One of the all-time great stories of ancient history involved the defense of Thermopylae, when a narrow pass was held for three days against a vast Persian army by just 300 Spartans, 299 of whom perished. The lone survivor took the story back to his people. This legend flourished in the twenty-first century when a film spread the iconic image of six-pack-bearing men in red cloaks fighting a fantastical force. There is just one small problem-this is wrong. There weren't just three hundred men, and they weren't all Spartans.
Although there were 300 Spartans present at the defense of Thermopylae, there were at least 4,000 allies involved on the first two days and 1,500 men involved in the fatal last stand. Still a tiny figure compared to the forces against them-there is evidence that the vast Persian army has been vastly exaggerated-but more than the legend, which forgets some contributors. Modern militaries have fetishized the slave-murdering Spartans, and used the myth of the 300 as a central prop.
Having raised a vast army operating on the limits of supply and command-perhaps 100,000 strong, although likely smaller-the Persian King Xerxes invaded Greece in 480 BCE, intent on adding the city-states to an empire which already spanned three continents. The Greeks responded by putting aside traditionally enmity, allying, and identifying a place to check the Persian advance: the land pass of Thermopylae, already fortified, was just forty miles away from a narrow sea strait between Euboea and the mainland. Here, smaller Greek forces could block the armies and fleet of the Persians at the same time and hopefully protect Greece itself.
The Spartans, a brutal people with arguably the most militaristic culture in history (Spartans could only reach manhood once they'd killed a slave), agreed to defend Thermopylae. However, this agreement was given in the first half of 480 and, as the Persian advance proceeded inexorably but leisurely, months passed. By the time Xerxes had reached Mount Olympus, it was August.
August was a bad time for the Spartans to go into battle, for they were to obligated to hold both their Olympics and Carneia that month. To miss either was to offend the Gods, something the Spartans cared passionately about. A compromise was needed between sending a full army and keeping their divine favor: an advance guard of 300 Spartans, led by King Leonidas (ca. 560-480 BCE) would go. Instead of taking the Hippeis (his 300 strong bodyguard of the best young men), Leonidas departed with 300 veterans.
There was a little more to the compromise. The Spartan 300 weren't supposed to be holding the pass by themselves; instead, their absent army would be replaced by troops from other states. 700 came from Thespiae, 400 from Thebes. The Spartans themselves brought 300 Helots, basically slaves, to assist. At least 4,300 men occupied the pass of Thermopylae to fight.
The Persian army did indeed arrive at Thermopylae and, after their offer of free passage to the Greek defenders was refused, they attacked on the fifth day. For forty-eight hours, the defenders of Thermopylae held out, defeating not just the poorly trained levies sent to dull them, but the Immortals, the Persian elite. Unfortunately for the Greeks, Thermopylae held a secret: a small pass by which the main defenses could be outflanked. On the sixth night, the second of the battle, the Immortals followed this path, brushed aside the small guard and prepared to catch the Greeks in a pincer.
King Leonidas, undisputed head of the Greek defenders, was made aware of this pincer by a runner. Unwilling to sacrifice the entire army, but determined to keep the Spartan promise to defend Thermopylae, or perhaps just act as a rearguard, he ordered everyone but his Spartans and their Helots to retreat. Many did, but the Thebans and Thespians stayed (the former possibly because Leonidas insisted they stay as hostages). When battle commenced the next day, there were 1500 Greeks left, including 298 Spartans (two having been sent on missions). Caught between the main Persian army and 10,000 men to their rear, all were involved in fighting and wiped out. Only Thebans who surrendered remained.
It is entirely possible the above account contains other myths. Historians have suggested the full force of Greeks may have been as high as 8,000 to begin with or that the 1,500 only stayed put on the third day after being trapped by the Immortals. The Spartans may have only sent 300, not because of the Olympics or Carneia, but because they didn't wish to defend so far north, although it does seem unusual they would have sent a King if so. The truth of the defense of Thermopylae is no less fascinating than the myth and should undercut the transformation of the Spartans into idealized supermen.
Resources and Further Reading
- Bradford, Ernle. "Thermopylae: The Battle for the West." New York: Open Road Media, 2014
- Green, Peter. "The Greco-Persian Wars." Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
- Lazenby, J. F. "The Defense of Greece." Aris & Phillips, 1993.
- Matthews, Robert Oliver. "The Battle of Thermopylae: A Campaign in Context." Spellmount, 2006.
- Holland, Tom. "Persian Fire." New York: Little Brown, 2005.