Sunday, March 25, 2007


The real story of 300.

In the Battle of Thermopylae of 480 BC, an alliance of Greek city-states fought the invading Persian Empire at the pass of Thermopylae in central Greece. Vastly outnumbered, the Greeks held back the Persians for three days in one of history's most famous last stands. A small force led by King Leonidas of Sparta blocked the only road through which the massive army of Xerxes I could pass. After three days of battle, a local resident named Ephialtes betrayed the Greeks by revealing a mountain path that led behind the Greek lines. Dismissing the rest of the army, King Leonidas stayed behind with 300 Spartans and 700 Thespian volunteers. The Persians succeeded in taking the pass but sustained heavy losses, extremely disproportionate to those of the Greeks. The fierce resistance of the Spartan-led army offered Athens the invaluable time to prepare for a decisive naval battle that would come to determine the outcome of the war.[1] The subsequent Greek victory at the Battle of Salamis left much of the Persian Empire's navy destroyed and Xerxes I was forced to retreat back to Asia, leaving his army in Greece under Mardonius, who was to meet the Greeks in battle one last time. The Spartans assembled at full strength and led a pan-Greek army that defeated the Persians decisively at the Battle of Plataea, ending the Greco-Persian War and with it the expansion of the Persian Empire into Europe.[2]
The performance of the defenders at the battle of Thermopylae is often used as an example of the advantages of training, equipment, and good use of terrain to maximize an army's potential,[3] and has become a symbol of courage against overwhelming odds.[3]

Greek preparations

After the expedition to Greece had got under way, Xerxes I sent messengers to all Greek cities offering blandishments if they would submit, and asking for "earth and water" from their soil as a token of their submission. Many smaller states submitted. However, the Athenians threw their envoys into a pit and the Spartans threw theirs into a well, taunting them with the retort, "Dig it out for yourselves" (referring to the 'earth and water' demand).[4]
Support gathered around these two leading states. A congress met at Corinth in late autumn of 481 BC,[5] and a confederate alliance of Greek city-states was formed. It had the power to send envoys asking for assistance and to dispatch troops from the member states to defensive points after joint consultation. Herodotus calls them simply "οἱ Ἕλληνες" (the Greeks) or "the Greeks who had banded together." Sparta and Athens had a leading role in the congress[6] but interests of all the states played a part in determining defensive strategy. Little is known about the internal workings of the congress or the discussion during its proceedings.
The Persian army first encountered a joint force of 10,000 Athenian and Spartan hoplites led by Euanetus and Themistocles in the vale of Tempe. Upon hearing this, Xerxes I sent the army through the Sarantaporo strait, which was unguarded, and sidestepped them. The hoplites, warned by Alexander I of Macedon, vacated the pass.[7] The allied Greeks judged that the next strategic choke point where the Persian force could be stopped was Thermopylae.[8] They decided to defend it and send a fleet to Artemision, a naval choke point, as Xerxes' army was being supplied and supported by sea. Using the fleet, Xerxes' army might have crossed Maliacos bay and outflanked the Greek army again.[9]
The Greek high strategy is confirmed by an oration later in the same century:
But while Greece showed these inclinations [to join the Persians], the Athenians, for their part, embarked in their ships and hastened to the defence of Artemisium; while the Spartans and some of their allies went off to make a stand at Thermopylae, judging that the narrowness of the ground would enable them to secure the passage.[10]
Some modern historians, such as Bengtson,[11] claim that the purpose of the land force was to slow down the Persian army whilst the Persian navy was defeated at sea. Another theory is that the land army was expected to hold back the Persian forces in the north and defeat it through attrition, epidemics, and food deprivation.[9]
Some have argued that the Athenians were confident that a small Greek force led by Leonidas would be enough to hold back the Persians; otherwise, they would have already vacated their city and sent their whole army to Thermopylae.[9] There is one known case in which a small force did stop a larger invading force from the north: in 353 BC/352 BC the Athenians managed to stop the forces of Philip II of Macedon by deploying 5,000 hoplites and 400 horsemen.[12]
Herodotus writes:
The force with Leonidas was sent forward by the Spartans in advance of their main body, that the sight of them might encourage the allies to fight, and hinder them from going over to the Medes, as was likely they might have done had they seen that Sparta was backward. They intended presently, when they had celebrated the Carneian Festival, which was what now kept them at home, to leave a garrison in Sparta, and hasten in full force to join the army. The rest of the allies intended to act similarly; for it happened that the Olympic Festival fell exactly at this same period. None of them looked to see the contest at Thermopylae decided so speedily; wherefore they were content to send forward a mere advance guard. Such accordingly were the intentions of the allies.[13]
The legend of Thermopylae as told by Herodotus has it that Sparta consulted the Oracle at Delphi before setting out to meet the Persian army. The Oracle is said to have made the following prophecy in hexameter verse:[14]
O ye men who dwell in the streets of broad Lacedaemon!
Either your glorious town shall be sacked by the children of Perseus,
Or, in exchange, must all through the whole Laconian country
Mourn for the loss of a king, descendant of great Heracles.
He cannot be withstood by the courage of bulls nor of lions,
Strive as they may; he is mighty as Jove; there is naught that shall stay him,
Till he have got for his prey your king, or your glorious city.
In essence, the Oracle's warning was that either Sparta would be conquered and left in ruins or one of her two hereditary kings, descendant of Hercules, must sacrifice his life to defend her.
Leonidas took charge of his personal fighting unit, the 300 Spartans, and headed to Thermopylae.[15] Herodotus writes that Leonidas was idolized by his men. He was convinced that he was going to certain death and his forces were not adequate for a victory, and so selected only men who had fathered sons who were old enough to take over the family responsibilities. Plutarch mentions in his Sayings of Spartan Women that, after encouraging him, Leonidas' wife Gorgo asked what she should do on his departure. He replied, "Marry a good man, and have good children."[16]

