‘Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here, obedient to their laws, we lie.’Inscription on the Cenotaph at Thermopylae
In the Cambridge English dictionary, a ‘prototypical example’ is defined as ‘the first example from which later forms can be developed’. Thus the defence of Thermopylae in 480 BC may well be considered in historical terms as the prototypical ‘last stand’ of a small military force against overwhelming numbers of enemy.
Because of its historical distance, we have limited information on the actual fight, but we are fortunate in having a few written records that attest to the desperate struggle in a narrow pass on the Greek peninsula.
Located approximately 200 kilometres north-west of Athens on the Gulf of Maliakos, the place-name Thermopylae, meaning ‘Hot Gates’, refers to the presence of hot sulphur springs nearby. In antiquity, these were frequently imagined to be the entrance to Hades. For many of those who fought there, so they turned out to be.
One might assume, given the widespread recognition afforded the battle and the sacrifice of the Spartan King Leonidas and his brothers-in-arms, that Thermopylae had a major military impact on the outcome of the war. But this was not the case.
In the event, Thermopylae was an exercise in futility, for in the following months Xerxes went on to subdue much of Greece, even burning Athens. It would be a full year before an allied Greek force was able to defeat the Persians and expel them from the Greek homeland.
But if the defence of Thermopylae was ineffectual, it nonetheless captures the imagination – and has some valuable lessons to teach with regard to terrain appreciation.
The Persian Wars
Ancient Greece was an interesting military environment, a collection of diverse and independent city-states, a characteristic dictated by the topography of the area. Nearly every valley, island, and plain is cut off from its neighbours by water or hill-country, encouraging the development of countless separate polities.
By the 6th century BC, four city-states – Athens, Sparta, Corinth, and Thebes – were dominant, but in addition to wars between these ‘Great Powers’, there were incessant minor wars between the lesser states.
Athens and Sparta were perhaps the greatest rivals. But they were driven together in the early 5th century BC by the menace of a true superpower: the Achaemenid Persian Empire.
Across the Aegean Sea, Darius I, the Persian ‘King of Kings’, was expanding his empire rapidly. He brutally suppressed a revolt of subject Greeks in Ionia, on the coast of Asia Minor (today’s Turkey), a revolt that was supported by the Athenians, and at the same time moved into Thrace (today’s Bulgaria) and Macedonia.
He never forgot Athenian meddling in his affairs. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, he had a servant remind him three times a day, ‘Master, remember the Athenians.’
Thus, after suppressing the Ionian Revolt, he gathered an army estimated at 28,000 men and moved against Athens. But at the Battle of Marathon, in 490 BC, an army of 10,000 Greek hoplites – 9,000 Athenians and 1,000 Plataeans – defeated the Persian invasion force and drove it (literally) back into the sea. (Though the Athenians had requested Spartan aid, the Spartans claimed that a religious festival had delayed the dispatch of troops.)
Darius was livid and vowed revenge. He began assembling a huge army to take the war back to Greece. An unexpected revolt in Egypt distracted the Persian King, however, and before he could turn his attention back to the Greeks, he sickened and died. His plans for revenge would be taken up by his son, Xerxes.
The Persian army of invasion: numbers
From 483 BC onwards, Darius’s son – and successor – worked towards the subjugation of the Greeks. To this end, a canal was dug through the isthmus of the Mount Athos peninsula, supplies were gathered and stockpiled throughout Thrace, and two huge pontoon bridges were constructed across the Hellespont.
The purpose was to transport and supply an invasion force estimated at five times the size of Darius’s army, including large numbers of Assyrians, Phoenicians, Egyptians, Babylonians, and other nationalities and races under Persian rule.
Herodotus would claim that the Persian host was more than 2.5 million men. Such inflated numbers were quite common in contemporary historical accounts, with Simonides claiming an army of 4 million, and Ctesias one of 800,000.
