Battle of Thermopylae

At Thermopylae in the late summer of 480 the Spartan king Leonidas held out for three days with a mere 300 hoplites against thousands upon thousands of the best of the Great King's troops. It has also been the site of several battles in antiquity besides this most famous one. In 279 BC the Greeks faced Brennus and his Gauls there (Paus. 10. 20-23, Justin 24. 4-8); in 191 the Romans under M. Acilius Glabrio (and teamed with Philip V) defeated Antiochus of Syria and the Aeotolians (Livy 36. 17-19, Plut. M. Cato 13); and in 1941 the New Zealanders fought a rearguard action there against the Germans, in the course of the war which interrupted the excavation begun under the direction of Sp. Marinatos in 1939.

Clearly Thermopylae was a location of great strategic importance, because it commands the pass through which one goes after traveling south from Thessaly through Lokris and into Boeotia. Holding the pass could block an invader and even turn him back, though on all three of the famous occasions the defense of the pass failed. The Athenians took up a position there in 352 and discouraged Philip II from invading. In 323 during the Lamian War, the last-ditch effort by Athens to break free from Macedonian control, the general Leosthenes blocked the Macedonian Antipater by stationing troops at Thermopylae. However, the pass at Thermopylae was not the only way south from Thessaly into Central Greece; it was merely the best and easiest route.

In 480, in 279, and in 191 the invaders were able to get over the mountains and take the defenders in the rear. Examining the question of exactly what route was taken on each occasion, although admittedly a matter of primarily antiquarian interest, nonetheless illustrates some important trends in modern historical research. It also helps to answer the question of why Thermopylae should even be thought of as a pass. Herodotus' description of the location suggests that there are cliffs on one side and the sea on the other:

The pass through Trachis into Hellas is 50 feet wide at its narrowest point. It is not here, however, but elsewhere that the way is narrowest, namely, in front of Thermopylae and behind it; at Alpeni, which lies behind, it is only the breadth of a cart-way, and it is the same at the Phoenix stream, near the town of Anthele. To the west of Thermopylae rises a high mountain, inaccessible and precipitous, a spur of Oeta; to the east of the road there is nothing but marshes and sea. (Hdt. 7. 176)

But the modern visitor to the site sees two not very imposing looking hills; they lie to the south, not to the west. This discrepancy has led some scholars to assert that Herodotus never even saw the site, and that if he could make so basic an error all of his topographical information about the site, which is copious and detailed, must not be trusted; others tried to save his credibility by positing that he saw the site around noon, so that the sun was directly overhead and it was impossible to orient himself. W. Kendrick Pritchett, who is generally credited with injecting new life into the study of ancient topography, has mounted a vigorous defense of Herodotus's reliability on this and other sites. Pritchett points out that Herodotus seems to have done a very careful study of the site despite the error over the directions; he gives many distances in stades and plethra, and his account also includes an unusually high number of obscure toponyms.

More puzzling for the tourist who arrives at the site with his Herodotus in his hand is what lies to the south of the hills, beyond the modern roadside monument: a broad expanse of scrubby ground stretching out for about four miles to the sea. It looks today like no pass at all. The reason for this is no mystery. Due to what geologists call "alluvial fans", a process by which rivers deposit silt (travertine and other sediments), the coastline of the Gulf of Malea has advanced from 3-5 miles over the last 2500 years (Kraft et al., Journal of Field Archaeology 14 (1987) 181-197). Kraft and his team calculated the sea level in 480 using a mathematical formula known as the "eustatic curve". Together with the results of radiocarbon dating on the deposits and stratographic interpretation of the layers of the new land, they were able to account for the fact that travelers of only a few centuries ago reported the pass to be much narrower than we would expect if the process of buildup were proceeding at a steady rate. Rather, according to Kraft :

Fluctuations in the width of the pass at Thermopylae [have been] common, as expected in an unstable structural configuration along the flank of a major graben (i.e. a rapidly subsiding block of the earth's crust). 

Kraft concluded that the pass was not more than 20-30 meters wide in 480. That was too wide for Pritchett, who attacked the findings in volume VI of his Studies in Greek Topography (Herodotus says that the pass at Thermopylae was narrower than that at Alpeni, which he puts at half a plethron or roughly 15 meters wide).

Persian army
The number of troops which Xerxes mustered for the second invasion of Greece has been the subject of endless dispute, because the numbers given in ancient sources are very large indeed. Herodotus claimed that there were, in total, 2.6 million military personnel, accompanied by an equivalent number of support personnel.The poet Simonides, who was a near-contemporary, talks of four million; Ctesias gave 800,000 as the total number of the army that was assembled by Xerxes.