The Battle of Thermopylae and movements to Salamis.
Arrival of the Persians
On the Persian Empire army's arrival to the battle scene, Greek troops instigated a council meeting. Some Peloponnesians suggested withdrawal to the Isthmus and blocking the passage to Peloponnesus. They were well aware that the Persians would have to go through Athens in order to reach them there. The Phocians and Locrians, whose states were located nearby, became indignant and advised defending Thermopylae and sending for more help. Leonidas and the Spartans agreed with the Phocians and Locrians.[17]
Meanwhile, the Persians entered the pass and sent a mounted scout to reconnoiter. The Greeks allowed him to come up to the camp, observe them, and depart. When the scout reported to Xerxes I the size of the Greek force and that the Spartans were indulging in calisthenics and combing their long hair, Xerxes I found the reports laughable. Seeking the counsel of an exiled Spartan king in his employ, Demaratus, Xerxes I was told that the Spartans were preparing for battle and that it was their custom to adorn their hair beforehand. The exile called them "the bravest men in Greece" and warned the Great King that they intended to dispute the pass.[18]
Xerxes I remained incredulous. According to another account, he sent emissaries to the Greek forces. At first, he asked Leonidas to join him by offering the kingship of all Greece. Leonidas answered: "If you knew what is good in life, you would abstain from wishing for foreign things. For me it is better to die for Greece than to be monarch over my compatriots."[19]
Then Xerxes I asked him more forcefully to surrender their arms. To this Leonidas gave his noted answer:
Μολών Λαβέ (pronounced: /molɔːn labe/),
meaning "Come and get them". This quote has been repeated by many later generals and politicians in order to express an army's or nation's determination to not surrender without a battle (taken by the Greek First Army Corps as their emblem[20]).
Despite their extremely disproportionate numbers, Greek morale was high. Herodotus writes that when Dienekes, a Spartan soldier, was informed that Persian arrows would be so numerous as "to blot out the sun", he remarked with characteristically laconic prose, "So much the better, we shall fight in the shade." (Taken by the Greek 20th Armored Division as their motto[21]).
Xerxes I waited four days for the Greek force to disperse. On the fifth day he sent Medes and Cissians, along with relatives of those who had died 10 years earlier in the battle of Marathon to take the Greeks prisoner and bring them before him.[22] According to Ctesias, the first wave numbered 10,000 soldiers and were commanded by Artapanus. They were "cut to pieces" with only 2 or 3 Spartans dead.[23]
Failure of the frontal assault
Xerxes I sent in the Medes who had been only recently conquered by the Persians, perhaps, as Diodorus Siculus suggested, because he wanted them to bear the brunt of the fighting.[24] The Medes soon found themselves in a frontal assault. The Greeks had camped on either side of the rebuilt Phocian wall. That the wall was guarded shows that the Greeks were using it to establish a reference line for the battle, but they fought in front of it.[25]
Details of the tactics are scant. The Greeks probably deployed in a phalanx, a wall of overlapping shields and layered spearpoints, spanning the width of the pass. Herodotus says that the units for each state were kept together.[26] The Persians, armed with arrows and short spears, could not break through the long spears of the Greek phalanx, nor were their lightly armoured men a match for the superior armour, weaponry, and discipline of the Greek hoplites.[27] Glotz has argued that three Persian Empire soldiers were necessary to put down one hoplite.[28]
Yet there are some indications the Greeks did not fight entirely in close formation. They made use of the feint to draw in the Medes, pretending to retreat in disorder only to turn suddenly and attack the pursuing Medes. In this way they killed so many Medes that Xerxes is said to have started up off the seat from which he was watching the battle three times.[29]
According to Herodotus and Diodorus, the Persian emperor, having taken the measure of the enemy, threw his best troops into a second assault: the Immortals, an elite corps of 10,000 men.[30] However, according to Ctesias, the Immortals did not attack until the second day. Ctesias tells that Xerxes sent another 20,000 troops against the Greeks, after the first 10,000 were defeated, who also failed to open the pass even though they were flogged by their leaders to keep on attacking.[23] On his side, Leonidas had arranged a system of relays between the hoplites of the various cities so as to constantly have fresh troops on the front line. In the heat of the battle, however, the units did not get a chance to rotate. Able to approach the Greek line only in such numbers as the space allowed, the Immortals fared no better than the Medes, and Xerxes had to withdraw them as well. The first day of battle probably ended there.[31]
