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Mar 14th, 2007, 5:23 PM #1
The Battle of Thermopylae - Last Stand of the 300
Since the release of Frank Miller's 300 on film I thought it may be interesting to post a better historical account of the Battle of Thermopylae. Frank Miller, while relying on historical accounts, indulged quite a bit in the department of fantasy when portraying this battle. I aim to present some interesting facts.
In the late summer of 480 BC King Leonidas of Sparta led 300 Spartan hoplites and some 7,000 other Greek soldiers on a defensive against King Xerxes of the Persian Empire and his army of near 200,000 Persians on a narrow path at Thermopylae. Although some historians believe Xerxes was merely attempting to expand his empire westwards, many concede he was seeking revenge for the Battle of Marathon where his father, King Darius the Great, was defeated by the Athenians just a decade before.
In September of 490 BC King Darius and an army of between 20,000-30,000 Persian troops set foot on Greek soil just north of Athens at Marathon. At the time the Athenians could not get Sparta to respond quickly enough so they had to fight without the aid of their elite. The Athenian numbers are still argued today, but general consensus is under 10,000, most likely around 6,000 Athenian troops. From EyeWitness to History.com:
“The two armies met on the Plain of Marathon twenty-six miles north of Athens. The flat battlefield surrounded by hills and sea was ideal for the Persian cavalry. Surveying the advantage that the terrain and size of their force gave to the Persians, the Greek generals hesitated.
"One of the Greek generals - Miltiades - made a passionate plea for boldness and convinced his fellow generals to attack the Persians. Miltiades ordered the Greek hoplites to form a line equal in length to that of the Persians. Then - in an act that his enemy believed to be complete madness - he ordered his Greek warriors to attack the Persian line at a dead run. In the ensuing melee, the middle of the Greek line weakened and gave way, but the flanks were able to engulf and slaughter the trapped Persians. An estimated 6,400 Persians were slaughtered while only 192 Greeks were killed.”
These accounts are probably interpreted from the Greek historian Herodotus (484 BC–424 BC) and his compendium The Histories. King Darius the Great would not set foot on Greek soil again before he died around 484 BC. The term ‘marathon’ is literally linked to the Battle of Marathon. Once the battle had ended in the favor of the Athenians, a runner was sent on a 26-mile run to Athens from Marathon. Once he arrived in Athens he yelled, “We are victorious,” then fell over and died of exhaustion.
Xerxes, Son of Darius
Xerxes was trained to be the King of Persia since his birth. He was educated in politics, languages, warfare, and survival. It is said that at a young age he, like the kings before him, was thrown into a lion pit and forced to kill or be killed. After his father’s death, Xerxes spent years gathering troops, his eyes set on Athens. Though his family’s dynasty was ambitious, they were far from unreasonable or tyrannical. When Darius reigned he allowed for all the people of Persia to govern themselves and follow any faith they desired; the only thing that would be different was that they had to pay tribute to the Empire and would have to fight for Persia when called upon. Xerxes’ practices were not much different; however his strategic plan was different than his father’s. Darius had attempted to invade Athens by sailing to Marathon, deploying his troops and then marching his army across Greece. Unfortunately, it allowed the Athenians enough warning to assemble a defensive, which obviously worked in favor of the Greeks. Xerxes’ strategy was much more ingenious: the King of Persia planned to attack from two fronts, one by land and one by sea. The cavalry and infantry would march across the continent while the navy would follow by sea behind. Alas, Athens had enough warning and was able to prepare once again. How they received warning is not definitive, but some theories point to a double-agent among the Persians. Xerxes did not anticipate what he would have to face in the summer of 480 BC.
Birth of the Spartan Hoplite
Spartans were born and bred to wage war. When a Spartan male child was born he would be immediately checked for defects. If a child was born too small or sick he would be abandoned in the wild, left to die. The children that passed the initial test would be left with their mothers until they were of age seven, then they were taken from their homes and put into military training called agoge. The first order of business upon entering these training grounds was to be flogged furiously, sometimes to the point of death. Those that could stand longer were rewarded while those that fell were severally punished, probably by receiving a beating or worse. Throughout the years the hoplites-in-training learned formations, sword-play, spear-play, defensive tactics, hand-to-hand combat, and stealth. As they got older they were given training weapons, such as wooden swords or spear shafts in order to train with. They would spar with each other with training weapons brutally, sometimes to the point of killing one another. Surviving birth as a Spartan was not the only trial, but surviving agoge was another.
