By J.D. Miller
A complete chronicle of the battle of Thermopylae is impossible because the
only survivors on the Allied side were the surrendered Thebans. It was possible
that Herodotus, the father of history, used the accounts of these Thebans for
his flawed history of the battle. Although some historians sympathize with
Herodotus, they do not completely agree with him nor take his word as complete
fact. For example, historian Arther Ferrill comments that "[Herodotus’] sources
were the men on the street. These two factors – inexperience and lack of really
good sources - excuse Herodotus as far as most scholars are concerned for his
"ignorance" of strategy and tactics and blunders in his narrative of military
action" (Ferrill 103).
In the prelude to the battle, the Persian attitude changes towards a
numerically inferior Greece, the Ionic revolt occurs, a brief discussion on the
battles of Marathon and Artemisium is described as well as the topographical
setup and favor of Thermopylae. After describing the battle, the conclusion
consists of the results of the conflict and of how we view the battle today. An
appendix has been added after the conclusion as a guide for the names of Greek
and Persian leaders. It is for the reader’s convenience, and if one gets lost,
one can refer to the appendix. The last section in this paper is for the works
In order to truly understand why the battle of Thermopylae happened, one must
trace the history of the Persians. Refraining from recalling the history of the
beginning of the Persian Empire, this paper begins when the Persians began to
threaten the Greeks and their colonies.
Prelude to Battle
By 525 B.C., the Persian Empire had grown from a small kingdom into one of the
largest empires in the world. This Empire stretched from Persia’s western
border at Troy to their eastern border in modern-day Russia. Babylon and Susa
became political centers of the Empire, as Persepolis was their ceremonial
center (Moerbeek 1). The Empire also had tolerance for other cultures and
religions; it was normal when a Persian man would marry a woman of the culture
they had just conquered. The king at the time before Thermopylae was Darius, a
priest of the Median class of magicians who faked his identity by saying that
he was the brother of the murdered heir (Moerbeek 1). Darius did not hold the
same tolerance for other cultures, especially those of Greece.
At that time, it was not unusual for conquerors to take over colonies and allow
them to continue life and trade as normal. For example, the Lydians, a tribe
from the western part of Asia Minor, had conquered Greece’s colonies in Asia
Minor by the seventh century B.C. and allowed them to live their normal lives.
Trade had actually improved in those parts since coins, an ancient part of
Lydian culture, was introduced. Eventually Lydia was conquered by the Persian
Empire, and the Greek colonists had to pay taxes, supply manpower for their
army, and had Persian-installed tyrants for leaders.
As Darius began a campaign into Scythia (southern Russia) to quell rebellion,
he also left a force in Thracy (modern day Thrace) which was very close to
Greece (Stecchini 3). The campaign in Scythia was a disaster and could have
ended in complete surrender of Darius’ forces if it were not for the Greek
colonies and Asia Minor that remained loyal (Moerbeek 2). Both parties made
wrong decisions; Darius believed that he could rely on the colonies, and the
Greeks believed that the Persians could be defeated - the end result was the
Ionic revolt of 499 B.C. (Moerbeek 2).
However, this was an indirect revolt because the Greek citizens, always proud
of the polis, believed their own colonies could become a proud city-state like
they adored. Unfortunately, the pro-Persian tyrants that were installed halted
their progression at every step. This happened at the colony of Milete, where
the tyrant Histiaeus and his deputy Aristagoras believed that they could
manipulate the colonies to believe that the two tyrants were the colonist’s
complete and total rulers – even beyond the Empire (Moerbeek 2). Messengers
were sent throughout Greece to aid the revolutionaries in their actions, and
the majority of their help came from Athens. Only twenty-five ships could be
sent, but the revolts were spreading. Dorian colonies in the south and Aeolian
colonies in the north began disposing of their tyrants. The Empire considered
these actions small until the rebels burned Sardis, the old capital of the
Lydians (Moerbeek 3). The Persians struck back hard, destroying the Athenian
fleet at Lade and destroying Milete in 494 B.C.; the people of Milete were
either killed or enslaved (Moerbeek 3). The Persians allowed the other Greek
colonies to continue their daily lives unhindered, and the Persians installed a
democracy. However, this did not keep the colonists in their colonies, and they
began to immigrate back into Greece.
Darius’ fleet had reached Greek borders in 493 B.C. His fleet had become so
damaged during a storm at Athos that his army traveling overland had no
supplies and was quickly defeated by a Thracian tribe of nomads. Darius
retreated quickly to regroup and try to conquer the area with a smaller fleet
which resulted in the battle at Marathon (Moerbeek 3).
