​The Battle of Thermopylae

Thermopylae Today

Thermopylae, which is Greek for the "Hot Gates", is a large pass between Lokris and Thessaly that runs between the mountains on one side and the gulf of Malia. It gets its name from the legend of Heracles, as it is where he jumped in the Spercheois river to wash off the poison from the Hydra. The poison made the river forever hot.

This was the site of one of the most famous battles in Greek history, where a small force of Greeks held off the might of the Persian Empire for three days. The Empire, having been held turned back from Greek soil once before, had since turned over its reign from Darius to his son, Xerxes. Thus Xerxes returned to try to finish his father's work.

Persian Army
Sources on the exact size of Xerxes' army are varied. For instance, Herodotus stated that there five million people, military and otherwise, that marched against Greece, an army so large it "drank the rivers dry". The poet Simonides also says that the number is close to four million. A third source, Ctesias, says that it was only 800,000. However, these sources are all Greek, thus modern day historians expect that these are all exaggerations. The most widely accepted figure these days is 250,000 men. This was a collection of sailor, horse and camel cavalry, infantry and archers from over 50 different ethnic groups ranging from Egypt to India. The majority of them were slaves, although Xerxes' personal bodyguard of 1,000 "Immortals" were all highly trained Persian citizens.

Greek Army
The Greek Phalanx

In contrast to the size of the Persian army, the Greek allied forces numbered just over 5.000
led by King Leonidas of Sparta and his 300 Spartan Soldiers. There may have been more, but Leonidas did not have the support of the Spartan Council, nor of the Oracles. The vast majority of the Greeks, including the Spartans, were Peloponnesians, even though Thermopylae is up in the mainland of Greece. They were exclusively infantry, lacking the range and mobility of the Persian troops, but making up for it with superior training, armor and tactics.

The main reason that they were able to hold off the Persians so effectively is the phalanx. The soldiers formed a shoulder to shoulder wall of shields and spears that spanned the entire width of the pass. When assaulted, the line was supported by soldiers from behind. As long as they were not flanked and the line remained unbroken, the defending army was nearly impossible to defeat.

The First Day of Battle
On the fifth day after Xerxes arrived at Thermopylae and the Greeks still refused to surrender, Xerxes ordered his soldiers into battle. Wave after wave of Persian forces charged the Greek line, but due to their inferior armor and shorter spears, they were ineffective against the battle line. The Greek forces were organized by their city states, and were rotated in and out of the front line. After seeing the effectiveness of the Greek forces against his lesser troops, Xerxes sent his Immortals into battle. However, despite their superiority over the rest of the Persian forces, they fared about the same as those before them. According to Herodotus, the Spartan soldiers feigned retreat in order to pull the Immortals deeper into the pass before turning around and killing them.

The Second Day of Battle
On the second day, after having been sorely defeated the previous day, Xerxes thought that the Greeks would be too weak and tired to be able to keep up the fighting in such a way. He ordered more waves of troops to charge into the pass. He was wrong, however, and no more headway was made on the second day than the first. However, that evening, he received his answer to defeating the Greeks. A traitor, named Ephialtes, told Xerxes about a path through the mountains that would lead them behind the Greek forces, allowing them to break through the phalanx and capture the pass. So Xerxes sent his commander Hydarnes with 20,000 men, including the remaining Immortals, through the pass.

The Third Day of Battle
Leonidas learned from a runner that the guards at the pass had been defeated, and that the Persians would soon outflank them. He held a council with the other leaders of the city-state armies. When he told them that he and his Spartans would remain to hold the pass, his only support came from Demophilus, along with his 700 Thespians as well as 400 Thebans. The reasons for Leonidas decided to say are unknown. Some say he was following Spartan law that he could not retreat. Others say he was following the words of the Oracle who said in order for Sparta to survive, he must himself die. A third theory was that he was sacrificing himself as a rearguard to allow the rest of the Greeks to survive their flight.

Knowing that they were trapped and doomed to die that day, the Greek forces charged against the advancing Persians, determined to kill as many as they could before they died themselves. Indeed, Leonidas died early on in the assault, as well as two of Xerxes' brothers, but his soldiers kept on fighting over his body. Once the Persians had surrounded the remaining Greeks, they ended the battle with a hail of arrows.

Plaque At Thermopylae

20,000 Persians were said to have died those three days, and only 2,000 Greeks. Outraged, Xerxes desecrated Leonidas' body and then marched his forces onward toward Greece. However, he never accomplished his goal of capturing Greece, being defeated in several key battles, such as Salamis and Plataea. In the end, he was forced to retreat back to Asia. When the Greeks regained Thermopylae, they buried their fallen comrades, a stone lion was raised to commemorate Leonidas, and a plaque was placed to commemorate his men. It says, in Greek, "Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here, according to their laws, we lie."
Thermopylae has become an iconic battle in modern culture, both for the prowess shown by the Greeks, as well as the standard that they set. In recent times, there have been movies made about the battle.

Archive of accounts of Thermopylae