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Battle of Thermopylae

In the Battle of Thermopylae, which occurred in August 480 BC (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. 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.

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. 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, and has become a symbol of courage against overwhelming odds.

Sources

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. 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.

Background

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. 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.

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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. Support thus began to coalesce around these two leading states. A congress of city states met at Corinth in late autumn of 481 BC, 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 "οἱ Ἕλληνες" (the Greeks) and "the Greeks who had sworn alliance" (Godley translation) or "the Greeks who had banded themselves together" (Rawlinson translation). Sparta and Athens had a leading role in the congress 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.

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. 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. 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. 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 requirement 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 warOn 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:

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. 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

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. 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. 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" (Μολὼν λαβέ). 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:
Units Numbers
1,207 triremes with 200-man crews from 12 ethnic groups: Phoenicians of Palestine, Egyptians, Cyprians, Cilicians, Pamphylians, Lycians, Dorians of Asia, Carians, Ionians, Aegean islanders, Aeolians, Greeks from Pontus 241,400
30 marines per trireme from the Persians, Medes or Sacae 36,210
3,000 penteconters with 80-man crews 240,000
Total of ships' complements 517,610
Infantry from 47 ethnic groups: Persians, Medes, Cissians, Hyrcanians, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Bactrians, Sacae, Indians, Arians, Parthians, Chorasmians, Sogdians, Gandarians, Dadicae, Caspians, Sarangae, Pactyes, Utians, Mycians, Paricanians, Arabians, Ethiopians of Africa, Ethiopians of Baluchistan, Libyans, Paphlagonians, Ligyes, Matieni, Mariandyni, Cappadocians, Phrygians, Armenians, Lydians, Mysians, Asian Thracians, Lasonii, Milyae, Moschi, Tibareni, Macrones, Mossynoeci, Mares, Colchians, Alarodians, Saspirians and Red Sea islanders. 1,700,000
Horse cavalry from the Persians, Sagartians, Medes, Cissians, Indians, Caspians and Paricanians. 80,000
Arab camel troops and Libyan charioteers 20,000
Total Asian land and sea forces 2,317,610
120 triremes with 200-man crews from the Greeks of Thrace and the islands near it. 24,000
Balkan infantry from 13 ethnic groups: European Thracians, Paeonians, Eordi, Bottiaei, Chalcidians, Brygians, Pierians, Macedonians, Perrhaebi, Enienes, Dolopes, Magnesians, Achaeans 300,000
Grand Total, Asian, African, and European 2,641,610

This number is doubled in order to account for support personnel and thus Herodotus reports that the total Persian force numbered 5,283,220 men. The poet Simonides, who was a contemporary, talks of three million combatants. One century later, Ctesias of Cnidus gives 800,000 as the total number of the army that met in Doriscus, and 80,000 for Thermopylae.

Modern estimates

Modern scholars have given different estimates based on knowledge of the Persian military systems, their logistical capabilities, the Greek countryside, and supplies available along the army's route.
Grote
An early and very influential modern, George Grote, set the tone by expressing incredulity at the numbers given by Herodotus: "To admit this overwhelming total, or anything near to it, is obviously impossible." Grote's main objection is the supply problem, but he nowhere states any measure of supply capability nor did he have available any scientific data on the topic. He does not reject Herodotus altogether, citing the latter's reporting of the Persians' careful methods of accounting and their stockpiling of supply caches for three years. He points to the contradictions in the ancient estimates and refrains from making one of his own or implying that such an estimate is possible. It was up to subsequent scholars to make them.
Maurice
A pivotal study of the early 20th century by Major-General Sir John Frederick Maurice focuses on the water supply. A former British transport officer himself, he had access to the British Admiralty handbook containing data on the rivers of Greece. Calculating that a force of 200,000 men and 70,000 animals would strain the water resources, and noting that Herodotus reports those resources were strained, he suggests that Herodotus may have confused the Persian terms for chiliarchy (1,000) and myriarchy (10,000), leading to an exaggeration by a factor of ten. He therefore modifies Herodotus' figure for land combatants only to about 210,000 men, 75,000 animals. This does not include support personnel.
Hammond
Since Maurice the number of Persian troops has become a specialized topic. There are no standard estimates or ranges of estimates. One of the most widely read and detailed summaries is the contribution of N.G.L. Hammond to the Cambridge Ancient History. Working entirely from ancient sources, Hammond estimates the Persian fleet, based on its size at the Battle of Salamis, to have been 1,407 warships, 281,400 naval personnel, with another 3,000 vessels, 120,000 men, in support, for a total of about 400,000 men, to which must be added another 8,000 men operating 400 supply ships. The grand total of naval personnel is 408,000 men in about 4,800 ships.

