A few stand against many. This was a war that inspired myths and legends throughout history. Democracy would live or die in this war. If the Persians can destroy Athens then Democracy will die in infancy.
The battle of the pass at Thermopylae is considered by historians to be the Alamo of the ancient world.
- Leonidas, one of the two kings of the Greek city/state of Sparta and leader of the land forces at the Thermopylae.
- Xerxes, King of Persia and leader of the Persian forces.
- Thermistocles, actual leader of the Athenian navy, Athenian politician and believed to be responsible for the author of the battle plan for both the land and sea forces.
- Herodotus, writer of the "Histories", first reporter of the battles between the Greeks and Xerxes, hired by Xerxes.
- Hoplites, heavy infantry of the Greeks.
- Immortals, heavy infantry of the Persians.
During the time of Xerxes' grandfather, Cyrus the Great, the Greek settlement of Ionia was conquered. The Greeks were allowed to keep their own gods, laws, and their way of life. They were even allowed to keep the same local governors. The only condition of the Persian King was to exact taxes from them. Ionians put up with this arrangement for a long time – but they were not happy.
Finally, in the time of Darius, Cyrus' grandson, the Ionians revolted. They called upon Athens for help. The Athenians sent troops, which was later looked on as the biggest mistake in their history. During the revolt the Ionian capital city of Cyrus was burned to the ground by the rebels. Within the city was a shrine to one of the Persian gods, angering the Persians even further. Darius vowed to revenge against Athens. He would have a servant come in at each meal and whisper in his ear "Sire, Remember Athens" before he took the first bite.
- Thermopylae: a pass between the sea and a sheer cliff of one side of Mount Kallidromos leading from Northern Greece to Southern Greece. Named for its' hot springs.
- Strait of Artemesium: a narrow strait through which Xerxes must sail his ships to outflank the land forces of the Greeks.
- Aphtae: camp of the Persian navy in the Strait of Artemesium.
- Euboeia: a small island in the Straits of Artemesium.
- Sparta: a Greek city/state, home of the 300 and King Leonidas, a militaristic city/state.
- Mount Kallidromos: a goat track leading to a very narrow pass around this mountain led to Thermopylae.
- Hellespont: the narrowest point in the Strait of Hellespont, one mile wide. It connects the Black Sea, the Sea of Marmara and the Aegean.
- Artemesium: camp of the Greek navy in the Strait of Artemesium.
- Athens: a Greek city/state usually in conflict with it's rival Sparta, considered by most to be the home of Democracy.
Darius sent a force of 30,000 to Greece but was defeated at Marathon by the Athenians. This makes it even more important to destroy Athens, a small no account city/state who had dared to defy the greatest empire of it's time; and worse still, has defeated Persian forces and built the Parthenon to commemorate the event. It now becomes an even greater cause for revenge against Athens. Darius saw the building of the Parthenon as the final straw. It showed the world the defeat of his Empire by a little country that was not even united. This could not be allowed.
The next ten years were important to both sides.
In Athens, most did not believe the Persians would return. However, a few were convinced they would. The most important of these was Thermistocles, an Athenian politician. He believed the Persian forces would come by sea as they had before at Marathon. He had witnessed the Persian Navy at Marathon and wanted to build up the Athenian navy. He faced great difficulties convincing the people. Finally in 483 b.c. he got lucky—the Athenians discovered silver in Lorenium.
Each citizen of Athens was to get 10 drachma from the silver find. Since Athens was a democracy, he had to convince the people to use the money for a navy instead of keeping it for themselves. He tells the great lie and convinces the people of Athens that Aegina, a small island off the coast, is a threat to their merchant navy. He managed to get 200 warships built.
In Persia, after 5 years of planning his revenge, Darius dies before he can finish his plans to invade again so it falls to his son Xerxes to gain their revenge and burn Athens to the ground. Xerxes spends a vast amount of wealth and another five years planning the defeat of Athens.
In 480 b.c.e., King Xerxes of Persia arrived in Northern Greece, with the goal of burning Athens to the ground. Ten years had been spent preparing for this. He has had his engineers build a pontoon bridge a mile long across Hellespont.
All this preparation didn't go unnoticed!
A Greek spy had seen the massing of the Persian army. Xerxes had amassed a force somewhere between 300,000 and 2.1 million (debated by historians), but it must have looked to the spy as if the entire world was amassing to attack Athens.
On hearing of Xerxes' plans, Athens called upon their allies for help but their calls are ignored. The allies feared Persian revenge. So, in desperation, Athens called on the other city states of Greece. For the first time in Greek history the city/states united and each sent some forces to aid Athens, although Sparta was not completely convinced that they should help. They decided to ask the Oracle of Delphi. They were not just a militaristic society, but were deeply religious as well.
