Greek Warfare > Battle of Thermopylae

Battle of Thermopylae


Battle of Thermopylae - Battle of Thermopylae Movements to Salamis

Battle of Thermopylae Movements to Salamis -

THE TYRANT APPROACHED, an overpowering army at his command. Before him, a freedom-loving but fractious and disunited people feared for their lives and their homes. Deliberately, a small band of resolute defenders prepared to fight the invaders and stop them at the frontier. They chose the best defensive spot they could and sent for help. But the help never arrived, and the few cannot defy the many forever. Even strong positions have their weak points, and despite heroic efforts, the gallant defenders were ultimately surrounded and destroyed to the last man. (Or almost.) But their example inspired their countrymen to continue resistance, despite setbacks, and in the end a stunning victory was won. The autocratic ruler returned to his faraway capital, his mighty army humbled, and liberty (by the definitions of the day) was guaranteed for the poor but valiant citizen-soldiers and their land.Isn't this a stirring story to every reader of the Alamo Journal? Yet it describes not the Texas Revolution, but events from twenty-five centuries ago-at the Pass of Thermopylae, where 300 Spartans laid down their lives for Greece."Thermopylae had her messenger of defeat; the Alamo had none." How many Alamo enthusiasts around the world understand the meaning of this famous (if only half-true) epigram? Part of the reason why the appeal of the Alamo cuts across national boundaries is its universality. Most people can point to an "Alamo" in their own mythic or historic past. Images of valorous last stands appear again and again-sometimes these take the form of simple military disasters, such as the Little Bighorn, Isandhlwana, Teutoberg Forest, or the British retreat from Kabul in 1842. Others embody a nobler, self-sacrificial quality: Roland at Roncesvalles, the Swiss at St.-Jacob-en-Birs, the French Foreign Legion at Camerone, or even, in its own way, the story of the 47 Loyal Ronin from feudal Japan. The battle of Thermopylae presents a clear parallel to the saga of Travis and his Texians, a comparison that was obvious immediately to observers in 1836, who dubbed the Alamo "America's Thermopylae." It is not surprising that when Stephen Harrigan was immersing himself in research for The Gates of the Alamo, one of the books he consulted for some perspective on how to capture the feel of a struggle against all odds was Steven Pressfield's vivid (but woefully inferior) novel Gates of Fire, the most recent recasting of the Thermopylae legend. Those who have "crossed the line" of the Alamo Society will recognize many familiar elements in the tale told below.The King with half the East at heel is marched from lands of morning;Their fighters drink the rivers up, their shafts benight the air.And he that stands will die for nought, and home there's no returning.The Spartans on the sea-wet rock sat down and combed their hair.-A.E. Housman, from "The Oracles"At the beginning of the fifth century B.C., the Empire of the Medes and Persians welded together with blood and iron by Cyrus the Great scarcely two generations before was the most powerful state in the Mediterranean world. All the old civilizations of the Near East from Egypt to the Indus paid tribute to imperial satraps and furnished levies for the Great King's army. From their homeland in the Iranian plateau, the Persian nobility were unchallenged masters of a vast kingdom. Now Europe beckoned. Only the trifling waters of the Aegean Sea blocked the Persian advance from Asia Minor, and directly across the Aegean lay the small, squabbling city-states of mainland Greece.And the Greeks patently needed a lesson in manners. Mainlanders had already lent support to revolts against royal authority in the ethnic Greek cities of western Asia Minor, Persian ambassadors had been treated with contempt, and King Darius had sworn particular vengeance against the city of Athens, which had proved especially meddlesome. The other chief Greek power was Sparta-"the shining city by the reedy banks of Eurotas"-in the south. Where Athens was bristling with civic energy birthed by its new experiment with demokratia and popular government, Sparta was conservative and isolationist. Sparta's era of expansionism had ended in the previous century, and it was now satisfied to dominate its southern Greek allies and maintain the status quo at home. Sparta also had a form of representative government, with a system of checks-and-balances that was widely admired by some outsiders, but Sparta maintained a more rigid social hierarchy than Athens and its minority of full citizens were permitted no other occupation than the profession of arms-a permanently trained and mobilized militia. Both states were fiercely independent and were looked to by other Greek cities for leadership. When Persian