Thermopylae (480 BC) was the first land battle of the second Persian War. It pitted a small force of mainland Greeks against the huge Persian army in the narrow confines of a coastal pass. While the Spartan-led Greeks lost at Thermopylae, their decision to stand together against enormous odds strengthened an otherwise shaky coalition. In military terms, the battle showed the tremendous advantage that armored hoplites fighting in a phalanx held over the Persians even when outnumbered, and when the former could choose the terrain for battle. The heroic sacrifice of King Leonidas and his three hundred Spartans became the symbol and standard of Spartan warrior virtue.
Background to the War
Hostilities between the Greek city-states and the Persian Empire had been on the rise since the Ionian Revolt (499 BC) when the Ionian Greeks of Asia Minor had attempted and failed to defeat their Persian hegemon. Both Athens and Sparta had been approached by the Ionians with requests for support; Athens had acquiesced, while Sparta had firmly rejected the Ionian appeal.
King Cleomenes, the predecessor to Leonidas, was a formidable king in his own right. Aristagoras of the Ionian city of Miletus came to Sparta and met with the king; the Ionian suggested that a Spartan army cross into Asia Minor and invade the Persian Empire. Cleomenes balked at the request when he understood how vast the empire was – it would take three months just to travel to the capital. Nor was this the first time other Greeks had appealed to the Spartans to make war on Persia with them. In 517 BC, early in Cleomenes reign, he had been approached by Maeandrius of Samos who had offered him a bribe to aid the Samians against a Persian-sponsored takeover. Cleomenes had him expelled, not just from Sparta but from the Peloponnese. Spartan reticence to get involved in faraway military adventures was well-founded and rational. They could not afford to fight too far from home and for too long lest they face a helot uprising. Moreover, they were not unchallenged in the Peloponnese in this period, and they were mindful of the potential threat from neighboring cities, particularly Argos. Lastly, the Spartans were poor seafarers and they knew it; any attempt to fight Persia had to contend with its navy.
Athens on the other hand did agree to fight alongside the Ionians. Being Ionians themselves the Athenians felt a greater kinship to them than the Dorians of Sparta did. Athens had already damaged its relationship with the Persian throne by reneging on vows of fealty made by its diplomats years earlier. Crucially, Athens had a stake in the fate of the Aegean island states as it relied on free navigation through the Aegean to import grain for its growing population. After the Persian attack on the island of Naxos, the threat was clear, and rather than wait for the Persians to make the first move, the Athenians cast their die at Aristagoras’ urging. At the naval battle of Lade (494 BC), a weak Greek alliance was betrayed, and the Greeks soundly defeated by the Persian navy. Only four years later, a Persian force under the Great King Darius would land at Marathon, north of Athens, but it would be defeated by the Athenians and Plataeans on the shore.
For their part, the Persians were an expansionist empire whose ruler, Xerxes, considered it his divine destiny to conquer the world. His father, Darius, had ordered a campaign west of Asia Minor against the Scythians in the Balkans and north of the Black Sea in 513 BC, and he had subjugated Thrace and Macedonia in northern Greece. Xerxes inherited the unfinished business that his father Darius had with the mainland Greeks. Darius’ son was an experienced military leader, having put down a rebellion in Egypt in 486 BC. The planning for the invasion of mainland Greece started in 484 BC and took four years; the logistic challenge was immense and required methodical planning; a massive army and navy had to be gathered, the size of which in all likelihood had not been seen before. A canal for the navy was built in Thrace that the fleet could pass through safe from weather, and pontoon and ship bridges were built across the Hellespont for the army’s passage.
