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.
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.
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.
|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.
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.
|Units||Numbers (Herodotus)||Numbers (Diodorus Siculus)
(the rest of the Greeks sent with Leonidas)
|Total Peloponnesians||3,100||4,000 (4,300)|
|Opuntian Locrians||"All they had"||-|
|Grand Total||More than 5,200 by the number of Opuntian Locrians||6,400 (6,700)|
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
|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.
|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.
|Go, stranger, and to Lacedaemon tell|
That here, obeying her behests, we fell.
|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.
|Go tell the world, you passerby|
That here, by Spartan law, we lie
The monument to the Thespians is placed beside the one to the Spartans.
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.
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.