envoys demanded submission from all Greeks, many cities dithered and others quietly offered surrender ("Medized" the Greeks called it), but the Athenians and Spartans determined to resist, and their example stiffened the backbone of Greek patriots.King Darius' seaborne thrust in 490 B.C. was blunted soon after landing in Athenian territory, on the coastal plain of Marathon. For the first time, a major clash was fought between soldiers speaking Greek and soldiers speaking Persian-a conflict that was to last over a thousand years. In close combat, the heavy-armored Greek infantryman (hoplite), fighting in a dense formation called a phalanx, proved a match for the tough but lighter-armed Easterners. The Persians, caught unawares and unable to deploy their superior cavalry and bowmen, were mauled by a smaller army of Athenians and a few allies and forced to abandon their expedition. A Spartan army, arriving just too late for the engagement, visited the battlefield and examined the Persian dead with professional interest. Everyone knew the contest would continue.It took ten years for Persia to gather its might for the rematch. By this time, Darius' son Xerxes ruled. He carefully marshaled the largest army to ever enter Europe up until that time-over 200,000 men by modern estimates, drawn from all the peoples of the empire-and a correspondingly massive fleet of perhaps 1,300 ships (including transports and the pontoon vessels used to bridge the Hellespont (Dardanelles)). In the spring of 480 B.C., Xerxes set forth.All Greece held its breath. The oracle of Apollo at Delphi, consulted on all matters of import, issued ambivalent advice, suggesting that even the Greek gods could not save their holy temples or their followers. An assembly was held at the central city of Corinth to discuss war options. Athens had built itself into a formidable naval power since the battle of Marathon, while Sparta's reputation as a military juggernaut among amateurs ensured its authority on land. What the Greeks needed was time-time to raise and organize their forces, time to deal with the quislings in their midst-and a place to fight in which the overwhelming numbers of the Persians could not brought to bear. It was also necessary to meet the invader as far as possible from the major Greek cities, and after some false starts, the pass of Thermopylae on the northern border of central Greece offered the last and best chance to hold the host of Xerxes at bay. By late summer, with the Persians having crossed Thrace and Macedonia and skirted the shoulder of Mount Olympus, a Greek advance guard reached Thermopylae and made ready to take a stand.Thermopylae ("the hot gates"), sheltering beneath the mountains overlooking the Malian Gulf, was the logical place to mount a defense. About four miles in length, it is still the main avenue from north to south in eastern Greece and was fought over as recently as 1941. The narrow passage between the cliffs and the sea has widened from silt deposits over the millennia, but the warm sulfur springs for which it is named are still there. The legendary Heracles had died near here, consumed by poison and fire upon Mount Oeta, and this thought must have been in the mind of the Spartan king-purportedly descended in a direct line from the great son of Zeus-who came to the Hot Gates that summer.I am the most valiant of beasts,And most valiant of men is heWhom I guard standing on this stone tomb.-Simonides of CeosHis name was Leonidas, "the lion's son," and we know very little about him, not even his age in 480 B.C., although it is likely he was in his fifth decade or even older. He had been king in Sparta for ten years, more or less, and left behind a young son as his heir. Plutarch wrote a biography that does not survive (as have perished most ancient Greek and Roman works). Herodotus, the nearly contemporary chronicler of the Persian Wars, is our main source of information, plus a few fragments preserved in tradition or by later historians. The head and torso of a helmeted warrior found near the site of his tomb in Sparta that is often labeled as depicting Leonidas is probably true to type but scarcely a reliable portrait. We do not know what he looked like or how he felt. We only know what he did.Sparta's kings, holdovers from its archaic, tribal past, held little direct political power but were by law the generals of the army and held enormous influence and prestige. By taking command of the ad hoc Greek forces scraped together and sent ahead to the pass, Leonidas demonstrated a clear commitment to the cause of resistance. Apart from political dissension, the Olympian games and a sacred religious festival in Sparta hampered immediate Greek mobilization, and the Greek leaders may have underestimated the speed of the Persian advance. Leonidas could take only his personal bodyguard of 300 picked Spartans with him, plus small contingents from other cities collected