Thermopylae: The Battle For The West

Thermopylae: The Battle For The West

Thermopylae: The Battle for the West is an exciting, non-fiction book on the Greco-Persian Wars that carries the feel of fiction. Ernle Bradford brings ancient battles to life through his extensive military experience. This book is highly recommended for general audiences interested in the true version of the Battle of Thermopylae and Leonidas' 300 Spartans. It is concise, entertaining, and filled with context for not only the combat but also Ancient Greek culture as a whole.

Ernle Bradford’s Thermopylae: The Battle for the West is an exciting book for general enthusiasts of ancient history. This speedy read does not strictly focus on the Battle of Thermopylae (480 BCE), where Leonidas and the 300 Spartans held off Xerxes I, but rather provides the context for this battle by overviewing the Greco-Persian Wars. Bradford begins by describing how Xerxes’ predecessors laid the foundations for his Greek campaign. The story evolves past the Battle of Thermopylae to the decisive battles of Salamis and Plataea. To discuss the full extent of the Persian invasions, Bradford elaborates on the shifts of power to the West in Sicily. Bradford achieves his extensive coverage by omitting details that often intimidate the general enthusiast. The result is a highly entertaining read.

Ernle Bradford was a 20th-century CE British historian and WWII veteran with a passion for naval warfare. He has written many books surrounding maritime battles, focusing on the Mediterranean across thousands of years. Bradford imbues all of his pieces with his own experiences and skill for storytelling. While Thermopylae is military history, Bradford’s style embellishes the genre with plentiful context for those less familiar with Ancient Greece. Readers not only learn about the battle strategies employed by the Greeks and Persians but also become immersed in the culture of the time as well. Bradford understands that one cannot learn Leonidas and the 300 without a grasp on who the Spartans were as people, how they differed from the Athenians, and even more from the Persians of the Achaemenid Empire. This is where Bradford excels. Unlike many other comprehensive works on the Greco-Persian Wars, Bradford’s book is told chronologically and with narrative flair so that the reader sometimes forgets they have not picked up a novel.

Although Bradford’s ability to make connections between ancient & modern warfare is intrinsic to his military genre, it hinders his interpretation of character.

Bradford also enriches his work with his seasoned experience fighting in the Mediterranean Sea as a lieutenant during WWII. He has a firsthand understanding of Grecian geography, seasonal sailing conditions, and the importance of timing and placement in an attack. Readers may acquire the sense that the author understands the grave significance of these details from his own personal wisdom. As the 2004 CE edition includes six maps, readers are able to trace the Persian campaign across Greece and conceptualize the layout of individual battles. Bradford’s work underscores the fact that spatial understanding was one of the most vital determinants of military success in the ancient world.

Although Bradford’s ability to make connections between ancient and modern warfare is intrinsic to his military genre, it hinders his interpretation of character. Bradford is far from the biased, ancient historians like Herodotus that drive modern knowledge of Ancient Persia. He is skeptical of not only Herodotus’ military numbers but also of Herodotus’ personal interpretations of the “tyrannical” Persians. Bradford dismisses Herodotus’ xenophobia about Persia but falls into another trap of encapsulating the Greek personality. He incorporates modern perceptions into his dialogue that often ring of anachronism. Readers should therefore accept his interpretations of the Greek spirit with skepticism.

Overall, Thermopylae: The Battle for the West is an excellent introduction for anyone intrigued by the Greco-Persian Wars. While a passion for military or ancient history may serve as a healthy prerequisite, the text’s clarity and conciseness will not confuse a casual reader. Bradford’s work is a colorful narrative depiction of Xerxes’ invasion that blends the drama of fiction with the careful analysis of non-fiction, leaving a long-lasting impression on the reader.


Thermopylae ( / θ ər ˈ m ɒ p ɪ l iː / Ancient Greek and Katharevousa: Θερμοπύλαι (Thermopylai) [tʰermopýlai] , Demotic Greek (Greek): Θερμοπύλες , (Thermopyles) [θermoˈpiles] "hot gates") is a place in Greece where a narrow coastal passage existed in antiquity. It derives its name from its hot sulphur springs. [1] The Hot Gates is "the place of hot springs" and in Greek mythology it is the cavernous entrances to Hades. [2]

Thermopylae is world-famous for the battle that took place there between the Greek forces (notably the Spartans, Lachedemonians, Thebans and Thespians) and the invading Persian forces, commemorated by Simonides in the famous epitaph, "Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, That here obedient to their laws we lie." Thermopylae is the only land route large enough to bear any significant traffic between Lokris and Thessaly. This passage from north to south along the east coast of the Balkan peninsula requires use of the pass and for this reason Thermopylae has been the site of several battles.

In ancient times it was called Malis which was named after the Malians (Ancient Greek: Μαλιεῖς ), a Greek tribe that lived near present-day Lamia at the delta of the river, Spercheios in Greece. The Malian Gulf is also named after them. In the western valley of the Spercheios their land was adjacent to the Aenianes. Their main town was named Trachis. In the town of Anthela, the Malians had an important temple of Demeter, an early center of the Anthelan Amphictiony.

The land is dominated by the coastal floodplain of the Spercheios River and is surrounded by sloping forested limestone mountains. There is continuous deposition of sediment from the river and travertine deposits from the hot springs which has substantially altered the landscape during the past few thousand years. The land surface on which the famous Battle of Thermopylae was fought in 480 BC is now buried under 20 metres (66 ft) of soil. The shoreline has also advanced over the centuries because of the sedimentary deposition. The level of the Malian Gulf was also significantly higher during prehistoric times and the Spercheios River was significantly shorter. Its shoreline advanced by up to 2 kilometers between 2500 BC and 480 BC but still has left several extremely narrow passages between the sea and the mountains. The narrowest point on the plain, where the Battle of Thermopylae was probably fought, would have been less than 100 metres (330 ft) wide. Between 480 BC and the 21st century, the shoreline advanced by as much as 9 km (5.6 mi) in places, eliminating the narrowest points of the pass and considerably increasing the size of the plain around the outlet of the Spercheios. [3]

A main highway now splits the pass, with a modern-day monument to King Leonidas I of Sparta on the east side of the highway. It is directly across the road from the hill where Simonides of Ceos's epitaph to the fallen is engraved in stone at the top. Thermopylae is part of the infamous "horseshoe of Maliakos" also known as the "horseshoe of death": it is the narrowest part of the highway connecting the north and the south of Greece. It has many turns and has been the site of many vehicular accidents.

The hot springs from which the pass derives its name still exists close to the foot of the hill.

The Truth

Although there were 300 Spartans present at the defense of Thermopylae, there were at least 4,000 allies involved on the first two days and 1,500 men involved in the fatal last stand. Still a tiny figure compared to the forces against them—there is evidence that the vast Persian army has been vastly exaggerated—but more than the legend, which forgets some contributors. Modern militaries have fetishized the Spartans, who murdered enslaved people, and used the myth of the 300 as a central prop.

Battle of Thermopylae

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Battle of Thermopylae, (480 bce ), battle in central Greece at the mountain pass of Thermopylae during the Persian Wars. The Greek forces, mostly Spartan, were led by Leonidas. After three days of holding their own against the Persian king Xerxes I and his vast southward-advancing army, the Greeks were betrayed, and the Persians were able to outflank them. Sending the main army in retreat, Leonidas and a small contingent remained behind to resist the advance and were defeated.

The Battle of Thermopylae’s political origins can be traced back to Xerxes’ predecessor, Darius I (the Great), who sent heralds to Greek cities in 491 bce in the hopes of persuading them to accept Persian authority. This offended the proud Greeks greatly the Athenians went so far as to toss the Persian heralds into a pit, while the Spartans followed suit and tossed them into a well. In 480 bce Xerxes invaded Greece as a continuation of Darius’s original plan. He began the same way his predecessor had: he sent heralds to Greek cities—but he skipped over Athens and Sparta because of their previous responses. Many Greek city-states either joined Xerxes or remained neutral, while Athens and Sparta led the resistance with a number of other city-states behind them. Before invading, Xerxes implored the Spartan king Leonidas to surrender his arms. Leonidas famously replied, “Come and take them” (“Molon labe”). Xerxes intended to do just that and thus moved toward Thermopylae.

Xerxes led a vast army overland from the Dardanelles, accompanied by a substantial fleet moving along the coast. His forces quickly seized northern Greece and began moving south. The Greek resistance tried to halt Persian progress on land at the narrow pass of Thermopylae and at sea nearby in the straits of Artemisium. The Greek army was led by Leonidas, who was estimated to have had around 7,000 men. Xerxes, on the other hand, had anywhere from 70,000 to 300,000. Despite the disparity in numbers, the Greeks were able to maintain their position. Their strategy involved holding a line only a few dozen yards long between a steep hillside and the sea. This constricted the battlefield and prevented the Persians from utilizing their vast numbers. For two days the Greeks defended against Persian attacks and suffered light losses as they imposed heavy casualties on the Persian army. Only when the Greeks were betrayed did the battle take a detrimental turn for them. Ephialtes, a Greek citizen desiring reward, informed Xerxes of a path that went around Thermopylae, thus rendering the Greeks’ line useless in preventing forward advancement of the Persian army.

Xerxes took advantage of this betrayal and sent part of his army along this path, led by Ephialtes himself. After reaching the other side, the Persians attacked and destroyed a portion of the Greek army. This forced Leonidas to call a war council, at which it was decided that retreating was the best option. However, as the majority of the Greek army retreated, Leonidas, his 300 bodyguards, some helots (people enslaved by the Spartans), and 1,100 Boeotians remained behind, supposedly because retreating would defy Spartan law and custom. They held their ground against the Persians but were quickly defeated by the vast enemy army, and many (if not all sources differ) were killed, including Leonidas. News of this defeat reached the troops at Artemisium, and Greek forces there retreated as well. The Persian victory at Thermopylae allowed for Xerxes’ passage into southern Greece, which expanded the Persian empire even further.

Today the Battle of Thermopylae is celebrated as an example of heroic persistence against seemingly impossible odds. Soon after the battle, the Greeks built a stone lion in honour of those who had died and specifically for the fallen king Leonidas. In 1955 a statue of Leonidas was erected by King Paul of Greece in commemoration of his and his troops’ bravery. The Battle of Thermopylae also served as the inspiration for the film 300 (2006).


