Battle of Thermopylae

Battle of Thermopylae

I was fortunate to be one of the first to see the movie “300” opening day in Dallas. This was one of the few films scheduled for release in 2007 that I was eager to view. Needless to say, I was very impressed. It is based on a version created by Frank Miller of “Sin City” fame and while the film is quite embellished, it does follow closely the orginal story of the Battle of Thermopylae.

For those that don’t have any interest in history or just didn’t pay attention in school, here is a brief background on this important event.

In the 5th century BC, Persia was the dominant world power. They had conquered most of what we now know as the Middle East and controlled vast amounts of territory and people including many Greek colonists living in Asia Minor (modern Turkey). The Greeks were not the dominant power they would later become under Alexander, but were made up of many feuding, often warring city states with Athens and Sparta always at odds over dominance in the region. Their presence in the eastern Meditteranean would naturally bring them into contact and conflict with the Persian Empire.

During an Ionian (Greek colonists) revolt, the Athenians came to their aid and put Greece (and specifically Athens) right in the cross-hairs of the Persian King Darius. The Persian army attacked and was beaten at the Battle of Marathon. The race of the same name was named after a herald that had run the 20+ miles from the battle to Athens to announce the victory. Although Darius died before returning to Greece, his son Xerxes swore revenge against the Greeks.

Xerxes built an army and navy that has been estimated as large as 2 million men and over 1,000 ships. This force included many Greek allies who decided Persia was a safer bet than the feuding Greek city states. As the Persian army marched down towards Athens, the call went out to the remaining free Greek cities to join the fight against Persia. King Leonidas of Sparta answered the call, but was prevented from taking the entire Spartan army because of a religious festival. Instead, Leonidas assembled 300 Spartans, his personal guard and only those that had adult sons, to accompany him to the pass of Thermopylae – a strong, defensible choke point.

Sparta was the most militarily advanced of Greek city states and their presence, however small, would rally other cities. Every citizen was trained from youth to be a complete soldier. Surrender was never an option.

In all, approximately 7,000 Greeks arrived at Thermopylae to face the Persian horde. The narrow pass prevented the Persians from employing their cavalry, which was their only real tactical advantage other than numbers. The other large contingents included 1,000 Phocians who were tasked with guarding the one known flanking path around the mountains and 700 Thespians that would play a crucial final role in the battle later.

After the usual diplomatic pleas for surrender were rejected, a Persian proclaimed that they would, “…blot out the sun with their arrows.” Dienekes, a Spartan dryly replied, “Then we will fight in the shade.”

The first couple of days were a complete slaughter. The Spartans and their allies fighting in their typical phalanx formation were too strong for the various Persian attempts to breakthrough. Xerxes even orderd his famous Immortals into the fray only to have them fall back.

A Greek traitor named Ephialtes informed him of a path around Thermopylae and offered to guide the Persian army through the pass for a reward. Xerxes sent the Immortals who surprised the Phocians who had not really expected the Persian army to appear.

Leonidas heard of the flanking move and the retreat of the Phocians. He ordered the bulk of the Greek army to retreat before they were encircled. His 300 Spartans and 700 Thespians agreed to hold the pass until the very end. This time they marched forward to attack and kill as many Persians as possible. When the Persians approached from the rear, they climbed a small hill where they made their last stand. A sky full of arrows finally decimated the remaining soldiers. Archaeologists have confirmed the massive arrow attack from digs at the site.

The delaying action and attrition of the Persians drained the morale and will of Xerxes. A naval defeat at Salamis and a decisive win by the Greeks at Plataea led by the entire Spartan army, would end any further Persian incursions. Alexander the Great would later lead a united Greek expedition that would completely conquer all of the Persian empire.

Historians have noted the importance of this battle for centuries. Greek culture would become the foundation of Western Civilization. If Greece had fallen to Persia, the world as we know it would be radically different.

But more importantly, it showed that a small determined force can play a vital role in delaying an overwhelming attack and play a major role in defeating a determined enemy. The actions at Thermopylae have been compared to futile last stands such as The Alamo or successful ones like Rorke’s Drift.

It has always amazed me how the actions of only a few can change history. God Bless all those people throughout history that have fought and/or died defending freedom against tyranny.

Originally published March 12, 2007