Greco-Persian Wars: Battle of Thermopylae | HistoryNet

Greco-Persian Wars: Battle of Thermopylae

6/12/2006 • Military History

In the 5th century bc, the Persian empire fought the city-states of Greece in one of the most profoundly symbolic struggles in history. Their wars would determine the viability of a new direction in Western culture, for even as Greece stood poised to embark on an unprecedented voyage of the mind, Persia threatened to prevent the Hellenes from ever achieving their destiny. Persia represented the old ways — a world of magi and god-kings, where priests stood guard over knowledge and emperors treated even their highest subjects as slaves. The Greeks had cast off their own god-kings and were just beginning to test a limited concept of political freedom, to innovate in art, literature and religion, to develop new ways of thinking, unfettered by priestly tradition. And yet, despite those fundamental differences, the most memorable battle between Greeks and Persians would hinge on less ideological and more universal factors: the personality of a king and the training and courage of an extraordinary band of warriors.

The long path to battle at Thermopylae began in what is now Iran, heart of the once vast Persian empire. Nowadays, ancient ruins attest to its long-vanished greatness, but to the Greeks of the early 5th century bc, the Persian empire was young, aggressive and dangerous. Persian expansion had begun in the mid-6th century, when its first shah, or great king, Cyrus, had led a revolt against the dominant Medes. By 545 bc, Cyrus had extended Persian hegemony to the coast of Asia Minor.

The Greeks of Asia Minor were blessed during their period of subjugation only insofar as the Persian kings generally remained remote figures of power. Stories abounded of executions and tortures ordered on the whims of angry monarchs. One shah’s wife reportedly had 14 children buried alive in an attempt to cheat death. There seems to have been little escape from the arbitrary tyranny of the rulers known by the Greeks simply as ‘the King or the Great King, enforced by a system of spies who acted as his eyes and ears. Such was the general atmosphere of oppression that one Persian nobleman who failed to do the shah’s bidding was forced to eat the flesh of his own son — and upon being shown that he had just done so, could muster no more potent a reply than to say, May the king’s will be done.

It was inevitable, then, that there would be tension between the Greek and Persian ways of life, and in 499 bc several Greek cities in Asia Minor revolted against the Persian King Darius. Darius had seized power in 521, when he and six other men crushed a conspiracy of priests on a day that became celebrated on the Persian calendar as Magophonia — The Killing of the Magi. A vengeful man, Darius had ordered that the severed heads of the magi be paraded through the streets on pikes.

According to the Greek historian Herodotus, Darius was especially furious to learn that a distant city called Athens had dared to assist his rebellious subjects in Asia Minor. Grant, O God, he said, shooting an arrow into the air, that I may punish the Athenians. He even commanded one of his servants to interrupt him during every dinner three times to remind him of his goal with the admonition, Master, remember the Athenians. The first Persian War ended badly for Darius, however, when his troops were defeated by a smaller Athenian army at Marathon in 490 bc. Greece was saved — but only for a while.

Darius’ son Xerxes does not seem to have been especially driven to complete his late father’s unfinished business. He waffled over whether the long-delayed punishment of Athens merited such a far-flung campaign. At last a phantom allegedly appeared in his dreams, urging him to invade Greece — this being interpreted by his magi as a portent for world conquest.

Xerxes spent more than four years gathering soldiers and stockpiling supplies from every corner of his empire. The resulting host amounted to a colossal cosmopolitan army of armies. In it were Persians, Medes and Hyrcanians, all wearing felt caps, tunics, mail and trousers, and armed with short spears, light wicker shields and deadly, powerful composite bows. Assyrians joined them, protected by bronze helmets and shields, and bearing spears, daggers and iron-studded wooden clubs. Bactrians, Parthians and Chorasmians added short bows and spears. The Scythian Sacae, in their tall pointed hats, bristled with bows, daggers and battle-axes. Cotton-wearing Indian auxiliaries were armed with bows that shot iron-tipped arrows. There were Paricanians, Pactyans, Arabs, Ethiopians, Libyans, Paphlagonians, Ligyans, Matieni, Mariandynians, Syrians, Phrygians, Lydians, Thracians, Pysidians, Cabalians, Moschians, Tibareni, Macrone and Mossynoeci. The list, even in abbreviated form, reads like a catalog of lost peoples. Together, they formed an army that the Greek historian Herodotus estimated at 1.7 million, excluding the navy. When he added ship-borne fighters and European allies to the total, he came to a sum of 2.6 million, a figure that he reckoned would have to be doubled to account for servants, crews and camp followers.

Herodotus’ numbers must surely be overstated, although we will never know by how much. We can only accept that Xerxes’ army was a vast and apparently awe-inspiring force — according to Herodotus, whenever it stopped to slake its thirst, it drank entire rivers dry.