The primary source for the Greco-Persian Wars is the Greek historian Herodotus. The Sicilian historian Diodorus Siculus, writing in the 1st century BC in his Bibliotheca historica, also provides an account of the Greco-Persian wars, partially derived from the earlier Greek historian Ephorus. This account is fairly consistent with Herodotus' writings. [14] The Greco-Persian Wars, are also described in less detail by a number of other ancient historians including Plutarch, Ctesias of Cnidus, and are referred to by other authors, as in Aeschylus in The Persians.

Archaeological evidence, such as the Serpent Column (now in the Hippodrome of Constantinople), also supports some of Herodotus' specific claims. [15] George B. Grundy was the first modern historian to do a thorough topographical survey of the narrow pass at Thermopylae, and to the extent that modern accounts of the battle differ from Herodotus' where they usually follow Grundy's. [16] For example, the military strategist Sir Basil Henry Liddell Hart defers to Grundy. [17] Grundy also explored Plataea and wrote a treatise on that battle. [18]

On the Battle of Thermopylae itself, two principal sources, Herodotus' and Simonides' accounts, survive. [19] In fact, Herodotus' account of the battle, in Book VII of his Histories, is such an important source that Paul Cartledge wrote: "we either write a history of Thermopylae with [Herodotus], or not at all". [20] Also surviving is an epitome of the account of Ctesias, by the eighth-century Byzantine Photios, though this is "almost worse than useless", [21] missing key events in the battle such as the betrayal of Ephialtes, and the account of Diodorus Siculus in his Universal History. Diodorus' account seems to have been based on that of Ephorus and contains one significant deviation from Herodotus' account: a supposed night attack against the Persian camp, of which modern scholars have tended to be skeptical. [22] [23]

The Greek city-states of Athens and Eretria had aided the unsuccessful Ionian Revolt against the Persian Empire of Darius I in 499–494 BC. The Persian Empire was still relatively young and prone to revolts amongst its subject peoples. [24] [25] Darius, moreover, was a usurper and had spent considerable time extinguishing revolts against his rule. [24]

The Ionian revolt threatened the integrity of his empire, and Darius thus vowed to punish those involved, especially the Athenians, "since he was sure that [the Ionians] would not go unpunished for their rebellion". [26] Darius also saw the opportunity to expand his empire into the fractious world of Ancient Greece. [27] A preliminary expedition under Mardonius in 492 BC, secured the lands approaching Greece, re-conquered Thrace and forced Macedon to become a client kingdom of Persia's. [28]

Darius sent emissaries to all the Greek city-states in 491 BC asking for a gift of "earth and water" as tokens of their submission to him. [29] Having had a demonstration of his power the previous year, the majority of Greek cities duly obliged. In Athens, however, the ambassadors were put on trial and then executed by throwing them in a pit in Sparta, they were simply thrown down a well. [29] [30] This meant that Sparta was also effectively at war with Persia. [29] However, in order to appease the Achaemenid king somewhat, two Spartans were voluntarily sent to Susa for execution, in atonement for the death of the Persian heralds. [31]

Darius thus put together an amphibious task force under Datis and Artaphernes in 490 BC, which attacked Naxos, before receiving the submission of the other Cycladic Islands. The task force then moved on Eretria, which it besieged and destroyed. [32] Finally, it moved to attack Athens, landing at the bay of Marathon, where it was met by a heavily outnumbered Athenian army. At the ensuing Battle of Marathon, the Athenians won a remarkable victory, which resulted in the withdrawal of the Persian army to Asia. [33]

Darius, therefore, began raising a huge new army with which he meant to completely subjugate Greece however, in 486 BC, his Egyptian subjects revolted, indefinitely postponing any Greek expedition. [25] Darius then died whilst preparing to march on Egypt, and the throne of Persia passed to his son Xerxes I. [34] Xerxes crushed the Egyptian revolt and very quickly restarted the preparations for the invasion of Greece. [35] Since this was to be a full-scale invasion, it required long-term planning, stockpiling, and conscription. [35] Xerxes decided that the Hellespont would be bridged to allow his army to cross to Europe, and that a canal should be dug across the isthmus of Mount Athos (rounding which headland, a Persian fleet had been destroyed in 492 BC). [36] These were both feats of exceptional ambition, which would have been beyond any other contemporary state. [36] By early 480 BC, the preparations were complete, and the army which Xerxes had mustered at Sardis marched towards Europe, crossing the Hellespont on two pontoon bridges. [37] 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. In the face of such imposing numbers, many Greek cities capitulated to the Persian demand for a tribute of earth and water. [38]

The Athenians had also been preparing for war with the Persians since the mid-480s BC, and in 482 BC the decision was taken, under the guidance of the Athenian politician Themistocles, to build a massive fleet of triremes that would be essential for the Greeks to fight the Persians. [39] However, the Athenians lacked the manpower to fight on both land and sea therefore, combating the Persians would require an alliance of Greek city-states. In 481 BC, Xerxes sent ambassadors around Greece requesting "earth and water" but very deliberately omitting Athens and Sparta. [40] Support thus began to coalesce around these two leading states. A congress of city-states met at Corinth in late autumn of 481 BC, [41] and a confederate alliance of Greek city-states was formed. It had the power to send envoys to request assistance and dispatch troops from the member states to defensive points, after joint consultation. This was remarkable for the disjointed and chaotic Greek world, especially since many of the city-states in attendance were still technically at war with each other. [42]

The "congress" met again in the spring of 480 BC. A Thessalian delegation suggested that the Greeks could muster in the narrow Vale of Tempe, on the borders of Thessaly, and thereby block Xerxes' advance. [43] A force of 10,000 hoplites was dispatched to the Vale of Tempe, through which they believed the Persian army would have to pass. However, once there, being warned by Alexander I of Macedon that the vale could be bypassed through Sarantoporo Pass and that Xerxes' army was overwhelming, the Greeks retreated. [44] Shortly afterwards, they received the news that Xerxes had crossed the Hellespont. [43]

Themistocles, therefore, suggested a second strategy to the Greeks: the route to southern Greece (Boeotia, Attica, and the Peloponnesus) would require Xerxes' army to travel through the very narrow pass of Thermopylae, which could easily be blocked by the Greek hoplites, despite the overwhelming numbers of Persians. [45] Furthermore, to prevent the Persians from bypassing Thermopylae by sea, the Athenian and allied navies could block the straits of Artemisium. Congress adopted this dual-pronged strategy. [45] However, the Peloponnesian cities made fall-back plans to defend the Isthmus of Corinth, should it come to that, whilst the women and children of Athens would evacuate en masse to the Peloponnesian city of Troezen. [46]

The Persian army seems to have made slow progress through Thrace and Macedon. News of the imminent Persian approach eventually reached Greece in August thanks to a Greek spy. [47] 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 the Spartans had arrived too late at the Battle of Marathon because of this requirement. [48] It was also the time of the Olympic Games, and therefore the Olympic truce, and thus it would have been doubly sacrilegious for the whole Spartan army to march to war. [48] [49] On this occasion, the ephors decided the urgency was sufficiently great to justify an advance expedition to block the pass, under one of its kings, Leonidas I. Leonidas took with him the 300 men of the royal bodyguard, the Hippeis. [50] 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. [49]

The legend of Thermopylae, as told by Herodotus, has it that the Spartans had consulted the Oracle at Delphi earlier in the year. The Oracle is said to have made the following prophecy:

O ye men who dwell in the streets of broad Lacedaemon!
Either your glorious town shall be sacked by the children of Perseus,
Or, in exchange, must all through the whole Laconian country

Mourn for the loss of a king, descendant of great Heracles. [51]

Herodotus tells us that Leonidas, in line with the prophecy, was convinced he was going to certain death since his forces were not adequate for a victory, and so he selected only Spartans with living sons. [50]

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. [52] 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. [53] 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. [54]

Finally, in mid-August, the Persian army was sighted across the Malian Gulf approaching Thermopylae. [55] With the Persian army's arrival at Thermopylae the Greeks held a council of war. [56] Some Peloponnesians suggested withdrawal to the Isthmus of Corinth and blocking the passage to Peloponnesus. [56] The Phocians and Locrians, whose states were located nearby, became indignant and advised defending Thermopylae and sending for more help. Leonidas calmed the panic and agreed to defend Thermopylae. [56] According to Plutarch, when one of the soldiers complained that, "Because of the arrows of the barbarians it is impossible to see the sun", Leonidas replied, "Won't it be nice, then, if we shall have shade in which to fight them?" [57] Herodotus reports a similar comment, but attributes it to Dienekes. [58]

Xerxes sent a Persian emissary to negotiate with Leonidas. The Greeks were offered their freedom, the title "Friends of the Persian People", and the opportunity to re-settle on land better than that they possessed. [59] When Leonidas refused these terms, the ambassador carried a written message by Xerxes, asking him to "Hand over your arms". Leonidas' famous response to the Persians was "Molṑn labé" ( Μολὼν λαβέ - literally, "having come, take [them]", but usually translated as "come and take them"). [60] With the Persian emissary returning empty-handed, battle became inevitable. Xerxes delayed for four days, waiting for the Greeks to disperse, before sending troops to attack them. [61]

Persian army Edit

The number of troops which Xerxes mustered for the second invasion of Greece has been the subject of endless dispute, most notably between ancient sources, which report very large numbers, and modern scholars, who surmise much smaller figures. Herodotus claimed that there were, in total, 2.6 million military personnel, accompanied by an equivalent number of support personnel. [64] The poet Simonides, who was a contemporary, talks of four million Ctesias gave 800,000 as the total number of the army that was assembled by Xerxes. [6]

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. [65] Modern scholarly estimates are generally in the range 120,000–300,000. [66] [b] These estimates usually come from studying the logistical capabilities of the Persians in that era, the sustainability of their respective bases of operations, and the overall manpower constraints affecting them. Whatever the real numbers were, however, it is clear that Xerxes was anxious to ensure a successful expedition by mustering an overwhelming numerical superiority by land and by sea. [67] The number of Persian troops present at Thermopylae is therefore as uncertain as the number for the total invasion force. For instance, it is unclear whether the whole Persian army marched as far as Thermopylae, or whether Xerxes left garrisons in Macedon and Thessaly.