There was little chance of peace or compromise before Thermopylae. Prior to the battle of Marathon in 491 BC, both Sparta and Athens had killed the Persian envoys who demanded they offer earth and water as a token of submission to Great King Darius. Such killings were considered sacrilegious, and an offense to the gods; they were probably intended by those who ordered them to prevent any attempt at appeasement later on. Indeed, the Spartans had promised to aid the Athenians against a Persian invasion in 490 BC, but in the event, the festival of the Carnea would delay their march to Marathon, and they missed the battle much to their chagrin. The Spartans were a pious people however, and when the omens continued to be bad, it was determined that they must make amends to the gods for killing the envoys. Two volunteers were therefore sent to the Persian court at Susa to formally offer their lives in recompense; Xerxes showed them mercy. Whilst in the empire, the men were offered to become servants of the king in return for power and wealth; they both refused, saying that the Persians did not understand the value of freedom.
Beyond its freedom, Sparta’s ruling class may have had more to lose than any other Greek city-state by submitting to the Great King. It’s control of Messenia and predominance of the Peloponnese were important pillars of Sparta’s external power as well as its internal societal structure, and Sparta’s military preponderance demanded that the ruling Spartiates be ever-ready to march from the Eurotas valley to enforce their dominance. As a consequence, the Spartiates required a high degree of political independence in order that they might strategize and allocate their military resources as they saw fit, rather than be beholden to the decisions of the Great King. Thus subjugation to Persia would likely have resulted in Sparta losing its hegemony in the Peloponnese. In addition, the Lycurgan reforms had instituted a division of power within the Spartiate caste between the kings, the wealthy, and the commoner which by its nature was antithetical to tyranny or outside control. All in all, it must have been difficult for Spartiates to imagine that submission to the Great King would be anything but disastrous for Sparta as they knew it. In 481 BC when Persia sent envoys once again to Sparta to demand a token offering of earth and water, they were refused. The greatest threat that Sparta had ever faced was now approaching.
Here Come the Persians
Herodotus relates that the Spartans were forewarned by their exiled ex-king Demaratus, who was at the Persian court, with regard to the departure of the Persian army for Greece. In 481 BC, two tablets covered in wax arrived in Sparta apparently bearing no message. It was Queen Gorgo, Leonidas wife, who scraped off the wax and found the warning inscribed on the tablets themselves: Xerxes was coming. The ever pious Spartans turned to the gods for guidance and sought a prophecy from the Oracle at Delphi, the Pythian priestess of Apollo. She told them:
“Either your famed, great town must be sacked by Perseus’ sons [the Persians],
Or, if that be not, the whole land of Lacedaemon
Shall mourn the death of a king of the house of Heracles,
For not the strength of lions or of bulls shall hold him,
Strength against strength; for he has the power of Zeus,
And will not be checked until one of these two he has consumed.”
The prophecy was clear: either Sparta would fall, or one of its kings would die (on the battlefield was the clear implication.) The choice could not have been clearer for the Spartans. Fight, they would, but the next questions were where, when and along side whom?
The Hellenic League
The Hellenic League was the tentative alliance of Greek cities that prepared to resist the Persian invasion. It was based mostly around the Peloponnesian cities, foremost Sparta, but also included a number of Boeotian cities as well as Athens and nearby islands. Further north the Thessalians, who would be the first in the Persian line of march, were also willing to resist. For nearly all the League members, the idea of a grand alliance, and a grand strategy against an enemy so numerous and who possessed both an army and a navy was completely new. The Athenians and assorted islands had participated in the Ionian Revolt, but the lack of cohesion and unity in that alliance had proved disastrous. The Greeks were not a nation yet, but rather a collection of separate and divided mini-states with a common language, religion, and, to an extent, culture. In ordinary times, Greece was ridden by conflicts, and rivalries. But for all, the writing was on the wall: they stood no chance of resisting individually, and only united action could save them.
