The Spartans and Thermopylae

Go Stranger and to Sparta Tell

Faithful to Her Laws,

Here, We Fell

Amongst the greatest and most loyal soldiers in human history where the Spartans. Never was this better demonstrated then at the battle of Thermopylae. Several hundred Greeks, led by King Leonidas of Sparta and his personal body guard of three hundred Spartans, made a brave and gallant stand against a vastly larger Persian force. Only after an act of treason by a Greek, were the Persians able to surround and destroy the Spartans. Ordered to stand firm and hold the pass of Thermopylae against the Persians, the Spartans refused to retreat and were eventually defeated. But true to their orders and loyal to their king, the Spartan stand at the pass is one of the bravest accounts of men in battle.


Thermopylae, Battle of, battle fought between the Greeks and the Persians at Thermopylae, in northern Greece, in 480 BC. It was the first major battle fought during the invasion of Greece that the Persian king, Xerxes I, led between 480 and 479 BC. Although it ended in victory for the Persians, the battle is noted primarily for the bravery shown by the Greeks and, in particular, by the Spartans and their king, Leonidas I.

As with the earlier Battle of Marathon, modern knowledge of the Battle of Thermopylae depends almost entirely on the account given by Herodotus, who described the event 40 or 50 years after it took place. Xerxes’ campaign was motivated partly by the desire to avenge the Greeks’ defeat of the Persians at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, and partly by ambition for imperial expansion. Even before the Battle of Thermopylae, Xerxes had already won over large parts of Greece (Thessaly, Árgos, and most of central Greece) through both a diplomatic initiative and the threat of force. The remaining Greeks, under the leadership of Sparta, abandoned the Thessalian frontier and made a stand instead at the pass of Thermopylae (meaning "hot gates," a reference to the hot sulfur springs in the vicinity). With the sea on one side and high cliffs on the other, the pass was a strategic defense position between northern and southern Greece. To protect the Greek allies from a possible Persian naval attack, the Greek fleet positioned itself off Artemision, commanding the straits between the island of Sciathos and the mainland.

The figures given by Herodotus for the strength of the Persian forces are quite impossible: For example, he states that 20,000 Libyan charioteers were but one component of a total force of over 2.6 million warriors. Nevertheless, it is clear that the Persian force (which included a contingent of subject peoples, such as Libyans as well as Greeks) greatly outnumbered the Greeks. According to Herodotus, the Greeks numbered between 6000 and 7000 altogether. The Spartans and their allies claimed to be unable to provide any more men during the Carneia (an annual festival) and the festivities that accompanied the Olympian Games. Modern writers have suggested that these groups may also have been unwilling to fight, or that they did not sufficiently understand the Persian threat.

The battle took place over three days. Initial attacks upon the Greek position by Medes and Cissians in the Persian force were easily repulsed. Xerxes then replaced them with his Immortals, an elite force under the command of Hydarnes. Their greater numbers were, however, of no advantage in the confined space of the pass and their shorter spears made them unable to engage the Greeks at close quarters. This stalemate was broken only when, on the second day, a Greek deserter, Ephialtes, advised Xerxes that by following a mountain path the Persians could outflank the Greek force. The Immortals, numbering perhaps as many as 10,000, set out at night under the command of Hydarnes. On their way, they encountered a group of 1000 Phocian Greeks whom Leonidas had sent out to guard the path. Imagining that they were the sole object of the Persian advance, the Phocians retreated to high ground and prepared to die. The Persians passed by. When Leonidas and the main force heard the news of the Persian forces’ approach, opinion as to the best course of action was apparently divided. Some of the allies counseled retreat; some simply decamped. Others, however, including Leonidas and the Spartans, refused to move. Herodotus records the story that Leonidas dismissed any Greek allies who were unwilling to remain, keeping a force of only 300 Spartans, 700 Thespians, and 400 Thebans. Leonidas was subsequently killed in fighting in the pass. After the arrival of the Immortals, the remaining Greeks retreated to a small hillock, where they formed a circle and were massacred by the Persians.

The reason Leonidas made his final stand remains unknown. It is possible that he did so for strategic purposes. Perhaps, for example, he wanted to hold the Persian forces back long enough to allow the other Greeks to retreat. It would have been in keeping with the Spartan military ethos, however, for Leonidas to have acted out of a desire for glory. That is the opinion of Herodotus: an oracle, he records, foretold that either Sparta would perish or one of her kings would perish. By his death, Leonidas perhaps wished to save his city. The Persians went on to take Athens but, later in 480 BC, the Greek navy defeated them at the Battle of Salamis, halting Xerxes’ advance on Greece and putting an end to his imperial ambitions.