The Battle of Thermopylae, 480 BC: The Gathering of Armies

The Battle of Thermopylae, 480 BC

Part 1: The Gathering of the Armies

by Ludwig Heinrich Dyck

"Xerxes Image" by Flickr user dynamosquito - Cropped from Flickr version: Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons -
“King Xerxes” by Flickr user dynamosquito –  Public Domain via Commons, wikimedia

What nation of Asia, did not Xerxes lead against Hellas?-Herodotus

On the Doricus,1 the vast Thracian plain and beach on the Aegean coast, rose a stronghold. From its parapets, the 38-year-old Xerxes (r. BC 485-465), the Persian “King of Kings,’ beheld an ocean of humanity assembled from 46 different peoples on the plain below.

Rows of blue-black bearded Assyrians stood adorned in brass helmets, wearing linen cuirasses and wielding iron knotted clubs, lances, and daggers. Bactrian archers with bows of cane stood beside squat Scythians in trousers and pointed hats, armed with deadly composite bows and “sagaris” battle-axes.  There were dusky Indian charioteers in cotton, Caspians in goatskin, Colchians behind shields of cow skin, and Saragian horsemen with lassos. The brightly adorned Thracians wore fox skin caps on their heads. Long ‘zeira’ robes shrouded Arabian archers on camels. Wildest of all were the ebony Ethiopians, whose straight, black hair fell from beneath headdresses of horses’ scalps, ears and manes. In contrast, those of western Ethiopia were curly haired. They draped themselves in leopard and lion skins and carried reed arrows tipped with sharpened stones like those of an earlier age. Their six foot bows  were made from the stems of palm leaves and their spearheads were of antelope horn.

Persian, Mede, and Kissian infantry and cavalry provided the back bone of Xerxes’ army. Their officers and nobles glittered all over in golden adornments. Litters bearing concubines, throngs of servants and beasts of burden followed in their wake. Garlands ringed the heads of the “Immortals,” Xerxes’ elite troops, so named because they eternally numbered 10,000; their ranks quickly refilled if any of them perished.

If Xerxes looked from the plain to the sea, he could see that beyond his citadel the coastline gave way to a beach that wound past Sale, the city of the Samothracians, all the way to the Serrheum promontory. Along the beach was arrayed Xerxes’ massive armada of Egyptian, Phoenician, Cypriot, Cilician, Pamphylian, Lycian, Caranin, and subject Greek ships that always accompanied his land army. There were warships and smaller ships, each with a crew of 80-200 men who were as diversely equipped as the land army. Some of the ships were hauled ashore for refitting.

"Map Greco-Persian Wars-en" by User:Bibi Saint-Pol - Own work. Data from Image:Perserkriege.jpg by Captain Blood, which uses the dtv-Atlas Weltgeschichte. Von den Anfängen bis zur Gegenwart, p. 56. Blank map from Image:Map greek sanctuaries-fr.svg.. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons -
“Map Greco-Persian Wars” by User:Bibi Saint-Pol – Own work. via Commons – wikimedia.

Altogether, Herodotus, the principal source for the period, claimed that Xerxes commanded some 1,700,000 infantry, 80,000 cavalry and that his whole host, including ship crews, servants, and camp followers, numbered over five million, with 1,207 warships and 3,000 smaller vessels. Logistically this number is of course, completely impossible, a product of Greek propaganda. Modern estimates range widely but it is reasonable to assume that there were over  150,000 soldiers and marines and about 800 triremes. Nevertheless, it was the greatest military and political might the ancient world had ever seen, an army that had taken four years to marshal. Every nation and every tribe of an empire at its zenith had been required to send warriors led by their own kings and princes.

Woe to those that failed to bow to the will of Xerxes, for the Great King’s wrath was as terrible as his might. In the autumn of BC 481, the previous year, Pythius, the richest man in the Persian Empire, entertained the King and his whole army. Xerxes was so pleased that he bestowed upon Pythius 7,000 darics, so that the latter’s wealth would amount to a full four million. The following spring, in the light of Xerxes’ generous gesture, Pythius dared ask for his eldest son to be spared from the coming war against the Greeks. Furious at the audacity of a mere “slave,” Xerxes ordered  Pythius’s son to be cut into two pieces. The “pieces” were displayed  on either side of the gate of Sardis, in full sight of Xerxes’s army setting forth of their march to the Hellespont strait (the Dardanelles). According to legend, the sun darkened with the army’s passing.

