The Battle of Thermopylae: The Fight in the Pass (Best Stories of Herodotus)

Previous: The Battle of Thermopylae: Who, Where, How (Part I)

Considering how long The Histories is, Herodotus didn’t spend too long on the description on the actual battle at Thermopylae – a mere two dozen paragraphs or so. Nevertheless, it’s still too long to be quoted in its entirety – especially, if I want to keep my few readers!


“These Men Have Come to Fight with Us for the Passage”

Having reached the pass of Thermopylae, Xerxes sent out a scout…

VII. 208. …on horseback to see how many they were in number and what they were doing; for he had heard while he was yet in Thessaly that there had been assembled in this place a small force, and that the leaders of it were Lacedemonians together with Leonidas, who was of the race of Heracles…

The scout  could only see the men who were posted in front of the repaired wall – who on this particular day happened to be the Spartans. Some of them were engaged in athletic exercises, while others were busy combing their long hair; they treated the scout with utter indifference, allowing him to observe them and then depart unmolested. Accordingly, the scout took note of their numbers and of what they were doing, and reported back to Xerxes.

209. Hearing this Xerxes was not able to conjecture the truth about the matter, namely that they were preparing themselves to die and to deal death to the enemy so far as they might; but it seemed to him that they were acting in a manner merely ridiculous; and therefore he sent for Demaratos… and when he came, Xerxes asked him of these things…

And so Demaratus now had this second opportunity to explain to Xerxes what the Persians should expect; but he was no more successful in convincing the Persian emperor than the first time round. Xerxes flatly refused to believe that such a small army of men would try to fight him for the pass. Explaining that the Spartans had the custom of tidying their hair before going to battle, Demaratus said:

209. “Thou didst hear from my mouth at a former time, when we were setting forth to go against Hellas, the things concerning these men; and having heard them thou madest me an object of laughter… Hear then now also: these men have come to fight with us for the passage…”

Demaratus rounded up his speech with assuring Xerxes that if he managed to defeat the Spartans, no-one else would dare to stand against him: “for now thou art about to fight against the noblest kingdom and city of those which are among the Hellenes, and the best men.” But:

To Xerxes that which was said seemed to be utterly incredible, and he asked again a second time in what manner being so few they would fight with his host. He [Demaratus] said; “O king, deal with me as with a liar, if thou find not that these things come to pass as I say.”

“Human Beings Are Many But Men Are Few”

Wholly unable to believe the truth of what Demaratus asserted, Xerxes…

210. …let four days go by, expecting always that they [the Greeks] would take to flight; but on the fifth day, when they did not depart but remained, being obstinate, as he thought, in impudence and folly, he was enraged and sent against them the Medes and the Kissians, charging them to take the men alive and bring them into his presence.

The fight went on all day, and in Herodotus’ memorable phrase:

…they made it evident to every man, and to the king himself not least of all, that human beings are many but men are few.

His troops having suffered heavy losses without being able to force the pass, Xerxes felt it was time to call for his Immortals:

211. … [the] “Immortals,” of whom Hydarnes was commander, … came to the attack, supposing that they at least would easily overcome the enemy. When however these also engaged in combat with the Hellenes, they gained no more success than the Median troops…

Herodotus then briefly explains the reasons for the success of the defenders: how the Persians were using shorter spears and were also unable to take advantage of their superior numbers fighting in the narrow passage. The Spartans, moreover, “fighting in a memorable fashion”, made full use of their superior military training:

The Lacedemonians… being men perfectly skilled in fighting… 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 Lacedemonians, when they were being caught up, turned and faced the Barbarians; and thus turning round they would slay innumerable multitudes of the Persians…

Three times Xerxes, who was watching the fight, “leapt up from his seat, struck with fear for his army”. Finally, the Persians were forced to retire. And despite their expectations – the Persians thought that as their enemies were but few, they would be too exhausted to fight – they had no better success the next day either:

212. …The Hellenes however were ordered by companies as well as by nations, and they fought successively each in turn, excepting the Phokians, for these were posted upon the mountain to guard the path. So the Persians, finding nothing different from that which they had seen on the former day, retired back from the fight.