Sparta was well known for its fighters. They were trained from the age of 7 to be the world's first professional soldiers. Each child had to be examined at birth by an elder to see if they had any defects or weaknesses. If they did, they were taken to a sacred spot on a mountain and left to die. Each person served the state, and no personal feelings were allowed to come before the good of the state.
The Oracle had told them that they must mourn the loss of a king who is descended from Heracles, or mourn all Sparta.
Leonides believed he was descended from Heracles and was willing to die for Sparta. The elders of Sparta decided to keep their main force in case of invasion, but allow Leonides to hand pick 300 men. He chose them from among those who had already fathered children and had proven themselves in battle. This way, the soldiers' bloodlines will continue if they die.
Leonides was voted by the representatives of all the city/states to lead the land forces.
Thermistocles, while not in direct command of the navy, is believed to have led the navy as well as to have been the author of the battle plan for both land and sea forces. He had extensive knowledge of the dangerous waters around Athens as did most Athenians.
It was decided that the land forces of about 7,000 troops, including Leonides and his 300 Spartans, would meet the Persian forces at the east end of the pass at Thermopylae. The pass was about 50 yards wide at the narrowest point. It had a sheer 1,500 foot cliff on one side and the sea on the other. It was the perfect choke point to meet an overwhelming force.
Thermistocles planed to meet Xerxes vast naval forces at another choke point in the Straits of Artemesium. His night camp was at Artemesium while the Persian naval camp was at Aphtae. Thermistocles and his 200 warships would face a Persian force that was 6 times as large as his.
Both forces used the best ships of the time, the Trimere, a light-weight ship built for speed. The Trimere had an open hull design with a few planks running down the center for the commander or marines to walk on. It was about 90 feet long and 18 feet wide. It was usually built of pine and carried 3 banks of oarsmen, a total of 170 to 220 people for each ship. The prow was made of hardwood. The Athenians used cedar and covered it in brass or copper to increase the effectiveness. The tactics of the day were to ram and sink.
Xerxes' engineers had built their pontoon bridge of about 700 old boats, side-by-side, covered with planks and cabled together. The cables were made of either heavy flax/linen or papyrus. The Egyptians had discovered a way to make cables and ropes from the pith of the papyrus. These cables were made in heavy sections, each weighting about 2 tons. The engineers anchored the boats together and then to each shore. They also anchored the bow and stern of each boat to the sea floor. The bridge was considered to be an engineering marvel of the time. This bridge would allow his land forces to save 2 years of marching, and multiple battles, through different territories. It was positioned at Hellespont, the narrowest point (1 mile across) of the Straits of Hellespont.
The Persian land forces took 3 months to march to Thermopylae. Xerxes sent his scouts ahead to get all of the details about the pass. He saw the pass as a place to destroy the Greek forces quickly.
Before the battle could begin, Xerxes sent a messenger to Leonides, offering to let him and his forces live if they lay down their weapons or join him. Leonides refused. The messenger is said to have told Leonides that the Persians would send enough arrows into the air to darken the sky. Dienekes, a lieutenant of Leonides answered "Well good, then we will fight in the shade." The messenger kept coming back with more and more messages which Leonides considered to be offensive so he finally kicked the messenger down a well and left him to die.
Herodotus, a writer paid by Xerxes to record his victories against the Athenians, is considered to be the first reporter of the battle of Thermopylae. He wrote the "Histories" about the battles.
Day one of the battle was at hand!
Xerxes was told by his advisors that once he overran the Greeks he would have a clear path to Athens. He thought that the battle would be over and done with quickly.
The two armies were about 100 yards apart. Xerxes ordered his 5,000 archers to fire. His archers brought their own bows which were made of date palm wood and were not known for their power. The Greeks, in their heavy armor with their Hoplon shields, were well prepared for this. It was almost impossible for the Greeks to be injured by these arrows unless they were hit in the eye.
Xerxes, sitting on top of a cliff overlooking the battle, saw this and sent in 30,000 of his light infantry. The Persians wore woven grass armor and carried swords. They were no match for the phalanx of the Greeks.
Each platoon of the Greeks in the phalanx had 8 men standing shoulder-to-shoulder with their shields overlapping. The front line men would use their dories (a 6-9 ft. hardwood pole with a leaf-shaped iron spearhead and an iron butt plate) to stab up under their shields while the second line would stab down with their dories over the shoulders of the front line.
The Persians were used to fighting tactically inferior tribes on the open plains, and using their cavalry to support the infantry. At Thermopylae, the cavalry could not be used. The Persians were not accustomed to facing well organized men with a prepared battle plan.
Xerxes lost about 10,000 men on the first day of the land battle. The Greeks lost about 300.
While waiting for the sea battle to begin, Xerxes saw another way to send some of his ships up behind Leonides and land troops to catch him in a pincer movement. He sent 200 ships to go around the island of Euboea in the Straits.
