Children, gather round! No retreat, no surrender; that is Spartan law. And by Spartan law we will stand and fight… and die. A new age has begun. An age of freedom, and all will know, that 300 Spartans gave their last breath to defend it!
~King Leonidas from the movie 300
We’re all familiar with the story. Whether from historical record or the comic/movie, 300. The mighty Persian empire invades the free city states of Greece. 300 Spartans, and a handful of other Greeks, defend the pass at Thermopylae knowing they will all die doing so. For centuries this story has been celebrated as an example of free men rising up to defend their homes against an evil invader. A testament to courage and sacrifice in the face of unbeatable odds. And, most importantly for some, the make or break moment for the concept of democracy. Still a relatively new political concept in Greece at that time. The story tends to focus on King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans but there were many more Greeks integral in the final defeat of Persia. For much of the article I will be pulling from sources citing Greek historian Herodotus. Let us begin in Athens.
Western democracy began in the Greek city state of Athens somewhere around the 7th century B.C. In the beginning it was an experiment in direct democracy. Instead of electing officials to vote for them, the people themselves voted on a majority of the issues. Not everyone. But if you attained citizenship, no matter your class, you had a vote. And records seem to point to a large number of participants, so it would be safe to assume that the people’s voice was indeed heard. Certain groups took opinion polls. There were political satire shows in the form of puppet theater. Citizens showed up in forums to vote by assembly. Day to day affairs were run by an elected council made up of the various tribes in Athens. It wasn’t perfect but it resembled early post Revolution America. Even the hypocritical dismissal of blatant slavery!
Athens is also involved in the incident that led to the battle at Thermopylae. Cyrus the Great of Persia had stretched his empire from central Asia to the cusp of the Western world. Considered to be one of if not the most benevolent conquerors of his time, he allowed occupied territories to keep their own government, their own customs, and still worship their gods. He kept a satrap, or governor, in place to keep the empire in coordination and interfere as little as possible in local affairs. He really only demanded they pay their taxes on time and provide soldiers and provisions for the army when needed. His benevolence was almost unheard of and a great many of the people he conquered considered him a liberator. He appeared to believe that people left to their own devices will rule themselves for you, with only a slight nudge here and there to keep them in order.
In 546 B.C., Cyrus conquered the Greek colony of Ionia. The birthplace of modern science. For 50 years it went as it always had before. Cyrus left the city to itself, leaving only a governor. Toward the end of that 50 years, the people of Iona became increasingly frustrated with the last governor Cyrus had put in place. They began having revolts in the capital city. Ionia was a former vassal state of Athens so they appealed to them for aid. Athens sent soldiers. Whether this was a foolish act or not, it set in motion events that would shape the Western world for centuries to come. The Athenian soldiers entered the city, helped overcome the Persian guard, and burned the capital city to the ground. This was a major slap in the face of the Persian empire. Not only had Athens dared to send troops into Persian territory to aid a rebellion, they had razed a Persian city. It was unforgivable. By this time Cyrus had passed on and his great grandson Darius is king. Darius is pissed. Every evening before his meal, Darius has a servant remind him of this by whispering in his ear, “Sire, do not forget the Athenians.”
Darius eventually assembles somewhere between twenty and thirty thousand men and sends them across the sea to invade Athens. After capturing a few provinces along the way, and losing some people and ships due to storms and Greek rebels, they land on the shores of Marathon. A Greek Army of around 20,000 men,led by Athens, met them there. The Greek army pulled the larger Persian group into a narrow canyon between two mountains bunching them together at the center. The Greek flanks then collapsed in on them and the Persian army was trapped and destroyed. It was a decisive defeat with only a few thousand soldiers able to escape to the boats and retreat back to Persia. After the battle a runner was sent to Athens, 26 miles to the southwest. The story goes that he ran all the way there, shouted “Nike”(victory), then collapsed dead. And that’s where we get 26 mile marathons from! Darius spent years planning another invasion fo Greece but failing health and a revolt in Egypt kept him from seeing it through. He soon died and his eldest legitimate son, Xerxes, ascended to the throne.