Militiades, a nephew of the founder at Thracy, had returned with the immigrants
from the revolution. He quickly became an important person in Athens because of
his family and his experiences with the Persians. In 490 B.C., he was chosen
strategos, the equivalent of a brigade commander, and persuaded the Athenians
to fight a land battle against the Persians (Moerbeek 3). The Persians landed
their army on the plain of Marathon. There over ten thousand heavily armored
infantry, hoplites, defeated the Persian army with the strength of the phalanx
- a column of heavy infantry carrying long spears. Militiades was given command
of the Greek fleet for leading his men into victory.
In the ten years that followed, an uneasy peace had settled over the area. In
Persia, Darius succumbed to his fate in 485 B.C., leaving the throne, the
offensive, and a dispute in Egypt to his eldest son, Xerxes (Suzanne 1). Xerxes
was an excellent organizer but a mediocre general. It is said that his presence
on a battlefield demoralized his men for fear of a weak leader (Moerbeek 10).
Xerxes was now required to conquer the Greeks and establish Persian influence
farther throughout the known world (Moerbeek 8).
In Athens, Greek nationalism had exploded after the surprise victory at
Marathon, and a large vein of silver had been found at Laurium; this new flow
of money had allowed for a large naval fleet (Moerbeek 8). With booming
nationalism and the potential to be a powerful threat again, the Athenians
looked towards Persia as their main threat. The Athenians would wait for
attacks from the new and unknown threat that Xerxes was; the attacks would not
come until 480 B.C.
Until this time, Xerxes massed his army. The number of this army is legendary
because Herodotus claimed that the Persian army totaled around 3,400,000
soldiers and service non-combatants (Stecchini 5). Historians have guessed as
small as 25,000 and as large as over a million since then. The exact number is
unknown, but according to research, the force of the Persian army is estimated
around 200,000 soldiers. Because Xerxes’ father’s large fleet was crippled at
Athos, Xerxes orders his soldiers to dig out a canal and lay pontoon bridges at
Hellespont (Stecchini 5). Here Xerxes had his soldiers whip the waves to show
that even the gods were subservient to Xerxes’ will (Moerbeek 9).
With a naval retreat at Artemisium in 480 B.C., Xerxes realized that victory
would not be easy. For the Greeks, there were several places of defense that
would force the large Persian army into a bottleneck and give the Greeks the
advantage. The first was the Gorge of Tempe which was fortified by ten thousand
Greeks. It was later abandoned because of tiny geographical weaknesses that
could be exploited, as well as the Aleuadae, a leading family of Thessaly who
could be in favor of Xerxes (Moerbeek 9). The narrow pass of Thermopylae and
the Isthmus in the Peloponesse were left as the last two choices. The Athenians
favored Thermopylae because if the army was beaten there, Athens would be left
undefended. The Spartans favored the Isthmus, perhaps for their bravado which
left them reluctant to fight for anything but their own safety (Moerbeek 9).
The final choice fell on Thermopylae.
The pass at Thermopylae was to be held by one of the two Spartan kings,
Leonidas. In 490 B.C., as a member of the Agiad house, he succeeded his
half-brother Cleomenes I as king. Leonidas was married to Cleomenes daughter,
Gorgo, and may have supported Cleomenes’ aggressions against other Greek cities
(Brittanica Online 1). Leonidas knew the gravity of the battle, and he was
selfless and very concerned with the men under his command. He knew that many
would be killed, so he only accepted Spartans that had a son who could take
care of the family (Moerbeek 9).
After being repelled at Artemisium, Xerxes rested and consolidated his forces.
He knew that his army was interdependent with his navy (Ferrill 106). The large
army could not sustain itself without the supplies from the fleet. If one was
defeated, the other would not survive (Ferrill 109). Herodotus attributed
Xerxes’ four day delay to an expectation that the Greeks would run away,
however, waiting for his fleet to get into position sounds more logical
(Ferrill 109). When the Persian king approached the narrow pass, the sight of
the pass itself must have been demeaning.
Xerxes commanded an army of probably 200,000 men and around 50,000 cavalry. The
Greeks knew that the Persians could defeat them in an open plain because of
their superior numbers and the bow, but Thermopylae was a four-mile pass
between two mountains (Ferrill 109). That is why the prior surprise victory at
Marathon had such an enthusiastic effect. Xerxes’ troops also knew this, and
were demoralized when they saw this path heavily defended by more than seven
However, the Spartans were not concerned and they were seen combing their long
hair and doing calisthenics outside the garrison (Lendering 1). The battle
looked horrible for the Greeks, but there was a major difference that made this
battle last three days. The Persians were an assimilating culture, forcing
conquered peoples to add manpower to the army - for example, the addition of
the Greek colonies in Asia Minor. There was a vast assortment of men from
Persia, Scythia, Doria, and many other cultures that attributed to the
200,000-man army. The variety of cultures in one huge fighting force can wedge
disharmony in any army, and as a result the cohesiveness of the Persian army
was very low.
