Ancient History & Civilisation




Anyone who retells the story has to come to terms with this genius [Herodotus] and his narrative, second only to Homer in the literary legacy of the ancient world.

Robin Lane Fox, The Classical World

THERMOPYLAE IS A tapered plain extending some five kilometres from west to east, with mountains to the south (including Callidromus) and the sea to the north, in the shape of the Gulf of Malis. Disregarding the area’s present greatly changed topography, we must imagine for 480 a narrow pass between mountain and very nearby sea, scarcely wide enough for two chariots or wagons to pass each other comfortably, and punctuated by a series of three ‘gates’. It was at the so-called Middle Gate, a stretch of the pass some 15 to 20 metres long where the cliffs rose unnegotiably sheer on the land-ward side, that the loyalist Greek defence force took up its position. It was deep summer. At that time of year a haze of heat and dust often squats uncomfortably over the plain, and temperatures rise to the high 30s C (100°F). Water supply was not a problem, but the flies were.1

After Xerxes’s vast Persian forces arrived at the pass’s western end, a three or four days’ delay intervened before he launched his assault. This was perhaps designed to pile yet further psychological pressure pressure on the Greeks; the tension must have been well-nigh intolerable already. The delay would also have enabled Xerxes to establish the vital communications link with his storm-tossed fleet now finally safely in harbour at Cape Sepias. The Greeks’ naval station was at Artemisium, opposite.* In this pre-battle pause Xerxes allegedly sent a peremptory message to Leonidas: ‘Hand over your arms!’ Leonidas is said to have sent back a classically laconic response (just two words in Spartan Greek – molôn labe): ‘Come and get ‘em yourself!’

Herodotus presents Xerxes as seething with rage that there were any Greeks there at all with the presumption and gall to resist him. That may explain why Xerxes did not at first simply sit back and let his skilled archers try to pick off the small Greek force. But archers by themselves could have done little damage to a wall of Greek hoplite shields or against rapid hoplite infantry charges. Anyhow, they could never have completed the job from scratch. And the rest of his troops, stretched out in a huge column to the west of Thermopylae, were champing at the bit. When the assault was at last launched, probably on 17 August by our calendar, it became Day 1 of an epic three-day encounter.

The Great King sent in first his Medes, some two thousand strong; they were not quite his very best troops, but near the top of the class. Given their inferior armour and weapons, they could make little headway in dislodging the defenders. Their javelins were no match for the longer, sturdier lances of their enemies, they wore neither metal helmet nor greaves, and their shields though broad were made of wickerwork. In the confined space available, besides, Xerxes’s men were unable to make sheer superiority of numbers tell.


Regular hoplite warriors wore a one-piece bronze helmet with an attached horsehair crest running front to back, but this determinedly brooding cloaked figure sports a transverse helmet crest, which may mark him out as a general, perhaps even a king. The strands of long hair escaping from under his helmet confirm the figurine’s stylistic indications that he is a Spartan warrior – like those whose coiffing at Thermopylae so astonished and confused Persian Great King Xerxes.

The Spartans were the best equipped and trained by far of the Greek defenders, all of whom were apparently heavy-armed infantry hoplites. Over their long hair the Spartans wore a bronze helmet, skilfully raised by Perioecic or Helot armourers from a single metal sheet. Atop the helmet a horsehair crest ran from front to back – though possibly Leonidas’s was distinguished by having the crest run transversely across the skull from ear to ear.* A helmet like this provided good cranial protection but it severely restricted vision and hearing, so staying literally in touch with one’s immediate comrades was utterly crucial.

To cover the torso a cuirass (thôrax) was worn. Other Greeks had by now abandoned cuirasses made of bronze for lighter and more flexible versions made of quilted linen, or for felt or leather jerkins, but it is my hunch that the traditional Spartan still preferred to wear the old bronze cuirass made in two halves, a front and a back. Underneath the breastplate from shoulders to mid-thigh ran his sleeveless wool tunic, dyed red from the milky fluid extracted from murex molluscs native to the Laconian shores off and near the island of Cythera. His trademark cloak was of the same fabric and dye, but would be discarded for the actual fighting. A Spartan hoplite covered his legs with a pair of springily protective bronze greaves, but disdained footwear of any sort. From earliest youth he had run barefoot over rocky, prickly terrain, so that his soles were battle-hardened as no other part of his body.