“The Death Which Was to Come to Them at Dawn of Day”

Despite of two days’ of hard fighting, the Persians achieved nothing. Xerxes, says Herodotus, “was in a strait as to what he should do”. And then, opportunely, a Greek man arrived to his camp, asking to have speech with him:

213. …supposing that he would win a very great reward from the king; and this man told him of the path which leads over the mountain to Thermopylai, and brought about the destruction of those Hellenes who remained in that place…

And here Herodotus, the historian, holds up the story of the battle to discuss in some detail who this traitor was. He tells the two versions of the treachery that he heard about, and then proceeds to evaluate each, giving his evidence, and  his verdict:

214. …but Epialtes it was who led them round the mountain by the path, and him therefore I write down as the guilty man.

Needless to say, Xerxes was absolutely delighted with Ephialtes’ information, and he at once sent for Hydarnes and his Immortals. The Immortals “set forth from the camp about the time when the lamps are lit”. Herodotus goes on to describe the path over the mountain, adding that Leonidas had entrusted its defence to the thousand Phocian hoplites who volunteered for this task.

The Phocians, apparently taken by surprise, were alerted to the arrival of the Persians only by the rustling of the leaves under the enemy’s feet, and hastily armed themselves. Hydarnes, coming upon them unexpectedly, had a nasty shock, mistaking them for Spartans:

218. …Then Hydarnes, seized with fear lest the Phokians should be Lacedemonians, asked Epialtes of what people the force was; and being accurately informed he set the Persians in order for battle.

Unfortunately for the defenders of the pass below, the Phocians were unwilling to fight:

The Phokians however, when they were hit by the arrows of the enemy, which flew thickly, fled and got away at once to the topmost peak of the mountain… the Persians meanwhile with Epialtes and Hydarnes made no account of the Phokians, but descended the mountain with all speed.

Unlike the Phocians, Leonidas and his allies inside the pass were not caught unprepared: first the soothsayer, then the Phocian deserters and finally the day-watchers brought the news that the Persians had gone round the pass.

219. …Then the Hellenes deliberated, and their opinions were divided; for some urged that they should not desert their post, while others opposed this counsel…

Herodotus reports two versions of the events what followed – the allies either deserted, or, and this is the version Herodotus favours, were sent away by Leonidas:

220. However it is reported also that Leonidas himself sent them away, having a care that they might not perish, but thinking that it was not seemly for himself and for the Spartans who were present to leave the post to which they had come at first to keep guard there. I am inclined rather to be of this latter opinion… that Leonidas considering these things and desiring to lay up for himself glory above all the other Spartans, dismissed the allies, rather than that those who departed did so in such disorderly fashion…

It’s not difficult to see why Leonidas would have sent the larger part of his army away while he stayed behind with a smaller force, quite apart from it not being “seemly” for himself and the Spartans to leave. Once the Persians went around the pass and surrounded the defenders, there could have been no more hope – if there was before – of victory in this battle. The Persians were going to succeed in forcing the pass. By sending the larger part of the army away, Leonidas saved them for a later fight; yet somebody had to stay behind to act as rearguard, otherwise the Persian cavalry could have simply ridden through the pass and destroyed the retreating Greeks on open ground.

222. The allies then who were dismissed departed and went away, obeying the word of Leonidas, and only the Thespians and the Thebans remained behind with the Lacedemonians. Of these the Thebans stayed against their will and not because they desired it, for Leonidas kept them, counting them as hostages; but the Thespians very willingly, for they said that they would not depart and leave Leonidas and those with him, but they stayed behind and died with them. The commander of these was Demophilos the son of Diadromes.

The battle in the pass renewed “at the hour when the market fills” – when Xerxes, having allowed some time for his Immortals to get across the mountain, sent his troops for a new attack:

223. …and the Hellenes with Leonidas, feeling that they were going forth to death, now advanced out much further than at first into the broader part of the defile; for when the fence of the wall was being guarded, they on the former days fought retiring before the enemy into the narrow part of the pass; but now they engaged with them outside the narrows…

Fighting “as if possessed by a spirit of recklessness” and “disregarding danger”, the Greek defenders of the pass inflicted such heavy losses on the Persians that their leaders had to drive their men forward under the lash:

…with scourges in their hands were striking each man, ever urging them on to the front. Many of them then were driven into the sea and perished, and many more still were trodden down while yet alive by one another, and there was no reckoning of the number that perished…

“Overwhelmed by the Missiles of the Barbarians”

Arrow heads found on Kolonos Hill
Persian arrow heads found on Kolonos Hill where the Spartans died – National Archeological Museum, Athens.