Every culture has its rite of passage where a boy becomes a man. The Spartan way was called Krypteia or Crypteia. When the boy was around the age of seventeen he would have to sneak out of his barracks and kill a Helot, an agrarian slave in Sparta, with his bare hands. The murder alone was not the only task, but the Spartan boy had to get back into his barracks without being caught. If the Krypteia were caught, they would not be subject to blood guilt, however they would be subject to severe punishment by their agoge superiors. After passing the Krypteia, the Spartan became a hoplite and was pressed into military service until the age of thirty.
S.W.A.T. - Spartan Weapons and Tactics
The Spartan hoplites were probably some of the most fierce and highly trained warriors of the ancient world. Their sole purpose for existing was to be a military force. At birth, if it was thought they might not be strong enough to serve the hoplites appropriately they were killed. If they were not strong enough or fast enough during agoge they would be killed in training. The Spartan hoplites were strong and agile, but their brute strength alone was not the only thing that made them monstrous opponents.
A hoplite’s life depended on his hoplon, also known as an aspis, a round shield constructed of wood and bronze. In the essence of tradition, a hoplite leaving for battle would bid his farewells to his wife or mother and they would respond, “Return with it, or upon it.” This literally meant return from battle alive or dead, however it meant something significantly more within the Spartan culture. The hoplon was much more than a tool to protect the individual hoplite, it was a tool to protect the Spartan to the left as well. The Spartan hoplites were an organic military machine, each soldier representing a cog in order for the entire mechanism to work effectively. If a Spartan returned home without his shield it was assumed that he dropped it while fleeing. This was a great dishonor and the punishment for returning home alive without the hoplon was death. Yet, if a Spartan was to be slain in battle, he would be carried home on his aspis. The standard hoplon was made of wood, but it is believed that the Spartans reinforced them with a thin layer of bronze. Each shield was decorated with various pictures or symbols by the individual hoplite. There is a tale of one hoplite during the Battle of Thermopylae that had an image of a to-scale fly on his aspis. When asked why he chose a fly he responded: “It may look like a fly now, but when the battle comes the enemy will see it as a lion.”
The next major article of armor the Spartans used was the linothorax, which was made of several layers of tightly woven linen that covered their breast. It was light and commonly worn among the Spartan hoplites. On the other hand, it is believed that by the time of the late 5th century BC they wore a bronze cuirass over the linothorax. The combination of the two is modernly associated with military grade Kevlar. There are still debates about the construction of the Spartan breastplate during the time of the Battle of Thermopylae. Some say it was only bronze, some say they used linothorax, some say it was a combination and others believe they abandoned the linothorax and replaced it with thin layers of leather beneath bronze. Regardless of how they were protected, the hoplites were protected nonetheless.
The final, most recognizable armor item was the Spartan galea, which was the horse-haired helm. Made of entirely bronze, this helm weighed up to ten pounds, and because of its girth warriors that donned the galea had limited vision and hearing. The Spartan galeae (plural for galea) had some differing elements dependant on the bearer. The standard galea had the horse-mane Mohawk most would recognize; all the same, the officers wore the manes from ear-to-ear as opposed to front-to-back.
Hoplite Galea - First is a soldier style while the second is officer
There were other pieces such as the chalmys (a short cape/cloak), the pteruges (cod piece and/or thigh guards), and the sandals that classify as pieces of armor. Against the Persians, the Spartan armor was far superior because the Persians bore no armor and wielded wicker shields. The Spartans were heavy infantry while the Persians were light infantry. Yet, the panoply [name of the entire Spartan battle attire] was not restricted to protection.
The Spartans carried a short sword called a xiphos, which was similar to the later Roman gladius. The styles seem to mirror, but the Spartans used bronze while the Romans used steel. The xiphos was a last resort weapon in combat, only used when their dory broke. The xiphos was not a primary weapon, but it was very effective in combat against light armored infantry.
