The Battle of Thermopylae

“Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here obedient to their laws, we lie.”

In the Pantheon of Heroes few stand higher than Leonidas, the King of the Spartans, a people whose peculiarly regimented way of life has fascinated generations and been the inspiration of both dreamers and those who peddle in nightmares from the philosopher Rousseau to the dictator Adolf Hitler, and where on a hot summer day in August 480 BC commanding a small force of Spartan Warriors he occupied the narrow pass at Thermopylae in defiance of the mighty Persian Empire.

The City State of Sparta, dismissed by its critics as little more than an armed camp was situated in the far south of the Greek peninsula in an area known as Laconia where surrounded by mountains on either side it was isolated from much of the rest of Greece. It was this isolation that allowed it to develop as a society free of outside interference and influence.

Seeking to break out of their Laconian isolation and into the Pelopennesian hinterland in 743 BC they invaded neighbouring Messenia in what was nothing but a land grab but it was to be a long hard struggle and one the Spartans very nearly lost as the Messenians fought bitterly to retain their independence. When their resistance was finally broken in 724 BC Spartan retribution was harsh with the Messenians absorbed into Sparta as Helots, or slaves.

Sparta was still developing as the society based upon the rules laid down by Lycurgas when the Helots rebelled against their enslavement. In the Second Messenian War 685 BC to 668 BC Sparta again came perilously close to defeat and had to call upon allies to help quell the rebellion of a people desperate to throw off the chains of a cruel master.

At one point the Spartan’s even requested help from their old enemy Athens but permitting Athenian troops on Spartan soil was to prove a humiliation too far and when the Athenian Army arrived it was ordered to leave, a snub that strained relations between the two City States almost to breaking point.

In the end the Spartan’s did not require Athenian help but the Messenian Slave Revolt was to have a profound effect upon its thinking for the rest of its existence and to a large extent determined both its domestic and foreign policy.

The enslaved Helots made up almost 80% of Sparta’s population so they were always a minority in their own land and they lived in constant fear of the enemy within as a result the Helots were harshly treated, and their repression constant and unrelenting.

As far as the Spartans were concerned there was no such thing as a good Helot and they were regularly beaten regardless of any wrongdoing and it was not uncommon for a Helot to be executed for showing too much vigour (considered dangerous) or for being too fat (considered worthless). They would also be regularly and publicly humiliated and one such ceremonial humiliation was to get them drunk and behave in ridiculous ways as an example to Spartan children of the perils of alcohol.

Once every year the Spartan’s would declare war upon the Helots when graduates of the Agoge, or Military Academy, under the influence of the mysterious ritual known as the Krypteia were obliged, once the sun went down, to hunt and kill as many Helots as they could find. Little wonder that the Helots hated their masters and minor slave revolts were part and parcel of the fabric of Spartan life.

Spartan society was hierarchical and every aspect of life clearly defined.

All male citizens of Sparta were expected to be professional soldiers and were to remain so from the age of seven when they were removed from their families for military training until the age of sixty when they were forcibly retired. As such, they did not work which provided the women of Sparta with a freedom unknown elsewhere in Ancient society. They owned businesses, ran the family estates, and dominated civil society, and like their male counterparts they were obliged to attend the gym where they were trained not in the art of war but to dance, sing, recite poetry, and compete with one another in sports. Indeed, the exploits of Spartan women, their proactive role in society, their freedom of expression, and the fact that they competed against the men at the Olympic Games was enough to make other Greeks blush and indeed condemn their behaviour but nonetheless their athleticism was much commented upon, and not always disapprovingly.

Although most manual labour was carried out by the Helots there was a second tier in Spartan society known as the Periokoi (literally those who live around) who were not Spartan citizens but enjoyed limited rights and provided the artisans and tradesmen.

Sparta was also unique politically in having two Kings neither of whom ruled rather it was a hereditary title held by the two greatest families of Sparta. They headed the priesthood, held judicial powers, but were first and foremost Generals. Sparta was actually governed by the Gerousia, or Council of Elders. These were men aged over sixty who had retired from military service and were elected to serve on the Gerousia for the remainder of their life.

