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The Graeco-Persian Wars: The Battle of Thermopylae

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The Graeco-Persian Wars
The Combatants | The Ionian Revolt | The Battle of Marathon | The Battle of Thermopylae | The Battle of Salamis | The Battle of Plataea | The Battle of Mycale

A representation of King Leonidas situated at Thermopylae.
The King with half the East at heel is marched from land of morning;
Their fighters drink the rivers up, their shafts benight the air,
And he that stands will die for nought, and home there's no returning.
The Spartans on the sea-wet rock sat down and combed their hair.

- AE Housman

Thermopylae is a legend. There is no better way to describe it. The battle fought there two and-a-half millennia ago has sent ripples through the corridors of time to the present day. While it was not as important as the other battles of the Graeco-Persian Wars in the driving out of the Persians from Greece, its cultural influences are wide-ranging. It immortalised the 300 Spartans who died in the pass1, and since then the Spartan myth has captured the imaginations of countless individuals. The most famous last stand ever made held up the vast army of the King of Persia for several days. It could be argued that without the time this bought the rest of Greece for preparations of the eventual defeat of the Persian expedition, Greek victory could not have been achieved.


Greece was in turmoil in the spring of 480 BC. News was spreading of the King of Persia's advance, accompanied by the greatest army ever seen, with the goal of pacifying the area and turning it into a new satrapy, a western outpost of the gigantic Persian Empire. A group of Greek city-states, the Hellenic League, resolved to fight against the invasion. This had been formed the previous year, and now the allies were congregating at the Isthmus of Corinth in the heart of Greece for a council of war.

The Spartan delegation, representing the most powerful city in Greece and generally acknowledged leader of the League, probably included Leonidas, one of the city's kings. They were undoubtedly worried. The Spartans had consulted the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi for a prediction of the successes of the League, and had received this typically cryptic answer:

Your fate, O inhabitants of the broad fields of Sparta,
Is to see your great and famous city destroyed by the sons of Perseus2.
Either that, or everyone within the borders of Lacedaemon,
Must mourn the death of a king, sprung from the line of Heracles3.

A delegation from Thessaly arrived in the congress. They painted a picture of the perfect place to hold the Persian advance. It was a narrow pass with sheer walls beneath Mount Olympus on the border with Persian Macedon. It was called Tempe. Ten thousand hoplites4 were duly assembled and marched north, commanded by Euainetus the Spartan, but with Themistocles the Athenian in the ranks as well. When the army reached Thessaly, however, it became clear that things were not as they had seemed. Tempe was not the only pass the Persians could use, and the whole area was swarming with Persian agents and traitorous Greeks. They were forced to withdraw as the Persian horde crossed the mountains by another pass at Sarantoporo.

This setback was humiliating to the Hellenic League. In Athens, unease was growing about Themistocles's reforms, which had seen vast amounts of resources invested in a new navy, and the diversion of manpower away from the land army to the ships. It had been the Athenians who had defeated a Persian expedition in a pitched battle at Marathon ten years before, and some expressed the wish to meet them in the field again. To have any hope of even matching the Persians at sea, every Athenian who could be mustered would be needed, leaving it to the Spartans and men from the other cities of the League to fight on land.

Themistocles returned to the Isthmus and a second congress was held, during which he drew out his battle plans. During the march up to Tempe, he had scouted the land extensively and located the perfect place to hold off the Persian advance, both by land and sea. At the northern tip of the island of Euboea there was a narrow strait barely six miles across; and 40 miles to the west lay the even narrower Pass of Thermopylae5, squeezed between the mountains and the sea. Working together, the army and navy could hold a massive army at bay - and that was lucky, because a massive army was on its way. The fleet of Athens was to be joined by ships from Corinth, Megara and Aegina, and some from the lesser naval powers. Sparta would lead a land army to secure Thermopylae. Once these details had been secured, there was nothing left to do but wait.

The Great King kept them waiting until spring turned to summer and the sweltering heat began to make life difficult for the Greek hoplites, encased as they were in heavy armour. Other problems were presenting themselves: during August's full moon, two festivals would tie up the majority of Greece. The games at Olympia and the Spartan Carneia festival could not be missed without offending the gods. Persian intelligence was very detailed, and it was probably planned this way. As the full moon rose, the Persians began advancing from the camps in Macedon into Greece. The sea-faring cities scrambled to their fleets. In Sparta, a compromise was desperately wrangled out. The Spartans were famously pious and would not risk the gods' wrath by marching in full force during Carneia. By sending a small elite force, led by a king to show commitment to the cause, they hoped to encourage the cities they passed on their journey to the Pass to join them, so some semblance of an army could be assembled there. Leonidas, a king of the senior royal line, took command of the force. He took only hardened veterans, men with sons, men who had done their duty to Sparta. The symbolism of this action must have been clear to everyone in Greece. It would be victory or death at the Gates of Fire.

