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Ten Epic Last Stands in History

Ten Epic Last Stands in History
The Corinthian-style battle, one of the ten epic stands in history. Credit: Mary Harrsch / Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The underdog’s hopeless but valiant last stand has captivated humanity since antiquity. Vastly outmatched yet unfazed, these warriors choose honorable death over surrender, fighting to the bitter end for their cause.

Though defeated, their refusal to yield even in the face of annihilation earns them a moral victory that resonates through the ages. Their stubborn courage as the end draws near sets an enduring example of sacrifice that inspires future generations.

From the Spartans’ stand at Thermopylae to the Texans’ defiance at the Alamo, last stands by outnumbered underdogs have triumphed in hearts and minds, securing their place in legend.

Against all odds, their actions speak louder than words, echoing through history as lessons in commitment and perseverance against impossible odds. Here we are going to have a brief look at the ten epic last stands in history:

The Spartans’ Last Stand at Thermopylae

In 480 BC, Persian King Xerxes invaded Greece with a massive army, according to the Greek historian and ethnographer Herodotus.

Greek King Leonidas led a small force to block them at Thermopylae. Though greatly outnumbered, the Greeks held off endless attacks, inflicting heavy losses.

Even Xerxes’ best troops failed. After days of brave defiance, betrayal let Persians outflank the Greeks. Leonidas and his warriors were finally overwhelmed but fought to the bitter end. Their sacrifice inspired Greece to ultimately defeat Persia.

The Spartans’ refusal to surrender against hopeless odds became legendary. Their stunning last stand bought time and set an enduring example of courage.

Fall of Constantinople

In 1453, Constantinople stood alone against Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II. Emperor Constantine XI defended with just 10,000 men against enormous odds.

Refusing calls to flee, Constantine rallied his people for a final liturgy before riding to his fate. Details are unclear, but legend holds Constantine gathered a small band of Greeks and Italians for a doomed last charge.

Refusing to abandon his city and inspired by scripture, he supposedly declared, “Whoever wishes to escape, let him save himself…whoever is ready to face death, let him follow me!”

Constantine fell in battle, and his body was lost. Though defeated, his brave last stand made him an eternal Greek hero.

Rome Conquers Defiant Northern Spain

In 28 BC, Emperor Augustus invaded northern Spain, seeking to finally subjugate the “bravest peoples,” the Astures and Cantabri, the Roman historian Orosius wrote. Fiercely resistant, the Cantabri were gradually defeated despite courageous stands.

Refusing to surrender, many died fighting or by suicide at Mount Vinnius and Mount Medullius. With the Cantabri defeated, the Astures also initially resisted at Lancia.

However, having witnessed their neighbors’ fruitless but noble sacrifice, the Astures pragmatically chose surrender over suicidal defiance.

Despite stunning displays of bravery, Rome finally overcame Northern Spain’s spirited last stands. But their proud resistance entered legend, cementing their reputation for defiant courage.

The Tuileries Palace: A Bloody Assault

In 1791, during the French Revolution, King Louis XVI and his Queen Marie Antoinette were held captive at the Tuileries Palace after a failed escape attempt.

A mob of angry Parisians and National Guardsmen demanded entry to loot the palace, ready to bombard it with artillery. They attacked the royal guards, but the Swiss guards resisted heroically, according to American merchant James Price.

The National Guard urged the Swiss to surrender, but the commander famously replied that the Swiss would only give up their arms with their lives. After a few hours, the revolutionaries launched their assault. The Swiss guards fought bravely but were ultimately massacred, along with the king’s servants.

To prevent further bloodshed, King Louis ordered the surviving guards to surrender. Their courageous stand is commemorated today by the Lion Monument in Lucerne.

Zadwórze: The Polish Thermopylae

In 1920, Soviet Russia invaded Poland, aiming for a communist revolution. Surprisingly, the young Republic of Poland fought back.

Near Lwów, 330 Polish militiamen bravely faced 3,000 Soviet cavalry under Simeon Budionny. Outnumbered, the Poles held their ground, stalling the Soviets long enough for Lwów’s defense to mobilize., according to the Institute of National Remembrance.

