow straits at Salamis (Pomeroy et al 196). The Greeks soundly defeated Xerxes’ navy with their heavier vessels. Two more Greek victories destroyed Xerxes’ dreams of conquering Greece (Baker 89).

The Greeks’ fearless performance at Thermopylae has captured the hearts and imaginations of generations. Historians say that the fighting at the Alamo is the only modern battle that was fought with comparable heroism. German troops trained during World War II were taught about the Battle of Thermopylae and were told that they were expected to perform similarly. And the challenges of the Vietnam War were chronicled in the film Go Tell the Spartans, which was named for this epitaph composed by Simonides for the heroes at Thermopylae: “‘Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here, obeying their commands, we lie’” (qtd in Pomeroy et al 196).

Works Cited
Baker, Rosalie F., and Charles F. Baker III. Ancient Greeks. New York: Oxford UP, 1997.
Pomeroy, Sarah, et al. Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History. New York: Oxford UP, 1999.
Powell, Anton. Ancient Greece. New York: Facts On File, 1994.
Sacks, David. Dictionary of the Ancient Greek World. New York: Oxford UP, 1996.

Few events in ancient history have become universally known as much as the sacrifice of Leonidas and his men while defending Attica, Boeotia, and southern Greece (which conveniently includes his native Sparta) from the Persian army. While not quite as rosy and clean-cut as portrayed (you bet it had a seedy underbelly as much as any other battle in any other war), the story of Leonidas and his 300 men (300? Already forgetting our allies, are we?) became one of the staples of romantic nationalism in the 19th century and later. It continues to be taught and glorified in schools across the western world even now that the classical Greece isn't quite as fashionable as it used to be.

In this poem Alexandrine poet Constantine Cavafy, at his didactic and metaphorical peak, compares a righteous life to defending the Thermopylae but gives it as much a chance of success as Leonidas and his men had against the Persians (Medes). This poem is an ode to noble futility that comes out somewhere between an ancient paean and the equally ancient Ecclesiastes. Though the poet considered himself to be best in his old age this poem, written at the age of 33, is one of his most popular ones. Cafavy, a well-read man fascinated with antiquity, reduces the tale to an analogy on a personal level.


Honour to those who in their lives
mark and guard a Thermopylae pass
Never budging from their duty
just and forthright in all their actions
but with compassion, too, and charity
Generous while wealthy and, even
when they're poor, still giving in small ways
still helping as much as they can
Always speaking the truth
yet without hating liars

And more honour's due to them
when they foresee (as many do)
That in the end Ephialtes will appear
And the Medes finally shall pass.

--Constantine P. Cavafy, 1903.

Is it foolish to strive to be a good person when you're destined to be betrayed by the dishonourable? One could argue that it's pointless because failure is inevitable. But is it foolish and selfish to refuse to do good because you expect to meet with failure too? It is unwise to presume that, once the Medes have passed, all is lost for the poet and for the reader, just because that's where the poem ends. After all, history has recorded that Themistocles invested well the time that Leonidas bought and Xerxes, a temporary victor, met defeat at his hands.

No man is an island and, in the big picture, you may not be around to see the happy end but you can do your part to make it happen. As long as you care and are willing to bear the cost of doing so. Remember: to Leonidas it was the law. For you it's a choice. The Persians are out there. Will you guard the pass?

Poem translated from the Greek original, 2003. The poem's translation is hereby released into the public domain by its author (me, that is).

The Spartans at Thermopylae

Indeed that battle at the 'Hot gates' must rank as one of the most famous last stand, hold out actions in history. I first read about it at about age 6 when my parents had some old encyclopaedia Britannica volumes that had the story in it. The last time I read about it was in Steven Pressfields 'Gates of Fire' an excellent book I thought. The thing with ancient history is of course that its ancient history, details are scarce.

the fact that people can still read about it thousands of years after that furious clash in the mountain pass is quite incredible.

I have heard all sorts of variations on the numbers of both combatants, 1,400 to 10,000 for the Greeks, and 80,000 to 4 million for the Persian Imperial army. As for casualties 298 Spartan Troops, and 3,700 other Greeks. (two Spartan soldiers were stricken blind, by sickness or enemy action, it's unclear, these two are supposed to have survived, one hanging himself in shame and the other redeeming his honour by cutting a suicidal swathe through the Persians at Plataea before being killed.

Persian Losses are said to have been 10,000 to 30,000, although modern estimates put it at around the 20,000 mark.

It is well that this battle is remembered, of course it was a loss for the Greeks but it bought them precious time to pull back into a more defensive position, and in the end, as we all know they won the war and prevented democracy from dying in the cradle again.

The checking of the Persians at Thermopylae, in my view showed that the Greeks were willing to stand up to the myriads, well some of the Greeks anyhow, And yet again proved the advantage of the bronze clad phalanx over the lightly armed Mede infantry. The Spartans may have enslaved an entire kingdom with the helots, but in those days who didn't? They were brave and they gave up their lives so their fellows would not have to live under the Persian yoke. Full Credit to them. I always enjoying reading about the Greek envoy in King Xerse's throne room telling the king about the different Greek peoples before the invasion, when he mentioned the Spartans Xerses flippantly asked "Who are the Spartans?"

At Thermopylae he would find out exactly who the Spartans were.

Molon Labe.

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