THE BATTLE OF THERMOPOLYE
Despite their defeat by the Athenians at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, the Persians were not finished with their determinati tono conquer mainland Gree ce. For the Persians, Marathon barely registered; the Persians after all controlled almost the entire world: Asia Minor, Lydia, Judah, Mesopotamia, and Egypt.
The loss at Marathon was no more than an irritation to the Persians. Darius was unable to respond immediately to his defeat because of rebellions on the other end of his empire. While he was quelling these, he was killed in battle.
King Xerxes, son of Darius, ascended to the throne of Persia after his father's death in 486 BC. After securing his throne, Xerxes began to muster forces to once again invade Greece. He was determined to avenge his father's defeat. By 480 BC, Xerxes had built up an enormous army of some one hundred fifty thousand men and a navy of six hundred ships. Peoples from many little-known nations in the vast empire of Xerxes joined in the army of the Great King to invade little Greece. Following the chariot of Or'muzd are soldiers from India, Thrace, Chal'y-be'a and both Ethiopias.
The Greeks heard of Xerxes army amassing and were better prepared for the invasion than in the first Persian War (the Battle of Marathon). Athenians and Spartans combined with about 29 other city-states, under the leadership of Sparta to oppose this powerful army and the Athenians contributed a fleet of 200 triremines for their navy.
Themistocles, an Athenian general, convinced the Athenians that the battle would be won at sea and that the profits from a newly discovered silver mine should be used to build a navy. He knew that the Persian army could only succeed if it were successfully supported by supplies and communications provided by the fleet.
Travel by sea was perilous; armies always traveled by land when possible. Xerxes decided to cross the Bosporus and travel by way of Thrace, Macedonia and Thessaly. To cross the Bosporus, he had a boat bridge built with each boat connected to the other with planks. This bridge would be over a mile long and required a perfectly calm sea. On several attempts winds and rough seas broke it apart. Frustrated and enraged, Xerxes ordered that the Bosporus receive three hundred lashes with a chain. Properly chastened, the sea remained calm and the bridge was completed.
Some Greek city-states in the north submitted to the Persians rather than face destruction. One reason was because the stronger city-states in the south, such as Athens, Sparta and Thebes, had decided not to meet Xerxes in the north. Thus these latter city-states stood alone against the Persian giant. The Greeks together had three hundred ships and ten thousand men, with the ability to raise about fifty thousand. They were led by King Leonidas of Sparta who brought with him three hundred Spartans. The small turnout of Sparta resulted from a disagreement as to where best to meet the Persians. Sparta wanted to fight at the Isthmus of Corinth, others wanted to fight further north and Athens still insisted that the war would be won or lost at sea.
The Greeks realized that it was imperative that Xerxes be delayed as long as possible so that the Athenians could desperately build up their navy. They decided to send an expeditionary force north to meet Xerxes, to fight the Persians at hopeless odds, and to sacrifice themselves in order to improve the chances of ultimate victory. They decided to take this stand at Thermopylae.
The Greek army, led by King Leonidas of Sparta, was about ten thousand strong and in position at Thermopylae, when the Persians arrived. Xerxes was incredulous that they would take a stand against his immense army. After impatiently waiting four days while warning them to surrender, he launched a massive attack. The Greeks, as at the Battle of Marathon, initially retreated drawing the Persian army into the narrow pass. Then they turned and waged a furious battle against the limited number of Persian who had entered the pass, thoroughly routing them. Time and again the attacking Persians, including the elite immortals, were unable to get through.
After this battle, the Persian army advanced into central Greece and marched into Athens burning and sacking it late in the summer of 480 BC. However, the Athenians had already evacuated to the city of Salamis on an island west of Athens where the Greek naval fleet was also positioned and prepared for a last stance against the Persian powerhouse. This fight would be known as the battle of thermopolye
The confrontation at Thermopylae took place in the late summer of 480. Some modern accounts seem to know exactly on what dates the battle fell, because Herodotus says (7. 206) the the festival of Apollo Carneia was on at Sparta and that the Olympic games were also in progress. This confidence about the precise dating has lately been called into question (e.g. by Sacks in CQ 1976), but it is still possible to describe the battle in terms of relative chronology and that in many ways turns out to be more revealing. For example, we know that when Xerxes and the Persian imperial army arrived at Anthela, just west of the pass, they encamped and waited for five days before attacking. The reason for this is fairly straightforward. First, although the Persians could be confident that they would outnumber the enemy, they had as yet no idea how many hoplites were waiting on the other side of the pass, hidden by a hastily reconstructed wall. Second, Xerxes was waiting for his battered fleet to catch up; it had been damaged and delayed by bad weather yet again, the hand of the gods on the side of the Greeks (7. 188, the storm off the coast of Magnesia). A quick victory over the Greek fleet would allow him to simply land troops in the rear of the enemy, obviating the advantage offered to the Greeks by the terrain at the pass.
