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<p>Leonidas at Thermopylae (1814) by Jacques Louis David</p>

Thermopylae

Also known as “Hot Gates”, is one of the entrances to Hades, where a handful of men faced the world's largest army

In mythology, the Greek underworld, or Hades, is a distinct realm (one of the three realms that make up the cosmos) where an individual goes after death. In this very place called Thermopylae, according to the ancients, there would exist one of the entrances to the underworld. The place’s name, not surprisingly, means “Hot Gates” as legend has it that the heat of hell makes the earth burn, generating natural hot springs. 

Interestingly, this same ” infernal” place in the middle of Greece between the Boeotia and Thessaly regions was the scene of one of the most celebrated and narrated clashes in history: the famous Battle of Thermopylae.

 

Background
(by Bibi Saint-Pol, CC BY-SA 3.0  Wikimedia Commons)

(by Bibi Saint-Pol, CC BY-SA 3.0 Wikimedia Commons)

In the eastern Mediterranean, two concepts would soon come into contact: the absolute monarchy of the Persian empire and the freedom and independence of the Greek Poleis.

The expansive reputation of the former, which encompassed an immense territory, soon made Greece its prey. According to the usual formula, Darius, the Persian emperor, sent emissaries to all Greek city-states in 491 B.C. to ask for “land and water” as gifts, as a sign of total submission to his authority. However, Darius knew little of the solidity and pride of the Greek fighters he would face. So it was that after a failed campaign of expansion, the Persians’ spirit of revenge and submission became greater than ever with Darius’ son: Xerxes.

The most probable land access road from the east coming from Turkey passed through a narrow strip of land between sea and mountains. Here at Thermopylae, the Greeks organised one of the most arduous and glorious resistances in history.

A Greek army of about 7,000 men marched north to try to stop the advance of the Persians in the summer of 480 BC.

Events
Leonidas at Thermopylae (1814) by Jacques Louis David
Xerxes sculpture (National Museum of Iran, CC BY 3.0 Wikimedia Commons)

Leonidas at Thermopylae (1814) by Jacques Louis David

The Persian army proceeded slowly through Thrace and Macedonia regions north of Greece. At this time of year, the Spartans, the top military power in the alliance, were celebrating the Carnean festivals, during which Spartan law forbade military activity. It was also the time of the Olympic Games, which imposed the Olympic truce, so marching to war would have been doubly sacrilegious for the Spartan army. On this occasion, however, the Ephoras decided that the danger was great enough to warrant an immediate expedition, commanded by one of the kings of Sparta, Leonidas I, to block the pass. He took with him the 300 men of the royal bodyguard, the so-called “horsemen,” a military section that also existed in other eras. The purpose of the expedition was to regroup as many other Greek soldiers as possible along the road and await the arrival of the bulk of the Spartan army at Thermopylae.

Herodotus tells us that Leonidas was convinced that he was facing certain death along with all his troops, so he chose only those Spartiates who had sons to ensure the continuity of the lineages.

On the march to Thermopylae, the Spartan division gathered contingents from various cities and numbered more than 7,000 soldiers when it reached the pass. Leonidas decided to camp near the narrowest part, known as the “middle gate”, and to defend it where the Phocians had built a defensive wall long before. From the nearby town of Heraclea Trachinia, Leonidas was informed of the existence of a mountain track that could be used to bypass Thermopylae. Here the king placed 1,000 Phocian hoplites on the heights as a precaution. In mid-August, the Persian army was sighted in the Maliaco Gulf approaching Thermopylae.

After setting up camp, Xerxes sent an emissary to negotiate with Leonidas: the Greeks were offered freedom, the title of “friends of the Persian people,” and larger and more fertile lands than they already possessed. When Leonidas refused these terms of peace, the ambassador peremptorily demanded that they drop their weapons, but the king seems to have replied, “Let them come and take them” (in ancient Greek: “Μολὼν λαβέ”). Xerxes remained incredulous at the answer reported to him by his ambassador, so he let four days pass, always hoping that the Greeks would retreat. On the fifth day, since the Greeks did not hint at leaving and, indeed, their staying seemed to him an act of insolence, he ordered the battle to begin.

Forces
Corinthian greek helmet (by Staatliche Antikensammlungen, CC BY-SA 3.0 Wikimedia Commons)
(by Elliott Sadourny, CC BY-SA 3.0 Wikimedia Commons)

Corinthian greek helmet (by Staatliche Antikensammlungen, CC BY-SA 3.0 Wikimedia Commons)

The number of soldiers Xerxes assembled for the second invasion of Greece has been the subject of endless controversy because the numbers reported by ancient sources are so large. Herodotus, an ancient historian, claimed that the Persians managed to field 2.6 million soldiers of the most diverse ethnic groups, accompanied by an equivalent number of support personnel. The almost contemporary poet Simonides speaks of four million, and other sources claim that the total number of Persian soldiers was about 800000. Modern scholars tend to downplay the figures given by Herodotus and other ancient sources, regarding them as the unrealistic result of miscalculations or exaggerations on the part of the victors. Instead, they agree in assuming that the Persians numbered between 170000 and 300000, although others speak of about 150000 actual.

Regarding the number of Peloponnesians, Diodorus claims that there were 1,000 Lacedaemonians and 3,000 other Peloponnesians, for a total of 4,000 men. Many modern historians, who usually consider Herodotus more reliable, add more than 1,500 men to get roughly 7000 to 7100 as a reference number. Since these are estimates, however, other possibilities are permissible.