Greek army Edit

According to Herodotus [52] [68] and Diodorus Siculus, [69] the Greek army included the following forces:

Group Number – Herodotus Numbers – Diodorus Siculus
900? [70] 700 or 1,000
Spartan hoplites 300 [70] 300
Mantineans 500 3,000
(other Peloponnesians sent with Leonidas)
Tegeans 500
Arcadian Orchomenos 120
Other Arcadians 1,000
Corinthians 400
Phlians 200
Mycenaeans 80
Total Peloponnesians 3,100 [52] or 4,000 [71] 4,000 or 4,300
Thespians 700
Malians 1,000
Thebans 400 400
Phocians 1,000 1,000
Opuntian Locrians "All they had" 1,000
Grand total 5,200 (or 6,100) plus the Opuntian Locrians 7,400 (or 7,700)

Pausanias' account agrees with that of Herodotus (whom he probably read) except that he gives the number of Locrians, which Herodotus declined to estimate. Residing in the direct path of the Persian advance, they gave all the fighting men they had - according to Pausanias 6,000 men - which added to Herodotus' 5,200 would have given a force of 11,200. [73]

Many modern historians, who usually consider Herodotus more reliable, [74] add the 1,000 Lacedemonians and the 900 helots to Herodotus' 5,200 to obtain 7,100 or about 7,000 men as a standard number, neglecting Diodorus' Melians and Pausanias' Locrians. [75] [76] However, this is only one approach, and many other combinations are plausible. Furthermore, the numbers changed later on in the battle when most of the army retreated and only approximately 3,000 men remained (300 Spartans, 700 Thespians, 400 Thebans, possibly up to 900 helots, and 1,000 Phocians stationed above the pass, less the casualties sustained in the previous days). [74]

From a strategic point of view, by defending Thermopylae, the Greeks were making the best possible use of their forces. [77] As long as they could prevent a further Persian advance into Greece, they had no need to seek a decisive battle and could, thus, remain on the defensive. Moreover, by defending two constricted passages (Thermopylae and Artemisium), the Greeks' inferior numbers became less of a factor. [77] Conversely, for the Persians the problem of supplying such a large army meant they could not remain in the same place for very long. [78] The Persians, therefore, had to retreat or advance, and advancing required forcing the pass of Thermopylae. [78]

Tactically, the pass at Thermopylae was ideally suited to the Greek style of warfare. [77] A hoplite phalanx could block the narrow pass with ease, with no risk of being outflanked by cavalry. Moreover, in the pass, the phalanx would have been very difficult to assault for the more lightly armed Persian infantry. [77] The major weak point for the Greeks was the mountain track which led across the highland parallel to Thermopylae, that could allow their position to be outflanked. Although probably unsuitable for cavalry, this path could easily be traversed by the Persian infantry (many of whom were versed in mountain warfare). [79] Leonidas was made aware of this path by local people from Trachis, and he positioned a detachment of Phocian troops there in order to block this route. [80]

Topography of the battlefield Edit

It is often claimed that at the time, the pass of Thermopylae consisted of a track along the shore of the Malian Gulf so narrow that only one chariot could pass through at a time. [53] In fact, as noted below, the pass was 100 metres wide, probably wider than the Greeks could have held against the Persian masses. Herodotus reports that the Phocians had improved the defences of the pass by channelling the stream from the hot springs to create a marsh, and it was a causeway across this marsh which was only wide enough for a single chariot to traverse. In a later passage, describing a Gaulish attempt to force the pass, Pausanias states "The cavalry on both sides proved useless, as the ground at the Pass is not only narrow, but also smooth because of the natural rock, while most of it is slippery owing to its being covered with streams. the losses of the barbarians it was impossible to discover exactly. For the number of them that disappeared beneath the mud was great." [81]

On the north side of the roadway was the Malian Gulf, into which the land shelved gently. When at a later date, an army of Gauls led by Brennus attempted to force the pass, the shallowness of the water gave the Greek fleet great difficulty getting close enough to the fighting to bombard the Gauls with ship-borne missile weapons.

Along the path itself was a series of three constrictions, or "gates" (pylai), and at the centre gate a wall that had been erected by the Phocians, in the previous century, to aid in their defence against Thessalian invasions. [53] The name "Hot Gates" comes from the hot springs that were located there. [82]

The terrain of the battlefield was nothing that Xerxes and his forces were accustomed to. Although coming from a mountainous country, the Persians were not prepared for the real nature of the country they had invaded. 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 (3.0 m) 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 Persian invaders. [83]

Today, the pass is not near the sea, but is several kilometres inland because of sedimentation in the Malian Gulf. The old track appears at the foot of the hills around the plain, flanked by a modern road. Recent core samples indicate that the pass was only 100 metres (330 ft) wide, and the waters came up to the gates: "Little do the visitors realize that the battle took place across the road from the monument." [84] The pass still is a natural defensive position to modern armies, and British Commonwealth forces in World War II made a defence in 1941 against the Nazi invasion mere metres from the original battlefield. [85]

First day Edit

On the fifth day after the Persian arrival at Thermopylae and the first day of the battle, Xerxes finally resolved to attack the Greeks. First, he ordered 5,000 archers to shoot a barrage of arrows, but they were ineffective they shot from at least 100 yards away, according to modern day scholars, and the Greeks' wooden shields (sometimes covered with a very thin layer of bronze) and bronze helmets deflected the arrows. [91] After that, Xerxes sent a force of 10,000 Medes and Cissians to take the defenders prisoner and bring them before him. [61] [92] The Persians soon launched a frontal assault, in waves of around 10,000 men, on the Greek position. [61] The Greeks fought in front of the Phocian wall, at the narrowest part of the pass, which enabled them to use as few soldiers as possible. [93] [94] Details of the tactics are scant Diodorus says, "the men stood shoulder to shoulder", and the Greeks were "superior in valour and in the great size of their shields." [95] This probably describes the standard Greek phalanx, in which the men formed a wall of overlapping shields and layered spear points protruding out from the sides of the shields, which would have been highly effective as long as it spanned the width of the pass. [96] The weaker shields, and shorter spears and swords of the Persians prevented them from effectively engaging the Greek hoplites. [95] [97] Herodotus says that the units for each city were kept together units were rotated in and out of the battle to prevent fatigue, which implies the Greeks had more men than necessary to block the pass. [98] The Greeks killed so many Medes that Xerxes is said to have stood up three times from the seat from which he was watching the battle. [99] According to Ctesias, the first wave was "cut to ribbons", with only two or three Spartans killed in return. [6]

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. [95] [97] However, the Immortals fared no better than the Medes, and failed to make any headway against the Greeks. [97] The Spartans apparently used a tactic of feigning retreat, and then turning and killing the enemy troops when they ran after them. [97]

Second day Edit

On the second day, Xerxes again sent in the infantry to attack the pass, "supposing that their enemies, being so few, were now disabled by wounds and could no longer resist." [99] However, the Persians had no more success on the second day than on the first. [99] Xerxes at last stopped the assault and withdrew to his camp, "totally perplexed". [6]

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. [100] Ephialtes was motivated by the desire for a reward. [100] For this act, the name "Ephialtes" received a lasting stigma it came to mean "nightmare" in the Greek language and to symbolize the archetypal traitor in Greek culture. [101]

Herodotus reports that Xerxes sent his commander Hydarnes that evening, with the men under his command, the Immortals, to encircle the Greeks via the path. However, he does not say who those men were. [102] The Immortals had been bloodied on the first day, so it is possible that Hydarnes may have been given overall command of an enhanced force including what was left of the Immortals according to Diodorus, Hydarnes had a force of 20,000 for the mission. [103] The path led from east of the Persian camp along the ridge of Mt. Anopaea behind the cliffs that flanked the pass. It branched, with one path leading to Phocis and the other down to the Malian Gulf at Alpenus, the first town of Locris. [54]

Third day Edit

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. Herodotus says they jumped up and were greatly amazed. [104] Hydarnes was perhaps just as amazed to see them hastily arming themselves as they were to see him and his forces. [105] He feared they were Spartans but was informed by Ephialtes that they were not. [104] The Phocians retreated to a nearby hill to make their stand (assuming the Persians had come to attack them). [104] However, 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. [104]

Learning from a runner that the Phocians had not held the path, Leonidas called a council of war at dawn. [106] According to Diodorus, a Persian called Tyrrhastiadas, a Cymaean by birth, warned the Greeks. [107] Some of the Greeks argued for withdrawal, but Leonidas resolved to stay at the pass with the Spartans. [106] 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 and 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 (without orders) or were ordered to leave by Leonidas (Herodotus admits that there is some doubt about which actually happened). [106] [108] The contingent of 700 Thespians, led by their general Demophilus, refused to leave and committed themselves to the fight. [109] Also present were the 400 Thebans and probably the helots who had accompanied the Spartans. [105]

Leonidas' actions have been the subject of much discussion. It is commonly stated that the Spartans were obeying the laws of Sparta by not retreating. It has also been proposed that the failure to retreat from Thermopylae gave rise to the notion that Spartans never retreated. [110] It has also been suggested that Leonidas, recalling the words of the Oracle, was committed to sacrificing his life in order to save Sparta. [110]

The most likely theory is that Leonidas chose to form a rearguard so that the other Greek contingents could get away. [110] [111] If all the troops had retreated, the open ground beyond the pass would have allowed the Persian cavalry to run the Greeks down. If they had all remained at the pass, they would have been encircled and would eventually have all been killed. [105] By covering the retreat and continuing to block the pass, Leonidas could save more than 3,000 men, who would be able to fight again. [111]

The Thebans have also been the subject of some discussion. Herodotus suggests they were brought to the battle as hostages to ensure the good behavior of Thebes. [50] However, as Plutarch long ago pointed out, if they were hostages, why not send them away with the rest of the Greeks? [110] The likelihood is that these were the Theban "loyalists", who unlike the majority of their fellow citizens, objected to Persian domination. [110] They thus probably came to Thermopylae of their own free will and stayed to the end because they could not return to Thebes if the Persians conquered Boeotia. [105] The Thespians, resolved as they were not to submit to Xerxes, faced the destruction of their city if the Persians took Boeotia. [110]

However, this alone does not explain the fact that they remained the remainder of Thespiae was successfully evacuated before the Persians arrived there. [110] It seems that the Thespians volunteered to remain as a simple act of self-sacrifice, all the more amazing since their contingent represented every single hoplite the city could muster. [112] This seems to have been a particularly Thespian trait – on at least two other occasions in later history, a Thespian force would commit itself to a fight to the death. [110]

