“A desperate fight remains for all time a shining example. Let us remember Leonidas and his three hundred Spartans!”
—The Testament of Adolf Hitler (1945)
This is one of the most famous battles in history. It decided the future of Europe and in it the Spartans showed the world their immense quality. The Battle of Thermopylae came framed within the context of the Greco-Persian Wars, which catalyst was the expansion of the Greek presence in Asia Minor with the extension of the Greek colonies to the east. During the Greco-Persian Wars emperor Darius of Persia had been defeated in the famous battle of Marathon (490 BCE), after which Sparta and Athens signed a military pact aimed at the defense of Greece against the Persians in the near future. Darius was succeeded on his death in 485 BCE by the very ambitious Xerxes, who craved to take over large parts of Europe.
Persia was a vast reign ruled by an Iranian aristocracy, the descendants of the Medes, who along with the Persians before them and after the Parthians monopolized, during their existence, the domain of the empire—the largest in the world—, stretching from Turkey to Afghanistan.
Persia was a united and centralized state with vast crowds, massive and specialized armies and endless tracts of land. Its existence was already a feat worthy of those who made it possible. Although the background of this empire was clearly Indo-European it had become an abyss of miscegenation, as it held sway over a wide variety of non-Indo-European peoples, including Jews and the descendants of the ancient Mesopotamian civilizations. The Punics of Carthage (in what today is Tunisia) in alliance with Persia were ready to strike the Greek dominions in Italy and Sicily. Europe faced foreign hordes, a geopolitical meddling and a flood of eastern blood of magnitude not seen since the Neolithic.
Greece, on the other hand, besides being infinitely smaller, was not even a state but covered a balkanized collection of city-states or poleis that often warred with each other. There was no empire—that would come with the Macedonians. The ethnic heritage was, on the whole, more Indo-European in Greece than in Persia, and the strong political personality of the Hellenic polis made of Greece the only major obstacle of the Persian conquest of the Balkans and the Danube.
In the year 481 BCE, before invading Greece, Persia sent two ambassadors to Sparta offering the possibility of surrender. King Leonidas made them to be directly thrown into a well. This impulsive act, little “diplomatic” and highly condemnable, has an explanation. Leonidas had not been raised exactly as a Spartan prince because in first place the throne did not correspond to him. There was a king, but had poor health and did not survive. His succession fell on the following fellow in line, which had been brought up as a prince in anticipation to the health problems of the previous king. This one, however, fell in battle and suddenly Leonidas found himself in the throne of Sparta, having been raised as a common Spartan boy without the diplomatic finesse imparted in princely education. Leonidas was a soldier: blunt, simple and to the point.
It is clear, in any case, that the Ephorate did not consider just the murder of the ambassadors, as it sent two Spartan volunteers to go to Persia, submitted to Xerxes and offered as sacrifice to “atone” for the injustice that Leonidas committed against the ambassadors. Xerxes rejected the offer and let them go. He did not make a similar mistake, or get his hands dirty with blood or being found guilty of dishonor. The Athenians were more sensible: when the Persian ambassadors made their bids, they simply declined.
That same year, Xerxes sent emissaries to all the Greek cities except Sparta and Athens, requesting their submission. Many, terrified of his power, subjected while others, prudently, remained neutral although their sympathies lie with Greece. Sparta and Athens, seeing that an anti-Hellenic alliance was emerging, called for the other cities to form an alliance against Persia. Few responded. Persia was the new superpower, the new star. Its sweeping advance was a fact and its ultimate triumph, almost a given.
Persia began shipping its army, the largest in the world, and moved to Europe to conquer Greece. According to Herodotus, the Persian army consisted of 2 million men. Today, some have reduced this figure to 250,000 or even 175,000 men (including 80,000 cavalry), but it is still a massive army: a crushing and brutal numerical entity, especially compared with the tiny Greek force. As the Persian tide moved, all the villages it passed submitted without a fight.
Hellenic allies then met in Corinth. Envoys from Sparta, Athens, Corinth, Thebes, Plataea, Thespiae, Phocis, Thessaly, Aegina and others, parleyed on the strategy. They formed the Peloponnesian League, confirming the Hellenic alliance to boldly resist Persia. All Peloponnese poleis (excluding Argos, a traditional and stubborn enemy of Sparta) joined the alliance. The league was put in command by Sparta; Leonidas was made commander in chief of the troops of the league. The leagues were common occurrences in Greece, and they expressed the more “federalist” trends that somehow sought unification and a proper Pan-Hellenic nation. Some leagues were created only to face a common enemy, dissolving themselves afterwards and other leagues lingered; always pursuing political goals and long-term business. The Peloponnesian League was one of these ephemeral “emergency leagues.”