Within Xerxes’ army, the native Persian contingent was most privileged. Carriages full of women and servants accompanied the Persians on the march. One Persian unit was particularly esteemed: a crack fighting force that Herodotus called the Immortals, alleging that any dead, wounded or sick soldier in its ranks was replaced so swiftly that its 10,000-man strength never seemed to diminish.

Watching his own army pass in review, Xerxes himself is said to have wept as he reflected on the brevity of human life. Not one of them, he observed, would be alive in 100 years’ time. It was an unlikely moment of insight for a king who had once ordered one of his own soldiers split in two.

The Persians maintained a splendid marching order. At the front was more than half the army, succeeded by a gap to keep those ordinary troops from being in contact with the king. There followed 1,000 of Persia’s finest horsemen, another 1,000 picked spearmen, carrying their spears upside down, 10 sacred horses, a holy chariot drawn by eight horses, then Xerxes’ chariot. The king was then followed by 1,000 noble Persian spearmen with their spears pointed upward, another 1,000 picked cavalry, 10,000 infantry, many with gold or silver ornaments on their spears, and finally 10,000 more horsemen before another gap that separated those fine troops from the ordinary soldiers who brought up the rear.

It is entirely possible that Xerxes did not anticipate having to fight any significant battles in Greece. The magnitude of his force was so great that he must have anticipated only demanding surrender in order to receive it. Like his father before him, he sent messengers ahead demanding the traditional tokens of submission — earth and water. Many Greek towns relented in the face of certain destruction. To the Persian king, they conceded, belonged the land and the sea.

Two cities were spared the indignity of the Persian ultimatum. Xerxes well recalled the fate of the messengers his father had sent to Athens and Sparta. The Athenians had thrown them into a pit. In Sparta the Persian diplomats were shown the place to find the earth and water they sought — by being pushed down a well.

Xerxes was familiar with the willful Athenians who had thwarted his father at Marathon 10 years earlier, but along the march he slowly became acquainted with Greece’s other most powerful city-state. At one point he asked a Spartan exile if anyone in Greece would dare resist his force. The exile, for whom there was no love lost for the city that had expelled him, admitted that no length of odds could possibly convince the Spartans to submit. The Spartans, he said, feared only the law, and their law forbade them to retreat in battle. It commanded them to stand firm always and to conquer or die.

Knowing that they could not hope to defeat the Persians as individual cities, the Greeks convened a conference in order to coordinate a Panhellenic defense. It was there that the Spartans, whose own city was unique in that it had no walls (relying instead upon the bravery of its citizens for defense), advocated the construction of a wall across the Isthmus of Corinth, thereby protecting only the southernmost part of Greece. The cities north of Corinth, however, knowing that Xerxes could swing around the Aegean and strike Greece from the north, sought an earlier defense. The congress adopted their strategy. The Greeks elected to draw the line at Thermopylae.

To the Greek strategists in 481 bc, Thermopylae represented their best chance to stop or at least delay the Persian army long enough to allow their combined fleets to draw the Persian navy into a decisive sea battle. A narrow mountain pass, Thermopylae was a bottleneck through which the Persian army somehow had to proceed. Forced to fight there, the Persians would be unable to take advantage of their massive preponderance in numbers; instead, they would have to face the Greeks in close-quarter, hand-to-hand combat.

Two armies now prepared to converge on the tiny mountain pass. For Xerxes no force, not even nature, would be allowed to resist his progress. When a violent storm tore up the first bridge his engineers had built across the Hellespont, the great king ordered his engineers put to death, and he had his men whip and curse the waters for defying him. New engineers then bridged the Hellespont again. Constructed from nearly 700 galleys and triremes lashed together, the bridge was a marvel of makeshift military engineering. Flax and papyrus cables held the boats in line, and sides were constructed to keep animals from seeing the water and panicking during their crossing. The Persian army advanced inexorably into Greece.

The Greek force that now raced to Thermopylae was ridiculously small for the challenge that awaited it: 300 Spartans, 80 Myceneans, 500 Tegeans, 700 Thespians and so forth, totaling about 4,900. The countrymen they left behind seem to have put little faith in this army. The Athenians voted to evacuate their city. Their men of military age embarked on ships, while women and children were sent to the safer territory of the Peloponnesus. Only treasurers and priestesses remained behind, charged with guarding the property of the gods on the Acropolis.

If any Greek understood the danger of his assignment, it was almost certainly the Spartan commander, Leonidas. Although each city’s contingent had its own leader, Leonidas had been placed in overall command of the Greek army. One of two Spartan kings — Sparta had no kingship in any real sense — Leonidas traced his ancestry back to the demigod Heracles. He had handpicked the 300 warriors under his command; all were middle-aged men with children to leave behind as heirs. He had selected men to die, and done so apparently without the philosophic reluctance of Xerxes. Leonidas and the Spartans had been trained to do their duty, and, having received an oracle that Sparta must either lose a king or see the city destroyed, Leonidas was convinced that his final duty was death.