en route. All told, Leonidas probably had about 7,000 men at his disposal once he encamped at the Hot Gates, but these would have included lightly armed skirmishers, untrained locals, and servants. We can expect that not all the allied troops came willingly-the Theban government was suspected of "Medizing," some southern companies preferred to fight closer to home, and some of the local levies may have been reluctant combatants pressed into service. In any event, the Spartan king set about deploying and preparing his small army and established communications with the collective Greek fleet that guarded the wasp-waisted passages off Cape Artemisium. In the narrow confines of land and sea, the Greeks hoped to blunt the Persian hordes and buy precious time for Greece to fully rally to arms.King Xerxes and his myriads wound through prostrate Thessaly and reached the vicinity of Thermopylae in mid-August. Finding his progress blocked by Greek soldiers and ships, the Great King encamped just beyond the western reaches of the pass and brought his strung-out troops forward. Persian scouts probed toward the enemy and returned with strange news. The Greeks, in their position at the middle of the pass where the Zastano rock rose tall and sheer, had rebuilt an old wall across the passage to screen their camp. But in front of the wall, the Spartan outposts (who must have been recognizable in their distinctive scarlet tunics and cloaks) were taking their ease; exercising, and dressing their hair, habitually worn long. It made an unmartial impression on the invaders, but a Spartan exile explained that it was customary for the Spartans to take elaborate care with their appearance when they were about to put their lives in peril. Meanwhile, Xerxes sent a demand to Leonidas that he should surrender his arms forthwith. The Spartan king made a "laconic" reply that rings out like Travis' defiant cannon shot: "Molòn lábe"-"Come and take them."As Leonidas prepared for the attack he knew was coming, he had fresh cause for worry. The cliffs and slopes hedging Thermopylae were laced with tracks and goat paths, and a route had been discovered that could conceivably be used to outflank the Greek position in the pass below. Leonidas stationed a garrison on this track, local men who knew the terrain. He also sent messages south, informing the Spartan council of his situation and urging them and the other loyalist cities to send the expected reinforcements without delay. Whatever the mood in the other divisions, morale among the Spartans was high. Trained as warriors all their lives, expected to live hardily, speak plainly, endure pain without flinching, and to die rather than retreat, they could still find a humorous quip to relieve the tension of waiting. When camp gossip spread that the Persian archers were so numerous that when they shot, their arrows would hide the sun, the Spartan Dieneces joked, "So much the better; we will have our fight in the shade."Such bravado masked deep anxiety. Leonidas appreciated the reality of the odds he faced. Only Spartans with living sons had been admitted to his bodyguard for this mission; the king did not want any Spartan line to die out. He may have been tempted to gamble on a bold stroke to bring the war to a sudden end. Some ancient historians describe a commando-style raid on the Persian camp during this time with the objective of killing Xerxes, or at least sowing confusion and destruction among the invaders. Xerxes, however, was providentially absent from his tent on this occasion. It is difficult to decide how much credence to place in such reports. One thing at least is certain-the Spartans did not sabotage Persian artillery (catapults, say) by loading them with mud!Xerxes delayed four days while his fleet, battered by the seasonal mistral winds, was similarly bottled up. At last he ordered the pass taken by storm. The battle began August 18, 480 B.C.Let each man spread his legs, rooting them in the ground,Bite his teeth into his lips, and hold.-Tyrtaeus of SpartaThe Persians came in waves beginning in the early morning. The Greeks met them in tight ranks before the repaired wall, in the narrow Middle Gate of Thermopylae. It was no fit terrain for horsemen or archers. There was only room for the savage push of close combat, face to snarling face, and the din of metal striking metal echoed from the slanting cliffs and across the lapping waters.The heavy bronze armor-crested helmet, cuirass, greaves covering the lower leg, and large round shield-and longer thrusting spears of the Greeks gave them all the advantages in this melee. The imperial infantry were equipped for mobility and rapidity, neither of which was useful here. In their loose formations, with shorter weapons, flimsy shields, and no room to concentrate missile fire, they were methodically bowled over and slaughtered by the impenetrable phalanx. Leonidas committed his units in