As the alliance members were spread out geographically from north to south and east to west, the question of where and how to fight the Persians had political and military dimensions. Fortunately, one man had dedicated years of his life to pondering these questions: Themistocles of Athens. Themistocles was nothing less than a military genius, whose analysis of the Persian threat and foresight in predicting Persian moves was simply unparalleled. Themistocles understood that the large Persian army was an immense logistic colossus whose difficulties in resupplying itself with food and water was a continuing challenge to its very existence. He also understood that the Persian fleet was critical to the resupply effort. Moreover, the Persian fleet gave Xerxes the ability to land troops to the rear or flank of a Greek force, allowing the Great King to outmaneuver or split his opponents. Themistocles concluded that the Persian army needed to be stopped or blocked from advancing, and the Persian navy needed to be defeated, or at least prevented from assisting the army. To this end, he had convinced Athens to build a fleet of upwards of two hundred triremes, manned by its citizens and dedicated to defeating the Persian navy. Themistocles relied on the Spartans to lead the land battles, to bring their Peloponnesian allies, and to rally the landlocked Greek cities. Yet the Spartans were poor sailors, and understood little of naval combat, but their commitment to a unified land and sea strategy was important, lest the differing considerations tear the alliance apart. It was decided that Sparta would lead the entire alliance, both the fleet and the army, despite the fact that the Athenian contribution to the navy, and knowledge of naval tactics, dwarfed those of the Laconians.
The Hellenic League first met at Corinth in the fall of 481 BC, and then again in the spring of 480 BC. In the north, Thessaly had requested help in light of the crossing, or imminent crossing, of the Hellespont by Xerxes’ army. Ten thousand hoplites were sent north to the Vale of Tempe in the spring where they were augmented by Thessalian cavalry and prepared to block the Persian advance. To the Greek mind, theirs was a sizeable force, but perhaps they had not comprehended or quite believed the reports of the numbers they would face. Once they understood the odds however, and then learned that their were alternate routes available to the Persians that would turn their flank, the stand at Tempe was called off and the forces retreated. Thessaly had no choice but to submit to Xerxes.
The Site of the Battle
Thermopylae, the passage where the Kallidromos mountains met the coast to the south of Thessaly, was the next terrain bottleneck, and it was the natural choice for the Greek blocking force. The navy would guard the Gulf of Malia, which Thermopylae overlooked, and prevent the Persian navy from landing to the rear. The Persians, as it turned out, were in no hurry to get there in the summer of 480 BC. The Greeks had erred by underestimating the Persian numbers, but the Persians erred very seriously by underestimating the Greek capacity for unity. Xerxes probably expected to conquer Greece in a piecemeal fashion, for he spent much longer in Thessaly than needed. The Great King was supremely confident of success, as he led a massive army by ancient measure. Herodotus estimated that the troops levied from across the empire numbered well over a million. Modern historians have been very skeptical of those figures, in particular because the amount of food and water needed to sustain such numbers simply was not available. Revised estimates put the Persian army at Thermopylae at less than one hundred thousand, all told..
Yet there may have been another reason for Xerxes to slow his advance. The late summer of 480 BC saw two auspicious religious events take place in Greece in close proximity in time. The annual festival to Apollo, the Spartan Carnea, was so piously observed that it precluded the Spartan army marching to war. Also in the western Peloponnese, the Olympic sporting festival to Zeus gathered Greeks from across the land. Xerxes may have chosen to make his advance on Thermopylae at the time when it would be most inconvenient for the Greeks to bring a large force there. If so, he was right, because the ephors of Sparta authorized the smallest of vanguards – three hundred Spartiates.
The three hundred were not a throw-away force, expendable or merely symbolic, for the ephors also sent a king, Leonidas of the Agiad house; perhaps they understood that such a small number of hoplites might, in the eyes of the other alliance members, be considered a fig-leaf sent by a Sparta uncommitted to the defence of central Greece. The presence of a Spartan king at the head of the force would convey the seriousness of Lacedaemon. The evidence that the three hundred were not the Hippeis, the traditional king’s guard, but a select force, is seen in the process by which they were chosen: lots were drawn amongst those Spartiates who had already fathered heirs (in contrast, the Hippeis were primarily young bachelors). This decision could only have been made because the vanguard operation was considered high-risk, especially in light of the fact that reinforcements from Sparta and the Peloponnese would take many days to arrive at Thermopylae. Thus Leonidas and the three hundred were set a dangerous task, and their actions would be watched and weighed by all of Greece.
