It was most likely on August 7th of 480 BC that one of the most decisive battles ever recorded in Greek history, the Battle of Thermopylae, took place against the Persian Empire under Xerxes I. This battle, which has come to be the embodiment of the Greek ideal of freedom as later conceptualized by Aristotle, between two powerful forces in Central Greece would determine the fate of Western civilization.
The great Battle of Thermopylae and the valiant fight of the 300 fearless Spartans under the command of warrior King Leonidas against ten thousand elite Persian soldiers is one of the most brilliant moments in ancient Greek history.
In retrospect, it proved to be no less than a fight for the defense of Western Civilization itself. Although the battle itself was lost, the war was won.
The Battle of Thermopylae also provided for great tales of bravery and patriotism for many Greek generations to come. These are tales which will never be forgotten.
Most historians believe that the epic battle took place in August of 480 BC. Thermopylae (“Hot Gates” in English) was a mountain pass with great strategic importance for those traveling south from Thessaly into Central Greece.
This is where the 7,100 men of the allied Greek forces lay in wait for the invading forces.
The quarter-million strong Persian army, under King Xerxes, was advancing in Central Greece with the aim of reaching Athens and taking over the city.
Spartans held strong under Leonidas at the Battle of Thermopylae
Xerxes was certain that conquering Greece would be easy, given the sheer number of his vast army.
The invaders camped for five days near Thermopylae because they had no idea how many foot soldiers (“hoplites” in Greek) were waiting on the other side of the pass.
They were also waiting for the Persian fleet, which had suffered damage to its ships and was delayed by bad weather off the coast of Magnesia.
When the Persian army finally did attack, the battle went entirely according to plan for the Greeks—at first.
The narrowness of the pass at the middle gate negated the advantage of numbers for the imperial troops. Moreover, the Greek hoplites were better equipped, with long thrusting spears, heavy bronze and wood shields, and body armor.
The Persians had shorter spears, wicker shields, and only thick linen corselets for “armor.” For two days, the Spartans held off the lesser elements of the imperial army. The Medes and Cissians were succeeded by “The Immortals,” the elite troops of King Xerxes, to little avail.
The two opposing armies were essentially representative of the two different approaches to classical warfare.
Spartan vs Persian warfare
The Persians favored long-range assault using archers, followed up by a cavalry charge, while the Greeks favored heavily-armored infantrymen, arranged in a densely-packed formation called a phalanx, with each man carrying a heavy, round bronze shield and fighting at close quarters using spears and swords.
Although the Persian tactic of rapidly firing vast numbers of arrows into the massed enemy must have been an awesome sight, the lightness of the arrows meant that they were largely ineffective against the bronze-armored hoplites.
Indeed, Spartan indifference to this part of the attack was epitomized by Dieneces, who, when told that the Persian arrows would be so dense in the sky as to darken the sun, replied that, in that case, the Spartans would have the pleasure of fighting in the shade.
At close quarters, the longer spears, heavier swords, better armor, and rigid discipline of the phalanx formation meant that the Greek hoplites would hold a clear advantage. In the narrow confines of the mountain pass, the Persians would struggle to make their vastly superior numbers have any military effect.
However, the tide turned when a local man, Ephialtes of Trachis, in exchange for money and favors offered to show the Persians a way around the back of the defending force. Called the “Anopaia Path,” this was a way to skirt the mountain and attack the Greek forces from behind.
Xerxes accepted the traitor’s offer, sending off what was left of his ten thousand “Immortals” at dusk.
According to Herodotus, Leonidas had been aware from the beginning of the existence of the Anopaia Path and had even stationed a thousand Phokians there to halt any attempt at surrounding his forces.
However, the Phokians were taken by surprise and put up little resistance. Word somehow got through to Leonidas that the position had been outflanked, and there seems to have been time to abandon the position and withdraw to the south before the Immortals arrived.
Leonidas fought alongside 300 soldiers at Battle of Thermopylae
Yet Leonidas steadfastly refused to retreat. Allowing everyone else to leave, he kept his 300 Spartans with him, knowing they would fight against the Persians to the last man.
Throughout history there have been innumerable interpretations of his decision to stay and fight until death.
Herodotus represents it as an act of deliberate self-sacrifice carried out in accordance with an oracle, which had said that the death of a Spartan king would save Sparta from destruction.
Other historians took the military approach and argued that Leonidas simply wanted to give the allied contingents time to get away.
After the battle, Xerxes ordered that Leonidas’ head be put on a stake and displayed on the battlefield.
As Herodotus claims in his account of the battle in book VII of The Histories, the Oracle at Delphi had been proven right when she had proclaimed that either Sparta or one of her kings must fall.
Nevertheless, the Battle of Thermopylae and the heroism of Leonidas and his brave hoplites have written one of the most brilliant pages of Greece’s long and rich history.
As for Ephialtes, the greedy traitor, his name eventually became the modern Greek word for “nightmare.”
The significance of the battle for Western Civilization
While the Battle of Thermopylae was technically a defeat for the Greeks, it was also a victory in the long run because it marked the beginning of several important Greek victories against the Persians and boosted the morale of all the Greek city-states.
Encouraged by the incredible bravery of the Spartan action, the surviving allied Greek forces fought with renewed fury against the Persians.
There is no doubt that the drive to fight and win in the two camps was sparked by completely different forces. Herodotus recounted how the Persian King Xerxes had driven his men into battle with whips while the Greeks fought of their own free will: “[The Spartans] did not have to be whipped to make them fight with all their might…Whips were only for slaves, not free men.”
Although the Aristotelian concept of freedom was only formulated a century later by the great philosopher, the men who were citizens of the Greek city-states felt they were fighting to defend their freedom and autonomy.
This notion of freedom could only even begin to develop in a state free of coercion so very unlike the world of the East.
Had the Spartans at Thermopylae and later Greek armies fled in fear, it is likely that a Persian victory would have had the effect of promoting imperial hegemony over the concept of a free city-state, coercion over free will, and authoritarianism over any remote notion of freedom.
Compared to the ancient Greek civilization of the time, the Persians, from a completely militaristic society, behaved as ruthless barbarians.
Xerxes was seen as a merciless monarch and would surely have shown no mercy upon a conquered Greece. There is no doubt that, had his army won, ancient Greece as we know it would have been obliterated and history would have taken a totally different turn.
It was also clearly a battle of two cultures which could not have been more entirely different. If Athens had been taken over by the Persians, there would be no Parthenon, no Aristotle, no Pericles, no Socrates, no Phidias, no Olympic Games, no Hippocrates…and the list goes on.
Seen with the longest of historical views, we can say that if the Greeks had not finally succeeded in driving out the Persian forces, ultimately there would have been no Enlightenment in Europe, nor the development of democracy or the concepts of individual freedom and human rights.