An army of 10,000 was formed of Peloponnesian Greeks under the command of Sparta. Since they had agreed to defend the passage of Tempe, they were stationed on the slopes of Mount Olympus, in northeastern Greece. However, King Alexander I of Macedon, who had good relations with Persia but felt sympathy for the Greeks and especially for Sparta, warned the Spartan commanders that the position was vulnerable by the presence of several pathways, and they decided to abandon it in favor of another more defensible position. At that time the Thessalians, considering themselves lost, submitted to Persia.
The definitive site for the defense of Greece was established in the pass of Thermopylae, the “Hot Gates.” According to legend, Heracles had rushed into the water to appease the inner fire that tormented him, turning it instead in thermal waters. The area was basically a narrow passage between the steep mountain and the sea. At its narrowest the gorge was 15 meters wide. This meant that although the Greeks were numerically lower, at least the fighters would face a funnel that balanced the scale, as only a certain number of warriors from each side could fight at once. And yet it was a desperate move, as the Greeks would soon tire while the Persians always counted with waves of fresh troops.
According to Herodotus, after coming to the sanctuary of Delphi, the Spartans received from the oracle the following prophecy:
For you, inhabitants of wide-wayed Sparta,
Either your great and glorious city must be wasted by Persian men,
Or if not that, then the bound of Lacedaemon
must mourn a dead king, from Heracles’ line.
The might of bulls or lions will not restrain him with opposing strength;
for he has the might of Zeus.
I declare that he will not be restrained until he utterly tears apart one of these.
Or a king of Sparta died, or Sparta fell. Consider how this prophecy could have influenced Leonidas. Suddenly, a heavy burden of responsibility on his shoulders had been downloaded. This monstrous doom, that would kill of shock most and make them sweat and shake, was received by the king with dignity and sense of royal duty. The mission of any Spartan was sacrificing his life for his country if needed. It was natural and joyful for them.
In the summer of 480 BCE, the Peloponnesian troops reached Thermopylae and camped up there. There were about eighty men of Mycenae, 200 of Phlius, 400 of Corinth, 400 of Thebes, 500 of Mantinea, 500 of Tegea, 700 of Thespiae, 1,000 of Phocis, 1,120 of Arcadia and all the men of Locris. The Athenians were absent because they had put their hoplites and commitment to the naval fleet, which also was ridiculous compared to the Persian navy. But the gang that should have received cheers and applause, the formation whose mere presence instilled courage and confidence to all military buildup, was the group that showed only 300 Spartans for battle. No more Spartans came because their city was celebrating a religious holiday, which prohibited Army mobilization. And for the Spartans, the first and most important was to make peace with the gods and not violate the ritual order of existence.
So the Greeks were together about 7,000—seven thousand Greeks against 250,000 Persians (175,000 according to other modern historians). Imagine the variety of the colorful congregation: the brightness of the bronze, the solemn atmosphere, the commentaries on the diverse gangs, the emblems on the shields, the typical rivalry gossip in the military, the feeling of togetherness, respect and a common destiny. The entire camp had to be surrounded by an aura of manliness and heroism. These Greeks, mostly hoplites, were well instructed. Since their younger days they were used to handling weapons and exercise the body. However, the only “professional” army was the Spartan, because in other places the hoplites lived with their families, trained on their own and were only called in case of war; while in Sparta they were permanently militarized since childhood under the terrible discipline that characterized them, and never stopped the training.
Among the Persians, however, the situation was very different. Although undoubtedly they had the numerical advantage and equipment, most were young men who had been conscripted and had little military training. However, they had highly specialized units. Unlike the Greeks, who, conditioned by their land, had stubbornly perfected the infantry level, the Persians had a formidable cavalry, chariots and excellent archers. In the vast plains, plateaus and steppes of Asia, to dominate this type of highly mobile forms of warfare was essential. The Persian Empire also had “the immortals,” a famous elite unit composed of ten thousand chosen among the Persian and Median aristocracy that, under General Hydarnes, formed the royal guard of Xerxes. The officers also consisted of Persian members of the aristocracy.
Xerxes camped his troops at the entrance, in Trachis. Leonidas, as soon he reached Thermopylae, rebuilt the ancient wall of two meters in the narrowest part of the pass, quartering the troops behind him. Having been informed that there was a path around the pass that led to the other side, he sent a thousand Phocaeans to defend it.