The Greeks, on the other hand, were trained athletes; many had participated in
the Olympic Games. In fact the battle raged while the Olympics were taking
place and Greeks that participated in these Games were not allowed to leave and
fight. This may be a reason why Leonidas received no reinforcements (Lendering
2). The Spartans, as most historians know, were the most perfectly trained
forces in the history of warfare. Spartans began training at the age of seven
and trained with an adult until eighteen when they became part of an
"eat-group," which was a platoon of Spartan warriors eating together (Moerbeek
8). The Spartans did not put emphasis on the family, except for obvious reasons
of repopulating the species (Moerbeek 11).
The battle began on the morning of September 17th, 480 B.C. On one side were
200,000 Persians; while on the other side were 300 Spartans and approximately
7,000 allied Greeks. There exits a record of the superiority of the Spartan
phalanx and the dominant size and strength of the Persians on plains, but
neither of these were recorded in the battle. Smaller phalanxes were used, but
the pass was too small for Persian cavalry to ride around a flank as well as
the infantry to form a proper battle line. For the Persians, this would be
severe, undisciplined melee combat.
However, for the Spartans, the highest honor was to die on the field of battle
because these men had trained all their lives for combat. Their hoplites wear
bronze Corinthian helmets, a cuirass of bronze or several layers of fabric, a
hoplon, or shield that weighed eight kilograms, a pair of bronze greaves for
the legs and handled a long spear (Moerbeek 13). They were the premier fighting
force of the fifth century and they prepared to fight an army more than ten
times their size.
The first attack came in the early morning when Xerxes sent his Median and
Elamite contingents into the fray (Lendering 1). Because of the lack of detail
about these forces and the slim armor of the Immortals, this first wave of
Persians would be compared to light infantry. They were easily defeated by the
allied Greeks holding the garrison. After retreating, Xerxes used his personal
guard, the 10,000 strong force of his Immortals to return to the battle.
The Immortals were scantily armored for their reputation and compared to the
amount of armor seen on a Spartan/Athenian hoplite, the Immortals looked naked.
An Immortal wears a corset of metal plates under his tunic for some protection.
His shield, called the gerron, is made of wicker and leather. While the gerron
might be able to guard an Immortal from arrows, this could not stop a
well-aimed attack from a sword. Their main weapon was the bow but it was
useless in this battle and they instead used a short spear (Moerbeek 20). The
Immortals wore soft caps made of fabric called tiaras which was more useful in
guarding his face from sand storms in a desert march than in battle. However,
the Immortals were considered the elite part the Persian army; they proved
themselves against the Spartans.
For the majority of these two days it was believed the allied Greeks resisted
each attack, predominately from the Immortals. With the best of both armies
clashing, Leonidas kept the battle in his favor with feinting attacks that
confused and routed the Persians (Ferrill 115). The Persian cavalry, a force
that would be integral in a large battlefield, was utterly useless. Their main
weapons of bows and arrows were futile against the hoplite armor. The battle
would have continued for more than three days if a Greek traitor was not in
The Greek historian, Diodorus, speaks of Ephialtes coming to the Persian camp
at night and telling them of a mountain pass that could take the Greeks from
the rear (Flower 12). Of course, there were several mountain passes around
Thermopylae, but Leonidas chose what he believed would be the most vulnerable
and sent one thousand men to guard it (Moerbeek 9).
On the dawn of the third day, Leonidas discovered that his thousand men
rear-guard had retreated into the mountains. He knew that the Persians would
surround him before noon. As a result, he sent the majority of the Greeks home
except for his Spartans and four hundred Thebans who were forced to stay in
fear of collaboration with the Persians (Flower 9).
Because the Spartans were surrounded, they were forced to fight. Spartan men
flogged the Thebans that wished to retreat (Lendering 3). This did not last
long, however, as Leonidas was struck down early in the stand. There was a
great struggle to retrieve his body, and as they did, the remaining Spartans
fell back to a small hill where they were killed by the Persian archers who had
been ineffective in the first two days of the battle (Lendering 3).
With Thermopylae a Persian victory, Athens would suffer. The Persians marched
freely though the bloody pass and onto the capital. Luckily, the city had been
evacuated to Salamis and a small defense waited for Xerxes (Moerbeek 9).
However, this small defense was quickly eliminated and Athens was then burned
to the ground.