A spear between six and nine feet in length called a dory was the Spartan hoplite’s primary weapon. The shaft was constructed of wood and a rounded leaf-shaped, bronze tip was mounted at the top. The opposite end of the shaft bore a heavy bronze horn designed to counter the weight of the spearhead, yet also give the hoplites an alternative weapon. Without context, most would assume the spear as a throwing weapon designed for ranged assaults. The dory’s use in Greek warfare was rarely used as a missile. It was actually commonly used in melee. The dory, depending on its length, was perfect for jabbing enemies and penetrating light armor. It was also a great solution to intercepting cavalry charges. The dory was not just used for simple jabbing and prodding, but with the proper training could provide a formidable weapon. It was best utilized when performing the signature phalanx formation.
The Spartan Phalanx was a mobile, armored, and spiked wall that would press against an enemy force. The gist of the phalanx was the front line would lower their shields in defense and also prepare their spears at about waist level whilst the second rank would raise their spears over the shoulder and allow them to protrude through the first rank. The result would be a defensive and offensive wall of soldiers that would just press forward into the enemy ranks like a bulldozer. The tactical formation expired in the ancient world as warfare became more advanced and sophisticated, but it was reinvented in the 17th century using musket fire. The Revolutionary War in America utilized a contemporary phalanx formation when combating the English. Irregardless, the Spartans relied on the phalanx tactical formation and it worked.
Thermopylae’s Tale of Heroism
Xerxes, King of Persia, arrived by land near the Thermopylae Pass. It was the quickest way to get to Athens, yet it was so very narrow at the time. Xerxes could have gone around the mountain that provided the southern barrier to the pass, but the trip would take his immense army two years to do so. Considering it took nearly a decade to rouse an army and march it to Thermopylae, Xerxes was not willing to spend any extra time. He arrived five days before the battle began. Xerxes may have had a family grudge against the Athenians, but he wanted to attempt diplomacy. He offered to allow the Spartans and their Thespian and Theban army to join the Persian ranks, but the offer was denied. A battle was inevitable.
The battle began fairly lightly. The 300 Spartans consisted of the main opposition against the Persian army while the remaining several thousand remained behind on the pass. The 300 Spartan hoplites were more than enough to stand defiantly against the most technologically advanced army of the period due to the strategic point at Thermopylae. As standard practice, Xerxes would begin combat with his archers, unleashing a volley of arrows. According to Herodotus, when a Persian emissary met with Dienekes, one of Leonidas’ lieutenants, he mentioned that the mass of the Persian army’s archers would loose a volley of arrows so dense to blot out the sun. Dienekes responded in laconic prose with, “So the better, we shall fight in the shade.” While there are several very similar variations of this quote, they all amount to the same. Herodotus considered Dienekes the most heroic of the 300 Spartans, so his writings around him are slightly biased. Since it’s agreed that none of the Spartans or the Athenians posted in the areas survived, this quote is more than likely heroic fiction from Herodotus’ mind. Regardless, there are some significant implications in the quote. Not only was the quote heroic and laconic, but it also showed the nature of Spartans. They were trained in night warfare, so the fact that the sun would be unavailable to them was easily shrugged off.
The Persian archers fired from nearly 500 yards away, and due to their weak bow construction the arrows reflected off the Spartan shields like rain against a windshield. Several volleys of arrows perpetrated the Spartan line, but none penetrated. Xerxes had no choice but to send in his infantry, the Medes. When one thinks of the collisions of armies of the middle and medieval ages he thinks of a dramatic, thundering crash as steel violently embraces steel. This did not happen at the Battle of Thermopylae. The Medes charged the Spartans and basically ran themselves through. The initial wave collision would more appropriately be described as wooden blocks clapping as men screamed in mortal agony, the Medes impaling themselves on hoplite spears. Battles of warfare at these times were not constant and perpetual, but were pulses of aggression. Opposing armies would meet, fight, then fall back; sometimes these pulses lasted seconds and sometimes minutes. The skirmished within a major battle were just that, skirmishes or pulses. No army could continuously fight for days at a time.
The initial Persian wave was easily repelled by the Spartans. When the Medes struck the Spartans, they found themselves pushing against a wall. The Spartan Phalanx not only had frontline purposes, but supportive purposes as the soldiers not in combat provided weighted support. So when the Medes crashed against the Spartan frontlines, they were essentially like waves crashing against a mountain. Aside from the fact every Spartan in the ranks and lines were chiseled out of combat perfection, the sheer density of the phalanx was enough to repel any army. Scores of Medes were dead and no Spartans were harmed. For the remainder of the first day Mede soldiers fell upon the Spartans and failed to penetrate even the first rank. At the end of the day, King Leonidas had only lost a handful of hoplites while Xerxes had lost several thousands of Mede infantrymen. In the wake of the first day the Spartans moved forward to slay any living Medes remaining on the battlefield as the Persian army remained temporarily retreated back at camp.