The Greeks would have been forgiven for believing Thermopylae to have been constructed for this very purpose by the gods. The Phocians, who occupied the area, had once built a wall in the middle of the Pass, some 60 feet across, where the cliffs rose the sheerest up from the shore. It was there that Leonidas camped his army, which had swollen with men during the journey. The army set about repairing and strengthening the wall, which was known as the Middle Gate. However, there was one thing preying on Leonidas's mind. When he had arrived, men from nearby Trachis informed him that there was a narrow trail which by-passed Thermopylae by winding its way through the mountains. To light infantry, a stiff climb and descent would be enough to come out at the rear of the Greek position. Leonidas did not really want to divert men, but in the end he sent 1,000 Phocians back to guard the point where the pass issued from the mountains. They were inexperienced fighters, but they knew the local terrain well and they would only be faced by light infantry if the Persians came over the mountains - so no Spartan elite or officers accompanied them.

The straits 40 miles east, at Artemisium, were the site of similar preparations. There was a long, flat beach at the northern end of Euboea, where the Greek ships could be hauled up onto the shingle and easily launched into the deep water. The fleet could easily block the straits, but what if the Persian fleet headed past them, to attack Euboea or Attica and Athens? What if a Persian contingent circled the island and came upon them from the rear? They would be surrounded and destroyed. So it was that, both at the Pass and the beach, the commanders gambled with the lives of themselves and their men.

The Greek Army

The Greek land army numbered some 7,000, if we are to believe Herodotus' tally. It seems accurate, and so this is safe enough. Here is his full list of the contingents present:

  • 300 Spartans
  • 500 Mantineans
  • 500 Tegeans
  • 1,120 Arcadians
  • 400 Corinthians
  • 200 Floians
  • 80 Mycenaeans
  • 700 Thespians
  • 400 Thebans6
  • 1,000 Phocians

In addition to this number, there were also as many as 2,000 auxiliary troops.

The Fleet

At sea, there was an equally mixed bag of contingents from various cities of the Hellenic League. There were:

  • 127 ships from Athens and Plataea
  • 20 from Athens and Chalcis
  • 40 from Corinth
  • 20 from Megara
  • 18 from Aegina
  • 12 from Sicyon
  • 10 from Sparta
  • 8 from Epidaurus
  • 7 from Eretria
  • 5 from Troezen
  • 2 from Styra
  • 2 from Ceos

This made a total of 271 ships in all. All of these were triremes, the most capable warship in the Mediterranean. They had three banks of oars and had large rams on their bows. A typical Athenian trireme was about 35 metres long. There were also nine pentekonters (50-oared ships). The fleet was led by a Spartan named Eurybiades. Although he had little experience in sea battles, he knew how to fight in a defensive situation; plus, this meant the combined land and sea forces were unified by common command, which was important since the two arms had to work closely together to ensure the Persians could be held.

The Persian Army

The size of the Persian invasion force has been the subject of much debate throughout history. Herodotus, although accurate in many respects, seemed to be fond of exaggerating numbers. These are the figures he gives:

  • 517,610 ship crew
  • 1,700,000 infantry
  • 110,000 cavalry
  • 20,000 Arabs and Lybians
  • 324,000 Greek allies

This gave a total of 2,851,610. With support troops it is probable that there would have been over 5 million men - about 7% of the Empire's population (given the estimate that the Empire was home to around 70 million people at the time). Most modern estimates put the army's size at between 200,000 and 500,000 men.

The Persian Empire's dominions included some of the greatest sea-faring nations. Most prominent among these was Phoenicia and its primary cities of Tyre and Sidon. Phoenicia was not just a trade centre - Sidon especially, competing with Corinth as the birthplace of the trireme, was widely acknowledged as the producer of the finest ships and crews available. Phoenician ships were faster and more manoeuvrable than their Greek counterparts, and their crews more experienced (the Athenians, after all, had only been training for a few months). They were also excellent navigators, and, unlike the Greeks, could navigate the open sea at night. There were 300 Phoenician ships present at Artemisium. The Ionians and Egyptians also fielded excellent navies, although their loyalty was sometimes questionable, and other contingents from the Empire's Mediterranean coastline were also called upon. Herodotus gives us a total of 1,207 triremes - generally considered fairly accurate by modern historians.

