On this day in 480 BC it is possible that the Battle of Thermopylae was fought between an alliance of Greek city-states, led by King Leonidas of Sparta, and the Persian Empire of Xerxes I. September 8th to 10th are also considered to be strong possibilities for the date of the battle. The fighting took place at the narrow coastal pass of Thermopylae ("The Hot Gates"), where the Greeks were able to hold a numerically superior Persian army for three days, before the rear-guard of 300 Spartans, 700 Thespians and possibly 400 Thebans where annihilated. The battle is held as an example of how good training, equipment, and use terrain can overcome much larger opponents has become a symbol of courage against overwhelming odds.
In early 480 BC, following years of preparation, a huge Persian army under Xerxes I invaded Greece. According to Herodotus, Xerxes' army was so large that, upon arriving at the banks of the Echeidorus River, his soldiers proceeded to drink it dry. The invasion had come in response to Athens and Eretriae encouraging an unsuccessful Ionian Revolt against the Persian Empire of Darius I in 499–494 BC. Darius had died in 486 BC and so the task had past to his son, Xerxes. The Persians not only sought revenge, but saw an opportunity to expand the empire into the fractious world of Ancient Greece.
he Persian army seems to have made slow progress and news of the invasion reached Greece in August. At this time of year the Spartans, de facto military leaders of the alliance, were celebrating the festival of Carneia. During the Carneia, military activity was forbidden by Spartan law. However, on this occasion, the ephors decided the urgency was sufficiently great to justify an advance expedition to block the pass. Leonidas I took with him the 300 men of the royal bodyguard, the Hippeis. This expedition was to try to gather as many other Greek soldiers along the way as possible and to await the arrival of the main Spartan army.
The Spartan force was reinforced en route to Thermopylae by contingents from various cities and numbered more than 7,000 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 that could be used to outflank the pass of Thermopylae. Leonidas stationed 1,000 Phocians on the heights to prevent such a manoeuvre.
The Persians likely arrived at the Pass around mid-August and Xerxes sent a Persian emissary to negotiate with Leonidas. The Greeks however refused the terms and when they were asked to hand over their arms, Leonidas' is said to have responded "Molṑn labé", usually translated as "come and take them". A fight was now inevitable. though Xerxes delayed for four days to give the Greeks the opportunity to disperse.
The number of troops which Xerxes had at his disposal been the subject of endless dispute. Herodotus claimed that there were, in total, 2.6 million military personnel, accompanied by an equivalent number of support personnel while the poet Simonides, who was a near-contemporary, talks of four million. Modern scholars tend to reject the figures given by Herodotus and other ancient sources as unrealistic, resulting from miscalculations or exaggerations on the part of the victors. Modern scholarly estimates are generally in the range 120,000–300,000. Opposing them, it is estimated that there were around 7,000 Greeks.
The terrain of the battlefield was nothing that Xerxes and his forces were accustomed to. The pure ruggedness of this area is caused by torrential downpours for four months of the year, combined with an intense summer season of scorching heat that cracks the ground. Vegetation is scarce and consists of low, thorny shrubs. The hillsides along the pass are covered in thick brush, with some plants reaching 10 feet high. With the sea on one side and steep, impassable hills on the other, King Leonidas and his men chose the perfect topographical position to battle the Persians. By defending a constricted passage, the Greeks' inferior numbers became less problematic and providing they could maintain that position, removed the need to seek a decisive battle. Conversely, for the Persians the problem of supplying such a large army meant they could not remain in the same place for very long. The Persians, therefore, had to retreat or advance, and advancing required forcing the pass of Thermopylae.
The battle began on the fifth day after the Persian arrival at Thermopylae. It opened with 5,000 Persian archers firing a barrage of arrows into the pass, though this proved ineffective as the bronze shields and helmets of the Greeks proved a sufficient defence. Persians soon launched a frontal assault, in waves of around 10,000 men, on the Greek position. The Greeks stood at the narrowest point in the pass, probably in phalanx formation. By doing so they were able to hold the Persians at a distance, preventing the weaker shields, and shorter spears and swords of the Persians from effectively engaging. According to Ctesias, the first wave was "cut to ribbons", with only two or three Spartans killed in return.
