Thermopylae Battle 480 BC - Herodotus History

Thermopylae Battle tour, visit the battle fields, Kolonos Hill, Interactive Museum...

Herodotus the historian tells us: 'Darius enquired who these Athenians were, and on being told ... he prayed "Grant to me, God, that might punish them", and he set a slave to tell him three times as he sat down to dinner "Master, remember Athenians".

THERMOPYLAE BATTLE 480BC

We visit Thermopylae as travelers, not as tourists

In the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC, an alliance of South Greek city-states fought the invading Persian army in the pass of Thermopylae. Vastly outnumbered, the Greeks delayed the enemy in one of the most famous last stands of history. A small force led by King Leonidas of Sparta blocked the only road through which the massive army of Xerxes I could pass. The Persians succeeded in defeating the Greeks but sustained heavy losses, disproportionate to those of the Greeks. A local resident named Ephialtes betrayed the Greeks, revealing a mountain path that led behind the Greek lines. Dismissing the rest of the army, King Leonidas stayed behind with 300 Spartans and 700 Thespian volunteers. Though they knew it meant their own deaths, they secured the retreat of the other Greek forces.

The losses of the Persian army alarmed Xerxes. When his navy was later defeated at Salamis he fled Greece leaving only part of his force to finish the conquest of Greece. It was defeated at the Battle of Plataea.The performance of the defenders at the battle of Thermopylae is often used as an example of the advantages of training, equipment and good use of terrain to maximize an army's potential, as well as a symbol of courage against overwhelming odds. The heroic sacrifice of the Spartans and the Thespians has captured the minds of many throughout the ages and has given birth to many cultural references as a result.

Herodotus says:The force with Leonidas was sent forward by the Spartans in advance of their main body, that the sight of them might encourage the allies to fight, and hinder them from going over to the Medes, as was likely they might have done had they seen that Sparta was backward.

They intended presently, when they had celebrated the Carneian Festival, which was what now kept them at home, to leave a garrison in Sparta, and hasten in full force to join the army. The rest of the allies intended to act similarly; for it happened that the Olympic Festival fell exactly at this same period. None of them looked to see the contest at Thermopylae decided so speedily; wherefore they were content to send forward a mere advance guard. Such accordingly were the intentions of the allies.

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Leonidas the Spartan king was put in charge of the army at Thermopylae. Of his over lordship Herodotus says only that they especially looked up to him. He was convinced that he was going to certain death, which he would not have been if he had thought the forces given him were adequate for a victory. He selected only men who had fathered sons that were old enough to take over the family responsibilities.

Plutarch mentions in his Sayings of Spartan Women that after encouraging her husband before his departure for the battlefield, Gorgo, the wife of Leonidas, asked him what she should do when he had left. To this he replied: Marry a good man, and have many good children. Another common saying of Spartan Women was: Come home with your shield or on it. The meaning being that the soldier was to return home either victorious (with your shield) or dead - i.e. carried away from the battle field (on their shield), rather than fleeing the battle and dropping their shield in cowardice (as it was too heavy a piece of armor to carry while running).

Topography of the battlefield. At the time, the pass of Thermopylae consisted of a track along the shore of the Gulf of Malis so narrow that only one chariot could pass through. On the southern side of the track stood the cliffs, while on the north side was the gulf. Along the path was a series of three constrictions, or "gates" (pylai), and at the center gate a short wall that had been erected by the Phobias in the previous century to aid in their defense against Thessalian invasions.

The name "hot gates" comes from the hot springs that were located there. Today the pass is not that, but is inland, due to infilling of the Gulf of Malis. The old track appears at the foot of hills around the plain, flanked by a modern road. It still is a natural defensive position to modern armies.

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From Herodotus Book VII

When the Medes were being roughly handled, they were retreating, and the Persians, whom the king was calling immortals, having shown themselves forth, were advancing, of whom the first was Hydarnes. It was thought that they would accomplish victory. But when they were battling the Greeks, they were bearing no more success than the Medes, but the same results. For fighting in a small passage, they could not make use of their number, and using smaller spears, could not engage the Greeks with success.

And turning their backs, the Greeks would flee convincingly, and the Persians would advance with a shout and a din. The triumphing ones would turn to be the Greeks, and the ones having turned themselves were holding off the greater number of Persians. A few of the Spartans were falling due to the superiority of the Persian force, but the Persians were not able to take hold of the pass. It is said that Xerxes, looking on, jumped from his seat three times in fear for his army.

​On the following day, the Persians were contending no more successfully. With some of the Greeks surviving, (the Persians) hoping that they (The Greeks), having been covered in wounds, would not be able to raise their hands (to fight), attacked again; but having been arranged by clan and company, the Greeks were surviving, and each one was fighting in share, except for the Phocians, who were guarding the other pass.

Late on the second day of battle, as the king was pondering what to do next, he received a windfall circumstance: a Malian, named Ephialtes, informed him of a path around Thermopylae and offered to guide them. Ephialtes was motivated by the desire of a reward, though he was later assassinated. The path led from east of the Persian camp along the ridge of Mt. Anopaea behind the cliffs that flanked the pass. It branched, one path leading to Phocis, and the other down to the Gulf of Malis at Alpenus, first town of Locris. Leonidas had stationed 1000 Phocian volunteers on the heights to guard this path..