From the day they were born all future citizens of Sparta belonged to the State: a new-born baby would be presented before the members of the Gerousia who would decide upon its health. If the baby was declared healthy then it would be returned to its mother for rearing, if not it would be taken to the Tagus Valley where it would be thrown from the cliffs to its death. Once the decision to do this had been made there was no further discussion, no right of appeal.

At the age of seven the male child was removed from its mother to be raised in the Agoge where they learned obedience, mental discipline, underwent a strict physical training regime, and learned the art of war.

Upon reaching puberty the Spartan boy was assigned to an older male who would serve as his guardian, mentor, and lover it being believed that a man would fight harder for those with whom he had sexual relationships and shared an emotional attachment. Always clean shaven, including their well-oiled bodies, they wore their hair long and the men were expected to tend to each other’s grooming.

The Spartan soldier expected to live on very little was often undernourished and when he did eat it would be in the Communal Dining Halls with his male comrades where the staple diet was bull’s blood soup, a noxious potion that was just as its name implies.

Upon his graduation from the Agoge as a fully-fledged soldier of the Spartan Army the boy would be presented with a knife and ordered to go into the countryside at night, survive off the land, and dirty the blade with the blood of as many Helots as he could find.

At the age of thirty the Spartan Warrior was ordered to marry but had no say as to who his bride would be but then the marriage wasn’t intended to create bonds of affection, intensity of feeling was saved for their male comrades only, but deemed necessary for reasons of procreation and social stability.

With no contact let alone courtship the women of Sparta would abduct one their own, shave her head, strip her naked, and dress her in a male cloak. She would then be made to lie on a mattress in the dark to await the arrival of her future husband. In the meantime, he would have a final meal with his comrades in the Dining Hall before being led to the room where he would consummate the marriage. If sex coitus did not occur then the ritual would continue until it did and it could actually be months before the bride and groom actually saw one another.

This was the society created by Lycurgas, the society that made the 300 Spartans who would die at Thermopylae but to many other Greeks, Sparta was a place that repulsed as much as it attracted.

Some were in awe of its stability, astonished by the assertiveness of their women, and admiring of the discipline and courage of their soldiers but others viewed Sparta as politically stagnant, economically backward, morally bankrupt, and a cultural desert; and it is true that they left no great literature or art to posterity – but Greece would need Sparta.

Darius I, Emperor of the mighty Persian Empire who had recently conquered Thrace and Macedonia, the lands bordering Greece, now greedily eyed the neighbouring Greek City States as a means of further expanding his Empire.

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The Greek cities of Athens and Eritria had recently supported the Ionian Revolt against Persian rule and this was just the excuse that Darius needed to demand from them the “Gift of Earth and Water” as a sign of their submission to his rule. Most of them complied but in Athens his emissaries were murdered and thrown into a pit, this being their gift of earth to the Persian Emperor. Likewise, in Sparta the ambassadors of Darius were thrown alive down a well to receive their gifts of water.

This was tantamount to a declaration of war, and Darius took it as such.

In 491 BC, Darius, with an army some 100,000 strong landed at the Bay of Marathon 25 miles from Athens. The Athenian Government dispatched the fastest runner in Greece, Pheidippides, to go to Sparta and elicit their support. In the meantime, the Athenian Army, some 10,000 men advanced to confront the Persians and bar their way to the city.

Pheidippides returned to Athens with the news that Sparta would indeed support them but that it was the Spartan religious festival of Carneia. This festival was sacrosanct and they could do nothing until it was over. The Spartan Army could not be at Marathon for another ten days.

The Persian and Athenian armies faced each other at Marathon for five days with neither side seemingly willing to begin hostilities which suited the Athenians who had recently been reinforced by 1,000 Plataeans. They also knew the Spartan army was on its way, but then the Persians were aware of this too.

On 12 September 490 BC, the Athenians could see that the Persian Cavalry were being re-embarked onto their ships and believing that this meant that the Persians were intending to attack Athens from the sea they could wait no longer. Forced to take the offensive the Athenians, with their Plataean allies, formed a tight phalanx and attacked as a unit straight at the centre of the Persian army. Taken completely by surprise and stunned by the fury of the assault the Persian Army collapsed like a pack of cards fleeing back to their ships in desperation and panic.