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. However, the Immortals fared no better than the Medes, and failed to make any headway against the Greeks.The Spartans apparently used a tactic of feigning retreat, and then turning and killing the enemy troops when they ran after them. So ended the first day.
The Persians fared no better on the second day and at its end Xerxes stopped the assault and withdrew to his camp, "totally perplexed”. Later that day, however, as the Persian king was pondering what to do next, he received a windfall; a Trachinian named Ephialtes informed him of the mountain path around Thermopylae and offered to guide the Persian army. That evening, Xerxes sent his commander Hydarnes with around 20,000 men to encircle the Greeks via the path.
At daybreak on the third day, the Phocians guarding the path above Thermopylae became aware of the outflanking Persian column by the rustling of oak leaves. The Phocians retreated to a nearby hill to make their stand but, not wishing to be delayed, the Persians merely shot a volley of arrows at them, before bypassing them to continue with their encirclement of the main Greek force.
Learning from a runner that the Phocians had not held the path, Leonidas called a council of war at dawn. Some of the Greeks argued for withdrawal, but Leonidas resolved to stay at the pass with the Spartans. Upon discovering that his army had been encircled, Leonidas told his allies that they could leave if they wanted to. While many of the Greeks took him up on his offer and fled, around two thousand soldiers stayed behind to fight a rear-guard action, in which they would probably die. Knowing that the end was near, the Greeks marched into the open field and met the Persians head-on. Many of the Greek contingents then either chose to withdraw or were ordered to leave by Leonidas. The contingent of 700 Thespians, led by their general Demophilus, refused to leave and committed themselves to the fight. Also present were the 400 Thebans and probably the helots who had accompanied the Spartans.
At dawn the Persians took up the fight once more. A Persian force of 10,000 men, comprising light infantry and cavalry, charged at the front of the Greek formation. 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 their short swords.] In this struggle, Herodotus states that two of Xerxes' brothers fell: Abrocomes and Hyperanthes. Leonidas also died in the assault, shot down by Persian archers, and the two sides fought over his body; the Greeks took possession. As the Immortals approached from the rear, the Greeks withdrew and took a stand on a hill behind the wall. Herodotus wrote:
"Here they defended themselves to the last, those who still had swords using them, and the others resisting with their hands and teeth”.
The pass at Thermopylae was thus opened to the Persian army, according to Herodotus, at the cost to the Persians of up to 20,000 fatalities. The Greeks on the other hand, lost in total around 2,000. The Persians proceeded into Greece, sacking and burning Plataea and Thespiae, before marching on the now evacuated city of Athens. The Greeks prepared to make a stand at the Isthmus of Corinth, aiming to replicate the strategy used at Thermopylae. To do this they also had to prepare an effective naval blockade to prevent an amphibious landing. However, instead of a mere blockade, Themistocles persuaded the Greeks to seek a decisive victory against the Persian fleet. Luring the Persian navy into the Straits of Salamis, the Greek fleet was able to destroy much of the Persian fleet in the Battle of Salamis, which essentially ended the threat to the Peloponnese.
Fearing the Greeks might attack the bridges across the Hellespont and trap his army in Europe, Xerxes now retreated with much of the Persian army back to Asia, though nearly all of them died of starvation and disease on the return voyage. He left a hand-picked force, under Mardonius, to complete the conquest the following year. However, under pressure from the Athenians, the Peloponnesians eventually agreed to try to force Mardonius to battle, and they marched on Attica. Mardonius retreated to Boeotia to lure the Greeks into open terrain, and the two sides eventually met near the city of Plataea. At the Battle of Plataea, the Greek army won a decisive victory, destroying much of the Persian army and ending the invasion of Greece. Meanwhile, at the near-simultaneous naval Battle of Mycale, they also destroyed much of the remaining Persian fleet, thereby reducing the threat of further invasions.
This scene was built by Simon Piackard as part of a series of models on world history. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see them first.
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