relays, one relieving another, so his hoplites stayed fresh. The Spartans used one of their stock maneuvers, a feigned retreat, with great success against this unsuspecting enemy, turning as one man on the disorganized pursuers and cutting them to bits. At length, the shattered Persian divisions withdrew, to be replaced by the army's elite, the crack Immortals. Serving as the royal guard and primary shock troops, the Immortals numbered 10,000 footsoldiers and were so named because losses were always made up so that the corps never fell below its authorized strength. They are on parade still, in silent bas-relief on the ruined palaces of Persepolis and Susa, holding their spears and rigidly posed in their brightly colored robes. But here in the scrum of the Hot Gates they met their match. Herodotus claims that Xerxes, who watched the entertaining spectacle from a throne set up on a hilltop, lept to his feet three times that day in fear for his army.When dusk approached, the defeated Persians gave up the attack. On the Greek side there must have been rejoicing. They had met the best troops Xerxes could throw at them and hurled them back again. Greek losses were very few, but Persian casualties must have been enormous. At the same time, the Persian and Greek armadas battled to a stalemate near Cape Artemisium, on Thermopylae's seaward flank. The Persian fleet finally retreated to their base, giving the Greeks more cause for optimism. Leonidas must have sent a fresh round of dispatches south, reporting the good news but stressing again the need for reinforcements. There was a storm that night, and the rain washed the blood from pale corpses that still lay where they had fallen.On the next day the Persian onslaught was renewed. Xerxes sent forward picked men in specially formed units, promising rich rewards to any who succeeded in breeching the Greek defenses. The Great King held some hope that his badly outnumbered foes were too exhausted or debilitated by wounds to offer the same level of resistance. But he was badly mistaken. Leonidas continued to maintain his reserves and was able to repeat the triumphs of the previous day. The Greeks appear to have been so fired up, in fact, that some battalions would not willingly give up their positions when it was time to be relieved. Sweat and blood mingled as the hoplites stood shoulder to shoulder in the lengthening shadows cast by the 1,000-yard-tall heights of Zastano and stabbed over their interlocked shields. The Persians fell in heaps, and they finally had to be forced into combat under the lash. At the end of the day, their energies spent, they limped away. It was a ringing victory for Leonidas and his men, while Xerxes faced the gloomy prospect of deadlock and acute supply shortages should his vast army become pinned down, laying siege, in effect, to the Hot Gates. And another day's naval engagement at the straits of Artemisium had produced no better results. The Persian invasion hung on a knife's edge.And then, as author William Golding puts it, "the inevitable traitor appeared from the wings." A man of the area-who as a traitor deserves to be remembered by no name-who knew of the hidden paths through the mountains went to Xerxes' tent and sold the information; moreover, he offered to act as a guide to show the way. The Great King was only too glad to make use of this veritable "diabolus ex machina," as historian Peter Green calls him, and ordered the brigade of Immortals to carry out the strenuous task of navigating the steep, winding, and frequently narrow track. This outflanking move would place the Immortals in Leonidas' rear by morning, cutting him off and guaranteeing his destruction.The Immortals under their commander Hydarnes set out as night fell, and their way was made easier by a full moon. The Carneian festival of Apollo in Sparta and the games at Olympia would have been reaching their climax at this time, and Leonidas may have been thinking that the massed armies of Sparta and other cities must surely be soon on the march, even as Hydarnes led his men across the gorge of the river Asopus and up into the hills.Narrow is our way of lifeAnd necessity is pitiless.-Alcman of SpartaCold moonlight glinted from the silvered spears and slung bow cases of the Immortals as they filed along the spine of the Callidromus mountains. Near dawn, they reached the plateau where Leonidas had placed the men of Phocis to watch over the route. The Phocians were caught unawares, perhaps only guessing the enemy was near by the rustling of fallen oak leaves that lay thick along the track. They were outnumbered ten to one and hastily fell back to higher ground after the Persians unleashed a barrage of arrows. Once Hydarnes assured himself that these were not the feared Spartans, he let them be. The Immortals pushed on.Warning came to Leonidas before daylight, probably from Greek deserters from Xerxes' camp and then confirmed by