Modern scholars tend to reject the figures given by Herodotus and other ancient sources as unrealistic, and as a result of miscalculations or exaggerations on the part of the victorsModern scholarly estimates are generally in the range 70,000–300,000. These estimates usually come from studying the logistical capabilities of the Persians in that era, the sustainability of their respective base of operations, and the overall manpower constraints affecting them. Whatever the real numbers were, however, it is clear that Xerxes was anxious to ensure a successful expedition by mustering an overwhelming numerical superiority by land and by sea.The number of Persian troops present at Thermopylae is therefore as uncertain as the number for the total invasion force. For instance, it is unclear whether the whole Persian army marched as far as Thermopylae, or whether Xerxes left garrisons in Macedon and Thessaly.

Greek army

According to Herodotus,and Diodorus Siculus, the Greek army included the following forces:
GroupNumber – HerodotusNumbers – Diodorus Siculus
(including 300 Spartans)
Spartan hoplites300
(other Peloponnesians sent with Leonidas)
Arcadian Orchomenos120
Other Arcadians1,000
Total Peloponnesians3,100or 4,0004,000 or 4,300
Opuntian Locrians"All they had"1,000
Grand total5,200 (or 6,100) plus the Opuntian Locrians7,400 (or 7,700)
The number of Peloponnesians
Diodorus suggests that there were 1,000 Lacedemonians and 3,000 other Peloponnesians, for a total of 4,000. Herodotus agrees with this figure in one passage, quoting an inscription by Simonides saying there were 4,000 Peloponnesians. However, elsewhere, in the passage summarized by the above table, Herodotus tallies 3,100 Peloponnesians at Thermopylae before the battle. Herodotus also reports that at Xerxes' public showing of the dead, "helots were also there for them to see", but he does not say how many or in what capacity they served. Thus, the difference between his two figures can be squared by supposing (without proof) that there were 900 helots (three per Spartan) present at the battle.If helots were present at the battle, there is no reason to doubt that they served in their traditional role as armed retainers to individual Spartans. Alternatively, Herodotus' "missing" 900 troops might have been Perioeci, and could therefore correspond to Diodorus' 1,000 Lacedemonians.
The number of Lacedemonians
Further confusing the issue is Diodorus' ambiguity about whether his 1,000 Lacedemonians include the 300 Spartans. At one point he says: "Leonidas, when he received the appointment, announced that only one thousand men should follow him on the campaign'".[62] However, he then says that: "There were, then, of the Lacedaemonians one thousand, and with them three hundred Spartiates". It is therefore impossible to be clearer on this point.
Pausanias' account agrees with that of Herodotus (whom he probably read) except that he gives the number of Locrians, which Herodotus declined to estimate. Residing in the direct path of the Persian advance, they gave all the fighting men they had; according to Pausanias 6,000 men, which added to Herodotus' 5,200 would have given a force of 11,200.
Many modern historians, who usually consider Herodotus more reliable,add the 1,000 Lacedaemonians and the 900 helots to Herodotus' 5,200 to obtain 7,100 or about 7,000 men as a standard number, neglecting Diodorus' Melians and Pausanias' Locrians. However, this is only one approach, and many other combinations are plausible. Furthermore, the numbers changed later on in the battle when most of the army retreated and only approximately 3,000 men remained (300 Spartans, 700 Thespians, 400 Thebans, possibly up to 900 helots and 1,000 Phocians stationed above the pass; less the casualties sustained in the previous days)

The situation before the battle
The Greek city-states of Athens and Eretria had encouraged the unsuccessful Ionian Revolt against the Persian Empire of Darius I in 499–494 BC. The Persian Empire was still relatively young, and prone to revolts amongst its subject peoples. Darius, moreover, was a usurper, and had spent considerable time extinguishing revolts against his rule.

The Ionian revolt threatened the integrity of his empire, and Darius thus vowed to punish those involved; especially the Athenians, "since he was sure that [the Ionians] would not go unpunished for their rebellion". Darius also saw the opportunity to expand his empire into the fractious world of Ancient Greece. A preliminary expedition under Mardonius in 492 BC to secure the land approaches to Greece re-conquered Thrace, and forced Macedon to become a client kingdom of Persia.

Darius sent emissaries to all the Greek city-states in 491 BC asking for a gift of "earth and water" in token of their submission to him. Having had a demonstration of his power the previous year, the majority of Greek cities duly obliged. In Athens, however, the ambassadors were put on trial and then executed by throwing them in a pit; in Sparta, they were simply thrown down a well. This meant that Sparta was also effectively at war with Persia.

Darius thus put together an amphibious task force under Datis and Artaphernes in 490 BC, which attacked Naxos, before receiving the submission of the other Cycladic Islands. The task force then moved on Eretria, which it besieged and destroyed. Finally, it moved to attack Athens, landing at the bay of Marathon, where it was met by a heavily outnumbered Athenian army. At the ensuing Battle of Marathon, the Athenians won a remarkable victory, which resulted in the withdrawal of the Persian army to Asia.