On the way to Thermopylae, Leonidas sent his widely admired Spartans ahead of the other troops to inspire them with confidence. They arrived to find the pass unoccupied. It was only 50 feet wide and far narrower at some points. There were hot springs there — these gave the pass its name — an altar to Heracles and the remains of an old wall with gates that had fallen into ruin. The Greeks now rushed to rebuild it.

As Xerxes’ army drew closer, a Persian scout rode to survey the Greek camp. What he saw astonished him — the Spartans, many of them naked and exercising, the rest calmly combing their hair. It was common practice for the Spartans to fix their hair when they were about to risk their lives, but neither the scout nor his king could comprehend such apparent vanity.

The Greeks, too, began to receive intelligence on the size of the Persian force. Sometime before the battle, the Spartan Dieneces was told that when the Persian archers let loose a volley, their arrows would hide the sun. To Dieneces that was just as well. For if the Persians hide the sun, he said, we shall fight in the shade.Despite the imperturbable courage of Dieneces and the other Spartans, the Greeks were shaken when the Persian host finally neared their position. At a council of war the leaders debated retreat, until Leonidas’ opinion prevailed. The Spartan would do his duty. The Greeks would stay put and try to hold off the Persians until reinforcements could arrive.

The Persian army encamped on the flat grounds of the town of Trachis, only a short distance from Thermopylae. There, Xerxes stopped his troops for four days, waiting upon the inevitable flight of the overawed Greeks. By the fifth day, August 17, 480 bc, the great king could no longer control his temper. The impudent Greeks were, like the storm at the Hellespont, defying his will. He now sent forward his first wave of troops — Medes and Cissians — with orders to take the Greeks alive.

The Medes and Cissians were repulsed with heavy casualties. Determined to punish the resisters, Xerxes sent in his Immortals. The crack Persian troops advanced confidently, envisioning an easy victory, but they had no more success than the Medes.

What Xerxes had not anticipated was that the Greeks held the tactical advantage at Thermopylae. The tight battlefield nullified the Persians’ numerical preponderance, and it also prevented them from fighting the way they had been trained. Persian boys, it was said, were taught only three things: to ride, to tell the truth and to use the bow. There was no place for cavalry at Thermopylae and, even more critical, no place to volley arrows. The Greeks had positioned themselves behind the rebuilt wall. They would have to be rooted out the hard way.

The Persian army was neither trained nor equipped for such close fighting. Its preferred tactic was to volley arrows from a distance, the archers firing from behind the protection of wicker shields planted in the ground. They wore very little armor and carried only daggers and short spears for hand-to-hand combat.

Although students of military history argue that true shock warfare has seldom been practiced — since it is antithetical to the soldier’s natural desire for self-preservation — the Greeks had made it their standard tactic. Greek soldiers perhaps drew some confidence from their heavy armor and their long spears, which could outreach the Persian swords. But the Greeks also had another, more intangible, edge: something to fight for. They were defending their homes, and they were doing their duty — they were not fighting as slaves of some half mad god-king. As heavy casualties sapped their soldiers’ resolve, the Persian commanders had to resort to lashing them with whips in order to drive them against the determined Greek defenders.

During that long first day of fighting, the Spartans led the Greek resistance. Experienced Spartan warriors would come out from behind the walls, do fierce battle with the Persians, then feign retreat in order to draw the Persians into a trap. Xerxes reportedly leapt to his feet three times in fear for his army.

The second day of Thermopylae followed much the same course as the first. The various Greek contingents now took turns fending off the attacks, but the Persians failed to make any headway.

It is difficult to say how long the Greeks could have held off the Persians at Thermopylae — their casualties thus far were comparatively light — but the question was soon made moot. When the Greeks had first arrived, they learned that the presumably impregnable site possessed a hidden weakness: There was a track through the mountains that could be used by an enemy force to surround and annihilate the defenders of the gate. Recognizing the danger, Leonidas had dispatched his Phocian contingent to guard the path. Thus the already small number of troops available at the gate was made smaller still by the division of the Greek forces. The Phocians themselves were charged with the difficult task of defending a route with no natural defenses. Their best hope — Greece’s best hope — lay in the mountain track remaining unknown to the Persians.

It was, in the end, a Greek who betrayed that secret. The traitor, Ephialtes, was apparently motivated by greed when he revealed the mountain path to Xerxes. Acting immediately on the new information, the king sent Persian troops up the path during the night, when darkness concealed their movement among the oak trees. Near the top, they completely surprised the luckless Phocians. At last free to fight in their usual fashion, the Persians rained down arrows as the Phocians frantically sought to gather their arms. In desperation, the Phocians raced to higher ground for a last stand. The Persians, however, had no interest in chasing the Phocians higher but instead turned down the trail, aiming for the pass at Thermopylae.

