“For the Spartans, it wasn’t walls or magnificent public buildings that made a city; it was their own ideals. In essence, Sparta was a city of the head and the heart. And it existed in its purest form in the disciplined march of a hoplite phalanx on their way to war!” – Bettany Hughes, Writer/Historian
(For Part One, go here)
THE PERSIAN WARS
Sparta’s finest hour came in the early 5th century B.C. when Persia, the greatest empire that the Ancient World had yet produced, launched two separate invasions of Greece and Europe.
The Persian Empire had been founded by Cyrus the Great in the 6th Century B.C. Under Cyrus and his successors this empire had devoured all the other states of the Middle East. By the dawn of the 5th century the Persian Empire covered an expanse of land that stretched from Libya in the west to India in the east. Its northern borders rested on the edge of the vast Eurasian steppes, its southern on the Indian Ocean. In the west the Persian Empire bordered on the Aegean Sea, across which it eyed the turbulent, independent city-states of Greece with suspicion and disdain.
In 546 B.C., the Cyrus the Great had incorporated the Greek cities along the Aegean coast of Asia Minor (modern Turkey) into his empire. But in 500-499 B.C., these Greek cities of Ionia had rebelled against Persian rule. In this revolt the rebels were aided by the Ionian “mother city”, Athens; as well as the small city of Eretria on the island of Euboea. The revolt was short lived; but Persian memory was long.
In 490 B.C. Darius I (called “the Great”) dispatched an expeditionary task force under two commanders, Datis and Artaphernes, to punish Athens and Eretria. The size of the force has at times been exaggerated, but was likely around 50,000 men. It was transported across the Aegean by a substantial fleet of warships.
The Persians quickly overcame and destroyed Eretria. The force was then landed on the Greek mainland at the beach of Marathon, only 25 miles from Athens. Athens sent to Sparta for aid.
But at that moment the Spartans were in the midst of a religious festival, and would be delayed till its completion, many days later.
So with only the 10,000 hoplites of their own city (plus a minor contingent from the nearby town of Plataea), the Athenians engaged the Persians on their own at Marathon.
The Battle of Marathon showed the world for the first time the inherent superiority at close-quarters fighting of Greek hoplites over the lighter armed archers of Asia. The Persian Army, despite its numerical advantage, was routed and thrown (literally!) back into the sea.
Ten years later Darius’ son and successor, Xerxes, launched a second invasion. This one was far, far larger in size and scope than his father’s. Darius had sent a punitive expedition. Xerxes led an invasion, the purposes of which was to bring the free city-states of Greece into “the fold” of the Persian Empire.
To this end Xerxes massed an army of immense size, drawn from the farthest regions of his vast empire. It included not only Persians, Medes, and Elamites, the “first races” of the Perisan Empire; but contingents levied from the far-flung corners of the empire and from beyond its fringes. Scythians from the steppes of what is now the Ukraine marched in line with warriors from far southern Ethiopia. Contingents from distant Bactria (Afghanistan) served with Ionian Greeks from the Asian coast. The Greek historian Herodotus, who lived through and wrote shortly after the Persian Wars (as the Greeks came to call them), claimed that the Persian host numbered at over one-million fighting men. However, most modern scholars believe the number to be between a quarter to a half as much as Herodotus assumed. Even so, it was an army so large (including camp followers and animals) that it is reputed to have drunk whole rivers dry as it passed!
Across the approximately one mile wide Hellespont (the modern Dardanelles) a pontoon bridge was erected. Made of several hundred biremes and triremes lashed together and supported by several hundred tons of flax and papyrus cable, it supported a packed-earth road over which the Persian horde marched, dry-footed, from Asia into Europe. This was a major engineering accomplishment, the likes of which would not be seen till modern times.
The Thracians and Macedonians submitted to the Persians without a fight, giving tokens of “earth and water”: symbols of obeisance to the Great King’s authority. The way was clear for Xerxes to march south into Greece unmolested.
The Greeks took council at Corinth, to decide how best to meet this deadly threat. After much debate, it was decided to dispatch an expeditionary force to Thermopylae (the “Hot Gates”), a spot along the coast where the mountains come down to the sea, creating a narrow passage.
The battlefield of Thermopylae looking from in front of the Phocian Wall toward the narrow West Gate. The ancient shoreline, which paralleled the current highway, is here restored.
