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Monday, April 29, 2013

The Battle of Thermopylae - Zenith of Heroism (Part 1)

Photo courtesy of www.awesomestories.com
The battle of Thermopylae was first chronicled by Herodotus, an ancient Greek historian who was born in Halicarnassus, Caria (modern day Bodrum, Turkey) and lived in the fifth century BC (c. 484 – 425 BC). He was the first historian known to collect his materials systematically, test their accuracy to a certain extent and arrange them in a well-constructed and vivid narrative. Herodotus was called both the "father of history" and the "father of lies" by his contemporaries for his history of the Persian World. “The Histories, his masterpiece and the only work he is known to have produced, is a record of his "inquiry", being an investigation of the origins of the Greco-Persian Wars including a wealth of geographical and ethnographical information. Although some of his stories were fanciful, he claimed he was reporting only what had been told to him. Herodotus is the first writer to make a conscious attempt to discover and explain past events.
The second Greek historian, Thucydides, adds a new dimension, that of contemporary history. Although the complete work of Herodotus is not yet published, Thucydides is certain to know the work of the older historian - who has made his living by reciting the highlights of his narrative. Herodotus has told the story of the last great war between Greeks and Persians. In 431 BC Thucydides recognizes the onset of the next major conflict, between Greeks. He resolves to record the Peloponnesian War as it happens.
Another Greek historian who continued the work of Thucydides' history was Xenophon. The fact that a contemporary continues the work so precisely from this date proves that Thucydides did indeed finish his work there, rather than the remainder being lost. But Xenophon, though a vivid writer, proves a very inadequate historian at a serious level. A supporter of Sparta, he lacks any sense of objectivity which he considered as irrelevant. He describes only what he sees and hears. The result is vivid eyewitness history, akin almost to journalism.

