| Arrival of the Persians
On the Persian army's arrival to the battle scene, Greek troops
instigated a council meeting. Some Peloponnesians suggested withdrawal
to the Isthmus and blocking the passage to Peloponnesus. They were
well aware that the Persians would have to go through Athens in order
to reach them there. The Phocians and Locrians, whose states were
located nearby, became indignant and advised defending Thermopylae
and sending for more help. Leonidas and the Spartans agreed with
the Phocians and Locrians.
Meanwhile, the Persians entered the pass and sent a mounted scout
to reconnoiter. The Greeks allowed him to come up to the camp, observe
them, and depart. When the scout reported to Xerxes the size of the
Greek force and that the Spartans were indulging in calisthenics
and combing their long hair, Xerxes found the reports laughable.
Seeking the counsel of an exiled Spartan in his employ, Demaratus,
Xerxes was told that the Spartans were preparing for battle and that
it was their custom to adorn their hair beforehand. The exile called
them "the bravest men in Greece" and warned the Great King
that they intended to dispute the pass.
Xerxes remained incredulous. According to another account, he sent
emissaries to the Greek forces. At first, he asked Leonidas to join
him by offering the kingship of all Greece. Leonidas answered: "If
you knew what is good in life, you would abstain from wishing for
foreign things. For me it is better to die for Greece than to be
monarch over my compatriots."
Then Xerxes asked him more forcefully to surrender their arms. To
this Leonidas gave his noted answer:
(pronounced: /molon labe/),
meaning "Come take them". This quote has been repeated
by many later generals and politicians in order to express an army's
or nation's determination to not surrender without a battle.
Despite their extremely disproportionate numbers, Greek morale was
high. Herodotus writes that when Dienekes, a Spartan soldier, was
informed that Persian arrows would be so numerous as "to blot
out the sun", he remarked with characteristically laconic prose, "So
much the better, we shall fight in the shade."
Xerxes waited four days for the Greek force
to disperse. On the fifth day he ordered the Medes and the Cissians
to take the Greeks
prisoner and bring them before him.
Failure of the frontal assault
Xerxes sent in the Medes who had been only recently conquered by
the Persians perhaps, as Diodorus Siculus suggested, because he wanted
them to bear the brunt of the fighting.
The Medes soon found themselves in a frontal assault. The Greeks
had camped on either side of the rebuilt Phocian wall. That the wall
was guarded shows that the Greeks were using it to establish a reference
line for the battle, but they fought in front of it.
Details of the tactics are somewhat scant. The Greeks probably deployed
in a phalanx, a wall of overlapping shields and layered spearpoints,
spanning the entire width of the pass. Herodotus says that the units
for each state were kept together. The Persians, armed with arrows
and short spears, could not break through the long spears of the
phalanx, nor were their lightly armoured men a match for the
superior armour, weaponry, and discipline of the hoplites.
Yet there are some indications the Greeks did not fight entirely
in close formation. They made use of the feint to draw the Medes
in, pretending to retreat in disorder only to turn suddenly and attack
the pursuing Medes. In this way they killed so many Medes that Xerxes
is said to have started up off the seat from which he was watching
the battle three times. According to Ctesias, the first wave numbered
10,000 soldiers and were commanded by Artapanus.
The king eventually withdrew the Medes. Having taken the measure
of the enemy, he threw the best troops he had into a second assault:
the Immortals, an elite corps of 10,000 men. On his side, Leonidas
had arranged a system of relays between the hoplites of the various
cities so as to constantly have fresh troops on the front line. In
the heat of the battle, however, the units did not get a chance to
rotate. Being able to approach the Greek line only in such numbers
as the space allowed, the Immortals fared no better than the Medes.
Xerxes had to withdraw them as well. The first day of battle probably
On the second day, the assault failed again. The account of the
slain gives some indication why: the wall of bodies must have broken
up the Persian line and detracted from their morale. Climbing over
the bodies, they could see that they had stepped into a killing machine
but the officers behind prevented them from withdrawing. Xerxes at
last stopped the assault and withdrew to his camp, totally perplexed.
He now knew that a head-on confrontation against Spartan-led troops
in a narrow place was the wrong approach.
