The Battle of Thermopylae, 480 BC: Defending the Pass

The Battle of Thermopylae, 480 BC

Part 2: Defending the Pass

“Have a good breakfast, men, for we dine in Hades,” King Leonidas to his Spartan bodyguard

by Ludwig Heinrich Dyck

Urged on by Themistocles, the confederate fleet chanced an engagement with the Persians in the afternoon of August 18. The massive Greek ships initially sank a number of Persian ships, which set forth from their harbors piecemeal. More and more Persian ships threatened to encircle the Greeks who slashed back from a kuklos-a defensive formation of Greek ships facing bow outward, stern inward, like the spokes of a wheel. When darkness fell the Greeks withdrew, having captured 30 ships.

"Trireme" by F. Mitchell, Department of History, United States Military Academy - Licensed under Public Domain via Commons -
“Trireme” by F. Mitchell, Department of History, United States Military Academy – Licensed under Public Domain via Commons -wikimedia

Some days earlier, Leonidas took position at the repaired Phocian wall. Below to the west, on the Malian plain awaited the Persian multitude. Xerxes knew that despite the pitiful numbers of Greeks, it would not be easy to take the narrow pass. He chose to wait, the mere sight of his mighty host would cause the Greeks to loose heart!

"Illustrerad Verldshistoria band I Ill 116" by Ernst Wallis et al - own scan. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons -
“Herm of Themistocles” Illustrerad Verldshistoria  by Ernst Wallis et al -Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – wikimedia

Indeed, fear took hold of many of the Greeks who watched Xerxes’ multitude in awe. How could a handful of mere mortals face the fury of such an army? Most of the Peloponnesians called for a retreat back to the Isthmus. Such words roused anger in the hearts of the Locrians and Phocians. They had marshaled every fighting man they could but without the Peloponnesians they had no chance. Their lands would be forfeited to Xerxes. Struck by the Lorcian and Phocians’ predicament, Leonidas decided to continue the defense and sent envoys for further help.

Map Courtesy of the Department of History, United States Military Academy.
“The Battle of Thermopylae,” Map Courtesy of the Department of History, United States Military Academy.

Xerxes wished to know what was going on and sent a rider up the pass. When the mounted scout reined in his steed some distance from the Phocian wall, he witnessed a strange sight. The Spartans held vigil in front of the wall and were apparently oblivious to his presence. Some were engrossed in gymnastics while others combed their long oily hair, hair that was the privilege of veterans.

When the scout reported back to Xerxes, the Great King at first laughed about the antics of the Greeks! He called upon Demaratus, a dethroned Spartan king that had fled to the Persians in the time of Darius. A somber Demaratus related about his countrymen in the pass, “it is their custom, when they are about to hazard their lives, to adorn their heads with care. Be assured, however, that if you can subdue the men who are here and the Lacedaemonians, there is no other nation in all the world which will venture to lift a hand in their defense.”¹

Xerxes’ brooded: How could so few warriors contend the pass? Why were they not fleeing? Four days Xerxes waited, but the stubborn Greeks refused to budge. But how could Xerxes understand the true nature of the Spartans, who were martial anomalies even within the warlike Greek culture-Spartans, whose struggle in life began at birth when only the fit were allowed the gift of life while the weak were exposed in the wilderness or cast down a cliff; Spartans, who raised by a slave nurse, were taught not to fear darkness or solitude. Torn from their mothers at seven or eight years old, they henceforth devoted their whole life to the state. Although they could marry, they could not farm, nor craft, nor trade, nor own gold or silver. For them there was only constant drill, athletics and training, and a life devoid of any comforts. Their rations were so meager that they were encouraged to steal. If caught they were beaten, not for stealing but for being caught! They existed solely for Sparta, to crush her enemies and reduce the conquered to helots.

"Leonidas I of Sparta" by Praxinoa. Licensed under Commons-Wikimedia
“Leonidas I of Sparta” by Praxinoa. Licensed under Commons-Wikimedia

In light of his army’s size and of the prior raiding carried out by Leonidas, Xerxes found the mountains of salted meats and grains consumed by his army running low. Supply dumps had been set up but both the army and navy depended heavily on a fleet of supply ships. However, many of the supply ships succumbed to the storm while the Greek navy blocked those that remained. Like a plague of locusts, the Persian army needed to move and pillage to survive. On the fifth day, August 18th, the day of the naval battle at Aphetae, Xerxes’ patience ran out. He would teach those foolish Spartans a lesson!