Day one of the sea battle
Thermistocles waited until late in the day and then put his ships into a circle formation and charged the Persians. The Persians were not expecting this. Thermistocles and his 200 ships charged the Persians, trying to disable them by ramming them or breaking the oars. His ships did great damage to the Persian navy with almost no damage to his forces. Xerxes lost over 100 ships before darkness fell and the navies retreated to their camps. The Athenians also captured 30 of his ships and took many prisoners.
A great storm came up that night and added to the misery of the Persians loses. It was seen as a very bad omen. The Persian ships sent around Euboea were all lost during the storm. This makes Xerxes and his forces wonder if the gods are against them.
Day two of the land battle dawned and Xerxes was determined to destroy Leonides and the Greeks. He sent in his heavy infantry called the "Immortals". They wear a tiara to hold a thin black cloth over their faces so they all look alike and have no faces. If one falls in battle another immediately takes his place. They wear thin scale armor and are silent in battle. Some even wonder if they had had their tongues cut out. This method usually had a terrorizing effect on any enemy. The Greeks, however, were not intimidated by these tactics and continued to yell, scream and beat their shields.
Again the armies faced off and again the Greek phalanx held. Xerxes lost another 10,000 men before nightfall and was horrified by the loses.
The sea battle goes no better for him. Again the Athenians won the day causing even more loses to his forces. He has now lost over 400 ships. He knows he must find a way to overcome the Greeks. His supplies are running low and he must get through to get more.
A traitorous Greek came to him and told him of another way around Thermopylae. It is a goat track, leading to another pass, which would take his forces behind Leonides and trap the Greeks between his two forces. He sent 10,000 men to follow the traitor.
Leonides had known about this other pass and had placed a group of troops called the Fotians to protect it. The Fotians heard that the Persians were going to attack their city, so they left the pass unprotected and went home to protect it. Leonides learned of this and knew he couldn't stop the Persians. He started sending his army out of Thermopylae in small groups, believing that if he could keep the Persians in the dark about the tactical retreat, he could hold them there and allow his army time to regroup and find another place to fight.
He, his 300 Spartans and 1,000 Thespians stayed to make a final stand.
They stripped down, washed their bodies, washed their hair, oiled themselves, combed out their long hair and prepared themselves for death. A Persian scout, seeing these preparations, told Xerxes of their strange behavior. Neither the scout or Xerxes understood the Greeks' behavior. They thought it was normal bath time. The scout did not notice the main Greek forces retreating.
Day three of the land battle was a telling one. Leonides and his forces moved out to a wider part of the pass and taunted the Persians into battle. They now faced the whole of the Persian army. The fighting was intense and the phalanx was finally broken. It came down to every man for himself. The Greeks were now fighting hand-to-hand with swords, daggers, rocks or whatever else they could find. Leonides fell early in the battle to a chance arrow and there was a battle over his body. The Greeks finally got his body and retreated back into the more narrow part of the pass. Finally, they were beaten down to only a small number left. They had lost most of their weapons and armor. Xerxes called his archers back and the last of the Greeks were slaughtered.
Xerxes walked the battlefield and when he came upon Leonides's body, he ordered it to be beheaded, and the head placed on a pole to be carried before his forces as they march on. He was again amazed and horrified by his loses. He had lost about 30,000 men in the Thermopylae pass.
At sea, Thermistocles learned of the fall of Thermopylae and decided to remove his ships rather than continue the battle. There was no point in staying to support the ground forces and he could save his navy to fight another day. He faced a Persian navy of about 600 ships. He had done a good job in holding the Persians, causing the loss of about 200 ships in battle and forcing the Persians to send to their death another 200 ships in the storm.
Herodotus wrote of the great valor and courage of the Greeks. He even went on to name several he considered to be the bravest and best. They were all Spartans.
Xerxes finally moved his forces through the Thermopylae pass. He would have only a two month march to Athens.
During that time, many of the other city/state forces either joined Xerxes to save their own territories or just laid down their weapons. Athenians, seeing what was happening, decided to consult the Oracle at Delphi. She told them to flee to the ends of the earth and that Zeus would give them a wooden wall, an invincible wall, to hide behind. Many Athenians believed that she meant the Acropolis but Thermistocles believed that she meant his navy of wooden ships. Those who stayed in the Acropolis were the only Greek casualties when Athens was burned to the ground by the Persians.
Most of the fleeing Athenians went to the Straits of Salamis. It was here that the Greek navy waited. It is believed a Greek double agent helped Thermistocles by telling the Persians where to find the Athenians and how "weak" they were. Xerxes wanted to wipe them out completely and, one month later, Thermistocles and his navy lured the Persians into a trap.
The Persians were broadsided and, after great loses, Xerxes had to order his navy to retreat or he would not have enough ships to get home.
Most historians believe that this was the beginning of the end for the great Persian Empire.
- Encyclopedia Brittanica
- History Channel