The Battle of Thermopylae: Triumph and Tragedy

The Battle of Thermopylae: Triumph and Tragedy

Battle of Thermopylae: Triumph and Tragedy

By Patricia DePalma

Over 100,000 Persian warriors stand ready at the western end of Thermopylae, but King Leonidas and his Greek warriors are not the slightest bit intimidated by their chances. These 5,000 Greek soldiers have been brutally trained since the age of seven for this. They will die fighting for Greece, even when their country has no hope left. As Herodotus, a Greek historian who lived through the Greco-Persian wars, states, “[The Spartans] are the equal of any men when they fight as individuals; fighting together as a collective, they surpass all other men.” Rumors allege that the kings of both sides exchanged brusque messages before the battle. Xerxes demanded of Leonidas to “Hand over your arms!” but Leonidas sent back a brief but famous comeback: “Molōn labe” (“Come and get ’em yourself!”).

The Battle of Thermopylae

The Battle of Thermopylae took place in Thermopylae, a mountain pass near the sea, in northern Greece in late August 480 BC. Only King Leonidas, his 300 Spartans, and 700 Thespians remained to resist the Persians while the rest of the Greek army could retreat. This small group of warriors was able to hold off the 100,000 troops, making them a Spartan legend. Without the Spartans’ heroic sacrifice, the citizens of Greece would never have been inspired by the bravery shown by these soldiers and acquired the patriotism to rise up and oppose the fearsome foreign invaders.

Ancient Greece was not a unified nation, but rather hundreds of city-states that shared similar cultures and religions. Geography and government in Greece greatly contributed to dividing these communities and giving them their essential independence. The mountainous terrain was an obstacle to communication, travel, and the spread of ideas between regions. To add to that, the Greek aristocrat governments defended the independence of their cities passionately and prevented any city-states from forming stable alliances. A few important city-states were Athens, Sparta, Thebes, Corinth, and Delphi—Athens and Sparta being the most powerful of these five. Athens and Sparta were two very different states. Ancient Athens contributed to the study of philosophy, science, history, geometry, and medicine, while war was the center of Spartan society. Despite the rivalry between Sparta and Athens, they would unite to withstand the might of the Persian Empire.

Leonidas monument in Thermopylae, Greece.

Sparta had the strongest military in Greece. All male citizens of Sparta were expected to become warriors. At the age of seven, boys left home and started military training by entering the agoge, where the boys lived under awful circumstances. They had limited rations and violent punishments and were forced to battle one another. After 14 years of this brutal training, the hoplites, or Spartan warriors, became soldiers and served a 40-year term. Women in Sparta had quite advanced rights. They were free to own property, compete in athletic competitions, and even go to school. In the eighth century BC, Sparta conquered Laconia and Messenia. The captives from these two cities were made slaves for the Spartans. The helots, or captives, managed the day-to-day labors, such as farming and nursing. Plenty served as military attendants and domestic servants. The helots kept the Spartan community functioning, although the Spartans treated them cruelly to maintain order. Spartans continued to conquer nearby city-states for more land and slaves, making them the enemies of many.

The Rise of the Achaemenid Persian Empire

The rise of the Achaemenid Persian Empire all started with Cyrus the Great. In 550 BC, he conquered Ionia, the west coast of modern-day Turkey. To sustain order, he allowed the people of Persia to freely practice their choice of religion and culture, although the people of Ionia were discontent with their Persian rulers. The Ionians desired more land and power, as any other country would. In roughly 500 BC, Cyrus’s satraps, or governors, forced the Ionian leaders to agree to set up their society peacefully so the Persians would not attack them. Persian leaders knew tensions within the Persian Empire could lead to its own downfall. Cyrus was said to have met his fate in battle with the Massagetae, a tribe from Khwarezm, although the accounts of his death vary in different historical records.

When Darius the Great took the throne in 522 BC, he extended the empire from Macedonia to India. His domain was approximately 2.1 million square miles, covering most of the Middle East. Aside from furthering the Persian Empire to its greatest expansion, King Darius also advanced his dynasty economically. Near the end of the sixth century, Darius introduced a new standard form of currency, the daric, to the Persian Empire. Likewise, he improved the cities within Persia and introduced a government with a new capital, Persepolis.

