BC 494 - 220

Prominent Commanders     Leonidas

Major BattlesSepeaBC 494
ThermopylaeBC 480
PlataeaBC 479
1st MantineaBC 418
2nd CoroneaBC 394
The NemeaBC 394
LeuctraBC 371
2nd MantineaBC 362

The account of the Battle of Thermoplyae gives a good illustration of the character of the Spartan army. In 480 BC, Xerxes, king of Persia, began his invasion of Greece. Lead by Athens and Sparta, the Greeks fought back against an invasion by the strongest empire in the world. This is the story of the Greeks' stand against Xerxes' invasion, as chronicled by Herodotus (in Book VII).

As the Greeks sought to form alliances with the other city states the Persians were continuing their march towards Athens. Upon receiving a message from Alexander of Macedonia that the Persian army was large the Greeks regrouped at the Isthmus and tried to decide on a plan of attack that would be most efficient for their small size. They decided to guard the pass at Thermopylae, on the grounds that it was narrower than the pass into Thessaly and at the same time nearer home.

By holding the pass they would be preventing the Persians from entering Greece They could also then send their fleet to Artemisium where they could engage the Persian fleet while maintaining communication with the army. The topography of both areas suited the small Greek contingent.

Artemisium is where the sea south of Thrace contracts into a narrow channel..pass through this channel. . . to the strip of coast called Artemisium. The pass at Thermopylae from Trachis into Greece is "fifty feet wide; elsewhere both east and west of Thermopylae, it is still narrower." These places were chosen after careful thought with the realization that the Persians would be unable, in the narrow pass, to use their cavalry or take advantage of their numbers.

With the Greeks making ready at Thermopylae and Artemisium, Xerxes fleet set sail out of Therma eleven days after the army had left it. The Persian fleet made it to Sepias and the army to Thermopylae without any significant loss. The fleet had 1207 ships belonging to the various nations that had set sail from Asia, with its original compliment of 241,400 men-allowing 200 each addition to the crew, thirty fighting men.. making an additional 36,210. Following the battle ships were 3000 pentecomers adding another 240,000 men to the fleet making the total number of men aboard..517,610. Xerxes army was no less of a force including the infantry that was "1,700,000 strong and the cavalry 80,000. Then there was the Arabian camel corps and the Libyan a further 20,000. The total then for Xerxes force excluding servants and men for transport was 2,317,610. Further he gathered troops along his march through Europe so that at Thermopylae the force was 2,641,610 strong. Including all servants, male followers, and boat crews "Xerxes, the son of Darius, reached Sepias and Thermopylae at the head of an army consisting, in all, of 5,283,220 men (Herodotus VII, 186)." After reaching Sepias the Persian fleet came upon a Hellespontian' storm and "four hundred ships are said to have been lost in this disaster, and the loss of life and of treasure beyond reckoning."

Xerxes' army stopped at Trachis in the Malian territory, while the Greeks held the pass at Thermopylae. One army had the south and the other the north. The Greek force that was waiting for the Persians included Spartans, Corinthians, and various other soldiers from all over the Peloponnese. They told everyone that there were more support troops on the way and the sea was firmly held by the Greek navy.

The soldiers from the different groups were under their own regional commander but in over all control at Thermopylae was Leonidas the Spartan. He was the King of Sparta and of the 300 men that he brought they "were chosen by himself, all fathers of living sons". The Persians waited for four days in their position assuming that the Greeks would run from the superior force before them. On the fifth day Xerxes tired of waiting sent his soldiers to capture the Greeks and bring them back alive. The Medes charged and "many fell; but others took their places...they made it plain enough to anyone, and not least to the king himself, that he had in his army many men, indeed, but few soldiers." After the regular soldiers failed to take the Greeks Xerxes sent forth the Immortals (the "Amrtaka"), 10,000 hand-picked soldiers, to take the pass. But with the two armies fighting in a confined space, the Persians using shorter spears than the Greeks and having no advantage from their numbers, they could not take the pass. The Lakedaimonioi fought in a way worthy of note, and showed themselves far more skilful in fight than their adversaries, often turning their backs, and making as though they were all flying away, on which the barbarians would rush after them with much noise and shouting, when the Spartans at their approach would wheel round and face their pursuers, in this way destroying vast numbers of the enemy. Some Spartans likewise fell in these encounters, but only a very few. At last the Persians, finding that all their efforts to gain the pass availed nothing, and that, whether they attacked by divisions or in any other way, it was to no purpose, withdrew to their own quarters. Next day the combat was renewed, but with no better success on the part of the barbarians. The Greeks were so few that the Persians hoped to find them disabled, by reason of their wounds, from offering any further resistance; and so they once more attacked them. But the Greeks were drawn up in detachments according to their cities, and bore the brunt of the battle in turns- all except the Phocians, who had been stationed on the mountain to guard the pathway. So, when the Persians found no difference between that day and the preceding, they again retired to their quarters.

After two days of charging the pass a man named Ephialtes came to Xerxes with information on how to get the Greeks from behind. As dawn broke the lookout men came into camp with the news of the Persian movements. Leonidas held a council of war and the outcome was that Leonidas and the Spartans stayed resulting in great honor for his men. With the Spartans were the Thespians who refused to leave and the Thebans that Leonidas made stay. All the soldiers fought gallantly knowing that the Persian flanks would soon surround them on all sides. They resisted to the last, with their swords, if they had them, and, if not, with their hands and teeth, until the Persians, coming on from the front over the ruins of the wall and closing in from behind, finally overwhelmed them with missile weapons. The dead were all buried where they fell at Thermopylae and inscriptions were written in their honor.

A good account of the Battle, and the Spartan military setup, may be found in the book "Gates of Fire" by Steven Pressfield. (1998; Doubleday; ISBN: 0385492510)

Back to Brigade Headquarters