The Battle of Thermopylae Facts
Written by Peter Fitzgerald
History of War - Ancient Wars
Many will know of the Battle of Thermopylae as it was made famous by the film 300 which depicts a small number of Greek forces under the leadership of Leonidas battling against thousands of Persian warriors. This is a great film but there is more to this battle than meets the eyes, this being said the outline of the film does depict one famous part of the battle.
Battle of Thermopylae Facts
The date of the Battle of Thermopylae is in debate with two dates under contention. The dates in question are either August 7th or September 8th to the 10th of the year 480 BC.
The battle was between the defending Greek city-states led by Athenian General Themistocles, King Leonidas I of Sparta and Demophilus of Thespiae and the attacking Persian army of Xerxes I of Persia. The total number of forces on both sides are still debated but the Greek numbered between 5,200 to 11,200 and the Persian between 70,000 and 300,000 (historical numbers put the Persian army at around 2,000,000 men).
Before the Battle
The battle occurred because the forces of Xerxes I, King of Persia marched through Thrace and Macedon on their way to Greece. The Greeks found out about this but the Spartans, renowned warriors in Greece were enjoying a festival called Carneia in which no armed battles were allowed to take place.
Given the urgency because of the large Persian army marching on Greece it was deemed that there was ample reason to still go into battle. King Leonidas I of Sparta was the chosen leader and he took to the Oracle to find out what would happen in battle, the Oracle advised that he would die. Because of what the Oracle had said Leonidas chose 300 men of the Royal bodyguard who had sons to carry on the family lineage as he knew he would not die alone.
As the Spartans marched on Thermopylae their numbers swelled to over 5,000 by gaining more soldiers from other Greek cities, as mentioned earlier in the article. Upon reaching Thermopylae the Greek armed forces camped at the narrowest pass called the 'middle gate' where the Phocians had built a defensive wall.
Of the men with Leonadis he stationed a four figure number of Phocians high in the mountains to protect a hidden goat trail so the armed forces could not be ambushed by the advancing Persian army.
When the Persians landed they sent their emissary, something common in the times prior to battle. The emissary offered terms that would mean no battle would take place but while being classed as free men would also mean being subservient to the Persians’.
The Battle of Thermopylae
The position of the Greek army at the narrow pass at Thermopylae was a tactical move, the idea that was the Greek army was a lot smaller but because the pass was tight the Persian army would not be able to overrun the Greeks.
Five days after the Persians arrived at Thermopylae the battle commenced with Xerxes sending men to bring the Greeks back, this did not happen as a battle started. The Greeks standing in front of the Phocians defensive wall formed the Greek phalanx, an impenetrable wall of men that rotated continuously so those out of the battle will be brought in and out keeping the Greeks from tiring.
Xerxes sent Medes and Cissians for the first day’s engagement and watched in horror as the Greek soldiers demolished those attacking them without losing many men. This caused Xerxes to use his Elite troops called the Immortals on the second assault of the first day; these soldiers were feared because they were seen as men that couldn’t die. This was not the case though as the Immortals also ended up suffering heavy losses.
The second day ended up in the same vain as the first with Xerxes becoming furious as more men were sent to the slaughter, the day finished with Xerxes withdrawing his forces back to camp frustrated. Unfortunately for the Greeks the fortunes of Xerxes changed when a Greek called Ephialtes went to Xerxes hoping for reward by telling Xerxes about the Goat trail in the mountains.
On the third day Xerxes sent a force of men under the leadership of commander Hydarnes to go through the Goat trail where the Phocians were defending. The Phocians were surprised when they saw the Persians and took up weapons before moving back to a hill for defence as they expected a fierce battle. The Persians however did not attack; they sent a volley of arrows and continued on their way to cut off the Greek force led by Leonidas.
One of the Phocians had run to Leonidas as soon as the Persians were seen so the Greeks knew what was coming. This caused the Greek commanders to hold council and decide what will happen, this finished with nearly all the Greek force withdrawing or being ordered to do so. With the Persians coming there were only 300 Spartans, 400 Thebans and 700 Thespians left to do battle.
As the Persians were coming down from the mountain Xerxes also sent his army for a frontal attack, in response the Greeks moved out into the wider part of the pass. During the ensuing battle the Greeks fought hard but Leonadis was killed by Persian archers causing a battle for the body which the Greeks won. The Greeks retreated to the defensive position of a hill where they made their last stand until Persian archers sent volley after volley of arrows until the Greek soldiers were all dead.