All such figures can be rejected out of hand. In practical terms, factors that would have constrained the size of the invasion force include the ruggedness of the terrain, the paucity of fresh water, and the challenge of providing sufficient forage for animals and rations for soldiers. Recent scholarship has posited a Persian army of around 120,000 men. Even this would have amounted to one of the largest armies ever assembled in the pre-industrial world.
Anything close to 120,000 men would have represented a force considerably larger than any that could have been fielded by the Greek city-states, even assuming they formed an effective alliance and achieved a high level of cooperation (which they did not).
The Persian army of invasion: warriors and weapons
The size of the Persian force was its primary asset. Few other militaries could field armies capable of matching those of the Persian Empire. Thus did the King of Kings inspire awe and fear among his enemies.
Persian forces were, however, rather poorly equipped for combat against the Greeks. The heavy infantry typically wore padded linen over-garments and soft caps, which could be rolled down against wind and blown sand. They were armed with wickerwork shields, short spears, short swords, and long daggers. The light infantry (usually archers with composite bows or slings) wore no armour.
The elite forces – known as ‘Companions’ and some- times referred to as ‘the Immortals’ – had the added benefit of scale armour.
The great advantage enjoyed by the 10,000-strong Immortals was their intensive training. Disciplined and aggressive, they moved eagerly into contact with the enemy, confident of their ability to overwhelm and destroy any opposition. They had an impressive combat record, having been used successfully in Egypt, Scythia, the Punjab, and Sindh.
The Greek military system
Greek armies could hardly have been more different. The Spartans were exceptionally well equipped. Their body armour consisted of formed and beaten bronze, sometimes replicating the wearer’s musculature.
If not a bronze cuirass, a Greek hoplite (or heavy infantryman) might wear a ‘linothorax’ breastplate of hardened linen or leather. While relatively little is known of the original construction of this item, recent experiments conducted at the University of Wisconsin in conjunction with the Archaeological Institute of America posited that, in warm climates especially, the linothorax would have quickly moulded itself to the wearer and provided excellent protection against both arrow penetration and sword cuts.
In addition, the Greek infantryman would often wear bronze greaves on his lower legs, leather wrist-bracers on his arms, and invariably a hammered bronze helmet on his head.
His main armament an ash-wood spear 6 to 9 feet in length, tipped with a razor-sharp, leaf-shaped iron spearhead. The base of the spear sported a bronze spike known as a sauroter or ‘lizard killer’, which could be used to steady the weapon or to dispatch fallen enemies.
The secondary weapon of the Greeks was either the xiphos, a double-edged iron sword about 20 inches in length, or the kopis, a single-edged sword a few inches longer.
Finally, each hoplite carried a hoplon, a large, round shield some 3 feet in diameter, constructed of wood with a bronze face and leather interior. Each of these would be fitted with internal straps for the left forearm and hand, allowing for excellent control of the shield’s movement, especially important in view of its weight of up to 15 pounds.
That the Greek heavy infantryman was thus materially far better equipped for close-quarters combat than his Persian adversary is a crucial consideration when we come to analyse the Battle of Thermopylae.
The Persian advance
Having once been frustrated by adverse weather in crossing the Hellespont, Xerxes finally got his forces moving against the Greek states, many of which submitted meekly to the conqueror.
It was spring of the year 480 BC and the progress of Xerxes’s army seemed inexorable. Facing the imposing armed might of Persia, the rival powers of Sparta and Athens decided to shelve their internecine squabbles in favour of a combined defence against the invaders.
Dispatching a force of 10,000 men to intercept Xerxes at the Vale of Tempe on the border of Thessaly, the Greeks found they had been bypassed and needed to find an alternate stop-line. It was at this point that Athenian general, politician, and veteran of Marathon, Themistocles proposed blocking the route of the Persian fleet, thereby forcing the army to disembark and attempt a passage through the narrow defile at the Hot Gates.
To ensure that the Persians were funnelled into this choke point, Athens and the other allied cities agreed to deploy a large fleet of triremes off the Cape of Artemesium.
