It was a battle so great that many movie makers, writers and graphic novelists have attempted to capture it. Within its bloodied tale, embodies ideals such as patriotism, freedom, the underdog and resistance to excessive imperial powers. Its story is compelling, breathtaking and heartbreaking. It is none other than the Battle of Thermopylae.
Like many campaigns both before and after, this one did not occur without plenty of backstory. Its history has deep and tangled roots, starting with third king of the Persian Achaemenid Empire, Darius I, also known as Darius the Great.
Darius’ empire was still young and expanding… and he had eyes for Greece.
Unfortunately the Ionian revolt threw a wrench in his plans, and threatened to disturb the integrity of his terrain. Darius vowed to punish those involved. He also thought it was a good opportunity to soak up some new lands.
As his first step, Darius sent emissaries to all the Greek city-states in 491 BC. Each domain was expected to provide a token gift of ‘earth and water’ to show their submission to the powerful Persian. The majority did… except for Sparta and Athens. The rebellious cities made sure to murder the foreign representatives, either by throwing them in a pit or simply chucking them down a well.
Darius was not pleased and responded with violence. The notorious Battle of Marathon took place, where the Athenians won a remarkable victory. The Persians were forced to retreat.
Now Darius was really upset. He planned to fully subjugate the Greeks, and amassed a great army to do just that. Unfortunately an Egyptian revolt postponed his plans and he died while preparing to march there.
The baton was now passed to his son Xerxes I, probably full of revenge for his father’s defeat and desire to make his own name. Xerxes also made sure to learn from his predecessor’s mistakes.
After crushing the disobedient Egyptians, Xerxes started planning properly. He stockpiled supplies for a long-term battle and organised an astonishing army and navy. He also built two enormous pontoon bridges at Hellespont as well as a canal across the isthmus of Mount Athos, both extraordinary feats in that time, in order to move his men into position.
Meanwhile the Greeks also prepared for invasion. Despite the current skirmishes among the city-states, they came together in a congress in late autumn of 481 BC in Corinth. They created a confederate alliance in order to combine and dispatch troops to necessary points. Their first strategy to block entry to the land was immediately moot, Xerxes already crossed Hellespont. His Persian forces were on their way.
The second strategy, therefore, became essential.
It was suggested by Themistocles that Xerxes’ army would have to traverse the narrow pass of Thermopylae in order to reach southern Greece. This small mountain pass could be easily blocked, preventing the oncoming onslaught. In addition, the navies should be sent to the straits of Artemisium to stop the Persians wishing to bypass Thermopylae by sea.
The Greeks agreed, but also made back-up plans to defend the isthmus and evacuate Athens en masse.
The Persian’s huge army made slow progress down through Thrace and Macedon, but they continued to march straight for Thermopylae.
The Spartans, however, were not engaging in their usual warlike manner. They were celebrating in the religious festival Carneia and consequently, all military activity was forbidden. The Olympic games were also taking place and the Greeks had swapped their swords and spears for sports. To ignore these rites was the epitome of sacrilege.
Then news of the Persians’ imminent arrival reached the Greeks’ ears in August, thanks to a spy. The leaders of Sparta decided that an exception to their religious beliefs had to made, the urgency was too great. The King Leonidas I, was dispatched to go to Thermopylae in order to stop the entire army amassed by Xerxes.
Leonidas was only allowed to bring with him his royal bodyguard, just 300 men.
The Battle of Thermopylae was soon to commence.
Read Part 2: Battle in the Shade: https://classicalwisdom.com/thermopylae-battle-in-the-shade/