The second day was not much different, but there was a significant turn of power. Xerxes continued to barrage the Spartans with Medes and other lowly infantrymen. As he did so he became more frustrated, realizing he was throwing stones at a wall. The Spartans held their ground in the 30 meter-wide pass as the King of Persian pelted them with stones, proverbially speaking. Xerxes continued to push his infantry against the Spartan Phalanx, but with no avail. It is said that by the end of the second day Leonidas had lost less than a 100 of his hoplites while Xerxes had lost near 10,000 men.
Frustrated and doubtful, Xerxes pondered on a solution to break the Spartans. To the south was a mountain and to the north was a sheer drop to the sea. Xerxes was unable to flank the Spartans and he knew that continuing the limited mode of offensive would only deplete his army population more. His next plan of attack was to be a vicious one, but turned worse for the Spartans with a Greek traitor in the midst.
Ephialtes of Trachis informed Xerxes of an alternative path in which he could get behind the Spartans. To not alert the Spartan hoplites, Xerxes sent in his Immortals. The Persian Immortals were heavy infantry armored in scale-mail and carrying personal arsenals. Herodotus mentions in his The Histories:
The dress of these troops consisted of the tiara, or soft felt cap, embroidered tunic with sleeves, a coat of mail looking like the scales of a fish, and trousers; for arms they carried light wicker shields, quivers slung below them, short spears, powerful bows with cane arrows, and short swords, swinging from belts beside the right thigh.
On the morning of the third day, the Persian elites of 10,000 strong collided with the Spartans like a bullet impacting Kevlar. All the while, Xerxes had a formidable force follow Ephialtes’ trail in order to flank the hoplites. Fortunately for the Thebans and Thespians, the Spartans had enough warning (reasons are popular debate) to evacuate the area. The large majority of the troops retreated back to Athens in order to warn them and prepare for invasion. However, the remaining Spartans and a noteworthy number of Thebans remained behind to hold off the Persian force. Sadly, every single Spartan and supporting Theban was killed that day. Xerxes ordered that Leonidas’ body was to be found, his head lopped off, then mounted on a spike.
Unfortunately this historic tale is not left with a happy ending. The Persians ultimately defeated the small Spartan and mixed Greek forces before marching on Athens. Due to the heroic stand of Leonidas and his Spartans on the last day, Athens was able to evacuate before Xerxes burned it to the ground.
The Battle of Thermopylae may have been the final major conflict the Spartans ever saw. Regardless, their stand at the pass would be recorded into legend and 2500 years later it is still discussed and literature on the legend will continue to prevail. It took decades to rebuild Athens and as it was rebuilt a new empire to the north began: The Macedonians, people of Alexander the Great.
Last edited by RavenWhitefang; Mar 16th, 2007 at 10:07 PM.
Mar 14th, 2007, 9:37 PM #2
That was simply AWESOME, Laz! Thanks so much for obviously putting a TON of effort into this. It was a GREAT read. Much appreciated..."I am sexually attracted to cheese..." - Cartesiantheater
"I am well versed in the theory of evolution." - Traveler
Mar 14th, 2007, 9:48 PM #3
Thank you for the appreciation. I actually spent over 13 consecutive hours researching and writing this little piece. I only covered a fragment of the history, but I didn't want to post something too long and imposing. My life is history and I absolutely adore sharing it with my peers.
Mar 15th, 2007, 6:21 PM #4
Thoroughly enjoyed the post laz.I aggressively attack stupidity... If you feel I am being aggressive, well....
Mar 16th, 2007, 3:14 AM #5
Very nice post Laz, that's pretty similar to what I learned back in school, although I think my text differs a bit on numbers.
Either way, good stuff.~Evil Will~
I'm not evil, just morally challenged.
Apr 17th, 2007, 8:28 PM #6
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- Apr 2007
I have spent several hours trying to find information about the weaponry and tactics used by the Spartans in the Battle of Thermopylae and have yet to come across a more detailed account. You did an exemplary job on this piece and I want to thank you for all the information you provided.