On his left arm, in an unalterably fixed position, the Spartan hoplite bore his large round shield (aspis), measuring about 1 metre in diameter. Basically made of wood, with a bronze rim, it was covered all over with a thin facing of bronze sheet. On to this sheet was affixed a letter in the shape of an inverted ‘V’. This was the Greek letter lambda, ‘L’, the first letter of Lakedaimonioi (‘Spartans’). Besides the regulation initial letter, Spartans were also permitted a choice of personal blazons. A gorgon death’s-head mask, perhaps, or a lion or a fighting cock were normal choices. (But one Spartan allegedly opted for a life-sized fly. When asked why, he replied that he would be fighting close enough up to his enemies for them to see it.)

His shield was the single most crucial element of a hoplite’s armour, since it was rightly said to be worn for the good of the line as a whole as much as, or rather than, for the benefit of its individual wearer. It was this item above all that made a hoplite a hoplite, a close-order phalanx fighter. The Spartan phalangite carried a short, straight sword, more a dirk or dagger really. His weapon of choice was his spear, two to three metres long, with a shaft of cornel or ash and a heavy iron tip and butt-spike of bronze.

No doubt the Medes and the serried ranks of troops that followed them did the best they possibly could under the judgemental eye of their king. But it was not enough, and they suffered heavy losses: so much so that on three occasions, allegedly, Xerxes leapt up in horror from his specially constructed throne, appalled at the carnage and slaughter of some of his best men. The Spartans added to the Persian forces’ discomfiture by deploying the sort of tactics that only the most highly trained and disciplined force would have been capable of even contemplating, let alone executing successfully.

From behind the protection of the refurbished Phocian wall Leonidas’s men resisted by fighting in relays. This was a clever if obvious device given the conditions, since it maximized the efficient output and the conservation of their limited resources and energies. The Spartans also practised a far less obvious tactic, not one used in regular hoplite battle, and so yet another mark of their superb professionalism and adaptability: they managed to pull off a series of feigned retreats followed by a sudden about-wheel, then a murderous onslaught on their overconfident and disordered pursuers. Eventually, towards the end of daylight, Xerxes felt he had no option but to send in his elite royal bodyguard, the ten thousand Immortals, under the command of Hydarnes – but again to no avail and again to the detriment of serious casualties.

Sweat streamed, gore flowed, entrails spilled; piles of quickly rotting corpses mounted up, and flies swarmed: neither a pretty sight, nor a sweet smell. As Day 2 went on much as Day 1 had, the decisive breakthrough still not achieved, the frustration and irritation of Great King Xerxes became increasingly palpable. Next, in an attempt to spread the risks and the damage somewhat, and to counter the excellence of Leonidas’s men with his own multinational ‘picked’ force, he is said to have chosen from every national group under his command the men who seemed to excel in courage and boldness.

It was sometime on Day 2 that Xerxes had his lucky break, though quite independently of the main engagement. A Greek traitor opportunely appeared, a local Judas from Malis who knew all about the out-flanking Anopaea path, and was prepared to tell the Persians what he knew. His name, Ephialtes, has gone down in infamy: ephialtis is today the modern Greek word for ‘nightmare’. In his own day too he was drowned in a cauldron of boiling condemnation. Partly this was to deflect attention from the medism of so many Greek cities and peoples. But it also reflected the fact that it was Ephialtes’s betrayal that set in train the eventual undoing and decimation of Leonidas’s proud and valiant resistance.

Xerxes acted at once on Ephialtes’s intelligence, and took no chances. He confided the special mission to members of the royal guard of Immortals, and led by Ephialtes they set out in silence at nightfall, aided by a full moon. After a heroic climb through the Anopaea, up to 1,000 metres, they easily brushed off and bypassed the thousand Phocian guards posted by Leonidas. These troops had been ill-prepared, as unprofessional Greek hoplite troops usually would have been in the circumstances. All the forewarning they had was from the rustling of the dry leaves – left over from last winter, and recently increased by those blown down in a storm – as the Persians stepped warily through them. Having posted no pickets, the Phocians were taken completely by surprise. At first light the Persian outflankers descended to east of the Middle Gate near Alpnei. Xerxes now had Leonidas’s men fatally bound in an unloosable pincer grip, caught from the rear as well as the front.