Though Thermopylae was not the only way the Persians could enter central Greece, it was the only practical way. The vast Persian host was far too large to feed itself on what it could carry, drag along, or steal from the surrounding country as it passed. It relied on the fleet to carry or transport from Asia enough stores to supply it as it marched south into Greece. Therefore, this vast horde had no recourse but to hug the coast, maintaining close contact with the equally vast armada Xerxes had levied from his maritime subject-states throughout the eastern Mediterranean.
And the coast road into southern Greece ran through Thermopylae!
THE LION AT THE HOT GATES
It was decided at Corinth that the Spartans would lead in this war to save Greece from Persian domination. Therefore, the leader of the expedition to Thermopylae would be one of the two Spartan Kings.
The ephors and kings took council, and consulted with the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi. The“Pythia” returned a disturbing prophecy: either Sparta, or a Spartan king, must perish. For Athens, the Oracle’s prophecy was even more terrifying: “Flee, doomed men, to the ends of the earth!” However, upon “further review”, the Oracle modified the prophecy, adding that Athens would find salvation in her “wooden walls”. The meaning of the latter was taken by some leading Athenians, particularly her statesman, Themistocles, as meaning that Athens’ fleet, made of wood, would provide the wall of salvation between her and the Persians.
Idyllic Delphi, site of the ancient Oracle. It was here that the Greeks came to learn their future from the “Pythia”, a priestess of Apollo.
At last it was decided that King Leonidas, of the senior branch of the monarchy, the Agiadae, would lead a picked band of 300 Spartans to the pass of Thermopylae to spearhead and command a relatively small Greek advance guard of some 7,000 hoplites. Each of Leonidas’ 300 was chosen for two attributes: first, that they were men of proven valor; and second, that they all had living sons to take their place, should they fall. These were not the lean, muscled young men portrayed on-screen. Considering that a Spartan was not allowed to marry till he was 30 years old, and that “living sons” would likely mean grown or nearly grown young men, then the picked 300 Spartans were men in their 40s and 50s. Leonidas, born in the 540s, was himself a vigorous man in his 60s at the time of Thermopylae!
Late in the summer of 490 B.C., Leonidas and the 300 marched north to the pass, taking their station at the head of the allied force.
Statue of Leonidas at Thermopylae. While no contemporary statue of the brave Spartan king exists, this modern piece conveys an impression true to what we know of this, Sparta’s most famous ruler!
Religious festivals and the coming Olympic Games kept the Greek states from immediately mobilizing their strength. It can also be speculated that in every Greek polis there were men in positions of influence who were pessimistic regarding resistance; and were simply hedging their bets, unwilling to commit too much of their manpower resources to trying to stop the seemingly unstoppable. Therefore few troops from other cities came to join the Spartans at Thermopylae. In all, some 7,000 Greek hoplites and skirmishers would comprise the defenders at the Hot Gates.
Though they brought only 300 out of the total force of 7,000, the Spartans and their king took command over the whole. One of the allied commanders, a Phocian, questioned the Spartan’s right to leadership when their contribution to the coalition was so small. Leonidas asked, “How many soldiers did you bring, friend?”
The Phocian replied, “We came with 1,000”.
Leonidas then asked him what he did for a living under normal circumstances. The Phocian answered, “I am a potter”.
Leonidas turned to another Phocian standing beside his commander. “What do you do, friend”? “I am a farmer”, this one replied.
Leonidas asked each of the Phocians standing nearby, and each gave a similar answer to the first: they each had a “civilian” occupation.
The Spartan king finally gestured towards his men, busy oiling their armor and sharpening their weapons.
“Well”, Leonidas pointed out, “I bring 300 soldiers”.
Every Spartan was a soldier, a professional, every day of the year, in war or peace.
When the Persian hordes arrived and camped on the plain of the Spercheios River, at the northern end of the Thermopylae pass, Xerxes had his tent set up on a hilltop above the so-called West Gate of the pass, with a view of the Thermopylae. From there he could sit his high throne and observe his warriors when they advanced into the narrow neck of the pass. Looking down, the Great King saw what he thought, in the distance, were women sitting on stones, combing their hair. The king thought these some kind of Amazon warrior women. Standing beside Xerxes was a Spartan traitor: their exiled former king, Demaratus.