Xerxes immediately set about fulfilling his father’s wish of invading Greece. Trained all his life to be a warrior king, he wants to put down all opposition to his empire’s expansion and prosperity. He amassed the largest army ever put together. Herodotus put it’s number between one and two million, though modern scholars put it closer to 300, 000. Still the largest invading force anyone had ever seen. Darius was a great admirer of architecture and engineering and put funding into it’s research. Xerxes shared his father’s passion. When his army arrived at the Hellespont, a narrow ocean passage separating them from mainland Greece, Xerxes ordered a mile long “bridge” built across it to avoid the 2 year trek around the Black Sea. Old transport ships are roped together across the Hellespont and Xerxes moved his army across. To any Greek watching, this would have been truly impressive and incredibly frightening.
We will pause there and move back a bit to discuss a figure central to the battle of Thermopylae, Themistocles. Themistocles grew up in Athens during a time when it’s young democracy was a heavily debated issue. He was an incredibly intelligent man and a brilliant orator. Thanks to the new democracy he was able to rise from humble beginnings to become a powerful politician and naval general. Themistocles knew that Persia would strike back and that Athens had to be ready. Particularly it’s navy. If Persia were allowed free reign of the seas, they would pin in all of Greece. As his political influence increased he convinced Athens to fund his naval plans and eventually won the support of the other Greek naval commanders. But the land battle was out of Themistocles hands. He needed something that many on Athens wanted no part of. He needed Spartans. And he had to convince them that they needed him. But Athens hates Sparta. And Sparta hates Athens. Here’s why.
Sparta. What a place. A warrior cult. A city of soldiers. A factory that produces the greatest combatants on Earth. Life in Sparta was different. They weren’t barbarians. Citizens still enjoy a modern sense of freedom and women had more power than most any other place in the ancient world. They just had an extreme fixation on war and being the perfect soldier. And it began at birth. It’s a horrible story and very true. Every baby born was inspected for “defects”. If it was deemed invalid, it was left on a mountainside to die of exposure. I’m not gonna try to excuse that other than to say I didn’t live in ancient Sparta. The babies who did pass were returned to their mothers until the age of 7 or so. Then they were taken away to begin their education and military training. Basically 12 years of beating the shit out of each other. The years of training end on another brutal note as each cadet is tasked with sneaking from the camp at night and killing a random slave without being caught. Basically the most hardcore motherfuckers on the planet. The equivalent of the special forces. Delta force. Whatever you want to call it. The best of the best.
King Leonidas fought his way out of this pile of testosterone to become the ruler of Sparta. He could not have foreseen how his kingship would end. When Themistocles and Athens approached Sparta about combining forces to repel the Persian invasion, they were understandably hesitant. What did they need Athens for? They could take Persia. But they eventually joined the coalition. There is a recorded exchange between Leonidas with his commanders and a Persian messenger that sums up what Sparta is all about. The messenger went to offer the Spartans a chance to surrender. Leonidas, of course, said no. The messenger eluded to Xerxes’ military might and said, “Our archer’s arrows will block out the sun.” To which one of Leonidas’ lieutenants replied, “Then we will fight in the shade.” Spartans do not give a shit. To die in battle for Sparta is the highest honor they could achieve. when mothers handed shields to their sons they said, “with it or on it”. Basically, come back victorious or dead. Persia would come to regret this day.
The Spartans were hungry for a fight. Their holy festival, Carneia , allows no military operations to be conducted during it’s celebration and this has caused them to arrive late to the earlier battle of Marathon. Once again Carneia was upon them and Persia was advancing. Leonidus made clear the threat to the Spartan assembly and they allowed him to take an advanced guard of 300 men to the Thermopylae pass. Leonidus had been resigned to his fate for awhile at that point. Months earlier the Spartans had visited the Oracle at Delphi and inquired about the Persian threat. This was her prophecy:
O ye men who dwell in the streets of broad Lacedaemon!
