In 480 BC, the pass of Thermopylae was the scene of one of the most famous last stands in military history. A Greek force outnumbered by over 100,000 men of the mighty Persian army held out for 3 days against overwhelming odds, sacrificing themselves to allow the evacuation of Athens and the regrouping of their rear-guard who eventually crushed the Persians at the Battle of Plataea the following year. Their story and sacrifice was immortalised by Zack Snyder’s 300 which propelled this battle into popular memory and made everyone an admirer of Greek fighting prowess and courage.
The Battle of Thermopylae was part of the second Persian invasion of Greece and was fought between alliances of Greek city-states, led by King Leonidas, and the Persian Empire of Xerxes I. This second invasion was a delayed response to Persian defeat at the Battle of Marathon by Athenian forces in 490 BC, and was part of Persian ambitions to expand their empire into the fractious world of Ancient Greece. Emissaries were sent to Greek city-states asking for gifts of earth and water as a sign of submission to Persia’s empire, following a demonstration of power that led to the capture of Thrace and the subjugation of the kingdom of Macedon. The majority of states obliged, fearful of retribution from the might of this growing empire. In Athens, however, ambassadors were executed by throwing them in a pit and in Sparta; they were simply thrown down a well. Sparta and Athens were now effectively at war with Persia.
Ever since the defeat at MarathonXerxes had been amassing an incredible army geared for the total annihilationand subjugation of Greece. In the face of this, the Athenians realised they would be hopelessly outnumbered and, led by Themistocles, sought an alliance with other free city states, a remarkable endeavour within the disjointed Greek world especially given how many of the states were technically at war with each other. Allied through a common fear and hatred of Persian expansion and under the command of Themistocles, the Greeks realised the army of Xerxes would have to pass through the narrow pass of Thermopylae to get to southern Greece, which could easily be blocked by Greek forces and would partially cancel out the overwhelming Persian numbers. Equally, the allied navies would block the straits of Artemisium to ensure that the forces at Thermopylae could not be bypassed.
In the summer of 480 BC, an allied Greek force of roughly 7,000 men marched north to block the pass in the face of a Persian army numbering 150,000. Formed into a phalanx, where soldiers stood shoulder to shoulder with their shields overlapping and lances protruding towards the enemy, the Greeks repelled wave after wave of Persian fighters who attacked by groups of 10,000 men. Even the Persian “Immortals”, an elite fighting force of 10,000 men were “cut to ribbons” by the Greeks and especially Spartan forces, who feigned retreat before turning back and decimating the attackers. This story repeated itself for two days before a local resident named Ephialtes betrayed the Greeks by revealing the existence of a small path that led behind the Greek lines. Leonidas became aware that his force was being outflanked and dismissed the bulk of the Greek army to prevent their total annihilation and allowing them to reform. He remained to guard their retreat with 300 Spartans, 700 Thespians, 400 Thebans and a few hundred others, for one final stand. Here, in accordance with the ancient tradition of refusing to retreat, the Greek forces fought to the last man, before being crushed by the waves of Persian attacks.
The Persians pushed on into Greece but lost their naval support after Themistocles attacked them and defeated them at the Battle of Salamis, thanks to the actions of the hoplites at Thermopylae who had delayed Xerxes for so long, allowing the Greek navy to organise and attack. Cut off from his lines of supply, Xerxes was forced to retreat back to Asia, losing most of army through starvation and disease, before being crushed at the Battle of Plataea the following year.
The Battle of Thermopylae has been used throughout the ages as the perfect example of the power of a patriotic army defending its native soil against incredible odds. The performance of the defenders of Thermopylae has gone down in history as an incredible act of valour and self-sacrifice, and has become a symbol of courage in the face of impossible odds.