“Those are no Amazons”, warned Demaratus; “they are the Lacedaemonians (Spartans), your majesty: My own people, the bravest warriors in the world. They wear their hair long by law; for in Sparta long hair is considered to make a handsome man look even handsomer and an ugly one look fierce!
“They comb their hair before going into battle. For the Spartans go into battle as joyfully as other men go to a feast.”
Xerxes sent a herald forth to demand that the Spartans surrender. He warned the Greeks that resistance was futile, that the Great King’s army was so vast “their arrows would blot out the sun”.
Dienekes, a Spartan officer who would later be esteemed by the Spartans as the most valiant man to fight in the battle to come, quipped back to the Persian herald, “All the better. Then we shall fight in the shade!”
The herald, astonished at this insolence, demanded one last time that the Spartans lay down their arms.
Now Leonidas responded: “Molon Labe!”
This, in Greek, meant: “Come and take them!”
The pass of Thermopylae was divided by three so-called “gates”. The narrowest section of the pass, where Mount Kallidromos pressed closest to the sea was the “West Gate”. This was the entrance through which the Persians must pass to get at the Spartans.
Beyond the “West Gate” the pass opened up to a plain wide enough for fifty men to stand shoulder-to-shoulder. It was here, in front of a ruined wall built in the past by the local Phocian people, that Leonidas planned to fight his battle.
East of the Phocian Wall was the Middle Gate, and a mound which would later play a part in the battles final chapter. Past these was the East Gate, terminus of the pass of the Thermopylae.
That afternoon, the Great King watched from his high throne as his first division, the Medes, funneled through the narrow West Gate.
The second people of the Empire, this division of the army gave pride-of-place only to Xerxes own Imperial Guard, the Immortals. The Medes entered in their battle splendor, stepping proudly in their long flowing embroidered robes and trousers. Cuirasses of bronze scale girding their bodies, shields of wicker and short spears competing their panoply. Supporting the Medes in this initial assault were the Cissians, another proud people of the empire, differing from the Medes only in that they wore turbans instead of the bullet shaped, Assyrian-style helmets of the Medes.
These two divisions together numbers 20,000 troops. But Xerxes was to discover that though he had untold number of troops, he had few men!
On the plain in front of the Phocian Wall, the Spartan phalanx stood waiting. Though the usual depth of a spartan phalanx in battle was 12 ranks deep, there was room in the narrow pass for 300 men to form-up 50 shields across, and 6 ranks deep. Other Greek allies likely formed behind the Spartans, lending weight of depth to their phalanx.
Leonidas allowed the Medes to enter through the narrows, between cliff and sea. But once their vanguard began deploying in front of the phalanx, the Greeks advanced with locked-shields, closing rapidly with the Medes before their arrows could have much effect.
However brave, the Medes’ lighter shields and shorter spears were no match for the great bronze-covered aspis and long thrusting spears of the Spartans. While the armor and shields of the Spartans would turn or blunt their enemy’s blows, Greek spears pierced both wicker shields and scale cuirass of the easterners. Never before had these men of the Empire faced a foe so heavily armed, nor so trained in close-quarter combat. All of their experience was against foes who fought like themselves: at a distance with barrage of arrow or javelin, only using the spear as a last resort, or to close and finish an enemy weakened by their arrow storm.
But the Greek style of war proved its superiority that day, again confirming the verdict of Marathon: that the Greek method of war was by far the deadlier. It was one which distilled warfare down to its essence: to close with the enemy and butcher him where he stood!
The Spartans also showed on that day what a life-time’s training in arms could do for a warrior. Though the battle raged all throughout that morning and into the afternoon, the Spartans never fatigued; nor did their courage flag. Several times Leonidas gave the command to fall back, and the Spartans would feign flight, as though finally panicked into fleeing. The Medes and Cissians would break ranks and give chase, falling for the ruse; only to have the Spartans turn about upon them, reforming instantly their bristling phalanx of spears and locked-shields. The carnage would then be especially terrible for the surprised and disordered Medes.
Seeing his first efforts come to naught, Xerxes recalled the bloodied Medes late in the day. To Hydarnes, commander of his elite Immortals, he now gave the command to clear the pass of these pesky Spartans; bringing back only a few survivors to be displayed in cages throughout Asia, as one does captured lions.
