The Greatest Battles in History: The Battle of Thermopylae

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He needed to feed and water not just the warriors but a host of camp followers, cavalry mounts and baggage animals — plus an immense and lavish royal retinue. So, he was under pressure. The Greeks were heavily outnumbered. But the tight space meant that the Persians could not use their vast numbers to crush them.

Battle of Thermopylae | Date, Location, and Facts |

And they could not use the tactics that had made them masters of the world from the Aegean to the Indus: breaking the enemy with volley after volley of arrows from a distance, before moving in to annihilate them. Worse still, the sheer numbers of the Persian force counted against them, since in this confined space they were at constant risk of being crushed by their own side.

For two days, Xerxes threw division after division into the pass. But there were paths through the hills, and one in particular led along the mountain overlooking the pass to a point behind the Greek lines.

Alerted to the path by a local Greek, at dusk on the second day Xerxes sent his Immortals to prepare to outflank the Greeks on the morning of day three. When Leonidas learned of the encirclement early on the third day, he called a meeting. They still had time to withdraw, but Leonidas and what was left of his Spartans insisted on staying. So, too, did the contingent of from the ancient Greek city of Thespiae. Since their city in the nearby region of Boeotia was in the path of any Persian advance, they had good reason to lay down their lives. Four hundred Thebans also stayed only to desert at the end.

The rest of the Greek force chose to leave. The historian Herodotus, keen to lionise Leonidas, tells us that the leader sent the allies away to spare their lives and win immortal glory. The Persians unlike the Greeks had cavalry , which could overtake and destroy the retreating forces.

To buy time for the retreating troops, Leonidas needed a rear-guard to hold back the Persians — and die, if necessary.


The rear-guard held their own, despite losing their commander Leonidas amidst brutal, drawn-out fighting. But then the Immortals arrived, and the Greeks had to retreat to a low hill. The vicious hand-to-hand fighting had broken their spears and swords, but they fought on with daggers, hands and teeth until the Persians tired of unnecessary losses and shot them down with arrow volleys.

Arrowheads of Anatolian design have been found in large numbers on the hill by modern archaeologists.

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Thermopylae was a Greek defeat. The rear-guard was annihilated and the Persians rolled on to occupy central Greece. But Thermopylae did — crucially — prove that the Persian war machine could be stopped. It also tested the Greek strategy of using confined space to neutralise Persian numbers, a strategy that later proved devastatingly effective when the Greeks destroyed the Persian fleet in the narrow strait of Salamis just a month or so later.

Win or lose, the battle achieved mythic status almost at once, like the British retreat at Dunkirk in , or the massacre of the defenders at the Alamo mission in Texas in The Spartans were a minority of the defending force — not just in the army but even in the last stand — but the clash became the battle of the Spartan , not the Greek 7,, in popular imagination. In the fifth century BC, Herodotus recounts how Xerxes before Thermopylae asked the exiled Spartan king Damaratus how free Greeks could stand against him without being forced to fight under the lash.

Damaratus replied that the Spartans, though free, have a master whom they fear more than the Persians: their king and the law, which tells them not to retreat, but to stand and die. It was Thermopylae that created the myth that Spartans always win or die. One such story is that of Aristodemus, who was one of two Spartans invalided out of the battle due to an eye infection.

His comrade, Eurytus, was blinded —but he returned to the battle to fight and die. Aristodemus, meanwhile, went home. He was ostracised and his life was made so unbearable that he preferred to die as a berserker fighting against the Persians a year later. The Spartans still refused to forgive him, even then. The message was clear: no second chances in Sparta. Most strikingly, later sources present the whole campaign as a suicide expedition, having Leonidas tell the authorities at Sparta before the battle that his real goal is to die for Greece.

13. Battle of Thermopylae (480 BC)

But 7, seems a large force to send out just to die for no strategic goal. Certainly, those who left on the third day did not think they had joined a suicide squad. Thermopylae became the archetype for the courageous last stand. Interestingly, as with many Greek customs, there might have been a practical side underneath this seemingly religious veneer. To that end, the songs and their tunes kept the marching line in order, which entailed a major battlefield tactic — since Greek warfare generally involved closing in with the enemy with a solid, unbroken line.

This incredible auditory scope ended in a crescendo with the collective yet sacred war-cry of paean , a military custom that was Dorian in origin. And while the Greeks had their hoplites, the Persians had their archers — with the bow being the national arm of the ancient Achaemenid Empire. As a matter of fact, even some of the regular infantrymen, armed with short spears and double-edged daggers, carried their bows and a fair share of arrows in a gorytos , a case that housed both the weapon and the projectiles.