At dawn, Xerxes made libations, pausing to allow the Immortals sufficient time to descend the mountain, and then began his advance. [94] 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. [94] They fought with spears, until every spear was shattered, and then switched to xiphē (short swords). [113] In this struggle, Herodotus states that two of Xerxes' brothers fell: Abrocomes and Hyperanthes. [113] Leonidas also died in the assault, shot down by Persian archers, and the two sides fought over his body the Greeks took possession. [113] As the Immortals approached, the Greeks withdrew and took a stand on a hill behind the wall. [114] The Thebans "moved away from their companions, and with hands upraised, advanced toward the barbarians. " (Rawlinson translation), but a few were slain before their surrender was accepted. [114] The king later had the Theban prisoners branded with the royal mark. [115] Of the remaining defenders, Herodotus says:

Here they defended themselves to the last, those who still had swords using them, and the others resisting with their hands and teeth. [114]

Tearing down part of the wall, Xerxes ordered the hill surrounded, and the Persians rained down arrows until every last Greek was dead. [114] In 1939, archaeologist Spyridon Marinatos, excavating at Thermopylae, found large numbers of Persian bronze arrowheads on Kolonos Hill, which changed the identification of the hill on which the Greeks were thought to have died from a smaller one nearer the wall. [116]

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. [117] The Greek rearguard, meanwhile, was annihilated, with a probable loss of 2,000 men, including those killed on the first two days of battle. [118] Herodotus says, at one point 4,000 Greeks died, but assuming the Phocians guarding the track were not killed during the battle (as Herodotus implies), this would be almost every Greek soldier present (by Herodotus' own estimates), and this number is probably too high. [119]

When the Persians recovered Leonidas' body, Xerxes, in a rage, ordered that the body be decapitated and crucified. Herodotus observes this was very uncommon for the Persians, as they traditionally treated "valiant warriors" with great honour (the example of Pytheas, captured off Skiathos before the Battle of Artemisium, strengthens this suggestion). [114] [120] However, Xerxes was known for his rage. Legend has it that he had the very water of the Hellespont whipped because it would not obey him. [37]

After the Persians' departure, the Greeks collected their dead and buried them on the hill. After the Persian invasion was repulsed, a stone lion was erected at Thermopylae to commemorate Leonidas. [121] A full 40 years after the battle, Leonidas' bones were returned to Sparta, where he was buried again with full honours funeral games were held every year in his memory. [113] [122]

With Thermopylae now opened to the Persian army, the continuation of the blockade at Artemisium by the Greek fleet became irrelevant. The simultaneous naval Battle of Artemisium had been a tactical stalemate, and the Greek navy was able to retreat in good order to the Saronic Gulf, where it helped to ferry the remaining Athenian citizens to the island of Salamis. [111]

Following Thermopylae, the Persian army proceeded to sack and burn Plataea and Thespiae, the Boeotian cities that had not submitted, before it marched on the now evacuated city of Athens and accomplished the Achaemenid destruction of Athens. [123] Meanwhile, the Greeks (for the most part Peloponnesians) preparing to defend the Isthmus of Corinth, demolished the single road that led through it and built a wall across it. [124] As at Thermopylae, making this an effective strategy required the Greek navy to stage a simultaneous blockade, barring the passage of the Persian navy across the Saronic Gulf, so that troops could not be landed directly on the Peloponnese. [125] 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. [126]

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, [127] though nearly all of them died of starvation and disease on the return voyage. [128] He left a hand-picked force, under Mardonius, to complete the conquest the following year. [129] However, under pressure from the Athenians, the Peloponnesians eventually agreed to try to force Mardonius to battle, and they marched on Attica. [130] Mardonius retreated to Boeotia to lure the Greeks into open terrain, and the two sides eventually met near the city of Plataea. [130] At the Battle of Plataea, the Greek army won a decisive victory, destroying much of the Persian army and ending the invasion of Greece. [130] 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. [131]

Thermopylae is arguably the most famous battle in European ancient history, repeatedly referenced in ancient, recent, and contemporary culture. In Western culture at least, it is the Greeks who are lauded for their performance in battle. [133] However, within the context of the Persian invasion, Thermopylae was undoubtedly a defeat for the Greeks. [134] It seems clear that the Greek strategy was to hold off the Persians at Thermopylae and Artemisium [77] whatever they may have intended, it was presumably not their desire to surrender all of Boeotia and Attica to the Persians. [77] The Greek position at Thermopylae, despite being massively outnumbered, was nearly impregnable. [111] If the position had been held for even a little longer, the Persians might have had to retreat for lack of food and water. [78] Thus, despite the heavy losses, forcing the pass was strategically a Persian victory, [111] but the successful retreat of the bulk of the Greek troops was in its own sense a victory as well. The battle itself had shown that even when heavily outnumbered, the Greeks could put up an effective fight against the Persians, and the defeat at Thermopylae had turned Leonidas and the men under his command into martyrs. That boosted the morale of all Greek soldiers in the second Persian invasion. [111]

It is sometimes stated that Thermopylae was a Pyrrhic victory for the Persians [3] [4] (i.e., one in which the victor is as damaged by the battle as the defeated party). However, there is no suggestion by Herodotus that the effect on the Persian forces was that. The idea ignores the fact that the Persians would, in the aftermath of Thermopylae, conquer the majority of Greece, [135] and the fact that they were still fighting in Greece a year later. [136] Alternatively, the argument is sometimes advanced that the last stand at Thermopylae was a successful delaying action that gave the Greek navy time to prepare for the Battle of Salamis. [c] However, compared to the probable time (about one month) between Thermopylae and Salamis, the time bought was negligible. [137] Furthermore, this idea also neglects the fact that a Greek navy was fighting at Artemisium during the Battle of Thermopylae, incurring losses in the process. [138] George Cawkwell suggests that the gap between Thermopylae and Salamis was caused by Xerxes' systematically reducing Greek opposition in Phocis and Boeotia, and not as a result of the Battle of Thermopylae thus, as a delaying action, Thermopylae was insignificant compared to Xerxes' own procrastination. [135] Far from labelling Thermopylae as a Pyrrhic victory, modern academic treatises on the Greco-Persian Wars tend to emphasise the success of Xerxes in breaching the formidable Greek position and the subsequent conquest of the majority of Greece. For instance, Cawkwell states: "he was successful on both land and sea, and the Great Invasion began with a brilliant success. . Xerxes had every reason to congratulate himself", [139] while Lazenby describes the Greek defeat as "disastrous". [134]

The fame of Thermopylae is thus principally derived not from its effect on the outcome of the war but for the inspirational example it set. [137] [140] Thermopylae is famous because of the heroism of the doomed rearguard, who, despite facing certain death, remained at the pass. [133] Ever since, the events of Thermopylae have been the source of effusive praise from many sources: "Salamis, Plataea, Mycale and Sicily are the fairest sister-victories which the Sun has ever seen, yet they would never dare to compare their combined glory with the glorious defeat of King Leonidas and his men". [141] A second reason is the example it set of free men, fighting for their country and their freedom:

So almost immediately, contemporary Greeks saw Thermopylae as a critical moral and culture lesson. In universal terms, a small, free people had willingly outfought huge numbers of imperial subjects who advanced under the lash. More specifically, the Western idea that soldiers themselves decide where, how, and against whom they will fight was contrasted against the Eastern notion of despotism and monarchy—freedom proving the stronger idea as the more courageous fighting of the Greeks at Thermopylae, and their later victories at Salamis and Plataea attested. [142]

While this paradigm of "free men" outfighting "slaves" can be seen as a rather sweeping over-generalization (there are many counter-examples), it is nevertheless true that many commentators have used Thermopylae to illustrate this point. [77]

Militarily, although the battle was actually not decisive in the context of the Persian invasion, Thermopylae is of some significance on the basis of the first two days of fighting. The performance of the defenders is used as an example of the advantages of training, equipment, and good use of terrain as force multipliers. [143]

Monuments Edit

There are several monuments around the battlefield of Thermopylae. One of which is a statue of King Leonidas I, portrayed as bearing a spear, and shield.

Epitaph of Simonides Edit

A well-known epigram, usually attributed to Simonides, was engraved as an epitaph on a commemorative stone placed on top of the burial mound of the Spartans at Thermopylae. It is also the hill on which the last of them died. [71] The original stone has not survived, but in 1955, the epitaph was engraved on a new stone. The text from Herodotus is: [71]

Ὦ ξεῖν', ἀγγέλλειν Λακεδαιμονίοις ὅτι τῇδε κείμεθα, τοῖς κείνων ῥήμασι πειθόμενοι . Ō ksein', angellein Lakedaimoniois hoti tēide keimetha, tois keinōn rhēmasi peithomenoi. O stranger, tell the Lacedaemonians that we lie here, obedient to their words. [144]

The alternative ancient reading πειθόμενοι νομίμοις (peithomenoi nomίmois) for ῥήμασι πειθόμενοι (rhēmasi peithomenoi) substitutes "laws" or "orders" for "words." In other words, the "orders" are not personal but refer to official and binding phrases (the Ancient Greek term can also refer to a formal speech). [145]

The form of this ancient Greek poetry is an elegiac couplet, commonly used for epitaphs. Some English renderings are given in the table below. It is also an example of Laconian brevity, which allows for varying interpretations of the meaning of the poem. [144] Ioannis Ziogas points out that the usual English translations are far from the only interpretation possible, and indicate much about the romantic tendencies of the translators.

It was well known in ancient Greece that all the Spartans who had been sent to Thermopylae had been killed there (with the exception of Aristodemus and Pantites), and the epitaph exploits the conceit that there was nobody left to bring the news of their deeds back to Sparta. Greek epitaphs often appealed to the passing reader (always called 'stranger') for sympathy, but the epitaph for the dead Spartans at Thermopylae took this convention much further than usual, asking the reader to make a personal journey to Sparta to break the news that the Spartan expeditionary force had been wiped out. The stranger is also asked to stress that the Spartans died 'fulfilling their orders'.