Not even the elements were safe from Xerxes’ anger. A tempest destroyed two gargantuan bridges that his Egyptian and Phoenician engineers had thrown across the narrow Hellespont. The engineers paid for their ill luck with their heads. On Xerxes’ order the Hellespont itself was punished by 300 lashes accompanied by the exclamation, ” O bitter water, our lord lays his punishment upon you, for having done him wrong, who never did wrong to you. King Xerxes will cross you, whether you will or not.”²

"Xerxes lash sea" by taken from a 1909 print. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons -
“Xerxes lashes the sea”  1909 print. Public Domain via Commons – wikimedia

It seemed that even the waters of the Hellespont acknowledged the will of Xerxes. Under the direction of a Greek engineer, two lines of over 300 ships each were moored over the strait to provide the foundation of two new bridges, complete with brushwood, wood and earth and side palisades. From an ivory throne, Xerxes watched for two days as his army crossed from Asia Minor into Greece. Supposedly, a wide-eyed local man exclaimed, “Why O Zeus, do you, in the likeness of a Persian man, and with the name of Xerxes instead of your own, lead the whole race of mankind to the destruction of Greece?”³

"Crossing the Hellespond" The Story of the Greeks, H. A. Guerber, Heritage History
“Crossing the Hellespond” The Story of the Greeks, H. A. Guerber, Heritage History

The answer, in part, lay 10 years in the past, when Xerxes’ late father, King Darius, came to Greece to punish Athens for aiding rebellious Greek cities in Asia Minor. At Marathon, however, Athens humbled Darius’ army. Although it went against Xerxes’ own initial judgement, his warmongering cousin Mardonius, the conqueror of Thrace and Macedonia, prodded him to avenge his father’s humiliation and to extend his sway into Greek Europe.

Mardonius’s council bore fruit when Xerxes, a devout Zoroastrian, experienced a series of visions, including a godly identity telling him to make war on Greece. In another, Xerxes was crowned with an olive branch. Boughs spread out from the branch and covered the whole earth; then suddenly the garland, as it lay upon his brow, vanished.

The end of the dream implies that, at a time when Xerxes’ complete victory appeared certain, he would abruptly lose it all. The dreams are fanciful reading but, like many other anecdotes could be an invention of Herodotus to enliven his story. On the other hand, the ancient world was ripe with superstitions, oracles, and soothsayers, so Xerxes might well have been so inspired.

Xerxes became convinced that it was his divine right to conquer the world. Inscribed at Persepolis were the words: “A great god is Ahuramazda, who created this earth, who created man, who created peace for man; who made Xerxes king, one king of many, one lord of many.” Another of Xerxes’ inscriptions relates, “All I did, I did with the will of Ahuramazda.”4

Ancient Greece at the time of the battle of Thermopylae, Military Heritage Magazine Oct. 2003
Ancient Greece at the time of Xerxe’s invasion, Military Heritage Magazine Oct. 2003

Xerxes was not the only one who invoked supernatural aid. Within the temple of the god Apollo at Delphi, the Pythia, the priestess of the most famed oracle in all of Greece, sat upon a tripod. Beside her grew a laurel tree, sacred to Apollo. Below her yawned a symbolic chasm. Chewing a laurel leaf, the Pythia drifted into a trance; her utterings recorded by priests in prose or verse. After she was done they informed a Spartan delegation awaiting her prophecy in an outer chamber.

“Oh! Ye men who dwell in the streets of broad Lacedaemon, 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. He cannot be withstood by the courage of bulls or lions, Strive as they may; he is mighty as Zeus; there is naught that shall stay him, Till he have got for his prey your king, or your glorious city.”5

"Eugène Delacroix - Lycurgus Consulting the Pythia - Google Art Project" by Eugène Delacroix - CwGK1__DtsYMAA at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level maximum. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons -
“Eugène Delacroix – Lycurgus Consulting the Pythia – Public Domain via Commons – wikimedia.

Sparta, also known as Lacedaemon, was the chief city of Laconia, the southernmost region of Greece’s prominent  Peloponnesus peninsula. The Isthmus of Corinth connected the Peloponnesus to the eastern mainland. Just on the other side rose Athens.

