After the expedition to Greece had got under way, Xerxes sent messengers
to all Greek cities offering blandishments if they would submit,
and asking for "earth and water" from their soil as a token
of their submission. Many smaller states submitted. However, the
Athenians threw their envoys into a pit and the Spartans threw theirs
into a well, taunting them with the retort, "Dig it out for
yourselves" (referring to the 'earth and water' demand).
Support gathered around these two leading
states. A congress met at Corinth in late autumn of 481 BC and
a confederate alliance
of Greek city-states was formed. It had the power to send envoys
asking for assistance and to dispatch troops from the member states
to defensive points after joint consultation. There is no evidence
that any one state was in charge. Herodotus calls them simply "the
Greeks" or "the Greeks who had banded together." The
interests of all the states played a part in determining defensive
strategy. Nothing else is known about the internal workings of
the congress or the discussion during its proceedings.
The Persian army first encountered a joint force of 10,000 Athenian
and Spartan hoplites led by Euanetus and Themistocles in the vale
of Tempe. Upon hearing this, Xerxes sent the army through the Sarantaporo
strait, which was unguarded, and sidestepped them. The hoplites,
warned by Alexander I of Macedon, vacated the pass. The allied
Greeks judged that the next strategic choke point where the Persian
army could be stopped was Thermopylae. They decided to defend it
and send a fleet to Artemision, a naval choke point, as Xerxes'
army was being supplied and supported by sea. Using the fleet,
Xerxes' army might have crossed Maliacos bay and outflanked the
Greek army again.
The Greek high strategy is confirmed by an oration later in the
But while Greece showed these inclinations (to join the Persians),
the Athenians, for their part, embarked in their ships and hastened
to the defence of Artemisium; while the Spartans and some of their
allies went off to make a stand at Thermopylae, judging that the
narrowness of the ground would enable them to secure the passage.
Some modern historians, such as Bengtson, claim that the purpose
of the land force was to slow down the Persian army while the Persian
navy was defeated at sea. Another theory is that the land army
was expected to hold back the Persian forces in the north and defeat
it through attrition, epidemics, and food deprivation.
Some have argued that the Athenians were confident that a small
force led by Leonidas would be enough to hold back the Persians;
otherwise, they would have already vacated their city and sent
their whole army to Thermopylae. There is one known case in which
a small force did stop a larger invading force from the north:
in 353 BC/352 BC the Athenians managed to stop the forces of Philip
II of Macedon by deploying 5,000 hoplites and 400 horsemen.
"The force with Leonidas was sent
forward by the Spartans in advance of their main body, that the
sight of them might encourage
the allies to fight, and hinder them from going over to the Medes,
as was likely they might have done had they seen that Sparta was
backward. They intended presently, when they had celebrated the
Carneian Festival, which was what now kept them at home, to leave
a garrison in Sparta, and hasten in full force to join the army.
The rest of the allies intended to act similarly; for it happened
that the Olympic Festival fell exactly at this same period. None
of them looked to see the contest at Thermopylae decided so speedily;
wherefore they were content to send forward a mere advance guard.
Such accordingly were the intentions of the allies."
The legend of Thermopylae as told by Herodotus has it that Sparta
consulted the Oracle at Delphi before setting out to meet the Persian
army. The Oracle is said to have made the following prophecy in
hexameter verse :
"O ye men who dwell in the streets
of broad Lacedaemon!
Either your glorious town shall be sacked by the children of Perseus,
Or, in exchange, must all through the whole Laconian country
Mourn for the loss of a king, descendant of great Heracles.
He cannot be withstood by the courage of bulls nor of lions,
Strive as they may; he is mighty as Jove; there is naught that
shall stay him,
Till he have got for his prey your king, or your glorious city."
In essence, the Oracle's warning was that either Sparta would
be conquered and left in ruins or one of her two hereditary kings,
descendant of Hercules, must sacrifice his life to defend her.
Leonidas took charge of his personal
fighting unit, the 300 Spartans, and headed to Thermopylae. Herodotus
writes that Leonidas was idolized
by his men. He was convinced that he was going to certain death
and his forces were not adequate for a victory, and so selected
only men who had fathered sons who were old enough to take over
the family responsibilities. Plutarch mentions in his Sayings of
Spartan Women that, after encouraging him, Leonidas's wife Gorgo
asked what she should do on his departure. He replied, "Marry
a good man, and have good children."
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(What does it mean?
It is based on material from the Wikipedia article "Battle of Thermopylae"
Modifications, additions to Wikipedia text and all the photos by Fotis Kerasaridis.
Copyright (c) 2007 Fotis Kerasaridis