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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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In 480 BC, an enormous Persian army under the chief command of Emperor Xerxes (son of Darius the Great) campaigned against Thessaly in central Greece. Mainly they fought against the southern mostly democratic and independent city/states. The army numbered more than 300,000 men.

The Hellenes initially decided to defend themselves in Tempe valley (next to Mount Olympus) by sending about 10,000 fighters. Yet, a couple of months later they concluded that it was better to stand at the Thermopylae straits (about 150 km (93 miles) to the north of Athens), where, however, only a total of 7,000 hoplites could gather.

Artistic representation of the Battle of Thermopylae.

Artistic representation of the Battle of Thermopylae. (Internet Archive Book Images/Commons)

War During the Olympics

Like in Marathon 10 years earlier when the Spartans had their religious festival of Karnea dedicated to Apollo, at the end of summer in 480 BC people from all over the Hellenic lands (including those in Africa and Sicily) participated to the Olympic Games. The Games were dedicated to Zeus and war was forbidden when they were held.

The Persians knew about these ceremonies and had chosen (once again) to campaign against Greece during the summer. Much to their surprise, they faced approximately 6,000 hoplites from various Hellenic regions at Thermopylae (4,000 from the Peloponnese and 2,000 from around Thermopylae). Due to the urgent situation, the five Ephores (curators) of Laconia allowed the Spartan king Leonidas, along with 300 hoplites and about 1000 helots, to fight during the Olympic Games.

Leonidas I of Sparta.

Leonidas I of Sparta. (Praxinoa/CC BY SA 3.0)

It must be noted that during ancient times the Thermopylae straits were as narrow as 10 to 100 meters (32.8 -328 ft.), bordered on one side by abrupt mountain cliffs (towards the south) and on the other side (the north) by the sea. This was the main passage to reach southern Greece, although the terrain in this area is varied (full of anomalous mountains) all the way to the Ionian Sea.

View of the Thermopylae pass at the area of the Phoenician Wall. In ancient times the coastline would have been where the modern road lies, or possibly even closer to the mountain.

View of the Thermopylae pass at the area of the Phoenician Wall. In ancient times the coastline would have been where the modern road lies, or possibly even closer to the mountain. (Fkerasar/CC BY SA 3.0)

The Battle of Thermopylae Begins

For the first four days, Xerxes waited for the Hellenes to abandon the straits. He asked Leonidas to give up his weapons - to which he received the proud and Laconic answer “Come and get them” (μολών λαβέ). Thereafter, for the next three days, the Persian army encountered strong resistance (losing at least 20,000 men). For a total of one week it was impossible for Xerxes to pass through Thermopylae.

Eventually, the imperial army saw it necessary to retreat to Asia. This was probably due in part to providing such a large army with supplies. In truth, it is also important to note that the Hellenes, contrary to their opponents, were more trained in phalanx fights and possessed better weapons (longer pikes, larger shields, metallic panoplies etc).

Top: A Greek phalanx formation. Bottom: Four Persian warriors of ‘The Immortals’, from the glazed brick friezes found in the Apadana (Darius the Great’s palace) in Susa.

Top: A Greek phalanx formation. (Public Domain) Bottom: Four Persian warriors of ‘The Immortals’, from the glazed brick friezes found in the Apadana (Darius the Great’s palace) in Susa. (Immortels/CC BY SA 2.0)

However, the biggest problem faced by the small Hellenic army was that of encirclement (the same as in Marathon). Trying to achieve such a goal, Xerxes initially sent more than half of the 1,300 Persian (principally Phoenician) warships towards the Euboea gulf at the same time as the Thermopylae battle.

He hoped to disembark troops at the rear of the straits’ defenders. Xerxes’ maneuver was prevented by Themistocles (a hero, general, and fighter during the Marathon battle against the “auriferous” Medes in 490 BC). Themistocles oversaw 280 Athenian warships and defeated the imperial fleet three times within two days during naval battles near Artemission (about 40 nautical miles from Thermopylae).

Some sudden storms in the region also destroyed many Persian ships. Thus, legends say the Hellenes’ effort was “helped” by the gods as well. It is more than obvious that the Athenians (and also Thespians and eventually Plataeans) were very anxious about the outcomes of the battles at Thermopylae and Artemisson.

Campaign map for the Battles of Thermopylae & Artemisium (Artemisson) (480 BC), based on the description of Herodotus.

Campaign map for the Battles of Thermopylae & Artemisium (Artemisson) (480 BC), based on the description of Herodotus. (CC BY SA 3.0)

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).

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.

‘Three Hundred Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae.’ (rudall30 /Adobe Stock)

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.

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” of the Thermopylae Battle

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.

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.

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

Questions and Observations

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

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: Top Image: ‘For Honor and Glory’- a modern depiction of a Spartan soldier standing defiant after the Battle of Thermopylae. Source: rudall30 /Adobe Stock

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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Dr Nickos Poulianos

Dr Nickos Poulianos

Nickos A. Poulianos was born in Tashkent (Uzbekistan), July 15th 1956.  He was educated in Russia, New York, Greece, and Italy. He graduated in Biology at Rome University “La Sapienza” in 1984, and went on to... Read More

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