Arriving at Thermopylae in the region of Trachis, Leonidas headed a force of five thousand or more Greeks. His own Spartiate contingent of three hundred brought their helots and probably a contingent of Spartan out-dwellers too. From the Peloponnese, the Spartans had been joined by over two thousand Arcadians, four hundred Corinthians and two hundred Phliasians. From Boeotia, a thousand Phocians, seven hundred Thespians and four hundred Thebans met them on the way.
There is some debate amongst historians as to when the Greeks force arrived at Thermopylae, and when exactly the battle took place in August or September. What is certain is that the Greeks arrived before the celebrations of the Carnea and the Olympics; they may even have arrived weeks before in order to preempt the taking of the pass by a Persian vanguard, or collaborationist Greeks. The slower moving Persian army arrived later, only days before the holidays began.
The pass at Thermopylae was narrow and long, and had three ‘gates.’ Leonidas selected the middle gate as his position because it had a wall, which the Greeks repaired, and the sheerest face of the mountain to guard its flank. It lay next to the hot water springs after which Thermopylae (the hot gates) was named. Historians estimate the middle gate’s width to have been around fifteen meters at the time. While the position was formidable for defence, Leonidas soon learned that there was a way around it: the Anopaea path. The Anopaea path was a path of about a dozen kilometers which led from the rearmost, east gate, up the slope and climbed steeply into the wooded plateau, circled the peak, and then dropped back towards the sea through the Asopos Gorge which lay to the west. It was not easily discoverable to those who did not know the area. The Phocians volunteered to guard it from a position near the summit. The decision by Leonidas not to send a handful of Spartiates with them was in Rahe’s (2015) estimation a mistake.
A Persian scout soon came to observe the Spartans in the middle gate. He was perplexed by the sight of the hoplites taking exercise in the nude, and grooming their long hair, which the Spartans would braid in plaits before combat. It was the exiled spartan king Demaratus who explained to Xerxes the particular customs of his countrymen, and he tried to warn the Great King that the Spartans were the “best men” in Greece. Xerxes was unimpressed by his opponents’ reputation, but he would soon see the error of underestimating them. Meanwhile Sparta’s allies were rightfully concerned that the battle would take place and be over before Greek reinforcements could arrive from the south. While some wanted to withdraw, the Boeotians (and the Athenians on their ships) knew that their cities would be forfeit once the pass was open to the enemy. Leonidas understood that too, as well as the importance of demonstrating the Spartan commitment, otherwise the Greek alliance might crumble. He made the decision to stay, but also sent urgent missives southwards.
Probably aware of the small size of the Greek force, and the fact that he had ample time to destroy it, Xerxes was in no hurry to start the battle. Indeed, he presumed that the Greeks would turn and run (as indeed some had considered), but day after day passed, and they stayed. From his encampment near the Asopos river with a view of the pass and the Malian Gulf, the Great King sent messengers to the Greeks, promising them more land than they had now, if they would only yield. When his more diplomatic overtures were dismissed, he set messengers to demand they lay down their weapons. According to Plutarch, Leonidas famously told the Persians to “come and get them.” Xerxes got the message it would seem, for on the fifth day after their arrival, the Persians attacked.
The First Day of the Battle
It was probably not a coincidence that the Persian attack on the middle gate of Thermopylae was launched on the same day that its fleet arrived near Artemisium where the Greek fleet lay. Even if it was, Xerxes could not delay much longer, Rahe (2015) argues, because the Olympics and the Carnea were coming to an end, and the Greeks would be reinforced, probably in less than a week. Moreover, water was not in ample supply in this region, and food reserves were limited too. The very size of the Persian army meant that it ran the risk of running out of supplies. In the heat of a Greek summer, dehydration and malnourishment were fatal threats that could have forced a blocked Persian army to withdraw northwards to Thessaly.