Lookouts raced down the hill to warn Leonidas of the descending Persian army. There was little time left. A quick council of war led to the decision to split up the Greek force. There was no reason for the entire army to be annihilated at the wall. Most contingents were now allowed to return home and prepare for a later showdown. Leonidas and his Spartans, however, would remain at Thermopylae. Standing by them were the loyal Thespians, who considered it an honor to die fighting beside the Spartans. Leonidas also kept as hostages some 400 Thebans whom he suspected of having Persian sympathies.

Although some have questioned the wisdom of Leonidas’ decision, wondering if he was overly influenced by a mumbo-jumbo oracle prophesying his sacrificial death, the situation gave him no alternative. If the entire Greek army had fled, it would have eventually been caught from behind and slaughtered by the faster-moving Persian cavalry. Leonidas was giving the retreating troops the only chance they had to escape and fight another day.

It is in many ways the irony of Thermopylae that Sparta, arguably the least free of all the Greek states, now stood as the final defender of Greek freedom. All the things that would make Greece great — science, art, poetry, drama, philosophy — were foreign to Sparta. The Spartans had developed a constitution of almost total subordination of the individual to the community. Spartan elders determined which infants could live or die. Spartan boys were sent into military training at the age of 7. Spartan men lived in barracks, away from their wives, for much of their adult lives. The Spartans ate at a common table, they distributed land equally in an almost communistic fashion and they were forbidden to engage in what were deemed the superfluous arts. Such freedoms as their warrior elite enjoyed did not extend to non-Spartans living in their territory, the Helots, who served as their slaves. Yet the Spartan elite believed passionately in their freedom, and their sense of duty, imbued at an early age, guaranteed that no Spartan commander would ever have to resort to whips to drive his soldiers into battle.

On August 19, the Greeks elected to inflict as much damage as possible on the Persian army. Knowing that this day’s struggle would be their last, they pressed stolidly forward, leaving behind the safety of the wall to fight in the widest part of the pass. There, they would battle the massive Persian army on open ground. They would do so, however, without the Thebans, who as Leonidas had expected surrendered to the Persians before the final assault began.

Xerxes ordered his men in for the kill. Once again his commanders lashed their own troops to drive them forward. Many Persians were trampled to death by their own comrades. Others, shoved aside, drowned in the sea. All the while, the Spartans and Thespians did their deadly work. No one, wrote Herodotus, could count the number of the dead.

The Greeks fought with their long spears until the shafts had all broken. Then they fought with swords. In the course of the struggle, Leonidas fulfilled the prophecy that had doomed him. Four times the Greeks then drove the enemy away from his body before the Persians finally succeeded in dragging it away. It was about then that the second Persian force arrived from the mountain pass.

Now completely surrounded, the exhausted Greeks withdrew for the last time behind the wall and formed themselves into a single compact body. Here, wrote Herodotus, they resisted to the last, with their swords, if they had them, and, if not, with their hands and teeth, until the Persians, coming on from the front over the ruins of the wall and closing in from behind, finally overwhelmed them.

The Battle of Thermopylae was over. Leonidas and his 300 Spartans all lay dead, as did the 700 Thespians who had stood by them. The Persian dead were said to number around 20,000, although Xerxes tried to conceal this horrendous loss by having most of them secretly buried, leaving only about 1,000 Persian bodies for his army to see as it marched through the pass.

It was customary in Sparta to make great ceremony over the death of a king. Riders would carry the news throughout the country, and women would go around the capital, beating cauldrons. But Leonidas was denied even a proper burial. Xerxes ordered his head cut off and fixed on a stake. The rest of the Greek dead he ordered buried in order to conceal how few had held up his army for so long, and to remind his veterans of Thermopylae that the Spartans were mortal after all.

The Greeks’ courageous stand at the mountain pass had hardly even slowed Xerxes’ advance. Four days of waiting and three days of fighting — Leonidas’ heroism had bought only one more week for his compatriots. Athens, all but abandoned, was soon sacked.

And yet Thermopylae was not a total failure. The invading army had been bloodied — badly, if Herodotus is to be believed — and it must have had some effect on Persian morale. The battle’s influence on the Greeks was indisputable. When the war was over — for Greece did finally defeat the Persians — they established holidays commemorating Thermopylae and erected memorials over the battlefield. Four thousand men from Pelops’ land/against three million once did stand read one. Another celebrated Leonidas and his 300 men: Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by/that here, obeying their commands, we lie.

Thermopylae thus acquired a significance that transcended its tangible military impact. In the end, the battle’s value lay not in land gained or lost or in men killed or captured, but in inspiration. The Spartans and Thespians had taught Greece and the world an enduring lesson about courage in the face of impossible odds.


This article was written by David Frye and originally published in the January/February 2006 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!