On the second day Xerxes sent, according to Ctesias, another 50,000 to assault the pass. Again they failed. The account of the slain gives some indication why: the wall of bodies must have broken up the Persian line and detracted from their morale. Climbing over the bodies, they could see that they had stepped into a killing machine but the officers behind prevented them from withdrawing. Xerxes at last stopped the assault and withdrew to his camp, totally perplexed. By now he concluded that a head-on confrontation against Spartan-led troops in a narrow place was the wrong approach.[23]
Encirclement of the Greeks
Late on the second day of battle, as the king was pondering what to do next, he received a windfall: a Malian Greek traitor named Ephialtes informed him of a path around Thermopylae and offered to guide the Persian army through the pass. Ephialtes was motivated by the desire of a reward. For this act, the name of Ephialtes received a lasting stigma: it means "nightmare" and is synonymous with "traitor" in Greek.[32] Xerxes I sent his Hydarnes with the Immortals and other troops through the pass, Ctesias gives 40,000 as the number of troops led by Hydarnes.[23]
The path led from east of the Persian camp along the ridge of Mt. Anopaea behind the cliffs that flanked the pass. It branched with one path leading to Phocis and the other down to the Gulf of Malis at Alpenus, first town of Locris. Leonidas had stationed 1,000 Phocian volunteers on the heights to guard that path.[33]
Despite their indignation and determination on defending Thermopylae, the Phocians were not expecting such an outcome: There were no advance positions, sentinels, or patrols. Their first warning of the approach of the Immortals under Hydarnes was the rustling of oak leaves at first light on the third day of the battle. Herodotus says that they "jumped up", suggesting that the Greek force was still asleep, and were "greatly amazed", which no alert unit should have been.[34]
Hydarnes was as amazed to see them hastily arming themselves. He feared that they were Spartans, but was enlightened by Ephialtes. Not wishing to be delayed by an assault, Hydarnes resorted to a tactic that later turned out to be a victorious one: He fired "showers of arrows" at them. The Phocians retreated to the crest of the mountain to make their stand. The Persians branched left to Alpenus.[34]
Final stand of the Spartans and Thespians
Before first light, Leonidas learned that the Phocians had not held and he called a council of war at dawn. During the council some Greeks argued for withdrawal in the face of the overwhelming Persian advance, while others pledged to stay. After the council, many of the Greek forces did choose to withdraw. Herodotus believed that Leonidas blessed their departure with an order, but he also offered the alternate point of view that those retreating forces departed without orders.[35] The Spartans had pledged themselves to fight to the death, while the Thebans were held as hostage against their will. However, a contingent of about 700 Thespians, led by general Demophilus, the son of Diadromes, refused to leave with the other Greeks, but cast their lot with the Spartans.[36]
Ostensibly, the Spartans were obeying their oath and following the oracle of Delphi (see above). However, it might also have been a calculated strategy to delay the advance of the Persians and cover the retreat of the Greek army. In fact, with the Persians so close at hand, the decision to stand and fight was probably a tactical requirement only made more palatable by the oracle.[9]
At dawn Xerxes I made libations. He paused to allow the Immortals sufficient time to descend the mountain, and then began his advance.[37]
The Greeks this time sallied forth from the wall to meet the Persians in the wider part of the pass in an attempt to slaughter as many Persians as they could. They fought with spears until every spear was shattered and then switched to xiphoi (short swords). In this struggle, Herodotus tells us that two brothers of Xerxes I fell: Abrocomes and Hyperanthes. Leonidas also died in the assault.[38]
Unknown and unremembered by most, 1,000 to 2,000 Helots or Spartan slaves died fighting alongside their masters in the last stand.
Receiving intelligence that Ephialtes and the Immortals were advancing toward the rear, the Greeks withdrew and took a stand on a small hill behind the wall. The Thebans deserted to the Persians but a few were slain before their surrender was accepted.[39] While some of the remaining Greeks fought with their xiphoi, some were left with only their hands and teeth. Tearing down part of the wall, Xerxes I ordered the hill surrounded and the Persians rained down arrows until the last Greek was dead.[40] Modern archaeologists have found evidence of the final arrow shower.[41]