lookouts posted in the mountains. Tradition holds that the army's seer, an Acarnanian named Megistias, also foretold the coming catastrophe in the morning sacrifice. When panting Phocian runners brought word that the Persians had broken through and would soon begin their descent, Leonidas knew that time was short. A last war council was called, and scholars have debated ever since over what exactly was said or decided. That there was a division of opinion seems obvious; some commanders favored retreat, others felt they could not abandon Thermopylae and leave an open door to Greece. The Spartans evidently felt honor-bound to remain at their post. But if the pass itself was untenable, a withdrawal in the face of the enemy, with his superior firepower and unhindered cavalry, was also an invitation to massacre. There may have been a rancorous argument among the Greek leadership, or it may have come down to individual choice. We do not know if Leonidas drew a line in the sand per se-but what happened was that the Greek army split. The Spartans would remain at Thermopylae and hold it to the last. With them stayed the units from Thespiae and Thebes, whose districts would be the first overrun if Thermopylae fell. The rest of the army prepared to leave. They would later claim that Leonidas had ordered them to depart and save their lives for another day, and this may be true or it may be ex post facto justification for abandoning the Spartan king. It is also possible that Leonidas intended to divide his forces and contest both ends of the pass simultaneously, but the other division lost its nerve. What is most likely is that the Spartans stayed as a willing rearguard and that Leonidas accepted the Thespian and Theban volunteers but was not able or inclined to sacrifice the whole of the Greek army. The Delphic oracle had earlier hinted that Sparta might be saved at the cost of a king, and contemporary Greeks had no trouble believing that Leonidas, carrying this prophecy in the back of his mind, was prepared to offer his life as the price of his city's salvation.A quick communique was sent to the Greek fleet, since the loss of Thermopylae would leave them isolated without a secure landward flank. The ships, too, must survive to fight again. The retreating hoplite contingents made their farewells and decamped, taking with them perhaps Leonidas' lesson that the Persians could be beaten. Those who remained made a hearty last meal to give them strength. Plutarch has preserved Leonidas' grim words: "Breakfast well, for we shall dine in Hades."The Immortals would arrive in the Spartans' rear in a matter of hours. At about nine o'clock the army of Xerxes moved forward and Leonidas' command advanced to meet them, this morning venturing beyond the Middle Gate to a wider part of the pass where the Greek phalanx might deploy with a longer frontage and bring more weapons to bear. The Spartans would have marched in step slowly to the sound of their flute-players, the shrill, twin-tubed aulos that droned and skirled like a bagpipe. Their servants and skirmishers came, too, helping the walking wounded. Although it is the 300 Spartans of the king's bodyguard who are best remembered, Leonidas may have led perhaps 2,000 men in this final battle.The death-struggle of the Greeks at Thermopylae was long celebrated by ancient historians, and there is no reason to doubt that it was a particularly desperate and merciless contest. The Spartans flung themselves at their enemies with reckless courage. Fighting with the foremost, Leonidas fell early, and a struggle worthy of Homer erupted around his body. Four times the furious Spartans drove the Persians back, and at last succeeded in dragging their king out of the churning fray. Two half-brothers of Xerxes were killed in the tumult. Then the news came that Hydarnes had seized the eastern end of the pass and was approaching from the rear. The remaining Greeks gathered themselves and broke free, falling back in good order past their wall and taking a stand in a circle on a small hillock (identified in this century by scores of excavated Eastern-style arrowheads). Sometime during this withdrawal the surviving Thebans became separated and surrendered-just how willingly is still debated. The Spartans and Thespians, now beset on all sides, continued to fiercely resist. When their spears were broken, they drew their short swords and hacked and stabbed at close quarters, and when these were lost or dulled, they used stones, or bare hands and teeth. Finally the Persians finished the last remnant with a shower of missiles.By midday the dust was settling on the slain, and in time the battlefield was safe enough for the Great King to inspect his triumph. Only the Theban prisoners and a presumed handful of the Spartans' servants had survived the carnage. Herodotus tells us that 20,000 Persians died at the hands of the Greeks at Thermopylae, and that their