Battle of Thermopylae

Facts about Battle of Thermopylae

We found 31 facts about Battle of Thermopylae

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One of the most famous invasions in the history of the ancient world. In the narrow isthmus of Thermopylae, the proud Spartans put up a fierce resistance to the Persians, although they realized that their fight was doomed to defeat.

They paid the ultimate price but proved that sometimes you can win by losing. Their leader Leonidas, for centuries, became a symbol of heroism and valiant sacrifice in a no-win scenario.

Battle of Thermopylae
After the defeat suffered at the hands of the Greeks at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, the Persians began planning another expedition against the Greek city-states (polis).

Planning for another invasion was started by King Darius I, who this time decided to lead the expedition himself (in the lost battle of Marathon, the Persian army was commanded by Datis of Media and Artafernes - the brother of King Darius).

Darius I prepared for the expedition for three years.

He began to create a huge army and a navy. Under Persian law, which required the king to name a successor before embarking on an important expedition, he appointed his son Xerxes as his successor. Soon Darius’ health declined, and in October 486 BC he died.

Before his death, Darius gave Xerxes the task of punishing the Greeks, especially the Athenians, for their support of the Ionian uprising, and for defeating the Persians at Marathon.
Xerxes took power at the end of 486 BC.

He was encouraged to attack the Greek cities by the Pynastratids and the Thessalian Aleads. Initially, he had to deal with suppressing revolts in Egypt and Babylon, but from 484 BC he began preparations for an invasion. On the planned route for the passage of troops through Thrace and Macedonia, he ordered the placement of warehouses with supplies for the great army. He ordered the Athos peninsula to be dug up so that ships would not have to sail too far from land. Across the Hellespont Strait (the former name of the Dardanelles Strait formed from the name of the mythical Helle) he ordered a bridge to be thrown.

Xerxes ordered to tame the disobedient sea.

The first attempt to build a bridge made of papyrus and linen, due to a storm that tore away the ropes proved completely unsuccessful. According to legends, Xerxes ordered 300 lashes to be measured out to the sea and shackles to be thrown into the water to force the sea to obey. Only the second attempt to build a bridge (from ships) was successful.

According to Herodotus, the army led by Xerxes numbered five million two hundred and eighty-three thousand men – including a battle-worthy two million six hundred and forty thousand.

Such a large throng of people (as well as accompanying animals), even under today’s conditions, would be a logistically impossible task. Therefore, modern historians estimate the size of Xerxes’ army at 120.000-300.000 armed men (some allow the figure of 500.00). The army included soldiers of various nationalities-Assyrians, Phoenicians, Babylonians, and Indians. Egyptians, Jews, Arabs, and others. At least 10.000 of them were so-called “Immortal”-elite warriors who were also royal guards. Led by Xerxes, the fleet included 1207 triers (ships equipped with sails and three rows of oars) and 3000 transport ships. The army also had heavy cavalry and battle wagons.

The march of Xerxes’ army to Attica took five months.

Due to the mountainous terrain of Greece, despite the bridges built and the rushing of warriors with whips, the Persian land forces advanced very slowly. They reached Greece in 480 BC.

The slow march of the Persian army allowed the Greeks to organize their defenses.

Military leadership in the impending clash was taken by Sparta, which headed the Peloponnesian Union - a defensive alliance of city-states of the Peloponnese formed in the second half of the 6th century BC. Sparta began organizing resistance against the Persians.

King Leonidas of Sparta, who was in command of the defense, decided that the most suitable place for defense would be the Thermopylae Gorge.

The Thermopylae isthmus was located on the road to Athens, which ay only 190 kilometers to the south. On one side of the Thermopylae gorge was a steep and inaccessible rocky cliff, on the other side was the Aegean bay of Maliakos, which cut deep into the land. In the first narrowing, where the coastal road ran from Thessaly to Beotia and on to Athens, the isthmus was only 14 meters long. A stone wall was located there, which was further reinforced before the battle. Near the gate in the wall, the isthmus widened, but after passing about 1.5 kilometers, it narrowed to just two meters. It was at this point that the king of Sparta intended to give battle to the Persians. He knew that only in this way did his army have a chance to win over the much larger enemy army.

Xerxes decided to take this route because it was the shortest route leading to Athens, and it also offered the possibility of not being overly disconnected from the fleet at the same time. Although he could have bypassed Thermopylae and taken the route through the Kytinion Pass, but this route was longer and did not allow for the proximity of the fleet, moreover, it allowed the Greeks to organize ambushes.

The weak point in the defense was the mountain path that could be taken around the Thermopylae isthmus.