When the body of Leonidas was recovered by the Persians, Xerxes I, in a rage at the loss of so many of his soldiers, ordered that the head be cut off and the body crucified. This was very uncommon for the Persians; they had the habit of treating enemies that fought bravely against them with great honour, as the example of Pytheas captured earlier off Skyros shows.[42] However, Xerxes I was known for his rage, as when he had the Hellespont whipped because it would not obey him.[43]
Xerxes I was curious as to why there was such a small Greek force guarding Thermopylae and interrogated some Arcadian prisoners. The answer was that all the other men were participating in the Olympic Games, a very important event for them. When Xerxes I asked what the prize for the winner was, "an olive-wreath" came the answer. Upon hearing this, Tritantaechmes, a Persian general, said to Mardonius: "Good heavens! Mardonius, what kind of men are these against whom you have brought us to fight? Men who do not compete for money, but for honour".[44]
After the departure and defeat of the Persians, the Greeks collected their dead and buried them on the hill. A stone lion was erected to commemorate Leonidas. Forty years after the battle, Leonidas' body was returned to Sparta where he was buried again with full honours and funeral games were held every year in his memory.[45]
The simultaneous naval Battle of Artemisium was a stalemate, whereupon the Athenian navy retreated. The Persians were now in control of the Aegean Sea and all of peninsular Greece as far south as Attica. The Spartans prepared to defend the Isthmus of Corinth and the Peloponnese, while Xerxes I sacked an evacuated city of Athens, whose inhabitants had already fled to Salamis Island. In September, the Greeks defeated the Persians at the naval Battle of Salamis, which led to the rapid retreat of Xerxes I. The remaining Persian army, left under the charge of Mardonius, was defeated in the Battle of Plataea by a combined Greek army again led by the Spartans, under the regent Pausanias.[46]
Topography of the battlefield