Sparta and Athens were the only two Greek city-states that did not receive Persian heralds demanding earth and water, the symbolic tokens of submission. They would not have given them anyway, for the Greeks could not and would never accept “one king of many,” not even from their own people, much less from the Persians whom they considered to be a race of “barbarians.”

The first seeds of Panhellenism germinated during the previous Persian invasion. Under the leadership of Sparta and Athens, they blossomed into the Synedrion of Probuloi or the Congress of Representatives, held at the Isthmus of Corinth in the autumn of 481. Longstanding feuds between Greek city-states were buried as delegates from 31 city-states met to forge a Panhellenic policy against the Persian invader.

The congress was under the presidency of Sparta, already a leader of a large number of Peloponnesian cities. Furthermore, it was to the dual monarch of Sparta that the leadership of both the army and navy was nearly unanimously entrusted. The only major opposition came from Athens. Unlike Sparta, which was primarily a land-based power, Athens easily boasted the largest navy within the confederation and naturally wished to command this combat arm. However, when petty jealously of the Athenian democracy threatened disunity, Athens graciously relinquished her claim.

The leader of the army would be Leonidas, one of the dual Spartan kings, who traced his lineage back to Heracles. Eurybiadas, a Spartan who curiously was not a member of either of the royal families, presided over the navy.

Not all the Greek states joined the confederation. Absent were Argos, Sparta’s old rival, and the isolated island cities of Crete, Corcyra, and Syracuse. Also abstaining was the wild northeastern region of Thessaly and a number of smaller northern states to her south.  Since Xerxes would march west from  Thrace and then through his vassal kingdom of Macedon, Thessaly would be the first free Greek realm to feel the tramp of the Persian colossus. With no concrete help forthcoming from the southern Greeks, and many of her hill tribes won over Persian agents, Thessaly could not afford to incur the Great King’s wrath by openly supporting the Greek confederation.

The Greeks probably realized from the beginning that the chances of defeating the Persians in an open land battle were slim. There was not only the matter of greater Persian numbers, but the excellent Persian cavalry could easily outflank the Greek hoplite heavy infantry. The only formidable Greek cavalry was that of Thessaly, but the confederation had abandoned Thessaly. Besides, the Persian horsemen out-matched the Thessalian cavalry.

Because the Greek navy enjoyed at least a qualitative advantage, the only hope was a decisive sea battle. So the Greek plan developed that a crack corps of hoplites would hold the pass of Thermopylae, the gateway to central and southern Greece. Their mission would be to forestall the Persian land advance long enough for the Persian navy to attempt an outflanking maneuver in the adjacent Euboean channel. Blocking them at the mouth of the channel, in the Malian Gulf, would be the Greek navy.

It was Athens that pushed for this strategy because she did not wish to see the Persian army pour into central Greece and up to the gates of her city. Sparta, on the other hand, was to introverted to look beyond the defense of her own peninsula. She preferred to stand on the Isthmus of Corinth with the Greek navy stationed in the adjacent straits of Salamis. But because Sparta depended on the help of the Athenian navy, she reluctantly agreed on the defense of Thermopylae.

Sparta’s hesitation was reflected in her committing a mere 300 of her several thousand “Spartiatai” hoplites to Thermopylae’s defense. They were  likely accompanied by an additional 900 lighter-armed “helot” hoplites. The difference between the Spartiatai and the helot was that the Spartiatai was the military ruling class of Sparta, descended from Dorian conquerors, while the helot was the more numerous indigenous, bottom-cast farmer-serfs. Although the helots provided a handy base for additional recruits, they constantly threatened to revolt against their brutal oppression and provided another reason as to why Sparta could ill afford to empty her city of all its Spartiatai hoplites.

"Market place of Sparta" E.M. Tappan, The Story of the Greek People, Heritage History
“Market place of Sparta” E.M. Tappan, The Story of the Greek People, Heritage History

Sparta, of course, admitted neither her self-centered view nor her internal problems. She officially blamed the current Feasts of the Carnean Apollo (apparently a winter Spartan celebration ending as the full moon waned) and the Olympics on her lack of available soldiers. There festivals, however, did not curtail the actions of the allied fleet; on the other hand, it would be quality and not quantity that mattered, and of the bravery of the bodyguards of King Leonidas, there was no question.

