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300 Spartans vs the World - The Battle of Thermopylae

Among the Greco-Persian battles, the Battle of Thermopylae (480 B.C) is evidently one of the most iconic and one whose memory has stood the test of time. It is a well-known Western battle not due to the unity or victory of the Greek city-states, most of which were always at war, until they faced the destruction from Persia. Although the Greeks lost the battle, their courage, especially that of Spartans and their king Leonidas, is recalled in the modern era.

Background to the Battle

Persia subdued large territories of land from ancient Persia (present Iran) to present Greece. Most of Greek city-states had been captured and made client states of the Persian king Darius ((Lendon, 2006). However, some of the independent-minded Greek city-states decided to rise in revolt led by Athens. According to Herodotus (Macaulay, trans. 1890), Darius was furious that Athens dared to resist. He gathered his troops in a bid to subdue Greece, but his army was overwhelmed by Athenian Army at the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. Therefore, his death a few years later meant that he was unable to capture Greek city-states.

Darius's son Xerxes succeeded his father. After suppressing a revolt in Egypt, Xerxes sought to fulfill his father's mission of crushing the Athenians and other rebellious Greeks. Being aware of how courageous the Greeks had been at the Battle of Marathon, in which significantly larger forces led by his father lost, Xerxes took four years to prepare for the battle and amass troops and supplies.


The Battle

The Persian Empire was one of the largest in the ancient world. It comprised various people from Persians, to Mendes, Hyrcanians, and Assyrians who constituted the army. Lendon (2006, p.59) explains that when the Greeks saw the costumes from Asia and Africa that the Persian Army wore, they were amazed. Herodotus estimated the army to have had 1.7 million people, excluding the Navy. However, modern historians disregarded this number stating that it was overestimated when taking into account the logistical capacities of the states of that era, including transportation, feeding the army and arming soldiers (Lendon, 2006, p.61). With such a tremendous army, it is possible that Xerxes did not expect significant resistance from the rebellious city-states. At the same time, some of the Greek states did not want to surrender.

The Greek states had continuously been at war with each other for decades. However, in the face of certain destruction, after realizing that the Persians would take one city after another, the city-states forgot their grievances against each other and called a congress (Lendon, 2006, p.59-61). The survival of the Greeks and their freedom were dependent on a Pan-Hellenic defense. Greeks had a strategic advantage in that not only they knew their country well but also the landscape favored them. Among the most daunting territories was Thermopylae, which means "hot gates." According to Herodotus (Macaulay, trans. 1890), the passage was so narrow that "only one chariot could pass at a time." This strategic thinking was to be manifested in the battle.

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The Greeks knew that after forcing the Persian army into the bottleneck that Thermopylae was, it would not be able to make use of their large numbers. The Greek army in comparison to the Persians was comprised of only 7,000 men, and among them 300 were royal guards of their warrior king Leonidas, who led to the defense. However, Diodorus (Oldman, trans. 1989) notes there were 1,000 Spartans rather than 300. As a result, modern historians oscillate between these positions. Herodotus (Macaulay, trans. 1890) explains that before the start of the battle, an oracle had told Leonidas that Sparta would either undergo destruction or its king would die. Consequently, in choosing his 300 men, Leonidas ensured that they had male heirs and convinced they would die with him (Lendon, 2006). Early spies from the Persian army reported that they had found Spartans making their hair (Lendon, 2006, p.42). King Xerxes could not comprehend what he saw as vanity; however, it was the common occurrence for the Spartans to make their hair while they were about to risk their lives.

With the narrow passes and the Persian attempts to pass through the Thermopylae, they had heavy casualties inflicted on them by the Greeks. At first, the Mendes and the Cissians, the first forces to be sent by Xerxes, retreated with considerable casualties. The king's special fighting force the Immortals were next to fight. Being a feared force, the Immortals were expected to easily defeat the Greeks. However, with the Greeks led by the valiant Spartans occupying a vantage point, the Immortals also took heavy casualties. The tight battlefield meant that the immensely superior army of the Persians and their allies did not count as an advantage. As long as the Greeks kept the Persians at Thermopylae, they could hold them without engaging in open battle until the Persians exhausted themselves, morale dropped, or their supplies exhausted and they had to retreat. Diodorus (Oldman, trans. 1989) has a different idea on this issue stating that the Greeks led by Leonidas attacked the Persians under the cover of night. In the ensuing confusion, the Persians killed themselves. However, this view seems to be disregarded by modern historians.