Battlefield
The natural hot springs (by Fkerasar, CC BY-SA 3.0 Wikimedia Commons)
Thermopylae today (by Fkerasar, CC BY-SA 3.0 Wikimedia Commons)

The natural hot springs (by Fkerasar, CC BY-SA 3.0 Wikimedia Commons)

At the time of the battle, the Pass of Thermopylae consisted of a road that ran along the shore of the Maliaco gulf and was so narrow that only one chariot at a time could pass. On the southern side of the road stood the cliffs that loomed over the pass, and on the northern side stretched the Maliaco gulf. Three constructions called “gates” (pylai) had been erected along the route, and at the middle gate, a small wall had been built by the Phocians a century earlier to thwart Thessalian invasions. The name “Hot Gates” comes from the hot springs that were located nearby. Today the pass is not near the sea but several kilometres inland due to sedimentation in the Maliaco Gulf. The ancient route lies in the foothills around the plain, flanked by a modern road. Recent surveys indicated that the passage was only 100 meters wide, and the waters reached the gates.

The clash
(by BMartens, CC BY-SA 3.0 Wikimedia Commons)

(by BMartens, CC BY-SA 3.0 Wikimedia Commons)

First, Xerxes ordered five thousand archers to shoot a volley of arrows, but the darts did little damage to the Hellenes, who were protected by bronze shields and helmets. Modern scholars have also calculated that the arrows were fired from at least 100 meters away. After that, Xerxes sent ten thousand Medes and Cissians against the Greeks “with orders to take them prisoners and bring them before him.” The Greeks fought in front of the Phocian wall, in the narrowest part of the pass, so as to use as few soldiers as possible at a time.

Ancient writers say that “the men stood shoulder to shoulder” and that the Greeks were “superior in valour and in the measure of their shields.” This is probably a description of the typical Greek phalanx, in which the men formed a wall of shields from which the long doric spears stretched out. Such an effective array was able to obstruct the entire passage. The Persians, equipped with less long weapons, were unable to shorten the distance to enter into hand-to-hand combat with the hoplites.

According to Herodotus and Diodorus Siculus, the Great King, Xerxes, after assaying the Greek forces, launched a second assault with the Immortals, an elite force of 10,000 men. However, even the chosen unit failed, for using shorter spears than those of the Greeks, it could not assert numerical superiority. The Spartans, moreover, pretended a few times to retreat (taking care, however, to keep their lines compact), and every time the Medes launched themselves disorderly in pursuit, the Spartans turned and faced them, thus killing untold numbers of Persians. Once again, the Persians had to retreat.

After a few days of fighting, while the Persian king, enraged by his losses, was pondering what to do, the turning point in the battle occurred: a man from Heraclea Trachinia named Ephialtes, driven by a desire for a large reward, informed Xerxes of the existence of a mountain path around Thermopylae and offered to lead the Persian army there. This episode made the character of Ephialtes the archetype of the traitor in Greek culture, and his very name took on such a negative connotation in the Greek language that, with time, meant “nightmare.”

Thus, on the third day, because of this trap, the Persians were able to ambush the Greek contingents and set the glorious example of resistance.

Some Greek commanders opted to retreat, but Leonidas decided to remain in defence of the pass with his Spartiate warriors. A contingent of 700 Thespians led by their general Demophilus also refused to leave with the other Greeks and stayed to fight. Also present were 400 Thebans and probably the Iloti who had accompanied the Spartiates. When most of the army withdrew, only about 3,000 men remained, not including the losses suffered in the previous days: 300 Spartiates, 700 Thespians, 400 Thebans, the 1,000 Phocians stationed above the pass (and perhaps 900 Ilotians, slaves of the Spartans). 

At dawn, Xerxes waited for Hydarnes, the Persian commander, to descend the mountain and then send his forces forward. A Persian army of ten thousand men of light infantry and cavalry charged the front of the phalanx. The Greeks, this time, left the wall and went out of the pass to clash with the Persians in the broadest part of the gorge, trying to kill as many as possible; they fought with spears until they were all broken and then switched to short swords, called “xiphoi.” Herodotus reports that two of Xerxes’ brothers, Abrocome and Hyperantheus, died in this melee. Within the first few minutes of the assault, Leonidas had also perished, and furious fights were engaged for his corpse, which ended when the Greeks succeeded in recovering him. When the Greeks became aware of the arrival of Hydarnes’ men, the battle changed its aspect: the Greeks hurriedly regained the narrows of the pass, overcame the wall, and went to take up position on the hill. About the surviving defenders, Herodotus writes:

Here they defended themselves to the last, those who still had swords fought with them, and the others resisted with hands and teeth.

(Herodotus, Histories, VII, 225)

Having demolished part of the wall, Xerxes ordered the hill to be surrounded, and the attackers fought until the last Greek soldier was dead. 

In 1939 archaeologist Spyridōn Marinatos, excavating at Thermopylae, found many Persian bronze arrowheads on Kolonos Hill, identifying it as the site of the last Hellenic resistance. Before that time, the hill was believed to be another, smaller and closer to the wall.

Subsequent events

Xerxes’ army arrived at the pass in late August or early September. Thanks to strenuous Greek resistance, it was held back for a week by the Greeks, who, although greatly outnumbered, blocked the only route by which the massive Persian army could have reached central Greece.

With Thermopylae open to the free passage of the Persian army, the way to Athens was cleared. In the following months, after strenuous Greek resistance by land and sea, the two armies clashed again near the city of Plataea, where the Greeks defeated the Persians, inflicting heavy losses and forcing them to retreat northward. The clash, in which the Persian general himself, Mardonius, was killed, ended the Persian invasion.

Last updated on
January 5, 2023

Ptolemy Team

All our content is conceived and written by our editorial team, consisting of students and recent graduates in Cultural Heritage, Ancient and Medieval History, and Arts.