As for the dedicated Persian archers, they probably carried composite bows that were rather large by contemporary standards. According to Xenophon, the Persian archers even outranged the Cretans, who were considered as specialists in archery from the Greek domain. And beyond just the bow itself, much of the improved shooting probably had to do with the better archery techniques and the lighter arrows preferred by the Persians. And thus many of the Achaemenid Great Kings could boast how he could conquer Greece with his archers, with a possible pun in the offering.

The decimal system was also upheld when ten such regiments were combined to form a division baivarabam of 10, men. In other words, the casualties in this elite division might have been replaced as soon as possible from the best candidates from other Persian baivarabam. This corps was known as the Immortals, because it was invariably kept up to strength; if a man was killed or fell sick, the vacancy he left was at once filled, so that the total strength of the corps was never less — and never more — than ten thousand. Of all the troops in Persian army, the native Persians were not only the best but also the most magnificently equipped; their dress and armor I have mentioned already, but I should add that every man glittered with the gold which he carried about his person in unlimited quantity.

Greco-Persian Wars: Battle of Thermopylae

They were accompanied, moreover, by covered carriages full of their women and servants, all elaborately fitted out. Special food, separate from that of the rest of the army, was brought along for them on dromedaries and mules. The dress of these troops consisted of the tiara, or soft felt cap, embroidered tunic with sleeves, a coat of mail looking like the scales of a fish, and trousers; for arms they carried light wicker shields, quivers slung below them, short spears, powerful bows with cane arrows, and short swords swinging from belts beside the right thigh.

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As a matter of fact, such elite divisions tended to flaunt their vibrant and ritzy uniforms and armaments — as is evident from their accounts of carrying spears with golden pomegranates, silver pomegranates, and even golden apples. The most popular misconception about the Battle of Thermopylae probably relates to the numbers fielded in the battle.

In fact, in many corners of popular culture, the encounter is often depicted as Spartans aided by their rag-tag group of allies versus over a million Persians. These numbers, however, are without a shred of doubt exaggerations based on flawed historical accounts, modern-day pop culture sensationalism and of course romanticism. In fact, during the period circa BC , Sparta alone could have fielded over 8, of its free adult citizens as hoplites.

But historically they could not bring forth their entire army at the Battle of Thermopylae due to religious observances like the feast of Apollo Karneia and the Panhellenic Olympic Games.

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This brings us to the question — how many men did each side have in this incredible encounter? Well interestingly enough, Herodotus — the man who claimed that the Persian forces numbered over a million troops, clarified how the Greek side at least had 5, men as opposed to only Spartans. The figure included the over thousand perioikoi the free yet non-citizens of Sparta , Mantineans, Tegeans, Arcadians, Corinthians, Thespians and even Thebans who probably numbered over , along with groups of other Peloponnesians.

Modern historians also add the helots to this array of forces, thus bringing the total number of Greeks probably over 7, men. The Persians on the other hand, while undoubtedly having their numerical superiority, would have had logistical constraints to even field half-a-million men, considering the size of their fleet. To that end, modern scholarship suggests that the Persians could have carried forth around , men in their 1, triremes — but only a percentage of them were actual soldiers, with others serving the duties of oarsmen, baggage carriers, and camp followers.

To summarize, the plausible figure range for the Persian army at the Battle of Thermopylae was somewhere between 80, — , men. Another popular misconception though more valid about the Battle of Thermopylae relates to how Leonidas made his last stand in the encounter. And while the Greek forces were busy repairing the makeshift fortification, Leonidas also took heed of many of the flanking routes that bypassed the gates. One of these treacherous pathways, known as the Anopaia path, was actually guarded by around 1, Phokian hoplites under the directive of the Spartan king.

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  • It is no hidden secret that the sheer level of training and high morale of the Spartans allowed to them to be steadfast in the face of an overwhelming Persian force in the first day of the Battle of Thermopylae. And Herodotus, while being vague on casualty figures, talked about how the longer spears of the Greeks were actually better suited to the task of engaging the enemy than the shorter spears of the Persian infantrymen. We are also told that the Greeks fought in relays, with contingents allowed to take a break from the front-line — thus making the defense more effective with fresher batches of men.

    In many ways, their army was the closest to what can be termed as a professional military force in the contemporary ancient world. To that end, an often overlooked ploy in the Battle of Thermopylae related to how the Spartans not only held their positions but also made organized retreats, to lure the Persians into tighter terrains. And once a large enemy force was cut off from the main body, the Greeks turned around and used their superior melee skills along with the element of surprise to destroy them in a piecemeal fashion.

    Phokians surprised by the approaching Persians. Artwork by Steve Noon for Osprey Publishing.

    The second day of the Battle of Thermopylae also played out in a similar fashion like its previous day, with the Persians unable to make any significant breakthrough. But as we fleetingly mentioned before, once again contrary to popular notions, Leonidas was already aware of the existence of such a path.