Either your glorious town shall be sacked by the children of Perseus,
Or, in exchange, must all through the whole Laconian country
Mourn for the loss of a king, descendant of great Heracles
Leonidus knew what this meant. Knew he would wind up with a small number of men and would most likely be overrun. He chose only soldiers with sons as he knew they would not be coming back. Leonidus gathered his men and began the march toward Thermopylae. Along the way they were joined by around 5,000 other Greek soldiers all sent to fall under the command of Sparta. Leonidus had total control fo ground forces which sat fine with everyone. He was still only casually aware of the separate battle being fought on the sea by Themistocles and the Greek navy.
While the Spartans are preparing their defense in the Thermopylae pass, Themistocles was preparing his own strategy for dealing with the Persian navy that was barreling down on Leonidu’s rear flank. Themitocles has stationed his navy off the coast of Artemesium,blocking a narrow channel leading to the back of the Greek land army. If the Persian fleet breaks through, Leonidus’ battle is over before it even begins. Themitsocles MUST hold the channel. He knows full well what is at risk here. It was he who convinced Athens to strengthen it’s navy, brokered unity with the other city states, and basically planned all of the battle. Arguably a far more influential figure in this battle than any of the Spartans.
Seeing the Greek navy int he channel, the Persian commander decides not to waste resources on a frontal assault and instead sends 200 ships around the island of Euboea to come at the Greek navy from behind while they engage the front. The Persian commander assumed the Greek’s would not enagage a frontal assault on him so he divided his force. He was wrong. This was not Themistocles’ first rodeo. Later that afternoon Themistocles pulls his brass balls out and lays them on the line by advancing on the Persian fleet which is nearly six times larger than his. The Persian commander must have been greatly confused by this. And outraged that the would dare attack the Persian navy. He immediately signals a charge by his fleet. A game of sunk or be sunk began. Persian ships were large and intended mostly to carry troops. Athenian boats were triremes. Smaller but faster boats.
Themistocles had no illusions of “defeating” the Persian navy but maybe harass it enough to withdrawal. His triremes were built to move fast and enforced up front to ram other vessels. Themistocles moved late in the afternoon because he knew the encounter would be short as night would soon be here. Limiting the losses and adding confusion to the minds of the Persians. He signals his fleet to surround the Persian navy. Then he signals all groups to attack. Greek naval battles were fought by trying to sink the ships. Many Persian sailors were use to moving along side a boat and invading for hand to hand combat. Not going to happen here. The battle went so much better than expected. The Greeks sunk several large warships and took dozens other along with prisoners. It was a decisive defeat and Persia gave up on the channel. Let us now move to land.
By the time Leonidus arrives at Thermopylae, the naval battle is well under way. The Spartans were met by Persian light infantry on the first day. It posed little challenge. Persian infantry was lightly equipped, no armor, and wooden shields. The Spartan phalanx proved more than sufficient for slaughtering thousands of Persians. The Persian army would charge, hit the wall of Spartans, and stop dead. Literally. The Spartans entombed themselves in their shields and spears stabbed at the Persians from above and below. It was a massacre. That night a huge storm hits the area. The second fleet that had been sent around Euboea was caught in the storm and utterly destroyed. The Spartans watched with glee as it’s remains washed upon the shore the following morning. It was an ominous sign and one Xerxes should have heeded. One day in and he had lost thousands of men, hundreds of boats, and any sense of intimidation. Greece was ready for them.
The next day Xerxes sent out his A-Team. The Immortals. So named because when a man fell another immediately took his roster spot. The numbers never dipped below 10,000. They were the hand picked soldiers of Xerxes’ general. The best of the best. Fully armored, fully equipped, and highly trained. They proved to be quite mortal. Though they claimed the lives of a few Spartans and several hundred other Greeks, they fell at the end of the day, as easily as everyone else. The immortals spears could not penetrate the Spartan’s armor. The Spartans had no trouble penetrating theirs. Xerxes was furious and withdrew from the battlefield. The Greeks celebrated. And possibly, as the movie suggests, Leonidus may have dared dream they could win. And, if things had went a little differently, maybe they would have.