Translation Notes
Go tell the Spartans, thou who passest by,
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie. [146]
William Lisle Bowles
Stranger, tell the Spartans that we behaved
as they would wish us to, and are buried here. [147]
William Golding
Stranger! To Sparta say, her faithful band
Here lie in death, remembering her command. [148]
Francis Hodgson
Stranger, report this word, we pray, to the Spartans, that lying
Here in this spot we remain, faithfully keeping their laws. [149]
George Campbell Macaulay
Stranger, bear this message to the Spartans,
that we lie here obedient to their laws. [150]
William Roger Paton
Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,
that here obedient to their laws we lie. [151]
Steven Pressfield
Go, stranger, and to Lacedaemon tell
That here, obeying her behests, we fell. [152]
George Rawlinson
Go, way-farer, bear news to Sparta's town
that here, their bidding done, we laid us down. [153]
Cyril E. Robinson
Go tell the Spartans, you who read:
We took their orders, and lie here dead. [154]
Aubrey de Sélincourt
Friend, tell Lacedaemon
Here we lie
Obedient to our orders. [155]
William Shepherd
Oh Stranger, tell the Spartans
That we lie here obedient to their word. [156]
From the 1962 film The 300 Spartans
Stranger, when you find us lying here,
go tell the Spartans we obeyed their orders. [157]
From the 1977 film Go Tell the Spartans
Stranger, go tell the Spartans
That we lie here
True, even to the death
To our Spartan way of life. [158]
J. Rufus Fears
Go tell the Spartans, passerby:
That here, by Spartan law, we lie. [159]
Frank Miller (subsequently used in the 2007 film, 300)

The first line of the epigram was used as the title of the short story "Stranger, Bear Word to the Spartans We…" by German Nobel Prize laureate Heinrich Böll. A variant of the epigram is inscribed on the Polish Cemetery at Monte Cassino.

John Ruskin expressed the importance of this ideal to Western civilization as follows:

Also obedience in its highest form is not obedience to a constant and compulsory law, but a persuaded or voluntary yielded obedience to an issued command . His name who leads the armies of Heaven is "Faithful and True". and all deeds which are done in alliance with these armies . are essentially deeds of faith, which therefore . is at once the source and the substance of all known deed, rightly so called . as set forth in the last word of the noblest group of words ever, so far as I know, uttered by simple man concerning his practice, being the final testimony of the leaders of a great practical nation . [the epitaph in Greek] [160]

Cicero recorded a Latin variation in his Tusculanae Disputationes (1.42.101):

Dic, hospes, Spartae nos te hic vidisse iacentes dum sanctis patriae legibus obsequimur. Tell, stranger, to Sparta that you saw us lying here since we followed the sacred laws of the fatherland. [144]

Leonidas monument Edit

Additionally, there is a modern monument at the site, called the "Leonidas Monument" by Vassos Falireas, in honour of the Spartan king. It features a bronze statue of Leonidas. A sign, under the statue, reads simply: "Μολὼν λαβέ" ("Come and take them!"—as in answer to Xerxes' demand that the Greeks give up their weapons). The metope below depicts battle scenes. The two marble statues on the left and the right of the monument represent, respectively, the river Eurotas and Mount Taygetos, famous landmarks of Sparta. [161]

Thespian monument Edit

In 1997, a second monument was officially unveiled by the Greek government, dedicated to the 700 Thespians who fought with the Spartans. The monument is made of marble and features a bronze statue depicting the god Eros, to whom the ancient Thespians accorded particular religious veneration. Under the statue, a sign reads: "In memory of the seven hundred Thespians."

A plate below the statue explains its symbolism:

  • The headless male figure symbolizes the anonymous sacrifice of the 700 Thespians to their country.
  • The outstretched chest symbolizes the struggle, the gallantry, the strength, the bravery and the courage.
  • The open wing symbolizes the victory, the glory, the soul, the spirit and the freedom.
  • The broken wing symbolizes the voluntary sacrifice and death.
  • The naked body symbolizes Eros, the most important god of the ancient Thespians, a god of creation, beauty and life.

The monument to the Thespians is placed beside the one to the Spartans.

Associated legends Edit

Herodotus' colorful account of the battle has provided history with many apocryphal incidents and conversations away from the main historical events. These accounts are obviously not verifiable, but they form an integral part of the legend of the battle and often demonstrate the laconic speech (and wit) of the Spartans to good effect.

For instance, Plutarch recounts, in his Sayings of Spartan Women, upon his departure, Leonidas' wife Gorgo asked what she should do if he did not return, to which Leonidas replied, "Marry a good man and have good children." [162]

It is reported that, upon arriving at Thermopylae, the Persians sent a mounted scout to reconnoitre. The Greeks allowed him to come up to the camp, observe them, and depart. Xerxes found the scout's reports of the size of the Greek force, and that the Spartans were indulging in callisthenics and combing their long hair, laughable. Seeking the counsel of Demaratus, an exiled Spartan king in his retinue, Xerxes was told the Spartans were preparing for battle, and it was their custom to adorn their hair when they were about to risk their lives. Demaratus called them "the bravest men in Greece" and warned the Great King they intended to dispute the pass. He emphasized that he had tried to warn Xerxes earlier in the campaign, but the king had refused to believe him. He added that if Xerxes ever managed to subdue the Spartans, "there is no other nation in all the world which will venture to lift a hand in their defence." [163]

Herodotus also describes Leonidas' reception of a Persian envoy. The ambassador told Leonidas that Xerxes would offer him the kingship of all Greece if he joined with Xerxes. Leonidas answered: "If you had any knowledge of the noble things of life, you would refrain from coveting others' possessions but for me to die for Greece is better than to be the sole ruler over the people of my race." [164] Then the ambassador asked him more forcefully to surrender their arms. To this Leonidas gave his famous answer: Μολὼν λαβέ (pronounced Greek pronunciation: [moˈlɔːn laˈbe] ) "Come and get them." [165]

Such laconic bravery doubtlessly helped to maintain morale. Herodotus writes that when Dienekes, a Spartan soldier, was informed that Persian arrows would be so numerous as "to block out the sun", he retorted, "So much the better. then we shall fight our battle in the shade." [166]

After the battle, Xerxes was curious as to what the Greeks had been trying to do (presumably because they had had so few men) and had some Arcadian deserters interrogated in his presence. The answer was: all the other men were participating in the Olympic Games. When Xerxes asked what the prize was for the winner, the answer was: "an olive-wreath". Upon hearing this, Tigranes, a Persian general, said: "Good heavens, Mardonius, what kind of men are these that you have pitted against us? It is not for riches that they contend but for honour!" (Godley translation) or otherwise, "Ye Gods, Mardonius, what men have you brought us to fight against? Men that fight not for gold, but for glory." [167]

In popular culture Edit

The Battle of Thermopylae has remained a cultural icon of western civilization ever since it was fought. The battle is revisited in countless adages and works of popular culture, such as in films (e.g., The 300 Spartans (1962) and 300 (2007), based on the events during and close to the time of the battle), in literature, in song (e.g. "Sparta", the title track of a popular power-metal band Sabaton's 2016 album "The Last Stand"), in television programs, and in video games. The battle is also discussed in many articles and books on the theory and practice of warfare.

Prior to the battle, the Hellenes remembered the Dorians, an ethnic distinction which applied to the Spartans, as the conquerors and displacers of the Ionians in the Peloponnesus. After the battle, Spartan culture became an inspiration and object of emulation, a phenomenon known as Laconophilia.

Commemoration Edit

Greece has announced two commemorative coins to mark 2500 years since the historic battle. [168] While this anniversary will take place in 2021, the coins show the dates 2020 and 480 BC and the text "2,500 years since the Battle of Thermopylae."

There are several analogous battles.

Similarities between the Battle of Thermopylae and the Battle of Persian Gate have been recognized by both ancient and modern authors, [169] which describe it as a kind of reversal of the Battle of Thermopylae, [170] calling it "the Persian Thermopylae". [171] Here, on Alexander the Great's campaign against Persia in 330 BC to exact revenge for the Persian invasion of Greece, he faced the same situation, encountering a last stand of the Persian forces (under Ariobarzanes) at a narrow pass near Persepolis who held the invaders for a month, until their fall as the enemy found a path to their rear. There are even accounts that a local shepherd informed Alexander's forces about the secret path, just as a local Greek showed the Persian forces a secret path around the pass at Thermopylae. [170] [172] Curtius describes the subsequent battle fought by the surrounded, unarmed Persians as "memorable". [173]

South Vietnam’s Thermopylae

The last major battle of the Vietnam War was fought at Xuan Loc, only 37 miles east by northeast of Saigon. In April 1975 the town was the eastern anchor of South Vietnam’s final line of defense against the North Vietnamese rush to the capital. That line ran west through Bien Hoa, just north of Saigon, to Tay Ninh, near the Cambodian border. Once it broke, Saigon was doomed—and with it the Republic of Vietnam itself.

When the North Vietnamese Army attacked Xuan Loc (pronounced Swan Lock) on April 9, the communists and almost everyone else expected the Army of the Republic of Vietnam’s 18th Division to collapse like a house of cards, as had so many other ARVN units during the NVA’s massive Spring Offensive of 1975. But ARVN forces under Brig. Gen. Le Minh Dao fought fiercely in a last-ditch effort to save their country. By the time Xuan Loc did fall 12 days later, most of the world was amazed at how well the ARVN had fought, and the NVA had paid a far steeper price than it expected. Indeed, the valiant stand at Xuan Loc by heavily outnumbered ARVN soldiers echoes the famed sacrifice of King Leonidas’ 300 Spartans facing Xerxes’ Persian masses at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. Greece. The Persians then marched south and captured Athens.

Xuan Loc, the capital of Long Khanh province, had always been a strategically sensitive place. The town sat astride the French-built Highway 1, near the junction with Highway 20. From Xuan Loc, Highway 1 ran almost 40 miles east until it reached the South China Sea, where it turned north and went up the coast past the Demilitarized Zone and on to Hanoi.

After Da Nang fell on March 29, 1975, a North Vietnamese Army soldier stands alongside the spoils of war, a broken-down American-made Huey helicopter. (A. Abbas/Magnam Photo)

From March 1967 to January 1969 the U.S. 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment’s Blackhorse Base Camp was some 4 miles south of Xuan Loc. During that time, Highway 1 was relatively secure from Xuan Loc west toward the northern edge of Saigon. But since 1962 the road east to the coast had been shut down completely, as it ran through the heart of the May Tao “Secret Zone,” a mountainous area where the Viet Cong 5th Division was based and U.S. intelligence hadn’t penetrated. From November 1967 to early 1968, Operation Santa Fe, conducted by the U.S. 9th Infantry Division’s 1st Brigade, the 1st Australian Task Force and the ARVN 18th Division, attempted to open Highway 1 to the coast. Although the road was eventually opened, the VC 5th Division mostly avoided contact as it positioned itself for the Tet Offensive in late January 1968.