Leonidas knew that there was a path through the oak-covered slopes of the gorge that could be used to get around the defender’s positions. The Persians could not have known this path and the King of Sparta hoped that they would not discover it. However, as a precaution, he sent Phocians (1000 hoplites) there to undertake the defense of the path-they were to kill any scouts.

The Greek army totaled 7200 warriors.

According to Herodotus, the Greek army consisted of 300 Spartan hoplites and 1000 light-armed Perioeci, 500 hoplites from Mantinea, 500 from Thebes, 120 from Orchomenos in Arcadia, 1000 other Arcadians, 400 Corinthians, 200 hoplites from Phileus, 80 from Mycenae, 700 soldiers from Thessaly, 1000 from Malis, 1000 from Phocidae, 400 from Thebes, and “all” from Opuntian Locris.

At the head of the Greek army was Leonidas and his 300 bravest hoplites.

According to Herodotus, in selecting the 300 warriors, Leonidas paid attention to their degree of mastery of the craft of war, but also to the fact that each of them had a living male descendant. The Spartans were aware of the vast numerical superiority of the Persians and reckoned that many of them would be killed.

The backbone of the Greek army was the hoplites.

They were heavy-armed infantry. Hoplites wore armor made of bronze and distinctive helmets covering the entire head and neck, with slits for the eyes and mouth. Their legs from the knees to the ankles were protected by shin guards. For fighting they used a wooden spear ending in an iron spearhead and, in addition, a sword made of bronze or iron. For protection, they used a round wooden shield with a double handle, called a hoplon. The soldiers lined up in a tight formation, shoulder to shoulder so that the shield overlapped behind the shield covering the hoplite on the right.

The Persian army was predominantly light-armed infantry.

Soldiers were equipped with a simple long sword (akinakes), a short spear, and a bow, which, along with the arrows, was hidden in a gorytos (archery case). The Persians relied primarily on archers, so little attention was paid to armaments used for hand-to-hand combat. Shields were mainly made of reeds, which were combined with a piece of leather, which provided cover from arrows, bit not from cuts. Most Persian warriors had no armor, only tunics, which did not protect against enemy blows.

Shortly before the battle, Leonidas turned for a prophecy to the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi.

An oracle was called a sacred place where the gods, through the intermediary of priests, foretold the future, expressed their will, and advised on private and state matters. The Oracle at Delphi was famous throughout Greece - it was widely regarded as omphalos-the navel of the world. In the temple of Apollo at Delphi, the future was foretold by the Pythias-priestesses raised at the temple from childhood. The Pythia drank water from the sacred spring of Kassotis, then sat on a tripod set over a cleft and, inhaling the fumes emanating from the cleft, gave answers. The prophecy was treated as an oracle from Zeus revealed through Apollo.

When asked by Leonidas, Pythia replied that in the coming war either the king of Sparta would die or the entire country would be overrun by enemies.

The prophecy did not stop Leonidas from facing the Persians.

Xerxes quickly learned that the Greeks stood at Thermopylae.

He sent a single scout to inspect the Spartan encampment and, upon his return, gave an account of what he saw. Xerxes underestimated the small Greek army - the Persians were crushingly outnumbered-and paid no heed to the warnings of the exiled Spartan king Demaratos, who was in his camp and well aware of the fighting value of the Spartan hoplites. He called them the bravest men in the world.

Xerxes hoped that, seeing the might of the Persian army, the Spartans and their allies would flee.

He waited a few days, then sent messengers with a demand for surrender, i.e. a demand for “land and water.” The content of the answer Leonidas gave is not known, but he certainly refused. An attack by Persian infantry soon followed.

The exact date of the Battle of Thermopylae is not known.

Historians point to several dates for the battle: July 21-23, August 20, and September 8-10, 480 BC. However, most are inclined to the position that it was August 480 BC.

On Xerxes’ orders, the Medes and Elamite troops were the first to strike.

They were tasked with a frontal attack on the Greek positions. This first attack was bloodily repulsed by the Greeks. The Persians were unable to break through the phalanx line - they had to attack the Greeks from the front, leading the attack directly against the heavily positioned Greek phalanx. They could not attack from the wings, their cavalry had no way to charge. On subsequent attacks by the Persian army, the Greeks used the tactic of a sham retreat. When the Persians attacked, the hoplites would retreat and the Persian infantrymen would follow at full speed. Then the Greeks would make a rapid turn and strike at the surprised Persians, who additionally could not use archers because the troops were still in close quarters. The consequence was huge losses of Persian troops. At the end of the first day of fighting, Xerxes threw an elite unit of “Immortals” into battle, but they too were repulsed by the Hellenic hoplites.

On the second day of fighting, the Greek Ephialtes revealed to Xerxes that there was a mountain path that could be used to bypass the Greek positions and get to their rear.