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For all their previous indignation and insistence on a defense at Thermopylae, they were not prepared: there were no advance positions, sentinels or patrols. Their first warning of the approach of the Immortals under Hydarnes was the rustling of oak leaves at first light on the third day of the battle. Herodotus says that they "jumped up", suggesting that they were still asleep, and were "greatly amazed", which no alert unit should have been. Hydarnes was as amazed to see them hastily arming themselves. He feared that they were Spartans, but was enlightened by Ephialtes. Not wishing to be delayed by an assault, Hydarnes resorted to a tactic that later turned out to be the winning one: he fired "showers of arrows" at them. The Phocians retreated to the crest of the mountain, there to make a last stand (their story). The Persians branched left to Alpenus. For this act, the name of Ephialtes received a lasting stigma: it means "nightmare" and is synonymous with "traitor" in Greek

During The Battle (Herodotus History Part II)

After several days of fighting, Magistias, a Greek "seer", inspected the entrails of an animal sacrifice. It was custom of the Greeks to slice an animals underside and inspect its internal organs. By the shape and color of the organs of the sacrifice, the Greeks would determine whether the battle would end favorably for them (or not). On this day, however, Magistias inspected the sacrifice, and he told the Greeks in Thermopylae that death was destined to them at dawn. The Greeks, however, were unfazed by this grim omen.

They were less concerned about living or dying, than they were with how many Persians they killed (apparently, this bad omen was referring to Ephialtes and his betrayal of the Greeks). He was leading a large group of Persians through a "cow path" which was really unknown to many. This path would lead the Persians behind the Lacedemonians, ergo allowing the Persians to fight on both sides of the Lacedemonians. Many of the Greeks were arguing not to stay and fight the battle because it was suicidal, so Leonidas himself dismissed them. However the Spartans, the Thespians, and the Thebans alone were staying to fight. The Thebans were not wanting to fight but Leonidas was holding them hostage by their word. The Thespians however, declared that they would not leave Leonidas behind and that they would fight to the death beside him and the Spartans. Demophilius, son of Diadromes, was the general of them. This section has been translated from Herodotus, and then explained by Mr. Gregory J Knittel, Ph.D.

Final stand of the Spartans and Thespians: None of the actions of the Persians were a surprise to Leonidas. From a variety of sources he was kept apprised of their every move, receiving first intelligence of the outflanking movement before first light. When he learned that the Phocians had not held, he called a council. It was just at dawn.Some of the Greeks wished to depart, and some to stay. At the end of the council some departed.

Herodotus believed that Leonidas blessed their departure with an order, but he related the other point of view, that they departed without orders. The Spartans had pledged themselves to fight to the death, and the Thebans were held as hostage against their will. However, a contingent of about 700 Thespians, led by general Demophilus, the son of Diadromes, refused to leave with the other Greeks, but cast in their lot with the Spartans. Ostensibly the Spartans were obeying their oath and following the oracle from Delphi.

However, it would have been good generalship to delay the advance of the Persians and cover the retreat of the Greek army; in fact, with the Persians so close at hand, it probably was a tactical requirement, made more palatable by the oracle. At dawn Xerxes made libations, waited until he thought the Immortals had time to descend the mountain, and then began to advance. The Greeks this time sallied out from the wall to meet them in the wider part of the pass with a view toward slaughtering as many as they could. This they succeeded in doing. They fought with spears until the spears were all shattered and then switched to xiphoi (short swords). In this struggle Herodotus tells us that two brothers of Xerxes fell, Abrocomes and Hyperanthes. Leonidas also died in the assault. The Greeks and the Persians fought for his body, the Greeks winning. Receiving intelligence that Ephialtes and the Immortals were coming up, the Greeks withdrew and took a stand on a small hill " Kolonos" behind the wall. The Thebans under Leontiades put hands up, but a few were slain before the surrender was accepted.  Some of the remaining Greeks were fighting with their hands and teeth. Tearing down part of the wall, Xerxes ordered the hill surrounded and the Persians rained down arrows until the last Greek was dead. Archaeology has confirmed the arrow shower at the end.

Aftermath  When the body of Leonidas was recovered by the Persians, Xerxes, in a rage at the loss of so many of his soldiers, ordered that the head be cut off, and the body crucified. This was very uncommon for the Persians: they had the habit of treating enemies that fought bravely against them with great honor, as the example of Asonides captured earlier off Skyros shows. Xerxes was known for his rages, as when he had the Hellespont whipped because it would not obey him. After the departure and defeat of the Persians the Greeks collected their dead and buried them on the hill. A stone lion was erected to commemorate Leonidas. Forty years after the battle Leonidas' body was returned from Thermopylae to Sparta, where he was buried again with full honors and funeral games were held every year.The simultaneous naval Battle of Artemisium was a draw, whereupon the Athenian navy retreated. The Persians had control of the Aegean Sea and all of Greece as far south as Attica; the Spartans prepared to defend the Isthmus of Corinth and the Peloponnese, while Xerxes sacked Athens, whose inhabitants had already fled to Salamis Island.

Poet Simonides

The Spartan Poet and Historian Simonides composed a well-known epigram, which 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. Spyridon Marinatos discovered large numbers of Persian arrowheads there. The original stone is not to be found now Instead the epitaph was engraved on a new stone erected in 1955

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The text is: ΄Ω ξείν', αγγέλλειν Λακεδαιμονίοις ότι τήδε κείμεθα, τοίς κεινών ρήμασι πειθόμενοι.

O xein', angellein Lacedemonians hoti tede keimetha tois keinon rhemasi peithomenoi.

An ancient alternative rendering substitutes πειθόμενοι νομίμοις for ρήμασι πειθόμενοι. The form of this ancient Greek poetry is an elegiac couplet. Tell them in Lacedemonians, passer-by Obedient to our orders, here we lie

Poet Simonides

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