Instead, to the Great King’s shock and horror, the Immortals received the same rough handling the Medes had been dealt!
Three times Xerxes leapt up from his throne in terror for the fate of his soldiers as they fell in droves beneath the Spartan’s spears. Others were driven back upon the ranks behind, bumping these in turn back towards the narrowest section of the pass, where the sheer press caused many to fall into the sea and perish.
The sun set that first day at Thermopylae with the Spartans still in possession of the pass; and the Persian host shaken and demoralized.
The second day went much like the first, with division-after-division of the Persian host entering the pass. All met the same fate as those who’d come before.
The Spartans were “spelled” from time-to-time by the other Greek contingents. Many had by this time succumbed to wounds or fatigue, and not a Spartan still alive was free of wounds. But they held the pass, and for every one that fell twenty of their foeman fell first.
That evening, Xerxes despaired of ever budging the Greeks from the Hot Gates. There was fear among his officers that if he continued to order them to what seemed sure suicide he risked mutiny, especially among soldiers of the disaffected subject nations.
At that darkest moment, a Greek entered the Persian camp with information to sell. This traitor, named Ephialtes of Trachis, was a “local” who knew the surrounding hills. He offered (for a price) to show the Great King’s troops a way around Thermopylae, by a hidden trail through the hills which would bring the Persians behind the Spartan position.
That evening Hydarnes and the remaining Immortals followed the traitor along this narrow goat path. Up and over the girding mountains beside the Hot Gates, till dawn found them descending again toward the sea. But now they were to the east of the pass, behind the defenders and threatening to cut off their retreat.
Unlike Xerxes, Leonidas was aware of the threat this path posed to his position in the pass. He had posted Phocians contingent in the hills along this track, to guard against such an eventuality. However, seeing the mass of Immortals descending toward their position, the Phocians loss heart and withdrew into the hills, allowing Hydarnes’ force to continue on.
From 1962’s “”300 Spartans”: Hydarnes and the traitor, Ephialtes, lead the Immortals through the mountains behind the Spartan position.
Word of Hydarnes’ movement reached Leonidas at his station in the pass. The Immortals were still in the hills, winding their way down, and the road south not yet blocked. Realizing that the defense of Thermopylae was no longer tenable, Leonidas dismissed the other Greek contingents, sending them home. Greece would need them alive to fight another day.
For the Spartans, there could be no retreat.
Their pride and reputation would not allow it. Further, they had been ordered to hold the pass at all costs, till reinforce or dead. As no reinforcements had arrived, Leonidas and the survivors of the original 300 were prepared to obey their orders, and die defending the Hot Gates.
Every Spartan spent his life in search of one thing more than any other: Kalos Thenatos, the “Beautiful Death” in battle. Here was the perfect time, the perfect place to leave an immortal name!
In any case, a rearguard must delay the Persians, allowing the rest of the Greek forces to withdraw un-pursued by the Persian cavalry.
With the Spartans remained two other Greek contingents: those of the city of Thebes, and that of another Boeotian town, the Thespians. The Thebans were suspected of harboring pro-Persian sentiments (joining the Persians was referred to as “Medizing”), and were being forced to stand as token of good faith. For their part, the brave Thespians begged to be allowed to stand with the Spartans to the end. All would subsequently give their lives that day to buy time for their comrades to escape.
Leonidas bid all remaining to eat a good breakfast that morning; for by evening, they would all be dining in Hades.
At mid-morning, Xerxes ordered a frontal attack on the pass. Leonidas, knowing that Hydarnes and the Immortals would soon be coming up from behind them, ordered the Greeks forward to meet them and find death bravely.
Herodotus says that here, during these final hours, the carnage was at its worst and the dead beyond counting. The dispirited Persian soldiers were driven forward with whips by their officers; while the Spartans fought with the reckless courage of men who know death awaits and have resigned themselves to taking as many of their foemen with them as possible.
Spears were sundered, swords broken, shields shattered, till the Spartans had nothing left to fight with but rocks picked-up from the ground. Or like wild beasts, their teeth and nails!
Yet still they fought on.
At some point, fighting in the foremost rank, Leonidas fell. A great struggle began over his body. Four times it switched hands, like a scene out of “The Iliad”, as the Greeks and Persians battled for the body of the Spartan king. The Spartans finally recovered their king’s corpse, just as Hydarnes’ detachment of the Immortals appeared in their rear.