But suppose Xerxes had been assassinated in his tent that very night. The Great King was for the Persians all in all. Crushing the head of the snake might very well have caused the whole expedition to be called off. But though a later source* claims such an assassination attempt was ordered by Leonidas, as a response to news of the betrayal by Ephialtes, Herodotus makes no mention of it, and his silence should be respected.

At all events, Xerxes was not murdered in his bed, the struggle for Thermopylae and Greece did continue, and on the night of Day 2 and early morning of Day 3 the Persians did outflank the defenders of Thermopylae via the Anopaea path. Perhaps Leonidas deserves to be blamed – as he certainly has been – for not reinforcing the Anopaea path with a larger or at any rate more competent, determined and effectively led defence force. But the Phocians were probably the best of the local troops, and they were fighting for their land as well as their lives, reportedly motivated further by bitter hatred for the neighbouring Thessalians who had medized.

Perhaps, too, Leonidas could have asserted his authority more unambiguously once he appreciated the desperate situation of encirclement. But judging his responsibility is difficult because the surviving accounts differ significantly as to what exactly he did do. The standard retrospective version held that he dismissed most of his remaining troops, leaving just the Spartans (not forgetting their Helot attendants), the diehard Thespians, who were animated by hatred for the medizing Thebans back in Thebes, and the four hundred other Thebans (whether loyalist volunteers or enforced hostages). The same must surely have been true of the surviving Perioecic volunteers. But a more cynical view holds that this sanitized version was just a cover-up: most of the coalition allies simply melted away when they realized the game was up and they were about to be surrounded. A variant saves Leonidas’s credit a bit by supposing that, once he had learned that his position had been turned, he deliberately divided his remaining forces, sending the larger number to head off the Immortals as they emerged out of the Anopaea. But they preferred not to wait for the barbarians.

What is not in question, to even the slightest degree, is the extraordinary resolution and courage with which Leonidas, his Spartans and the few hundred other Greeks who chose to remain with him fought to the end. Apart from any other considerations, Leonidas was bound to want to stay and fight a rearguard action as long as possible. This was both to enable the troops he had dismissed (or who had withdrawn) to get away safely, and to give a chance for the fleet at Artemisium to achieve whatever it could – which turned out, somewhat surprisingly perhaps, to be quite a lot. But for Leonidas there were other, no less major considerations to take on board.

Right at the start of Day 3 Leonidas’s official diviner, Megistias, had conducted the pre-dawn animal blood-sacrifice; this was a type of ritual that the Spartans were unusually punctilious about performing in all military situations.* He detected in the victim’s entrails malign signs of ‘impending death’. This was hardly amazing. Megistias’s reaction, however, was. He begged from Leonidas the privilege of being allowed to remain and die that day, while sending away his only son to safety, along with the other Greeks who were withdrawing or had been dismissed. Megistias gained his wish, perished heroically and achieved the posthumous accolade of an epigram by his friend Simonides:

Here lies Megistias, who died

When the Mede passed Spercheios’s tide.

A prophet; yet he scorned to save

Himself, but shared the Spartans’ grave.

As Megistias was sacrificing on behalf of the Greeks, Xerxes was pouring a libation to the rising sun, a power specially revered by the Persians. Xerxes then unleashed from the Persian camp what was to be the final day’s assault. This was in Greek terms at ‘about the time when the marketplace is full’, or between 9 and 10 a.m. To make sure of its effectiveness, Xerxes had whippers-on stationed behind the troops immediately engaged, pour encourager les autres.

The Greeks made their last stand mostly outside the Middle Gate wall, so as to close directly with the oncoming enemy. A truly laconic quip exemplifies the heroically grim quality of this final act of resistance. When told that there were so many archers on the Persian side that their arrows would blot out the sun, one of the three hundred is said to have promptly declared: ‘So much the better – we shall fight them in the shade!’ Would that we knew much more about this remarkable Dieneces.

Leonidas too showed himself a true Spartan by the words with which he allegedly ordered his men to take their early-morning meal before the final encounter: ‘This evening, we shall dine in Hades.’