During the war, North Vietnam launched three major offensives against South Vietnam. The Tet Offensive of 1968 and the Easter Offensive of 1972 were military failures. The 1975 Spring Offensive would succeed. By that time, all U.S. forces were out of Vietnam, and legislation passed by Congress in June 1973 prohibited the use of government funds for military operations in Southeast Asia without congressional approval.

In 1975 North Vietnam, which had organized its army divisions into four corps, committed all four to attacks on the South. The NVA force in South Vietnam totaled 270,000 troops, 1,076 artillery pieces and mortars, 320 tanks and 250 other armored vehicles.

After successful probes in early 1975 in the northern sector of the South Vietnamese III Corps Tactical Zone (a military region encompassing Saigon and provinces to the north), the NVA on March 8 launched Campaign 275, directed at Ban Me Thuot, a provincial capital in the Central Highlands, part of the II Corps zone. The ARVN held out for eight days. When Ban Me Thuot fell, Pleiku and Kontum, also in the Central Highlands, were outflanked and cut off from the south. NVA forces quickly drove toward An Khe and the coast—effectively cutting South Vietnam in two. The NVA then took the northern I Corps zone cities of Hue and Da Nang, which fell on March 29.

ARVN units in those areas had quickly collapsed during the relentless NVA advance. They abandoned their positions and joined tens of thousands of panic-stricken refugees trying to escape to the south, bringing widespread looting and destruction in their wake. By the end of March, the NVA effectively controlled the entire northern half of South Vietnam.

Ignoring frantic pleading from South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu, the United States would not intervene, despite security guarantees given to Saigon in the January 1973 Paris Peace Accords. Even if the president wanted to provide military support, the War Powers Act, enacted in November 1973, severely restricted his ability to commit U.S. forces on his own.

The NVA, meanwhile, positioned its forces for the Ho Chi Minh Campaign, the final phase of the conquest of South Vietnam. The North Vietnamese IV Corps advanced on Xuan Loc from the northeast, while the NVA II Corps converged on the town from the northwest. The ARVN 18th Infantry Division was essentially all that stood in their way.

Earlier in the war, the 18th Infantry Division had the reputation as one of the ARVN’s worst units. That changed rapidly in March 1972, after 39-year-old Dao assumed command. Dynamic and aggressive, he was one of the best officers in the ARVN. Unlike so many other ARVN senior officers, whose careers had been built on family, social and political connections—even on bribery and corruption—Dao advanced on sheer ability. Despite the youthful good looks and large dark sunglasses that gave the impression he was just another playboy from the elite, privileged class of South Vietnamese, Dao had an inner core of steel and one of the finest tactical minds on either side of the Vietnam War.

The general eschewed a palatial villa in favor of a modest two-story house close to where his troops were billeted. During the battle, Dao spent much of his time moving among his frontline troops rather than issuing orders from a secure command post bunker. He insisted that all his officers maintain close contact with subordinates at least “two levels down.” It was an unorthodox style of leadership in an army characterized by a rigid class stratification between officers and enlisted men. Dao’s troops repaid their commander with unstinting devotion and loyalty.

Before the fight at Xuan Loc, Dao defiantly told foreign journalists: “I am determined to hold Xuan Loc. I don’t care how many divisions the communist will send against me. I will smash them all! The world shall see the strength and skill of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam.”

Dao and his commanders prepared well. First, they evacuated the soldiers’ families to the relative safety of the huge logistical base at Long Binh, close to Saigon, enabling the men to focus on the fight because their families were out of immediate harm’s way. Dao also had the foresight to establish two fully functional alternate divisional command posts.

Refugees from Da Nang and other areas overrun by the NVA arrive by boat at Vung Tau, a port near Saigon, on April 3, 1975. (The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)

After studying the approach routes the communists had used to attack Xuan Loc during the 1968 Tet Offensive, Dao moved his 36 divisional field artillery pieces to positions where they could mass their fire into a triangular kill zone on the western side of the town. He placed his guns in reinforced revetments, stockpiled with ammunition, and had them adjusted for pinpoint accuracy on enemy artillery positions and all potential routes of attack. He sent infantry patrols to occupy key pieces of high ground the NVA could use as artillery observation posts.

One of the most important pieces of high ground was Nui Soc Lu, known as Ghost Mountain, astride Highway 20 and just outside the northwestern edge of Xuan Loc’s defensive perimeter.

Dao positioned two long-range 175 mm M107 self-propelled guns at Tan Phong, his first alternate command post, near the southern edge of Xaun Loc’s defensive perimeter. He had his communications and intelligence troops monitor all known NVA radio frequencies, and he studied the intercept reports daily.

In addition to the 18th Division’s own 43rd, 48th and 52nd Infantry regiments and the 181st and 182nd Field Artillery battalions, Dao’s attached forces included troops from South Vietnamese militia organizations—four Regional Force battalions and two Popular Force companies.

The NVA’s IV Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. Do Van Cam, whose nom de guerre was Hoang Cam, moved toward Xuan Loc with its 6th, 7th and 341st Infantry divisions, supported by two armored and two artillery battalions, an anti-aircraft artillery regiment, two combat engineering regiments and a signals regiment. Cam’s forward command post was at Nui Chua Chan mountain, outside the eastern end of the Xuan Loc defensive perimeter. The NVA attackers numbered some 20,000, the ARVN defenders about 12,000.

To disrupt the NVA deployment, Dao sent a battalion-sized blocking force from the 52nd Infantry Regiment north along Highway 20 on March 28. For two days those troops held off the NVA 341st Division. By April 1, however, the South Vietnamese soldiers were pushed back to the Xuan Loc perimeter. They brought with them several prisoners of war, and interrogations revealed that many of the 341st Division POWs were barely 16 years old and largely untrained, although all were carrying modern Soviet bloc weapons.

The battle for Xuan Loc started at 5:40 a.m. on April 9 with an intense artillery barrage. The NVA gunners’ well-targeted very first shell hit Dao’s house and exploded in the bedroom. It was followed by 2,000 more rounds. At 6:40 a.m. the barrage ended, and NVA tanks and infantry moved against the town from three directions. When the shooting started, Dao was in Long Binh, where he had gone the previous day to coordinate logistical support for his division. Alerted to the attack in a phone call from his chief of staff, Dao left by helicopter for Xuan Loc. En route, he received situation reports by radio from regimental commanders.

The communists were certain Dao’s troops would break and run as soon as the artillery barrage lifted, but the ARVN soldiers held their ground. The NVA’s 7th Division carried out the main assault, attacking from the northeast without tank support. It was slowed by eight belts of barbed wire and minefields, then pummeled from the air by the South Vietnamese air force A-37B Dragonfly attack planes and F-5E Tiger fighters.

Later that morning the North Vietnamese reinforced the 7th Division with eight T-54 tanks. ARVN soldiers destroyed three of them but lost seven of their own M41 Walker Bulldog tanks. The attack from the northeast finally stalled, but not before the 7th Division overran Dao’s main command post. The general, however, had already shifted his divisional headquarters to the alternate command post at Tan Phong.

The NVA 341st Division, attacking from the northwest, entered Xuan Loc and captured an ARVN communications center, along with a local police station. But the untrained North Vietnamese teenagers could not exploit their initial gains. They were driven back by the ARVN 52nd Regimental Task Force, supported by a South Vietnamese C-119 gunship.

The 6th Division made the only significant NVA gains. Attacking from the south, its troops interdicted Highway 1 east of the Dau Giay intersection with Highway 20, cutting off Xuan Loc from Saigon. When the battle’s first day ended, the NVA had suffered about 700 dead and wounded, the ARVN 18th Division fewer than 50.

The battle seesawed back and forth for the next two days. At 5:27 a.m. on April 10, NVA artillery opened up with a 1,000-round barrage. The NVA 7th and 341st divisions attacked in their respective sectors but were driven back repeatedly by ARVN counterattacks, sometimes in hand-to-hand fighting. The communists lost five more tanks. Dao ordered two battalions to attack two 341st Division regiments that had reached the heart of the town, and many of the teenage NVA troops broke in panic, scattering into Xuan Loc’s sewers and ruined cellars. Some captured later had not fired a single bullet from their 72-round basic load.

Meanwhile, fighter-bombers in South Vietnam’s 3rd and 5th Air divisions, operating from the Bien Hoa and Tan Son Nhut air bases on the outskirts of Saigon, flew more than 200 sorties in support of the besieged garrison. That night, North Vietnamese artillery fired 2,000 rounds into Xuan Loc, but Dao’s gunners kept up an effective counterbattery fire.

Early in the morning of April 11, NVA artillery opened fire with a 30-minute barrage. The 7th and 341st divisions then resumed their attacks, but again without success. IV Corps commander Cam, who had led a battalion of Viet Minh independence fighters against the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, later wrote: “This was the most ferocious battle I had ever been involved in! My personal assessment was that, after three days of battle, even after committing our reserves, the situation had not improved and we had suffered significant casualties.”

Cam estimated that during the battle’s first three days his 7th Division had suffered 300 casualties, and the green teens of the 341st Division 1,200. Virtually all of the NVA’s 85 mm and 75 mm artillery pieces had been knocked out by ARVN counterfire.

South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu, here in an undated photo, had praised the defense of Xuan Loc, but just days later, on April 21, he resigned to escape the encroaching enemy. (Corbis via Getty Images)

Despite Dao’s strong defense of Xuan Loc thus far, the South Vietnamese Joint General Staff knew it had to reinforce him. The 11th Armored Brigade was committed from the west on April 11 to clear Highway 1 to the Dau Giay intersection, but the brigade’s 322nd Armored Regiment lost 11 tanks and could not dislodge the NVA.

The 1st Airborne Brigade, taking off from Bien Hoa in 100 UH-1B Huey helicopters on April 12, landed near the Bao Dinh rubber tree plantation south of Xuan Loc. CH-47 Chinook transport helicopters brought in the brigade’s supporting artillery and 93 tons of ammunition. On their return to the base, the choppers evacuated wounded 18th Division troops and local civilians in the last large-scale helicopter operation of the war.

Two marine battalions were ordered to form blocking positions between Xuan Loc and Bien Hoa, while ranger, infantry and artillery battalions provided reinforcements against an NVA attack toward Dau Giay. Meanwhile, the air force continued to pound the NVA, dropping several huge 15,000-pound BLU-82 “Daisy Cutter” bombs from C-130 Hercules cargo planes.