Xerxes, who could not conceive that the Greeks be obstinate in fighting, sent an emissary to parley with Leonidas, encouraging him to put his arms aside. The soldier’s laconic reply was “Come and catch them.” That night, when a Locris hoplite of defeatist tone commented that the cloud of Persian archers’ arrows would darken the sky and turn the day into night, Leonidas answered: “Then we’ll fight in the shade.”
The next morning, the troops appeared in ranks of formation. The Persians had gathered thousands of Medes and Kysios (Iranian peoples) and stationed at the entrance of the pass. At first, their orders were to capture alive the Greeks, as the Emperor thought he could place chains on them and display them in Persia as trophies, the style of the later Roman triumphs. Leonidas, meanwhile, made the Greeks form in the narrow gorge, and took his royal position at the right end of the phalanx. He decided not to mix the different peoples of his contingent. In his experience the soldiers preferred that well-known comrades died beside them, and it was more difficult that they fled in combat if those who they abandoned were lifetime family and friends. Leonidas put his Spartans to the front of the formation, as a spearhead. They would be the first to engage.
Ominously the Persians advanced and entered the gorge. The Spartans sang the paean with religious solemnity. When the Persians began raiding with terrifying shouting, the relentless meat grinder of the Spartan phalanx began to operate silently. The Persians crashed into the wall of shields with a deafening roar, waving their arms and finally skewering into the Spartan spears. Imagine the sight of that.
The blood that had run, the orders at the top of lungs, the cries of war and of pain, the cuts and stabbings, the reddened spears in and out rhythmically as sinister spikes from the shield of chest-plates splashed with blood, attacking accurately the weaknesses of poorly protected enemy bodies; the shocks and bumps, the terrible wounds, the bodies of the fallen and the Spartans maintaining calm and silence in the midst of the confusion and the terrible din of battle; the Persians, brave but ineffective, immolating themselves in a glorious feat. The Spartans seemed to be everywhere, and there they were, inspiring the other Greeks to imitate them, pointing out that victory was possible and stirring the moral. By their conduct they were proving that their socialism of union and sacrifice was clearly superior to any other political system, and that they were better prepared to face the Iron Age.
Unlike Leonidas, Xerxes did not fight. Sitting on his throne of gold, located in a suitable place, he watched with horror what was happening: his troops were being slaughtered catastrophically. The Persians had much lighter and ineffective armor than the heavy Greek cuirass, as the type of Persian fight was based on mobility, speed, fluidity and flexibility of large crowds, while the Greek was organized resistance, accuracy, coordination, diamond hardness and willingness to stand together as one compact rock before the onslaught of the ocean waves. Furthermore, the Persian spears were shorter and less stout, and could not reach the Spartans with ease. They fell by the hundreds, while the Spartans were barely injured. The best Persian officers fell when, going by the head of their troops, tried to inspire them and were wounded by Hellenic weapons. When Leonidas ordered to relieve the Spartans, passing other units into combat, the situation continued: the Persians fell massacred. It is said that three times Xerxes jumped from his throne to see what was going on, perhaps as a football coach sees his team thrashed. Leonidas would only say, “the Persians have many men, but no warrior.”
General Hidarnes removed the contingent of Kysios and Medes, discovering a floor mangled with corpses. Then he made enter his immortals in combat, convinced that they would change the course of battle. Leonidas ordered his Spartans to be on the forefront again. The immortals advanced impassively on the bodies of their fallen compatriots and furiously rammed the phalanx. The Spartans suffered some casualties, but their formation did not break. For their part, the immortals were pierced by long spears and fell by the dozens, wounded and dead. Many fell into the waters of the Gulf of Malis, where many, for not knowing how to swim, or sunk by the weight of their weapons and armor, were carried by ocean currents and drowned.
The Spartans implemented their more tested and complicated tactics, demonstrating the perfect instruction they alone possessed. They opened gaps where unsuspecting enemies penetrated, only to be shut down and massacred by rapid spears poking from all sites. Other times they simulated panic and retreated in disarray, after which the Persians emboldened, pursued in disarray. But the Spartans, displaying their mastery in close order, turned quickly returning to phalanx form, each taking place at the last moment and terribly reaping the Persian ranks, sowing the ground with corpses and watering it with their blood. So passed a whole day. When evening came, the fighters retreated and had their rest. It was considered bad luck fighting at night (it was more difficult that the dead found their way to the afterlife). The Greeks were exhausted but in high spirits. The Persians, on the other hand, were fresher but their morale hit rock bottom. They must have wondered if they were as bad or if it was the Greeks who were so good.
