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‘A Jedi shall not know hatred, nor fear… nor love.’ from Star Wars Episode II




300: The Battle at Thermopylae



There is no need to be surprised at the length of my description, because anybody would discover that where military matters are concerned the Spartans have overlooked very little that demands attention.

 - Spartan Society: Xenophon


Actually fourteen hundred warriors in all stood up to the Persian invaders at Thermopylae on the final day of battle, down from approximately seven thousand on the first day. Along with Leonidas I and his three hundred Spartans there were seven hundred Thespians, four hundred Thebans and eighty men from Mycaene.


The Battle of Thermopylae (480 BC) is famous for one of the most courageous last stands by the vastly outnumbered defending army of Greek city states lead by King Leonidas I of Sparta against invading Persians under King Xerxes I.


The latest interpretation of the battle was the movie 300, which was based on the graphic novel of the same name by Frank Miller. Frank Miller was inspired by the 1962 film – The 300 Spartans. We are aware of the battle because of the works of the Greek historian Herodotus (circa 484 BC – circa 425 BC), most notably The Histories, which details Greco-Persian wars that took place in the 5th century BC.


Why did the Persians invade the Greek states? Almost twenty years before the Battle of Thermopylae, Greek city states had supported an unsuccessful Ionian revolt against the Persian Empire of Darius I who swore revenge and put in motion plans to invade Greece. His death around 486 BC didn’t end the plans for invasion and his son Xerxes I continued ambitious preparations for it. The Greek states were subsequently visited by Persian emissaries who asked for “earth and water” as a token of submission; all states obliged except for Athens and Sparta. The Athenians put the Persian emissaries on trial in a court of law, whereas the Spartans threw the Persian emissaries down a well.


Eminent threat of the Persian invasion threw the Greek states into alliance though many were technically at war with each other. An Athenian politician – Themistocles suggested defending at the narrow pass at Thermopylae, where superior numbers matter less.


The arrival of the Persians coincided with the Spartan the festival of Carneia when all military activity is forbidden. In light of the urgency only King Leonidas I was dispatched with three hundred of his personal guards to take up defensive positions and await the main army.


Leonidas I consulted the Oracle at Delphi before going to battle. The Oracle’s prophecy and his inadequate forces convinced him that he would not survive the confrontation. Keeping this in mind he selected his contingent from Spartans with living sons to carry on their families. En route to the battlefield the Spartans recruited several forces from other Greek states. At Thermopylae the Persians sent another contingent of negotiators who were promptly returned empty handed.


Why did the Greeks choose to defend at Thermopylae? From a strategic point of view, by defending Thermopylae, the Greeks were making the best possible use of their forces. As long as they could prevent the Persian advance into their lands, they had no requirement to seek a decisive battle, and could thus remain on the defensive. Moreover, by defending two constricted passages (Thermopylae and Artemisium), the Greeks inferior numbers became much less problematic. Conversely, for the Persians the problem of supplying such a large army meant that the Persians could not remain in the same place for too long. The Persians must therefore retreat or advance; and advancing required the pass of Thermopylae to be forced.


Tactically, the pass at Thermopylae was ideally suited to the Greek style of warfare. A hoplite phalanx would be able to block the narrow pass with ease, with no risk of being outflanked by cavalry. In the pass, the phalanx would have been very difficult to assault for the more lightly armed Persian infantry. The major weak point for the Greeks was the mountain track which led across the highland parallel to Thermopylae, and which would allow their position to be outflanked. Although probably unsuitable for cavalry, this path could easily be traversed by the Persian infantry (many of whom were versed in mountain warfare). Leonidas was made aware of this path by local people from Trachis, and positioned a detachment of Phocian troops there in order to block this route. (


The number of invading Persians is disputed at being between two hundred thousand to two and a half millions soldiers, not counting supporting staff. The defending Greeks numbered seven thousand including assistants.


The battle lasted three days. The first wave of ten thousand Medes was annihilated, and the second wave of elite “Immortals” too failed to make any significant dent in the defences. On the second day fifty thousand Persian soldiers made another unsuccessful assault on the defending Greek forces. Xerxes I withdrew his forces for the time being do draw other battle plans since his current tactics were clearly inadequate. Luckily for him, a Greek traitor named Ephyialtes offered to show the Persians a route around Thermopylae that would outflank the Greeks. Greedy for money, which Xerxes I gave him, Ephialtes damned his own name forever.


On the third day a Persian force which was guided by Ephialtes around Thermopylae encountered the Greek forces of one thousand Phocians, who were stationed there for just such a contingency. The Phocians retreated and the Persians encircled the Greeks who were defending the main pass.


At dawn Leonidas I convened a war council. The Greeks forces were divided, some wanted to stay and fight while other wanted to retreat. Sparing the retreating forces any shame, Leonidas I gave them an official order to retreat, while the Spartans, along with the Thebans and Thespians remained.


Leonidas’ reasons for remaining could have been many. Spartan law for one, his belief in the Oracle’s prophecy another. It is also probable that the part retreat was a carefully thought out tactic. If the entire Greek defence stayed they all faced certain death. If all retreated then the entire contingent could be easily run over by Persians going on the offensive against the retreating army. Only by some forces holding the defensive position at Thermoplyae would the remaining forces make a successful retreat to fight another day.


At this point the Greeks were on the offensive, occupying the widest available positions in order to kill as many Persians as possible. Two of Xerxes’ brothers were killed at this time. The defending Thebans surrendered to the Persians in this final battle.