bodies had to be concealed in hurriedly dug ditches lest Xerxes' army grow disheartened. The Persian ruler viewed the Spartan dead and was shown the body of Leonidas, which he ordered be crucified and the head struck off and fixed on a pole. It was meant as a warning of what the enemies of Persia could expect.A token few Spartans are reported to have survived-a soldier who was nearly blind with an eye infection and chose to make his escape with the refugees; an envoy away on diplomatic business who could not return in time-but others in similar straits had refused to forsake Leonidas, including the priest Megistias, who sent his son away while remaining with the Spartans. The two Spartan survivors found themselves official pariahs in their hometown, subjected to a sort of "silent treatment." One hanged himself in shame and the other sought death in the ranks the following year at Plataea.Greece shuddered, shocked at the sudden loss of a Spartan king and several thousand soldiers, no matter how dearly bought Xerxes' victory had been. Recriminations and reproaches colored the histories of the time and continue to bedevil the scholar today. The stand at Thermopylae had been inspiring, but it was still a calamity and Greece lay in mortal danger for the next year. Central Greece was lost and Athens occupied and sacked. The southern Greeks were loathe to risk further action beyond their borders. Only good fortune, Xerxes' blundering, and the wiliness of the Athenian leader Themistocles prevented the smothering of classical Greek civilization, with all that it has given to the Western world, before it was fully grown. The Greek navy, under Themistocles' direction, won a decisive action at Salamis, forcing Xerxes and the bulk of his army to return to Asia. The following summer a united Greek army led by the Spartan regent Pausanias and fully 5,000 Spartan hoplites crushed the remaining Persian land forces at Plataea. Another victory in Asia Minor secured the freedom of Greek cities there. The threat to Greece was over.Like the roll call of the defenders of the Alamo, the name of every individual Spartan who died at Thermopylae was remembered for as long as ancient Sparta endured. They were engraved on a stone tablet in Sparta that could still be read over seven centuries later. Will the Alamo still stand in 700 years? Would it matter? It is what the Alamo represents that is immortal, not the tangible remains of the buildings. Heroism, once achieved and honored, is never forgotten entirely.A monument was set up on the mound of the last stand-it has long since disappeared, but the recorded epitaph survives. One translation reads:Go, stranger, and to the Spartans tellThat here, obedient to their laws, we fell.William Golding, who wrote about his pilgrimage to the site in the essay "The Hot Gates," summarized best why the Spartans and Travis' command are remembered together:I knew now that something real happened here. It is not just that the human spirit reacts directly and beyond all argument to a story of sacrifice and courage, as a wine glass must vibrate to the sound of the violin. It is also because, way back and at the hundredth remove, that company stood in the right line of history. A little of Leonidas lies in the fact that I can go where I like and write what I like. He contributed to set us free.Destiny assigned the same role to Travis-and he seems to have welcomed the part-and he and Leonidas have much to discuss in some mutual Valhalla. Simonides of Ceos, a contemporary poet, eulogized the Spartan dead at Plataea in words that might just as well have been penned in 1836, underscoring again how Thermopylae and the Alamo are truly inseparable; reflections of each other in the mirror of time:These men left an altar of glory on their land,Shining in all weather,When they were enveloped by the black mists of death.But though they diedThey are not dead, for their courage raises them in gloryFrom the rooms of Hell.Further Reading:Willis Barnstone (trans.), Greek Lyric Poetry (Schocken, 1972)Ernle Bradford, The Battle for the West: Thermopylae (McGraw-Hill, 1980)John Burke, The 300 Spartans (Signet, 1961)A.R. Burn, Persia and the Greeks: The Defense of the West, 546-478 B.C. (Minerva, 1962)Peter Connolly, Greece and Rome at War (Prentice-Hall, 1981)W.G. Forrest, A History of Sparta, 950-192 B.C. (Norton, 1968)William Golding, The Hot Gates (Harcourt-Brace, 1966)Peter Green, The Greco-Persian Wars (UC Press, 1996)Victor Davis Hanson, The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece(Knopf, 1989)Herodotus, The Histories (Penguin, 1972)J.F. Lazenby, The Spartan Army (Aris & Phillips, 1985)Alan Lloyd, Marathon (Mentor, 1975)Roderick Milton, Tell Them in Sparta (Methuen, 1962)Plutarch on Sparta (Penguin, 1988)Steven Pressfield, Gates of Fire (Doubleday, 1998)Nicholas Sekunda, The Spartan Army (Osprey, 1998)


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