The Battle of Thermopylae was fought in 480 BC between the Persian Empire and a group of allied Greek city-states. This battle has been at the center of legends and myths since it took place; and for good reason. It was the second Persian invasion of Greece and was their delayed response to the defeat of the first invasion at the hands of the Athenians at the Battle of Marathon. This time, King Xerxes had amassed a massive army and navy of Persian forces set out to conquer all of Greece.

Themistocles – the Athenian politician and general – had proposed the allied Greek city-states block the Persian army advance at the pass of Thermopylae and the Persian navy at the Straits of Artemisium. At Thermopylae, a Greek force of roughly 7,000 men, led by Spartan King Leonidas, held off the more the 100,000 Persians for seven days, including three of battle, before the rear-guard was annihilated in one of history’s most famous last stands.

After two full days of fighting, Leonidas and his men had effectively blocked the only road by which the massive Persian army could pass. It was this night they received news that they had been betrayed by a local resident who had helped the Persians by revealing a mountain passage that could be used to get behind the Greek lines. Leonidas, aware that his force was being outflanked, dismissed the bulk of the Greek army and remained to guard their retreat with 300 Spartans, 700 Thespians, 400 Thebans, and 900 Helots fighting to their deaths.

This allowed the majority of the defending Greek soldiers to escape from the clutches of Xerxes at the Battle of Thermopylae. In this way, the Greeks were defeated at Thermopylae; but this defeat gave the Athenians time to flee their city before Xerxes had reached it, leading to victory in the Battles of Salamis and Plataea, effectively ended the Second Persian Invasion, saving the West.

The night before the last stand, the mood was ominous:

“”Eat a good breakfast,” Leonidas advised his men, “for tonight we eat in the underworld.”
… (the next morning)
At around nine o’clock, (Xerxes) gave his generals the nod, and the colossal mass of his army began its advance. Even before they reached the pass, the stench of death, given sound by carrion flies, would have seemed to shimmer like the dust clouds and the heat; and when they entered the Hot Gates, they would have seen ahead of them the tangled limbs of their slaughtered fellows, bellies swollen, or else ripped apart, abdomens pale, the viscera spilled across the ground.

The enemy, too, were in the open; for rather than staying behind the wall of the Middle Gate, as they had done during the two previous days of fighting, the Greeks had advanced beyond it, braced to light, not in relays, but in a single, bristling mass. For a moment, appalled by the sight of these men of bronze and blood, the Great King’s troops held back; then their officers, brandishing whips, began to lash them forward.

Scorned as Greek propaganda though this detail often is, there seems no real cause to doubt it. Weight of numbers, now that it could more effectively be brought to bear against the enemy, was a crushing advantage that the Persian high command had every reason to exploit; and the use of untrained levies, at least during the hellish opening of the battle, must have struck them as the most cost-effective way of neutralizing the long spears of the Greeks.

Trapped between their own military police and the fearsome, bronze-tipped, blood-bespattered Greek phalanx, the hapless levies had little choice but to shamble forward, to be crushed against the shield wall or else drowned in the shallows, falling in their hundreds upon hundreds, to be sure, but also, as they did so, gradually splintering the Greek spears into matchwood.

And then it was, it seems, when all the shafts had been snapped, that the Persian elite moved in for the kill. What followed was battle as The Iliad had described it: the clash of mighty champions, “screams of men and cries of triumph breaking in one breath.” Among those who fell were two sons of Darius, and a brother – and then Leonidas himself.

A desperate struggle, fittingly Homeric, was fought over the dead king’s body, until the Spartans, in the ferocity of their anguish and despair, hauled it back to temporary safety. But then, from behind them, just above the eastern exit from the Hot Gates, there came the glinting of spear tips amid the scrub of the slope: the Immortals had arrived. Menaced from all sides now, the surviving Greeks retreated back beyond the wall, aiming for a small hillock in the shadow of the Middle Gate.

There – although the Thebans, separated from their fellows, and forced against the cliff face, never reached it – the Spartans and the Thespians made their final stand. Feathered with arrows, slathered with gore, they resisted to the end.

Even when their swords shivered, they used the hilts as knuckle-dusters, or else fought with their teeth, their fists, their nails. Only when every last Spartan and Thespian lay dead, the dust blood-slaked, the corpses piled high, could the struggle be reckoned over, and the pass the Great King’s at last.”

Persian Fire (p293-294)

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