Made popular in movies such as 300 and considered to be a pivotal moment in Greek history, the battle that ensued at Thermopylae in 480 BC is certainly not little-known. However, observers with limited historical knowledge tend to make wrong assumptions about the battle, and it is therefore over-exaggerated in many ways.
The collection of warring city states and regions in Ancient Greece must have posed a considerable threat to the Western Achaemenid Empire for the Persians to have taken action and invaded. Causes for the main conflicts of the 5th century are still debated today. Xerxes, the successor of Darius I, felt that it was necessary to immediately eliminate any risks that may arise from Greece. By constructing supply depots to aid the logistics effort of crossing the Hellespont - a narrow straight connecting the Persian Empire to Greece - he managed to arrive on the edge of a broken and torn nation with his estimated 30,000 men. The only plausible way to reach the mainland was to traverse the mountainous pass of Thermopylae. However, a coalition of Athens and Sparta, upon agreement with other Greek cities, had organised a force of around ten thousand men. Providing that the structural and fighting depth of the adversary was high, they would prove to be an obstacle to Xerxes’ advance.
Natural geography was on King Leonidas’ side; the chosen site was rocky, enclosed by hills and particularly difficult to cross. Moreover, the size of the paths that ran along the mountain edges would prevent Xerxes’ from utilising his numerical advantage. These key points were central to the Spartan resistance and without the shape of the landscape, it is doubtless that their defeat would have come quicker.
Well-armed and trained infantry on the Greek side also contributed greatly to the three-day hold-out. They were better armed, organised into dense phalanx units, protected by shields and pointed spears. Spartan soldiers accounted for a small percentage of the army, with only three hundred appearing on the battlefield. The fact that Persian land combatants were generally worse than the Greeks in most aspects plays largely into their initial failure to break the enemy phalanx at the commence of the fight.
Greek morale was extremely high, even as they were battered by the Persian “Immortals”. Most ranks were trapped and unable to rotate like expected. Despite the sudden lack of fresh troops on the front line, Persian archers and strike forces struggled to inflict any casualties, particularly on the tiny unit of Spartans. These were arrogant men, driven by hardcore motives and spoiling for a fight. With any message demanding surrender from the Persians, a challenging reply would be returned by the Spartans.
Bearing the numerical disadvantage, the Spartans depended heavily on their training. As Spartan society revolved around relentless training whilst slaves did the conventional work of maintaining a civilisation, the troops that defended the mountain pass were more or less unbreakable.
There is no doubt that the Spartans were also better organised, tightly packed, and in great contact with their leaders. None of the initial Persian moves surprised them. In fact, they literally stood till the end. To inflict as many Persian casualties as possible, they advanced into a wider passage so that they could attack the enemy all-out. Clearly, there was little fear of death among these brave warriors. Once every spear had been broken, the Spartans fought with their swords, and refused to give up, not even when their king, Leonidas, was killed. In the end, the force was eliminated. Nevertheless, the cost to the Persians was considerable. They had been humiliated, delayed and had displayed the weakness of their infantry in battle. Shortly, high moral, great communication and organisation - complemented by powerful motives - allowed the Greeks, notably the Spartans, to hold out for so long. It was said that Xerxes was enraged and personally ordered that the corpse of Leonidas be publicly mutilated/crucified following the battle. The effect upon Greek recognition of identity as a unified nation was bored in these few days.
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