Battle of Thermopylae: 300 Spartans against the Persians

The Battle of Thermopylae is one of the most renowned battles in Greek history. It was fought between Greek cities and 300 Spartans against Persia in 480 BC.

During one of the most famous conflicts in ancient history, which took place in 480 BC, the unified Greek cities fought against the Persian Empire. There were around 70,000 men in the Persian army, making them much more numerous. Their goal was to conquer Greece, but King Leonidas of Sparta and his 300 brave warriors stood in their way at the Thermopylae passage (a tiny area just north of Delphi) and gave the Greek allies time to prepare for battle. The result of the Thermopylae battle will have significant repercussions for the conclusion of the Greco-Persian Wars (499–449 BC).

Causes of the Battle of Thermopylae

In 499–494 B.C.E., the Greek cities of Eretria and Athens stoked an uprising in Ionia against the Persian Empire, triggering the anger of Emperor Darius. This was followed by the Greco-Persian Wars, when the Greeks fought against the Achaemenid Empire of Persia. For its part, Persia conducted the First Greco-Persian War as a means of punishing the Greek cities for their uprising.

As a result, Athens emerged victorious. Darius, however, succeeded in expanding his kingdom by conquering a portion of ancient Greece. Beginning in 492 BC, with Mardonius at the helm, an expedition conquered numerous regions near Greece. To prove his dominance, Darius had the most cities of Greece pay for water and land (submission).

Darius increased the frequency of his excursions and invasions, particularly in the Cyclades, during the course of his reign. The Greek cities, meantime, are gearing up for war and have decided to construct a fleet. For this they used the tactics of the Athenian general Themistocles. To reach Thermopylae, it was necessary to travel through Greek Thrace and Greek Macedonia, two southern regions of the country.

Darius intended to construct an even greater force, but he passed away in 486 BC, leaving his vast goals to his son, Xerxes I. Xerxes I is the one in charge of this Second Greco-Persian War. In this second installment, set to unfold in the summer of 480 BC, the strategic Battle of Thermopylae—a location notable for its narrowness due to its proximity to both the sea and the mountains—was to be fought. Historians disagree on the exact date of this battle but it’s possible that the combat occurred on the 20th of August or at the beginning of September.

Who fought at Thermopylae?

At Thermopylae, the Greek city-states led by Themistocles fought against the Achaemenid Empire of Xerxes I. While an exact count of the Persian Army’s soldiers had never been made, experts now believe that it included anywhere between 70,000 and 300,000. A far larger number than the estimated 7,000 Greek warriors, 700 of whom were Lacedaemonian, and 300 of whom were Spartan.

After the opening of the Battle of Thermopylae, a major portion of the Greek army chose to withdraw, severely reducing the size of the original force. Only around three thousand Greeks, headed by King Leonidas I and willing to risk death, engaged in battle (300 Spartans, 700 Thespians, 400 Thebans, and less than one thousand Helots and one thousand Phocidians). Actually, a lot of Greek cities took a neutral stance in this conflict.

Who killed Leonidas I of Sparta at Thermopylae?

The Spartans were a noble and fierce people who lived in the city of Sparta. They have earned a reputation for being courageous, thrifty, morally rigorous, and stern. At the Battle of Thermopylae, led by King Leonidas I of Sparta, the Greeks showed great valor against the Persians. Positioning himself in the narrowest section of the Thermopylae canyon, he managed to fend off numerous successful Persian assaults despite a large numerical disadvantage.

We don’t know for sure what happened to Leonidas I, but we do know that the Persian army encircled him when Ephialtes betrayed them. After the war, the body of the Spartan king was recovered and brought back to Sparta, where a grand tomb was built in his honor. In addition, the nation-wide Leonidas festival was established to celebrate the life and legacy of the national hero. His son Pleistarchos eventually took over as Spartan king.

Who won the Battle of Thermopylae?

The Greeks, numbering about 3,000, used an efficient tactic to buy time and enable the Greek union to prepare a defense. At the narrowest portion of the Thermopylae gorge, they battled in close columns, shields protecting them from the oncoming enemy. Ephialtes, who had fought with the Greeks for days, ultimately turned traitor. Leonidas and his army are hemmed in by enemy forces.

It was a brave move on the part of the Spartan king to order the majority of the Greek forces to retreat to safety, but he strictly forbade the Spartans from doing the same. His only allies now were the volunteers and Spartans who had stayed to fight against the Persian invasion. The Persians’ javelins and arrows ultimately killed out the last survivors.

Even though the Greek union was defeated and the Persians won the war, the heroic actions of the Spartans at Thermopylae are still remembered to this day. With only a few hundred men against the Persian army of tens of thousands, the Spartans were able to hold them off for several days, giving the Greek troops time to prepare a counterattack. Therefore, the Greek union’s loss was seen as partial, since it allowed one side to weaken the Persian army and the other to gain time with the remaining Greek warriors. The fate of the Greco-Persian Wars and the ultimate triumph of the Greek union can be traced back to this decisive fight.

After the Battle of Thermopylae

Xerxes I and his army marched on deeper after the Battle of Thermopylae, where he was only partially successful. The Persians attacked and looted Athens on September 28th, 480 BC. The Persian triumph became clearer as time went on, right up to the climactic, enclosed Battle of Salamis. The Persian fleet was decimated and defeated badly this time. Greece played a key role in the triumph by providing the conditions for the soldiers to strategize and come together. The end of the Greco-Persian Wars and the beginning of Greek independence were both ushered in by this triumph. The Greeks and Persians continued to trade blows and form alliances for another 150 years.

However, the Athenians were able to reconstruct their city using loot they had acquired from the Persians. In 478 BC, they established the Delian League and began spreading propaganda of triumph. By banding together, cities that wanted to combat the Persian threat were able to increase the scale of their offensives and invasions. At the same time, Athens’ rise to prominence was facilitated by the Delian League, much to Sparta’s detriment. These tensions eventually erupted into open warfare known as the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC). Sparta opposed the Delian League, led by Athens, to the Peloponnesian League, led by Sparta, which ended in victory for the Peloponnesian League.

By Hrothsige Frithowulf

Hrothsige works at Malevus as a history writer. His areas of historical interest include the ancient world and early Europe, as well as the history of modern culture.