On this day in 480 B.C., the Persians under the command of Xerxes in the second invasion of Greece went to battle with a greatly outnumbered force of Spartans and Greeks under the command of King Leonidas of Sparta over a three day period. The battle took place at the tiny mountain pass of Thermopylae. At the end of the battle, after heavy losses, the Persians wiped out the small Greek contingent but would soon suffer defeat on the seas at Artemisium and then a month later during the Battle of Salamis which stopped the invasion.
Many members of the US military, as well as our Special Operations Forces, have identified with the “300” and Spartan iconic images since the film in 2006 of the same name, showed that a handful of free Spartan warriors, held the evil forces of the Persian Empire at bay until a force of Greeks could be assembled. Plus, with the US – Iran issues of today, it is easy to put the Iranian military of today in the form of the Persians of Xerxes.
The facts, like the film, don’t really tell the entire story. The defeat of the Spartans wasn’t truly a pyrrhic victory as it is portrayed. While the Persians did lose about 20,000 soldiers in the battle, it was the sea battle that followed that forced Xerxes to abandon his hope of conquering Greece. However, it shouldn’t lessen the valor and dedication of the Spartans and Greeks under Leonidas at Thermopylae.
Prelude to Battle:
Xerxes was looking to avenge a loss to the Greeks at Marathon 10 years before. He assembled a huge army that, at the time was said to be more than a million men. Recent historians now claim that number was actually 150,000.
Xerxes approached the northern approaches to Greece by conquering the neighboring states of Macedonia and Thrace. His large army was planning on crossing the Hellespont on two pontoon bridges.
Xerxes sent emissaries to all of the Greek city-states asking for “earth and water”, however, unlike the film, he did not send any to either Athens or Sparta. In 490 B.C. and emissary sent by his father Darius, was thrown down a well in Sparta.
The Greeks were preparing for this eventuality and decided on a dual-pronged strategy to block the Persians on the ground at the narrow pass at Thermopylae and at sea at Artemisium.
Leonidas gathered as many men as he could on his march to the pass and by the time he arrived, he had nearly 7000 men, still hopelessly outnumbered. The Greeks spotted the huge Persian army and Leonidas, sensing panic among the Greeks, calmed them and determined that they would stay and defend the pass. The pass during 480 B.C. was scarcely 100 yards wide, a visitor to the battlefield today would find the ocean more than a mile away. A highway today rests where the shore was more than 2500 years ago.
Xerxes sent emissaries to Leonidas asking them to be considered “Friends of the Persian People” offering them lands to be allowed to pass. This was refused. Then other came with the order for the Greeks to lay down their arms. Leonidas responded with the now chic phrase “Molṑn labé”, which translates to “come and take them”. It was here that the now famous line was uttered about the Persian arrows that would blot out the sun. It was Leonidas who answered, “Won’t it be nice, then, if we shall have shade in which to fight them?”
The narrow pass at Thermopylae was an ideal defensive position for the Greeks and their phalanx system. The Persian cavalry, about 25 percent of their force, could not be brought to bear there and the lightly armored Persian infantry would be at a distinct disadvantage.
First Day of the Battle:
Xerxes made a full-frontal assault with 10,000 light infantry after an ineffective barrage of arrows. The Greeks, spreading across the pass completely, formed a phalanx with their overlapping shields and longer spears and cut the first group to ribbons and suffered very few casualties. Xerxes watching from afar was incensed and sent his best troops, the so-called “Immortals” to wipe out the Greeks. They fared no better and were bloodied badly as the Greeks drew them in by feigning a retreat, and then turning and killing them as they chased inside of the trap.
Second Day of the Battle:
Xerxes once again threw a full-frontal infantry assault at the Greeks, believing them to be weakened from the fighting the day before that they couldn’t hold. But the Greeks hurled them back as easily as they had the prior assaults.
The Greek historian Herodotus, wrote that Xerxes retreated to his camp, “totally perplexed. The Persians were no closer to breaking thru than they had been before. It was then that Xerxes had the formula for winning the battle literally drop into his lap. A Greek named Ephialtes informed Xerxes of the mountain path around Thermopylae and offered to guide the Persian army. Ephialtes was motivated by the desire for a reward.
Xerxes dispatched his General Hydarnes with what was left of the Immortals and other troops numbering 20,000 men to circle around the Greeks and attack them from behind.
Third Day of the Battle:
The Greeks guarding the mountain passes were shocked to find the large force of Persians moving behind the force in the pass. Rather than fighting it out, the Persians launched a barrage of arrows at the Greeks and proceeded with the encirclement of the pass. The men on the ridges, the Phocians, warned Leonidas.
Leonidas told the other Greeks that they were free to withdraw and most did. About 2000 decided to stay with his 300 Spartans. It has been said that Leonidas, remembering the words of the Oracle he consulted before the battle that a king would need to die to save the country, was committed to sacrificing his life in order to save Sparta.
While the Immortals made their advance down the mountain in the rear of the Greeks, Xerxes waited and then made another frontal assault. The Greeks this time were forced to defend the wider part of the pass where the Persian infantry, as well as cavalry, attacked. Trying to bleed the Persians as much as possible, they fought on with spears until they had none left and then with their short swords. During the battle, Leonidas was felled by arrows.
The Greeks and Persians fought over his body with the Greeks taking him back behind their line. The Greeks reformed around a small hill. Xerxes had it surrounded and not risking further assaults, rained down arrows until every Greek defender was killed.
Xerxes had Leonidas’ head cut off and his body crucified in a mindless rage after the losses he suffered. After the Persians moved off, the Greeks returned to the battlefield and buried their dead. They erected a stone Lion to honor Leonidas and the Greeks who fell at Thermopylae. It wasn’t until 40 years later that Leonidas’ bones were returned to Sparta for a funeral in his homeland.
Xerxes army moved on sacking two large cities before they encountered another Greek narrow pass guarding the Ismuths of Corinth. Then, much of his navy was destroyed at the Battle of Salamis. Fearing having his army cut off in Europe, Xerxes decided to withdraw with most of his army back to Persia. On the journey back, most died of disease and starvation. He left a handpicked army to finish the conquest of Greece.
The following year during the Battle of Plataea, the Persians were routed, simultaneously as their naval forces were beaten during the Battle of Mycale, forever ending the Persian threat of invasion.
A monument marks the spot where the Greeks and Spartans fought their heroic struggle against the Persians. An epitaph there reads”
Go tell the Spartans, thou who passest by, That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.”
It is an important battle, one of the most important in European history. It is also a great teaching point that a professionally trained and led army, fighting on their own home soil, can hold off a much larger force. Something for aspiring SOF candidates to consider.