Darius therefore began raising a huge new army with which he meant to completely subjugate Greece; however, in 486 BC, his Egyptian subjects revolted, indefinitely postponing any Greek expedition. Darius then died whilst preparing to march on Egypt, and the throne of Persia passed to his son Xerxes I. Xerxes crushed the Egyptian revolt, and very quickly restarted the preparations for the invasion of Greece. Since this was to be a full-scale invasion, it required long-term planning, stockpiling and conscription.Xerxes decided that the Hellespont would be bridged to allow his army to cross to Europe, and that a canal should be dug across the isthmus of Mount Athos (rounding which headland, a Persian fleet had been destroyed in 492 BC). These were both feats of exceptional ambition, which would have been beyond any other contemporary state.By early 480 BC, the preparations were complete, and the army which Xerxes had mustered at Sardis marched towards Europe, crossing the Hellespont on two pontoon bridges.

The Athenians had also been preparing for war with the Persians since the mid-480s BC, and in 482 BC the decision was taken, under the guidance of the Athenian politician Themistocles, to build a massive fleet of triremes that would be essential for the Greeks to fight the Persians. However, the Athenians did not have the manpower to fight on both land and sea; and therefore combating the Persians would require an alliance of Greek city states. In 481 BC, Xerxes sent ambassadors around Greece asking for 'earth and water' but making the very deliberate omission of Athens and Sparta. Support thus began to coalesce around these two leading states. A congress of city states met at Corinth in late autumn of 481 BC, and a confederate alliance of Greek city-states was formed. It had the power to send envoys asking for assistance and to dispatch troops from the member states to defensive points after joint consultation. This was remarkable for the disjointed Greek world, especially since many of the city-states in attendance were still technically at war with each other.

The 'congress' met again in the spring of 480 BC. A Thessalian delegation suggested that the Greeks could muster in the narrow Vale of Tempe, on the borders of Thessaly, and thereby block Xerxes' advance. A force of 10,000 hoplites was dispatched to the Vale of Tempe, through which they believed the Persian army would have to pass. However, once there, being warned by Alexander I of Macedon that the vale could be bypassed through Sarantoporo Pass, and that the army of Xerxes was overwhelming, the Greeks retreated. Shortly afterwards, they received the news that Xerxes had crossed the Hellespont.

A second strategy was therefore suggested by Themistocles to the Greeks. The route to southern Greece (Boeotia, Attica and the Peloponnesus) would require the army of Xerxes to travel through the very narrow pass of Thermopylae. This could easily be blocked by the Greek hoplites, despite the overwhelming numbers of Persians. Furthermore, to prevent the Persians bypassing Thermopylae by sea, the Athenian and allied navies could block the straits of Artemisium. This dual strategy was adopted by the congress. However, the Peloponnesian cities made fall-back plans to defend the Isthmus of Corinth should it come to that, whilst the women and children of Athens had been evacuated en masse to the Peloponnesian city of Troezen.

At the edge of the battle
The Persian army seems to have made slow progress through Thrace and Macedon. News of the imminent Persian approach eventually reached Greece in August thanks to a Greek spy. At this time of year the Spartans, de facto military leaders of the alliance, were celebrating the festival of Carneia. During the Carneia, military activity was forbidden by Spartan law; the Spartans had arrived too late at the Battle of Marathon because of this requirement. It was also the time of the Olympic Games, and therefore the Olympic truce, and thus it would have been doubly sacrilegious for the whole Spartan army to march to war. On this occasion, the ephors decided the urgency was sufficiently great to justify an advance expedition to block the pass, under one of its kings, Leonidas I. Leonidas took with him the 300 men of the royal bodyguard, the Hippeis.This expedition was to try to gather as many other Greek soldiers along the way as possible, and to await the arrival of the main Spartan army.

The legend of Thermopylae, as told by Herodotus, has it that the Spartans consulted the Oracle at Delphi earlier in the year. The Oracle is said to have made the following prophecy:

O ye men who dwell in the streets of broad Lacedaemon!
Honor the festival of the Carneia!! Otherwise,
Either your glorious town shall be sacked by the children of Perseus,
Or, in exchange, must all through the whole Laconian country

Mourn for the loss of a king, descendant of great Heracles.
Herodotus tells us that Leonidas, in line with the prophecy, was convinced he was going to certain death since his forces were not adequate for a victory, and so he selected only Spartans with living sons.