73 Responses to Greco-Persian Wars: Battle of Thermopylae

  1. […] Greco-Persian Wars:  Battle of Thermopylae […]

  2. […] Originally Posted by tkdgirl There numbers were closer to a thousand, but when you’re up against the numbers they were, yikes! Amazing to think they stopped the spread of Islam throughout Europe back then. There were about 4-5 g Greeks, but only 300 of them were Spartans of the warrior caste, and Persia wasn’t conquered by Islam until 640 A.D. (C.E.) with the Battle of Nihawand, at Thermopylae they followed Zoroastrianism. …but lets not start an off-topic argument. Go check it out. Battle of Thermopylae – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia Greco-Persian Wars: Battle of Thermopylae ? HistoryNet – From the World's Largest History Magaz… […]

  3. Chuck Sorrels, USN/Ret. says:

    After visiting Thermoplae many years ago, I & my Team 4 were invited by the Greek Museum to assist at a site that was discovered that contained the remains of possible Persian allies that were found burried north if the site. 1 lone Spartan helment was found. Our team was asked to split a boulder that concealed the many remains.

    Part of Special Warfare training sets forth the ideals demonstrated at that historical site. The Spartan ideals are drummed into the Id of each trainee at BUDS trainng.

    This article needs to mention that there were several Greek city states that joined the Persians to prevent the destruction of their cities.

    Great article though.

    • John Merkatatis says:


      There were in fact thirty one(31) city- states present in the council of Corinth,480 BC,officially at war with Persia.In the battle of Plataea the Athenian army in the left wing clashed victoriously against Thebans and their allies.

  4. Mat says:


  5. chester says:

    how the persian lose?and wen?

    • Julieanna says:

      The Persians lost against the Athenians [Greeks] but mostly the Athenians, because of their technology and strategic warships. They built small warships and lured the Persians into the Bay of Salamis and then the Athenians’ small warships were easy to turn around and they built rams on the sides to ram into the Persians’ fleet. The Persians lost.

  6. denzel says:

    this is a very good artical just hit me back up and i would like to no some more about it….

  7. denzel says:

    this rocks and just send me a email

  8. Elizabeth says:

    I really think that this website is a good source for teenagers and other kids who are looking for information of certain topics. I really hope that this helps my grades for my report.

  9. Flotch says:

    Well Done. Thanks!

  10. charelston shew says:

    good article

  11. Joel says:

    Great overview of such a significant battle. You put it best….”the battle’s value lay not in land gained or lost or in men killed or captured, but in inspiration.” U.S. Military commanders are still drawing on these principles.

  12. Bill says:

    Herodotus is perhaps not the best source for the number in the Persian army and navy. The army probably numbered around 120 thousand, which is a good size force. This is the first time naval warfare became important. The Persian navy was twice the size of the Greek navy, and the Phonecians sailors who fought for the Persians were beter sailors. The Greek comander at Thermopylae, Leonidas, a Spartian, held off the first Persian attacks, killing thousands. The Greeks were only defeated when the Persians found a pass the attack the Greeks from the back as well as the front. The Greek force totaled 2000, including the famous 300 Spartians, all will killed. I enjoyed your article, especially the listing of the ethnic groups in the Persian army.

    • John Merkatatis says:

      General Miller of British Military Intelligence and his staff making a study of Xerxes advance in Greece and evaluating facts about battles,came to the conclusion that Xerxes’ army could not have numbered more than 200.000 because the waterlines along the way could not sustain a greater number of men and animals.
      Herodotus presents campaign totals and does the same for the battle of Salamis where he gives again for Greeks and Persians campaign totals
      disregarding the losses at Artemissium.

  13. Andrew Simmons says:

    Thank you very much! I have to write a research paper and this was definitely my Primary Source. I know to come back when I write my next paper.

  14. William says:

    Hi There,

    I have found an ancient book written in Persion it seems. It was found in Macedonia and Greece Border.

    Do you know anyone that could possibly tell me what it is? Anyone who studies these things.

    Please email me on:


  15. […] To me, the term sounds like something out of Spartan history. I see the term  and think of the Battle of Thermopylae and the never ending chiseled abs seen in […]

  16. WongHoongHooi says:

    I applaud the balanced objective conclusion of the writer that befits a work on military history. Refreshingly free of the hubris of “liberty” versus “repression” too often seen in opinions and works about this battle/ conflict. To the Helot or the “unworthy” Sparta was nearly about as totalitarian as it got.

  17. Miles says:

    Great Article, have to use it for my history report due today, its five o’ clock in the morning and school starts at seven, this is a life savior! haha.

  18. stupid face says:

    super dumb

    • Serious Objector says:

      How can you say such a thing!!!

    • Julieanna says:

      How is this article “super dumb”? Other than the fact that its really really long. Dont worry, you probably need help just better understanding it.

  19. Jerry Sean Hughes says:

    One of the most courageous battles I have read about. This was what was meant to be a true spartan. A great read.

  20. […] more good sites By azintl I came across this site by browsing through The Librarian’s Internet Index. I don’t advise reading all of it, […]

    • N. Nicosia says:

      I would appreciate it if you would refrain from using this article as a means of advertising.