The next morning the fight resumed. Xerxes commanded fresh Persians, hoping that maybe they made a dent in the exhausted Greek defenders. Nothing was further from reality: wave after wave, the Greeks massacred the enemy again. The terror began to spread among the Persians. Many times they tried to escape the Spartans, and the officers lashed them with whips to force them to combat.
At that point, Xerxes had to be amazed and desperate at the same time. Its fleet had failed to defeat the Greek fleet at Cape Artemision, and he could not outflank Thermopylae by sea. Then came the betrayal, the heroes’ curse. A local shepherd named Ephialtes asked to speak to Xerxes and, in exchange for a hefty sum of money, he revealed the existence of the road that skirted the ravine, in a process archetypally similar to what happened many centuries later in the fortress of Montségur of the Cathars. General Hidarnes, in command of the immortals, crossed the road guided by Ephialtes. When he saw at the distance a few Greeks ready for the fight, he hesitated and asked Ephialtes if they were Spartan. He told him they were Phocis, and Hidarnes continued. Since then, the die was cast: the Greeks were doomed. They were going to lose the battle to death.
Leonidas, meanwhile, received messengers (probably repentant Thessalians fighting under the Persians) who informed him how they would be surrounded by the enemy. The Greeks took counsel immediately. Leonidas knew already that he would lose the battle. He ordered all the Greeks to retire except his Spartans and the Thebans. The Thespians, led by Demophilus, decided to remain on their own will, and so they did, covering their small town with glory. When only Spartans, Thebans and Thespians remained (1,400 men at first, less than the casualties suffered during the fighting), the troops breakfasted. Leonidas told his men: “This is our last meal among the living. Prepare well friends, because tonight we will dine in Hades!”
The Greeks formed, this time together, the phalanx. Before them, the vast army; and the immortals to their rear. Instead of attacking the immortals to perhaps defeat them and fight their way to the withdrawal (which would be useless because it would open the Greek doors to the Persians), Leonidas ordered to attack the bulk of the Persian army, in a magnificent display of heroism and courage, with the goal of maintaining the fight for as long as possible and give time to Greece to prepare. They knew they were going to die in any case, so they chose to die heroically, showing an immense greatness. The Greeks were aware that this was no longer a resistance with hope, but a struggle of sacrifice in which the goal was a passionate and furious rush into the arms of glory; inflicting the enemy the greater damage in the process and delaying the invasion.
In the middle of combat, and having killed countless Persians, Leonidas fell. Around his body, a hellish turmoil was formed while Greeks and Persians fought for its possession. Several times he fell into enemy hands and several times he was recovered by the Greeks. Eventually the body was secured by the Spartans that, constantly fighting, retreated to the Phocaean wall.
At one point, the Thebans separated from the bulk of the Greek phalanx. For long instants they fought valiantly, but in the end, exhausted, crazed and looking lost, threw their weapons and spread their hands in supplication to surrender to the Persians who, in the adrenaline rush, even killed a few more. The rest of Thebes was captured. After the battle, the Persians would mark them on the forehead with hot irons and sell them as slaves. What helped them to surrender? What did they get? Life? A life of slavery and humiliation? Would it not have been better and more dignified to die in battle, fighting to the end?
The Spartans and Thespians, meanwhile, continued to struggle beside the Phocaean wall. Under pressure and shock loads the wall collapsed, crushing warriors of the two armies. Fighting continued, deaf and ruthless. Many fell exhausted and could not raise again. Others died pierced by the enemy metal. When finally Hidarnes appeared in front of the immortals, the few Greeks who remained, almost all Spartans, climbed a small hill to defend themselves more easily. They put their backs against a wall to avoid being completely unprotected. There were less than a hundred Greeks against at least 100,000 Persians (some say 150,000 and others speak of figures far higher). There, every Greek was facing more than a thousand Persians.
The time of final resistance witnessed the most flaming heroism of history. The last fight on the hill of Thermopylae has been the inspiration for countless works of art over centuries. Probably only Spartans were left. Almost all of them were wounded and bleeding from several wounds. Their spears were broken and their shields shattered, so they resorted to the sword. Those who were unarmed after breaking or losing the sword used rocks to hit the enemy, or fanatically rushed upon him to kill him with their hands or teeth, fist, choking, breaking, hitting, crunching, tearing and biting with superhuman ferocity, in a vicious and bloody melee. Were not these men possessed by the legendary holy wrath, that of the berserkers and the inspired warriors? They well could have asked: “Why do you fight, if you will lose? You are shattered, on the brink of death and closer to the other world than to Earth. Why do ye keep fighting?” But those were improper thoughts for heroes. Their behavior far exceeded anything in this world. Reason had been trampled under the feet of the Hellenic will, which squeezed at the maximum the forces from those heroes. It was a rage that came from the above. It was blind fanaticism; an invincible, visceral, red and instinctive feeling. It was a fight to the end.