For the land force under Xerxes, based on what was said about the land force under Mardonius at the Battle of Plataea, Hammond estimates 220,000 men plus 22,000 in the supply services for a total of 242,000 men. Note that Hammond's postulate of supply ships minimizes the resources of the Greek countryside as a limiting factor. Some have believed that Herodotus or his sources had access to official Persian Empire records of the forces involved in the expedition. Whatever the real numbers were, it is clear that Xerxes was anxious to ensure a successful expedition by mustering an overwhelming numerical superiority by land and by sea.

Size and composition of the Greek army

According to Herodotus, and Diodorus Siculus, the Greek army included the following forces:
Units Numbers (Herodotus) Numbers (Diodorus Siculus)
Spartans 300 300
Lacedaemonians - 1,000
Mantineans 500 3,000
(the rest of the Greeks sent with Leonidas)
Tegeans 500
Arcadian Orchomenos 120
Other Arcadians 1,000
Corinthians 400
Phlians 200
Mycenaeans 80
Total Peloponnesians 3,100 4,000 (4,300)
Thespians 700 -
Melians - 1,000
Thebans 400 400
Phocians 1,000 1,000
Opuntian Locrians "All they had" -
Grand Total More than 5,200 by the number of Opuntian Locrians 6,400 (6,700)
It is not known for certain whether the 1,000 Lacedemonians mentioned by Diodorus Siculus include the Spartans; the total of 4,000 implies that it does. As the Spartans themselves generally meant "other Lacedaemonians" by the term, the 4,000 probably does not include them. A possible further 900 Helots also fought. Herodotus reports that at Xerxes' public showing of the dead, "helots were also there for them to see", but he does not say how many or in what capacity they served. There is no reason to doubt that they served in their traditional role as armed retainers to individual Spartans. In the passage summarized by the table, Herodotus tallies 3,100 Peloponnesians at Thermopylae before the battle but in another passage he quotes an inscription by Simonides saying there were 4,000; hence, it is possible to account for the difference (without proof) by hypothesizing that 900 helots fought, three per Spartan hoplite.

Pausanias' account agrees with that of Herodotus (whom he probably read) except that he gives the number of Locrians, which Herodotus declined to estimate. Residing in the direct path of the Persian advance, they gave all the fighting men they had to the number of 6,000 men, which, added to Herodotus' 5,200, amounts to a force of 11,200. Many modern historians, who usually consider Herodotus more reliable, add the 1,000 Lacedaemonians and the 900 Helots to Herodotus' 5,200 to obtain 7,100 or about 7,000 men as a standard number, neglecting Diodorus' Melians and Pausanias' Locrians. That is the approach taken in this article; it is, however, not at all clear that they can reasonably be neglected.

It is obviously not possible given the sources and known history of the battle to arrive at anything like precise numbers; moreover, the units were rotated in and out of the battle. It is unlikely even the Greeks knew the number of men that fought or were killed. The numbers changed later on in the battle as most of the army retreated and only c. 2,300 Spartans, Helots, Thespians and Thebans remained.

Strategic and tactical considerations

Topography of the battlefield

At the time, the pass of Thermopylae consisted of a track along the shore of the Gulf of Malis so narrow that only one chariot could pass through at a time. On the southern side of the track stood the cliffs, while on the north side was the gulf. Along the path was a series of three constrictions, or "gates" (pylai), and at the center gate a short wall that had been erected by the Phocians in the previous century to aid in their defense against Thessalian invasions. The name "Hot Gates" comes from the hot springs that were located there.

Today, the pass is not near the sea but is several miles inland due to infilling of the Gulf of Malis. The old track appears at the foot of hills around the plain, flanked by a modern road. Recent core samples indicate that the pass was only 100 meters wide and the waters came up to the gates. Says Lyn Dore: "Little do the visitors realize that the battle took place across the road from the monument. The pass still is a natural defensive position to modern armies, and British Commonwealth forces in World War II made another defense against the Nazi invasion meters from the original battle field.

Detailed maps of the region are to be found at these sites:

Pictures showing the terrain are to be found at these sites:

The battle

Failure of the frontal assault

Xerxes waited four days for the Greek force to disperse. On the fifth day he sent Medes and Cissians, along with relatives of those who had died ten years earlier in the battle of Marathon, to take the Greeks prisoner and bring them before him. They soon found themselves in a frontal assault. The Greeks had camped on either side of the rebuilt Phocian wall. The wall was guarded and the Greeks fought in front of it.