At the time, the pass of Thermopylae consisted of a track along the shore of the Gulf of Malis so narrow that only one chariot could pass through.[47] On the southern side of the track stood the cliffs, while on the north side was the gulf. Along the path was a series of three constrictions, or "gates" (pylai), and at the center gate a short wall that had been erected by the Phocians in the previous century to aid in their defense against Thessalian invasions.[48] The name "hot gates" comes from the hot springs that were located there.
Today, the pass is not near the sea but is inland due to infilling of the Gulf of Malis. The old track appears at the foot of hills around the plain, flanked by a modern road. It still is a natural defensive position to modern armies.

Herodotus doubles this number to account for support troops and thus he reports that the whole troop numbered 5,283,220 men in Greece,[53] a figure which is regarded as erroneous by modern estimations. The poet Simonides, who was a near-contemporary, talked of four million. Ctesias of Cnidus, Artaxerxes II of Persia's personal physician, wrote a history of Persia according to Persian sources one century later that unfortunately has not survived, and gives 800,000 as the total number of the original army that met in Doriskos, Thrace, after crossing the Hellespont. Modern scholars have given different estimates based on knowledge of the Persian military systems, their logistical capabilities, the Greek countryside, and supplies available along the army's route.
Modern estimations tend to consider the figures given in ancient texts as miscalculations or exaggerations on the part of the Greeks. Many modern scholars have pointed out that the land forces participaing in the battle cannot have exceeded 100,000 soldiers, due to the logistics of fielding and supporting more than 100,000 soldiers in battle being close to impossible in ancient times.[54][55][56][57] In comparison, they have pointed out that the largest Roman army ever fielded in ancient times was less than 90,000 at the Battle of Cannae. A popular view supports a range of 50,000 to 100,000 for the Persian army participating at Thermopylae.[58] Another reason often given for smaller values is a lack of water; Sir Frederick Maurice,[59] a British general in World War I, was among the first to point out that the army could not have surpassed 175,000 due to this reason, at a time when hydrological data on Greek rivers was unavailable.
It is assumed that if Herodotus' 300,000 estimate at Plataea were to be accepted, then the total land army in Greece cannot have surpassed 500,000, and the total Persian presence in Greece would be less than 1,000,000. This accounts for less than one fifth of Herodotus' record.[60]
The subject has been debated, but the current consensus among Western scholars rests on the theory that Herodotus may have confused Persian terms for chiliarchy and myriarchy (one thousand and ten thousand).[61] This suggests that the actual size of the Persian land forces in Greece would be no larger than 200,000.
The numbers given by Herodotus on the Persian fleet are considered realistic by some scholars. It is believed that Herodotus or his sources had access to official Persian Empire records of the forces involved in the expedition,[62] and it is likely the numbers on the fleet were given accurately, whereas the contingent of the army may have been listed in general terms rather than exact figures.[62] Whatever the real numbers were, it is clear that Xerxes I was anxious to ensure a successful expedition by mustering an overwhelming numerical superiority by land and by sea.[62]
Based on the fact that Xerxes I led a multi-ethnic army and not just a Persian one, a second school contends that some ancient sources do give realistic numbers. According to the texts, the Greeks at the end of the Battle of Plataea mustered 110,000 (Herodotus) or 100,000 (Pompeius) troops: 38,700 hoplites and 71,300 or 61,300 peltasts respectively, the difference probably being 10,000 helots. In that battle, according to Herodotus, they faced 300,000 Persians and 50,000 Greek allies. This gives a 3-to-1 ratio for the two armies, which proponents of the school consider a realistic proportion.
Furthermore, Munro[63] and Macan[64] argue for realism based on Herodotus giving the names of 6 major commanders and 29 μυρίαρχοι (muriarchoi)—leaders of the baivabaram, the basic unit of the Persian infantry, which numbered about 10,000 strong.[65] As troops were lost through attrition, the Persians preferred to dissolve crippled baivabarams to replenish the ranks of others.[66] It is therefore likely that the units were at full strength. Adding casualties of the battles and attrition due to the need to guard cities and strategic objectives obtains a force of 400,000 minimum.
According to this view, there was no lack of water. The available surface water in Greece today satisfies the needs of a much larger population than the number of Xerxes I's troops, though the majority of that water is used for irrigation.
Other historians' estimates include
Nicholas Hammond accepts 300,000 Persians at the battle of Plataea, though he claims that the numbers at Doriskos were smaller.
The metrologist Livio Catullo Stecchini argues that Ctesias's figure of 800,000 battle troops for the Persian army is accurate and that Herodotus' figure of 1,700,000 includes both battle and support troops.[67]
Dr. Manousos Kampouris argues that Herodotus' 1,700,000 for the infantry plus 80,000 cavalry (including support) is realistic for various reasons including the size of the area from which the army was drafted (from modern-day Libya to Pakistan), the lack of security against spies, the ratios of land troops to fleet troops, of infantry to cavalry and Persian troops to Greek troops.[68]
On the other hand, Christos Romas believes that the Persian troops accompanying Xerxes I were a little over 400,000.[69]

Date of the battle

Based on information from Herodotus' The Histories Book VII, the date of Ephialtes' betrayal and use of the mountain path by the Immortals can be narrowed to a few days in September of 480 BC, as follows. Not knowing the terrain, they would have needed some form of light, but torches would have given away their intent. They therefore traversed the path when light from the moon would be the greatest - the full moon. In Book VII Herodotus mentions the solar eclipse that occurred at the crossing of the Hellespont by the Persians. By estimating the distance the Persian army could move each day, it can be established that the battle took place around September of 480 BC. Tracing back via a lunar calendar, the date of the betrayal can be narrowed to September 18, 19, or 20, 480 BC.

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