The Spartan force was reinforced en route to Thermopylae by contingents from various cities and numbered more than 7,000 by the time it arrived at the pass. Leonidas chose to camp at, and defend, the 'middle gate', the narrowest part of the pass of Thermopylae, where the Phocians had built a defensive wall some time before. News also reached Leonidas, from the nearby city of Trachis, that there was a mountain track which could be used to outflank the pass of Thermopylae. Leonidas stationed 1,000 Phocians on the heights to prevent such a manoeuvre.

Finally, in mid-August, the Persian army was sighted across the Malian Gulf approaching Thermopylae.With the Persian army's arrival at Thermopylae the Greeks held a council of war. Some Peloponnesians suggested withdrawal to the Isthmus of Corinth and blocking the passage to Peloponnesus. The Phocians and Locrians, whose states were located nearby, became indignant and advised defending Thermopylae and sending for more help. Leonidas calmed the panic and agreed to defend Thermopylae. According to Plutarch, when one of the soldiers complained that "Because of the arrows of the barbarians it is impossible to see the sun", Leonidas replied: "Won't it be nice, then, if we shall have shade in which to fight them?" Herodotus reports a similar comment, but attributes it to Dienekes.

A Persian emissary was sent by Xerxes to negotiate with Leonidas. The Greeks were offered their freedom and the title "Friends of the Persian People". Moreover, they would be re-settled on land better than that they possessed. When these terms were refused by Leonidas, the ambassador carried a written message by Xerxes, asking him to "Hand over your arms". Leonidas' famous response was for the Persians to "Come and take them" (Μολὼν λαβέ). With the Persian embassy returning empty-handed, battle became inevitable. Xerxes delayed for four days, waiting for the Greeks to disperse, before sending troops to attack them.

The Battle
The confrontation at Thermopylae took place in the late summer of 480. Some modern accounts seem to know exactly on what dates the battle fell, because Herodotus says (7. 206) the the festival of Apollo Carneia was on at Sparta and that the Olympic games were also in progress. This confidence about the precise dating has lately been called into question (e.g. by Sacks in CQ 1976), but it is still possible to describe the battle in terms of relative chronology and that in many ways turns out to be more revealing. For example, we know that when Xerxes and the Persian imperial army arrived at Anthela, just west of the pass, they encamped and waited for five days before attacking. The reason for this is fairly straightforward. First, although the Persians could be confident that they would outnumber the enemy, they had as yet no idea how many hoplites were waiting on the other side of the pass, hidden by a hastily reconstructed wall. Second, Xerxes was waiting for his battered fleet to catch up; it had been damaged and delayed by bad weather yet again, the hand of the gods on the side of the Greeks (7. 188, the storm off the coast of Magnesia). A quick victory over the Greek fleet would allow him to simply land troops in the rear of the enemy, obviating the advantage offered to the Greeks by the terrain at the pass.

Xerxes used the time waiting for the fleet to arrive to good advantage. First he sent a spy to see what the Greeks were doing; the astonished horseman returned to report that he had seen the Spartans stripping for exercise and fixing each other's hair. It seems unlikely that this scene aroused the contempt in the Persian commanders Herodotus said it did, at least to judge from the next move, which was to send a herald to propose that the defenders of the pass should surrender and become allies of the Great King. In return they would be allowed to depart unharmed, and they could expect to get some of the land of those who refused to surrender. This tid-bit is reported by Diodorus (11.5, derived from Ephorus) but it is credible, since Xerxes had made similar pronouncements to the other Greek states before; Herodotus rather reports it as a conference held among the Greek contingents before Xerxes had arrived (7. 207). The offer will not have been expected to sway the Spartans; indeed, Xerxes had shown a disinclination to make further overtures to the Athenians and Spartans after the heralds of Darius had been executed both at Sparta and at Athens (Hdt. 7. 133). But if we can believe Ephorus the offer did expose the differing preoccupations of the various Greek contingents. The Peloponnesians, presumably including the Tegeans, Arcadians, Corinthians, and Phlians as well as some contingent of the Spartans, were for abandoning northern Greece and falling back on the Isthmus; only the insistence of Leonidas restrained them, and naturally the Phocians and the Locrians will have opposed this idea, since the non-combatants of Phokis and Lokris were for the most part still not evacuated. This debate among the Greek states typifies the distinctive feature of their foreign relations in the period, namely that each state tended to support its own regional interests, and it is worth reflecting on how this is usually portrayed in modern historical writing. The sense one gets is often that this was the curse of the Greeks; had they only been able to cooperate better, as they did for just long enough at Salamis, they could have ruled the world, or they would never have become the subjects of the Macedonians or (later) the Romans. Perhaps our postmodern penchant for "diversity" makes it easier for us to see how such sentiments are misguided: the cultural homogeneity which greater unity and cooperation among the Greeks would have inexorably brought about, would have brought with it, as it did in the much reviled Hellenistic Age, the sapping of their creative spirit which drew its energy from that very contentiousness which marked their interrelations.