The Persians failed to reduce those brave and, totally demoralized, retreated. Then their archers advanced, and loosed successive rains of arrows that finished off the resistant. A massive, imperial army of hundreds of thousands fighting dozens (probably around a hundred) of crazed Greeks, and still they had to beat them from afar because in melee they could never win!
When the last Spartan—exhausted, delirious and bleeding, with his mind set on his wife, his children, his country and the sky—fell riddled with arrows shot from a distance, the battle of Thermopylae ended. The Greeks had lost and the Persians won. The fallen had furiously slain themselves to the last man, gentlemanly consummating their oath of honor and eternal fidelity and ascended the steps of immortal glory. In a single battle those fallen men achieved a higher luminance than what a thousand priests and philosophers have achieved in lifetimes of dedication.
To imagine the fear that this slaughter of Persians injected into the heart of Xerxes, suffice it to say that he ordered the corpse of Leonidas to be beheaded and crucified. (Similarly, William the Conqueror viciously ordered to mutilate the body of King Harold after the Battle of Hastings against the Anglo-Saxons, who also defended themselves at a high point). This is much more revealing than it seems, since the Persians had the tradition to honor a brave, dead enemy. But Leonidas had shown him something too far above his respect, something terrifying that turned upside down all he took for granted and knew about the Great West. Other Greek corpses were thrown into a mass grave. Xerxes asked, beside himself in his trauma, if in Greece there were more men like those 300 Spartans. We can well imagine what he felt when he was informed that there were 8,000 Spartiates in Sparta, brave and trained as the 300 fallen.
Let us now do a little count of the battle of Thermopylae: 7,000 Greeks against (say) 250,000 Persians. The Greek side had 4,000 dead, including Leonidas, his 300 Spartans and 700 Thespians. But the Persian side had no more and no less than 20,000 people dead, including two brothers of Xerxes: Abrocomes and Hyperanthes. That is, an army thirty times smaller than the enemy inflicts losses five times greater than what themselves suffered. Proportionally this means a triumph of 150 to 1. Comment is superfluous, although we know that, after all, the cold numerical figures understand nothing of heroism and will.
What happened after the battle? Was the sacrifice in vain? What did the fallen get? Buying time for the naval fleet and the Greek counter-offensive. The Persians continued their march to Athens, finding it empty because its inhabitants had been evacuated during the fighting at Thermopylae. The Persians sacked and burned what they could. In the battle of Salamis in the same year of 480 BCE, the Greek fleet defeated the Persian in glorious combat. Xerxes had to retire with an important part of his army, for without the fleet, logistics and supply were precarious. He, therefore, left 80,000 Persians (some say 300,000) under the command of his brother, General Mardonius, to continue with the campaign.
A few months later, at the Battle of Plataea in 479 BCE, 5,000 Spartans along with their allies, under the leadership of King Pausanias of Sparta, decisively defeated the Persians and General Mardonius fell in combat. Persia was defeated. Greece won the Second Greco-Persian War. The sacrifice of Thermopylae, therefore, was not in vain.
The poet Simonides wrote a poem in honor of the fallen Spartans at Plataea. Below, an elegiac couplet:
O Stranger, send the news home to the people of Sparta that here we are laid to rest:
the commands they gave us have been obeyed.
What was the catastrophic possibility that Leonidas prevented? Had he withdrawn from the fight, the Persian cavalry would have attacked in mass and in the open, closing from behind and from the sides. Persia would have conquered all of Greece and probably a significant portion of Eastern Europe; perhaps even beyond the Balkans and the Danube. (At that time there was no Vienna that would stop it.) This would have been a disaster for all posterity of ethnic Europeans.
Before parting for the fight, Queen Gorgo, wife of Leonidas, asked: “What should I do if you don’t come back?” The short answer was: “Marry one worth of me and have strong sons to serve Sparta.” In the perpetuation of the race there is no acceptable pause. The road is inexorable and the mystery of the blood is transmitted to the new heirs.
The Battle of Thermopylae was archetypal. Leonidas (a Heracleid descendant, ancestor of the Spartan kings) fell on the spot where, according to tradition, Heracles had rushed to the waters to calm his inner fire. There a statue was placed of a lion (an animal whose skin Heracles put on and contained in it the same name of Leonidas). There is a simple inscription on a plate, “Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here, obedient to their laws, we lie.”