Median and Kissian archer-infantry were the first wave to attack the middle gate. They probably began by firing volleys of arrows, and then moving forward en masse toward the gate. In the confined space of the pass, the archers may not have been able to fire in sufficient numbers to be effective. Once the two sides clashed, their differences were revealed. The Persians wore light armor, few of them carried shields, and their spears tended to be shorter. Against the heavily armored Greeks, who carried large shields and longer spears, and who were well-practiced in the phalanx, the Persian infantry was brutalized, even massacred. Yet the Persians kept coming at the Greeks in wave after wave on that narrow strip of land. The Spartans would likely have been the front ranks of the phalanx on the first day, using tactics they had mastered through interminable practice. Herodotus:
The Lacedaemonians meanwhile were fighting in a memorable fashion, and besides other things of which they made display, being men perfectly skilled in fighting opposed to men who were unskilled, they would turn their backs to the enemy and make a pretence of taking to flight; and the Barbarians, seeing them thus taking a flight, would follow after them with shouting and clashing of arms: then the Lacedaemonians, when they were being caught up, turned and faced the Barbarians; and thus turning round they would slay innumerable multitudes of the Persians; and there fell also at these times a few of the Spartans themselves.
Xerxes, watching from his throne, must have been appalled. Once the Medes and the Kissians had been beaten back, or withdrawn, the Great King sent in his personal guard. Known as the Immortals, this was a force of elite Persian warriors who numbered ten thousand. They didn’t fare much better at close quarters than their predecessors did. No matter how many warriors the Persians sent, only a small number of them could fight hand-to-hand with Greeks at one time due to the narrow terrain. The massed Greek phalanx was a killing machine, spewing out dead Persians, and the different contingents took turns to ensure that the freshest hoplites were at the front rank. Come dusk, the Greeks held the middle gate; Persian losses had been great, while the Greeks had suffered relatively fewer casualties. The had won the first day, and morale must have been high.
The Second Day of the Battle
Xerxes was at a loss about what to do, so on the next day he tried more of the same: frontal assaults. He took the step of calling up the finest warriors from each of his many levies, thinking that his best men might yet overcome the Greeks. But they struggled in vain and died in great numbers. By this time in the battle, the Spartans would have drawn lessons from the first day and made small adjustments to make their tactics even more deadly. As the sun set on Thermopylae on the second day, the Greeks stood victorious once again. Despite the fact that the Greeks were heavily outnumbered, the first two days of battle had proven beyond any doubt that their tactics worked; they also proved that there was a chance that the Greek strategy could succeed. If the Persian army was unable to dislodge them, it could not advance southwards and it would inevitably have to return to the north. A glimmer of hope must have been kindled in their breasts that they could hold out until reinforcements would arrive. Sadly, it would not be so.
Betrayal at Nightfall
To onlookers of the battle, it was clear that the Persians were struggling and failing. One of them, a local man named Ephialtes, saw an opportunity to be richly rewarded by the Great King whose opulence stood in great contrast to the poverty of Greece. Ephialtes told Xerxes and the Persian generals about the Anopaea path, and offered to lead them up and around the mountain. The idea must have been music to Persian ears. Falling unexpectedly on the Greek rear would trap the Greeks and cut off their avenue of retreat. If Xerxes attacked them from the front and the rear simultaneously, their position would surely collapse. Within hours the Immortals, led by the general Hydarnes, were assembled and began the night trek up the Asopos gorge and up the mountain.
Meanwhile the Phocian contingent up on the plateau were unaware of the impending danger. Settling down for the night, many of them took off their armor, and went to sleep. Below, in the Spartan camp, the first sign that something was amiss came when Leonidas’ seer Megistias examined the entrails of the sacrifices. Spartan kings always campaigned with seers and would consult them frequently to divine whether omens were favorable before making decisions. To the dismay of the Spartans, the omens for the third day of battle were dark: death awaited them at dawn. How could that be, they must have wondered, when they were beating the Persians so soundly?
Once the Immortals had begun their march, word about the Persian plan must have spread in the camp. Greeks in the service of Xerxes learned about the Anopaea maneuver, and while they formally sided with their Persian master, some of them held pro-Greek sympathies. Through the night, deserters arrived at the middle gate to warn the Greeks that the Immortals were on the Anopaea path. Megistias’ divination had been correct.