  21. Crofty756 says:

    I have read so much about the battle at Thermopylae,and have come to the conclusion that it was the greatest heroic deed not just in ancient european history,but in the history of the world thus far.
    Go tell the Spartans,stranger passing by,
    That here obedient to their laws we lie.
    It sends a shiver up your spine,the most courageous story ever told.

  22. 111111111 says:

    You had said the Thesibians surrendered to the Persians before the battle. However you say they also die by the Spartans????????????????????????????

    • Liam says:

      They were Thebans that surrendered, and the Thesbians who stood and fought more heroically than the Spartans. The Thesbians sent every able bodied man and boy to fight in the battle from their city state, and they all died. That’s heroism.

      In reference to the article, good source for Freshman or sophomore year, but I saw some number problems and problems in the perspective in the paper.

  23. 111111111 says:

    lol sorry about that

  24. Cloudio says:

    I love you!!

  25. christopher easthom says:

    it is all Ephialtes fault if it werent for him spartans could of driven the persians and another thing it sucks that the greeks thought that 300 spartans only killed 1000 persians because xersus said to bury all the other dead

  26. […] thriller film was an adaptation of  Frank Miller’s comic book mini-series of the historical Battle of Thermopylae (480 BC). During this event a small army of Spartans held off a barrage of attacks by overpowering […]

  27. Valerio says:

    Very interesting read. Top notch for sure.

  28. […] Greco-Persian Wars: Battle of Thermopylae » HistoryNetIt is in many ways the irony of Thermopylae that Sparta, arguably the least free of all the Greek states, now stood as the final defender of … […]

  29. John Merkatatis says:

    Some clarifying points must be made on the article:
    1) Thermopylae are almost on aline with cape Artemissium,that part of
    the line guarded by the Greek fleet which in turn protected the right flanc of Thermopylae sustaining three days of rally heavy fighting against the Persian fleet.
    2)The delay caused(one week as you say) to the Persian advance was
    enough time to vacate Athens,transfer non-combatants to Aegina and Troezen and the field army at Salamis and Troezen,the cities of the Peloponnesian alliance to mobilize and march in strength to the Isthmus of Corinth.
    3) The numbers of the Greeks at Thermopylae need claryfing:
    In campaign outside Peloponnese,every Spartan was followed by five(5) helots as auxilliary troops(slingers,javelliners)-some authors say seven-and by one Perioikos(dweller around Sparta) as heavy Infantry who was also followed by one helot;the result was that 300 Spartans=2400-3000 men.The rest were crack troops of the Peloponnesian league that leonidas collected in short notice on his march north ie;Tegea/Mantineia 1000,Arcadia 1000,Orchomenus 120
    Mycenae 80,Flius 200,Corinth 400 and Thespiae(Beocea) 700 and Thebes(Beotea) 400.

    • John Merkatatis says:

      Not to forget sources:Euphorus(mentioned in Diodorus,)Diodorus the Sicilian,Herodotus,A.R.Burn “Persia and The Greeks”,J.B.Bury “Ancient History of Greece to 323 BC”.

    • Diekplous says:

      The numbers of the Greeks at Thermopylae need claryfing:
      In campaign outside Peloponnese,every Spartan was followed by five(5) helots as auxilliary troops(slingers,javelliners)-some authors say seven-and by one Perioikos(dweller around Sparta) as heavy Infantry who was also followed by one helot;the result was that 300 Spartans=2400-3000 men.

      Both Herodotus and Diodorus are specific: the “Peloponnesian” infantry numbered some 4,000. Diod.11.4.5-6 states that Leonidas took “1,000 Lacedaemonians including 300 Spartiatai” along with three thousand other Greeks (Peloponnesians). Herodotus, whilst confused initially, correctly reports (7.228.1) the total as on the dedicatory inscription: “Here four thousand from the Peloponnese once fought three million”.

      There was very, very little point in a mass of helots marching to a delaying action where heavy infantry would be required to plug a pass. It is apparent that this, along with the fleet action, was to be a delaying action. The seven to one ration of helots to homoioi (for Plataia) is to be severely doubted. There is absolutely nothing heard of these men or the other 34,500 light armed that Herodotus gives the Greeks. Whilst some of this can be attributed to the lack of “print” light armed received in the period, it is strange that 39,500 light armed play no account whatsoever in the battle .

      Conversely Herosotus’ 37,800 hoplites carries the ring of numerical truth; likely based on the roster or call up of the participating states. That this number then looked mildly ridiculous when compared to 300,000 (10/1!) likely explains the profuse number of Greek light armed that suddenly appear.

      The Persian numbers are, of course, in the realm of fantasy. That the Greeks killed over 20,000 at Thermoplylae is in that same realm. Those who died on the last day comprised the Thespians, Thebans and Spartiatai. Depending how many were left to start the day, that would be somewhere between 900-1,000 (700, 400 and 300 respectively before losses).