For the first assault Xerxes chose his Medes and Kissians from central Persia. Likely Xerxes begrudged the Medes’ former lordship over the Persians and thus cared not if they perished. Foolishly, he even ordered them to capture the defenders alive.

Led by Tigranes the Achaemenid, the Medes marched at the front of the column while the Kissians brought up the rear. The pass became ever more narrow. On their left, the banks dropped to the sparkling blue waters of the Malian Gulf, while to their right, tall bushes sprawled up the towering slopes of Mt. Kallidromus. The going was hard, the parched ground cracked in the merciless heat of the Greek summer.

Tigranes and his men paused. Ahead a solid wall of bronze, shinning fiery red in the sun and bristling with huge spears, blocked the pass. The Spartans wore bell corselets (the thôrax) of polished bronze. Bronze greaves protected their shins. Cloaks, dyed red to mask the blood, draped from their shoulders.

As superb as the hoplite’s body armor was, his principle protection was a huge, three- or  four feet wide, round shield. It was so indispensable to the Greek phalanx that its depth was usually referred to by the number of shields, instead of the number of spears or warriors. Made of oak but covered in bronze, the hoplite shield was held by a handgrip and strapped to the left arm to distribute the weight. Even then, weighing in at 20 pounds, it got so heavy that its upper rim was often rested upon the shoulder. The shield protected the hoplite’s left side and the right side of his neighbor. Upon it was emblazoned the Greek letter for L, for Lacedaemon, the mere recognition of which could cause foes to run in fear.

But the Greek “L” did not intimidate the Medes, who like the Persians were tough, professional soldiers. They would not let Xerxe’s personal feelings get in their way or heed his “capture alive” order. Still, Tigranes must have cursed. If only he could outflank the Greeks and with arrows pepper the vulnerable right side of the hoplite phalanx, the side not guarded with shields. But to the pass was too narrow; his men would have to fight on the Spartans’ terms!

Although Herodotus makes no mention of it, the Medes probably tried to “soften” the Spartan phalanx with missile fire. Typically, eastern archers fired from behind the protection of shields set into the ground. Composite bows twanged and arrows whistled through the air. But precious few bronze arrowheads penetrated flesh as most thudded harmlessly into the great shields or were deflected by nearly invulnerable ¼-inch-thick bronze breastplates.

The proud Medes gritted their teeth, grasped the shafts of their short spears and hurled themselves at their foes. Iron Greek spear points penetrated Medish mail, shattered wicker shields, and shred through the Medes’ charge like sharp rocks tear asunder an angry wave. Although crack Mede and Persian troopers sported bronze or iron domed-shaped helmets and tunics of bronze “fish-scales,” their armor was inferior to that of the Greeks. The rank and file had no body armor whatsoever, with naught on their heads but soft hat or a piece of cloth to shade them from the sun.

More than that, eastern tactics relied on the fluid maneuver of the cavalry, the marksmanship of the archer, and the fighting power of the individual. On the open plain such tactics could pay dividends, but not at Thermopylae, which was tailor made for hoplite shock tactics.

Unlike the Middle Eastern troops, the Greeks fought as a tight unit. Soldiers served their entire career in platoons of two dozen, know as “sworn bands.” Members were not only friends but often lovers as well and to a Greek, nothing seemed nobler than to die for one’s lover.

The bravest hoplites fought at the front, their comrades forming eight or more ranks behind them. Deep ranks buffed staying power as they prevented those in the combat zone from fleeing. The Spartan poet Tyrtaeus captures the spirit of the Spartan tactics: “Standing foot to foot, shield pressed on shield, crest to crest and helmet to helmet, chest to chest engage your man, grasping your sword hilt or long spear.”²

In the heat and chaos of combat, the rows and files intermingled. Cohesion was maintained through the melodies of accompanying flutists. The high-pitched tones resounded even within the enclosed Corinthian helmets. Lighter armed helot servants farther to the rear aided their injured masters and dispatched enemy wounded. Wounded hoplites that managed to stagger out of the fray were the lucky ones. Those that went down amid the chaos were doomed. Weighed down by their excessive armor, trampled by friend or foe, blood loss and shock meant death within minutes.