Though only 12 Poles survived, their sacrifice mattered. Lwów remained Polish, and the Soviets couldn’t fully support their attack on Warsaw.

General Władysław Sikorski praised Zadwórze as a symbol of loyal soldiers giving their lives for their country. Today, it’s known as the Polish Thermopylae, and those fallen fighters are the revered Lwów Eaglets, honoring Poland’s White Eagle of Gniezno.

Siege of Gaeta

In 1860-61, King Francesco II of the Two Sicilies faced invasion by the Kingdom of Piemonte (later Italy). His 16,000 soldiers were pursued by double the number under Giuseppe Garibaldi and General Enrico Cialdini.

After a defeat at Volturno, the Neapolitans made their final stand at the Gaeta fortress on November 13, 1860, according to the San Felese Historical Society.

The defenders suffered greatly from endless bombardment, lack of supplies, and a typhus epidemic. Napoleon III’s navy protected the fortress from sea attacks, but he pressured Francesco to surrender. Still, the king refused.

The Piemontese struggled to integrate loyal Neapolitan soldiers, posing a risk of mutiny. When Napoleon withdrew his fleet, the Piemontese ships joined in shelling Gaeta.

A lucky strike on the munitions depot caused a massive explosion, wrecking a quarter of the fortress. Queen Marie Sophie convinced her husband to surrender, and they went into exile with the pope, leaving their kingdom to Italy.


In 722, Muslim invaders conquered Visigothic Spain, according to the Spanish Cronica Albeldense. Only Asturian nobleman Pelayo refused to surrender. From the mountains, his rebels defied Umayyad rule. General Al-Qama’s superior force pursued Pelayo to Covadonga, seeking decisive victory.

Realizing the terrain complicated matters, Al-Qama tried negotiating surrender. Pelayo defiantly refused, vowing not just resistance but victory. In the battle, Pelayo’s vastly outnumbered rebels somehow triumphed, aided by the mountains.

This shocking upset birthed the Kingdom of Asturias, a precursor to modern Spain. Pelayo’s improbable win over Muslim occupiers entered legend as a miraculous last stand, securing his place as an eternal Spanish folk hero.

The Knights’ Stand at the Great Siege of Malta

In 1565, the vast Ottoman army invaded tiny Malta, seeking to conquer the archipelago, as per History Extra. Only 700 Knights of St. John stood in their way. Though severely outnumbered, the Crusader knights refused to surrender.

Through brilliant tactics, they inflicted disastrous casualties on endless Ottoman assaults. Even elite janissaries fell to their cunning traps. Just when defeat seemed imminent, Spanish reinforcements arrived, sending the invaders into retreat.

Against all odds, the knights’ epic last stand saved Christendom from the Ottoman juggernaut.

Dominicans Rout Haitians at Battle of Azua

In 1844, the Spanish-speaking Dominican Republic faced an invasion by neighboring Haiti. At Azua, 3,000 Dominican defenders blocked 10,000 Haitians. Certain defeats seemed imminent. However, superior tactics prevailed over numbers.

Dominicans guarded their artillery along key routes, unleashing devastating volleys. Unable to overcome these defenses, the Haitians ultimately retreated despite vast numerical superiority.

Though withdrawn after heavy losses, the Dominicans had proven their republic viable. Azua showed underdogs can triumph through courage and cunning.

Shiroyama: The Last Stand of the Samurai

In 1877, samurai rebelling against Japan’s Meiji Restoration were cornered by imperial troops at Shiroyama. Led by Field Marshal Takamori Saigo, just 400 rebels remained, according to military historian Kennedy Hickman.

Refusing surrender, Takamori embodied the samurai Bushido code mandating death over dishonor. Hopelessly outgunned, his band was shelled and then attacked before dawn.

Reduced to 40 wounded men, the mortally injured Takamori chose ritual suicide over capture. Though doomed, his brave last charge defended samurai ideals.

The imperial army’s guns heralded a new modern Japan, relegating samurai to the past. But Takamori’s noble stand entered legend, exemplifying samurai virtue and courage.

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