In any event Leonidas was able to hold the Greek force together. He had only 7,100 troops; Herodotus says that Xerxes had 2.5 million troops and as many again of camp followers, but the figure is widely acknowledged to be fantastic. A more realistic estimate is had by lopping off a zero: perhaps 200,000, not all of whom had arrived at Thermopylae by the time Xerxes decided he had waited long enough.

At first, the battle went entirely according to the plan of the Greeks. The narrowness of the pass at the middle gate negated the advantage of numbers for the imperial troops. Moreover, the Greek hoplite was better equipped, with his long thrusting spear, heavy hoplite shield, and body armour; the Persian had a shorter javelin-type spear, a wicker shield which did indeed provide superior mobility in the open field but was much less useful than bronze at close quarters, and thick-woven linen corselets. For two days the Spartans held off lesser elements of the imperial army: Medes and Cissians were succeeded by the crack troops, the Immortals, to little avail.

Then the tide turned when a local man, a Malian named Ephialtes, offered to show the Persians a way around the back of the defending force, a way to get past the "Middle Gate" and turn the Greek position. Xerxes agreed, sending what was left of his 10,000 "Immortals" off at dusk. The precise route taken by the Persian troops that night is disputed. The standard view used to be that the path corresponded to the gorge of the Asopos river (so e.g. Leake, Grundy, Hignett), but this has two problems. First, the Asopos river gorge is too rocky to be negotiated at night without numerous broken ankles; second, Herodotus says that the path began from the Asopos river "which flows through the gorge" and not, as the standard view insists, "where it flows through the gorge" (7. 216). Two other main candidates have been put forward: the Vardates route (favored by Myres, Burn, and Wallace); and the Chalkomata spring route, favored by Pritchett. Whichever of these two it was may never be known for certain, but both would bring the Persians to the peak of Sastano (Kallidromos) near ancient Drakospilia by dawn. From there the paths converge.

Now, according to Herodotus Leonidas had been aware from the beginning of the existence of the Anopaia path. He stationed 1000 Phokians there to stop any encircling movement. The Phokians, according to Herodotus, were taken by surprise and put up little resistance. But word got through to Leonidas that the position had been outflanked, and there seems to have been time to abandon the position and withdraw to the south before the Immortals under Hydarnes arrived. Why did Leonidas refuse? There have been various answers to this question. Herodotus represents it as an act of deliberate self-sacrifice carried out in accordance with an oracle, which had said that the death of a Spartan king would save Sparta from destruction. One may observe that the pronouncements of the oracle in the late 480's have a distinctly pro-Persian cast; it seems likely that the priests, whose job after all was to predict the future, simply believed that the victory of the Persian army, whose immense size was known well in advance of its arrival, was inevitable. It may be that this oracle, if genuine, actually meant that the recommended course of action was for the Spartans to depose one of the sitting kings and take back Demaratus as the vassal of the Persians. Alternatively it is possible that the oracle is a post-eventum falsehood, put out by the oracle and its partisans to make it appear that Apollo had successfully predicted the outcome. There is also available the so-called "military" solution to the question, as formulated by Dascalakis. He argues that Leonidas remained in order to give the allied contingents, whom he dismissed (with the exception of the Thebans and the Thespians), time to get away.

There is an interesting sidelight here which sheds light on the interstate politics of the Persian Wars. Thebes had officially surrendered to Xerxes, and in the years after the was the Thebans had a very hard time living this down. Herodotus says that the Theban contingents who remained with the Spartans did so under compulsion, but moderns have seen that this makes little sense. At so crucial a time, Leonidas would be insane to choose to have hostiles in his midst. It is more likely that the Theban contingent consisted (as Diodorus says, 11.4.7) of exiles who had opposed the surrender to Xerxes, and that Herodotus was taken in by the anti-Theban propaganda which was flying thick and fast at Athens in the years before the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War.

There is a final dispute to be noticed concerning the identity of the hill to which Herodotus says the defenders retreated before finally being overwhelmed (7. 225). Until the excavations by Marinatos, it was generally assumed that this was the westernmost of the hills, Hill 1 by the remains of the Phokian Wall. However, the excavations proved that Kolonos Hill must be identified with Hill 2, due to the discovery of a large number of arrowheads similar in type to those found at Marathon, in a well at the Agora, and on the north slope of the Acropolis. The stone lion, the memorial to the heroism of the defenders, has never been found (though there is a modern restoration in the wrong place for the tourists) nor have the bones of the dead.