Stabbing with spears, pushing with shields, their peripheral vision cut off and sound muffled by their helmets whilst bearing the burden of 50-70 pounds of sun baked, bronze, iron and wood hopla (combat gear), strained even the Spartans to their limits. Their combat feats are even more astounding considering that based on skeletal evidence, the average hoplite stood 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighed 140 pounds.

Image Credit: Peter Dennis

Whenever there was a break in the fighting, the Greeks took the opportunity to usher in rested troops and put the weary ones into reserve. In such a way, they fought in detachments drawn up according to their cities, though always under Spartan leadership. The only ones that did not fight during the day and the next were the Phocians who remained guarding the Anopaea trail.

Still, on came the Medes, the living stomping the bodies of the slain, till they too joined them in death. Finally, the exhausted survivors limped back down to the plain in defeat. The Kissians had no more luck if they fought at all, for Herodotus does not mention them in combat.

With the failure of his first assault, Xerxes ordered forth his crack Immortals under their leader Hydarnes. They marched forth in false confidence. The Immortals may have been the best trained and armored of the Persians but they still could not match the hoplites in close combat.

The Immortals presumably drenched the Spartans with sustained volleys of arrows and javelins until suddenly the Greek line cracked. With shouts of panic, the hoplites turned their backs and fled! Letting loose a cry for vengeance the Immortals bolted after them. But the fleeing Greeks maintained their order. With a change in their flutists’ tune the hoplites wheeled about as one, their spears shearing the strung-out Persian pursuers to pieces.

By nightfall, the Greeks watched their enemy depart. Even the Immortals had to admit they had met their match. Here and there a Greek too lay slain. Persian spears had gashed into unprotected throats, thighs and groins. The casualties were highest among the non-Spartans many of whom were in leather armor or Persian style composite scale mail. But the Greek losses were nothing compared to the crimson heaps of the enemy that sprawled across the path. Xerxes thrice “leaped from the throne on which he sat, in terror for his army.”³

It was time for the Greeks to tend wounds, eat and rest, recuperate their sore muscles, and to gain back their spent strength. Although triumphant, not one of them was under the illusion that it was over.

At night the Greek watchmen drew their cloaks about them as the wind picked up and turned into a torrential downpour. Towards the north thunder and lighting cracked upon the crags of Mt. Pelion. Out at sea, the storm whipped the waters into frenzy. It caught the 200 Phoenician ships just as they skirted the southern tip of Euboea through a perilous coastline known as the Hollows. Only little farther and they could have reached the safer waters of the Euboean channel. Instead the Phoecian ships were wrecked upon the rocks.

With dawn the sun returned, its rays basking the Persian army as Xerxes drew up fresh contingents of regular Persian troops. He promised them lavish rewards in return for victory and terrible punishments in face of defeat. The Persian trooper stared in dismay upon the indomitable hoplites and the swaths of mangled Mede, Kissian and Immortal corpses, the latter’s colorful patterned outfits streaked in blood. The Persians had no stomach for a futile fight. Xerxes did not care. The overseers’ whips cracked and drove the Persians onto the Greek pikemen and into their death.

"Helmed Hoplite Sparta" by de:Benutzer:Ticinese - First uploaded on Wikipedia de: (14. Jun 2004 19:06), own picture. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons -
“Helmed Hoplite Sparta” by de:Benutzer:Ticinese – Licensed via Commons – wikimedia

With the second day no better than the first, Xerxes’s ire increasingly turned to desperation. Certainly there were other ways to get over the mountains but they would take too long. His scouts quiet possibly even found the western trailhead of the Anopaea but had no idea where it led. Fortune finally smiled upon Xerxes when a local Malian Greek named Epialtes offered to guide the Persians along the Anopaea to a point behind the defenders of Thermopylae.

The night before the full moon that Sparta linked to the Carnean festival, Epialtes led Hydarnes and his Immortals across the Asopus River gorge and between the two ridges of Mount Kallidromus. Their armor shone softly in the moonlight as the Immortals picked their way around thorny shrubs and through oak woods. Although the climb was tough and steep at first, there was no slack in the Immortals’ pace. They were trained in mountain country and were driven by their desire to get even with the troublesome Greeks.

