The Battle of Thermopylae took place during the Greece-Persia war in roughly the 5th century BC. Some 30 city-states of central and southern Greece met in Corinth to devise a common defense (others, including the oracle at Delphi, sided with the Persians). They agreed on a combined army and navy under Spartan command, with the Athenian leader Themistokles providing the strategy. The Spartan king Leonidas led the army to the pass at Thermopylae, near present-day Lamia, the main passage from northern into central Greece.
One of the best points at which to hold off an invader was at Thermopylae, a narrow valley adjacent to the sea. The attacker could not pass to the seaward side, and to go inland would mean a significant detour. Other armies could risk this, but Xerxes could not.
On the other hand, a defender could take a stand with comparatively few men. A wall had once been built here, and a small fort. The Greeks rebuilt the wall and waited.
The Greek strategy was to delay the land force and to defeat the Persians at sea, then starve the Persian army. It should have worked, but from the beginning everything seemed to go wrong.
To begin with, the Greek army was surprised to see the Persians arrive so soon. They had hoped to get more reinforcements. On the other side, Xerxes had excellent information and knew that the Greeks were waiting for him. He set up camp on the plain below the pass. He was confident, but the army was so large that it could not afford to wait in any one place for very long.
He sent scouts up the valley to ascertain the nature of the opposition. The Spartans had duty on the outside wall, where they were waiting watchfully. The scouts were astounded to see the Spartans doing calisthenics and braiding their hair. Xerxes could not believe they intended to fight against hopeless odds. He announced his presence and waited four days for them to leave.
The Greeks did not leave. Exasperated, and aware of his supply situation, Xerxes ordered an attack on the fifth day. He sent the Medes against the Greeks, ordering Spartans be taken alive, so confident he was of easy victory.
The Spartans retreated, running away, even to the point of turning their backs on the enemy. The Medes, sure that they were winning the victory they had expected, broke ranks to pursue, whereupon the Spartans turned and fought savagely. After sharp fighting, the Medes were defeated.
Xerxes now sent in the Immortals, his best troops. The Spartans employed the same strategy, with the same results. Xerxes was furious. Another day's fighting yielded no better for the Persians.
The fighting was all the more remarkable in that the Greeks had failed utterly in the sea battle and the Persians had complete control of the sea. The sole purpose now for the battle was to delay the inevitable as long as possible.
At this point, treachery undid their heroic efforts.
Ephialtes, a man from Malis, went to King Xerxes and told him that he knew of a goat path that went around the Greek position and debouched behind their lines. After initial skepticism, Xerxes discovered the man was telling the truth. He made his preparations.
The Greeks knew of the path, of course. There were, in fact, more than one path, winding among the mountains. The men of Phocis were posted on the most likely path, but the Persians slipped past them by way of a different path under cover of night.
The Greeks learned of the treachery near morning. They would barely have time to escape from the trap. Leonidas told the other Greeks to return home, to fight another day, but the Spartans stayed. The Thespians and Thebans joined them. There were no more than a few thousand who stayed.
Greeks knew they were about to die and they fought all the more fiercely for it. The Spartans put up the stoutest resistance, taking their stand on a little hill and fighting in a circle facing outward with enemies all around.
When Leonidas was killed, he was some distance away. Some of the Spartans formed a tight group, fought their way to his body, picked it up, then fought their way back to the main group on the hill.
The Persians seemed utterly unable to annihilate the last 300 Spartans. They demanded the body of Leonidas in return for the Spartan's lives, but the men refused to abandon the body of their King, declaring: "A Spartan leaves the field with his shield or upon it"
At last, the Spartans were killed by a hail of spears and arrows, the Persians fearing to close with these fearsome warriors.
Information distributed with permission. Copyright © 1999, Ellis L. Knox.
The Greeks lost the battle. They had come hoping for a victory and instead had been routed. But Thermopylae was always hailed as a triumph for Greek arms because the Persian army was crucially delayed.
Thermopylae allowed the Greeks time to organize. The Athenians continued to build their ships in order to take control of the seas again.
The Greeks were actually heartened by the example of Leonidas and the 300 Spartans plus allies who fought at Thermopylae. The battle served as an example to officers and soldiers alike of what courage and self-sacrifice could achieve. It is still remembered today as such an example.