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The entire war plan of the Greek army appeared to have had a basis on holding the Persians at bay at Thermopylae. According to Herodotus (Macaulay, trans. 1890), a traitor known as Epilates approached the Persian king and directed him along another path, round the mountains, that would have had the Persians disregard Thermopylae. The path had hitherto been known only to the Greeks, and it seems to have been a miscalculation on their part not to station a significant force to block the Persians there in case they discovered it. Phosians, who were defending the path, did not expect the Persians to know of it; thus, the Persians took them by surprise (Lendon, 2006, p.61). Thus, this proved to be the biggest mistake the Greeks made in the war.

Using the new mountain path and the cover of night, the Persians ascended to Thermopylae. Greeks had two choices, namely they could either take a final stand or flee and have the Persians pursue them, while wreaking havoc in the land. After deliberation, Greeks agreed on a middle ground. Leonidas, his Spartan soldiers, would take a final stand against the Persians which would allow the rest of the Hellenes army to retreat in an orderly manner (Lendon, 2006, p.61). Thespians also elected to stay with their Spartan brothers the same as the Thebans did, but who would surrender a little while later (Lewis, 2010, p.39). The reasons for Leonidas' self-sacrifice will never be clear. It many have been because the Spartans were known for their valor in the ancient world. However, it may have been a result of the prediction of the oracle who said that Sparta (and Greece) would either fall or the king would die; thus, as he saw it, he had no alternative but to fight for his homeland's freedom. Commenting on this, Lewis (2010, p.22) asserts that it was at Thermopylae that Greeks defended their freedom. Herodotus (Macaulay, trans. 1890) suggests that Leonidas was driven by the need to "to lay up for himself glory above all Spartans." Whatever his immediate motivations were, he succeeded in holding the Persians.

Led by Leonidas, the Spartans fearlessly resisted for as long as they could. Herodotus (Macaulay, trans. 1890) notes that they fought with their spears until the spears broke, then with swords and after that "they used their teeth and hands." Herodotus (Macaulay, trans. 1890) claims that the 300 Spartans and 700 Thespians inflicted casualties of up to 20,000 on the Persians, among which was the brave king Leonidas.

Thus, the Persians were at last able to break the defense of the Greeks and killed all the Spartans and their defending allies. They ransacked most of the Greek country adjacent to Thermopylae. Nevertheless, this was a Pyrrhic victory as the Persians were defeated in a naval battle few months later at Salamis, and they were never able to subjugate all of the Greece (Lewis, 2010, p.12). After a while, they had to withdraw as Xerxes feared that the Greeks would destroy bridges and trap his army in Europe. At that time, due to disease and hunger, he lost most of his army. The enduring memory of the battle is the honor and courage which the Greeks, mainly Spartans, fought with while faced with severe difficulties. Greeks commemorated this for many years and erected monuments in memory of the brave souls. Among them was the most famous, as recorded by Lendon (2006),

Go tell the Spartans

Stranger passing by here

Obeying their commands, we lie. (p. 66)

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The Battle of Thermopylae took place between the forces of King Xerxes of Persia and a confederation of the Greek city-states. An examination of the battle reveals courage of the Greek army when they fought with Persians, giving them a faint possibility to rejoice in Pyrrhic victory. After holding the Persians at the Thermopylae using its geographical feature, the Greeks were betrayed by one of their own soldiers. The Spartans led by King Leonidas held the Persians, while allowing the rest of the Greek army to retreat in an orderly fashion rather than all the Greek army facing the Persians which would have led to the decimation of the entire army. The Persians obtained a Pyrrhic victory one as their Navy was embarrassed by Greeks in the battle Salamis and they had to retreat before the Greeks trapped them in Europe. Furthermore, they lost most of the soldiers as a result of disease and starvation.

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