Dawn found the Immortals cresting a plateau along which the trail snaked eastward. Somewhere ahead lay the Phocians who where supposed to be guarding the trail. Instead, the whole lot of them were asleep and without their armor. Despite the fighting in the pass below, they had not bothered to post guards. A few of them were suddenly given a rude awakening by the rustling of leaves. Sleepy-eyed Phocians stared in disbelief at the long line of Persians swishing through oak leaves that carpeted the trail.

Initially startled at the sight of the shouting and panicked Phocians, Hydarnes quickly recovered and called up his archers who drew back bowstrings and let arrows rip. The Phocians did not even put up a semblance of a fight but high tailed it farther up the mountainside, presumptuously considering that they themselves were the main objective of the attack. The contemptuous Immortals marched past them. The victory boosted their morale while the presence of the Phocians confirmed that they were on the right trail.

Back at Thermopylae, the seer Megistias examined the innards of his sacrificial animal. To Megistias they foreshadowed death at dawn. It was still dark when deserters drifted in, telling the Greeks that the Persians were on the Anopaea. Before dawn scouts confirmed the ominous prophecy and the deserters’ rumors.

The Greeks at once held a heated council of war. The Spartans, Thebans and Thespians decided to remain in the pass while the other Greeks pulled back eastward and eventually returned to their homelands. The 300 Spartans and 900 helots would hold Thermoplyae against the entire Persian army while the 1100 remaining Thebans and Thespians would guard the Spartans’ rear against Hydarnes’ approaching Immortals.

The reasoning behind the results of the defender’s last war council has been a matter of much speculation. For Leonidas and the Spartans, their code of honor dictated that they should fulfill their duty till the end. Outflanked, their death was ascertained. The strategic objective of holding the pass and forcing the Persians into a decisive sea battle in the adjacent Malian Gulf was lost. All that Leonidas could do now was to delay the Persians long enough for his less courageous Greek allies to make good their escape. If he failed the fleeter Persian cavalry would catch up with and cut down the fleeing Greeks in the open. Leonidas may have even ordered the other Greeks to retreat.

Another possibility, suggested by the historians Bury and Meiggs, is that the retreating Greeks initially planned to fall back to the eastern juncture of the path and the high trail and catch the Immortals in the rear. If so, they were vanquished by the Immortals.

With the sunrise of the third day of the battle, Leonidas watched his faithful Spartan bodyguards eat their morning meal and comb their hair. “Have a good breakfast, men, for we dine in Hades,”4 he told them. They donned their fierce Corinthian helmets and strapped on their great shields. For the last time they followed their king to Thermopylae’s western narrows.

"Jacques-Louis David Thermopylae" by Jacques-Louis David - Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - wikimedia
“Jacques-Louis David Thermopylae” by Jacques-Louis David – Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – wikimedia

In the valley below, Xerxes poured a libation to Ahuramazda. Once more his soldiers hiked up to the defile, heartened by the hope that soon the Immortals would fall on the rear of their obstinate enemy.

As Leonidas watched them approach, the prophecy of Delphi ran through his mind. “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.”5

He now understood that he was that king. But he and his warriors would go out in a blaze of glory! Leonidas marched his men out of the defile, to take the fight to the enemy.

There rang the clamor of crashing spears, the shredding of shields, the cries of battle and the crying of the wounded. Heedless of their own lives, the Spartans ploughed into the Persian masses, driving many into the sea where they drowned beneath the waves. Their spears shivered, the Spartans drew short inward curved, cleaver-like blades and hewed into their foes.

Two brothers of Xerxes fell that morning. Leonidas too perished after taking a bloody toll of his foes. A battle of Homeric proportions raged over his body. Four times the two sides pressed each other back and forth. When at last the Spartans recovered Leonidas’ body, a shout broke out to the rear…here come the Immortals! Forthwith the Spartans fought their way back into the defile and behind the wall. Upon a hillock they joined the Thespians and prepared for the end.

Scene from the movie “300,”note the lack of body armor.

The Thebans, on the other hand, so Herodotus tells us, threw their arms aside and came forward with their hands outstretched in surrender. Though some were killed in the heat of the moment, the majority were taken prisoner and branded with Xerxes’ mark as a sign of distinction. Historians, however, have pondered if the Thebans’ act of cowardice is justified, a result of Herodotus’ pro-Athenian (who traditionally were anti-Theban) leanings or of Thebes’ subsequent submission to Persia.