First day
On the fifth day after the Persian arrival at Thermopylae and the first day of the battle, Xerxes finally resolved to attack the Greeks. First, he ordered five thousand archers to fire a barrage of arrows, but they were ineffective; they fired from at least 100 yards away, according to modern day scholars, and the Greeks' bronze shields and helmets deflected the missiles. After that, Xerxes sent a force of ten thousand Medes and Cissians to take the defenders prisoner and bring them before him. The Persians soon launched a frontal assault, in waves of around 10,000 men, on the Greek position. The Greeks fought in front of the Phocian wall, at the narrowest part of the pass, which enabled them to use as few soldiers as possible. Details of the tactics are scant; Diodorus says "the men stood shoulder to shoulder" and the Greeks were "superior in valor and in the great size of their shields." This probably describes the standard Greek phalanx, in which the men formed a wall of overlapping shields and layered spear points protruding out from the sides of the shields, which would have been highly effective as long as it spanned the width of the pass. The weaker shields and shorter spears and swords of the Persians prevented them from effectively engaging the Greek hoplites. Herodotus says that the units for each city were kept together; units were rotated in and out of the battle to prevent fatigue, which implies the Greeks had more men than necessary to block the pass. The Greeks killed so many Medes that Xerxes is said to have stood up three times from the seat from which he was watching the battle.According to Ctesias, the first wave was "cut to ribbons", with only two or three Spartans killed in return.

According to Herodotus and Diodorus, the king, having taken the measure of the enemy, threw his best troops into a second assault the same day, the Immortals, an elite corps of 10,000 men.However, the Immortals fared no better than the Medes, failing to make any headway against the Greeks. The Spartans apparently used a tactic of feigning retreat, and then turning and killing the enemy troops when they ran after them

Second day
On the second day, Xerxes again sent in the infantry to attack the pass, "supposing that their enemies, being so few, were now disabled by wounds and could no longer resist." However, the Persians had no more success on the second day than on the first. Xerxes at last stopped the assault and withdrew to his camp, "totally perplexed".

Later that day, however, as the Persian king was pondering what to do next, he received a windfall; a Trachinian named Ephialtes informed him of the mountain path around Thermopylae and offered to guide the Persian army. Ephialtes was motivated by the desire for a reward. For this act, the name of Ephialtes received a lasting stigma, his name coming to mean "nightmare" in the Greek language and becoming the archetypal traitor in Greek culture.

Herodotus reports that Xerxes sent his commander Hydarnes that evening, with the men under his command, the Immortals, to encircle the Greeks via the path. However, he does not say who those men were. The Immortals had been bloodied on the first day, so it is possible that Hydarnes may have been given overall command of an enhanced force including what was left of the Immortals, and indeed, according to Diodorus, Hydarnes had a force of 20,000 for the mission. The path led from east of the Persian camp along the ridge of Mt. Anopaea behind the cliffs that flanked the pass. It branched, with one path leading to Phocis and the other down to the Malian Gulf at Alpenus, first town of Locris

Third day 
At daybreak on the third day, the Phocians guarding the path above Thermopylae became aware of the outflanking Persian column by the rustling of oak leaves. Herodotus says that they jumped up and were greatly amazed. Hydarnes was perhaps just as amazed to see them hastily arming themselves as they were to see him and his forces.He feared that they were Spartans, but was informed by Ephialtes that they were not.The Phocians retreated to a nearby hill to make their stand (assuming that the Persians had come to attack them).However, not wishing to be delayed, the Persians merely shot a volley of arrows at them, before bypassing them to continue with their encirclement of the main Greek force.

Learning from a runner that the Phocians had not held the path, Leonidas called a council of war at dawn. According to Diodorus, a Persian called Tyrrhastiadas, a Cymaean by birth, warned the Greeks.Some of the Greeks argued for withdrawal, but Leonidas resolved to stay at the pass with the Spartans. Many of the Greek contingents then either chose to withdraw (without orders), or were ordered to leave by Leonidas (Herodotus admits that there is some doubt about which actually happened). The contingent of 700 Thespians, led by their general Demophilus, refused to leave and committed themselves to the fight.Also present were the 400 Thebans, and probably the helots who had accompanied the Spartans.