Also on the following day, the narrow Thermopylae isthmus was getting in the way of the Persian army, which suffered further heavy losses. Despite their huge numerical advantage, the Persians gained nothing. When Xerxes began to wonder how further fighting at Thermopylae would affect the morale of his army, he was approached by Ephialtes, a Greek from Trachis, who, hoping for a lavish reward, revealed to him that there was a hidden path to bypass the Thermopylae isthmus and get to the rear of the Greeks.

On Xerxes’ orders, the “Immortals” detachment, under cover of darkness, set off along the path indicated by Ephialtes.

Information about the road, which allowed them to bypass the Thermopylae isthmus, created the possibility of closing the Greek army in a tick. From the Persian camp, the “Immortals” set out with Ephialtes as their guide. They were commanded by Hydarnes (sometimes called the Younger). At dawn, a column of Persian soldiers surprised the Phocians left to defend the path. After a short battle, the Phocians were pushed back to a nearby hill, and the “Immortals” marched swiftly toward the sea to attack the Greeks on the isthmus from behind.

On the morning of the third day of the battle, Leonidas learned from fugitives and scouts that the Persians had discovered a secret path.

The Persian army tightened the noose around the Greeks. The king of Sparta realized that by fighting the enemy from two sides, he would not be able to hold the gorge and that further resistance was hopeless.

Despite the encirclement, Leonidas remained on the battlefield, sending back most of his troops.

Based on Herodotus’ account, it can be surmised that Leonidas, realizing the hopeless situation of the Greek army and suspecting probably “that the allies were neither willing nor eager to share the danger, ordered them away, saying that it was not proper for himself to leave.” Some historians, however, suppose that Herodotus’ tale of seeing off the allies was meant to cover the fact that, seeing the hopelessness of further fighting, they simply fled.

Leonidas was left with 300 Spartans, 700 Thespians, 400 Thebans, and the only civilian participating in the battle-the fortune-teller from Akarnania Megistias.

Leonidas ordered his soldiers to fight to the end.

According to the account of Plutarch (one of the greatest writers of ancient Greece, philosopher, historian, orator), Leonidas ordered his soldiers to eat a nutritious breakfast because they would “supper in Hades.” He then led his warriors to the narrowest part of the gorge, where they waited for the Persians to attack. He knew he was undertaking a suicidal mission, but decided to delay the Persians; march toward Attica until the last moment. As the Persians prepared for their final assault, the Spartans hit them unexpectedly. They attacked with fury, breaking through successive enemy ranks. When word came that the “Immortals” were approaching from behind, the surviving hoplites retreated to the hilltop of Kolonos and there fought to the last soldier. Among the fallen was also Leonidas, who fought shoulder to shoulder-with the soldiers.

On Xerxes’ orders, Leonidas’ body was desecrated-decapitated and then crucified.

Leonidas’ guards tightly surrounded his body, but the soldiers were too few and no longer had the strength to counterattack, they were killed by arrows and spears. Leonidas’ place of death was covered with Spartan cloaks.

According to Herodotus, of the 300 Spartans who fought at Thermopylae, two did not take part in the battle due to violent eye pain.

After returning to Sparta, one of them hanged himself (“effeminate, this he suffered: none of the Spartans lit a fire for him or spoke to him, and for disgrace, he was called a coward”), and the other, wanting to regain his good name, in 379 BC participated in the battle of Plataea, in which he died showing his bravery.

In the Battle of Thermopylae, 4000 Greeks and 20.000 Persians were killed.

During the battle, 400 Thebans went over to the side of the enemy, reminding Xerxes that their city had paid tribute to Persia-they were branded with the “royal mark” on Xerxes’ orders.

The battle of Thermopylae had little impact on the fate of the war.

The Spartans lost, but dealt a big blow to Xerxes, showing their strength, boosting the morale of the Greeks, and giving the coalition time to save their fleet, which was victorious over the Persian fleet in the Straits of Salamina. The Persians had to withdraw from Attica, and the Greeks, under the command of the new Spartan king Pausanias, won a victory over the Persian commander Mardonius at the Battle of Plataea in Beotia.

The Battle of Thermopylae Gorge has gone down in history as a symbol of sacrifice, a symbol of extraordinary valor and courage.
According to Herodotus’ account, after the battle, the Greeks erected a lion-shaped stone monument to the fallen heroes, as well as three stelae with mournful epigrams dedicated to Leonidas, Megistias (the only civilian participant in the battle), and the other fallen.
Today, in the Thermopylae ravine, the barrow where the Spartans were buried has a stone tablet engraved with an inscription by the Greek poet Symonides: “Go tell the Spartans, thou who passest by, That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.”

Along the road near Thermopylae stands a monument to King Leonidas commemorating his role in world history.

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