The Battle

In mid-August, having kept the Greek force waiting for some weeks, the Persians arrived. The lighting of beacons to the north-east heralded the advance and the first engagement. A trio of Greek patrol ships had been attacked by ten Phoenician vessels, and had been overwhelmed. The Phoenician patrol proceeded in full view of the rest of the Greek fleet to build a way-marker on a hidden reef, when three of their ships had run aground. The Greeks were so terrified of the prospect of the coming battle with a superior enemy that they made no attempt to stop them. The fleet put to sea but fled towards the straits to the west. Eurybiades was little help as a leader. According to Plutarch, he spent most of his time insisting that 'the Persians were invincible at sea'. Themistocles, commander of by far the largest contingents in the fleet, exerted his charismatic influence and order was regained. The retreat might have been a strategy of his to draw the Persian fleet into the narrow confines of the straits of Euboea and trap them there, but no enemy was forthcoming. Eventually the Greek fleet withdrew to Chalcis, halfway down the western coast of Euboea. They would wait there, in relative safety compared to the exposed beach at Artemisium, for further news. It was some ten days later that Abronichus, a friend of Themistocles who had been appointed as the messenger between Leonidas and the fleet, arrived on a small 30-oared vessel, bringing news of the Persian army pitching camp just north of Thermopylae.

The Greek spies who had travelled to Asia to watch the Persian army had said that it was millions strong, and that the entire continent was emptying. The march of the army sent up a massive dust cloud and the earth shook under the hundreds of thousands of marching feet. Persian scouts arrived at the Pass soon after the dust cloud was sighted on the horizon. The Spartans ignored the horsemen; instead they combed their hair, grown long in the traditional Spartan style, oiled their bodies and wrestled, or performed callisthenics7 to loosen their muscles. Soon after, an official Persian delegation arrived, and demanded that the Greek lay down their arms. Molon labe - 'Come and get them' was Leonidas' reply. Another Spartan, Dienekes, hearing from the locals that the archers of the enemy were so numerous that their arrows blotted out the sun, was unconcerned:

What excellent news, if the Mede hides the sun, then so much the better for us - we can fight our battle in the shade.

For two days after that the coast was battered by a storm, common in the Greek summer, brought on by the 'Hellesponter' wind. As it was dying down, the Greek fleet returned to its post at Artemisium, much to the relief of Leonidas, whose flank had been left unguarded. The enemy fleet had remained hidden, and news soon came that this was because it had been caught in the open sea during the storm, and that many ships had been wrecked.

9 August

On the fifth day after the Persians had arrived, they attacked. It was the Medes who led this assault, which was supposed to sweep the tiny Greek force out of the Pass. Despite being used to mountains, coming from the mountainous Zagros region, and well armed and armoured as they were, the sides of the Pass were too steep to be scaled, and in front of them was the meat-grinding machine that was the phalanx. The lack of space prevented them from unleashing a devastating hail of arrows, and so they closed quickly with their enemy. The Median spears were short and their shields were of wicker, while the Greeks had long hoplite lances and heavy bronze shields which protected them from the neck to the knees. There were enough men to rotate shifts as required in and out of the phalanx, allowing men to rest. After the best part of a day fighting, the Medes were beaten off and replaced by the Immortals. Now would come an even sterner test. All the Spartans were ordered to the front line to meet them, and the two elites clashed. Then the Spartans suddenly turned and fled, their shields slung across their backs. The enemy surged after them, but the Spartan line would quickly wheel, re-form, unsling and lock their shields, and cut down their pursuers in their droves. After some time, the Immortals were withdrawn, much to the shame of Xerxes. The Greeks, exhausted after the day's desperate fighting, could now spend the night alone with the corpses.

While the Medians were attacking the Greek phalanx on the coastline, the Persian fleet, battered by the storm but still a formidable force, was massing ten miles to the north of Artemisium. Many Greeks, seeing the huge force, wanted to retreat back to Chalcis. The prospect of being left undefended terrified the locals on Euboea and the mainland, and they pleaded with Eurybiades for protection. They were turned down, and so went instead to Themistocles, who was never one to turn down the chance to make a little money. Even in a situation as desperate as this, he good-humouredly demanded a bribe. Most of this he pocketed, but used the remainder to persuade the other admirals to stay at their posts.