Two views of the hill where the Spartans made their final stand. Above, the hillock viewed from near the ancient shoreline. Below, looking from “last stand hill” toward the battle plain and the West Gate in the distance. The road seen at the lower right is approximately where the ancient shoreline ran. Drawing off to a small hillock (known unofficially today as “last stand hill”) the Spartans and the other surviving Greeks formed a circle, around the body of Leonidas. There they stood their ground, as the Persians pelted them from all sides with missiles, till not a man remained alive.
The Persians had forced the pass, and Greece lay before them. But at the Hot Gates they had paid a ghastly price for the real estate they had captured.
No source lists the number of Persian dead; but it is not likely that less than 25,000 Persian troops fell there (and the number may have been considerably higher). Among the dead were two sons and two brothers of Xerxes himself. Worst, the entire Persian army was demoralized. They had met the Greeks in a place where numbers counted for little, where only courage and skill at arms meant victory. In this they had clearly been bested. There was little doubt in the minds of every man in the Great King’s host that had not the traitor shown them a way around the pass, retreat or death would have been their only options.
In Sparta, the news from Thermopylae was greeted with no outward sadness. Mourning robes were nowhere in evidence; nor was their wailing and lamentations. The Spartans who had died were martyrs to Greek freedom, and were honored above all men as heroes of Sparta.
Thermopylae was, in many respects, the Spartan Alamo. It became a source of intense pride, and a rallying cry for every Greek. Free men had stood their ground, and proven superior fighters to mere “slaves” of the Great King. By giving Greece the pride and will to resist what had seemed an unstoppable enemy, Thermopylae saved Greece. By extension, it saved Western Civilization.
“Go tell the Spartans, passerby, that here obedient to their laws we lie”
The Persian invasion would end the following year. The Persian fleet was first destroyed in the naval victory off Salamis against the combined fleets of the Greek states. His supply line now compromised, Xerxes was forced to withdraw with more than half of his army. The remaining portion of the Persian army, under Xerxes’ brother-in-law, Mardonius, would be destroyed at Plataea by a Spartan-led coalition force. There the Spartan phalanx would withstand a devastating arrow storm, followed by a charge of Persia’s finest armored cavalry led by Mardonius himself. The Persians were utterly routed, with Mardonius slain in the fighting!
Thermopylae and Plataea demonstrated the superiority of the Spartan warriors over all others. A reputation for invincibility was created, which would last for two generations. Only against other Greeks would the Spartans meet opponents worthy of their arms and which would challenge their hard-won status as the greatest fighting men in the world.
A word about Leonidas.
He was not the greatest Spartan king. Before Thermopylae, he wouldn’t have rated amongst the top five. He is the only one that most people today, some 2,500 years later, can name. Like William Barret Travis, who commanded the Texan defenders at the Alamo, the manner of his death reversed a life spent in relative obscurity, and made his name immortal.
NEXT: PART THREE, THE LION AND THE SHARK
- A suspiciously similar story is attributed to the Spartan king Agesiilaus, some 36 years later. See Bradford, E. Thermopylae: the Battle for the West, De Capo Press, 1980, P.66
- An alternative version of this story is told by Herodotus (7.226): “(…) the Spartan Dienekes is said to have proved himself the best man of all, the same who, as they report, uttered this saying before they engaged battle with the Medes:— being informed by one of the men of Trachis that when the Barbarians discharged their arrows they obscured the light of the sun by the multitude of the arrows, so great was the number of their host, he was not dismayed by this, but making small account of the number of the Medes, he said that their guest from Trachis brought them very good news, for if the Medes obscured the light of the sun, the battle against them would be in the shade and not in the sun.”
- Though it is nowhere attested in the sources, it is fair to speculate that the Spartans had come prepared for a suicide mission, understanding that they would not be returning. For this reason the 300 refused the annual issue of a new red cloak, understanding they had only weeks to live. This is why Leonidas only took older me with living heirs to take their place in the phalanx: these were expendables, and Sparta would live on even if they perished. Finally, the Oracle had warned that a Spartan king must die, or Sparta would perish. Surely, Leonidas knew he would not be returning. To save Sparta, he was prepared to sacrifice himself as had kings of old, to propitiate the gods with his own royal blood.
Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.