By the end of the fourth day, NVA dead totaled close to 2,000. Col. Gen. Tran Van Tra, the NVA officer who commanded the Viet Cong and the southern region, assumed personal control of the battle on April 13, and IV Corps was reinforced with additional troops, tanks and artillery. That same day, Dao was hit in the arm by artillery shell fragmentation. Tra shifted the NVA’s main thrust away from the center of Xuan Loc. He ordered the 6th and 341st Infantry divisions to concentrate instead on hitting Dau Giay, the linchpin of Xuan’s Loc’s defenses, from the north and the south, while establishing blocking positions to the west along Highway 1.

In Saigon, Thieu declared that Dao’s successful defense of Xuan Loc had ended the long string of communist successes and the ARVN had “recovered its fighting ability.” He spoke too soon. The NVA reinforcements included the 95B Infantry Regiment, one of North Vietnam’s elite units, which had been in the Central Highlands.

Tra quickly recognized the mistake of the original attack strategy: The NVA had not been interdicting South Vietnamese aircraft taking off from Bien Hoa. Communist gunners shifted their targets from Xuan Loc and began shelling the air base with heavy rocket and artillery fire on April 15. Almost immediately the 3rd Air Division at Bien Hoa was forced to suspend flight operations. NVA commandos infiltrated the base and blew up part of the ammo dump.

The South Vietnamese tried to shift air support operations to the 4th Air Division, flying out of Binh Thuy Air Base in the Mekong Delta, a switch that in the end didn’t matter. That same day, the NVA 6th Infantry Division and 95B Infantry Regiment captured Dau Giay. During the next two days the 6th Division beat back all ARVN attempts to retake Dau Giay. Simultaneously, the 7th and 341st Infantry divisions relentlessly hammered the defenders all around Xuan Loc, inflicting especially heavy losses on the 1st Airborne Brigade.

Xuan Loc was now cut off from reinforcement by land. Air support from Bien Hoa was drastically reduced. And the North Vietnamese II Corps was moving down from the northwest. The capture of the town was inevitable. Yet, the fierce and skillful ARVN resistance had shaken the NVA and disrupted the schedule for a final assault on Saigon. Hanoi postponed a planned April 15 attack to allow more forces to converge from the north and finally overrun Xuan Loc.

On April 17 the Senate Armed Services Committee rejected President Gerald Ford’s request for $722 million in emergency support for Saigon. On April 20, South Vietnam’s Joint General Staff ordered Dao to evacuate Xuan Loc and withdraw to Bien Hoa to establish a new center of resistance.

The withdrawal began that night under cover of heavy rainfall. In a skillfully coordinated maneuver, Dao’s troops pulled out by echelon, south through the rubber plantations, along the dirt-road Route 2. The 1st Airborne Brigade acted as the rear guard. NVA troops, taken by surprise, could do little to disrupt the withdrawal.

Unlike so many other ARVN generals who had flown out by helicopter during the 1975 communist offensive, Dao marched out on foot with his troops. In the early morning hours of April 21, the NVA scored its only success against the withdrawal when it destroyed the rearguard 3rd Battalion, 1st Airborne Brigade, near Suoi Ca hamlet. Later that day Hanoi’s troops moved into the deserted Xuan Loc, then little more than a pile of rubble.

A North Vietnamese T-54 rolls past the South Vietnamese Joint General Staff building on April 30, 1975, the day of South Vietnam’s surrender. (ADN-Bildarchiv/Ullstein Bild via Getty Images)

In Saigon, Thieu resigned as president and was replaced by Tran Van Huong. The air force, however, still had one final blow to strike. On April 22 a C-130 dropped a 750-pound CBU-55 fuel-air bomb, approaching the explosive power of a nuclear bomb, on the headquarters of the 341st Division. The bomb sucked the oxygen out of the air and killed an estimated 250 NVA soldiers in the only time a CBU-55 was used in Vietnam.

South Vietnam’s 18th Division had suffered 30 percent casualties in defense of Xuan Loc. Its attached Regional Force and Popular Force units were virtually wiped out. The division spent three days at Bien Hoa preparing for the final defense of Saigon. On April 23 Huong promoted Dao to major general. The 18th Division was in defensive positions near the National Military Cemetery close to Bien Hoa when Saigon surrendered on April 30.

Dao wanted to keep on fighting. Dressed in civilian clothes, he made his way south into the Delta, trying to reach Can Tho, the ARVN headquarters for the IV Corps Tactical Zone. Before he got there, however, the corps commander, Maj. Gen. Nguyen Khoa Nam, and his deputy, Gen. Le Van Hung, committed suicide. Dao surrendered on May 9 and spent the next 17 years in brutally repressive “re-education camps.” In May 1992 he was one of the last four senior ARVN officers freed. Dao arrived in the United States in April 1993.

Throughout the war Americans asked themselves how the North Vietnamese could fight so well and the South Vietnamese could not. The Battle of Xuan Loc indisputably proved the ARVN could fight. The key was leadership. The ARVN’s great weakness was that it never had enough generals like Dao, who at Xuan Loc went head-to-head with far more experienced NVA generals, Do Van Cam and Tran Van Tra. Le Minh Dao was the Leonidas at South Vietnam’s Thermopylae.

Retired Army Maj. Gen. David T. Zabecki is editor emeritus of Vietnam magazine.

This feature originally appeared in the April 2020 issue of Vietnam magazine. To subscribe, click here.

Thermopylae: The Battle for the West (1980)

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The worth and value of a man is in his heart and his will there lies his real honour. Valour is the strength, not of legs and arms, but of heart and soul it consists not in the worth of our house or our weapons, but in our own. He who falls obstinate in his courage, if he has fallen, he fights on his knees (Seneca). He who relaxes none of his assurance, no matter how great the danger of imminent death who, giving up his soul, still looks firmly and scornfully at his enemy -- he is beaten not by us, but by fortune he is killed, not conquered.

The most valiant are sometimes the most unfortunate. Thus there are triumphant defeats that rival victories. Nor did those four sister victories, the fairest that the sun ever set eyes on -- Salamis, Platea, Mycale, and Sicily -- ever dare match all their combined glory against the glory of the annihilation of King Leonidas and his men at the pass of Thermopylae.

Thermopylae: The Battle for the West, by Ernle Bradford

The British title for this book, The Year of Thermopylae (London, 1980), is much more descriptive since the book covers events leading up to and including Thermopylae. A military historian, Bradford makes sense of the complicated maneuvers and does a very thorough background on all components of the battle, from the three rows of trireme rowers to an analysis of the (less than) treachery of the traitor Ephialtes to an explanation of the only apparent megalomania of Xerxes.

The Battle of Thermopylae from Herodotus’ the Histories

The Battle of Thermopylae, which Herodotus recorded in his writing The Histories, was one of the most arduous and notable battles of western history. Herodotus was an extremely significant historian who lived during the 5th century B. C. In this primary source writing, he portrays how Xerxes was superstitious and tyrannical, how the battle informs you about the Spartan culture, how the values of Greek promoted society, and he displayed how significant the Persian invasion was on Greek development, for example, their political and intellectual expansion.

The Persian King Xerxes thought he could smoothly invade the Greek mainland, devastating the Greeks because of his army’s prevailing numbers and dominance. Herodotus is exceptionally significant. He collected his materials systematically as well as being exclusively known for writing The Histories, which led him to be known as a great historian of the 5th century B. C. His noble writings, which are recorded in The Histories, have been exceedingly beneficial at helping historians collect and understand knowledge of the western world.

His well-constructed descriptions of the Greek and Persian war have given us a vivid picture of what went on during these strenuous wars. For example, as Xerxes leads his troops into Greece he asks a native Greek if they are ready to put up a fight? The native replies, “…Brave are all the Greeks who dwell in any Dorian land but what I am about to say does not concern all, but only the Lacedaemonians. First then, come what may, they will never accept thy terms, which would reduce Greece to slavery and further, they are sure to join battle with thee, though all the rest of the Greeks should submit to thy will.

As for their numbers, do not ask how many they are, that their resistance should be a possible thing for if a thousand of them should take the field, they will meet thee in battle, and so will any number, be it less than this, or be it more. ” This boy is saying that the number of soldiers does not make a difference, which it is the pride and determination that will be the factor in prevailing over the Persians. Herodotus’s superb writings help explain these war dealings in detail, which can warn of the indomitable Spartans and the overconfident Persians.

Overall, Herodotus has created The Histories, a magnificent token of western history the famous battles of the Greeks and Persians, will always be remembered because of Herodotus’s brilliant elucidations. There are several incidents in the primary source, which portray Xerxes as being superstitious and oppressive. He is very irrational pertaining to many of the examples in the primary source he states that the Greeks “have so foolish a manner of warfare. ” He is blind at seeing how determined the Spartans are at winning, which is very illogical and stubborn of him not knowing his enemies strengths.

The incident when Xerxes says, “Let them be five thousand, and we shall have more than a thousand men to each one of theirs. If, indeed, like our troops, they had a single master, their fear of him might make them courageous beyond their natural bent or they might be urged by lashes against an enemy which far outnumbered them. But left to their own free choice, assuredly they will act differently” This occurrence portrays Xerxes cruel and tyrannical control over his troops. this also displays Xerxes belief that the more men he has, the more prevailing his army will be.

At the same time, Xerxes is illogical at recognizing the Greeks brave and strapping ability to fight collectively. The events of the battle help inform you about the Spartan culture and lifestyle. The Spartan way of life exemplified that the society had a great deal of authority, which stressed young men to start training for the military and become obedient individuals. The Spartans performed numerous strenuous physical actives, as well as keeping up a healthy and well balanced diet, which would soon pay off if they ever had to go to war.

Demaratus says to Xerxes, “…So likewise the Lacedaemonians, when they fight singly, are as good men as any in the world, and when they fight in a body, are the bravest of all…Law is the master whom they own and this master they fear more than thy subjects fear thee. Whatever he commands they do and his commandment is always the same: it forbids them to flee in battle, whatever the number of their foes, and requires them to stand firm, and either to conquer or die. In the Spartan culture the men were forced to be brave, in which they must follow the law that commands them to fight or die for their culture. Overall, the Spartan culture created the most physically fit and well-trained soldiers, which was shown at their brave and victorious battle of Thermopylae.

