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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1) Why did Xerxes send “The Immortals” to start their march into the path a little before nightfall?

2) Did he know that the atrapos was practically undefended?

3) Did he somehow make an agreement with the Delphic oracle?

4) Why did Leonidas have to be convinced by Locrians (Λοκροί) to stay and fight at Thermopylae instead of Corinth Isthmus (the so called “entrance” to Peloponnese), as he had initially planned?

5) Did Xerxes come to any arrangement with the rulers of Phocis?

6) Was the sacrifice at Thermopylae necessary according to Lacedaemon laws or did Leonidas feel responsible for not guarding the Anopea path?

7) Why were only 300 Spartans sent to Thermopylae?

8) Several times Leonidas asked for reinforcements, but without any result. Is it possible that the Sparta Ephores ordered him (as was written in the famous Thermopylae inscription: “…convinced by their orders… τοις κείνων ρήμασι πειθόμενοι) to die at Thermopylae?

9) Could it be that the five Ephores planned Leonidas’ sacrifice due to political antagonism between Attica and Lacedaemon, perhaps also keeping in mind another Delphic saying about the necessity of a Sparta king’s death during the war against Xerxes so their city could be saved? In such a case, the Thespians were sacrificed while defending their nearby city in order to delay Xerxes (even though it was just for a few hours to provide their relatives the necessary time to escape enslavement). On the other hand, Leonidas’ sacrifice was devoted entirely to the glory of Sparta.

10) Besides rehabilitating their reputation from the late arrival of Spartans to the fight at the Marathon battle ten years earlier, did they also try imperceptibly to punish not only the “arrogant” but also “exceedingly” democratic Athenians at Thermopylae? (In this case Lacedaemon’s Ephores may have taken the deliberate risk to attain the Asian Empire’s regime, which was probably considered even closer than that of Athens).

11) Could it have been due to a kind of political egoism that the Athenians trusted their political antagonists and did not send some hoplites to the straits of Kallidromon Mountain as well? Perhaps to not submit themselves to a Spartan king?

12) Was Thermopylae a “lesson” that forced Athenians to follow the Spartans not only in their land forces but also in naval affairs a few weeks later?

Statue of Leonidas I at Thermopylae.

Statue of Leonidas I at Thermopylae. (Dennis Jarvis/ CC BY SA 2.0 )

The Athenian Struggle

After the straits fell, nothing could stop the Persians, Medes, and their other allies who invaded and torched Athens. This is probably why Themistocles did not entrust the Athenians’ future in the hands of the Spartan “admiral” Euriviades. Themistocles believed that (beyond the known strategic reasons of shallow waters etc.), the Athenians would heroically and even superhumanly fight while defending Salamis Island when their families were not yet enslaved.

The above historical prism it is easier to conceptualize that the building of the Parthenon. Yet, the “unreasonable” spending of lots of funds for its construction symbolized the Athenians’ struggle for independence not only from the Persian empire, but also from Sparta - a city-state that could have enslaved Attica’s inhabitants, and gradually the rest of the Hellenes, as helots too. (Following the Lycurgus’ Lacedaemon laws and their traditions from at least two centuries before.)

‘Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his Friends’ (1868) Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his Friends’ (1868) Lawrence Alma-Tadema. ( Public Domain )

As an endnote: It is important to re-examine ancient wars to find out the truth. At the same time, there is hope that the modern danger for humanity and international peace may by de-escalated when past tragedies are reflected upon.

Top Image: Painting titled ‘Leonidas at Thermopylae’ (1814) by Jacques-Louis David. This painting combines both historical and legendary elements from the Battle of Thermopylae. Source: Public Domain

By Dr Nickos Poulianos


The History of the Hellenic Nation, 2016

Ηistory of Ancient Greece, Hermann Bengtson, 1991

The History of Greece, Bury B. John, Meiggs Russel, 2011

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