13 Things You Should Know about the Battle of Thermopylae

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Battle of Thermopylae was the last stand of the Spartans in the Second Persian Invasion of Greece. It lasted for three days in 480BC. The Spartans joined 1,100 Greek warriors to defend the state. Here are some interesting facts about the Battle of Thermopylae.

1. Roots in the Ionian revolt

The Greek cities of Ionia in present day Turkey came under Persian Empire in 547BC. The Greeks of Ionia, revolted against the Persians in 499BC. Greek cities Eretria and Athens supported the revolt. They burnt down Persian temples and cities. The rebellion was ultimately crushed by the Persian Emperor Darius I. He vowed to punish those involved in the rebellion, particularly Athens, leading to the First Persian Invasion of Greece in 492BC which involved the famous Battle of Marathon. The Greeks routed the Persian army and inflicted heavy casualties.

2. The Persian Empire was the largest

Xerxes I, popularly known as Xerxes the Great, assumed the throne of Persia in 486BC. He planned a huge invasion of Greece to avenge the Persian losses in the Ionian revolt and Battle of Marathon. At that time, the Persian Empire was the biggest of all empires in ancient history. It stretched from Nile in Africa to Indus in Asia. Xerxes pooled in resources from his vast kingdom, assembled soldiers, built ships and bought supplies for the invasion.

3. The Persian army numbered in thousands

Xerxes decided to bridge the narrow and natural Hellespont strait to shorten the distance to Europe. The result was a stunning floating bridge which was an engineering marvel in those days. The Persian army crossed the pontoon and entered Europe in 480BC. While ancient historians pegged the Persian army strength in millions, according to modern estimates, the number was between 70,000 to 300,000. The land army was escorted by more than 1,000 warships to the battle of Thermopylae. It was one of the most sophisticated and largest armies ever assembled for invasion in the ancient world.

4. Themistocles planned the Greek defense

Greece, before the battle of Thermopylae, was a collection of small provinces that constantly fought each other to stamp regional supremacy. The two largest, Sparta and Athens, were sworn rivals. But all the Greek states forged an alliance to defend their land against the Persians. This was quite remarkable given the fierce enmity between the states. Themistocles, the Athenian military general, took charge of planning the Greek defense against the advancing Persians.

5. Selecting Thermopylae was a strategic decision

The Greeks chose the narrow Thermopylae pass to negate the numerical advantage of Persians. The pass is believed to have been only 200 yards at its widest. The Persians could only enter in small numbers that was manageable to be challenged by the small Greek army. Besides, the Persian cavalry would have been rendered useless in the narrow pass. Themistocles knew that the Persian navy may sneak in via the Straits of Artemisium and surround the Greek infantry from behind. He stationed an allied navy unit at the mouth of the strait.

6. Leonidas led the Greeks

Carneia, a Spartan festival, was being celebrated during the Persian invasion. Spartans were barred from any military activity during the celebrations. According to some ancient accounts, Spartan king Leonidas consulted the Oracle of Delphi who gave him nod to go for the battle. Leonidas selected 300 Spartan men with living sons to ensure their bloodline continued even if they didn’t return from the battlefield. His army was reinforced by various Greek contingents and numbered at least 7,000 when he reached Thermopylae.

7. No Persian headway

The Persians failed to make any headway in the first two days of the Battle of Thermopylae. They attacked the Greeks with 10,000 strong contingents, including the crack force known as Immortals. Even in the Battle of Artemision, more than 1,000 Persian warships failed to break the defense of the modest 200 Greek fleet, in a bid to surround the latter’s land army. Around 200 Persian warships were dispatched to reach the Greek land army through an alternative, longer route. But the entire fleet was drowned in a night storm.

8. The famous Phalanx formation

The Greeks deployed their famous Phalanx formation in the Battle of Thermopylae. Men formed walls of overlapping shields in this formation with spears protruding from the sides. The Greek Hoplon shield was stronger and heavier than their opponents, lending them a major advantage. Dory, the long spears, enabled them to attack their enemies from a distance and with greater force. The sturdier lamellar armor of the Greeks thwarted Persian spears and arrows. The latter wore light armor for better fighting capability on the open Asian plains.

9. Spartan techniques

The Spartans, among most of the Greeks, were the most equipped in tactical warfare. Theirs was what can be termed as a professional military unit during those times. They not only held their position in the battle of Thermopylae, but also held forte in the final battle of Plataea in 480BC, which was the last faceoff in the second Persian invasion of Greece. The Spartans not only held their positions, but also coordinated retreats to draw the Persians into more hostile terrains that finally led to their defeat in the battle of Plataea. The defeated Persians left Greece soon after.

10. Preparing for the last stand

Unlike popular belief, Leonidas did not organize the last stand with just 300 Spartans. They were aided by 30 helots, along with 400 Thebans and 700 Thespians. The Thebans, according to Greek historian Herodotus were probably held against their will. Leonidas ordered his rear-guard to move to a broader area instead of the narrow pass because their previous position was now vulnerable to the advancing Immortals who were coming from behind. The Hoplites made their typical slow move with shield-walls, singing hymns of ritual sacrifices.

11. The last stand

Xerxes, after losing thousands in the first two days, struck a fortune when Ephilates, a Greek defector, told him about a mountain pass that could lead his men to surround the Greeks from behind. Ephiltaes hoped to earn a reward from the Persians. Leonidas had 1,000 Phocians guarding the pass but the bulk was withdrawn in favor of defending Phocis. Only the Spartans, Thebans, and Thespians, numbering about 1,400 were left to guard the Thermopylae pass.

12. But the Persians couldn’t conquer Greece

With the Persian army surrounding the Greeks, the Phalanx was broken. In the open battle that followed, the Greeks fought till the last man. Leonidas died in fighting. While Persians were known to treat valiant opponent warriors with great honor, Xerxes was outraged with his losses and crucified Leonidas after cutting off his head. He burnt the Greek cities but most people were evacuated by then. But in late 480BC, the Persians were routed in the Battle of Salamis and finally in Battle of Plataea a year later.

13. 300 (2006 film) inaccuracies

Regardless of its box office success, 300 used accounts of ancient Greek historians that are largely considered inaccurate by modern researchers. But film critics claim the inaccuracies to be a part of cinematic liberty to entertain the audience. Scholars slammed the film for its biased portrayal of a rational and democratic West and an evil and tyrannical East. The film, however, was mainly a ferocious retelling of the battle of Thermopylae rather than a historical account of the war.

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