Herodotus’ narrative promoted many values of the Greek society. Demaratus says “…there is no other nation in all the world which will venture to lift a hand in their defence. Thou hast now to deal with the first kingdom and town in Greece, and with the bravest men. The people of Greece value their freedom with a great deal of bravery, as well as their laws that promote such a strong and devoted military. At the same time, they value their wellness, along with the moral values of what is right and wrong. In general, his narrative promotes the Greek society for having great obedience and courage. The Persian invasion was exceptionally significant on the Greek’s political and intellectual development. After the Greeks defeated the Persians, they stepped in to provide new leadership against the Persians.

This was the arrangement of a confederation, which was called the Delian League. The Athenians favored an innovative imperial policy, when an aristocrat named Pericles started to play an important role in politics. Athens wanted to expand their democracy, at the same time, increase and develop its empire into other countries. Overall, the Persian invasions affected the Greeks political and intellectual development, which united with the growing popular imperialism abroad, and their continued quest for democracy.

By and large, the battle of Thermopylae from Herodotus’ The Histories was an extremely notable and remarkable battle for the history of the west, as well as the world. Herodotus’ magnificent writing have vividly explained one of the most exceptional battles, in addition to showing the world the incredible Greek society, and the ever so powerful Spartan army. Great knowledge can be gained from studying and reading about this great battle. For example, we have learned that you don’t always win with the number of men, but with the bravery and willpower to overcome any obstacle.

Thermopylae: The Battle For The West - History

Cartledge, Paul. “The Persian Wars: 490-479 BC.” The Spartans: The World of the Warrior-Heroes of Ancient Greece. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2004. 111-40. Print.

Cartledge’s first book, The Spartans, highlights the culture of Ancient Sparta, but also has a very large section of the book that emphasizes the events surrounding Thermopylae. This will help me draw specific details from the events of the time as well as include information of the culture. Although this presentation and report will not be about the Spartan culture, it is important to understand the cultural beliefs and philosophies of the Spartans in order to understand why they decided to enter battle with a presumably unbeatable foe. This source is crucial to understanding the events of the battle and the impact that it had on the eventual greater defeat Persia received at Salamis.

Cartledge, Paul. Thermopylae: The Battle that Changed the World. New York, NY: The Overlook, 2006. Print.

Cartledge is well-known as an expert on Spartan culture in Ancient Greece and the battle of Thermopylae. This book creates a timeline of the historical events within the battle and highlights the Spartan culture, the military actions, and the societal and cultural impact that the battle had for Ancient Greece and historically throughout the world. I particularly like this resource because of the detailed timeline that is provided as well as the maps that show military movement and help understand the philosophy behind why the Spartans chose Thermopylae for the battle site, and the benefits they received by doing so.

Dupre, Ben and Robin Waterfield. “Leonidas” and “Themistocles.” The Art of War: Great Commanders of the Ancient and Medieval World 1500 BC – AD 1600. Ed. Andre Roberts. Vol. 1. London, Great Britain: Quercus, 2008. 76-91. Print.

One of the chapters within this compilation includes a detailed description of King Leoonidas and Themistocles of the Spartans. This details these two leaders’ coming to power, military decisions and cultural importance within the society. Leonidas controlled the overall actions of the entire army, while Themistocles controlled the battle at sea. It briefly outlines their lives and the impact of their decisions culminating with the battle of Thermopylae, which led to Leonidas’ ultimate demise. This source is being used to help draw a comparison between the leaders of the Spartans and the Persians, Kking Xerxes while also describing the importance of the battle and the military decisions Leonidas and Themistocles made that impacted the outcome of the battle.

Hall, Jonathan M. A History of the Archaic Greek World: ca. 1200-479 BCE. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007. Print

This source includes an outline of the entire world of Ancient Greece, but specifically includes details on the society of Sparta, the politics of the government, and the historical importance of the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 AD. Specifically, Hall mentions that Adolf Hitler envied the actions of the Spartans and their supreme military presence and philosophies for training. This source will help me finalize the suggestive political and cultural causes of the battle, and help analyze the details of the battle. Finally, it also includes additional information for the importance of the battle historically around the rest of the world.

Interview: Paul Cartledge- East vs. West at Thermopylae

Cambridge classicist Paul Cart- ledge has spent more than three decades studying the civilization of ancient Greece, lately focusing on the unique culture of Sparta. He considers the Spartans’ “last stand” at Thermopylae a pivotal clash of East vs. West. In his latest book, Thermopylae: The Battle That Changed the World, Cartledge argues that this one brief battle continues to resonate in world history.

Thermopylae has been thoroughly covered, so why write a book about it?

I wanted to focus on one episode that brought out what was most distinctive about the ancient Spartans and most revealing of the Spartan tradition—Sparta’s influence from antiquity to the present.

Why choose a battle in which the Spartans were defeated?

The French essayist Montaigne said some defeats are more memorable than victories because of what they come to mean. I took Thermopylae to mean two things: Though it was a defeat, it was a heroic defeat, and it helped to bring about victory (at Plataea, the following year). The larger point is that this defeat became emblematic of what it is to be Spartan, to be Greek and to be Western: to die for a cause that you believe to be absolutely overridingly important. Freedom.

Why did Xerxes want to conquer the Greek mainland?

One reason was some unfinished family business: His father, Darius, had sent a force that suffered a major defeat by the Greeks at Marathon. [But] having been defeated in Greece didn’t mean that Xerxes’ empire completely unraveled. The heartland of the Persian Empire was a long, long way to the east, in what’s now Iraq and Iran. You couldn’t have a Persian Empire without Iraq and Iran and Afghanistan, but you could have it without what is now western Turkey.

If Thermopylae was such an epic battle, why did so few Greeks participate?

At that time the Greeks had to perform various religious rituals. Now you could say that was just an excuse, [as] many Greeks were terrified of the Persians. They weren’t going to resist at all. The most they could do was to hold them up, and key to that was linkage between the fleet and the army. So they sent not only the 7,000 to Thermopylae but also many more thousands in ships to Artemisium. Their fleet inflicted serious losses on the Persian fleet, which was the crucial prelude to the battle at Salamis.

Now Salamis is quite like Thermopylae in that it’s a terribly narrow passage. Xerxes would have been much better advised not to go in. But partly I think because he forced Thermopylae, he thought, “Oh, well, the Greeks are going to be disunited, there’ll be some treachery, and I’ve got more and better ships.” It’s true his ships were better made, and the Phoenicians (from what is now Lebanon) were actually better sailors than the Greeks. So he could have reasonably thought, “They’ll wipe out the Greeks, and then the rest of my fleet will pile in.” Of course, it was a terrible miscalculation Salamis was a major Greek victory.

Although greatly outnumbered at Thermopylae, the Greeks held off the Persians for three days. How?

Thermopylae was a very unusual location for a battle, a narrow defile. It’s about a kilometer long, running east to west, and the sea is just a few meters to the north. At the very narrowest bit, where the Spartans defended, they found an existing wall. They refurbished it and dug in. So that nullified the huge numerical advantage that the Persians had. We think it was something like 150,000, 200,000 on Xerxes’ side against something like 6,000 to 7,000 Greeks, of which the Spartans contributed 301—the king plus his 300 specially picked force. The Spartan and other Greek infantry equipment was infinitely superior to anything the Persians had for close, hand-to-hand combat. Also, the Greeks had complete body armor. Their helmet rendered them practically deaf but was wonderful protection. They had longer, sturdier spears and were better trained than the Persians. Finally, the Greeks fought much better: They were defending their country against invasion, so they probably fought with extra spirit. That’s one reason the battle took as long as it did. On the other hand, it would have taken more than three days had the Greeks not been betrayed.

Was the Spartan attitude toward death unusual among the Greeks?

Yes, first of all, those 300 Spartans were sent to their death. The point was to die there memorably, as a morale booster. I believe this was a suicide squad, and I base that view on something Herodotus tells us: Why were these 300 men chosen? One criterion was that they all had to have a living son. Spartan men generally married in their late 20s, so by no means would all have had a living son by the time they were 30. Leonidas said, “I want people who are going to die, and their sons are going to avenge their fathers’ death. They’re going to have role models: their amazing fathers who died at Thermopylae.”

Was the Persians’ attitude anything like that?

What we know is mainly from non Persian sources, because Persians did not produce historians—people who reflected on what it was like to be Persian. If we believe Herodotus, Xerxes had to have some of his men whipped into battle. The Greeks make a big thing of this, because you don’t whip free men, only slaves. The fact that Xerxes had to whip troops into battle suggests that they weren’t all gung-ho about dying for Xerxes.

Do you consider this battle a turning point for Western civilization?

It would not have been, had the Greeks lost everything. But soon after the Battle of Thermopylae, they won a great naval victory at Salamis, and the following year the Spartans led them to victory in the decisive land battle of Plataea. So, what the Greeks understood to be democracy and freedom continued to develop. Had Persia conquered main land Greece, I don’t believe you would have had Sophocles and Socrates.

Was this battle an example of what some historians later defined as “a Western way of war”?

Yes. The notion is that somehow we in the West are solitary and fight hand to hand. We look the enemy in the eyes, whereas Orientals tend to fight at a distance or from horseback, so they distance themselves from the actual physicality of war. Now guns transformed the-notion of courage straightaway, so you have to look quite hard to find this Western tradition of courage persisting beyond the 17th or 18th century. But there’s still something to it.

Are any modern nations analogous to Sparta in terms of having a standing army?

Not really, because citizenship and militarism—being a soldier—was a Spartan adult male’s identity. There was no separation between being Spartan and being a Spartan soldier. In the 19th century, the Zulu nation in southern Africa militarized itself to resist both the Boers and the British. They achieved amazing successes over a couple of generations, but Sparta maintained this military lifestyle for centuries.

What do you mean when you say the Spartans were not exactly “friends to freedom”?

For at least 300, 400 years, the Spartans based their power and wealth on enslaving fellow Greeks. All free Greek citizens were completely comfortable with slavery. But they thought, ideally, you should not enslave other Greeks. But that’s actually what the Spartans did. Sparta here represents the liberation of many Greeks from Persia, but it also brought about the enslavement of many thousands of Greeks in Greece.

Was the Greeks’ attitude toward warfare similar to ours?

They all, apart from the Spartans, seem to have shared the view that war is all hell, as Sherman put it. That goes right back to Homer and his Iliad. He doesn’t disguise the awfulness of wounding and death. On the other hand, there is heroic glory. The Greek word for bravery or courage in battle literally means “manliness.” So being a man means being a warrior and being brave. Where the Spartans were distinct is their extremism: They took that one virtue, and made it the virtue.

Originally published in the April 2008 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.