"A Creek Soldier going off to war" E. M. Tappan, Heritage History
“A Creek Soldier going off to war” E. M. Tappan, The Story of the Greek People,  Heritage History

In Arcadia, the mountainous region of the inner Peloponnesus, Leonidas mustered a further 2,100 soldiers. Another 400 men joined him from Corinth, 200 from Phleious, and 80 from Mykenai. With 4,000 or so hoplites from the Peloponnesus, Leonidas crossed to mainland Greece, marching past farmhouses, orchards, vineyards, and field stone walls.  Seven hundred Thespians, 1,000 Phocians, 400 Thebans, and a small number of Locrians rallied to Leonidas’ side. By the time he got to Thermopylae in the summer of BC 480, Leonidas commanded about 7,000 troops. There were no Athenians among them. They received a Delphi prophecy of their own, advising them to seek safety behind a “wooden wall,” interpreted as the hull of their ships by the Athenian naval proponent, Strategos (General) Themistocles. Themistocles convinced all but a handful of Athenians to concentrate their manpower on their navy.

Thermopylae literally means the “gates of heat,” being named after local hot sulfur springs. Here the coastal road wound along the northern slope of Mount Kallidromus. To the west, the pass led past the famous shrine of the fertility goddess Demeter at the village of Anthela, and beyond that the road crossed the Asopus River. To the east was the Locrian village of Alpenoi.

The western, middle, and eastern parts of the pass were very narrow, a mere 50 feet wide in some parts. In the middle there remained the ruins of a wall, built by the Phocians to keep guard against Thessaly, which Leonidas forthwith repaired. The only way to circumvent the pass was a small, steep trail called the Anopaea, the guarding of which was assumed by the 1,000 Phocians. Because Xerxes was still in Thessaly, Leonidas had time to lead a night raid into the Malian plain to the northeast. Flaming farmsteads lit up the dark. Leonidas’s warriors took what food and cattle they needed and destroyed the rest to deny it to the coming enemy.

Meanwhile, the Greek navy of 271 triremes and nine penteconters took position near Artemisium on the northern tip of Euboea Island at the mouth of the Malian Gulf. An additional 53 ships remained near the southern of Euboea to prevent the Persians from slipping around and cutting off any chance of retreat for the Greek main fleet.

In mid-August the Persian army arrived in the Malian valley. Out at sea the Persian fleet sailed down Thessaly’s rugged coast and destroyed two out of three Greek reconnaissance ships. But soon after, fortune played into the hands of the Greeks. Lack of suitable coastline forced the bulk of the Persian fleet to anchor offshore. The night was calm, but soon after dawn the waters rippled in anticipation  of a tempest that thundered down from the east as if driven by the anger of a god. The Persians frantically pulled what ships they could onto the shore, but for many others there was no escape. Frothing waters dashed ships to pieces along the rocky shoreline and dragged crews beneath the waves. For three long days the sea raged while Xerxes’s mystic Magians attempted to appease the winds, the sea god Thetis, and the sea nymph Nereids with sacrifices. On the fourth day their efforts appeared to lull the storm.

When Euboean scouts reported to their countrymen of the Persian fleet’s disaster, the Euboeans hailed the great sea god Poseidon as their savior and poured libations in his honor. The Athenians for their part claimed that Boreas, the god of the north wind, had come to their aid. The lucky incident somewhat revived the morale of the Greek navy. Faced with the sheer might of the the Persian navy and the initial loss of the Greek reconnaissance ships, many Greeks had been ready to withdraw.

Indeed, even with their losses to the storm, the Persians still had many more ships than the Greeks. The Persian fleet probed farther around Euboea’s northern tip, deploying at Aphetae on the opposite shore. Two hundred Phoenician ships detached themselves to sail along the open ocean coast of Euboea and round its southern cape, to bottle up the Greek fleet in the Malian Gulf.

"The Battle of Thermopylae" by L.H. Dyck was originally published as "Defending the Pass" in Military Heritage Magazine October 2003.
“The Battle of Thermopylae” by L.H. Dyck was originally published as “Defending the Pass” in Military Heritage Magazine October 2003.

1The Doricus is the flood plain of the Hebrus (Maritsa River), ² J.B. Bury and Russel Meiggs, A History of Greece (London: MacMillan Education.1987), p. 168, ³ Herodotus, translated by George Rawlinson, in The Greek Historians. G. Francis, R.B. Editor (New York: Random House. 1942)p. 411, 4 Ernle Bradford, Thermopylae: The Battle for the West (Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 1980), p. 23, 5Herodotus, p. 462.

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