The end for the Spartans and the Thespians, however, was now very near:

224. Now by this time the spears of the greater number of them were broken, so it chanced, in this combat, and they were slaying the Persians with their swords; and in this fighting fell Leonidas, having proved himself a very good man, and others also of the Spartans with him, men of note…

Many Persians also fell in this fight, including two brothers of Xerxes himself; and for the body of Leonidas the fight became very fierce, until finally the Spartans succeeded to drag him away from the enemy, putting the Persians to flight four times… And the fight raged on until the Immortals have arrived, led by Ephialtes:

225. …from that moment the nature of the combat was changed; for they retired backwards to the narrow part of the way, and having passed by the wall they went and placed themselves upon the hillock, all in a body together except only the Thebans: now this hillock is in the entrance, where now the stone lion is placed for Leonidas.

The remaining Spartans retired to Kolonos Hill where they made their last stand.

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, 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 Fate of the Thebans

233. The Thebans however… when they saw that the fortunes of the Persians were prevailing, then and not before,… holding out their hands came near to the Barbarians, saying at the same time that which was most true, namely that they were on the side of the Medes and that they had been among the first to give earth and water to the king; and moreover that they had come to Thermopylai constrained by necessity, and were blameless for the loss which had been inflicted upon the king: so that thus saying they preserved their lives, for they had also the Thessalians to bear witness to these words. However, they did not altogether meet with good fortune, for some had even been slain as they had been approaching, and when they had come and the Barbarians had them in their power, the greater number of them were branded by command of Xerxes with the royal marks, beginning with their leader Leontiades…

“How Many in Number Are the Remaining Lacedaemonians?”

Xerxes had won but the price seemed shockingly high. Once again, therefore, he called for Demaratus:

234. “Demaratos, thou art a good man; and this I conclude by the truth of thy words, for all that thou saidest turned out so as thou didst say. Now, however, tell me how many in number are the remaining Lacedemonians, and of them how many are like these in matters of war; or are they so even all of them?”

He said: “O king, the number of all the Lacedemonians is great and their cities are many, but that which thou desirest to learn, thou shalt know. There is in Lacedemon the city of Sparta, having about eight thousand men; and these are all equal to those who fought here: the other Lacedemonians are not equal to these, but they are good men too.”

Xerxes then asked Demaratus how it was best to defeat the Spartans. Upon which Demaratus proceeded to offer some excellent advice which, fortunately for Greece (and the Spartans), Xerxes’ other counsellors distrusted completely. Although everything Demaratus had said previously came to pass, his advice nevertheless went disregarded.

After he talked to Demaratus, Xerxes went to view the Spartan dead:

238. …Xerxes passed in review the bodies of the dead; and as for Leonidas, hearing that he had been the king and commander of the Lacedemonians he bade them cut off his head and crucify him. And it has been made plain to me by many proofs besides, but by none more strongly than by this, that king Xerxes was enraged with Leonidas while alive more than with any other man on earth; for otherwise he would never have done this outrage to his corpse…

Herodotus says “the men were buried were they fell”. He ascertained the names of all the three hundred Spartans – not a difficult task since after the war a monument on which their names were inscribed was erected in Sparta – and describes the three monuments that were raised at Thermopylae in the memory of the fallen Greeks, quoting all three inscriptions, of which of course the most famous is the one dedicated to the Spartans (written by Simonides):

Ὦ ξεῖν’, ἀγγέλλειν Λακεδαιμονίοις ὅτι τῇδε
κείμεθα, τοῖς κείνων ῥήμασι πειθόμενοι.

Tell them in Lacedaemon, passer-by:
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.

Next: The Battle of Thermopylae: The Heroes  & the Villain (Part III)
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