Xerxes’ men pressed forward, demolishing part of the wall. Joined by the Immortals, the Persian juggernaut flung itself at the last bastion of the sons of Hellas. Their weapons shattered, the Greeks fought on with hands and teeth. Even in their death throws, they were as dangerous as wounded lions.

At last, the Persians called back their men and formed up ranks upon ranks of archers. One Spartan named Dienekes replied to the remark that the Persian arrows would darken the sun, “excellent tidings…we shall have our fight in the shade.”6 Volley after volley showered upon the Greeks, the sharp arrowheads punctured ragged armor and shields. With each volley, hoplites watched as beside them a comrade succumbed to the enemy’s fire. Wooden dog tags hung around the Spartans’ necks but soon there was no one left who would care to read them. The Spartans did not flinch, nor cower in fear, but stood proud until all were slain. The lighter armed helot hoplites perished beside their masters, as did the Thespians for whom it meant the loss of virtually the entire male population of their city.

On the same day, the bronze rams of Persian and Greek triremes collided in the battle of Artemisium. The battle was out on the open sea and losses were heavy on both sides. Though the Persians had the better of it nothing decisive was achieved. In any case, with the fall of Thermopylae the Greeks pulled their fleet back to Athens.

By midday, after it was all over, Xerxes himself came to the battlefield. He ordered the Persian dead to be buried; there was no need for the rest of his army to know how much Persian blood was spilled for so few Greeks. Days later Xerxes’ army finally marched past the hillock, leered at by Leonidas’ head. It had been struck off his body and stuck upon a stake. In the end, even the descendant of Heracles and the sons of Sparta could not defy the Persian titan.

The dramatic last stand of Leonidas’ Spartans became the Greek personification of doomed heroism against impossible odds. Afterwards, a column was erected at Sparta, inscribed with the names of Leonidas and his 300 Spartans plus Dienekes’ scornful comment in the hour of certain death. Upon the fateful hillock at Thermopylae, the keepers of Demeter’s shrine erected a stone lion. Inscribed upon it were the words “Go, stranger, and to Lacedaemon tell, That here, obeying her behests, we fell.”7

Xerxes had won the first round but Greece was not conquered yet. There would be other battles at land and at sea, battles during which the memory of heroes of Thermopylae would inspire all of Greece.

"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.

¹ Herodotus, translated by George Rawlinson, in The Greek Historians. G. Francis, R.B. Editor (New York: Random House. 1942) p. 458, ²Ernle Bradford, The Year of Thermopylae (London: MacMillan London Limited. 1980) p. 71, 72, ³ Herodotus, p. 459, 4 Ernle Bradford, The Year of Thermopylae (London: MacMillan London Limited. 1980) p. 139,5 Herodotus, p. 462,6 Ibid, p. 464,7Ibid, p. 464.

Sources for “The Battle of Thermopylae,” parts 1 and 2
Archer C.I, Ferris, J.R., Herwig H.H., Travers T.H.E. World History of Warfare, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. 2002, Bradford Ernle, The Year of Thermopylae. London: MacMillan London Limited. 1980,  4 Ernle Bradford, Thermopylae: The Battle for the West, Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 1980, Burn Robert A.,  Persia and the Greeks. London: Edward Arnold LTD. 1962, Bury J.B. and Meiggs Russel, A History of Greece. London: MacMillan Education,1987, Delbrück Hans, Warfare in Antiquity, trans by Walter J. Renfroe, Jr. Lincon: University of Nebraska Press. 1990, Fuller JFC., The Decisive Battles of the Western World BC 480-1757. London: Grafton Books. 1988, Hanson Victor Davis. The Wars of the Ancient Greeks. London: Cassel. 1999, Herodotus, translated by George Rawlinson, in The Greek Historians Godophin Francis, edit., New York: Random House, 1942, Lazenby J.F., The Defense of Greece. 490-479BC, Waminster: Aris& Phillips. 1993, Price Simon, Delphi and Divination. Greek Religion and Society, Easterling P.E. and Muir J.V. Editors, London: Cambridge University Press. 1985, Tripp Edward, The Meridian Handbook of Classical Mythology. New York:

Net Sources

Video Sources
TLC. Ancient Warriors.

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