Apr 17th, 2007, 8:44 PM #7
The information in this article didn't come from a single media source such as the internet, but from several sources. As a history student I've learned that great history writing comes from taking in all forms of recorded media in order to write an objective portrayal of past times.
Apr 18th, 2007, 6:23 PM #8
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- Apr 2007
I'm a college student and I heard this story in an Ancient Western Culture class I'm taking. Not long after hearing the story I began to see advertisements for the movie '300', so I and a friend from class went to see the movie. We both thought it was great and it really peaked my curiosity about the Spartan soldiers and their weapons. When the history channel did a segment on the weapons of the War of Thermopylae I was hooked for good.
I chose to do a paper on the subject and have spent, like I said, several hours searching for anything on the weaponry. I almost decided to change the topic of my paper when I happened on your website. It provided me with all the material I needed to start searching and you are right, it really helps to know the names of the armor and weapons. I will not be able to use your website as a reference, but I will simply because the information your article provided helped me get started.
Please thank RavenWhitefang for her contribution to the article, I will be sure to mention both of you in my references.
Apr 19th, 2007, 5:48 AM #9
History scares the crap out of meAnd those castles made of sand,
fall into the sea.....................
Apr 19th, 2007, 8:39 AM #10
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- Dec 2003
- The beach house next to the lake of fire.
Apr 19th, 2007, 1:22 PM #11
Apr 19th, 2007, 9:23 PM #12
Apr 23rd, 2007, 4:58 PM #13
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- Apr 2007
Thanks so much! I've really enjoyed college and for all it's frustration it's still been a great time! Too bad there isn't a place in society for the 'professional student'! <evil grin> Scorates, Plato and Aristotle had something there!
Apr 24th, 2007, 1:55 PM #14
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- May 2005
- Approaching maximal entropy
Good places to site -
Bad places to site -
1) Wikipedia (The online encyclopedia that anyone can edit, including Jake99)
2) "Homemade" sites (ex. http://www.geocities.com/salemwitches_ca/)
3) Newspaper sites (ex. Wall Street Journal... remember, they are privately owned with an agenda, no matter how miniscule.)
Apr 24th, 2007, 5:32 PM #15
I'm glad you caught that. I left that out. Ninety-nine percent of the time the colleges will require a reputable source such as those listed above by liberdave. There are occasions where the instructor will allow a reference from one that isn't as obviously reputable, depending on the source of the information. It is good practice to check with your professors before using AO as reference in papers.
Aug 14th, 2007, 4:02 PM #16
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- Aug 2007
- Nothern NY
Great read. Thanks for all of the info. I am going to add some more.
A lot of credit is given to Leonidas and his 300 Spartans but little attention, if any, is given to Themistocles. He and his men are responsible for keeping the Persian fleet from getting behind the Spartan position and landing troops. He and his Athenian navy were far outnumbered by there Persian counterpart and to keep the Persians from advancing he charged the ships with his small fleet and sank destroyed a number of them before backing off. The Persians divided their fleet and tried to sail around this small force by going around but they were caught in a storm and sank. Seeing that his job was done and that they could not possibly defeat the Persian navy they headed back to Athens and evacuated the city. But he had caused enough damage to the navy that Xerxes went back home on what was left of his navy and left a general by the name of Mardonius, in charge. They spent the winter in central Greece. The Spartans (which had two kings) now solitary ruler Pausanias, built the largest army that the Greeks had ever created. In the summer of 479 B.C. they defeated the Persians at a place near Plataea in Boeotia.
Also, at the battle of Marathon that's where we get the shoe from Nike. That's what the soldier yelled before collapsing and dying from exhaustion. That's also where we get the distance of a marathon because of the distance that he ran is the exact distance of a marathon.
Aug 14th, 2007, 4:52 PM #17
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- Aug 2007
- Nothern NY
Oh yeah. Here's another tidbit of info that I picked up on. Don't shoot the messenger but the 300 personal guards of the King (they each had their own 300) were normally made up of 150 homsexual couples. They were also required to sire a son so that thier seed was passed on. Not all of them were gay but a majority of them were preported to be so. The mindset of this was that you would fight harder for a loved one beside you to make sure that they make it home alive. I am still checking the reliability of this source and I will update accordingly.
Jan 22nd, 2011, 8:32 PM #18
Read Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield it is an awesome book about Thermopylae and the spartan way of life it follows a helot and his spartan friend from agoge to the battle I've read it several times so far and will probably read it several more times
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