Against all the odds the mighty Persian horde had been defeated and Pheidippides now ran all the way back to Athens to report the Miracle of Marathon before he dropped dead from exhaustion.

The Battle of Marathon had indeed been a miracle, but it had been an Athenian miracle, an Athenian victory, and this did not sit well with the Spartans unable to participate in the saving of Greece because of a religious festival but then everyone knew that the Persians would be back.

Darius was already busy reforming his army but had been distracted by a revolt in Persian occupied Egypt, and he was in any case to die soon after. He was succeeded by his son Xerxes I who was determined to avenge his father’s humiliation and like Darius before him he sent emissaries to the Greek City States demanding Gifts of Earth and Water but this time he left out Athens and Sparta, these he would crush regardless of any tribute paid.

Athens too had been preparing for war and under the leadership of Themistocles it had undertaken to build a massive fleet of Trirenes believing it could defeat the Persians at sea but it could not man both its galleys and put an army in the field it needed allies from among the other Greek City States, it needed Sparta.

A Coalition of Resistance was formed but Greece was far from united.

Some Greeks positively welcomed the coming of the Persians including the powerful City State of Thebes and so Spartan assistance was needed more than ever and delegations were sent begging for their support.

The Spartans were at first reluctant to become involved fearing as they always did slave rebellion at home and wanting to maintain their isolation, they were also still smarting from the embarrassment of their absence at Marathon.

The representatives of the Coalition pointed out that once the Persians had dealt with them they would then turn their attention to Sparta who would have no allies to call upon for support. Still the Spartans demurred and it wasn’t until they were granted military control of all the Coalition land forces that they finally relented.

Yet again, the Persian invasion of Greece coincided with the Spartan religious festival of Carneia, the only time of the year when all military activity was forbidden. Yet this time such was the danger facing Greece they decided to seek guidance from the Delphic Oracle.

The Delphic Oracle located on the slopes of Mount Parnassus was the most prestigious Oracle in the Ancient World.

The prophecies were delivered by the Chief Priestess of the Temple of Apollo, the Pythia, and were believed to come directly from the God Apollo himself. Her prophecy was to be both dark and doom laden:

“O ye men who dwell in the streets of broad Lacadaemon! Either your town will be sacked by the children of Perseus, or in exchange, must all in the Laconian country mourn the loss of a King, descendant of great Heracles.”

Spartan Kings were held to be the descendants of the God Heracles and the prophecy seemed obvious, either Sparta must oppose the Persian invaders and sacrifice a King, or she would in turn be destroyed.

The Spartans would fight and dispatched King Leonidas with 300 warriors.

Leonidas was the third son of King Anaxandridos and not expected to inherit the throne therefore he was not excused attendance at the Agoge and was one of the few Spartan Kings to undergo full-military training fighting in the Spartan victory over the Argons at the Battle of Sepeia in 494 BC.

His service as a common soldier was to prove problematic upon his elevation to King. The Roman historian Plutarch was to write that confronted by a comrade with the assertion that “except for being King you are not superior to us,” he replied, “But were I not better than you, I should not be King.”

Leonidas inherited the throne in 490 BC after one of his brothers was killed and the other, Cleomenes, went insane and was exiled. Around the same time he married his brother Cleomenes daughter, Gorgo.

Gorgo, was a typical Spartan woman, she was trim, athletic, sarcastic in her speech and as Queen she set the example for all other Spartan women to follow. She was also not expected to display emotion and aware that her husband would not return from battle alive she asked Leonidas what she should do?

“Find a husband, be a good wife, and live a decent life.”

There was no kiss, no embrace, and no tears were shed.

The Persian Army, numbering around a 150,000, disembarked on the Peleponneseum Isthmus but for them to advance any further they had to move through the narrow Pass at Thermopylae. The Greek Coalition rushed 7,000 Hoplites to block the pass where they were joined by Leonidas who took command. In the meantime, to prevent the Persians from by-passing Thermopylae by sea the Athenian Navy blocked the narrow Straits of Artemisium.

For five days the Emperor Xerxes waited for the Greeks to come to their senses and surrender but even after numerous promises that they would be well treated, even rewarded for their compliance, they still stubbornly refused. Angered by their continued obduracy he ordered his army to attack expecting a swift victory.