To ensure that his satraps were obeying his orders, the emperor established the Royal Road, a secure system that helped messengers communicate information between Darius and his governers. This method was unusual but successful until 499 BC. Aristagoras, the ruler of the Ionian city Miletus, attempted and failed to gain support from local cities to seize the town of Naxos. Fearing that King Darius would punish him for breaking the treaty, Aristagoras started the Ionian revolt. Ionian cities rebelled and expelled their Persian leaders. Aristagoras, knowing Darius would soon retaliate against him for starting a rebellion within his empire, went to Athens, desperate for allies. Athens agreed to send troops to aid the Ionians, but these were slaughtered by the Persians. Nevertheless, this event sparked many more revolutions from conquered cities within the Achaemenid Persian Empire. Although Persia recaptured most of the rebel cities, Darius the Great swore vengeance on Athens for supporting the Ionian revolt.

The Battle of Marathon

King Darius’s first attack on Greece was at Marathon. The first battle of the Greco-Persian wars took place in northeastern Attica in 490 BC. Similar to the Battle of Thermopylae, in the Battle of Marathon, the Persians had larger numbers. Besides being a war-centered community, Sparta was, too, passionately religious. In fact, the Spartans couldn’t assist Athens in the Battle of Marathon due to an important religious festival. Athens’s only ally during this battle was Plataea. But with Miltiades’s clever strategy, the Athenian and Plataean army demolished 6,000 Persians and sent the rest fleeing while losing only 200 Greeks. After this defeat, Darius vowed to lead another attack on Greece, but in the course of three years of preparing this mass attack, an illness overcame him, and he died in October 490 BC. Although Darius and his vow to destroy Athens passed away, the Greco-Persian wars were not over.

Xerxes, the eldest son of Atossa and Darius, inherited the throne after Darius met his fate. Xerxes’s impressive architectural projects gave him the title Xerxes the Great. Unlike his father and grandfather, Xerxes was not a compassionate leader. When riots arose in city-states such as Babylon and Egypt, he would march into the cities with an army and forcefully overpower the rebellions. This method of maintaining order did not last in the long run and would later lead to the demise of the Persian Empire. But for now, by threatening cities with his military, Xerxes was able to focus on carrying out his father’s campaign of conquering Greece. He devoted four years to gathering a massive army, supplies, and allies.

Xerxes's Army

Various exaggerated accounts state that Xerxes’s army contained over a million men and 4,000 ships. The Persian army clearly had the upper hand against the Greeks, but the omens were not favorable toward the king of Persia. According to Herodotus, “A really extraordinary thing happened: a horse gave birth to a hare. Xerxes dismissed it as insignificant, though its meaning was transparent. It meant that, although Xerxes would walk tall and proud on his way to attack Greece, he would return to his starting point running for his life.” Even so, Xerxes ignored these signs and continued his expedition to conquer Athens.

A Spartan helmet.

Despite being the underdog, Greece was in the good hands of King Leonidas, the Spartan king, who had been put in charge of the Greek forces. Unlike most kings, Leonidas had been trained like any other male Spartan hoplite and would go on the battlefield with his army. In the middle of the sixth century, Sparta was known for its strong military power and ground army in Greece. Even Athens admitted that Sparta’s military was impressive. To complement Sparta’s mighty ground army, Athens supplied an invincible navy.

While Xerxes and his enormous army traveled to Greece, the Greeks prepared a defensive plan. Multiple ideas were shared at the national conference, but the ultimate strategy was to stop the Persians at Thermopylae. While King Leonidas and his ground army attempted to stop the Persians at the mountain pass, the Athenian navy would battle the Persian ships. Less than 5,000 Greek warriors comprising approximately 300 Spartans, 80 Mycenaeans, 500 Tegeans, and 700 Thespians, led by Leonidas, would meet the Persians at Thermopylae. Athens put little faith into this small army and was immediately evacuated.


The average Greek soldier, known as a hoplite, carried a dory spear, a short sword, and a shield. The Spartan shield was important for the Spartan style of combat. The Spartans fought in a group, using the phalanx formation. Soldiers stood shoulder to shoulder with their shields overlapping to create an impenetrable wall. The Spartans would jab at the enemies with their seven- to eight-foot-long dory spears. Their uniform included a linen shirt with bronze armor plates covering torso, shins and feet, and shoulders. The iconic Spartan helmet was bronze with a large crest coming down the middle to the back. The helmet supplied great protection but limited the soldier’s vision.