Details of the tactics are scant. Diodorus says "the men stood shoulder to shoulder" and the Greeks were "superior in valor and in the great size of their shields." The formation being described is the standard Greek phalanx, a wall of overlapping shields and layered spear points, which would only have been effective if it spanned the width of the pass. Herodotus says that the units for each state were kept together. The small shields and shorter spears of the Persians were not a match for the superior armament of the Greek hoplites. The Greeks killed so many Medes that Xerxes is said to have started up off the seat from which he was watching the battle three times. According to Ctesias, the first wave was "cut to pieces" with only two or three Spartans dead.

According to Herodotus and Diodorus, the king, having taken the measure of the enemy, threw his best troops into a second assault the same day: the Immortals, an elite corps of 10,000 men. Ctesias tells a totally different story, that Xerxes sent another 20,000 troops against the Greeks, after the first 10,000 under Artapanus were defeated. They also failed to open the pass even though they were flogged by their leaders to press on. Although there might have been 10,000 Medes, the Immortals were only 10,000 and as elite troops it would not have been necessary to flog them. On the second day Xerxes sent, according to Ctesias, another 50,000 men to assault the pass, but again they failed. Xerxes at last stopped the assault and withdrew to his camp, totally perplexed.

Encirclement of the Greeks

Late on the second day of battle, as the Persian king was pondering what to do next, he received a windfall: a Malian Greek traitor named Ephialtes informed him of a path around Thermopylae and offered to guide the Persian army. Ephialtes was motivated by the desire of a reward. For this act, the name of Ephialtes received a lasting stigma, coming to mean "nightmare" and becoming the archetypal term for a "traitor" in Greek.

In Herodotus, Xerxes sends his commander Hydarnes to flank the pass with the men under his command, but he does not say who those men are. Hydarnes commanded the Immortals, but they had been cut to pieces the day before. Ctesias tells a different story, asserting that 40,000 troops were sent around the pass conducted by the leaders of the Trachinians. The stories can be reconciled by presuming that Hydarnes was given overall command of an enhanced force including what was left of the Immortals, but it is only a presumption. The Immortals were given such a name because when a member fell in battle he was immediately replaced by another to maintain the 10,000, therefore it is also possible they had been replenished from the previous day's fighting. The path led from east of the Persian camp along the ridge of Mt. Anopaea behind the cliffs that flanked the pass. It branched with one path leading to Phocis and the other down to the Gulf of Malis at Alpenus, first town of Locris. Leonidas had stationed 1,000 Phocian volunteers on the heights to guard that path.

Their first warning of the approach of the Persians at daybreak was the rustling of oak leaves. Herodotus says that they jumped up and were greatly amazed. Hydarnes was perhaps as amazed to see them hastily arming themselves as they were to see him and the Persian forces. He feared that they were Spartans, but was enlightened by Ephialtes and proceeded by firing "showers of arrows" at them. The Phocians retreated to the crest of the mountain to make their stand and defend their city which was behind the mountain range, but the Persians took the left branch of the pass to Alpenus and hence circled behind the main Greek force.

Last stand of the Greeks

Learning that the Phocians had not held, Leonidas called a council of war at dawn. Some Greeks argued for withdrawal, while others pledged to stay. After the council, many of the Greek forces did choose to withdraw. Herodotus believed that Leonidas blessed their departure with an order, but he also offered the alternative point of view that those retreating forces departed without orders. The Spartans had pledged themselves to fight to the death. A contingent of about 700 Thespians, led by general Demophilus, the son of Diadromes, refused to leave with the other Greeks, but cast their lot with the Spartans.

The Greeks this time sallied forth from the wall to meet the Persians in the wider part of the pass in an attempt to slaughter as many Persians as they could. They fought with spears until every spear was shattered and then switched to xiphē (short swords). In this struggle, Herodotus states that two brothers of Xerxes fell: Abrocomes and Hyperanthes. Leonidas also died in the assault and they fought over his body, the Greeks taking possession.

Receiving intelligence that Ephialtes and the Immortals were advancing toward the rear, the Greeks withdrew and took a stand on a hill behind the wall. The Thebans "moved away from their companions, and with hands upraised, advanced toward the barbarians..." (Rawlinson translation), but a few were slain before their surrender was accepted. The king later had the Theban prisoners branded with the royal mark. Of the remaining defenders, Herodotus says: "Here they defended themselves to the last, those who still had swords using them, and the others resisting with their hands and teeth; ...." Tearing down part of the wall, Xerxes ordered the hill surrounded and the Persians rained down arrows until every last Greek was dead. In 1939, the archaeologist Spyridon Marinatos, excavating at Thermopylae, found large numbers of Persian bronze arrowheads on Kolonos Hill, changing the identification of the hill on which the Greeks died from a smaller one nearer the wall.