Leonidas' actions have been the subject of much discussion. It is commonly stated that the Spartans were obeying the laws of Sparta by not retreating, but it seems it was actually the failure to retreat from Thermopylae that gave rise to the notion that Spartans never retreated. It is also possible that, recalling the words of the Oracle, Leonidas was committed to sacrifice his life in order to save Sparta. However, since the prophecy was specific to him, this seems a poor reason to commit 1,500 other men to a fight to the death. The most likely theory is that Leonidas chose to form a rearguard so that the other Greek contingents could get away. If all the troops had retreated, the open ground beyond the pass would have allowed the Persian cavalry to run the Greeks down. If they had all remained at the pass, they would have been encircled and would eventually have all been killed. By covering the retreat and continuing to block the pass, Leonidas could save more than 3,000 men, who would be able to fight again. The Thebans have also been the subject of some discussion. Herodotus suggests that they were brought to the battle as hostages to ensure the good behavior of Thebes. However, as Plutarch long ago pointed out, if they were hostages, why not send them away with the rest of the Greeks? The likelihood is that these were the Theban 'loyalists', who unlike the majority of their fellow citizens, objected to Persian domination.They thus probably came to Thermopylae of their own free will and stayed to the end because they could not return to Thebes if the Persians conquered Boeotia. The Thespians, resolved as they were not to submit to Xerxes, faced the destruction of their city if the Persians took Boeotia. However, this alone does not explain the fact that they remained; the remainder of Thespiae was successfully evacuated before the Persians arrived there. It seems that the Thespians volunteered to remain as a simple act of self-sacrifice, all the more amazing since their contingent represented every single hoplite the city could muster. This seems to have been a particularly Thespian trait – on at least two other occasions in later history, a Thespian force would commit itself to a fight to the death.

At dawn, Xerxes made libations, pausing to allow the Immortals sufficient time to descend the mountain, and then began his advance. A Persian force of ten thousand men, consisting of light infantry and cavalry, charged at the front of the Greek formation. The Greeks this time sallied forth from the wall to meet the Persians in the wider part of the pass in an attempt to slaughter as many Persians as they could. They fought with spears until every spear was shattered and then switched to xiphē (short swords). In this struggle, Herodotus states that two brothers of Xerxes fell: Abrocomes and Hyperanthes. Leonidas also died in the assault, shot down by Persian archers, and the two sides fought over his body, the Greeks taking possession. As the Immortals approached, the Greeks withdrew and took a stand on a hill behind the wall. The Thebans "moved away from their companions, and with hands upraised, advanced toward the barbarians..." (Rawlinson translation), but a few were slain before their surrender was accepted. The king later had the Theban prisoners branded with the royal mark. Of the remaining defenders, Herodotus says:

"Here they defended themselves to the last, those who still had swords using them, and the others resisting with their hands and teeth."

Tearing down part of the wall, Xerxes ordered the hill surrounded, and the Persians rained down arrows until every last Greek was dead.In 1939, archaeologist Spyridon Marinatos, excavating at Thermopylae, found large numbers of Persian bronze arrowheads on Kolonos Hill, changing the identification of the hill on which the Greeks died from a smaller one nearer the wall.

The pass at Thermopylae was thus opened to the Persian army, according to Herodotus, at the cost to the Persians of up to 20,000 fatalities. The Greek rearguard, meanwhile, was annihilated, with a probable loss of 2,000 men, including those killed on the first two days of battle. Herodotus says at one point that 4,000 Greeks died, but assuming that the Phocians guarding the track were not killed during the battle (as Herodotus implies), this would be almost every Greek soldier present (by Herodotus' own estimates), and this number is probably too high

After the battle
When the body of Leonidas was recovered by the Persians, Xerxes, in a rage against Leonidas, ordered that the head be cut off and the body crucified. Herodotus observes that it was very uncommon for the Persians, as they had the habit of treating "valiant warriors" with great honour (the example of Pytheas, captured off Skiathos before the Battle of Artemisium, strengthens this suggestion). However, Xerxes was known for his rage. Legend has it that he had the Hellespont whipped, the water itself, because it would not obey him.

After the Persians' departure, the Greeks collected their dead and buried them on the hill. After the Persian invasion was repulsed, a stone lion was erected at Thermopylae to commemorate Leonidas. A full 40 years after the battle, Leonidas' bones were returned to Sparta, where he was buried again with full honors; funeral games were held every year in his memory.

With Thermopylae now opened to the Persian army, the continuation of the blockade at Artemisium by the Greek fleet became irrelevant. The simultaneous naval Battle of Artemisium had been a tactical stalemate, and the Greek navy was able to retreat in good order to the Saronic Gulf, where they helped to ferry the remaining Athenian citizens to the island of Salamis.

Following Thermopylae, the Persian army proceeded to burn and sack Plataea and Thespiae, the Boeotian cities that had not submitted, before it marched on the now evacuated city of Athens. Meanwhile, the Greeks (for the most part Peloponnesians) prepared to defend the Isthmus of Corinth, demolishing the single road that led through it and building a wall across it. As at Thermopylae, to make this an effective strategy required the Greek navy to stage a simultaneous blockade, barring the passage of the Persian navy across the Saronic Gulf, so that troops could not be landed directly on the Peloponnese. However, instead of a mere blockade, Themistocles persuaded the Greeks to seek a decisive victory against the Persian fleet. Luring the Persian navy into the Straits of Salamis, the Greek fleet was able to destroy much of the Persian fleet in the Battle of Salamis, which essentially ended the threat to the Peloponnese.

