The Battle of Thermopylae took place during the Greece-Persia
war in roughly the 5th century BC. Some 30 city-states of
central and southern Greece met in Corinth to devise a common
defense (others, including the oracle at Delphi, sided with the
Persians). They agreed on a combined army and navy under Spartan
command, with the Athenian leader Themistokles providing the
strategy. The Spartan king Leonidas led the army to the pass at
Thermopylae, near present-day Lamia, the main passage from
northern into central Greece.
One of the best points at which to hold off an invader was at
Thermopylae, a narrow valley adjacent to the sea. The attacker
could not pass to the seaward side, and to go inland would mean
a significant detour. Other armies could risk this, but Xerxes
On the other hand, a defender could take a stand with
comparatively few men. A wall had once been built here, and a
small fort. The Greeks rebuilt the wall and waited.
The Greek strategy was to delay the land force and to defeat
the Persians at sea, then starve the Persian army. It should
have worked, but from the beginning everything seemed to go
To begin with, the Greek army was surprised to see the
Persians arrive so soon. They had hoped to get more
reinforcements. On the other side, Xerxes had excellent
information and knew that the Greeks were waiting for him. He
set up camp on the plain below the pass. He was confident, but
the army was so large that it could not afford to wait in any
one place for very long.
He sent scouts up the valley to ascertain the nature of the
opposition. The Spartans had duty on the outside wall, where
they were waiting watchfully. The scouts were astounded to see
the Spartans doing calisthenics and braiding their hair. Xerxes
could not believe they intended to fight against hopeless odds.
He announced his presence and waited four days for them to
The Greeks did not leave. Exasperated, and aware of his
supply situation, Xerxes ordered an attack on the fifth day. He
sent the Medes against the Greeks, ordering Spartans be taken
alive, so confident he was of easy victory.
The Spartans retreated, running away, even to the point of
turning their backs on the enemy. The Medes, sure that they were
winning the victory they had expected, broke ranks to pursue,
whereupon the Spartans turned and fought savagely. After sharp
fighting, the Medes were defeated.
Xerxes now sent in the Immortals, his best troops. The
Spartans employed the same strategy, with the same results.
Xerxes was furious. Another day's fighting yielded no better for
The fighting was all the more remarkable in that the Greeks
had failed utterly in the sea battle and the Persians had
complete control of the sea. The sole purpose now for the battle
was to delay the inevitable as long as possible.
At this point, treachery undid their heroic efforts.
Ephialtes, a man from Malis, went to King Xerxes and told him
that he knew of a goat path that went around the Greek position
and debouched behind their lines. After initial skepticism,
Xerxes discovered the man was telling the truth. He made his
The Greeks knew of the path, of course. There were, in fact,
more than one path, winding among the mountains. The men of
Phocis were posted on the most likely path, but the Persians
slipped past them by way of a different path under cover of
The Greeks learned of the treachery near morning. They would
barely have time to escape from the trap. Leonidas told the
other Greeks to return home, to fight another day, but the
Spartans stayed. The Thespians and Thebans joined them. There
were no more than a few thousand who stayed.
Greeks knew they were about to die and they fought all the
more fiercely for it. The Spartans put up the stoutest
resistance, taking their stand on a little hill and fighting in
a circle facing outward with enemies all around.
When Leonidas was killed, he was some distance away. Some of
the Spartans formed a tight group, fought their way to his body,
picked it up, then fought their way back to the main group on
The Persians seemed utterly unable to annihilate the last 300
Spartans. They demanded the body of Leonidas in return for the
Spartan's lives, but the men refused to abandon the body of
their King, declaring: "A Spartan leaves the field with his
shield or upon it"
At last, the Spartans were killed by a hail of spears and
arrows, the Persians fearing to close with these fearsome
Information distributed with permission. Copyright © 1999,
Ellis L. Knox.