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Battle at Thermopylae - 480 B.C.

Basics on this Important Persian War Battle

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Leonidas.jpg

CIRCA 1986: Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), Leonidas at Thermopylae. (Photo By DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini/Getty Images)

De Agostini/Getty Images
Battle of Thermopylae

Engraving depicting the Battle of Thermopylae, during the second Persian Invasion of the Greek Wars, Greece, 480 B.C.

(Photo by Frederic Lewis/Archive Photos/Getty Images)
Xerxes the Great

Xerxes the Great

Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

What Was Thermopylae and What Was the Battle at Thermopylae?:

Thermopylae (lit. "hot gates") was a pass the Greeks tried to defend in battle against the Persian forces led by Xerxes, in 480 B.C. The Greeks (Spartans and allies) knew they were outnumbered and hadn't a prayer, so it was no surprise that the Persians won the Battle of Thermopylae.

The Spartans who led the defense were all killed, and they may have known in advance that they would be, but their courage provided inspiration to the Greeks. Had the Spartans and allies avoided what was in essence a suicide mission, many Greeks might have willingly medized* (become Persian sympathizers). At least that is what the Spartans feared. Although Greece lost at Thermopylae, the following year they won battles fought against the Persians.

Persians Attack the Greeks at Thermopylae:

Xerxes' fleet of Persian ships had sailed along the coastline from northern Greece into the Gulf of Malia on the eastern Aegean Sea towards the mountains at Thermopylae. The Greeks faced the Persian army at a narrow pass there that controlled the only road between Thessaly and Central Greece. Spartan King Leonidas was general in charge of the Greek forces that tried to restrain the vast Persian army, to delay them, and keep them from attacking the rear of the Greek navy, which was under Athenian control. Leonidas may have hoped to block them long enough that Xerxes would have to sail away for food and water.

Ephialtes and Anopaia:

Spartan historian Kennell says no one expected the battle to be as short as it was. After the Carnea festival, more Spartan soldiers were to arrive and help defend Thermopylae against the Persians. Unfortunately for Leonidas, after a couple of days, a medizing traitor named Ephialtes led the Persians around the pass running behind the Greek army, thereby squashing the remote chance of Greek victory. The name of Ephialtes' path is Anopaea (or Anopaia). Its exact location is debated.

Leonidas sent away most of the amassed troops.

Greeks Fight the Immortals:

On the third day, Leonidas led his 300 Spartan hoplite elite troops (selected because they had living sons back home), plus their Boeotian allies from Thespiae and Thebes, against Xerxes and his army, including the "10,000 Immortals." The Spartan-led forces fought this unstoppable Persian force to their deaths, blocking the pass long enough to keep Xerxes and his army occupied while the rest of the Greek army escaped.

The Aristeia of Dieneces:

Aristeia relates to both virtue and the reward given the most honored soldier. In the Battle at Thermopylae, Dieneces was the most honored Spartan. According to Spartan scholar Paul Cartledge, Dieneces was so virtuous that when told there were so many Persian archers that the sky would grow dark with the flying missiles, he replied laconically: "So much the better -- we shall fight them in the shade." Spartan boys were trained in night raids, so although this was a show of bravery in the face of countless enemy weapons, there was more to it.

A Bit About Themistocles:

Themistocles was the Athenian in charge of the Athenian naval fleet that was nominally under the command of the Spartan Eurybiades. Themistocles had persuaded the Greeks to use the bounty from a newly discovered vein of silver at its mines at Laurium to build a naval fleet of 200 triremes. When some of the Greek leaders wanted to leave Artemisium before the battle with the Persians, Themistocles bribed and bullied them into staying. His behavior had consequences: Some years later, his fellow Athenians ostracized the heavy-handed Themistocles.

The Corpse of Leonidas:

There is a story that after Leonidas died, the Greeks tried to retrieve the corpse by means of a gesture worthy of the Myrmidons trying to rescue Patroclus in the Iliad XVII. It failed. The Thebans surrendered; the Spartans and Thespians retreated and were shot by Persian archers. The body of Leonidas may have been crucified or beheaded on Xerxes' orders. It was retrieved about 40 years later.

Aftermath:

The Persians, whose naval fleet had already suffered seriously from storm damage, then (or simultaneously) attacked the Greek fleet at Artemisium, with both sides suffering heavy losses. According to the Greek historian Peter Green, the Spartan Demaratus (on Xerxes' staff) recommended splitting the navy and sending part to Sparta, but the Persian navy had been too heavily damaged to do so -- fortunately for the Greeks.

In September of 480, aided by northern Greeks, the Persians marched on Athens and burned it to the ground, but it had been evacuated.

More on the Persian Wars:

 

Further Reading on Thermopylae

Dating the Battle of Thermopylae

  • "Herodotus and the Dating of the Battle of Thermopylae," by Kenneth S. Sacks. The Classical Quarterly, New Series, Vol. 26, No. 2. (1976), pp. 232-248.
  • "New Light on Thermopylai," by W. Kendrick Pritchett. American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 62, No. 2. (Apr., 1958), pp. 203-213.
* Medize comes from the word Mede, the name many Greeks used for the Persians. The Persian king accepted as supporters peoples who offered him earth and water. The significance of these gifts is debated, but it signaled acceptance of the superiority of the Persian king. In 507/6, an Athenian delegation may have offered these gifts to the nearest Persian satrap, Artaphrenes, in Sardis, according to Peter Krentz in The Battle of Marathon.

 

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