The legend of Thermopylae cannot be demoted to a three-day battle in which the
Persians, who are seen as villains of this battle, win. The heroic "hold to the
last man" actions of the Spartans, even after Leonidas fell are remembered
today. Today, at Thermopylae, there are two crude monuments of the battle; the
most inspiring is of a Spartan pointing his short sword forward.
Popular culture has been slow to provide such a movie-like storyline as
Thermopylae. Every element which that is required in a good war movie is in it:
a huge enemy force coming to enslave and conquer a culture one can support, a
fearless and competent leader who will give his life for his country, horrific
battles, a traitor, and one final stand when all of the heroes die for their
honor and country.
However, Frank Miller’s comic book "300" has provided a vicious but accurate
look of the Spartans. For example, in the comic book, Leonidas’ wife, Gorgo,
asks that her husband not come home without a Persian head. Ephialtes, the
traitor, is portrayed as a disfigured humpback that worships the Spartans and
wishes to be one. He only is refused by Leonidas and then proceeds to betray
them. Historical fiction books also have been written about the battle, most
importantly Stephen Pressfield’s "Gates of Fire."
Thermopylae was not a battle that changed the way we look at life, nor did it
save Western civilization in which other battles lay claim. This battle changed
the way one looks at fighters and inherent courage. The soldiers that fought
knew their limits, with the exception of the Spartans, and they fought to the
death against extreme odds. If it were not for the courage of the three hundred
Spartans and the Greeks that were sent home as well, history would not have an
example of the ultimate courage and sacrifice for one’s country and beliefs.
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Mar 2005. http:plato-dialogues.orgtoolschardarius.htm.
"Leonidas." Britannica Concise Encyclopedia. 2005. Encyclopædia Britannica
Premium Service 20 Mar. 2005 http:www.britannica.comebcarticletocId=9370039?.
Flower, Michael A. "Simonides, Ephorus, and Herodotus on the Battle of
Thermopylae." The Classical Quarterly, 48 (1998): 1-27.
Ferrill, Arther. "Herodotus and the Strategy and Tactics of the Invasion of
Xerxes." Classical Journal, 10 (1965): 102-115
Moerbeek, Martijn. The Spartan hoplite. 21 Jan. 1998. Monolith Community. 20
Mar. 2005 http://monolith.dnsalias.org/%7Emarsares/warfare/army/s_hoplit.html.
Moerbeek, Martijn. The Persian cavalry. 21 Jan. 1998. Monolith Community. 20
Mar. 2005 http://monolith.dnsalias.org/%7Emarsares/warfare/army/p_cavalr.html.
Moerbeek, Martijn. The Persian Immortal. 21 Jan. 1998. Monolith Community. 20
Mar. 2005. http://monolith.dnsalias.org/%7Emarsares/warfare/army/p_immort.html.
Moerbeek, Martijn. The Athenian Hoplite. 21 Jan 1998. Monolith Community. 20
Mar. 2005. http://monolith.dnsalias.org/%7Emarsares/warfare/army/a_hoplit.html.
Moerbeek, Martijn. The battle of Thermopylae, 480 BC. 21 Jan 1998. Monolith
Community. 20 Mar. 2005.
Stecchini, Livio C. The Size of the Persian Army. Feb. 10 2005. Iran Chamber.
20 Mar 2005. http://www.iranchamber.com/history/articles/persian_wars5.php.
Stecchini, Livio C. The Skythian Campaign. Feb. 10 2005. Iran Chamber. 20 Mar
Lendering, Jona. Summary of and commentary on Herodotus’ Histories, book 7.
Mar. 20 2005. Livius. 20 Mar. 2005.
Appendix: Our Cast
Darius: Persian king who faked his identity by saying he was the lost brother
of the murdered heir to the throne. Father of Xerxes.
Herodotus: The "father of history" who in ancient times was regarded as the
premier historian; today his histories are considered flawed and out of
Histiaeus and Aristagoras: pro-Persian installed tyrants that believed they
could insinuate their total leadership about the Persian Empire; these two were
the triggers of the Ionic rebellion.
Militiades: A nephew of the founder of the Greek colony of Milete who was
integral for Athens with his experiences of the Persians.
Xerxes: eldest son of King Darius of Persia that inherited the throne and was
the leader of the Persian forces at Thermopylae
Family of Aleuadae: leading family of Thessaly who was feared to be favoring
the Persians which made the decision to retreat from the Gorge of Tempe
Cleomenes I: Spartan king, half-brother of Leonidas
Ephialtes: traitor who showed the Greeks the mountain path to surround the
Leonidas: Spartan king who led the defense at Thermopylae and is a legend today
because of his heroic holdout.
Copyright © 2005 J.D. Miller
Written by J.D. Miller. If you have questions or comments on this article,
please contact J.D. Miller at:
Published online: 04/17/2005.