Readers and listeners in ancient Greece, who knew their Odyssey backwards, would have remembered the famous description of Odysseus’s descent into Hades (‘the Unseen’), the Greek underworld. There he had had to supply the ghosts flitting about with blood to give them any semblance of animation. The import of Leonidas’s gallows-humour was that after breakfast there would be no more dining for his troops anywhere, either on the earth or under it. The best fate that could be hoped for was that their shades would find their way underground to a comfortable pitch in the Elysian Fields, and not be consigned to the unfathomable murk of Tartarus. And the surest way of attaining that happy afterlife was by dying a beautiful death.

The Persians’ losses at the beginning of Day 3 were reportedly heavier even than those sustained on the previous two days. The Greeks fought with almost reckless abandon. Shelley in ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ sang of those ‘Who have hugged Danger in wars …’; few can have hugged it closer than these heroic fighters. Not even the Arabic concept of asabiya – ‘mutual affection and willingness to fight and die for each other’* – does sufficient justice to their spirit of comradely empathy. Perhaps the derring-do of a Welsh ‘three hundred’ who perished fighting an alleged hundred thousand Anglo-Saxons, as celebrated in Y Gododdin, comes as near as any:

They attacked with a single purpose, short were their lives, long the mourning.

Seven times as many English they slew … they made women widows.

Many a mother with tears on her eyelids.

Aware as I believe he was of an oracle from Delphi to the effect that only the death of a Spartan king would ensure an eventual Greek victory against the Persians, Leonidas fought and died like a man possessed: possessed by the consciousness that he was fighting for something greater than mere maintenance of the national and international status quo. His death merely intensified the Greeks’ effort, for now they were fighting, Homerically, to preserve the King’s body from appropriation and likely ill-treatment by the barbarian enemy. They are said to have recovered the body, after a great deal of pushing and shoving (ôthismos), but in the end all their efforts were naturally in vain.

With their weapons gone or broken, the Greeks fought tooth and nail – literally, using their bare hands and their mouths. Even at the finish, the Persian weapon of choice to deliver the coup de grâce was the arrow, safely released at a distance. And the bestial vengeance that was wreaked upon the corpse of Leonidas, including decapitation on Xerxes’s express orders, betrayed the fact that the Persians had been tested almost to the limit. The Greeks had killed some twenty thousand on the Persian side, including two of Xerxes’s own half-brothers.


This 15 cm high gold plaque from the Oxus Treasure, with chased and embossed decoration, depicts a male figure clad in trousers, sporting an akinakes (dagger) at his right hip and carrying a barsom (wand) in his right hand.

But the mutilation of Leonidas’s corpse also symbolized a key difference of culture. After the Greeks’ victory at Plataea in 479, an enthusiastic Aeginetan called Lampon is said to have rushed up to the commander-in-chief, the Spartan Regent Pausanias, and urged him as follows:

When Leonidas was killed at Thermopylae, Mardonius and Xerxes had him decapitated and his head stuck on a pole. If now you pay them back in kind, you will win the applause of not only all Spartans but the whole of Greece. Impale Mardonius’s body, and then Leonidas, your father’s brother, will be avenged.

Pausanias would have none of it, though, and Herodotus uses him to stand and to speak not only for quintessential Spartanness but also for Greekness and Greek values:

What you suggest would be more fitting for barbarians than for Greeks, and even in barbarians we would find it repulsive … It is enough for me to win the approval of the Spartans by acting and speaking righteously.*

Of those who fought, heroically, at Thermopylae Dieneces was adjudged to have been the bravest of the Spartan three hundred, and Dithyrambus the bravest of the Thespians. Special mention was also made of two Spartan brothers, Maron and Alpheus (or Alpheius); and as a mark of esteem Herodotus also records the name of their father, Orsiphantus. We should remember too their mother – unfortunately anonymous but no doubt desperately proud.

The Battle of Thermopylae was fought by only a very small proportion of the potentially available coalition forces. It was the Spartans’ contribution, Leonidas’s above all, that was the crucial one – before, during and after. The result of the battle was, in Herodotus’s apt phrase, a wound (trôma) for the Spartans, but it was not to prove mortal either for them or for the Greek resistance. For the vital period that Leonidas held out and held up the Persian advance the Spartans gave time for the weather and the mainly Athenian Greek fleet to wreak havoc on the supporting Persian navy at Artemisium. He and his fellow Spartan dead vitally raised Greek morale. As to whether the loyalist Greeks won or lost at Thermopylae – they did both.

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