      • John Merkatatis says:

        I have already done that ‘clarifying’ DIEKPLOUS ,what are you trying to do?
        Are you disputing the numbers I have set out above? if yes then go to the foremost authority on Greek-Persian wars professor A.R.Burn and in his book “Persia and the Greeks” and you will find them there.

        You will also find there that in all estimates of military forces the Greek historians count only the soldiers of the falanx,auxiliaries(javeliners,slingers) are never mentioned as part of the army although their contribution is considerable.
        I mention the Persian land forces at maximum possible numbers above.These are not in the realm of fantasy since they constitute military authorities estimate.
        The Persian losses at Thermopylae over four days fighting may well be approaching 20000 since the Greeks were fighting in relays and the front line was always freshened;here also comes the work of the javeliners and slingers as well,the javeliners who were also equipped with swords could fight the Persian infantry.

      • Diekplous says:

        “I have already done that ‘clarifying’ DIEKPLOUS ,what are you trying to do?”

        You’ll have to excuse me, I wasn’t aware I needed permission to comment.

        A R Burn may well be the “foremost authority on Greek-Persian wars” but I beg leave to use the primary sources. On this Herodotus, at 7.202, says that those who met the barbarian at Thermopylae numbered 3,100 from the Peloponnese. He then adds 700 from Thespiae and 400 from Thebes as well as Lokrians and Phokians un-numbered.

        He is incorrect on the Peloponnesians as his quotation of the “cenotaph” later shows (4,000 Peloponnesians fought the barbarian). Diodorus backs this up stating that Leonidas took 4,000 from the Peloponnese which was made up of 3,000 “Greeks” and 1,000 Lacedaemonians; the latter including 300 homoioi. “Lacedaemonians” is regularly used to denote forces including perioikoi. Helots are referred to as such (as are manumitted helots – neodamodeis).

        Diodorus also supplies us numbers for the Lokrians and Phokians (1,000 each) and says that as many Melians also marched to Thermopylae (11.5.5-6). It is thus likely that some 7,200 hoplites plugged the 400 metre wide pass of Thermopylae.

        Whilst the homoioi will have taken at least a helot “batman”, there was no crying need for any large number of light troops; certainly not 7 helots per Spartan.

        If we trust Herodotus (7.206), the Spartans saw this as a delaying action (with the bonus of retaining vacillating states in central Greece) until they observed the Karneia after which “they intended then to leave a garrison in Sparta and to come to help in full force with speed”.

        As I wrote, Greek light troops did not receive “much print” during the late archaic and early classical period, the hoplite being the premier soldier. Whilst that is true, the hoplite phalanx was the decisive arm of Classical Greek infantry war and light troops played little, if much, part until after the Persian wars. Precious little attention was devoted to arming them or using them until we get to the Peloponnesian War when circumstances forced change and forward thinking strategoi fashioned them into decent tactical units (Demosthenes for example).

  30. John Merkatatis says:

    David,you have made a point about Sparta that I think needs correction: Sparta was not the ‘least free’ city of Greece,it was probably the first city of Antiquity to enforce a for of Democracy with wrights of women and modern states follow a form of democracy more akin to the Spartan than the Athenian model-see further in Google “Sparta reconsidered’ at ‘’

  31. Jensen says:

    im confused, everbody says something diffrent about the numbers of spartans and persians im doind a project btw and if anybody can tell me what thermoplaye pass looked like that would be useful information

    • J.Merkatatis says:

      Jensen,the numbers are taken from professor’s A.R.Burn:”Persia and The Greeks”,who is the formost modern authority on ancient Greek History.

    • georjes says:

      7,000 greaks and 300 spartans is what history channel said

      • John Merkatatis says:

        Consult books for such information,never TV(not fully reliable) or Internet sources like Wikepedia(not reliable-most information unverified and with many mistakes)-Please read the numbers as I Have presented them above.The all come from A.R.Burn “Persia and The Greeks” and certain contributions of cities from Herodotus.

  32. chase says:

    what were the numbers before the battle started

  33. […]  Go to the HistoryNet Website […]

  34. Elliott lawrence says:


  35. Julieanna says:

    Well, it must be a great article on The Battle of Thermopylae but I did not have time to read the whole article. [Its pretty long, for a young High School student to read, dont you think? Anyway, great information, I might use it now and probably later when I better understand and have the patience to read this “long” article.

  36. nick says:

    This is the best info i ever seen in my life

  37. Guillermo Horruitiner says:

    I have read about this battle a hundred times, and I have enjoyed, But this time, this article is fantastic, the best, is ready for a movie, you deserve it, welldone, The author is brilliant.

  38. john says:

    i need sources i need written/archaeological evidence

  39. J.Merkatatis says:

    The sources are sited above; start from there.

