The Battle of Thermopylae

The Battle of Thermopylae

Central Greece, 450 B.C. An old man kneels beneath a stone lion copying its inscription. He is Herodotus of Halicarnassus, on the great project of his life, recording the events of the Graeco-Persian Wars some 30 years earlier, and in the process, creating a new concept: The historia (inquiry). The words he copies read, “Go tell the Spartans, passerby/ that here obedient to their laws we lie”.

East vs. West – The beginning of conflict

In 499 B.C the Greek colonies on the western coast of Turkey rebel from the super-power of the age, Persia, whose Empire stretches from Iran to Egypt. The city-states of Athens and Eretria send military aid to their kinsmen but the uprising is defeated. The Persian King Darius dispatches an expeditionary force to Greece, but is repelled at Marathon by the Athenians. Darius’ death in 486 B.C. ends the danger of a second invasion. For now!

The Persians previously sent ambassadors to Greece demanding earth and water, tokens of submission to their Great King. The Athenians readily agreed, but the terms are later rejected by their democratic assembly. The Spartans throw them down a well, saying there is earth and water there. The new King of Persia, Darius’ son, Xerxes will not forget these slights.

A new King, a new invasion

Xerxes arrives in Greece via the Bosphorus with an army of 100,000 – 150,000 causing Athens and Sparta to send a vanguard to the Vale of Tempe in northern Greece. The locals inform them of another route by which the Persians could come, and so they retreat.

They decide to make a stand south at the pass of Thermopylae. Sparta, celebrating the festival of Carneia cannot legally go to war for its duration and so sends King Leonidas and 300 Spartiates, with 1000 other soldiers. They are joined by 6500 allied Greeks.


The Greeks arrive and build a small wall in the narrow pass. Their fleet is anchored in the straits between the mainland and the island of Euboea to prevent the Persians from landing troops. A small mountainous path by which the position could likewise be overturned is guarded by a force of Phokians. Defences in place, they wait.

The Battle

First Xerxes sends a contingent of Medes and Cissians against them. After a day of struggle they are repelled with significant loss. The King’s guard of 10,000 Immortals under Hydarnes are then sent but the same fate befalls them. The narrow path and long Greek spears prove their undoing. The following day the Persians renew their attacks hoping for a battle of attrition where superior numbers will tell. However the Greeks hold firm.

(Map Courtesy of the Department of History, United States Military Academy)

The Traitor

A Greek from Malis, Ephialtes, reveals the existence of the mountain path and Hydarnes is dispatched, after dark, to turn the position. The Phokian defenders are pushed up the mountain and, as they prepare their defence, the Persians pass, heading for the Greek rear.

Leonidas hears of this and disbands the confederate army, sending them home. Only the Thespians stay with the King and his Spartiates to fight to the death.

The Final Defence

As the Persians close in on the small force, they move to a wider part of the pass. They fight ferociously against the Mede’s forward assault, breaking their spears and fighting with swords, fists and teeth. Leonidas is struck down and the battle rages over his body.

Soon Hydarnes arrives in their rear and the Greeks retreat to their previous position. They huddle on a hillock and fight ferociously on until they are finished off with arrows.  Xerxes later inspects the hill and upon the discovery of Leonidas’ body, has it beheaded and the grisly trophy displayed on a pike.

The Aftermath

Despite the Greek defeat it serves to harden resistance. They know they can take on the Persian army and resolve to continue the conflict. The main Spartan army had not yet seen battle. When they finally do a year later at Plataea the outcome is a decisive victory. Xerxes’ revenge lies in tatters.  Greek and thus western culture flourishes in the wake of victory. The sacrifice at Thermopylae is not to be forgotten.
John B. Knight