What Went Wrong? The Real Story of the Battle of Thermopylae

What Went Wrong? The Real Story of the Battle of Thermopylae

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Encirclement and the End

Encirclement could not be avoided by the 4th day. It occurred on the Kallidromon Mountain, via the so-called Anopea atrapos (a very rough and narrow path about 20 km (12.43 miles) long). This path runs parallel to the south of the Thermopylae straits. Herodotus wrote that this path was revealed to Xerxes by a local shepherd named Ephialtes, the son of Eurydemos (to be distinguished from the democratic politician Ephialtes son of Sofonides and Pericles’ mentor). Even today, blame is still focused on the shepherd Ephialtes (as a scapegoat).

Map depicting the coast line in the time of Herodotus and at the time of the map’s creation (1876). Thermopylae pass is between Alpeni and Anthela.

Map depicting the coast line in the time of Herodotus and at the time of the map’s creation (1876). Thermopylae pass is between Alpeni and Anthela. ( Public Domain )

It is also known that the path was defended by another 1,000 hoplites in Leonidas’ command from Phocis (Φωκίς) - a city that was under the surveillance of the Delphic oracle. The oracle had already “advised” the Athenians to “flee to the world’s end” - φεῦγ᾽ ἔσχατα γαίης δώματα - to escape the imperial troops.

Therefore, it is indeed curious that by the dawn of the 4th day, the 1000 hoplites were “surprised” while they climbed to a rocky hill about 150 meters (492.13 ft.) higher than the Anopea path to get a more adequate defensive position.

The Persians did not have to engage with the better positioned Greeks anymore and they just fired hundreds of arrows at them. Practically ignoring their opponents, “The Immortals” (the elite military forces in Xerxes’ army) proceeded towards their main goal of surrounding the Thermopylae straits. Therefore, there was enough time (at least a few hours) for most of the Greeks (about 4,000 hoplites) to evacuate the straits - probably to be able to fight somewhere else later.

Iron arrowheads and spearheads found in the hill where the last defenders at Thermopylae fell.

Iron arrowheads and spearheads found in the hill where the last defenders at Thermopylae fell. (Therese Clutario/ CC BY 2.0 )

With the excuse “of sharing the glory” with the 300 Spartan survivors, it was insisted that 700 Thespians from Boeotia, who were at Thermopylae under the leadership of Demophilus, remain. Another 400 soldiers from Thebe (Thespians’ neighbors, also from Boeotia) were apparently forced by Leonidas (and obviously by the Thespians as well) to stay since their city was under suspicions to have had already capitulated to Xerxes. Legends say that their surrender was the reason why most of their fighters were enslaved but not slaughtered after the conquest of the encircled Thermopylae.

Uncertain “Facts”

Taking the above into consideration, it turns out that some “facts” could not be true. 1000 soldiers from Phocis along with their slaves, wives, children, and other relatives suggests a number of about 5,000 people. When Leonidas is added (and probably most of the 6,000 fighters defending Thermopylae) and even the Delphic priests, a total of about 10,000 people might have known the existence of the Anopea path. However, the main question is concerned with the lack of surveying the entire atrapos, since it could have been guarded at various points by a few dozen soldiers from Sparta or elsewhere.

Pass of Thermopylae (1821) by Edward Dodwell.

Pass of Thermopylae (1821) by Edward Dodwell. ( Public Domain )

Those soldiers could have warned Leonidas or another of his officers about the new situation to defend this narrow passage too - by transferring troops if needed. This (deliberate or not) oversight probably cost Leonidas his life. Beyond the oath “with it or on it” (ή ταν η επi τας), gossip would have crossed the ancient world that the king did not act wisely from a military point of view. As Xerxes ordered the dead body of Leonidas to be decapitated, a negative view of his actions is still remembered.

On the other hand, the outcome at Thermopylae must have had a devastating impact on one of the two main Greek allies. The Athenians were concerned with their city, temples, and especially the women and children who were transferred in a hurry to Salamis Island. Thus, only Sparta remained in primacy after Thermopylae, while inevitably Athens got the second position - with the difference that the capital of Attica was destroyed but not the capital of Lacedaemon.

Map showing the Greek world during the Greco-Persian Wars (ca. 500–479 BC).

Map showing the Greek world during the Greco-Persian Wars (ca. 500–479 BC). (Bibi Saint-Pol/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

Questions and Observations

Examining the above events, some further questions and observations may arise:

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