  40. […] What a crying shame. Thermopylae – Basics on the Persian Wars Battle of Thermopylae – 480 B.C. Greco-Persian Wars: Battle of Thermopylae Stepson of Arthur Ellison Sovereign: RCAF Navigator: Lancasters and Wellingtons, Bomber […]

  41. N.Barazza says:

    A truly historical battle. It is amazing how men stand strong armed with courage and honor. A great read and inspiration

  42. John Merkatatis says:


    Diodorus is not a primary source and Herodotus is not a reliable one especially in numbers and intentions as it has also been mentioned here
    Read “Historiae”( English translation) and especially the 42 pages of introduction where the critisism by most historians are centered.

    Generally your comments and and point of writing is from superfluous to

    • Diekplous says:

      Given the number of comments you’ve made on this, it appears you think that you are an incontrovertible expert. Any who might question or disagree are “superfluous or irrelevant”.

      I disagree totally.

      Re-read and you may learn.

      • John Merkatatis says:

        Yes you are right;if you were one of my students you would change subject
        since with this attitude and in disregard of true sources you would never pass.

  43. Diekplous says:

    “Diodorus is not a primary source and Herodotus is not a reliable one especially in numbers and intentions as it has also been mentioned here…”

    And just whose numbers do you think the “foremost expert” on the Persian wars (A R Burn) will have relied upon?

    The numbers for Thermopylae (Greek) are as good as you’re going to get. But, fell free to ignore the sources.

    “Jensen,the numbers are taken from professor’s A.R.Burn:”Persia and The Greeks”,who is the formost modern authority on ancient Greek History”

    And there’s a primary source if ever there was one?!

    Awful glad I was never subjected to one of your classes.

  44. Emily says:

    I have a few questions about a few battles
    (here are the battles)
    •Battle of Marathon
    •Battle of Thermopylae
    •Battle of Salamis
    •Battle of Plataea
    (here are the questions that I need for all of these battles)
    •Who was involved in the conflict
    •What was the conflict
    •when the conflict took place
    •where the conflict took place

    • John Merkatatis says:

      Greek-Persian wars Phase I,defensive wars of the Greeks

      Marathon:42 klms north west of Athens 490 BC Athenians vs Persians
      cause:Athenian intervention in the Ionian revolt

      Thermopylae:central eastern Greece,480 BC Spartans and allies vs Persians:

      sea battle of Salamis: in the straights between the island of Salamis and the mainland of Attica(Athens) 480 BC,Greeks vs Persians

      battle of Plataea: on the plain north of Asopos river and the city of Plataea
      in the district of Boiotea 479 BC

      Reason:Persian attempt to subjugate Greece

  45. Athanasios says:

    My opinion about the percian forces is more than 250.000 overall.

    1) 10 years before, at 490bc xerxis father has make a crusade to conguaer Greece with 100.000 troops. and he failed at the battle of marathon lost. So if he sons want to take revedge he wont make crusade again with the same troops but at least double.

    2) after the battle of thermopylae, many persians have been killed. also many persians have been killed in the naval battle on artemision from Athenians. So the rest of them have tried flee back in their empire. BUT they hadnt flee all persians, they have left forces to greece and 2 years after have make another capmaign to conguer ATHENS, as a revedge for the lost naval battle. And again have failed to conguer them in the battle of plataies. So where did they found so many reinforces and reserves to make another capmaign 2 years after? just make the maths, callculate the looses during those 2 capmaigns, calculate the looses due to healt disieases and starvation, also those that have flee…

    • Diekplous says:

      “…xerxis father has make a crusade to conguaer Greece with 100.000 troops. and he failed at the battle of marathon lost…”

      Love to see some source evidence for that figure. Nonsense. Utter nonsense.

      The battle of Plataea took place the year following Salamis (479). I’ve little idea where you find a two year gap after which Persia has to make “another capmaign to conguer Athens”.

  46. wesley says:

    I thought it was exceptional. Thought i would have like it to be more on the deeper meanings of the battles. I thought the length was great. I’m in 6th grade and doing a 6 page paper on the greco persian wars. Thanks this will defiantly help me with my paper.

  47. […] 545 BC King Cyrus, who had initially led a revolt against the Medes, “had extended the Persian hegemony to the coast of Asia […]

  48. […] this in reference to the Spartan homeland of Laconia. Case in point: At the outset of the three-day Battle of Thermopylae, the Persian emperor Xerxes ordered the vastly outnumbered Spartan and Greek armies guarding the […]

  49. […] Spartans are famous for their historic stand at Thermopylae, when, as legend goes, 300 of its crack hoplites held a mountain pass against the invading […]

  50. […] Spartans are famous for their historic mount during Thermopylae, when, as fable goes, 300 of a crack hoplites hold a towering pass opposite a invading armies of a […]

  51. […] this in reference to the Spartan homeland of Laconia. Case in point: At the outset of the three-day Battle of Thermopylae, the Persian emperor Xerxes ordered the vastly outnumbered Spartan and Greek armies guarding the […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

, , , ,

Sponsored Content: