The Battle of Thermopylae

The battle of Thermopylae, 480 BC

    Darius died in 486 BC and had managed to punish the city Eretria for its role in the revolt of the Ionian Greek colonies, but Athens was still a thorn in his side. In fact, now there were even more reasons to destroy Athens. He already had started making new plans, but the goal of the mission would not be the sole destruction of Athens. Hellas had humiliated him, and with him the Persian empire so it had to be totally conquered. However, because of his unexpected death it was up to his son Xerxes to fulfil his plans.

    Xerxes remembered very well what happened to the first expedition of his father: the fleet got destroyed during a storm at Athos and the army got stuck in a guerrilla with nomadic tribes in Thrace. He did not have to worry about Thrace as it was now part of the Persian empire, but the peninsula of Athos was always a dangerous place for a fleet. To make sure that everything would go according the plan he ordered his troops to dig a canal through Athos. This took them three years and at the same time he built a bridge over the Hellespont. The navy, drawn principally from Phoenicia and the subject Greek states in Asia Minor, accompanied the army along the coast of Thrace while it looked for a river that it would not drink dry. Herodotus tells us that the army consisted of 1750000 soldiers, but this number is absurd: 200000 might be nearer to the mark. The astonishing number of 1200 triremes formed the fleet.

    At the same time Carthage invaded Sicily to prevent that the Greek colonies on this island would offer any help to Hellas. But Greek attempts to find help at any distance had already failed: Crete, Corcyra and Syracuse refused. In the north only Athens, Phocis, Thespiae and Plataea were prepared to fight, while Argos remained neutral in the Peloponesse. The 'Greeks who had the best thoughts for Greece', as Herodotus wrote, assembled at Sparta in 481 and later at Corinth in the spring of 480. The commercial island Aegina and Athens resolved their problems and an alliance under the leadership of Sparta was formed between the handful of cities.

    It was obvious that the natural aspects of Hellas had to be used as much as possible in order to defeat the Persian army. The plan was to trap the army in a mountain-pass where its numeric advantage was of no use. Then maybe the fleet could also be trapped in a sea-strait where the maneuverable trireme had an advantage over the slow Persian vessels. Once the Persian fleet was destroyed, or spread out, it was not unlikely that the army would be cut off from all supplies and forced either to retreat or to starve. The first choice was the Gorge of Tempe where the coast road to the south turns into north-western Thessaly, and a force of 10000 was sent to hold it. However, the Gorge of Tempe did not look very suitable as the first line of defense, after closer examination because of its geographic vulnerability and the fact that the Aleuadae, one of the leading families in Thessaly, was possibly in favor of Xerxes.

    Two possible defensive lines remained: the narrow coastal pass of Thermopylae with the fleet in the adjacent north-Euboean strait, or at the Isthmus with the fleet a little to the north at Salamis. Athens was of course in favor of Thermopylae as retreating to the Isthmus meant leaving Athens to the Persian army. Sparta on the other hand wanted to retreat to the Isthmus in the Peloponesse because of the natural Peloponessian reluctance to fight for anything but their own. Athens was preparing for the worst scenario possible: a recently found tablet proves that Themistocles prepared plans for a decent evacuation of Athens. The final choice fell on Thermopylae nevertheless.

The commanders

    The Persian empire was in the hands of the son of Darius: Xerxes. Just like his father, and most of the high kings of Persia, he was a most excellent organizer but not a good general. The increased motivation of his troops when he was present at a battle was often diminished by his tactics. Darius had always been a strict and determined man, but Xerxes had moments that his bad temper made him make the wrong decisions. We know that he constructed a bridge over the Hellespont so that his army could cross it without any problems. The first attempt was destroyed during a storm, and Xerxes ordered his men to whip the waves to show his men that even the Gods of the waters were subjected to him. This shows us some of the natures of Xerxes.

    Leonidas, one of the two Spartan kings, was the commander of the Greek force in the pass of Thermopylae. His actions during this battle are still seen as one of the biggest acts of heroism in the history of mankind. But he was not only a hero, he was most of all a capable and cautious commander. He was unselfish and very concerned with the men under his command: he knew that he would most likely get killed at Thermopylae and only accepted Spartans in his army who had a son who could take over the leadership of the family.

Phase one: the battle of Artemisium

The Battle at Artemisium





    The fleet, primarily Athenian, had situated itself in the north-Euboean strait close to Artemisium and blocked it. Its purpose there was to support the army in the pass of Thermopylae, and to prevent an attack by Persians from the sea on the Greek position in the mountains. Maybe they also hoped to test out their new triremes against the Persian fleet. The Persian army was primarily a land-army: it did not even have a standing fleet. For its fleet was the Persian empire totally dependent on the subjected Phoenicians and other Asiatics. They also formed the core of the Persian fleet during this expedition and the Greeks knew that the Phoenicians had faster vessels than the Persians, and their seamanship was definitely superior to those of the native Persians. The Persian fleet was only feared because of its size.


    A storm had already wrecked many Persian ships on their way down the Spartan Eurybiades and the Athenian Themistocles, who commanded the Greek fleet together, felt that they had a chance to stop the exhausted Persian fleet. However, the Persians were determined to break through the Greek blockade as otherwise their fleet could no longer sail up with the army along the coast. Xerxes decides to risk a frontal attack on 271 Greek triremes, even while he knew that the narrow strait diminished his numeric advantage. The serious naval engagements were indecisive, but even that was encouraging for the Greeks. The Persians had to retreat to open sea, and Xerxes was forced to sent a squadron of 200 triremes to encircle the island of Euboea and catch the Greeks in the rear. However, a furious storm destroyed most of these vessels. Like the famous historian Herodotus wrote: 'God thus doing his best to equalize the opposing forces'.

Phase two: the drama of Thermopylae

The Battle at Thermopylae









    The hesitations of the Spartans throughout the Persian wars could have been disastrous, but now they finally showed what they were made off. Small expeditions had shown that an attack on the Persian army in the plains would equalize suicide, so their king Leonidas had chosen Thermopylae very well. During 2500 years this place has changed very much, but in 490 it was the only way to southern Hellas. Leonidas positioned 7000 hoplites in this small pass between the mountains and the sea, and 1000 to guard the most vulnerable branch-road. The activities of the Greek fleet did not only split the Persian fleet from the Persian army, but it also prevented that Xerxes could land behind Thermopylae and attack this position in the rear. There was no other option for Xerxes left: he had to go through Thermopylae.

    Xerxes ordered his corps d'elite, the 10000 Immortals, to attack the Greek stronghold. This elite unite was called the Immortals as before a battle people were assigned to immediately take in the place of a fallen person. This way the strength of the unit was always the same. Leonidas' men held out magnificently for two days against the best that Xerxes could send at them, and they would have probably continued this for several more days if a traitor would not have shown the Persians an ill-guarded mountain track. The 1000 men who had to guard this path could not stop the sudden attack and were forced to retreat higher into the mountains. The Immortals could now move round on Leonidas' rear. When he heard of this he sent everybody home except his famed 300 Spartans and the men from Thespiae. The Thebans also stayed, but not because they wanted too: they were an insurance that Thebes would not collaborate to the Persians. All but the Thebans, who did surrender, fought and died. It was almost a victory.

The results of the battles

    The Persians could now march freely through the pass of Thermopylae and entered southern Hellas. The citizens of Athens had already been evacuated to the nearby island of Salamis when the Persians attacked Athens. The few defenders of Athens were all killed and the city was burnt down to the ground. However, two lessons had been learnt: that the Greek ships and sailors were adequate and the Greek hoplite was superior. The problem was that the army had only one defensive line left: the Isthmus of Corinth. As a result of this was the independence of Hellas in the hands of the small fleet.

    Leonidas left a young son, Pleistarchos, behind. This child became one of the two kings of Sparta, but a regent was assigned because of his age. This person was a cousin of Leonidas: Pausanias. He would play an important role in the last phase of the Persian wars.



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