Photo courtesy of www.awesomestories.com
Ever since, the heroic Battle of Thermopylae in Greece in 480 B.C. has been embedded in the martial  plans of past and present military leaders all around the world. Without doubt the gallantry of the Spartans in that combat displayed loyalty and heroism in its highest order in the one hand. On the other hand, the betrayal of one Spartan citizen that spelled the doom for the Greeks in that battle epitomizes the venom of treachery to one’s country.
By now, the Battle of Thermopylae is worldwide known as it was made famous by two movies, “The 300 Spartans” (Spartiates) in 1962 and “300” in 2006. Both films depicted a small number of Greek forces under the leadership of Spartan King Leonidas battling against hundreds of thousand of Persian warriors. Both are great films but there is more to this battle that meets the eyes since both flicks depicted only one famous part of the battle.
My research on The Battle of Thermopylae revealed several versions from several schools of thoughts rendering some inaccuracies on the details of the epic event. However this article focused on the significance of the crusade of the Greeks against the invasion of Persia during those times. 
Photo courtesy of thelatinlibrary.com
Persian Emperor Darius I initially planned the subjugation of Greece however when he died in 486 BC the responsibility to realize his ambition was transferred to his son, King Xerxes.  After an unsuccessful campaign at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC where they were turned back by the Greeks, the Persians elected to pursue a massive expedition to conquer Greece. It took the Persians several years in the preparation of a gigantic army troops and arms intended for a full-scale invasion. Marching from Asia Minor, Xerxes intended to bridge the Hellespont and advance on Greece through Thrace. The army was to be supported by a large naval fleet which would move along the coast.
As a previous Persian fleet had been wrecked off Mount Athos, Xerxes intended to build a canal across the mountain's isthmus. Learning of the Persian plan, the Greek city-states began making preparations for war. Though possessing a weak army, Athens began building a large fleet of triremes (a galley used as a warship that had 3 rows of oars on each side and arranged one above the other) under the guidance of Athenian leader Themistocles. In 481 BC, Xerxes demanded tribute from the Greeks in an effort to avoid war. The Greeks refused the demand and a meeting was held purposely to form an alliance of the city-states under the leadership of Athens and Sparta. Once united, this congress would have the power to dispatch troops to defend the region.
With war approaching, the Greek congress met again in the spring of 480 BC. After serious deliberations on several military strategies, a final strategy to defend and make a stand in the pass of Thermopylae was approved by the Greeks congress.  The strategy was put forward by Themistocles after receiving news that Xerxes had already crossed the Hellespont but has to pass Thermopylae, a 50 feet- narrow passage, with a high cliff on one side and the sea on the other, the pass being the gateway to southern Greece.
This plan was agreed to as it would negate the Persian's overwhelming numerical superiority and the Greek naval fleet commanded by Themistocles could provide support in the Straits of Artemisium.
Photo courtesy of wikipedia.com
In August 480 BC, word reached the Greeks that the Persian army was fast approaching. The timing proved challenging for the Spartans as it coincided with the feast of Carneia and the Olympic truce and the Spartans were prohibited from engaging in military activity during these celebrations.  
With great apprehension that by abandoning the northern access to Greece proper may provide the opportunity to the Persian army to swarm the country before it can make a proper stand and realizing that there is no time to wait for the whole Spartan army, King Leonidas decided to take a heroic yet hopeless stand with only his 300 mean and strong personal bodyguards, who were not under the Council’s order.
As King Leonidas and the 300 Spartans were moving north, they gathered additional troops en route to Thermopylae. Arriving at the pass, Leonidas decided to establish a position at the "middle gate" where the pass was the narrowest and where the Phocians had previously built a wall. Seriously concerned about a mountain trail existed that could outflank the position, Leonidas dispatched 1,000 Phocians to guard it. The total strength of the Greeks comprised the 300 Spartans, 500 Tegeans and 500 Mantineans from Arcadia; 150 Orchomenians from the Arcadian Orchomenus; and a 1000 warriors from other cities: 400 from Corinth, 200 from Phlius: and 80 from Mycenae. The Greek force also included 700 Thespians and 400 Thebans from Boeotia and the whole force was estimated to be 7000 strong.  
In mid-August 480 BC, the Persian army was sighted across the Malian Gulf. King Xerxes pitched his war camp in the region of Malis called Trachinia, while on their side the Greeks occupied the straits. These straits the Greeks in general call Thermopylae (the Hot Gates); but the natives, and those who dwell in the neighborhood, call them Pylae (the Gate).
Here then the two armies took their stand; the one master of all the regions lying north of Trachis, the other of the country extending southward of that place to the verge of the continent. Sending an emissary to negotiate with the Greeks, Xerxes offered freedom and better land in return for their peaceful surrender and subservience. Refusing the Persian King’s offer, the Greeks were then ordered to lay down their weapons and to which Leonidas reputedly replied, "Come and get them." This reply made battle inevitable, though Xerxes took no action for 4 days. The constricted topography of Thermopylae was ideal for a defensive stand by the armored Greek hoplites (heavily armed foot soldiers) as they could not be out flanked and the more lightly armed Persians would be forced into a frontal assault.
Photo of Immortals courtesy of wikipedia.com
On the morning of the fifth day, Xerxes sent the first 10,000 of his 150,000-strong army against Leonidas' position with the goal of capturing the Allied army. The Persian troops had little choice but to attack the Greeks front the front in the narrow pass of Thermopylae.
Fighting in a tight phalanx in front of the Phocian wall, the Greeks inflicted massive losses on the attacking Persians and as they kept coming, Leonidas rotated his army units through the front to prevent fatigue. Later in the day, with the failure of the first assaults, Xerxes ordered an attack by his elite army unit called “Immortals who similarly fared poorly and were unable to push back the Greeks through the pass.
The next day, believing that the Greeks had been significantly weakened by their exertions, Xerxes attacked again. No different from the first attacks, the Persians were turned back by the Greeks with heavy casualties.
The vastly outnumbered Greeks held off the Persians for seven days (including three of battle) before the rear-guard was annihilated in one of history's most famous last stands. During two full days of battle the small force led by King Leonidas I of Sparta blocked the only road by which the massive Persian army could pass. After the second day of battle a local resident named Ephialtes betrayed the Greeks by revealing a small path that led behind the Greek lines. Leonidas, aware that his force was being outflanked, dismissed the bulk of the Greek army and remained to guard the rear with his 300 Spartans, 700 Thespians, 400 Thebans and perhaps a few hundred others, most of whom were killed.
Present day battle site. Photo courtesy of wikipedia.com
While most favored an immediate retreat, Leonidas decided to stay at the pass with his 300 Spartans. They were joined by 400 Thebans and 700 Thespians, while the remainder of the army fell back. While there are many theories regarding Leonidas' choice, including the idea that Spartans never retreated, it was most likely a strategic decision as a rearguard was necessary to prevent the Persian cavalry from running down the retreating army. As the morning progressed, Xerxes began another frontal assault on the pass. Pushing forward, the Greeks met this attack at a wider point in the pass with the goal of inflicting maximum losses on the enemy. Fighting to the last, the battle saw King Leonidas killed and the two sides struggle for his body.
Completely overwhelmed, the surviving Greeks fell back behind the wall and made a last stand on a small hill. While the Thebans ultimately surrendered, the other Greeks fought to the death. With the elimination of Leonidas' remaining force, the Persians claimed the pass and opened the road into southern Greece. Thermopylae has fallen!
April 28, 2013 Fresno, California


  1. War is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

  2. War is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.