The Debate over Diodorus and the Night Attack
What happened next has been debated by classical scholars for a long time. In his version of events, Herodotus leaves out a dramatic event which a later historian, Diodorus, includes in his telling of Thermopylae. According to Diodorus, after learning of the Immortals’ march, Leonidas dismisses the bulk of the Greeks, and leads a small force into the Persian camp in a noble, but desperate, attempt to kill Xerxes. The attack fails and Leonidas and the remaining Greeks die fighting in the Persian encampment. The problem with this tale, as Rahe (2015) points out, is that it fits very poorly, which is to say not at all, with what is known about the Greek tactics so far.
If the Spartans were able to launch a night attack on the Persian camp, one would assume that they were warned quite early about the Immortals’ maneuver. Given that one thousand Phocians were stationed on the mountain precisely to block such a maneuver, why would Leonidas not send them warnings and reinforcements, instead of abandoning the entire blocking action at the middle gate by dismissing most of the allies and then going on a suicide mission? It is also difficult to see how a night attack on the enormous Persian camp, which contained tens of thousands of troops, could have been conceived as anything but futile… why not continue the fight at the middle gate, and trust in the Phocians? For these reasons as well as others, Herodotus’ version of the last day is the more plausible.
The Last Day of the Battle
Some time near dawn the column of Immortals encountered the Phocian position. The Phocians were ill-prepared as some hoplites were still donning their armor. Hydarnes ordered his archers to fire, and after a couple of volleys the Phocians fell back, thinking they would be rushed by the Immortals. Hydarnes had no such intention however, as the path onwards was now open, and he ordered his men to march on. Given the close quarters’ nature of the woodland plateau, the Phocians missed an opportunity to attack in phalanx formation that might well have stopped the Immortals. Rahe (2015) speculates that had Leonidas sent but a handful of Spartiates to lead the Phocians, they would have put up a fight. As it was, the Phocians were simply bypassed.
At the middle gate, the Spartan king and the other Greek leaders had but a short while to decide what to do. Above them on the heights, lookouts were already reporting the appearance of the Immortals’ column in the distance; they would arrive in a matter of hours. Clearly the battle was lost, and most of the Greeks wanted to retreat, and to fight another day rather than die a pointless death. Leonidas gave most of them permission to leave, but he resolved to stay behind with the Thespians, Thebans and a handful of Mycenians to buy time for the retreat. He also sent final messages to Sparta and the allies that the details of his last stand would be known. There would be no surrender; they would fight to the death. The death of a Spartan king, protecting his allies retreat, would be the undeniable proof of Sparta’s commitment to the Hellenic League. More importantly perhaps, by his death, Leonidas would satisfy the oracle’s prophecy and help to save Sparta from destruction at the hands of the Great King.
At sunrise, Xerxes poured libations to the gods, and he ordered his men to prepare for the final assault. Hydarnes and the Immortals were still descending the path and had not yet reached the pass. Mid-morning came, and the Persians advanced toward the middle gate, perhaps expecting to find the Greeks holding its narrow confines. Instead the Persians saw Leonidas, the three hundred Spartans, the Thespians and Thebans marching out shoulder-to-shoulder to meet them. The Spartan king had decided to commit all his forces at once, rather than rotate them.
The battle on the third day was a furious clash of arms; the Greeks, knowing that they would not live to see the sunset, would have fought ferociously and with abandon in an attempt to sell their lives at the highest cost possible to the Persians. Leonidas led from the front, thrusting his spear and blocking with his shield, until he fell in the melee. The Spartiates fought hard with the Persians to get the king’s body and pushed them back four times before it was finally recovered by the Greeks. A little later, word reached the Greeks that the Immortals had reached the west gate. Unable to fight on two flanks at once, the Greeks retreated behind the old wall, and then, as their numbers were whittled down, they made their last stand on a small knoll above the seashore. There they were surrounded by the Immortals and other Persians. Herodotus:
On this spot while defending themselves with daggers, that is those who still had them left, and also with hands and with teeth, they were overwhelmed by the missiles of the Barbarians [Persians], some of these having followed directly after them and destroyed the fence of the wall, while others had come round and stood about them on all sides.