Xerxes used the time waiting for the fleet to arrive to good advantage. First he sent a spy to see what the Greeks were doing; the astonished horseman returned to report that he had seen the Spartans stripping for exercise and fixing each other's hair. It seems unlikely that this scene aroused the contempt in the Persian commanders Herodotus said it did, at least to judge from the next move, which was to send a herald to propose that the defenders of the pass should surrender and become allies of the Great King. In return they would be allowed to depart unharmed, and they could expect to get some of the land of those who refused to surrender. This tid-bit is reported by Diodorus (11.5, derived from Ephorus) but it is credible, since Xerxes had made similar pronouncements to the other Greek states before; Herodotus rather reports it as a conference held among the Greek contingents before Xerxes had arrived (7. 207). The offer will not have been expected to sway the Spartans; indeed, Xerxes had shown a disinclination to make further overtures to the Athenians and Spartans after the heralds of Darius had been executed both at Sparta and at Athens (Hdt. 7. 133). But if we can believe Ephorus the offer did expose the differing preoccupations of the various Greek contingents. The Peloponnesians, presumably including the Tegeans, Arcadians, Corinthians, and Phlians as well as some contingent of the Spartans, were for abandoning northern Greece and falling back on the Isthmus; only the insistence of Leonidas restrained them, and naturally the Phocians and the Locrians will have opposed this idea, since the non-combatants of Phokis and Lokris were for the most part still not evacuated. This debate among the Greek states typifies the distinctive feature of their foreign relations in the period, namely that each state tended to support its own regional interests, and it is worth reflecting on how this is usually portrayed in modern historical writing. The sense one gets is often that this was the curse of the Greeks; had they only been able to cooperate better, as they did for just long enough at Salamis, they could have ruled the world, or they would never have become the subjects of the Macedonians or (later) the Romans. Perhaps our postmodern penchant for "diversity" makes it easier for us to see how such sentiments are misguided: the cultural homogeneity which greater unity and cooperation among the Greeks would have inexorably brought about, would have brought with it, as it did in the much reviled Hellenistic Age, the sapping of their creative spirit which drew its energy from that very contentiousness which marked their interrelations.
In any event Leonidas was able to hold the Greek force together. He had only 7,100 troops; Herodotus says that Xerxes had 2.5 million troops and as many again of camp followers, but the figure is widely acknowledged to be fantastic. A more realistic estimate is had by lopping off a zero: perhaps 200,000, not all of whom had arrived at Thermopylae by the time Xerxes decided he had waited long enough.
At first, the battle went entirely according to the plan of the Greeks. The narrowness of the pass at the middle gate negated the advantage of numbers for the imperial troops. Moreover, the Greek hoplite was better equipped, with his long thrusting spear, heavy hoplite shield, and body armour; the Persian had a shorter javelin-type spear, a wicker shield which did indeed provide superior mobility in the open field but was much less useful than bronze at close quarters, and thick-woven linen corselets. For two days the Spartans held off lesser elements of the imperial army: Medes and Cissians were succeeded by the crack troops, the Immortals, to little avail.
Then the tide turned when a local man, a Malian named Ephialtes, offered to show the Persians a way around the back of the defending force, a way to get past the "Middle Gate" and turn the Greek position. Xerxes agreed, sending what was left of his 10,000 "Immortals" off at dusk. The precise route taken by the Persian troops that night is disputed. The standard view used to be that the path corresponded to the gorge of the Asopos river (so e.g. Leake, Grundy, Hignett), but this has two problems. First, the Asopos river gorge is too rocky to be negotiated at night without numerous broken ankles; second, Herodotus says that the path began from the Asopos river "which flows through the gorge" and not, as the standard view insists, "where it flows through the gorge" (7. 216). Two other main candidates have been put forward: the Vardates route (favored by Myres, Burn, and Wallace); and the Chalkomata spring route, favored by Pritchett. Whichever of these two it was may never be known for certain, but both would bring the Persians to the peak of Sastano (Kallidromos) near ancient Drakospilia by dawn. From there the paths converge.
Now, according to Herodotus Leonidas had been aware from the beginning of the existence of the Anopaia path. He stationed 1000 Phokians there to stop any encircling movement. The Phokians, according to Herodotus, were taken by surprise and put up little resistance. But word got through to Leonidas that the position had been outflanked, and there seems to have been time to abandon the position and withdraw to the south before the Immortals under Hydarnes arrived. Why did Leonidas refuse? There have been various answers to this question. Herodotus represents it as an act of deliberate self-sacrifice carried out in accordance with an oracle, which had said that the death of a Spartan king would save Sparta from destruction. One may observe that the pronouncements of the oracle in the late 480's have a distinctly pro-Persian cast; it seems likely that the priests, whose job after all was to predict the future, simply believed that the victory of the Persian army, whose immense size was known well in advance of its arrival, was inevitable. It may be that this oracle, if genuine, actually meant that the recommended course of action was for the Spartans to depose one of the sitting kings and take back Demaratus as the vassal of the Persians. Alternatively it is possible that the oracle is a post-eventum falsehood, put out by the oracle and its partisans to make it appear that Apollo had successfully predicted the outcome. There is also available the so-called "military" solution to the question, as formulated by Dascalakis. He argues that Leonidas remained in order to give the allied contingents, whom he dismissed (with the exception of the Thebans and the Thespians), time to get away.
There is an interesting sidelight here which sheds light on the interstate politics of the Persian Wars. Thebes had officially surrendered to Xerxes, and in the years after the was the Thebans had a very hard time living this down. Herodotus says that the Theban contingents who remained with the Spartans did so under compulsion, but moderns have seen that this makes little sense. At so crucial a time, Leonidas would be insane to choose to have hostiles in his midst. It is more likely that the Theban contingent consisted (as Diodorus says, 11.4.7) of exiles who had opposed the surrender to Xerxes, and that Herodotus was taken in by the anti-Theban propaganda which was flying thick and fast at Athens in the years before the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War.
There is a final dispute to be noticed concerning the identity of the hill to which Herodotus says the defenders retreated before finally being overwhelmed (7. 225). Until the excavations by Marinatos, it was generally assumed that this was the westernmost of the hills, Hill 1 by the remains of the Phokian Wall. However, the excavations proved that Kolonos Hill must be identified with Hill 2, due to the discovery of a large number of arrowheads similar in type to those found at Marathon, in a well at the Agora, and on the north slope of the Acropolis. The stone lion, the memorial to the heroism of the defenders, has never been found (though there is a modern restoration in the wrong place for the tourists) nor have the bones of the dead.