Encirclement of the Greeks
Late on the second day of battle, as the king was pondering what
to do next, he received a windfall: a Malian Greek traitor named
Ephialtes informed him of a path around Thermopylae and offered to
guide the Persian army through the pass.
Herodotus notes that two other men were accused of betraying this
trail to the Persians: Onetas, a native of Carystus and son of Phanagoras,
and Corydallus, a native of Anticyra, but argues Ephialtes was the
one who revealed this trail because "the deputies of the Greeks,
the Pylagorae, who must have had the best means for ascertaining
the truth, did not offer the reward on the heads of Onetas and Corydallus,
but for that of Ephialtes of Trachis".
The path led from east of the Persian camp along the ridge of Mt.
Anopaea behind the cliffs that flanked the pass. It branched with
one path leading to Phocis and the other down to the Gulf of Malis
at Alpenus, first town of Locris. Leonidas had stationed 1,000 Phocian
volunteers on the heights to guard that path.
Despite their indignation and determination on defending Thermopylae,
the Phocians were not expecting such an outcome: There were no advance
positions, sentinels, or patrols. Their first warning of the approach
of the Immortals under Hydarnes was the rustling of oak leaves at
first light on the third day of the battle. Herodotus says that they "jumped
up", suggesting that the Greek force was still asleep, and were "greatly
amazed", which no alert unit should have been.
Hydarnes was as amazed to see them hastily arming themselves. He
feared that they were Spartans, but was enlightened by Ephialtes.
Not wishing to be delayed by an assault, Hydarnes resorted to a tactic
that later turned out to be a victorious one: He fired "showers
of arrows" at them. The Phocians retreated to the crest of the
mountain to make their stand. The Persians branched left to Alpenus.
Ephialtes was motivated by the desire of a reward, but this came
to nothing when the Persians were later defeated at the Battle of
Salamis. He then fled to Thessaly; the Amphictyons at Pylae had offered
a reward for his death. According to Herodotus he was killed for
an apparently unrelated reason by Athenades of Trachis, around 470
BC; but the Spartans rewarded Athenades all the same. For this act,
the name of Ephialtes received a lasting stigma: it means "nightmare" and
is synonymous with "traitor" in Greek.
Final stand of the Spartans and Thespians
of the Persians' actions surprised Leonidas. From a variety of
sources, he was kept apprised of their movements and received
intelligence of the Persian outflanking movement before first light.
Leonidas learned that the Phocians had not held, he called a council
at dawn. During the council some Greeks argued for withdrawal
in the face of the overwhelming Persian advance, while others pledged
to stay. After the council, many of the Greek forces did choose
to withdraw. Herodotus believed that Leonidas blessed their departure
with an order, but he also offered the alternate point of view
those retreating forces departed without orders. The Spartans had
pledged themselves to fight to the death, while the Thebans were
held as hostage against their will. However, a contingent of about
700 Thespians, led by general Demophilus, the son of Diadromes,
refused to leave with the other Greeks, but cast their lot with the
Ostensibly, the Spartans were obeying their
oath and following the oracle of Delphi. However, it might also have
been a calculated
to delay the advance of the Persians and cover the retreat of the
Greek army. In fact, with the Persians so close at hand, the decision
to stand and fight was probably a tactical requirement only made
more palatable by the oracle.
At dawn Xerxes made libations. He
paused to allow the Immortals sufficient time to descend the mountain,
and then began his advance.
The Greeks this time sallied forth from
the wall to meet the Persians in the wider part of the pass in
an attempt to slaughter as many
Persians as they could. They fought with spears until every spear
was shattered and then switched to xiphoi (short swords). In this
struggle, Herodotus tells us that two brothers of Xerxes fell:
Abrocomes and Hyperanthes. Leonidas also died in the assault.
intelligence that Ephialtes and the Immortals were advancing toward
the rear, the Greeks withdrew and took a stand on Kolonos a small
hill behind the wall. The Thebans deserted to the Persians but
a few were slain before their surrender was accepted. While some
the remaining Greeks fought with their xiphoi, some were left with
only their hands and teeth. Tearing down part of the wall, Xerxes
ordered the hill surrounded and the Persians rained down arrows
until the last Greek was dead. Archaeologists have found evidence
of the final arrow shower.
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