Aftermath

When the body of Leonidas was recovered by the Persians, Xerxes, in a rage against Leonidas, ordered that the head be cut off and the body crucified. Herodotus observes that this was very uncommon for the Persians, as they had the habit of treating "valiant warriors" with great honor (the example of Pytheas captured earlier off Skyros also suggests that). However, Xerxes was known for his rage, as when he had the Hellespont whipped because it would not obey him.

Xerxes was curious as to what the Greeks were trying to do (presumably because there were so few numbers) and had some Arcadian deserters interrogated in his presence. The answer was that all the other men were participating in the Olympic Games. When Xerxes asked what was the prize for the winner, the answer was "an olive-wreath". Upon hearing this, Tigranes, a Persian general, said: "Good heavens, Mardonius, what kind of men are these that you have pitted against us? It is not for riches that they contend but for honor!" (Godley translation) or otherwise "Ye Gods, Mardonius, what men have you brought us to fight against? Men that fight not for gold, but for glory."

After the Persians' departure, the Greeks collected their dead and buried them on the hill. A stone lion was erected to commemorate Leonidas. Forty years after the battle, Leonidas' bones were returned to Sparta where he was buried again with full honors and funeral games were held every year in his memory.

The simultaneous naval Battle of Artemisium was a stalemate, where the Athenian navy retreated. The Persians were now in control of the Aegean Sea and all eastern coast of peninsular Greece as far south as Attica. The Spartans prepared to defend the Isthmus of Corinth and the Peloponnese, while Xerxes went on to sack Athens. The Athenian leader, Themistocles, told the residents of Athens to flee the city. Only the people who refused to leave were killed. The rest of Athens was burned to the ground. In September, the Greeks defeated the Persians at the naval Battle of Salamis, which led to the rapid retreat of Xerxes. The remaining Persian army, left under the charge of Mardonius, was defeated in the Battle of Plataea by a combined Greek army again led by the Spartans, under the regent Pausanias.

Monuments to the battle

Epitaph of Simonides

Simonides composed a well-known epigram, which was engraved as an epitaph on a commemorative stone placed on top of the burial mound of the Spartans at Thermopylae. It is also the hill on which the last of them died. The original stone has not been preserved. Instead the epitaph was engraved on a new stone erected in 1955. The text from Herodotus is:

Ὦ ξεῖν', ἀγγέλλειν Λακεδαιμονίοις ὅτι τῇδε
κείμεθα, τοῖς κείνων ῥήμασι πειθόμενοι.

Ō ksein', angellein Lakedaimoniois hoti tēide
keimetha tois keinōn rhēmasi peithomenoi.

An ancient alternative substitutes πειθόμενοι νομίμοις for ῥήμασι πειθόμενοι; i.e., substitutes "laws" for "sayings." The sayings are not personal but refer to official and binding phrases of some sort.

The form of this ancient Greek poetry is an elegiac couplet. Some English translations are given in the table below.

Translation Notes
Go tell the Spartans, thou who passest by,
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.
William Lisle Bowles
Stranger, tell the Spartans that we behaved
as they would wish us to, and are buried here.
William Golding
Stranger! To Sparta say, her faithful band
Here lie in death, remembering her command.
Rev. Francis Hodgson
Stranger, report this word, we pray, to the Spartans, that lying
Here in this spot we remain, faithfully keeping their laws.
George Campbell Macaulay
Stranger, bear this message to the Spartans,
that we lie here obedient to their laws.
William Roger Paton
Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,
that here obedient to their laws we lie.
Steven Pressfield
Go, stranger, and to Lacedaemon tell
That here, obeying her behests, we fell.
George Rawlinson
Go, way-farer, bear news to Sparta's town
that here, their bidding done, we laid us down.
Cyril E. Robinson
Go tell the Spartans, you who read:
We took their orders, and lie here dead.
Aubrey de Sélincourt
Friend, tell Lacedaemon
Here we lie
Obedient to our orders.
William Shepherd
Go tell the world, you passerby
That here, by Spartan law, we lie
Frank Miller
John Ruskin expressed the importance of this ideal to Western civilization as follows:

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.

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. Demaratus replied:

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. To this Demaratus answered:
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 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. Then the ambassador asked him more forcefully to surrender their arms. To this Leonidas gave his famous answer: Μολὼν λαβέ, "Come and get them".

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.

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.

References

Further reading

  • Barkworth, Peter R. "The Organization of Xerxes' Army". Iranica Antiqua XXVII pages 149–167. Retrieved on 2007-10-18.
  • Pressfield, Steven Gates of Fire.
  • Morris, Ian Macgregor "To Make a New Thermopylae: Hellenism, Greek Liberation, and the Battle of Thermopylae". Greece & Rome 47 (2): pages 211–230.
  • Holland, Tom Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West.

See also

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