In the late afternoon, as the Immortals advanced, they were yet again thrown into disarray. An Ionian deserter from the Persian fleet, a professional diver named Scyllias, arrived after swimming the ten miles between the fleets underwater (apparently). The news he brought was grim. The enemy had sent 200 ships down the eastern coast of Euboea, with the aim of rounding the island's southern tip and coming upon them from the rear. Themistocles once again seemed to be the only commander capable of making decisions, and advocated the dispatch of a squadron to meet the second Persian force. It would be risky, but the hope was that the ships which had remained in Athens would pursue the Persians, thus causing them to be attacked from both sides in an ironic reversal of fortune. However, it was decided that the Greeks would first show the Persians that they were planning to stand firm, to discourage them from attacking while some of the fleet was away. They sailed out into the sea, and the Persians met them. Their line was much longer than that of the Greeks, but, by forming up close and moving in aggressively to engage the enemy in close-quarters fighting, the threat of encirclement was countered. Around 30 enemy ships were captured, and this did much to calm Greek nerves.

10 August

Another storm that night prevented the squadron that was to head south from departing. By the next afternoon, reports reached the Greek admirals that the 200 Persian ships had been caught in the open sea and dashed against the rocky eastern coast of Euboea. The expedition was destroyed; and other good news was coming. Some 53 ships arrived from Athens to reinforce them; a Persian squadron was destroyed in a raid; and Leonidas had held despite a second day's battering at Thermopylae. There was a hope that the Persian army would starve if it could not move on, since the area they were encamped in could not sustain such a huge army.

11 August

Then, on the third day, the Persian fleet attacked in full force. The plan was to force through the Greek line and fall upon the defenders of Thermopylae. The Greeks moved out to defend the straits, and soon after the Persians fell upon them. The fight that followed made the other engagements with Persian ships look like mere skirmishes, it was truly desperate. For the whole day Persian vessels crammed themselves into the straits, and for the whole day the Greeks fought them to a standstill. The Athenian contingent had half of its ships disabled. The Persian fleet retreated as night fell, but there was little chance of the allies holding out for another day. Even Themistocles realised the necessity of some kind of contingency plan for an orderly withdrawal from Artemisium. Before any decisions could be made, though, they had to wait for Abronichus to bring news of how Leonidas had fared.

Ever since the Persians had been halted at Thermopylae, Xerxes had been sending out agents to look for locals with knowledge of the area. The Persian heartland was a mountainous one, and he knew that it was a rare pass indeed that did not have some way of bypassing it. After the second day's fighting, a traitor (among the Greeks, not an uncommon thing) was brought to him. Ephialtes was his name, and it was he who helped bring about Thermopylae's legendary defeat. He told Xerxes of the high path which climbed upon the flank of Mount Callidromus above the Pass. He even offered to guide the Persians on the trail.

However, it would not be light infantry, as Leonidas had expected, who would fall upon the Greek rear. The Immortals, having trained hard in the Iranian uplands, were perfectly capable of such a journey, despite the path's steepness. All 10,000 of the Immortals, commanded by a man named Hydarnes, would make the journey. Leaving at dusk, they marched several miles west to pick up the path, easily visible under the full moon, and then ascended. After some hours marching, they emerged around a mile east of Leonidas' position. The Phocians, taken by surprise and panicked by the volleys of Persian arrows, retreated to a nearby hillock to make a stand - but the Immortals ignored them and turned west.

Leonidas heard of the arrival of the Immortals at his rear from an Ionian deserter. Whether he was actually a Persian agent sent to spread panic among the Greeks and so make them easier to cut down, we cannot be sure. Leonidas summoned the commanders and told them what would happen. He and his bodyguard would remain no matter what. The rest were almost ordered to leave in order that they might fight another day. The Thespians, led by one Demophilus, knowing their city would be first on Xerxes' hit-list after Thermopylae had been cleared, refused to leave; the same went for the Thebans, who did not wish to go back to their medising city. The helots8 were retained to fight as light infantry. A total of 1,500 men remained, while the rest were picked up by the fleet and escaped southward. 'Eat a good breakfast, for tonight we eat in the underworld' was Leonidas' advice on the last day of his defence of the pass.

