The Battle of Thermopylae: Who, Where, How (Best Stories of Herodotus)

United We Fall…

Xerxes’s army was already on European soil but their Greek opponents were still to determine where and how they should fight them. Or even to ascertain who was willing to fight them. The Delphi oracle – which in hindsight has been accused by some historians of being in Persian pay – advised all and sundry to sit on the fence if they could, told the Athenians to “flee to the ends of the earth” and warned the Spartans that either their city of “wide spaces” would be sacked or “the whole of Lacedaemon shall mourn the death of a king”.

View of the Gulf of Corinth from Delphi
View of the Gulf of Corinth from Delphi

In the view of which it’s hardly surprising that while the Persian army continued to march south, the Greeks continued to argue. The Spartans and the Peloponnesians were inclined to draw the line of defence at the Isthmus of Corinth, abandoning all Greek lands north of the Peloponnese – a line of defence that didn’t suit the Athenians at all, of course. Ultimately, the squabbling city states were forced into reaching a resolution by the news that the Persians were now truly upon them, having arrived in Pieria (just north of Thessaly). Athens swallowed her pride and conceded leadership of the navy to Sparta, at least nominally, and the pass of Thermopylae opposite the northern end of the island of Euboia was agreed as the most suitable point for holding up the Persian army with the navy taking up station in support at Cape Artemisium.

…Divided We Stand

However, the Greek army which eventually made it as far as the pass of Thermopylae was far from united: the Peloponnesians would still have preferred to fight at the Isthmus of Corinth to defend their own lands and leave the rest of Greece to fend for themselves. Not surprisingly, those of the Greeks (such as the Phocians and the Locrians) whose cities were in immediate danger should the Persians advance through the pass to the lands beyond wanted to fight here and now. Moreover, the Thebans had not come willingly and were suspected to be traitors, wishing to side with the Persians but not daring to do so openly.

Book VII. 205. …and he [Leonidas] took with him besides, before he arrived, those Thebans whom I mentioned when I reckoned them in the number of the troops, of whom the commander was Leontiades the son of Eurymachos: and for this reason Leonidas was anxious to take up these with him of all the Hellenes, namely because accusations had been strongly brought against them that they were taking the side of the Medes; therefore he summoned them to the war, desiring to know whether they would send troops with them or whether they would openly renounce the alliance of the Hellenes; and they sent men, having other thoughts in their mind the while.

As the arguments flared up among the defenders, the Spartan king Leonidas, in command of the army, had to decide whether he would hold the pass to defend central Greece or retire to the Isthmus of Corinth to defend only the Peloponnese.

207. …and meanwhile the Hellenes at Thermopylai, when the Persian had come near to the pass, were in dread, and deliberated about making retreat from their position. To the rest of the Peloponnesians then it seemed best that they should go to the Peloponnese and hold the Isthmus in guard; but Leonidas, when the Phokians and Locrians were indignant at this opinion, gave his vote for remaining there, and for sending at the same time messengers to the several States bidding them to come up to help them, since they were but few to repel the army of the Medes.

Not a very auspicious beginning for one of the most famous battles in European history!

How: The Greek Battle Plan

… was simplicity itself.

The fact was that if Xerxes was to be defeated, he had to be defeated both on land and sea. Being heavily outnumbered and with little hope of defeating the Persians in a pitched battle, the Greeks instead opted for trying to hold up Xerxes and his army as long as possible. Xerxes was a long way from home, with impossibly long supply lines; and even if his army was much smaller than Herodotus described it, it still needed huge quantities of food and water. It was impossible for the Persian army to stay in any one place for a prolonged period of time: they either had to advance or retreat. And if they wanted to advance, they had to force the pass of Thermopylae.

Where: The Pass of Thermopylae

The Pass of Thermopylae today. Photo by: Fkerasar. Source: Wikipedia
The Pass of Thermopylae today. Photo by: Fkerasar. Source: Wikipedia

200. …and at the river Phoinix is the narrowest place, for here has been constructed a road with a single wheel-track only. Then from the river Phoinix it is a distance of fifteen furlongs to Thermopylai…

201. King Xerxes, I say, was encamped within the region of Trachis in the land of the Malians, and the Hellenes within the pass. This place is called by the Hellenes in general Thermopylai…

The pass of Thermopylae, or the Hot Gates, so called because of its hot thermal springs, was a very narrow stretch of land between the mountains and the sea, then about twenty yards wide (the Malian Gulf has silted up considerably since and it’s now a few miles wide). It was thus ideally suited for the Greek style of warfare: a hoplite phalanx could easily block the pass, with their left flank protected by the mountain, Mount Kallidromos and their right – always the vulnerable side of any hoplite line  – by the sea. Inside the pass, Leonidas chose his position carefully. At the point known as the Middle Gate, where the mountain ended in a sheer cliff wall, the men of Phocis years ago built a defensive wall against the Thessalians. This was where Leonidas now chose to make his stand.

Who: The Defenders of Thermopylae

The Spartans, who were yet again (just as at the time of Marathon ten years earlier) held up by their religious practices and unable to set out immediately, nevertheless recognised the gravity of the situation and sent out an advance force of three hundred Spartiates accompanied by another thousand of either perioikoi or helots. But the fact that the three hundred were led by King Leonidas was a clear indication that this token army was indeed merely the advance force.

206. These with Leonidas the Spartans had sent out first, in order that seeing them the other allies might join in the campaign, and for fear that they also might take the side of the Medes, if they heard that the Spartans were putting off their action. Afterwards, however, when they had kept the festival, (for the festival of the Carneia stood in their way), they intended then to leave a garrison in Sparta and to come to help in full force with speed…

As Leonidas and his men marched north, all wavering city states understood that as soon as their religious festival was over, Sparta, “the most formidable military power in Greece”, was going to commit in full to fighting the Persians. The time for procrastination was over; it was time to choose sides.

203. …the Hellenes had… sent a summons…, saying by messengers that they had come as forerunners of the others, that the rest of the allies were to be expected every day, that their sea was safely guarded, being watched by the Athenians and the Eginetans and by those who had been appointed to serve in the fleet, and that they need fear nothing: for he was not a god, they said, who was coming to attack Hellas, but a man; and there was no mortal, nor would be any, with those fortunes evil had not been mingled at his very birth, and the greatest evils for the greatest men; therefore he also who was marching against them, being mortal, would be destined to fail of his expectation.

By the time Leonidas reached the Isthmus, his force numbered about four thousand men as small contingents of hoplites joined him en route through the Peloponnesos. Continuing north through Boeotia to Thermopylae, about another three thousand men joined him from various city states.

202. These were the Hellenes who awaited the attack of the Persian in this place:—of the Spartans three hundred hoplites; of the men of Tegea and Mantineia a thousand, half from each place, from Orchomenos in Arcadia a hundred and twenty, and from the rest of Arcadia a thousand,—of the Arcadians so many; from Corinth four hundred, from Phlius two hundred, and of the men of Mykene eighty: these were they who came from the Peloponnese; and from the Boeotians seven hundred of the Thespians, and of the Thebans four hundred.

203. In addition to these the Locrians of Opus had been summoned to come in their full force, and of the Phokians a thousand…

As for the navy, the allied fleet which set sail towards Artemisium consisted of about two hundred triremes, of which about half were Athenian. They were going to face six hundred and fifty Persian triremes and attempt to block their route further south.

Continued with: The Battle of Thermopylae: The Fight in the Pass (Part II)




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