I’m sure very few people have not seen Zack Snyder’s film “300.” After the movie was released, interest in the Spartans and their story increased. Units began adopting hoplite helmets as their unofficial logos, and supporters of the second amendment adopted the phrase “ΜΩΛΟΝ ΛΑΒΕ”—King Leonidas’ famous taunt to his Persian adversaries.
Their popularity is well deserved, as the Spartans are among the greatest warrior cultures in history. The comic book by Frank Miller, upon which the movie was based, is a masterpiece, although it is only an adaptation of the historical facts. Those historical facts are impressive, especially to anyone that has served, as they are the embodiment of honor and duty.
The Battle of Thermopylae
The Persian empire under the rule of King Darius was expanding to Europe and had already conquered Thrace and Macedonia before aiming to subjugate the rest of Greece. To be sure, this campaign was not for economic gain, since Greece, as today, was not a wealthy area. It may have held strategic importance due to its position in the Mediterranean, but the most plausible reason for the Persian expansion seems to be the pursuit of prestige or the need to quell potentially troublesome neighbors.
Anyhow, they decided to send envoys to all southern Greek cities, asking for their surrender. The response of Athens and Sparta was clear and harsh; the envoys were killed. Athens and Sparta then formed an alliance.
The first Persian invasion, led by Datis and Artaphernes, was crushed in the Battle of Marathon. The defeat at Marathon signaled the end of the Persian empire’s first attempt, and Darius began preparations for a second attack. This time, he planned to lead the invasion himself, but death got to him first. The task was passed to his son, Xerxes.
On a day in late August of 480 BCE, Xerxes’ huge army stopped in the narrow passage of Thermopylae, which his army had to pass through on the road to Athens. The number of men comprising that army differ greatly from source to source and from history scholar to history scholar, ranging from millions, which I believe is a gross exaggeration, to 20,000, which I believe is a gross understatement. The safest bet is they numbered somewhere between 100,000 and 150,000.
The Greeks that had been sent to stop them, on the other hand, numbered between five and seven thousand. The passage was the right choice for defense, as whenever a Greek army had tried to face the Persians on open ground, it lost. In the narrow pass, the numbers would not matter, and the light infantry used by the Persians would be at a disadvantage—forced to face head-on the armored machine of the Greek phalanx.
The Greek army consisted of King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans, most of whom were members of his personal guard. He only took with him men who had male descendants. This was a unit of fathers. Units like this were formed when chances of winning were slim. The average age of the 300 was around 40, and the king himself was in his late 50s or early 60s—a perfect example of the saying, “Don’t pick a fight with an old man; if he’s too old to fight, he’ll just kill you.”
With the Spartans were 900 Lacedaemonian auxiliaries and other city-states’ armies. Here, the historians Herodotus and Diodorus give us different numbers. More or less, there were 500 Mantineans, 500 Tegeans, 400 Corinthians, 700 Thespians, 1000 Phocians, 1000 Arcadians, 200 Philians, 80 Mycenaeans, and 1000 Locrians.
The battle didn’t start right away. An emissary was sent by Xerxes to ask for the surrender of the defending force and to offer them peace terms by naming them friends of the Persian people, guaranteeing their freedom and relocation to a better land. When these terms were refused, they received a written message from Xerxes prompting them to hand over their arms. This is when King Leonidas gave his famous response: ‘’ΜΩΛΟΝ ΛΑΒΕ’’ (translated as “Come and take them”). After that, Xerxes sat on his butt for four days hoping that the sight of his massive army would demoralize the defenders of the pass. No such thing happened.
The battle begins
The battle opened when Xerxes sent his Median and Kissian troops to attack, following a barrage of arrows. They couldn’t even make a crack in the Greek defense. It was time for the elite Immortals to enter the fray. The result was the same: The lightly armored Persians were unable to dent the heavily armored Greek phalanx. A tactic used by the Greeks was the feigning of a disorganized retreat before turning to face the enemy that had broken ranks in pursuit of an ostensibly routed enemy.
Some scholars suggest that the Spartans knew how to make steel and, in that narrow passage, they could pierce multiple enemies with each stroke of their steel-tipped spears. Steel or no steel, their military training—known as agoge—which they began at age seven, had definitely produced some of the most elite soldiers of ancient times.
The second day was a repetition of the first. Arrows, followed by Medians, Kissians, and Immortals. Again, with no success. The successful Greek defense to that point was not only the work of the Spartans. Every city-state took turns holding the pass. The men would pass through the ranks of the contingent that were fighting and replace them at the front line after a certain amount of time.
The Greek army was holding its ground and seemed to even have chances of winning, until things went horribly wrong in a most unexpected way. A local man named Ephialtes went to Xerxes and told him about a mountain pass that was lightly guarded and would lead his army to the rear of the defending force. Ephialtes’ name has since not only became synonymous with the word “traitor,” but has also entered Greek vocabulary as the word for “nightmare.”
The passage was defended by the Phocians, who did not do a good job defending when attacked at night on the second day. They retreated to a higher defending position, thus leaving the passage open for the Persian army. King Leonidas ordered the bulk of his army to retreat and stayed behind with the survivors of his 300, the auxiliaries, and 700 Thespians to fight a rearguard battle.
He was most probably motivated by the prophecy of the Delphi oracle he had received before marching into battle. She had said that Sparta would have to lose a king or be destroyed. That morning, Leonidas gave his men his now-famous advice to eat a good breakfast, as that night they were going to dine in Hades. He rode into battle and into legend. He died in the first clash with the Persian force, which was now attacking from all sides. The Spartans fought fiercely to protect the body of their fallen leader and kept on fighting until the last of them died under a barrage of Persian arrows.
The reason for the initial success is obvious when we examine the two armies. From one side, we have the heavily armored Greek phalanx, a very tight formation of men wearing breastplates and carrying heavy shields called hoplon (hence the name hoplites), strong spears, and a short sword called a xyphos—a strong and stout weapon. No, the Spartans did not fight half naked, with their sexy abs glimmering in the sun. On the Persian side were lightly armored troops carrying swords that had no central strengthening ridge and light javelins that could not withstand the clash with the heavy shields and spears of the Greeks, in a place where their usual tactic of moving fast and encircling the enemy could not be used.
The Persians achieved a pyrrhic victory, losing much in the way of numbers, but even more in morale. This is what rejuvenated the hopes of the Greek world. The battle at Thermopylae and the Spartan sacrifice have become a timeless legend.
The Persian army captured and sacked Athens, but the Athenians had evacuated the city and their fleet was stationed in Salamis. The Persians attacked it in hopes of bringing the campaign to an end. Their hopes proved futile, as the clever positioning of the Greek fleet in the narow seaways by Themistocles made the Persian fleet unable to make use of its vast numbers. The proficiency of the Greek crews made all the difference, granting the victory to the Greek side. The Persians made new attempts at a political solution, but they were met with rejection from the Greeks. The battle of Platea was the final stroke to the Persian ambitions in mainland Greece.
Despite their defeat, the Greeks who fought in the Battle of Thermopylae set the foundation for the final victory achieved by their countrymen one year later in the Battle of Platea. They embody the notion of patriotism and devotion to duty.
Go, tell the Spartans, stranger passing by
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie
(Simonides of Ceos’ inscription to the tomb of the fallen Spartans)