The Persian advance was slow and methodical – so much so that the Greeks were given plenty of time to implement their plan.
But, by the autumn of that year, as the Persian fleet finally veered westward into the Straits of Artemesium, the Greek alliance found itself confronted by a serious shortage of manpower. The imminent Persian arrival corresponded with the Spartan Festival of Carneia, during which military activity was strictly forbidden by law.
The Spartan king, Leonidas, was desperate. This very same religious festival had prevented Sparta from providing promised military aid to the Athenians at the time of the Battle of Marathon, and a repeat no-show would discredit Sparta and worsen relations between the two states.
Consulting the ephors, a panel of five senior Spartan officials, Leonidas was granted a limited dispensation to go to Athens’ aid accompanied by his Hippeis, a personal bodyguard numbering 300 men.
Leonidas departed Sparta hoping to recruit additional forces en route to Thermopylae. In this regard he was fortunate, being able to attract additional warriors until the entire force numbered some 7,000 men.
The Greeks moved rapidly to their chosen choke point – the narrow pass at Thermopylae. A critical tactical issue was implicated in this decision. The Persian host was both vast and well supplied with cavalry and light infantry. The danger in open battle was of a much smaller Greek army being surrounded and destroyed.
But the Greek hoplite phalanx was unbeatable in frontal collision by anything in the Persian army. To win, or even to be effective in causing delay and buying time, the Greeks had to force the Persians to fight head-on. The Greeks’ only hope was the funnel effect at the Hot Gates.
Camping in the ‘Middle Gate’, the narrowest portion of the constricted pass, Leonidas considered how best to defend against the fast-approaching Persian hosts. Having received reports of a narrow track that circumvented the Gates, he dispatched a force of 1,000 Phocians to the heights to deny its use.
As the Persians were landing, the Greeks held a council of war, weighing their chances in the coming fight. From this meeting comes the apocryphal report, dutifully repeated by Herodotus and Plutarch, that when one Greek worried that the Persian arrows would ‘blot out the sun’, a Spartan officer named Dienekes retorted, ‘Then we will fight in the shade.’
While it makes a good story, it is likely that anyone privy to the exchange would have died in the subsequent fighting, so we can put little faith in its veracity.
In the same vein, a report of a later exchange between Leonidas and Xerxes can be taken with a pinch of salt. This comes down to us from Plutarch, who writes that when Xerxes demanded the Greeks surrender their weapons, Leonidas responded, ‘Come and take them!’ Plutarch wrote several hundred years after the event, and it seems likely that the words attributed to Leonidas are fictitious.
Having landed adjacent to Thermopylae, Xerxes spent several days organising and resting his forces, during which time he demanded the surrender of the Greeks. His demands were rejected out of hand by Leonidas, now in nominal command not only of his Spartan bodyguard, but also of the additional troops he had gathered en route, representing Thebes, Corinth, Thespiae, Arcadia, and several other city-states.
These warriors had been set to work improving a stone wall part-blocking the passage, which at this point amounted to a constricted pathway delineated by steep, unclimbable hillsides on one side and the sea on the other. The route was approximately 100 metres wide. This was the ‘gate’ that Leonidas had decided to defend.
His demands rejected, Xerxes opened the fight with his archers. Fired from a distance of approximately 100 yards, the storm of arrows was deflected easily by the bronze shields and helmets of the Greeks.
The hoplites had adopted their traditional phalanx formation, standing shoulder to shoulder, many ranks deep, shields overlapping, the blades of their long spears projecting above.
With the ground unfavourable for cavalry and the archery having little effect, Xerxes realised that he would have to send his infantry forwards to engage the hoplite line.
But the forces launched against the defenders were too vulnerable to the well-armed and heavily armoured Greeks. With little body-armour and protected only by wickerwork shields, with spears far shorter than those of their enemy, the Persian shock-troops could make little impression. As the Persians threw wave after wave of light infantry against the Greek line, the hoplites, according to Ctesias, cut the attackers to ribbons, while rotating the men in their front-line repeatedly to ease muscular fatigue.