Though the Persians were eventually unable to complete their invasion of Greek states, they were successful in the Battle of Thermopylae. This was possible because the Greek forces were overwhelmingly outnumbered by the Persian. Leonidas I who was around fifty years old at the time was one of the first to die. In the pitch of battle both sides fought for possession of his body, with the Greeks obtaining it until the end of the battle. The Greeks were killed to a man, and Xerxes I, who normally respected the Persian traditions of treating valiant opponent with honour, was furious at being outfought by the smaller army. He ordered Leonidas’ head cut off and the body crucified.


The battle was clearly a defeat for the Greek forces, who had a sound strategy, and would have forced the entire Persian army to retreat for logistical reasons had Thermopylae been defended. But the Greeks were betrayed, outflanked and finally outnumbered by Xerxes’ army.


However the battle left a legacy that has lasted for millennia, of a small force of free men willingly fighting for their own way of life against a much larger but subservient force.


A monument at the site of the battle called the Leonidas Monument has a bronze statue of the man. Under the statue a sign reads “Come and get them!” which is what the Spartans said when the Persians asked them to lay down their weapons.


“Stranger, bear this message to the Spartans, that we lie here obedient to their laws.”

- Simonides: Epitaph on the tomb of the Spartans who fell at Thermopylae


Greek and Persian Warfare


As the Bronze Age came to an end (c. 1200 BCE) Greek warfare began to slowly differ from that of the Middle East. A major development in warfare was the Phalanx consisting of hoplites; the use of Phalanx in war was characterized by the use of heavy infantry in shock combat.


The Phalanx was at least eight ranks deep and fought as one unit. They carried an eight foot (at least) spear as their weapon of choice, falling back on a two foot sword if need be. The hoplite shield protected the soldier from chin to knee personally, and also presented an impenetrable wall to the opposing army. The shin was guarded by tall and shaped metal ‘greaves’, and the head was closed (Corinthian) or open (Attic) helmets. The body armour evolved from a rigid bronze cover to a flexible andl light cuirass.


Greek states employed civilian militia which were considered a better option than mercenaries on the grounds of morale. This civilian militia rarely practiced drills, and even then only a few basic offensive movements. In stark contrast was the Spartan practice of agoge which imbibed a ultra militaristic culture via rigourous martial training. Spartans became the most feared army of all the Greek city-states, and Sparta could have been the source of the development of the Phalanx.


The long spear of the Phalanx would render sword-bearing infantry and cavalry useless as neither would be able to reach the enemy alive. Arrows were deflected and rendered useless by the middle and rear hoplites’ raised spears.


Alexander of Macedon would develop the Phalanx and make it the focus of his war-machine using it to inflict psychological as well as physical damage. 


Persians, who were descendants of Central-Asian nomads settled down from nomadic life but retained their expertise in horsemanship and archery. The Persian came to power around 625 BCE and soon ruled over Iran, Mesopotamia, Anatolia, Egypt and parts of Central Asia and India. The empire was ruled by dividing the land under Satraps.


The elite of the Persian army were the Immortals. Numbering an even ten thousand, the first thousand of which made up the royal bodyguard. The Immortal were expert archers and archery became their offensive of choice; nevertheless they carried spears. For psychological impact the Persian chariot wheels were adorned with Scythed blades, but these scared only the most inexperienced soldiers.


Miscellaneous Facts


- Plutarch - our primary source for most things Spartan intended to write a biography of King Leonidas, but either never did or his work on the Spartan king is lost in antiquity.


Also at



References and further reading

-The mammoth book of heroes: compiled by Jon E. Lewis


-300 graphic novel and movie

-Herodotus’ Histories

-On Sparta - Plutarch (Penguin Classics)

-The Worldwide History of Warfare - General Editor: Tim Newark


All Copyrights reserved by the Author/Publisher of the book.




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Reticent but recalcitrant by nature, the Spartans immediate and subsequent responses to Darius’ megalomania have become legend.

When the Persian diplomats asked the Spartans for ‘earth & water’ as a token of submission to Darius, they were thrown down a deep well after being told that they’d find both down there. (Image: Wikipedia)

The Priestess of Delphi - John Collier.

(Image: Wikipedia)

Leonidas leaving Sparta for Thermopylae.

When his wife - Gorgo asked what she should do if he doesn’t return, Leonidas told her to marry a good man and have good children. She then tells him to return to Sparta with his shield (victorious) or on it (dead)

Herodotus holds Leonidas’ wife Gorgo in high regard as she is one of the few women of note in his book - The Histories. After the battle of Thermopylae she was instrumental in helping the Greeks decipher a coded message from Demaratus (a Greek exiled to Persia)

King Darius I’s bitterness towards Greek states manifested itself in the form of Persian diplomats subduing the Greeks with sheer intimidation. Athenians and Spartans however weren't easily convinced.

Leonidas I and Darius I from the film ‘300’. After the Spartans were killed Darius ordered Leonidas’ head cut off from his corpse and stuck on a pole. It was a rare symbol of disrespect towards a fallen adversary, demonstrating how deeply Darius was frustrated by the Spartans resistance.

Despite a significant age difference, Frank Miller’s film ‘300’ portrays Leonidas and Gorgo as extremely close companions.

Leonidas I (Statue) & Xerxes I (Depiction)

(Image: Wikipedia)