The fighting styles of both sides contributed to the outcome of the Battle of Thermopylae. Spartans were superior in close combat. As children, they practiced an ancient Greece fighting technique consisting of boxing and sparring. The Spartan phalanx’s greatest weakness was facing an enemy with less supporting troops, when enemies with javelins and bows would wear down the hoplite phalanx. The Persian army specialized in an open fighting style. The “Immortal” troops, an elite Persian infantry unit, carried short spears, a paltron, a bow and arrows, and a dagger. Their armor consisted of a cloth cap, an unreliable woven shield, and scale plates. Unlike the hoplites, Persians clearly showed weakness in hand-to-hand-combat.

The 300

To inspire the other hoplites, King Leonidas’s 300 hand-picked Spartans led the way to Thermopylae. The Greeks arrived first at the 50-foot-wide pass, while the Persians chose to stay in a local town and waited four days there. This was perhaps a psychological ploy to make the Greek warriors nervous, but Leonidas and his warriors waited patiently for the Persian army to make the first attack. On August 17, 480 BC, the fifth day, Xerxes made his move.

Xerxes sent the Medes and Cissians for his first attack on the Greek army. They were sent with the order to take the Greeks alive, but King Leonidas resisted the army efficiently, sending many back dead. Spartans led the Greek forces, sometimes leaving the safety of the wall to fight fiercely and then retreat to draw the Persians in and ambush them. Next, Xerxes forwarded his Immortals. The Immortals, who got their name from keeping their numbers consistent after every battle, had a fearsome reputation, but they too had little success, making the first day of fighting a clear victory for the Greeks.

Battle of Thermopylae
Thermopylae, ruins of old fortifications on the Kolonos hill where the Greeks made their last stand, at the famous Battle of Thermopylae of 480 BC.

The Hidden Path

On the second day, the Persians had no more luck than the day before. The Greek resistance was growing weary, but the Persians still couldn’t make a dent in the opposing army. However, the Greeks had a weakness. There was a hidden path in the mountains of Thermopylae that could circle around to the east side of the mountain pass. If the Persians discovered this route, the army could surround and finally wipe out the Greek army. Leonidas knew of this path and dismissed the Phocian troops to defend the route. This was a difficult task because there was no natural protection.

The Persians never discovered this hidden weakness in the mountains, but a Greek traitor was willing to share the route with Xerxes. The disloyal Greek was Ephialtes, who was driven by greed to betray Leonidas and his army. After learning of the new information, Xerxes promptly sent troops up the mountain. The troops took the Phocians by surprise, and before the Greek troops could set their heads straight, the Persian army was already heading for the rest of the Greek army. When lookouts warned Leonidas of this failure, he was forced to make a fateful decision. King Leonidas sent the most of his troops away to live and fight another day, while the king’s loyal Spartans and Thespians, who considered it an honor to sacrifice themselves for the country of Greece, stayed behind to hold off the Persians long enough for the retreating troops to escape.

Battle of Thermopylae & The End

The Spartans and Thespians left the safety of their wall to fight the Persians on open ground. Xerxes gave orders to kill, but too many Persians died before King Leonidas and his soldiers were finally annihilated. The exhausted Greek warriors fought with all they had, spears, swords, and shields, and when all their weapons were no longer effective, the loyal soldiers fought with their hands and teeth. It is a wonder that the small Greek force was able to slay so many Persian troops. Various sources state that it was patriotism that drove the Greeks to fight to the very end while the Persian troops had to be forced into battle with whips. When Leonidas fell, the Persians took his head as a sign of cold insult toward the Spartans.

But the Battle of Thermopylae showed that the impossible can be done with hope and confidence. Despite the fact that King Leonidas and his 1,000 Spartan and Thespian warriors were slaughtered by the Persians, the Battle of Thermopylae was still a turning point in the Greco-Persian wars. The Spartans’ selfless sacrifice for their country inspired and gave hope to the citizens of Greece, who were awed that such a small force could trouble the mighty Persian Empire. The Battle of Thermopylae also lowered the morale of the Persian troops. Greece would later end the Greco-Persian wars by defeating the Persian navy at sea during the Battle of Salamis and retrieving what they thought was King Leonidas’s body. After the Greek victory, Greece established holidays celebrating the courage of Leonidas and his Spartans, whose heroic sacrifice made the Greek triumph over Persia possible.