For the last two days, the Greeks had fought a holding action, fighting in relays. Then, as the Persians advanced from the west, they formed into a single phalanx and moved out past the Middle Gate to meet them. The Persian infantry was goaded on by the whips of its officers, and they were crushed against the shields of the Greeks and slaughtered. These were the lightly-armed levies from across the Empire, and it was their purpose to slowly grind down the Greek line and neutralise the advantage given by the long Greek spears. When the shafts of their spears had been shattered, the elite infantry marched in, and the battle grew more desperate. Two of Darius' sons and one of his brothers fell, as did Leonidas. There was a furious battle over the Spartan king's body, which was eventually recovered and taken to the rear of the phalanx. However, the men who dragged the corpse away would have seen the glint of metal in the east. The Greeks, hemmed in the Pass by the arrival of the Immortals, headed for a hillock near the Middle Gate to make their stand. The Thebans were cut off and forced against the cliff, where they were cut to shreds, although the Spartans and the Thespians, covered in blood and the dust of battle, made it.

They defended themselves to the last, such as still had swords using them, and the others resisting with their hands and teeth.
- Herodotus' The Histories.

In the end each and every one of them was killed in a paradigm of the heroic last stand. Eventually it was Persian arrows which finished them off. Xerxes, not wishing to waste any more of his soldiers' lives against these defiant men, ordered his archers forward to mow them down.

A monument at the site of the battle is marked with Simonides' epigram, which reads thus:

Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here, obedient to their laws, we lie.
There is also a modern monument, a statue of a Greek warrior, inscribed with Leonidas' words 'Come and get them'.


The Persians usually honoured their enemy's dead, but such was Xerxes' rage at the humiliation his army had suffered at the Hot Gates that he ordered Leonidas' head cut off and his body crucified. In the end, though, the body was returned to Sparta where it was buried with full honours.

Xerxes was quick to seize the initiative after the frustration of the three days' wait at the pass. Athens was undefended, since all its men were on the ships and the rest of the Hellenic League's forces were under Spartan command, preparing to defend the Isthmus of Corinth. He stormed south to sack the city, but not before its population had been successfully evacuated to the nearby island of Salamis. It was in the straits between Salamis and the mainland that the Greek navy met the Persian fleet in battle. The Battle of Artemisium (occurring simultaneously but counted as a separate engagement) had been indecisive, but had given hope to the Greeks that the Persians could at least be equalled, if not beaten.

Modern historians estimate that 20,000 Persians died at Thermopylae, while only 1,000 Greeks lost their lives. As well as being the inspiration for countless works of literature, the battle is a good example of use of terrain to allow an army to play to its strengths. In the open field the Greek army would have been massacred, but being in the narrow Pass meant its flanks could not be threatened.

The Trembler

Although 298 Spartans died at Thermopylae, two survived. During the stalemate before the battle, two men fell ill with an eye infection, and were dismissed so they could recuperate. When the battle came, however, one ordered his helot to lead him, blind as he was, into the heart of the fight, where they both died. The other, Aristodemus, followed his orders and returned home. There he was branded a 'trembler' (coward) and effectively abandoned by his city. He was allowed to live there, but he was ignored by his friends, considered as low as a helot in rank, and his daughters were refused husbands. The other man to survive the battle was a messenger sent by Leonidas to Thessaly - he was unable to endure the shame and hanged himself.

Books and Films

  • The Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield
  • Spartan by Valerio Massimo Manfredi
  • 300 by Frank Miller - a graphic novel, which was made into a film and released in 2007.
  • The 300 Spartans - a 1962 Hollywood film
1As we will see later, only 298 actually died. Two lived, to their enduring shame.2Both the Persians and the citizens of Argos, Sparta's close neighbour and arch-rival, claimed to be descended from the Greek hero Perseus.3The Spartans had long ago laid claim to the bloodline of the greatest of Greek heroes, Heracles.4Soldiers in heavy chest, leg and head armour with large shields, javelins, heavy swords and spears.5The Gates of Fire - so-called for the hot springs which rose out of the mountainside there. It was so narrow barely two chariots could pass abreast at its narrowest point. Today, due to a change in sea level, the pass is a good deal wider.6Loyalists, increasingly rare in a rapidly medising city.7From the words kalos meaning beauty and sthénos meaning strength, callisthenics is a type of gymnastics.8Serfs who worked the fields of Sparta and served a similar purpose to medieval squires in arming the hoplites for battle.

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