That evening, a Greek traitor came to Xerxes and informed him of a secret path around the mountain of Thermopylae and right behind the Greek force. Leonidus knew of the path and had a group of Phocians guarding it. Xerxes sent a squad of 20,000 men around the pass to finally crush the Greeks. They easily dealt with the Phocians and advanced on the rear of the remaining Greeks(HA!). Early the next morning, the Greek forces became aware of breach on the path and assembled a war council. Many proposed retreat but Leonidus would not accept it. They would hold the pass or die. At some point most of the Greeks left, probably under orders from Leonidus himself. Leonidus knew they were doomed but he wanted to make sure a reasonable force made it back to prepare to defend Greece. He ordered a phased withdrawal of most of the troops. A contingent of about 1,000 Greeks stayed behind to find glory with the Spartans. Thus began the final stand of the 300.
First, let’s ask the question: Why did Leonidas stay? Sparta needed it’s king and he had hundreds of fine soldiers with him who would be sorely missed. Spartans valued dying in war but not being slaughtered in one sided affairs. But Spartans die for the state. And Persia threatened Sparta. Also, there is the oracle. Leonidus must have believed the prophecy and knew that he had to die so that Greece could eventually win. And the remaining Spartans would never abandon their king. No matter the reasons, this single act came to define courage and selflessness for every generation that followed. Back to our story.
That morning the Spartans knew they were surrounded but did not seem to care. A Persian scout was sent to view them and he told Xerxes that the Spartans were exercising nude(as most Greeks did), coating themselves in oil, and grooming themselves. All rituals to prepare the Spartan for death. The Persians wouldn’t have known what to think of it.
Most likely, the battle just began. No posturing, no formations, just frenzied violence. With an overwhelming attack from the front and the rear, the Spartans had no hope of holding ranks. It was every man for himself. According to Herodotus, the Spartans, as well as the other Greeks, did not go down easily despite the overwhelming crush of soldiers. They fought like Spartans. But , of course, it was not to be. Most of the Greeks with the Spartans were killed early on or simply fled however they could. Early in the battle, Leonidus is struck down by arrow fire. A massive battle began for his body. Eventually, what was left of the Spartans , recovered Leonidus’ body and retreated to a narrow passage in the mountainside. Persian archers fulfilled Xerxes’ promise and 1,000 archers rained arrows down on the remaining Spartans, blocking out the sun. The battle was over. Persia had “won”. Xerxes had Leonidus’ head removed and placed on a pike to remind Greece what happens to peopel who oppose him. It had the opposite effect he had intended.
The story does not end here. Xerxes moved through northern Greece and burned Athens to the ground. But it must not have been as satisfying. Persia still had influence with it’s navy but thanks to a Greek spy, Themistocles corners Persia’s fleet and routs it. Xerxes had taken so much damage from this brief 3 day encounter, the march to Athens, and the following naval battle, that he fled Greece and never returned. But Greece was not finished with him. Buoyed by the sacrifice of the 300 and the burning of Athens, a united Greece invaded Persia and began taking over lost territory. Xerxes had unwittingly united the city states and now Persia would pay that price. Eventually culminating in Philip’s official uniting of Greece and Alexander the Great’s conquest of Asia and final defeat of the Persian empire. He spread Greek culture all across the civilized world, including the young concept of democracy. A simple, noble truth that has evolved over the years and suffered many challenges. None so great as this one so early in it’s history.
If the Spartans hadn’t fought so well, if the Greek navy hadn’t fought so well, and Persia remained in Greece, democracy would have died. And maybe never have come back. The sense of shared history in these battles united Greece and made them strong enough to carry these creeds across the globe. I can think of no better legacy for democracy than the battle of Thermopylae. When a brave few gave their lives so that the many could live free(except slaves). It is the heart of any great democracy. Sacrifice for the common good.Well, I hope you enjoyed this look at a classic battle and a truly historic moment for the Western world.