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 Persia
ns (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).
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.