The Pass at Thermopylae was so narrow that a full-frontal assault was the only tactic available. Leonidas blocked the pass with a shield and spear wall.

Under the weight of the Persian attack the Greek wall held firm with Leonidas rotating his men to avoid fatigue often feigning a retreat to draw the Persians in before cutting them down with his reserves.

Frustrated at his army’s lack of progress Xerxes ordered in his Immortals, the elite of the Persian Army who had never before been defeated in battle and often served as the Emperor’s personal bodyguard.

The 10,000 Immortals attacked with fury and to great cheers but were decimated and as Leonidas ordered the phalanx to advance down the pass they fled in panic.

The humiliation of the Immortals was almost too much for Xerxes to bear.

The day had belonged to the Greeks but the fighting had been hard and they were exhausted. Even so, they had held the pass and morale was high.

The humiliation of his beloved Immortals was almost too much for Xerxes to bear but that night a Greek goat-herder named Ephialties approached the Persians with information he was willing to share, for a reward. He would show them a route down the pass that would enable them to encircle the Greek Army.

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The Phocians, who had been sent by Leonidas to guard the path on seeing the advance of the Persian Army, abandoned their positions thereby allowing them to pass. Upon hearing of the Phocian withdrawal Leonidas held an emergency War Council.

Once surrounded the Greek position at Thermopylae would be untenable and most of the Greek leadership present wanted to retreat whilst there was still time. Leonidas refused, he would hold the pass, alone with his 300 Spartans if necessary and not wanting those reluctant to fight he permitted them to leave.

Demophilus, the leader of a contingent of 700 Hoplites from the city of Thespiae refused to abandon Leonidas and they along with the Helots who had been forced to accompany the Spartan Army would remain.

The night the Spartan’s spent in a collective embrace of mourning to come, for they knew they were expected to die as they combed each other’s hair, oiled their bodies, and prepared for what would be the final day.

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The following morning Leonidas addressed his men as they ate their breakfast telling them: “Eat well, for tonight we dine in Hades.”

Trapped and with no means of escape surely Leonidas would see sense, or so Xerxes thought, and he sent emissaries to negotiate his surrender. He offered generous terms, land, wealth, even the honorary title Friends of the Persian People, again Leonidas refused.

When the Persian Ambassador angrily demanded that the Greeks face reality and lay down their arms, Leonidas famously replied: “Come and get them.”

A final confrontation was now inevitable but even so Xerxes still hesitated hoping that the Greeks would fall out among themselves and it was only when this didn’t happen that he ordered an all out attack.

To his astonishment not only was the attack repulsed but Leonidas led his Spartans in a furious counter-attack that left a great many Persians dead. But it was in the midst of this fighting that Leonidas himself was slain.

A battle now ensued for the retention of Leonidas’s body which the Greeks won taking it back to a small hill where they would make their final stand.

Now few in number and with many of them unarmed they still continued to repel the Persian attacks. The historian Herodotus writes that:

“Here they defended themselves to the last, those who still had swords using them, others resisting with their hands and teeth.”

Xerxes tired of seeing his men die, ordered his archers to finish the job and the arrows would continue to rain down upon the defenceless Greeks until not one was left alive.

The Persians who were usually respectful toward the body of a fallen foe mutilated the corpses of the Greek defenders at Thermopylae. Xerxesthen ordered that Leonidas’s corpse be decapitated before having the torso crucified.

Why did Leonidas choose to fight to the death at Thermopylae? He had already bought the time he had promised and strategically it was never going to be the decisive battle with those Greek cities in the path of any Persian advance, including Athens, had already been abandoned. Perhaps, aware of the Delphic Oracle’s prophesy, that a Spartan King would need to be sacrificed, he felt he had no choice.

Certainly it reinforced the Spartan’s reputation as a warrior without peer.

Just a few months after Thermopylae the Persian Fleet was destroyed by the Athenians in the Straits of Salamis, and a year later a Greek Army under Spartan command decisively defeated the Persians at the Battle of Plataea – Greece and Western Civilisation had been saved.

How much the events at Thermopylae contributed to the final outcome is debatable but it has since become an epic of defiance against overwhelming odds and cemented the Spartan’s reputation as the warrior without peer in history and forever.

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