With the first assaults decimated by the Greek defenders, Xerxes next committed his Immortals to combat. But the Immortals fared no better than their predecessors. With short spears, shorter swords, no helmets, and little armour to protect them, they too were butchered by the defenders. They withdrew and the fighting ended.
The following day, Xerxes wrongly assumed that the small Greek force had been so taxed by the first day’s fight that they could easily be overrun by a determined assault. A second day of fruitless assaults unfolded much like the first, with no appreciable gain and heavy losses.
Several times during the fighting the Greeks feigned retreat, only to draw the Persians into a killing zone before turning on them to inflict savage injury.
It was at this point that, according to Herodotus, an opportunity presented itself to Xerxes in the form of a local Greek named Ephialtes, who approached the Persians offering, in exchange for a reward, to show them what today we would refer to as a ‘workaround’.
Here, once again, we must rely on the ancient Greek chroniclers for the tale. The workaround was the mountain path of which Leonidas had been informed by locals and to which he had dispatched a 1,000-man force of Phocians.
Taking a strike force of some 20,000 infantry, the Persian general Hydarnes outflanked the Greeks’ main line of resistance, meeting only a cursory show of force from the Phocians. The latter were dissuaded from engaging the Persians by volleys of arrows directed at them as the bulk of the enemy force bypassed their position entirely.
Learning of the Persian encirclement, Leonidas allowed most of the Greek blocking force to retire. This would ensure the escape of most of the Greeks as he conducted a suicidal rearguard action. Determined to hold off the enemy as long as possible, the 300 Spartans remained, as did some 700 Thespians and 400 Thebans.
Xerxes waited until dawn of the third day to allow the flanking force to complete its movement, then launched a fierce assault on the defenders. Nearly 10,000 Persian infantry, this time accompanied by some cavalry, surged forward.
Now trapped between two overwhelming forces, the Greeks fought desperately but were soon overwhelmed by numbers. The Theban contingent threw down their weapons and surrendered, but the Spartans and the Thespians fought to the last man.
When the fight was over, Greek casualties were estimated at 2,000 dead, as opposed to Persian losses in excess of 20,000.
Despite the fierce delaying action fought by Leonidas and his soldiers, the Persian invasion continued unabated. A combined Greek fleet at Artemesium fought the Persian fleet to a draw with serious losses to each side, but the Persian host was undeterred and the cities of Thespia and Plataea were razed, as was Athens itself.
Thereafter Greek resistance stiffened, and Xerxes, probably based on his experience of Thermopylae, realised that a complete defeat of his opponents on land was problematic. Instead, he envisioned an envelopment of the Greek land forces by using his navy. But the Greeks managed to lure the Persian fleet into the severely constricted Strait of Salamis, where it suffered decisive defeat.
Having lost his naval superiority, Xerxes feared that the Greeks would turn their attentions to the causeway he had constructed across the Hellespont, and he hurried to move his army back to Persia, leaving his general Mardonius to complete the subjugation of the Greeks.
It did not work out that way. The Greeks, despite their internal disputes, finally cornered Mardonius and destroyed his army at Plataea in August of the following year.
It was a spectacular victory and marked the end of the Persian attempt to subdue the Greeks. But whatever comity may have existed among the Greek city-states during the Persian Wars – and it was never complete and always fragile – it soon broke down in the wake of victory. The city-states of Classical Greece were destined to consume themselves in internecine conflict until finally overwhelmed by the ‘Lion in the North’ – Philip II of Macedon. •
Frederick J Chiaventone, a retired lieutenant- colonel in the US Army’s Armored Cavalry, is Professor Emeritus, National Security Strategy, Counter-Terrorism, Counter-Insurgency Operations, at the US Army Command and General Staff College.
All images: WIPL.