Fearing that the Greeks might attack the bridges across the Hellespont and trap his army in Europe, Xerxes now retreated with much of the army back to Asia, though nearly all of them died of starvation and disease on the return. He left a handpicked force under Mardonius to complete the conquest the following year. However, under pressure from the Athenians, the Peloponnesians eventually agreed to try to force Mardonius to battle, and marched on Attica. Mardonius retreated to Boeotia to lure the Greeks into open terrain, and the two sides eventually met near the city of Plataea. At the Battle of Plataea, the Greek army won a decisive victory, destroying much of the Persian army, and ending the invasion of Greece. Meanwhile, at the near-simultaneous naval Battle of Mycale, they also destroyed much of the remaining Persian fleet, thereby reducing the threat of further invasions.

Thermopylae is arguably the most famous battle in European ancient history, repeatedly referenced in ancient, recent, and contemporary culture. In Western culture at least, it is the Greeks who are lauded for their performance in battle.However, within the context of the Persian invasion, Thermopylae was undoubtedly a defeat for the Greeks.It seems clear that the Greek strategy was to hold off the Persians at Thermopylae and Artemisium; whatever they may have intended, it was presumably not their desire to surrender all of Boeotia and Attica to the Persians.The Greek position at Thermopylae, despite being massively outnumbered, was nearly impregnable. If the position had been held for even a little longer, the Persians might have had to retreat for lack of food and water.Thus, despite the heavy losses, forcing the pass was strategically a Persian victory,but the successful retreat of the bulk of the Greek troops was in its own sense a victory as well. The battle itself had showed that a few free men were willing to do anything for victory against the invaders. The defeat at Thermopylae had turned Leonidas and the men under his command into martyrs. That boosted the morale of all Greek soldiers in the second Persian invasion.

It is sometimes stated that Thermopylae was a Pyrrhic victory for the Persians, one in which the victor is as damaged by the battle as the defeated party. However, there is no suggestion by Herodotus that the effect on the Persian forces was that. The idea ignores the fact that the Persians would, in the aftermath of Thermopylae, conquer the majority of Greece, and the fact that they were still fighting in Greece a year later. Alternatively, the argument is sometimes advanced that the last stand at Thermopylae was a successful delaying action that gave the Greek navy time to prepare for the Battle of Salamis.c However, compared to the probable time (about one month) between Thermopylae and Salamis, the time bought was negligible. Furthermore, this idea also neglects the fact that a Greek navy was fighting at Artemisium during the Battle of Thermopylae, incurring losses in the process. George Cawkwell suggests that the gap between Thermopylae and Salamis was caused by Xerxes systematically reducing Greek opposition in Phocis and Boeotia, and not as a result of the Battle of Thermopylae; thus, as a delaying action, Thermopylae was insignificant compared to Xerxes's own procrastination. Far from labeling Thermopylae as a Pyrrhic victory, modern academic treatises on the Greco-Persian Wars tend to emphasise the success of Xerxes in breaching the formidable Greek position and the subsequent conquest of the majority of Greece. For instance, Cawkwell states that "he was successful on both land and sea, and the Great Invasion began with a brilliant success. .. Xerxes had every reason to congratulate himself",while Lazenby describes the Greek defeat as "disastrous".

The fame of Thermopylae is thus principally derived not from its effect on the outcome of the war but for the inspirational example it set. Thermopylae is famous because of the heroism of the doomed rearguard, who, despite facing certain death, remained at the pass. Ever since, the events of Thermopylae have been the source of effusive praise from many sources: "...the fairest sister-victories which the Sun has ever seen, yet they would never dare to compare their combined glory with the glorious defeat of King Leonidas and his men." A second reason is the example it set of free men, fighting for their country and their freedom:

So almost immediately, contemporary Greeks saw Thermopylae as a critical moral and culture lesson. In universal terms, a small, free people had willingly outfought huge numbers of imperial subjects who advanced under the lash. More specifically, the Western idea that soldiers themselves decide where, how, and against whom they will fight was contrasted against the Eastern notion of despotism and monarchy—freedom proving the stronger idea as the more courageous fighting of the Greeks at Thermopylae, and their later victories at Salamis and Plataea attested.

While this paradigm of "free men" outfighting "slaves" can be seen as a rather sweeping over-generalization (there are plenty of counter-examples), it is nevertheless true that many commentators have used Thermopylae to illustrate this point.

Militarily, although the battle was actually not decisive in the context of the Persian invasion, Thermopylae is also of some significance, on the basis of the first two days of fighting. The performance of the defenders is used as an example of the advantages of training, equipment, and good use of terrain as force multipliers

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