The Thebans stood aside and surrendered, hoping to be spared now that the battle was lost. (Thebes had sent water and earth to the Great King, though it was a city divided in its loyalties). Many of the Thebans were spared, but the remaining Greeks were killed to the last man.
Xerxes’ Revenge and Greek Resilience
The battle was over, but the Persian victory was anything but sweet. The last day of the battle, two of Xerxes’ half-brothers, Abrocomes and Hyperanthes, had fallen. The Persian losses had been great – as many as twenty thousand men by Herodotus estimate, but probably significantly less than that. The losses were so severe though that Xerxes ordered most of the Persian bodies buried before his navy arrived to survey the battlefield, lest he lose face. Most critically, the elite of the Persian infantry had been bested and humiliated by the Greeks. Xerxes acknowledged that Demaratus had been right when he had warned how hard the Spartans would fight. Bitter and angry, the Great King ordered that Leonidas’ body be found, decapitated and crucified.
The Persian army was given two days rest. The road to Boeotia and Attica was open and they marched south laying waste to the cities and countryside in their path. Some towns had already been evacuated by their citizens: the Plataeans and the Thespians had fled to the Peloponnese. Other cities in Boeotia submitted to the Persians to avoid certain destruction. Xerxes was intent on punishing Athens for what he saw as its disloyalty; it was burnt and destroyed. The Athenian population had escaped to the island of Salamis and watched their city burn in the distance.
As for the Greeks, the defeat was highly instructive and a rallying call to continue their resistance. Politically, their divisions would continue to challenge the alliance, but it had passed this first, difficult test. Leonidas and his hoplites heroism was an overnight legend across Greece. They had shown how effective the phalanx was in fighting the invaders on land. The few Spartans of the original three hundred who for various reasons (carrying messages, illness) had not been present on the last day of the battle could not live down the shame. Of the Spartiate martyrs, Dienekes earned the most glory; upon hearing that the many Persian arrows would blot out the sun, he had welcomed the opportunity to fight in the shade. The Thespians too were honored for their valor; their seven hundred dead represented the entire hoplite levy their small town could muster. Their sacrifice, too overlooked by posterity, was greater than that of the Spartans even.
In Sparta, the example of Leonidas and the three hundred became an uncompromising standard of valor for generations. A stone lion was raised on the knoll of the last stand, and the inscription read:
Stranger, report this word, we pray, to the Spartans, that lying here in this spot we remain, faithfully keeping their laws.
It was a powerful inspiration for the Spartiates, but it was also a hard act to follow, arguably impossibly hard. Leonidas determination and valor notwithstanding, the specific circumstances of Thermopylae were one of the relatively rare occasions in war when fighting to the last man made sense for a large force, tactically and politically. If this important detail was forgotten in the cult-like celebration of the three hundred, then the unforgiving reality of war and the dwindling number of Spartiates would remind them of that in the future.
The Greeks next moves were to gather an army in the Isthmus of Corinth under the command of Leonidas’ brother, Cleombrotus, and to build a wall across the isthmus. At sea, the fleet withdrew from Artemisium and sailed for Salamis where the alliance would debate its strategy. Within a few weeks, the decisive naval battle between the Hellenic League and the Persians would be fought there. On land, the final confrontation at Plataea would occur next summer in 479 BC.
- Rusch, Scott. Sparta at War: Strategy, Tactics and Campaigns.
- Rahe, Paul. The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta: The Persian Challenge.
- Fields, Nic. Thermopylae 480 BC: Last Stand of the 300.
- Herodotus. The Histories.
- Flower, Michael A. Simonides, Ephorus, and Herodotus on the Battle of Thermopylae.